I’m sure many of you have seen the painting of a beautiful mermaid combing her hair with a dreamy look on her face. Mermaids have fascinated artists and writers for centuries. John William Waterhouse is no exception.
Mythology and tales have had a great impact on his work. He was a renowned and notable English painter and draftsman. His paintings were characterized by an intense appreciation of natural light and setting, and a deep inspiration from bold, strong, and beautiful female figures.
He had an eye for natural beauty and beautiful female figures. He painted several portraits of some of the era’s most famous women. One of my personal favorites is his fascinating portrayal of Cleopatra, a woman of mystery in the Western imagination. It’s never been completely agreed upon whether Cleopatra was more alluring due to her beauty or her brilliance. Waterhouse has managed to intertwine the two traits. He depicts a woman of great intensity and power, and one of intelligence and sexuality.
Looking at his paintings it’s difficult for me to describe the Waterhouse women, but they all have something in common. They all are the same model, a woman called Muriel Foster.
I see each of them as a morning rose ready to blossom. Each one is innocent and perfect, but at the same time, bewitching the viewer. They are calm, but strong, contemplative, and proud. In their countenances, you can see they dream of love and deserve to be adored and cherished like a fragile flower.
Waterhouse created around 200 paintings during his life. Some of his most famous and widely applauded works include “The Lady of Shallot,” “Ophelia,” “The Enchanted Garden,” “A Naiad,” “Consulting the Oracle,” and “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May,” among many others.
It’s a testament to the work of Waterhouse that the Royal Academy displayed his last work, “The Enchanted Garden,” upon his death, even though it was never finished.
“My soul is full of longing for the secret of the sea, and the heart of the great ocean sends a thrilling pulse through me.”
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Mankind’s fascination with the sea has sparked imagination since the first person beheld its mighty waters. Curiosity led people to invent the means to travel across the great oceans and eventually explore beneath them, trying to discover their secrets. Throughout the centuries, millennia in fact, people have created myths and legends about creatures living within the sea’s depths. One of the most alluring and formidable beings to inspire writers, artists, children, and adults is the mermaid, who entices men to a watery death. Mermaids have been forever immortalized in stories such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, but there is more to them than that story tells.
These sea nymphs exist in Slavic folklore as well and are called Rusalki. Believed to be the souls of young women who have drowned, they often appear as white or silver butterflies, which in many cultures symbolize the soul.
Although their sisters of the forests, the Samodivi, may be more popular in Bulgaria, it’s the Rusalki who have an entire week dedicated to them: Rusalijska Nedelya, or Mermaid Week, starts on Pentecost.
On Rusalska Sunday, Rusalki leave the deep waters to walk in meadows, spreading dew upon the soil to fertilize the land. People don’t work in fields or vineyards during this week as a way to honor the nymphs for the life-giving waters they bring. Whenever anyone dares to venture out during the week, he tucks wormwood, garlic, and walnut leaves inside his shirt, or attaches them to a belt, to protect himself from the Rusalki, as well as other creatures or spirits that may be wandering about the forests, mountains, or water bodies. Sensitive to strong smells, Rusalki avoid those carrying such herbs and flowers.
Just as important, people refrain from bathing or washing clothes on this day to prevent Rusalki from dragging them into the depths of the water and drowning them.
On Wednesday and Friday of Mermaid Week, Rusalki gather in groves where their favorite flower, the Burning Bush (dictamnus albus) grows. Its Bulgarian name is rosen, which means dew. These places are holy and sacred to the Rusalki. They pluck the tips from the flowers to place in their hair. The flower’s fragrance is intoxicating like a drug. Thus adorned, the nymphs worship nature with their magical songs and dance.
While wearing rosen, Rusalki become kindhearted and often heal those who sleep in the meadow. One famous place is the village of Resen, which gets its name from the flower. Sleeping in the meadow is not enough to ensure a cure, however. People perform a special ritual called “walking on the dewy rosen grass.” The sick go to the meadow in the evening, being careful not to let anyone see them. They each find an isolated place amidst the flowers and eat their evening meal. Then, before sunset, each one spreads a white handkerchief next to them. They cover their heads and remain silent, drifting off to sleep.
During the night, the Rusalki arrive, bearing their queen on a chariot of human bones. Those who may still be awake claim they hear laughter and songs. If a person who has lost a limb is among those gathered, the Rusalki may say, “Restore (person’s name) leg.”
At sunrise, the sick check their handkerchiefs. If empty, it means the Rusalki chose not to cure the person. For those the nymphs decide to grant the person a miracle cure, they leave various objects. The person mixes it with water and drinks it slowly. Dirt left on the handkerchief is a sign the person will die from their disease.
Regardless of what the nymphs leave or don’t leave, everyone places pitka (ritual bread) on the handkerchief for the Rusalki when they return. Pitka holds a special place in all Bulgarian rituals and holidays. It is broken, not cut, because it’s believed the bread itself has a soul.
The Rusalki are not the only ones to perform healing during Mermaid Week. At one time, on Sunday, rusalii, men who got their name from Rusalki, went from village to village healing the sick with their ritual dance. In particular they healed those whom the Rusalki had cursed, often those who chose to work during their sacred week. It was taboo for the men to talk, make the sign of the cross, or step in water because they were in a semi-trance, linking them to both the human and spiritual worlds. Armed with a white flag decorated with herbs, a special colorful stick, caps with herbs entwined, bells attached to their ankles, and a pot of vinegar and garlic, they were prepared to cure the Rusalki-induced illness. (You can see a re-enactment of this ritual in Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey.)