In Slavic folklore, the rusalka (plural: rusalki) is a spirit associated with nature. It was believed that rusalki took care of waters, forests and fields. They were represented either as little or as young girls with loose hair and pale skin. On rare occasions, male rusalki have also been described.
Origin and appearance
It was believed that girls who drown themselves because of unhappy love become rusalki. According to some beliefs, a man could also become a rusalka: for example, in the Sosnytsia Raion of the Chernihiv Oblast is believed that people of any sex can be converted into these spirits if they died on Trinity week. Apparently, they retain their gender and become rusalki.
Rusalki are often described as beautiful maidens with pale skin, disproportionately long arms and greenish hair. Rusalki were usually naked, and dressed ones were most often depicted in torn sundresses or kosovorotkas (Russian peasant shirts). The hair of rusalki is always loose, which is a sign of evil spirits: it was not customary for the Slavs to walk with such a hairstyle.
According to some Russian and Ukrainian beliefs, rusalki have the appearance of small children. In Kherson, they are sometimes compared to dolls. In the Starobelsk uyezd, rusalki of both sexes were described: the boys had short red hair, and the girls had white, ground-length hair. Rusalki from Kupyansk were described as pale, almost transparent and light-brown or green-haired.
In the northern regions of Russia (and particularly in Ukraine), the description of rusalki significantly differs from more common beliefs: they are described as ugly, shaggy, hunchbacked and large-breasted women.
The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Rusalka week (also known as Green week and Trinity week) in early June. At this time, they were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees by night, combing their hair with a hairbrush made of fish bones. Swimming during this week was strictly forbidden, lest rusalki would drag a swimmer down to the river bed. A common feature of the celebration of Rusalka week was the ritual banishment or burial of the rusalki at the end of the week, which remained as entertainment in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine until the 1930s.
Rusalki were said to have positive traits as well. It was believed that they love children, protect them in every possible way, save them from wild animals, and take them out of the forest. Sometimes rusalki rescued drowning people. A cheerful personality was attributed to them: at night they tumble, play, dance and laugh. It was believed that where the rusalka runs, there will be a bountiful harvest.
Rusalki were said to have the ability of shapeshifting. It was believed, for example, that they could take the form of squirrels, rats, frogs, birds, or appear in the form of a cow, horse, calf, dog, hare and other animals. These water beauties were also capable of causing storms, devastating rain and crushing hail, while also being able to cause the river to overflow, flooding pastures and crops. Rusalki are also said to run faster than any horse and swim faster than any fish.
Types of rusalki
- vodyanitsy (singular: vodyanitsa) are said to live in rivers and mill pools. They are relatively harmless and are believed to be baptized girls, unlike other rusalki. Vodyanitsi are often the wives of vodyanoys. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for rusalka.
- loskotukhi (singular: loskotukha) are dangerous rusalki, which are said to haunt waters and fields. Their name comes from the verb “loskotat'”, meaning “to tickle”. They have a very playful personalities, and sometimes their jokes go too far: when loskotukha sees a man, she drags him into the water, tickling him to death.
- mavki (singular: mavka) are water and forest spirits in Ukrainian folklore. Mavki are described as beautiful maidens with green hair, and sometimes were said to have a transparent backs through which all of their internal organs were visible (those were more often called nyavka). Mavki lured men into the woods, where they tickled them to death. Kostroma is often considered a mavka.
- bolotnitsy (singular: bolotnitsa) are the most beautiful of the rusalki. Often inhabiting swamps, marshes and big lakes, they are described as having a pale, smoky body, blue or green eyes, and dark brown hair tucked away by sedges and forget-me-nots. The onliest thing that spoils their appearance is the goose legs instead of normal shins. To hide them, bolotnitsa sits in a huge water lily. She lures travelers to her with a sad cry for help, after which she drowns them.
- moryany (singular: moryana) are a marine species of rusalki. They are generally described as tall maidens with hair that resembles sea foam. Moryani live near coastal cliffs and pose a serious threat to ships.
- brodnitsy (singular: brodnitsa) are the guardians of the fords, and also the kindest of rusalki. They helped travelers and watched over the children. If they were in danger by the water, brodnitsi rescued them.
- lobasty (singular: lobasta) are the most vicious and dangerous rusalki. They settle along the banks of rivers, large swamps and lakes, hiding in reeds and other thickets. Lobasti are described as decrepit old women with large breasts and sharp claws. They are as tall as an aspen, and they can attack anyone who happens to be near. They drag their victims into the water, tickling them to death with their nipples.
- poludnitsy (singular: poludnitsa) are noon demons. They were usually portrayed as young women dressed in white which roamed field bounds. They assailed folk working at noon causing heatstrokes and aches in the neck, sometimes they even caused madness.
- pharaonki (singular: pharaonka) are creatures from a 16th century legend that are described exactly like mermaids from European folklore. They descended from the Egyptians, who pursued Moses and the Jews, but drowned in the Red Sea. Their horses turned into half-horses, half-fish. Pharaonki are cursed dead people with a deaf and hoarse magic voice, who are destined to remain in this guise until the end of the world.
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