Of all the creatures from Slavic mythology, Rusalki are ones that are prevalent in current culture – not in the way they were to our Slavic ancestors, but at least the general population (in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries) has heard of them and maybe even knows something about them. This is due to the fact that Rusalki have appeared in literature, paintings, and operas.
Imagine a land covered by woods, with only clearings for small villages. A land and people ruled by nature. The people live in close relation with the land, the trees, the animals, the rivers, and the birds. The power of nature can be felt every day. It is beautiful, awe-inspiring as well as fear-inducing – making you, a mere human, realize how small you are and how little power you have. This is the world of the ancient Slavs.
Rusalki were water (and sometimes forest) nymphs tied to fertility. Ancient Slavs believed their steps and dancing moistened the ground and made the grass grow better and bigger, the ground more fertile. They were usually quite beautiful. They had long beautiful glistening hair, the color of which changes according to who tells the story – often black, blond, red, or even green. They would often dance or sing. Only later, they became malevolent – bringing death. These beautiful nymphs would entice young men, who often lost their head at the sight of Rusalki. They’d lead him to the water, where he’d drown. In other versions, Rusalki tickled men to death.
Rusalki were not the only water nymphs the Slavs believed in. Each river, pond and lake had their own group of water nymphs. They went by various names, depending on location. There were Bogunki which occupied the Bug River; the Brzeginy, which were riverside nymphs; and the Vily, forest nymphs.
Bogunki – beautiful, light-haired maidens – lived in the Bug River. Oarsmen on grain-filled barges often heard the calls of these river mermaids. Their calls were likened to the booming of the Eurasian bittern or great bittern (Botaurus stellaris), which doesn’t sound very attractive. Their appearance more than made up for it; and their dancing in the reeds dressed only in strings of beads and floral head wreaths led to many tragic endings.
Brzeginy were green-haired water nymphs, which lived near mountain rivers and streams. Their name comes from the word brzeg, which means edge, literally where the water meets the earth. On bright, moon-filled nights, they walked through the riverside flora dressed in gauzy garments. They were friendly, according to the men who met them, who often talked of the treasure these creatures guarded.
Vily, beautiful forest nymphs, could sometimes be found dancing in a circle in forest clearings. Dressed in white gowns, pale with long green hair, they danced an ecstatic dance. Pity to him who was lured into their dancing circle; he was often danced to death. Vily were just as helpful as they were dangerous. Sometimes they helped keep entire villages safe. At other times, they sent hail onto fields, destroying crops. They taught people healing techniques, but also killed trespassers who got too close. They were the personification of nature – beautiful but dangerous.
Personification of nature is key here. These nymphs bridged two worlds – nature and man, the conscious and the unconscious. They led to another world, where man could get lost. It was dangerous terrain. Just like nature, they were awe-inspiring and fear-inducing, and Slavs had a great respect for them. I can’t help but believe that Christianity made them more malevolent, bringing more fear. The nymphs represented the untamed (untamable?) feminine, which needed to somehow be controlled. That which is rejected, hidden, pushed out of consciousness becomes dangerous.
The message behind these nymphs is the lure of the feminine, the force of the feminine, of creation and destruction. Life isn’t black or white; humans aren’t either good or bad. Everything exists on a spectrum of gray. Life is not a Disney fairy tale with a happy ending, and Slavs had stories that reflected the beautiful but sometimes dangerous world they lived in.