61. Rusalka (Slavic Folklore)

In today's episode Lizzie once again delights Zoe's inner Russian and Decemberists nerd with the rusalka, a water spirit from Slavic folklore. We discuss the dualistic nature of the rusalka myth, the many different stories associated with rusalki, and the rusalka's possible ancient origins.


This episode has a trigger warning for references to antisemitism.

Pre-order Hailey Spencer's book, Stories For When the Wolves Arrive, here!

Sources:

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Russian Folk Belief by Linda J. Ivanits

Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend

“Russian Peasant Beliefs Concerning the Unclean Dead and Drought, Within the Context of the Agricultural Year” by Elizabeth A. Warner

Rusalka—Encyclopedia of Ukraine 

Rosalia 

русалка - Wiktionary

Transcript

(Musical intro)

Zoe

Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts.

 

Lizzie 

I'm Lizzie.

 

Zoe 

And I'm Zoe. And Lizzie, it's been--a while.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

It's been two weeks, we've taken a little break. And then also, it's been like, two months since we actually recorded an episode. So--

 

Lizzie 

(laughing) Over two months. I know, I missed it.

 

Zoe 

 Um, what's up? What's new with you?

 

Lizzie 

Um, I mean, a lot has happened in the last two and a half months (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Well, give us a quick summary, please.

 

Lizzie 

I had a birthday.

 

Zoe 

Ooh!

 

Lizzie 

I turned 26. I also got my visa approved for those following along with me always talking about my visa.

 

Zoe 

Yay. Also exciting.

 

Lizzie 

So, huge win. I can stay in the Netherlands. Nice.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Huge win for Lizzie nation.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah. And--I mean, those were the big things. I also went to this exhibit. I already told you about this, obviously, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and there was, um, this artist, Abdias Nascimento, who does, like--well, he's no longer alive. But he did, like--he incorporated themes of Yoruba mythology into his art, which was very cool. Because I was like, ooh! Ogun! Oshun!

 

Zoe 

That's really awesome. Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

It was awesome. I was like, oh, that's just like in Mytholadies (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, that is really fun.

 

Lizzie 

So that was really cool. And-and-and so I just think it's fun when I see mytholadies out in the wild. I'm like, oh, Zoe talked about them!

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I agree. It's really fun. It's really--it's really cool how, like, do our research on this podcast that like, we're able to understand, like, the references to specific mythologies, and women in mythology.

 

Lizzie 

And cultures that we wouldn't have known about before. Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

I didn't know anything about Yoruba mythology until we started this podcast.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And it's everywhere.

 

Lizzie 

(overlapping) And now I know a little bit (laughs). Yeah!

 

Zoe 

People reference it a lot, and it's really cool to be able to understand that better--a bit better now.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

How are you?

 

Zoe 

I'm all right. I'm still recovering from my two-month-long Russian summer intensive program that I just was at, which is crazy to think about, because none of it feels real. Um.

 

Lizzie 

You spoke so much Russian.

 

Zoe 

I did speak so much Russian, Lizzie. I can't emphasize how much Russian I spoke. Oh, my gosh.

 

Lizzie 

You started just typing in Russian, and I'm like, I don't know what you're saying, but--awesome (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Well, I thought that people would just type it into Google Translate, I don't know.

 

Zoe 

You guys are independent women. You can do that (Lizzie laughs). Um, but anyway (laughs). Yeah, so I was at a two-month-long Russian intensive summer program. I spoke lots of Russian. I am now at--able to take third-year Russian in the fall, which is very exciting. And yeah, like I said, none of it feels real, because it all happened very fast. And now I'm back home. And I'm like, did that even happen? Like, was it--was it even--

 

Lizzie 

Fair enough.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) You've only been back home for like five days.

 

Zoe 

I've been back home for like three days (both laugh). Like, I don't know that--it just sounds like a fake thing that, like, didn't happen, like--so I've got--I'm back here now. And I'm recording again, so that's exciting.

 

Lizzie 

And now you're really good at Russian.

 

Zoe 

I'm--I'm better at Russian than I was before. But, yeah. But I was at level two out of levels--of six levels of Russian, so there were some people there who are really good at Russian. And it's like, what do you--what do you even learn here? I don't know. You probably just, like, sit in a classroom and talk with each other for like, four hours a day, just, like, fine. I don't know.

 

Lizzie 

I think it's awesome people learn languages that are not just, like, Spanish and French. Nothing--like, no offense to those lanuages, I learned French, but, like--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

It's awesome.

 

Zoe 

I would love to learn Spanish. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Well, to be fair, though, this program is full--which I didn't know, full disclosure, I did not know when I applied and decided to do this program, but it is fully funded by the Department of Defense (Lizzie laughs). And that's why the languages that are being taught at this program in person are Russian, Chinese, and Arabic. Um.

 

Lizzie 

Fair.

 

Zoe 

But anyways. Anyways.

 

Lizzie 

Aw, I wanna do the Chinese one. That sounds awesome.

 

Zoe 

The Chinese one--every time I passed the students speaking Chinese and they were just, like, talking to each other in Chinese, I was like, you people are the coolest people I've ever met in my life (Lizzie laughs). I am so impressed. This is the coolest thing I've ever seen like, oh my gosh, like--

 

Lizzie 

Chinese is awesome.

 

Zoe 

Chinese is so cool. It's so hard, and people who can, like, actually, like, semi-fluently speak in Chinese if it's not, like, their native language--I'm just, like, so impressed by them.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But yeah. Anyways, but before we begin, we have a few orders of business. First of all, we have a Ko-fi that you should donate to. And give us money too, if you would like.

 

Lizzie 

Please, if you are able to.

 

Zoe 

We have some very fun bonus episodes that you can only access if you donate. Um, you can do one-time or recurring donations, and either one will get you access to our bonus content. And I personally think that both bonus episodes are super fun.

 

Lizzie 

I agree.

 

Zoe 

Um, we're both talking about books that relate to our content.

 

Lizzie 

Mythology, etc. Oh, yeah, that too.

 

Zoe 

Mythological adaptations. Um, and yeah, I think they're really fun.

 

Lizzie 

(overlapping) I think our Trojan Women one was, like, so fun. The one where we talked about A Thousand Ships--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--by Natalie Haynes, and we were just like, totally just being intellectuals. It was awesome.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, like just considering, you know, the purpose of mythology rewrites, in particular, Greek mythology rewrites, because that's such a common trend in literature that we're seeing nowadays. And like, what's the purpose of that?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And we ruminate.

 

Zoe 

We do ruminate. We think, we ruminate (Lizzie laughs). Um, yeah. Very intellectual discuss-discussion. But yeah, um, speaking of books, we also have--if people recall from Episode 25, our very lovely, super cool and super smart guest star Haley Spencer--who was talking with us about different iterations of the Cinderella, um, archetype in folklore across the world--has a book that's coming out in the fall, that is called Stories for When the Wolves Arrive. And we will have a link for where you can preorder that in our show description. So you can--should definitely go check that out because it's gonna be really cool.

 

Lizzie 

And her episode was really awesome. And she blew our minds. And.

 

Zoe 

That was such a fun episode. Genuinely, one of my favorite episodes still to this day--

 

Lizzie 

Me, too!

 

Zoe 

--because it was so fun.

 

Lizzie 

It was awesome.

 

Zoe 

So Lizzie, now that we're back, who are we talking about today?

 

Lizzie 

I am really excited to introduce today's lady to you. So--(laughs)

 

Zoe 

I've heard.

 

Lizzie 

 --so today-today we are talking about the Rusalka.

 

Zoe 

Ahhh!

 

Lizzie 

This is exciting to Zoe, in my opinion, for two reasons. First of all, it's Slavic--

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) Because it's Russian.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And also because there's--

 

Zoe 

Yeah, Slavic. Извините (Excuse me).

 

Lizzie 

Also because there's a Decemberists song about--

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

--Rusalka (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yes, there is. I was hoping you would mention that. It's a really good song, I would recommend it.

 

Lizzie 

It's a good song. I listened to it for the episode. It was really fun. It's like eight minutes long.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Anyway--

 

Zoe 

Anyway, tell me about this lady. Tell me about this Slavic lady who--

 

Lizzie 

Do you know--do you know about the Rusalka?

 

Zoe 

So, the Rusalka--well, so, "rusalka," I think, could be--in, like, Slavic languages could just mean "mermaid" in general, but I think also specifically refers to a woman who lives in, um, bodies of water and may or may not lure men to their deaths by drowning.

 

Lizzie 

Correct. They may or may not lure men to their deaths. That's completely correct.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh.

 

Lizzie 

So, the Rusalka is a type of shape shifting water creature from Slavic folklore. The name "rusalka" originally came from the Latin rosāliā, meaning "the festival of the roses."

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Um, so it entered Slavic languages through Byzantine Greek ῥουσάλια (rhousália), and Rosalia is a name for the Christian holiday Pentecost, in which--

 

Zoe 

Mmm!

 

Lizzie 

--that was when the rusalki typically emerged.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So rusalki are also known by--so, rusalki is the plural form--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

It is.

 

Lizzie 

--rusalka. Rusalki are also known by several other names, such as mavki; navki, which derives from Nava, the sea in the underworld; kupalki, which means bathers--

 

Lizzie 

--vodyanitsy, which comes from voda, water--

 

Zoe 

Indeed.

 

Lizzie 

And there's some other older terms, including shutokva, which means jokestress--

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

--loskotukha, which means Tickler--

 

Zoe 

Oh! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

--and--you'll see why in a-- shortly (laughs). And--

 

Zoe 

I don't like that one (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

 No, not so much. Khitka, abductor. Abductress. You know.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But, uh, yeah. Rusalka is the most common term from what I have seen. So rusalki are water nymphs, similar to sirens or naiads. And they're found in countries throughout eastern and central Europe and the Balkans. They are said to sit on the banks of rivers and lakes, or climb trees that hang over the water and combed their golden or green hair while gazing at their reflections.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Mmm.

 

Lizzie 

They gather outside of the water on clear, moonlit nights to dance and sing, but they can't live outside of the water too long.

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

However, if a rusalka has her comb on her, she'll be okay since their combs have the ability to conjure water anywhere.

 

Zoe 

Cool.

 

Lizzie 

Rusalki are often the spirits of women who drowned or died near bodies of water. They are typically depicted similar to human women, though sometimes they have tails similar to a mermaid and other times they're able to shape shift into other aquatic creatures like fish or toads. And I also saw birds mentioned a couple times, that they have bird, like, iconography as well.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, cause that goes with the siren thing. Cause remember when we found out that sirens are not mermaids, but, like, they have--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

They're birds (laughs).

 

Zoe 

--they're like birds?

 

Lizzie 

I do remember, yeah. Yeah, exactly. And--but their-their lore is very varied. It's very different. In a bunch of different places. I mean, it's literally many different countries and regions.

 

Zoe 

I bet, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And so there's evidence of belief in rusalki in many places throughout eastern and central Europe, and their legends vary a lot regionally. It seems that most legends about rusalki involve belief that they're spirits of drowned women, specifically women who died "before their time," meaning in this case that they died before they could become mothers, and who therefore had no descendants and no stake in the lives of the living.

 

Zoe 

Interesting! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

So--yeah. I-I like the implication that women who die after they give birth--like, whatever, who cares, you know? (laughs)

 

Zoe 

Yeah. They've done their job, right?

 

Zoe 

Good for them.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, like, eh (laughs). Whatever, you've--good enough. And so they represented loose ends on a family tree and potentially, in the case of women who had been abused, they could hold grudges and might behave spitely.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. But also, evidently, since there was a folk belief that since maidens possess the ability to reproduce, this fertility that had gone unused could be transferred to one's family, flock and fields. So thus, rusalki were thought to bring fertility and moisture to the lands, and it was also thought that where they frolicked, the grass would grow thicker.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

So because they die when they're maidens, like, they can bring about fertility, which is kind of cool.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, it's very--there's--it's very dual, right?

 

Lizzie 

And also makes sense because they're water--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--creatures.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Like water, fertility--clear association.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

However, they also had a more negative reputation as well. They were said to find human companions, and then lure them to their deaths so that they would have company in their underwater palaces. This sometimes included young children, but for the most part, they targeted men. They would leave the water and call out young men's names at random, and if a man was foolish enough to reply, then the rusalka had him in her power, and lured him into games, and eventually drowned him. Yeah, I like the idea that they'll be like, Oh, Ivan! Like--Fyodor!

 

Zoe 

I--that's exactly what I was thinking, like, Ivan, Ivan! (Lizzie laughs) And then, like, of course, there's an Ivan somewhere because it's Ivan, and then they're like--and then the poor Ivan Ivanovich is like, oh (both laugh), someone's calling my name!

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) However, some men were resistant to the charms of rusalki, and in this case, the rusalki, would tickle him until he fell down, and then drag him underwater.

 

Zoe 

Oh, that's horrible (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

Sounds like such a horrible way to go (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Oh my gosh.

 

Lizzie 

And yeah, the thing about rusalki tickling their victims to death came up several times. It seems to be a rather common aspect. But-but there are ways to protect yourself from a rusalka's charm.

 

Zoe 

Naturally, naturally.

 

Lizzie 

Of course. Do you want to guess a way to resist the rusalka?

 

Zoe 

Oh, no, I have no idea (Lizzie laughs). Wear red. Wear red.

 

Lizzie 

No. I mean, maybe.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) I didn't come across that. Anyway.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

Apparently in Russia, it is commonly said that if you venture into the woods around Trinity Sunday, you should bring a sprig of wormwood with you.

 

Zoe 

Ohhh.

 

Lizzie 

And a rusalka can run up to you and demand whether you were carrying wormwood or parsley. And if you say wormwood, she'll scream and run past, at which point you should attempt to throw the wormwood into her eyes. But if you answer parsley, she will say oh, my darling! and then tickle you to death.

 

Zoe 

Wow. So what if you just lied and said that you had wormwood when you had parsley? What would happen then?

 

Lizzie 

Then you're fine.

 

Zoe 

Okay, so just lie.

 

Lizzie 

That-that's  a way to outsmart--yeah, exactly.

 

Zoe 

Okay, I love when folklore is like, lying is good, sometimes.

 

Lizzie 

I like the assumption that you would either be carrying wormwood or parsley at all times (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Well, it is Russia, so the parsley does make sense.

 

Lizzie 

What if you don't have any herbs on you at all?

 

Zoe 

I don't know. She probably still attacks you, right?

 

Lizzie 

And you could (laughs)--I just mean, I guess (Zoe laughs). I mean, maybe it's only if you're carrying an herb that she does this. She's like, ooh!

 

Zoe 

Yeah, maybe she only wants to know if you're carrying an herb, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And you could also ward them away with the sign of the cross--

 

Zoe 

Of course.

 

Lizzie 

Which is what I was getting at a bit earlier. Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Oh, okay. I did not get that.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, fair enough (laughs). Yeah, and I think it's interesting that like, some of this stuff kind of reminds me of our Celtic fairies episode of the kind of like--

 

Zoe 

Oh, absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

--trickster-y vibes and deals. You'll, uh, you'll see what I mean even more so in a moment.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh. Okay.

 

Lizzie 

There are also some stories about men being able to take a rusalka home with them, transform her into a human through baptism and marry her.

 

Zoe 

Of course.

 

Lizzie 

In one story from the Smolensk province in Russia, a man claimed that his great-grandfather had captured a rusalka by pulling her into a magic circle and putting his cross on her. He took her back to his home, where she performed women's tasks for a year. But in the following rusalka week, which, more on that later--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie  

--she returned to the forest.

 

Zoe 

Sounds like selkies.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly. Yeah. No, that's what I was also thinking. And in the north of Russia, it was less common to view rusalki as beautiful, enticing young women. They were thought to be ugly, haggard and cruel, with long arms and abnormally large breasts.

 

Zoe 

Ooh.

 

Lizzie 

According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber in The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, the regional differences could be due to how hard or easy it is to grow crops and take care of livestock in these areas, since rusalki are in charge of fertility.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Makes sense. So the geography of the area could possibly influence people's conceptions.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. And just the connection with fertility, if land is more fertile, you'll probably have more rusalki and they're probably gonna be a little bit more favorable.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Although the large breasts still implies fertility.

 

Lizzie 

Right? Exactly! Like, you know, the large--like, the large breasts detail does imply fertility in my opinion. But I guess-I guess they're-they're still fertile, but just rarer and more mean? I don't know.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And uglier, I guess.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Whatever.

 

Lizzie 

You would think it'd be the other way around, actually, like--

 

Zoe 

You would, but--I don't know. I guess they're just not as fond of the idea in the north.

 

Lizzie 

Or maybe it's cause like, oh, they're in charge of fertility, and they're kind of failing us right now. So they suck.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Or like there's--they're just not that fertile. You know?

 

Lizzie 

Yes.

 

Zoe 

They're just like--

 

Lizzie 

Oh, yeah, because old women, ha ha ha. They're not maidens.

 

Zoe 

Ha ha! Old women, am I right?

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Gross! That's such a theme (laughs) in, like, folklore in general. Anyway, so--I love the assumption that you can't be like--like, you have to be ugly and old or beautiful and young. No crossover there.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, there's no--

 

Lizzie 

Can't be ugly and young.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I don't--I mean, like, I'm just--I'm--could be very much wrong, but like, I can't think of any myth right now that's like this ugly young woman.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Unless it's like--unless it's like in comparison to a beautiful young woman.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, so what these two types of depictions have in common, ugly versus beautiful, is that they were spirits of drowned women, typically, and that they wore their hair long, loose and uncovered. And in contrast, village-village women wore their hair nearly braided--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--usually with a hair scarf.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Women with long, loose hair were thought to be no better than a rusalka or a witch. And this even gave way to the Russian saying, "she's let her hair down like a rusalka.

 

Zoe 

Wow.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Interesting (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs). And there were also stories of rusalki helping people and giving them gifts. In a story from Belarus, a human woman saw a little boy sleeping on a birch branch and took off her apron and covered the boy with it. Then, a rusalka came and touched her hand and said the words, "Fight in your hands for you." And after that, the woman began to work so strongly that everyone wondered where her strength came from.

 

Zoe 

Wow.

 

Lizzie 

So, super strength. Little gift.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, that is good.

 

Lizzie 

In a similar story from Slovenia, a small half-blind shepherd came across a hazel thicket, where a rusalka was caught by her hair.

 

Lizzie 

He helped her, and in return, she gifted him handsomeness and strength superior to his peers.

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Zoe 

Nice. Good for him.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So super strength again. Awesome.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Kind of a sweet gift.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And I mean, it's like--it's, you know, it's a thing we see a lot in, like, sort of fairy stories where it's like, you help them or you show yourself to be a good person and you're rewarded, right?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. So I mentioned earlier that rusalki are associated with the holiday of Rosalia, or Pentecost, the summer feast held 50 days after Easter. They're also associated with Green Week. Do you know what that is?

 

Zoe 

No.

 

Lizzie 

Ooh. So Green Week, also known as Rusalka Week, which is a Slavic festival celebrated during the week leading up to Pentecost.

 

Zoe 

Ahh.

 

Lizzie 

Rusalka Week is associated with the "unclean dead," or those who died prematurely. But it's also associated with the coming of spring.

 

Zoe 

Huh.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. It's like early June.

 

Zoe 

That's really cool. Yeah. It could be an Eastern Orthodox thing.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Zoe 

But no, that's really interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! They have a li'l week. Kinda awesome.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, it's kind of like a--I was gonna say it's like a midsummer festival, but it's not because it's like the spring festival, not a summer festival.

 

Lizzie 

I mean, there--I feel like there are some similarities, kind of, as you'll see what I mean in a moment.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

Rusalki were important during this week because they were either more active during this week, or this was the one time of year when they left their underwater homes and spent time on land. So you would see more of them during Rusalka Week. So it was important for people to appease them to avoid angering them. Rusalki could either harm people by playing pranks and killing them--

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Lizzie 

--or they could take their anger out on crops and livestock for the coming year.

 

Zoe 

Oh, gosh, neither of those things are good.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, cause it was like a fear that everything would just go horribly if the rusalki just, like, interfere.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, okay.

 

Lizzie 

So it was extra important during this week to both venerate the rusalki to avoid facing their wrath, and also to try to ward them off.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

During this week, women would leave them offerings of scarves, linen and cooked eggs, which were symbols of rebirth, and garlands.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh. Nice.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Since the rusalki were also associated with birch trees, it was also common to decorate homes with birch branches, and venerate the trees themselves either in the forest or by chopping down a birch tree and bringing it to the village. And the tree was decorated with cloth threads and garlands. Village girls wove garlands and sang and danced around the tree.

 

Zoe 

That's really cool.

 

Lizzie 

So in that way, it's kind of got a midsummer vibe, right?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Or is that May Day that I'm thinking of.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

 They all dance around a tree.

 

Zoe 

That is a May Day--maypole. Yeah, that's-that's a May thing.

 

Lizzie 

Just, like, dancing with garlands and stuff.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Although I guess that's in-in Midsommar the movie, that they do that too. Right? (Lizzie laughs) Right? Oh--

 

Lizzie 

I mean, yeah. I think.

 

Zoe 

--you probably haven't seen it, right?

 

Lizzie 

No, I've seen it.

 

Zoe 

Oh, you have? Okay.

 

Lizzie 

Not recently.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Um, but I mean, obviously, again, I'm not an expert, but that sounds a lot like pre-Christian traditions that were then, like, syncretized into Christianity.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I completely agree.

 

Zoe 

I mean, I don't know for sure. But I mean, that sounds a lot like some--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--that sounds like pre-Christian stuff.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And on Trinity Sunday, girls used their garlands in divination rituals and threw them in the water. And in some places, it was believed that if a garland sank, the girl would die.

 

Zoe 

Oh! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, a bit grim.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And then girls would--girls would wait a week before returning to the forest, and people would also avoid swimming during this week so they wouldn't be drowned by a rusalka.

 

Zoe 

That is smart.

 

Lizzie 

It's, like, a very scary week.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And another feature of Rusalka Week was the farewell burial of the rusalka, which served the purposes of commemorating the unclean dead and also banishing the rusalki so that they wouldn't cause harm.

 

Zoe 

Nice.

 

Lizzie 

And so this rite was widespread in the 19th century, but seems to be uncommon now. And people would often create a representation of a Rusalka, which would usually be a village girl or an effigy of a female figure. And a procession led the rusalki out of the villages, and sometimes people would burn down, drown, or tear apart the dummy.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Nice. Love a good effigy.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah. And these rituals can also be interpreted as representing the banishment of winter and welcoming of spring, or as the destruction of old-old vegetation to make room for new vegetation.

 

Zoe 

Wow. This is really interesting.

 

Lizzie 

It's kind of awesome that they're not just like, oh, scary spirits who will drown you, but also, like, they control fertility.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. So you need to be careful. You need, like, a fine line. You can't get rid of them fully.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So it's not like, just like a scary little urban legend kind of thing. It's like, very active in your daily life of being like--it's not just that I'm gonna drown. It's also that the crops could also die--

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) They could destroy your crops, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--and we could have a famine or something.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Very powerful spirits.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, it's pretty sweet. And since the rusalki are thought to influence the fertility of crops, these funerals serve the purpose of safeguarding crops. Rusalki were tolerated during Rusalka Week, but by the end, people wanted them to go back to their natural habitat.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

As easily as they can encourage growth and moisture, they could also trample young crops or cause torrential rain or storms. In addition, the longer a rusalki stayed out of the water, crops risked drying up and dying. So all in all, it's in the best interest of everyone if rusalki were back in their natural wet habitat--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--which were also regarded as appropriate places for the unclean dead in general. So yeah, and I feel like once Rusalka Week is over, you can be like, oh, phew, our crops survived.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, it's just like the one week.

 

Lizzie 

For now.

 

Zoe 

For now. Until next year.

 

Lizzie 

Fun little festivities, but also fear (laughs) for the upcoming year.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, it's kind of like the--from a ritual standpoint, it's very much the banish unclean spirits, let's, like, do some sacrifices in order to ensure that our crops are healthy and we have, like, a good harvest and are able to survive the year sort of thing, right?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. And there are also several folktales about specific rusalki.

 

Zoe 

Ooh.

 

Lizzie 

So I have three stories. First, one, Russian.

 

Zoe 

Ooh.

 

Lizzie 

This is a folktale that tells a story of a woman named Marina--

 

Zoe 

Oh, of course.

 

Lizzie 

--and she was in love with a handsome man (laughs). She was in love a handsome man called--

 

Zoe 

Ivan?

 

Lizzie 

--Ivan (Zoe laughs). Ivan Kurchavïy.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

And on the day of his wedding to another woman, she threw herself in the Volga River, and she became a rusalka and she would sit on the riverbank and comb her hair, and gaze at the hut where Ivan lived with his new wife and sing morefully--mournfully.

 

Zoe 

Dang (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

Ivan heard that Marina drowned herself out of love for him and now lived as a rusalka who frightened people and capsized boats, and his heart broke. He began rowing to the middle of the water at midnight and playing sad songs on his dulcimer.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh.

 

Lizzie 

And Marina would meet him and they would embrace and talk and laugh.

 

Zoe 

Wow (both laugh). If he's your man, why is he rowing to the center of the river and playing sad songs on his dulcimer for me? (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

I know, he's literally married (both laugh). Exactly, yeah. And Ivan--and Ivan continued doing this until one day, he disappeared.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

And then later he appeared to his wife and said to her, "Do not grieve over me, little wife. I live happily with Marina on the bottom of Mother Volga."

 

Zoe 

Wow.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

That sucks for-for his wife.

 

Lizzie 

I know! (both laugh)

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, it's just like, imagine you get married to this guy. And then his, like, ex is just, like, crying outside your window all the time. Like--

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah.

 

Zoe 

And then (laughs) he starts to go out into the river to play the dulcimer for her, oh.

 

Lizzie 

And disappears.

 

Zoe 

 Poor-poor-poor lady.

 

Lizzie 

I know. Anyway, another folktale from Bulgaria tells the story of a rusalka named Radka. Once, Stoyan the Shepherd was walking through a forest near a remote mountain lake when he heard the sound of girls' laughter and dancing feet. He knew he should sneak away for fear of his life, but he had always wanted to catch a glimpse of rusalki, so he stayed to spy on them.

 

Zoe 

Ugh, fatal mistake.

 

Lizzie 

Very stupid thing to do. He didn't see anyone near the edge of the lake, but he did see three piles of clothes, each consisting of a white chemise, a green sash, and a pair of wings.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

He heard the sound of splashing and knew the rusalki were coming back to retrieve their clothes. So he snatched all three piles and hid behind a tree.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh. This guy sucks.

 

Lizzie 

He's not acting smart right now. The three rusalki were distressed that their clothes were gone, because without them, they would turn into ordinary maidens, so they ran around looking for their clothes. Stoyan finally caught a glimpse of them and saw the three most beautiful women had ever seen. And he thought one of them was even more beautiful than the other two.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. I feel you can kind of tell what's gonna happen now.

 

Zoe 

Um, something bad is gonna happen to this guy, or he's gonna get married.

 

Lizzie 

Correct (laughs).

 

Zoe 

(laughs) One of those two.

 

Lizzie 

So, Stoyan tossed the clothing bundles of the other two back to them, but kept the third, the one belonging to the most beautiful one, Radka, or joy--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--and he refused to give them back. Without her clothes, Radka was powerless, so she had no choice but to follow him back to his home in the village and become his wife.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

After a while, Radka gave birth to a son and Stoyan hosted the baby's baptism. Stoyan's friends told him that they had always wanted to see the rusalki dance, so he should make his wife dance for them.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh.

 

Lizzie 

Radka--I know. They're literally so horrible to her.

 

Zoe 

These people suck so much.

 

Lizzie 

I know. Radka refused, saying that she couldn't dance without her white chemise, green sash, and wings.

 

Zoe 

Mmm.

 

Lizzie 

Stoyan was hesitant to give her clothes back because he feared that she would leave and never return. And his friend said, "She is married and has a child, and no mother can bear to leave her child," which persuaded Stoyan.

 

Zoe 

So true.

 

Lizzie 

So he fetched her clothes for her. Yeah, really good logic from them.

 

Zoe 

That's what I always say (Lizzie laughs).

 

Lizzie 

Radka changed into her clothes and no longer resembled his bride, but a rusalka of the lakes and forests. Stoyan began to get scared--

 

Zoe 

Good.

 

Lizzie 

--and blocked all the entrances in his own (laughs) to prevent her escape. Radka danced, and everyone was enchanted. She rolled around the room, flew up and out the chimney.

 

Zoe 

Good!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, good for her. Stoyan rushed outside to beg her not to leave her child, and she said to him, "Surely you know, Stoyan, that a rusalka cannot keep house; a rusalka cannot nurture children. Seek me, Stoyan, there in the forest with the real mountains, on the rusalki playground beside the rusalki lake." Then she flew away. The end.

 

Zoe 

Good for her!

 

Lizzie 

I know!

 

Zoe 

Ugh, I liked that. That was a good ending.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

I know (laughs). It reminded me so much of the story you told me, I think it was selkies, about a selkie who leaves her children?

 

Lizzie 

And it's like, yeah, of course she's not gonna stay for her human children cause she's not human. Like, it's not her nature.

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) Yeah, and she's been trapped. She has been trapped.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

She didn't want to have these children and they were, like, trapping her there, like--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And it's like, well, how could a woman leave her children? Like, well, she's not a woman. She's a Rusalka. You know?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

She's a selkie. Ooh, they sound kind of similar, don't they? Selkie, rusalka.

 

Zoe 

Interesting. Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Barely. Um--(laughs)

 

Zoe 

Linguistics! I've seen the connection (Lizzie laughs). That's how language works!

 

Lizzie 

Connecting the dots (both laugh). Yeah. But similar-similar vibes, though. Like, yeah, you can't just--you can't just keep her there forever like she's a human woman. She--that's not her nature to just stay in keep house for you.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Also, I like the thing about how, like, when she has her rusalka clothes on again, she's a rusalka again. Like ooh, the transformative--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--little outfit. Kinda awesome.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, I hope she looked, like, really scary when she was wearing her clothes.

 

Lizzie 

I know. Mm.

 

Zoe 

Very cool.

 

Lizzie 

The last story I'll tell you is one from Slavic folklore about the goddess Kostrama. So, she and her brother Kupalo were twins, but at some point they were separated and Kupalo was carried into the underworld. So they grew up separately and didn't know each other.

 

Zoe 

Ahh.

 

Lizzie 

One day, Kostrama went to the River Volga and made a wreath. And the wind knocked it off her head into the water.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

Kupalo was nearby in a boat, and he picked up Kostrama's wreath, which traditionally meant that the two were to be married.

 

Zoe 

Mm. I knew this was gonna happen (both laugh).

 

Lizzie 

So they got married, and after the wedding, the gods told them that they were siblings.

 

Zoe 

Oh, just after the wedding.

 

Lizzie 

Right, like oh, by the way--

 

Zoe 

They made sure to wait until after the wedding. Of course they do that. Oh my gosh.

 

Lizzie 

Right?

 

Zoe 

Typical gods.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) I know. So they're obviously horrified. And Kupalo jumped into the fire and died, and Kostrama threw herself into a lake and drowned, and then she became a rusalka and lured men into the water and drowned them.

 

Zoe 

Good for her, I guess.

 

Lizzie 

But then the gods repented and turned them into flowers. The end.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

You know what's--you know what's interesting, though, is that in some pantheons it's super normal for a brother and sister god to be married. But I guess not here.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. I mean, I guess not, yeah. I think--I wonder if it's because, like, they're more like, modeled after common people?

 

Lizzie 

I don't know.

 

Zoe 

Than, like, royalty in this situation.

 

Lizzie 

Maybe.

 

Zoe 

And therefore it's frowned upon for them to marry siblings? I don't know.

 

Lizzie 

I know nothing about Slavic mythology, because it's super old.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, though.

 

Zoe 

It's super old. I mean, I think the wreath thing just sounds more like a--you know, a peasant custom--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--than, like, a royal custom. You know what I mean? So, like--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But I don't know. Yeah, I just think it's so funny. And by funny, I mean, like, annoying that the gods are like, Oh, by the way...

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, like we knew this the whole time, but we're just waiting to tell you until after you got married.

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) By the way--we knew this, but we--we were gonna wait until after you got married. We could have told you now but no. Like, okay.

 

Lizzie 

Honestly. What was their plan there. Anyway, what are your thoughts?

 

Zoe 

Well, I mean, I love rusalki, obviously. I'm having a great time (Lizzie laughs). I think--again, you know, we have our water ladies. We have our water ladies that are super evil seductresses and are beautiful. I think it's interesting that they have a bit more depth to them, like immediately?

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Because I think that you can sort of see the implications with a lot of water ladies that are evil seductresses--like, the fact that they're associated with water means like, fertility and stuff. But it's more at the forefront with rusalki.

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Um, because, you know, they're directly associated with fertility, which is really interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And in--in the childbirth way and in the crop way.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah. And I think that it's also interesting...that I forgot what I was gonna say. Okay (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

I think they're really interesting, because there's so much--

 

Zoe 

Oh, yeah, that they're like--

 

Lizzie 

--lore.

 

Zoe 

--yeah, there's so much, and also that they're, like, directly, like, interacted with and sort of worshipped in the--

 

Lizzie 

The villages.

 

Zoe 

--in the villages on--during that week. During Rusalka Week--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--because--that's really interesting, because that shows, like, they're very powerful and they probably have, like, very powerful origins. Whereas like, with other women who are similar--who are associated with water and are scary and, like, seduce men and drown them, we see less of that.

 

Lizzie 

They're more, like, distant, kind of.

 

Zoe 

They're more distant, and they're not necessarily, like, sacrificed to, which is interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Yeah, but they-they sacrifice to them not just because they fear them and want to be on their good side, but also so that, like, their crops will succeed.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Like it's not just they don't want die, it's also that they care about, like, their crops and their flocks and everything.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Which in itself is a huge amount of power for these woman to have.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Like they--the fact that they have that power over crops is like, they're much more than just the, um--

 

Lizzie 

Scary spirits.

 

Zoe 

--scary water spirits. They're, like--have actual real power over people's lives, which is--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, they're very, like, close to the people, kind of. Which I think is really cool.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Like, they have very direct, like, impact on like, their days and their families, you know?

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Mm hmm. Yeah, and it's like, they can't just do something to get rid of them because they need them.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

They have to have them, you know?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. They don't--they don't want them near them, but they don't--they want them to be, like, giving them good crops and, like, playing with water and everything.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And they can't just, like, drive them all away because they need--they need that blessing.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. You know what I just thought of was that it's kind of like, representative of the way that, like, virginal, young women, like maidens--

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--the way that they're kind of like--I don't have a full thought. I don't have a fully formed thought, so hopefully you'll get where I'm going with this, but like, the way that they're kind of like sacrificed for the greater good--

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

The way that they just, like, drown, and then it's like, oh, okay, yeah, now they're giving us fertile crops and stuff.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. I mean, it's like--there's--it's very interesting that these women are only allowed to--they only--they generally appear, what, before women have given birth. And then this is sort of their way of like, making up for that missed time and missed experience of, like, giving birth and reproducing.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Is by helping with crops instead. And then it's also interesting that they're like, oh, because this woman hasn't give birth--given birth, she doesn't care about the people that she's around, you know. Like, she--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, right? Like, what, like siblings and parents.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, like, obviously, women still care about their communities, even if they haven't had a child, like--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But it's just so weird.

 

Lizzie 

And it's kind of like this fear of, like, women not giving birth, like, which, like, fair enough--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--in like, you know, communities, you need people to give birth, but like, Oh, it's so scary that a woman can die before ever being able to give birth because then she's not useful as--her life is not useful. And so therefore, she has to have another use, you know?

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And, well then, it's also scary, from, like, a woman's perspective of like, okay, but if I die after I give birth, like, then I'm just nothing to you? Like, I've done my job and, like, you don't care about me anymore. Like, that's also scary.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Right?

 

Lizzie 

Definitely.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah. Very interesting ladies. I like them a lot.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! But so, the rusalka has been depicted frequently in art in eastern and central Europe. She was written about by Alexander Pushkin--

 

Zoe 

Of course.

 

Lizzie 

--in an incomplete dramatic poem that was then adapted into an opera by Alexander Dargomyzhsky. And Mikhail Lermontov also wrote a poem called "Rusalka"--

 

Lizzie 

And the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák wrote an opera called Rusalka, which I think is like his most famous opera.

 

Zoe 

Of course.

 

Zoe 

I don't know. I wouldn't know if it's the most famous opera.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, there's this one song that's really famous. I think it's called "Song to the Moon."

 

Zoe 

Ah. The only Dvořák song I know is the one that sounds like the Jaws theme.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) I mean, I don't know. Awesome.

 

Zoe 

Don't worry about it.

 

Lizzie 

I don't really know much about, like, opera. Anyway, so, Dargomyzhsky's opera is about a young woman named Natasha, who drowns herself after being jilted by a prince and then becomes a rusalka. And Dvořák's opera tells a story very similar to The Little Mermaid, where a rusalka falls in love with a human prince, and wishes to become human herself. And then Ježibaba, aka Baba Yaga, grants her wish, but takes away her voice. And then she has to make the prince fall in love with her, or else she'll die and be eternally damned.

 

Zoe 

Wow. So it's an opera where a woman doesn't have a voice. That's very interesting (Lizzie laughs).

 

Lizzie 

I mean, um, she probably has songs I don't look that closely at it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. But--yeah, it's still interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, you're right about that. That is interesting. And it's very-it's very similar to Disney's The Little Mermaid, like, little influence there.

 

Zoe 

It has a happy ending?

 

Lizzie 

I don't know (Both laugh).

 

Zoe 

Probably doesn't. It's an opera.

 

Lizzie 

It doesn't have that much to do with-- There (both laugh). Yeah, and a ruaslka also appears for a number of games, such as Magic: the Gathering and Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia and others.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And notably, the Decemberists released a song in 2018 called “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes,” where the song's protagonist is enticed by a rusalka and drowns.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. It's a good song.

 

Lizzie 

Famous because Zoe likes the Decemberists. To me.

 

Zoe 

Yes. Famous--

 

Lizzie 

That's why--that's why--

 

Zoe 

Because of me.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. It only came out a couple years ago.

 

Zoe 

Well, they're only famous because I like them.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, no, they released it on their last album.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, yeah. It's a good song (laughs). So when I saw that, I was like, ooh, Zoe! I need to do this lady.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway (laughs). So I find rusalki really interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, I find it fascinating how varied their lore is. Sometimes they're tragic heroines, sometimes they're all-powerful spirits in terms of troublemakers, because their malevolence has multiple things at once. And their iconography also varies a lot from place to place; in some places she's beautiful and young, and in some she's ugly and old. Sometimes she's humanlike, sometimes she looks like a bird or fish or can shape shift, and sometimes she's solitary. Sometimes she appears in a group. And it's hard to describe the rusalka at all when her legends vary so much, and you can't really make any broadly applicable statements because there's going to be regional variation where it's just completely different. And similarly, you can't really pinpoint if she's a benevolent or malevolent figure, because she's BOTH.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And neither.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

So yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, I think it makes sense that there's so much variation just because she is talked about and is present in mythology in so many places, like--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Exactly.

 

Zoe 

--there's gonna be variation.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, definitely.

 

Zoe 

And--yeah, I think it's really interesting. I think I just--water spirits in Europe in general, there's so many of them.

 

Lizzie 

And they're all kind of connected.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, like, rusalkas--rusalki, извините (excuse me). Oh my gosh, that was really obnoxious (both laugh). Ugh.

 

Lizzie 

Sirens, naiads--

 

Zoe 

(clears throat) Sirens, naiads, uh, like, nixies and nocks, um, which are, like Germanic spirits.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Um, all very similar.

 

Lizzie 

Melusine...

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Lots of different--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--variations.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And some other--some other, like, Russian, like, Slavic creatures that are similar as well.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Europe loves their water spirits.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly. Well, it's kind of interesting, though, that, like, she's a water spirit, but she's also present in landlocked countries.

 

Zoe 

That's a very good point. It's cause she's a river spirit, though, isn't she?

 

Lizzie 

I guess she's more--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

It's more river-rivers and lakes than, like, oceans.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And that makes sense, because there's a lot of significant rivers and lakes in Eastern Europe--Eastern/Central Europe.

 

Zoe 

Especially in Russia. I mean.

 

Lizzie 

Mother Volga.

 

Zoe 

Mother Volga. That's what I always call it (Lizzie laughs).

 

Lizzie 

I think it's really fun.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, no, but yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Ivan called it.

 

Zoe 

Ivan.

 

Lizzie 

Ivan Kurchavïy called it Mother Volga. Anyway, so--(laughs)

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Another thing I wanted to discuss is the Christian associations with the rusalki that I came across, I'm sure that you also noticed this, like--

 

Lizzie 

--their associations with Christianity. Not always direct, but--yeah. And so I came across the idea of rusalki being unbaptized souls several times.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, that makes sense.

 

Lizzie 

Sometimes rusalki can be the souls of newborn babies who died before they can be baptized. Sometimes you can transform a rusalka into a human by baptizing them. And you can also ward off rusalki sometimes by making the sign of the cross.

 

Zoe 

Yes.

 

Lizzie 

In a story I read, a woman gave birth to a stillborn twins, and then during Rusalka Week, the dead babies jumped out at her and started shouting, "My mother gave birth to me, gave me birth, but didn't baptize me. Why did you give birth to us and not baptize us?"

 

Zoe 

Because you were dead! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

Right? (laughs) And the woman made a sign of the cross and managed to escape. So Christianity saves the day! (laughs)

 

Zoe 

Yay! Love when it does that (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

And so these stories are from 19th- and early 20th-century Russia, which was a time with a sort of double faith, with widespread Orthodox Christianity, but where folk beliefs were also very much alive in common.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Which I think accounts for the Christian elements in the rusalka myth, which is otherwise very kind of folkloric, traditional and animistic.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Like, pre-Christian elements.

 

Zoe 

Absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

But--

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, and like I said, If I'm right, and that a lot of this sounds like pre-Christian ideas, like, then it makes sense to make them sound evil, right?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Because fear of the unknown, fear of like, wildness, etc...

 

Zoe 

Or like, if this is someone you're worshipping, instead of God--

 

Zoe 

--you need to make it be like, this is actually evil. And you need to worship the one true God, who is good.

 

Lizzie 

True!

 

Lizzie 

Exactly. Because--yeah, and Christianity will save you, literally.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But since we're talking about Christian-dominated Russia in the 1800s, I just wanted to say that this was also a time of widespread antisemitism in Russia.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And while I didn't find any link to rusalki and antisemitism, I just want to point out that the link between rusalki and being baptized, and sort of their wildness and danger point to a larger theme of xenophobia and fear of outsiders.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And in general, I think rusalki do represent a fear of the unknown, you know--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--that was've been very prevalent during this time. And so I just wanted to mention that I think it's questionable, the fact that these particular facets of the rusalka myth were very prominent during a time when Jews were being displaced and discriminated against by Russia, like, heavily.

 

Zoe 

Yep.

 

Lizzie 

I'm not trying--I'm not trying to, like, make a broad statement or, like, even, like, direct link between rusalki and antisemitism. Um, I just wanted to point out that the fact that these, like, scary, unknown creatures were able to be overcome by Christianity at a time in place with like, rampant antisemitism is like, it's questionable.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And also there's, like, some facets so that they're like, ooh, child-stealing ladies.

 

Zoe 

Yup. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And--

 

Zoe 

And like, even if there's not a direct link, it just shows the prevailing attitude of the time that allowed the widespread antisemitism to flourish.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly, yeah.

 

Zoe 

And be acted upon.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly. Just wanted to mention that. So, yeah. And that being said, I came across an interesting analysis of the origins of the rusalka in Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture by Joanna Hubbs. And she argues that the result can be traced back thousands of years to ancient goddesses who are associated with bird, snake, and water imagery and could bring fertility, but also destroy things. Sound familiar to you?

 

Zoe 

Um, I feel like bird, snake, and water imagery is really common for, like, ancient goddesses.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs).

 

Zoe 

I can't think of a specific one, though.

 

Lizzie 

She--

 

Zoe 

It's not Inanna, though. No, it's not.

 

Lizzie 

It's not--it's like a specific goddess in this case.

 

Zoe 

Oh, okay, cool.

 

Lizzie 

She mentions a "bird-headed transformational goddess who accompanies humanity from the period of the hunt to that of horticulture, herding and warfare," which reminded me of what we talked about in the Medusa episode, remember?

 

Zoe 

Right! Rightrightrightrightright, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

How Medusa may be a descendant of a Neolithic goddess associated with birds and snakes, and who can be both destructive and healing?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

It's cool that it reminded me of that cause I wouldn't have thought to link Medusa and the rusalka at all.

 

Lizzie 

And Hubbs argues that the rusalka were preceded more closely by the Slavic creatures bereginy, who were half-bird, half-fish female creatures known to swim near birch trees, and who were also associated with fertility. But ultimately, creatures like the rusalka as well as sirens and naiads, harpies, etc, can all be seen as descendants of ancient goddesses, as she argues.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And she mentions the fact that just as ancient goddesses were served by priestesses, rusalki were also attended to mainly by the young girls of the village who would take part in the--

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) Yeah. Yeah, the maidens.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

--Rusalka Week rituals, and visit lakes and weave garlands. So this can be seen as remnants of a sort of goddess worship, in a sense.

 

Lizzie 

Which is interesting, and I feel like in-in most cases, we'll never know the exact origins of a mythological figure, so it's hard to prove or disprove. But after I read this, I realized how similar rusalki are to goddess figures. They were venerated in rituals, they can control weather and crops, and they can be either helpful or harmful to humans.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Similarly, gods are also both feared and venerated, and you want the god's blessings, but you don't want to see or interact with them. Because they can cause you a lot of harm.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I feel like the idea of like, the God being the good, true source of help, and, like, the one true source of goodness of the world is a very Christian idea.

 

Lizzie 

Definitely.

 

Zoe 

Although I guess, like, I mean, with Zoroastrianism you have the dual idea of like, ultimate source of good, ultimate source of evil, but, like, in most religions before Christianity--I could be wrong. I don't know about Judaism in this case, but like, it's less about--the gods are less, like, the ultimate source of good and more just, like, powerful beings that like can help you or hurt you.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. I think it's important in, like, polytheistic religions that like, there's not, like, uh, one, like, person or deity you're supposed to worship, like, there's many different deities, like, many different purposes. Maybe-maybe it'd be--you're close to one deity, but not another.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, I don't--I mean, like, the--obviously, the Greek gods are a good example of, like, gods are not perfect. And they're kind of scary.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly.

 

Zoe 

And you kind of like, will worship them, or, like, ask for their help with specific matters, but also, like, you can't really trust them.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. They're very scary. And just, like, living under their reign is very scary because you have no idea what can happen. You're just trying to appease them.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs). It feels like the current state of the rusalka stories are remnants of pre-Christian folktales and myths mixed with centuries of Christian influence. So the varied nature of her folklore is extremely understandable when you take into account not only vast regional spread, but also the fact that rusalka stories are descendants from stories with origins that are hundreds or thousands of years old.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And I think it's awesome that she has so many different stories, and some of them are really specific, some of them are more general. Some of them are, like, kind of scary. It's awesome. I think that her stories are really fun.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I agree.

 

Lizzie 

She's not just, like, a little siren figure who lures men to their death. There's many different aspects of her.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, super interesting.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, thank you so much for--Lizzie, for this episode. Uh, спасибо большое (thank you very much).

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) You're welcome.

 

Zoe 

Wow. Cringe. Anyways, um (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

I don't know-I don't know how to say you're welcome in Russian.

 

Zoe 

Пожалуйста. It's the same as please.

 

Lizzie 

Пожалуйста.

 

Zoe 

Пожалуйста.

 

Lizzie 

Пожалуйста.

 

Zoe 

Sure (Lizzie laughs). It's not--it's not that bad. It's really not. It's not that bad. Like, you're doing fine. But I'm not going to be, like, no! It's-it's pronounced like this when you're, like, basically saying it correctly (Lizzie laughs). You know what I mean? (Both laugh) But anyways, yeah, so um--yeah. Well, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to subscribe, leave a review and tell all your friends. and donate to our (Ko-fi. And that's all for this week. We'll see you in two weeks

 

Lizzie 

Thank you.

 

Zoe 

Thank you.

 

Outro, underscored by music:

 

Zoe 

Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today's episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @mytholadies and visit us on our website at Mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thank you for listening. See you next time.