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Origin and appearance
According to Vladimir Propp, the original "rusalka" was an appellation used by Pagan Slavic tribes, who linked them with fertility and did not consider rusalki evil before the nineteenth century. They came out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields and thus helped nurture the crops.
In nineteenth century versions, a rusalka is an unquiet, dangerous being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit. According to Dmitry Zelenin, young women, who either committed suicide by drowning due to an unhappy marriage (they might have been jilted by their lovers or abused and harassed by their much older husbands) or who were violently drowned against their will (especially after becoming pregnant with unwanted children), must live out their designated time on earth as rusalki. However, the initial Slavic lore suggests that not all rusalki occurrences were linked with death from water.
It is accounted by most stories that the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake would come back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and would be allowed to die in peace if her death is avenged. Her main purpose is, however, to lure young men, seduced by either her looks or her voice, into the depths of said waterways where she would entangle their feet with her long red hair and submerge them. Her body would instantly become very slippery and not allow the victim to cling on to her body in order to reach the surface. She would then wait until the victim had drowned, or, on some occasions, tickle them to death, as she laughed. It is also believed, by a few accounts, that rusalki can change their appearance to match the tastes of men they are about to seduce, although a rusalka is generally considered to represent universal beauty, therefore is highly feared yet respected in Slavic culture.
While lore often says that the rusalki could not completely stand out of water, some fiction works tell of rusalki that could climb trees and sing songs, sit on docks with only submerged feet and comb their hair, or even join other rusalki in circle dances in the field. A particular feature of such stories revolves around the fact that this behaviour would be limited to only certain periods of the year, usually the summer (see Rusalka Week section).
Specifics pertaining to rusalki differed among regions. Although in most tales they lived without men, in Ukraine they were often linked with water (in Belarus they were linked with the forest and field). Where land was fertile, the maidens appeared naked and beautiful. In harsher areas of Russia, they appeared as "large breasted amazons".
The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Rusalka Week (Rusalnaya nedelja) in early June. At this time, they were supposed to have left their watery depths in order to swing on branches of birch and willow trees by night. Swimming during this week was strictly forbidden, lest mermaids would drag a swimmer down to the river floor. A common feature of the celebration of Rusalnaya was the ritual banishment or burial of the rusalki at the end of the week, which remained as entertainment in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine until the 1930s.
In literature and music
In popular culture
2015 – The Rusalka is the name of episode three in season two of the television series Madam Secretary.
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- Media related to Rusalka at Wikimedia Commons