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Rusalka – the Deadly Mermaid Beauty in Slavic lakes and legends

When men come upon lakes, there are demons waiting there in vicious form

Photo © Slavorum / source: slavorum.org

In Slavic folklore exists a mysterious and intriguing creature: the rusalka, a water-dwelling spirit who appears in the shape beautiful woman. There are many legends about this figure (sometimes very different from one another) which create its eerie allure. You may ask: what is the difference between a rusalka and a mermaid? Well, there are many.

First of all, the rusalka is usually pictured with feet rather than with a fishtail. Of course the famous Walt Disney film “The Little Mermaid” became “Rusalochka” in Russian, but it’s not quite the same thing! The rusalki live inside rivers or lakes (not seas like mermaids) but come out many times a year, especially in summer, to dance and walk around nearby woods.

Ivan Kramskoi The Mermaids 1871

They sleep all day long and only emerge at night, the true realm of spirits, demons and “unclear” forces. Legends say that one may see them combing their hair or crafting flower garlands with their beauties mostly uncovered as they usually go about naked or poorly dressed in white gowns with no belt; their long hair (always unbraided and wild, like witches or soon-to-be brides) is sometimes green because of the sea weeds to which she has been long exposed. Also their pale skin may be greenish.

Since “still waters run deep” (Russians say “в тихом омуте черти водятся”) when rusalki are not busy dancing or combing their hair, their favorite pastime is attracting men who happen to be passing by just to drown them: with their looks and their sweet voices they call them closer and the unfortunate men can’t help following them to their watery grave.

Konstantin Makovsky Rusalki 1879

But don’t you girls think you are safe: also women may become victims of their homicidal intents. However, if you are lucky enough they may just grab you and tickle you pitilessly, that’s why rusalki are also known as “ticklers”. In many myths in Slavic mythology she is often mentioned as an obstacle for good people, especially men.

Where do these creatures come from? Popular legends want them to be ghosts of drowned women, brides killed just before their wedding day or deceived lovers who committed suicide, so their name is very likely to derive from rusalii, a Slavonic festival to honor the dead. Whatever the story, they all share the same sad destiny of violent departure.

Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

And that is probably the reason for their deadly nature: revenge for the wrongs they suffered. 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.

Perhaps its sad story is what makes us love and side with this unfortunate wraith. But here’s my advice: if you see a woman bathing in a river in the moonlight and calling out to you (and you also happen to be in Russia) DON’T LOOK TWICE. DON’T ANSWER. JUST RUN AWAY AS FAST AS YOU CAN!

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