Written Works

The Rusalki: Slavic Nature Nymphs

by Laura Strong, PhD

When presented with the opportunity to research any goddess of my choosing from amongst the vast selection available worldwide, my first inclination was to find the feminine deities connected with the Polish side of my ancestry. Since my American upbringing included few original traditions beyond the making of homemade Polish sausage and not a single myth or story that I can recall, I knew I would have to begin my search from scratch. As I culled through all my available resources, I soon discovered what a difficult task this would be. With the exception of the well-known witch Baba-Yaga and the eternal presence of Mokosh, or "Moist Mother Earth," there are few English references to any Polish goddesses beyond a scattering of brief encyclopedic entries. Yet, this initial lack of available information did not deter me for I was committed to unearthing the feminine deities that may have had a direct impact on many of my Polish ancestors.

In order to uncover these ancient influences, it became necessary to expand my search to include the greater Slavic culture, in which Poland plays a central role. According to the Harvard University Press edition of A Handbook of Slavic Studies: "The group of West Slavic tribes out of which the Polish nation was to be formed, lived from time immemorial in the very center of the original home of the Slavs: between the Baltic and the Carpathians, in the basins of the Vistula and Oder rivers," in what is now known as eastern Poland and western Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine (77). Since writing was a relatively late development for these farmers and herders, there is no written account of their existence until the 5th century BCE, when they appear in the writings of the Greek author Herodotus. Actual archaeological evidence suggests the Slavs began to differentiate themselves as a unique cultural group from their Indo-European ancestors sometime between 2,000 and 1,000 BCE. And over the course of their development they were known to have had contact with Iranian tribes such as the Scythians and the Sarmatians.

Starting around 150 CE, the Slavic population began to expand from their original homeland and eventually developed into three distinct groups. The Western Slavs, who were influenced by Germanic and Celtic cultures, now inhabit Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The Eastern Slavs, who headed into the forested northern territories of the Finnish and Baltic people, continue to dwell in Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. The Southern Slavs, who migrated down into the Balkan Peninsula, currently live in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Bulgaria. This diverse population eventually grew large enough to become Europe's biggest ethnic and linguistic group.

This large linguistic group, which made its living off the land, did not seem to have the need for an official written language. Yet this did not stop Christian missionaries from introducing one to the region around 860 CE. The best-known missionaries of this era are two brothers, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who also created the Cyrillic alphabet. This alphabet is based on the ninth-century Greek uncial script in combination with additional characters that were "devised to represent Slavic sounds that had no Greek or Latin equivalent" (Dixon-Kennedy 57).

The absence of a written language until after Christianization means there are no sacred religious texts, epic novels, or their own accounts of their ancient mythology to enlighten us about the original pagan beliefs. This has led some to say that: "the Slav gods (and goddesses) remain lost in (a) dense cloud, only occasionally broken by a passing flash of lightning or a piercing ray of sunshine" (Gieysztor 403). Much of the information that has survived is best described as being "neither narrative nor anecdotal, it is more like a catalogue of supernatural powers" (Gieysztor 403). This may be in part due to the fact that the few sources of documentation that do exist come from either Christian converters who were attempting to destroy their ancient ways or foreign visitors who may not have understood their ways. Yet, as Marija Gimbutus points out, there are a few original sources that still remain: "songs, fairy tales, and oral epics such as the Russian byliny, which survived among peasants, are a representative of pagan religious traditions" (354).

Another source of ancient Slavic beliefs are the people who still practice dvoeverie, or the "double faith," within the Russian Orthodox religion. Dvoeverie is described as "the continuation of pagan traditions after the adoption of Christianity as the state-sanctioned religion due mainly to resistance from women who far preferred matriarchal pagan religions to patriarchal Christianity" (Dixon-Kennedy 78). Yet the roots of the practice seem to go back even earlier: "The practice of dvoeverie (two faiths), which would characterize later Russian culture, resulted most certainly from the aggressive expansions of the Slavic tribes and reflected the conflict of hierarchically oriented warrior elites with the still-matrifocal clans they were to protect" (Hubbs 13). Throughout the years, a number of outside observers have confirmed the dual existence of the worship of male gods in the same communities that venerated nymphs near water and in the depths of the forest.

The outdoor worship of many of the Slavic deities confirms the close connection between these people and the forces of nature. The world they lived in was their temple and much of their pantheon grew out of this natural setting: "The primitive Slavs were animists attributing soul to the natural elements amid which they lived. They deified some of the heavenly bodies and the great phenomena of nature. They believed not only in a supreme deity but also in the existence of wood, water and household spirits to which they offered sacrifice" (Cross 34). Modern day religious researcher, Kenneth Johnson, who has spent time with contemporary Slavic Shamans in Russia, echoes this sentiment. He notes that: "The Slavic peoples had a particularly rich Otherworld traditionåso rich, in fact, that it is often difficult to say where the realm of the nature spirits ends and the realm of the gods (and goddesses) begins" (142).

To get a better feel for the natural surroundings that inspired this devotion, it may be helpful to take an imaginary trip back to a time when the landscape was far different than it is today. "In ancient times, a vast hardwood forest stretched from the British Isles across Germany and deep into Eastern Europe; today almost nothing survives of this primordial woodland save for a rather large remnant in eastern Poland and western Belarus" (Johnson 128). This environment produced numerous tales of supernatural events that took place in the deep dark woodland since: "Ancient Slavic villages and towns were simply places where the forest had been cleared away for human habitation; beyond the village limits, the trees still reigned supreme" (Johnson 129). It is in these forests, which contain numerous sacred groves, where the woodland nymphs known as the Rusalki and their predecessors, the Bereginy, dwell.

The Bereginy are believed to be the most ancient of all Slavic divinities. They manifest themselves as river, lake and forest nymphs and may be a "primitive form of the hunting and fertility goddess." The Slavic term bereg actually means "shore" and "the name Beregina means 'earth' as well as 'shore,' the place where land and water meet" (Hubbs 15). In time, these liminal Bereginy branched out to become a variety of distinct deities including: the goddesses of fate who live in bathhouses called the Rozhanitsy, the wild woodland spirits of the Vily, and the water-dwelling nature nymphs known as Rusalki, who we will further investigate.

The description of the Rusalki can vary quite greatly from region to region. "In fertile areas, they were imagined as beautiful naked maidens. In Great Russia, where the land is harsher, they appeared as large-breasted Amazons. In the north, they were hideous and hairy," (Hubbs 29) and others say people in this region sometimes perceived them as "wicked girls, unattractive and with disheveled hair. They were naked, wan, and cadaverous, like drowned corpses, and their eyes shone with evil green fire" (Johnson 155).

In a more positive light, the Rusalki are seen as beautiful fish-women or mermaids, and they are most commonly portrayed in Slavic folkart and fairytales as stunning and seductive creatures whose beauty is unrivaled. "In her outward appearance, the rusalka matched the natural beauty amid which she lived. Her fair tresses flowing in an eddying, endless stream, her fine features framing her fathomless eyes. Simply to see her was to ache with desire" (Phillips 66). Others say "their faces are pale like the moon, and they wear robes of mist or green leaves, or perhaps a white robe without a belt. Their hair is green, or brown, decorated with flowers" (Johnson 155). The lustrous beauty of the Rusalki can only be tarnished by their sad eyes, which tell of their tragic beginnings.

The Rusalki are commonly considered to be the spirits of young women who have met their fate through drowning, whether by accident, suicide or malicious intent (sometimes from their own mothers). "Belief in them is most widely spread among the Russians (the Christian practitioners of dvoeverie), who hold that they are children who have died unbaptized, or have been drowned or suffocated, or else that they are girls and young wives who have met an unnatural death, or have been cursed by their parents" (Máchel 254).

Some say these spirits of the drowned spend some time in a purgatorial state of limbo before becoming a Rusalka. During this period they are referred to in Russian as a Navki or in Polish as Látawci Navki are reputed to appear in the form of birds that cry out like infants as they comb the countryside in search of their former mothers. These young Navki, who will never again know their mother's love, are greatly feared for their reputation of jealously attacking women who are close to the time of childbirth. The wandering period for these angry spirits lasts for seven long years, during which time they beg anyone who will listen to baptize them. However, if they cannot find a willing soul to take pity on their wailing voices and utter the proper words, then they are doomed to spend the rest of their days as Rusalki.

The Rusalki live in quiet spots along woodland brooks and rivers. They also dwell deep down in the bottom of still lakes and ponds, or under the turbulence of rapids. At times they emerge from their underwater world to sit on the shores, or perch in the trees above, where they attempt to "attract young people by imitating the crying of infants or laughing, giggling, and clapping their hands" (Máchel 253). Some stories have described their underwater home as "a place of entrancing beauty, its vast marbled chambers hung with crystal chandeliers, its walls and floors set with gold and precious stones" (Phillips 66). Yet as beautiful as these aqueous palaces may be, the Rusalki cannot stay there year round. When summer approaches and "the waters are warmed by the rays of the life-giving light, they have to return to the trees, the houses of the dead" (Johnson 155).

The Rusalki spend most of their time in such pursuits as combing their long luxurious hair, playing amongst themselves, and luring innocent victims to their deaths, but they are also known for being spinners. They hang the results of their labors from the trees and lay it on the banks, where anyone passing should be wary of stepping. The Rusalki are also well known for being spinners of fate, who possess a powerful ability to affect the lives of local inhabitants. The Rusalki "decided who died and who would be reborn, who prospered and who perished, who married and who would be barren" (Hubbs 33).

For those who pay their respects to the Rusalki, there can be great rewards. Young women wishing to have a child demonstrate their devotion by decorating the branches of the Rusalki's totem tree, the birch, with ribbons and specially woven pieces of cloth. The Rusalki are also acknowledged for their ability to regulate the cycle of the seasons, the moon, and the local weather. Many tales also tell of the secret wells that can be found in the forests of the Rusalki, whose magical waters can bring about enlightenment and cure anyone of their ills. With such a powerful influence on the local community, it is no wonder that the Rusalki are still honored to this day in many Slavic countries.

While it is true that these spinning sirens can bestow great fortune upon those who honor them, they are also known to bring great tragedy upon anyone who scorns their powers. "Those who disrespected the rusalka suffered the loss of their horses and their livestock, with whom the Russian male peasant linked his own 'potency' in village and field" (Hubbs 32). Slavic people also fear the fact that the Rusalki's favorable influence on the weather can be gone in an angry flash, bringing "fatal storms, dangerous rains, and heavy hail" (Máchel 255). While there are many that might deserve their wrath, the Rusalki are also known for claiming the lives of innocent victims as well.

Since life in the forest can be rather lonely for a Rusalka, they often attempt to lure young men into their watery world with their seductive smiles and songs. "Even the wariest traveler, caught out alone by a discreet riverbank or lakeside, might find himself plunging heedlessly, even joyfully, to his doom. Those borne down to her magic boudoir beneath the waves might leave this life in a transport of pleasure, but would certainly never return" (Phillips 66). Life and death, pleasure and pain, good and evil, these are closely linked in the world of the Rusalki.

Duality is a prevalent theme throughout the Slavic belief system, which can easily be seen in the Slavic approach to the archetypal Water of Life. Unlike most mythological tales, there is not just a single "Water of Life," which possesses the power to revive fallen heroes and heroines. The Slavs also require a "Water of Death" to be administered. "The first, the 'Water of Death', heals the wounds of a corpse, or knits together a body that has been chopped up. The second, the 'Water of Life', restores life" (Phillips 49).

The Slavic belief in a life after death is not just confined to the realm of folklore and fairy tales. Most Slavic people firmly believe in the transmigration of the soul. After their deaths, friends and relatives are regularly honored in special rituals that take place throughout the year. According to Marija Gimbutas: "Ancestor worship, a prominent practice among all pre-Christian Slavs, is evidenced in gifts presented to the dead. A strong belief in life after death is indicated by prehistoric and even modern burial rites. Food offerings are made in cemeteries to this day" (358). These ongoing relationships between the living and the dead make it easy to see why the Rusalki are still honored each year as living embodiments of the Slavic belief in life after death.

The annual celebration of the Rusalki begins at a time known as Whitsuntide. This is special time of year when the Rusalki leave their watery dwelling places to gather in clearings and open fields, where they take pleasure in song and dance. Whitsuntide is also the first day of a weeklong celebration known as Rusalye, Rusaliia, or Rusalki Week. This festival is cause for great celebration for the entire community, who join in with music, singing, games, and dancing. It is also a time for more solemn ritual processions and ceremonies to honor the Rusalki and those who have died that previous year. While the actual events of the festival vary from region to region, there are always three common components.

The first is the honoring of the Rusalki's sacred tree, the birch. In general, Slavic people believe that trees are highly evolved beings that are more connected to humans than other plants and animals. The birch tree, in particular, is known for being "the locus for the coming together of the living and the dead, the communion of animal, plant and human life" (Hubbs 33). During Rusalki Week, birch trees may be decorated with flowers and other offerings where they stand, or branches may be brought into the home to be made into birch-garlands. Other communities are known to have sent young men into their local forest to fell a birch, "which the girls dressed in women's robes decorated with bright ribbons and pieces of cloth" (Johnson 157). The tree was then carried into the village while songs were sung and its arrival was heralded by a ritual meal. This arboreal effigy was then erected in a specially made house in the village where she presided over the week's festivities.

The second common aspect of this Slavic celebration is the honoring of the dead with a festival known as Semik that begins on the Thursday. This is a time when the ancestors are remembered and their ongoing connection to the community is reconfirmed. It is also a time of solemn remembrance for those who have met their deaths that year through unfortunate circumstances such as drowning. "This was the time when rites were offered to dispatch the 'unclean' dead. Infants who had died before they could be baptized; adults who had committed suicide or been killed as witches or sorcerers: none of these groups could be given full Christian funerals" (Phillips 67). 

The last common element of Rusalki Week is a processional farewell or burial of a Rusalka. Communities that cut down a tree for the event, say goodbye to the effigy by ceremoniously drowning it, burning it, or tearing it apart in a field. Communities that did not fell a birch often end Rusalki Week with a mock funeral of a young girl or horse, while others create special dolls for the occasion. "A doll might be placed in a coffin and carried to the river with girls who pretended to be priests or deacons, making a censer from an egg shell and singing 'Lord have mercy.' At the river the girls combed the Rusalka's hair and bade her farewell, both laughing and crying" (Johnson 158). The time of the drowning of the Rusalka was also a time for divination when "the unmarried women of the village would select their future husbands. Having done so, they would cast their birch-branch garlands into the water. If a garland sank; its owner was fated to die; but if it floated, she would marry, be happy, and bear healthy children" (Dixon-Kennedy 254). This also ends the weeklong celebration of the Rusalki, who then return to their watery woodland abodes.

While many of the ancient Slavic beliefs may remain a mystery forever, it seems that the goddess is alive and well in the spirit of the Rusalki. She has survived the often overwhelming transition into the contemporary Christian culture. This may be due to the strong faith of the people that still venerate the Rusalki and who have succeeded in incorporating some of the ancient pagan ways into their modern-day religion. But it may also be because of another extremely important factor. Unlike so many of the ancient deities from other cultures, who have been forgotten with the destruction of their temples and their effigies, the essence of the sacred worshipping places of the Rusalki still exists to this very day. Anyone who wishes to reconnect with these ancient nature nymphs needs only pay a visit to the forests, fields and waterways within the vast Slavic landscape. Then again, it might even be possible to feel the presence of the Rusalki near the aqueous spots of any sylvan wilderness.

Works Cited

Cross, Samuel Hazard. "Primitive Slavic Culture." A Handbook of Slavic Studies. Ed. Leonid Ivan Strakhovsky. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949. 24-43.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Gieysztor, A. "Slav Countries: Folk-Lore of the Forests." Larousse World Mythology. Ed. Pierre Grimal. New Jersey: Chartwell, 1965. 401-415.

Gimbutas, Marija. "Slavic Religion." The Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade. Vol. 13. New York: Macmillan, 1987. 16 vols.

Halecki, Oscar. "Medieval Poland." A Handbook of Slavic Studies. Ed. Leonid Ivan Strakhovsky. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1949. 77-96.

Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

Johnson, Kenneth. Slavic Sorcery: Shamanic Journey of Initiation. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1998.

Phillips, Charles. "Spirit Masters and Little Demons." Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth. Myth and Mankind Ser. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1999. 58-77.

Whitfield, Francis J. "Polish Literature." A Handbook of Slavic Studies. Ed. Leonid Ivan Strakhovsky. Cambridge,: Harvard UP, 1949. 452-83.

Kerrigan, Michael. Forests of the Vampire: Slavic Myth. Myth and Mankind. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books, 1999.

Máchel, Jan. "Slavic Mythology" The Mythology of All Races. Vol. 3. Celtic & Slavic. Eds. Louis Herbert Gray and Consult. Ed. George Foot Moore. Boston: Marshall Jones Co., 1916. 13 vols. 214-312.