Romance in Russian folklore: The rusalka and the vodyanoy
Russian mythology has various underwater characters: the vodyanoy (водяной) is the male water spirit, and the rusalka (русалка) his female counterpart. As you may have already guessed, the vodyanoy marries the rusalka, and they live happily ever after. Only in reality it isn’t that simple…
The vodyanoy is believed to dwell in a specific lake, river or pond, which he has complete control over. His appearance is, without fail, hideous, often various shades of blue or green with bloated, slimy skin. Not to mention that he is also completely evil: lurking in his dark, murky waters, he seeks to catch people by surprise and then drown them – although he might just refrain if appeased by human offerings. The vodyanoy is also supposedly married to a rusalka – or several!
Unlike the vodyanoy, beliefs about the appearance and character of the rusalka vary drastically. She is mostly believed to be a bewitchingly beautiful young woman with a fish’s tail, however in the Russian North, the Urals, the Volga region and Western Siberia, she is an ugly old woman. Likewise, in these regions, the rusalka is threatening, drawing in young men and then drowning them, whereas in the South West of Russia she is more playful than malevolent.
A clash between pagan and Orthodox Christian beliefs?
The original pagan Slavs viewed the rusalka as a protector of nature, a symbol of fertility who gave life to all crops. Later, however, the rusalka was no longer seen primarily as a source of fertility, but a manifestation of evil, full of ‘unclean spirits’ (нечистые силы). This was due to her origins, namely, some form of ‘unclean’ death: a woman who died without being baptised, a woman who died by suicide or a baby who was born out of wedlock and then drowned.
Dark! But in any case, this changed view of the rusalka has a distinct Christian character; hence why, in more recent centuries, the rusalka was associated with the devil, and people used the sign of the cross to ward her off. So, although it’s no fairy story, this is a fascinating example of how pagan slavic traditions and Orthodox Christianity come together in Russia!
This article was brought to you by Olivia, an intern and student at Liden and Denz
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