Sirens, mermaids, fish-people...notions of humanoids that live in water pervade many cultures throughout the world. The Slavic peoples are no different and their own mermaid myth. They call them a rusalka.
The folklore of the rusalka has been dated back to the eighth century although it was probably a part of the oral tradition for quite some time before it was written down. In fact, the rusalki are said to be descended from Bereginya. Bereginya, in Slavic folklore, is the great goddess and creator of the world. According to the Slavic Chronicles, “Bereginya is basically a combination of “hearth-mother,” associated with the guardianship, even of the nation itself,” although some consider her to be a spirit.
Unlike some stories of mermaids, the rusalka are made from human choices and do not seem to be a race of creatures independent from humanity. What I mean by this is the idea that rusalki are created, not made. It is said that a variety of circumstances can transform a human into a rusalka, although many have to do with death. For example, if a young woman dies a particularly violent death related to water she may become a rusalka. Other times it deals with suicide, such as a young woman drowning herself because she has become pregnant by wedlock or rejected by a lover. Others say that any young woman who dies a virgin is bound to become a rusalka.
Another interesting fact, if one considers these potential origin stories, is that the rusalki are said to have a finite time in the world. According to Ancient Origins, “These souls linger on in water until their allotted time on earth is complete (this version of events usually accompanies the violent death or suicide origin stories). Others must remain until their death is avenged (this version of events usually accompanies the murder or jilted lover origin stories).”
As folklore has grown and mutated throughout the centuries so do the rusalka looks. In the earliest stories regarding rusalki their hair and eyes are described as blue and green while later stories their hair is described as red, the color of sin. However, their shapeshifting powers seem to remain constant with their ability to transform into animals related to the water such as fish and frogs. Another constant is that they are not half-fish, they appear as typical human women with feet. However, they do have the ability to survive in and manipulate water.
Like sirens, it is believed rusalki are predators. They tempt people, in particular young men, by her voice or physical appearance. Once tempted, she traps him and pulls him under the water. In folklore stories of heroes the rusalka often represents a ‘test’ and if abused or if the hero fails the test he will be cast into a watery grave.
However, they do have some protective power and don’t seem to be all bad. For example, during harsh storms, hail, and other intense water-related weather if they are worshipped correctly, they will protect the people. It is also believed that rusalki take revenge very seriously. According to Slavorum, “In other stories a rusalka may fall in love with a man from the world of the living but they always end in tragedy. No good may come from such a love story and there is no happy ending for the poor rusalka’s damned soul: she’ll haunt the river forever with her sorrow and vengeful fury. Even almighty Slavic Gods Perun, Svarog, Veles and many other couldn’t stay indifferent to a beauty of Rusalka.”
Today, some places still celebrate Rusalka Week, also known as Green week, which occurs after Easter. It is said that at this time the rusalki are supposed to be at their most powerful and they sing and dance in the woods bringing with them water to reinvigorate life.
The featured image is Załaskotany (cykl Rusałki). Olej na płótnie. 38 x 109,5 cm. Muzeum Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego w Krakowie and is liscensed under the public domain.