Rusalki: the Slavic Nymphs

Wilhelm Kotarbinski,

Wilhelm Kotarbinski, “Water Nymph”

“She shook the bright drops from her hair

And gazed upon the anchorite;

To look upon her form so fair

The good monk trembled with affright.

And he beheld her from afar

With head and hand strange signals make,

Then swifter than a shooting star

Dive back into the silent lake.”

Alexander Pushkin, “Rusalka”

We do not have any written records of Slavic mythology; sadly, we have to make do with second-hand accounts and archaeological findings. As much as I am fascinated by Greek and Egyptian mythology, my roots are Slavic, and consequently any exposure to the Slavic lore has a visceral effect on me, not comparable to anything else. Stories of water nymphs, mermaids and sirens are fascinating, but none of them bear quite the same imprint on my unconscious as the stories of the rusalki (Slavic water nymphs, plural of rusalka). Recently, I have come across a great book by Joanna Hubbs Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. One of its section is dedicated to the rusalki lore. In the nineteenth century, these mythological creatures were vilified as death demons, but for ancient Slavs they were predominantly kind, though powerful and sometimes feared, nature spirits. They played a key role in pagan fertility rituals. Their predecessors were called bereginy (bereg means ‘shore’) and connected water and earth in their cult. Their sacred tree was the birch. The later rusalki or vily were believed to live in water and also on land and in trees; they were half women – half fish or half women – half birds. Hubbs refers to them as “spinners” who regulated “human and animal fertility, the cycle of the seasons, the moon, and the weather.” As it is in Rusalka, the famous opera by Antoni Dvorak, rusalki were usually part of a group of mysterious maidens – daughters of a sea or bird king. Their roots are very archaic, says Hubbs:

“Every incarnation of the water nymph suggests the archaic image of the bird-headed transformational goddess who accompanies humanity from the period of the hunt to that of horticulture, herding – and warfare. She is the goddess who creates parthenogenetically by bringing moisture to the earth from below and above, unaided by male consorts. She is one yet multiple, chooses her mate like the shamanic Mistress of Animals, and confers power (military or otherwise) on the male, whom, like the Great Goddess of the Neolithic, she then destroys. She is virginal like Artemis, and yet the giver of life and death.”

Walter Crane,

Walter Crane, “Swan Maidens”

The rusalka was portrayed as half-bird or half-fish (sirin), sometimes with a lion or a horse, sometimes as “a dragon or lion-tailed creature with the wings of a bird.” Other animals strongly connected with her were the deer and the snake. Her hair looked like entangled snakes – combing it produced rain, called “the milk from heaven.” She was the goddess of the sun, the moon and the rain, fertility, renewal and rebirth, which was symbolized by the snake shedding its skin and the deer shedding its antlers. As birds, rusalki rode on clouds to direct the rains. Floods were caused by too energetic combing of their long serpent tresses. They had under their dominion phases of the moon and the production of winds. Continues Hubbs:

“Artifacts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries found around Kiev show that the Slavic bereginy, like the Russian rusalki, were emulated in their moisture-making functions by young girls, whirling in long-sleeved blouses,… who played the part of rainmakers, bringers of fertility. The very name for ‘girl’ in Russian, deva, suggests linguistic ties with Indian and Persian religious and mythological figures of feminine divinity. … Div or deva in Sanskrit means ‘light’ and ‘pure.’”

Arthur Rackham,

Arthur Rackham, “The Rhine Maidens”

While reflecting on this etymology, a thought occurred to me. This lightness and purity of the archetypal feminine means that rusalki, as well as their mermaid and water nymph sisters, stand for the forces of the unconscious struggling to become conscious. In Dvorak’s opera, the title-character falls in love with a prince and decides to accept human form for him. The story does not end well, though the characters learn the value and power of true love. There seems to be a mortal danger present in crossing the line from the unconscious to consciousness. Paradigms are not shifted peacefully but rather in tumultuous birth pangs. This is beautifully expressed by Dane Rudhyar in his interpretation of the Sabian Symbol for 29 Leo (A MERMAID EMERGES FROM THE OCEAN WAVES READY FOR REBIRTH IN HUMAN FORM):

“KEYNOTE: The stage at which an intense feeling­ intuition rising from the unconscious is about to take form as a conscious thought.

The mermaid personifies a stage of awareness still partially enveloped by the ever­ moving and ever elusive ocean of the collective Unconscious, yet already half formulated by the conscious mind. Any creative thinker or artist knows well the peculiar mixture of elation and anxiety characterizing such a stage. Will the intuitive feeling fade away reabsorbed into the unconscious, or will the inexpressible realization acquire the concreteness and expressible form of a concept or a definite motif in an art form? This fourth symbol in the thirtieth five­fold sequence suggests that the fire of desire for concrete and steady form burns at the root of all techniques of self-­expression. An unconscious energy archetype is reaching toward consciousness through the creator, as cosmic Love seeks tangible manifestation through human lovers. The whole pre­human universe reaches eagerly to the human stage of clear and steady consciousness. It is this great evolutionary urge, this elan vital, which is implied in this symbol of the mermaid seeking human incarnation — the YEARNING FOR CONSCIOUS FORM AND SOLIDITY.”

Odilon Redon,

Odilon Redon, “Mermaid”

As our culture progressively divorced itself from its archetypal bedrock, so did the meaning of rusalki and their Greek mythological counterparts transition, stressing now their destructive powers, luring men into their deaths. Unwanted and ignored, they had to exercise their powers from the underworld (the unconscious). The denigration of unconscious powers always ends in a horrible backlash. What was suppressed is now rising with an upsurge. It looks like the magical powers of the feminine have been finding their way into the collective consciousness. We are culturally ready to be reinitiated into the deepest mysteries of Her nature.

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25 Responses to Rusalki: the Slavic Nymphs

  1. Marie Taylor says:

    this is a subject dear to my heart.

  2. Katalina4 says:

    Stunning. Need to read again to be articulate…

  3. https://youtu.be/sLyoXFHYmpc Just after watching this entrancing 60’s B horror movie about a mermaid and sailor, Night Tides, and co-incidently finding your post straight after

  4. Amy Campion says:

    Who are you, my magical synchronous friend? Who always seems to have the words and ideas that shimmer reflectively in my own experience… I have just started reading “The Little Mermaid” to my nearly 4 year old boy. It is a wonderful version, rich and descriptive, and will take us a few nights more to finish. He adores it, and more than any book I have read him so far, it seems to transport him so that we both are washed away with the words. I may not be able to teach him to dive into the waters of his subconscious, but I can gently encourage him to play along its shores 🙂

    • Dear Amy, I am really so happy to hear this. I think we both shimmer in the same shimmering ocean. It is today that Venus and Jupiter conjoin at 29 Leo – that Sabian Symbol I quoted! You and I and your son are just sensitive to these energies.
      Lots of love
      Monika

  5. I enjoyed this read- wonderful.

  6. litebeing says:

    Beautifully informative Monika. The art is stunning and you were so astute to weave in the Sabian symbol for 29 Leo, where transiting retro Venus currently resides. The interpretation is quite profound and gives me pause to view love through another lens.

    love, Linda

    • Dear Linda,

      Such a wonderful comment. The conjunction of Jupiter and Venus is today and exactly on my Ascendant. I had been aware of the Sabian symbol of my Asc for a while, and I was always drawn to all kinds of watery creatures.
      Thank you.
      Love,
      Monika

      • litebeing says:

        Thanks for reminding me of the conjunction. Such a great symbol to describe your ascendant ( not far from my chart ruler!) I saw a tv show yesterday on the food of Warsaw Poland and thought of you. So little about Slavic culture is known here in the US.

  7. Great post, Monika. I must confess, though, I took a class on relics and icons at university taught by a very outspoken feminist professor and she has forever tainted my view of mermaids. She asserted that the myth started with sailors who were making lewd comparisons between female genitalia and fish. She railed for about half an hour on how the mermaid myth was degrading to women. While I was not sold on her idea, the gnawing image remains.

    Anyway, I like your interpretation of the myth better than hers. 🙂

    Jeff

    • I am not sold on Freudian, patriarchal ideas about myth, either. But thanks for sharing, Jeff. It is important to know all the perspectives, i.e. to know you enemy.
      Thanks so much for commenting.
      Have a wonderful sunny Sunday!
      Monika

      • Yeah. I consider all perspectives, even if I later choose to disagree with them. What is so fascinating about myth, and art/literature, is that they can be interpreted in myriad ways, and these interpretations continue to evolve as we do collectively.

        Hope you have a wonderful Sunday also. Going to finish some gardening and then take the dog for a hike in the mountains.

      • Thanks. My main occupation has been swimming.☺

  8. 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.

  9. Excellent article, thanks for sharing. I only have one comment and that was your first paragraph… “We do not have any written records of Slavic mythology; sadly, we have to make do with second-hand accounts and archaeological findings” – In my world and path, there have been many ways I have attained information from the past from not mind-body, but the ten souls and elemental (spirit).

    • Hello and thank you very much for your comment. I also think written records are secondary and less certain than the sources of knowledge you described…

      • Not knowledge or memories, those are the mind/mental body, that is very limited. What i do is dream walk, have full out of bodies, remote viewing in both waking day and night dreaming, shape shifting, remembrances of the emotional body and the other nine souls that we humans have etc. Its a long story of course, but as a whisperer (polish folk healer tradition) and dreamer (shaman) it was by fate that my birth began this journey.

      • Fascinating! Thank you very much for sharing this. I meant knowledge precisely in this wider, deeper sense from 12 century “cnawlece” – acknowledgement of a superior power, worship.” I also just want to say that I think your art is breathtaking and now I see how it comes from the Source.

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