A Day with Rusalki – Blurry Photos Miss Cryptid 2020 Contest

A Rusalka is a contestant on the Blurry Photos annual Miss Cryptid Contest. We are excited that we were asked to contribute material. You can find this, and more, in our book A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe. Blurry Photos is a great site to check out if you love to “learn something weird.”

You can find the contest and listen to the podcast here: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-3/

The part about Rusalki starts around minute 27.

Here are the other entries in the contest:

Week 1: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-1/

Week 2: http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-week-2/

Roundup (finalists): http://www.blurryphotos.org/miss-cryptid-2020-roundup/

And the winner is… [Winner announced at time – 01:07:19.]

Blurry Photos - Miss Cryptid Contest 2020 - Week 3 - June 6 Nandi Bear, Rusalka, Euroa Beast
Blurry Photos – Miss Cryptid Contest 2020 – Week 3 – June 6
Nandi Bear, Rusalka, Euroa Beast

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 has been forever immortalized in stories such as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. But there’s more to this sea maiden than that story tells. In Slavic folklore, she’s called a Rusalka and lives mostly in fresh-water bodies or swamps, rather than the sea.

In case you’ve never heard of a Rusalka, she’s a Slavic mermaid. The plural of the word is Rusalki, but if you want to call them “Rusalkas,” go ahead. We’ll cringe, but we’ll know what you mean. She is most popular in eastern and southern Europe: Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, in particular.

She’s not your “Ariel” type of mermaid, because she has no tail. In fact, she was once a living, breathing human girl, but she died before she married—often the cause of her death was drowning. I know this sounds odd in today’s world, but the people who believed in them lived in a rural, farming society. Fertility of both the land and people was critical to them for survival. They believed if girls died before they married and had children, then that fertility was lost, and the girls became part of the “unclean dead,” that is, they were cursed. People did have many rituals, though, to entice the Rusalki to return that fertility to them.

Not everyone can see Rusalki, but those who can will tell you they look like normal girls, except they are extremely pale, and they have long, green hair. They can also shape-shift into geese, swans, snakes, silver fish, or frogs. Or they can appear as birds, like the Sirens, and entice men with their songs.

They don’t really eat anything, because they are … well, dead, or undead, after all. But some stories said they like wheat bread with salt, cheese, butter, and eggs. What they are more interested in is getting clothes. They were buried in wedding garments, even though they never married. That’s all part of the whole fertility mindset. So, eventually, those clothes wear out and the Rusalki are left wearing rags, or nothing at all. They beg girls to leave them even a small rag to cover themselves with. Rather sad to think about, really.

Rusalki weren’t always thought of as dead girls, though. They were once considered goddesses or nature spirits. Talk about your kick-ass heroines; they weren’t wimpy, sidekick-to-men-only goddesses, but powerful ones, who ruled the land. But then, the Orthodox Church intervened. They didn’t totally wipe the Rusalki out, but the Church authority repressed the role of these goddesses as much as it repressed the role women played in society. And Rusalki lost their goddess status. Oh, how the mighty have fallen!

You can understand they probably didn’t care to much about this demotion. From goddesses to dead girls, and unclean, cursed dead girls at that. All because some supposedly holy men thought they weren’t worthy of the goddess status. So, they revolted and started their campaign of torturing men… especially any man who jilted them when they were alive, because it was men who decided Rusalki weren’t worthy of exalted status.

Being dead really wasn’t so bad. If they had lived and married, the girls would have lost what the Russians called their “volia,” their freedom. As Rusalki, they could be wild and FREE of male dominance.

They usually didn’t bother women or girls, unless they were jealous of their happy life. And they left children alone, unless they had an overwhelming desire to nurture a child, since they couldn’t have one of their own… they were DEAD after all, but still retained the feelings of the average rural girl. So men were their main targets.

They would either drown them (typical mermaid fashion) or tickle them to death with their breasts… which, I forgot to mention earlier, were huge, even if they had been small during their lifetime. This was just another sign of their unused fertility.

All right, stop laughing. Have you ever been tickled? If so, you know it can be quite painful, especially if prolonged. And a Rusalka most often was accompanied by other Rusalki, so you’re talking about several of these mermaids tickling you…

When you consider that some stories say the Rusalki had iron-tipped breasts, well, just ouch. You wouldn’t want someone to tickle you that way. Okay, laugh if you want to, but I’m glad I’m not male (says Ronesa), so I wouldn’t have to endure that torture.

They also loved to dance, and would flatter … or force … a shepherd to play his kaval, a flutelike instrument, for them all night long. He was fortunate if he survived and only had holes in his shoes and blisters on his fingers.

Geeze, you might ask, is there any hope to escape their attention? How could men protect themselves from these assaults? Well, the Russians would tell you to wear your baptismal cross, especially if you go into the forest or near water. You could also wear ferns in your hair when you go swimming; this prevents them from pulling you under. Magical chants are also useful to keep them away from you. Other methods are to prick the Rusalki with a pin or throw wormwood in their eyes. Be sure you DON’T carry anything that ATTRACTS Rusalki, like parsley, roses, birch, and especially not their favorite plant rosen (which is burning bush). You’re just asking for trouble if you do. They’ll think you WANT to be tickled.

Rusalki also love telling riddles. If you have the correct answer, they’ll leave you alone. But if you get it wrong… well, be prepared to be tickled to death.

As to whether or not they do any of this torture maliciously is up for debate. Some people say they are bent on destroying men. Other people claim they’re innocent maidens who are only trying to find the love they never had while alive…

Outside of folklore, Rusalki were often portrayed as tragic figures. Antonin Dvorak’s opera has similarities to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The mermaid in this story, called Rusalka, falls in love with a prince, but must lose her voice before she can have the opportunity to meet him as a living being.

Rusalka and Prince. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

Act 1

Rusalka has fallen in love with a human prince who often steps into the water where she lives. Although she can caress him, alas, he cannot see her, because she is merely part of the watery element herself. She wants to become human so she can embrace him and feel his arms around her as well. She asks the witch, Ježibaba, to help her. Witches are witches and demand much of their supplicants. Ježibaba tells Rusalka that she will lose her ability to speak if she becomes mortal; on top of that, if the prince doesn’t love her, he will die and she will be eternally damned. Rusalka agrees and drinks the potion the witch gives her. The prince finds her, immediately becomes infatuated with the speechless woman, and takes her to the palace. So far, so good for Rusalka. The prince wants her.

 

Act 2

But fate can be cruel. Although the fickle prince summons guests to his pending marriage to Rusalka, he soon pays more attention to a visiting foreign princess… who can speak and flatter him, while mocking the mute Rusalka.

Poor, poor Rusalka.

It doesn’t take long before the prince professes his love to the foreign princess and rejects Rusalka. Her eyes filled with pain, she returns to her watery home. The foreign princess, however, is disgusted with the prince, even though she’s achieved taking his affection away from Rusalka.

 

Act 3

Poor, poor Rusalka. She doesn’t know what to do. She returns to the witch for help. Ježibaba gives her a dagger and tells her she must kill the prince in order to be free and return to her former life. Horrified, Rusalka throws the dagger into the lake. Never will she kill the man she still loves. She dissolves into the water, forever alienated from her family. And now she has become something vile, a spirit that lures people to their death in the water.

The prince, having been touched by Rusalka’s love, can’t erase her from his mind. He frantically searches for her where he first found her. He calls to her, and she appears. “Kiss me, please,” he begs. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I regret being a fool.” She tells him that her kiss will mean his death.

To which he responds, “Kiss me, kiss me, give me peace! Your kisses will redeem my sin! I die happy; I die happy in your embrace!”

They kiss and … yes, he dies.

Rusalka kisses her dead lover one more time, thanking him for letting her experience human love. She releases his body and sinks into the lake, forever condemned to bring death to those who come near.  Yes, poor, poor Rusalka.

Well, you must have a bad impression of the Rusalki by now. But, even though they cause pain and death, they have a benevolent side. They’re magical healers. Every year, several weeks after Easter, on a holiday called Spassovden, or Ascension, they ride through the night sky in a golden chariot made of human bones. Their green hair sparkles in the moonlight, and their transparent clothes billow around them as they hasten their way to a field full of white, pink, or red rosen. They’re here to plunder the flower.

Magical Night of Healing. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

Not only is this their favorite flower, it’s also magical and used by witches and healers, as well as Rusalki. It’s said that if a lit match is brought to the flowers in hot and sunny weather, a flame will explode in the air. Black smoke is released, but the plant remains unaffected by the fire.

Below the Rusalki, in the field of rosen, lie the ill, the crippled, the maimed, the childless women. Each person lies on a white blanket. At their head, they put a white cotton towel, a bowl of water, and a ritual bread as a gift for the Rusalki.

Spassovden is a time for “impossible wishes” to come true. Each person there hopes the Rusalki will accept their gift and give them a cure. At midnight, as the Rusalki stir up a whirlwind in their frenzied flight, they bestow cures upon those below at their whim. To the crippled or maimed, they give new limbs; to the blind, they give sight, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute; to the women who cannot conceive, they give fertility. It’s said that if any woman conceives on this miraculous night, it’s believed to have happened in a magical way and is not interpreted as scandalous behavior.

Does everyone receive a cure? Sadly, no. In the morning, people check to see what’s floating in their bowl of water. If it’s a green leaf or flower, the person will be healed. If the leaf is dry, or the water is filled with dirt, however, the person won’t be cured, and may even die soon.

Regardless of the outcome of the Rusalki’s visit, everyone must leave the healing place in silence, to keep the Rusalki happy and make sure their wish will be granted to those who were favored by the mermaids.

Are they good? Or are they bad? I guess you’ll only ever truly know when you meet one for yourself.

 

Spassovden

An excerpt from A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe.

Spassovden (or the Ascension) is a zadushnitsa, one of many days throughout the year associated with the dead, although not specifically those who are “unclean dead” like Rusalki. Women pour wine or water over the graves of relatives, and give food to other people visiting their deceased loved ones.

In Bulgaria, Spassovden happens forty days after Easter. The name comes from the Bulgarian word spassenie (спасение, “salvation”), and so it’s the day of salvation of souls. It’s the last of the seven “Great Thursdays,” the first being Maundy Thursday (three days before Easter).

The official Orthodox holiday relates to the day Christ ascended to heaven after spending his first forty days with the apostles after he had risen from his tomb. In the same way, on Easter, God releases souls of the recent dead, so they can wander for forty days to the places they’ve known in life. Their wandering concludes on Spassovden, and the souls remain on Earth until they return to the other world on Pentecost.

In folklore, souls can appear as flies or bees, visiting flowers on trees, in meadows, and along riverbanks. If you want to hear the dead speak in their graves, all you have to do is put your ear to the ground; you’ll hear them buzzing like bees. They also appear as white butterflies that arise from the water and live only on this day. Windows remain open on Spassovden so these souls aren’t trapped inside homes. Another belief is that if you’re quiet enough when you go to a well early in the morning and peer into the water, instead of seeing your own image, you may see the reflection of a loved one you’re thinking about.

White Butterfly Souls. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

A Day of Bread and Fertility

Spassovden is also a day of bread and fertility. Sveti Spas or St. Spas (the Holy Savior) is the saint associated with this day, although he doesn’t exist as an actual Orthodox saint. He’s a made-up saint to go along with the name of the holiday. On this day, people walk around the fields to ward off drought, praying to the saint, who “unlocks the sky and the Earth to let the rain through so there may be bread throughout the year.”[i]

Ritual traditions forbid both men and women from working on any of the Great Thursdays. If you work in the vineyard, no grapes will grow. If you work in the fields, no grain will ripen. On Spassovden itself, women avoid touching anything green, because it will bring hailstorms in the summer instead of rain. Every drop of rain that falls on this day is considered “a piece of gold,”[ii] because it means the harvest year will be rich and fertile. On the other end of the weather spectrum, to avoid a drought, women are forbidden from doing laundry and hanging clothes outside to dry.

[i] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

[ii] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

Mermaids, Silver Butterflies, and Miracles

July 12, 2015

“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.

John_William_Waterhouse_A_Mermaid
John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Favourite_flowers_of_garden_and_greenhouse_(Pl._61)_(7789108630)
By Bois, D.; Frederick Warne (Firm); Herincq, B.; Step, Edward; Watson, William [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.)

Obicaji_Rusalje_Duboka-Kucevo_07
Obicaji Rusalje Duboka-Kucevo 07.jpg
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To learn more Bulgarian traditions, beliefs, and rituals, check out Light Love Rituals: Bulgarian Myths, Legends, and Folklore.

You can find Ronesa’s mermaid coloring books here:

Mermaids Around the World

More Mermaids Around the World