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Ivan Kramskoi, Русалки (Rusalki), 1871

In Slavic folklore, the rusalka (plural: rusalki; Cyrillic: русалка; Polish: rusałka) is a female entity, often malicious toward mankind and frequently associated with water. Folklorists have proposed a variety of origins for the entity, including that they may originally stem from Slavic paganism, where they may have been seen as benevolent spirits. Rusalki appear in a variety of media in modern popular culture, particularly in Slavic language-speaking countries, where they frequently resemble the concept of the mermaid.


The term "rusalka" derives from "rusalija" (Church Slavonic: рѹсалиѩ, Old East Slavic: русалиꙗ, Bulgarian: русалия, Serbo-Croatian: русаље) which entered Slavic languages, via Byzantine Greek "rousália" (Medieval Greek: ῥουσάλια)[1], from the Latin "Rosālia" as a name for Pentecost and the days adjacent to it.[2] Longstanding, likely pre-Christian, annual traditions resulted in that time of year being associated with spirits (navki, mavki) which were subsequently named for the holiday.[3][4][5][6][7][8]

Origin and appearance[edit]

Witold Pruszkowski "Rusałki" 1877

According to Vladimir Propp, the original "rusalka" was an appellation used by pagan Slavic peoples, who linked them with fertility and did not consider rusalki evil before the 19th century. They came out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields and thus helped nurture the crops.[9][10]

In 19th-century versions, a rusalka is an unquiet, dangerous being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit. According to Dmitry Zelenin,[11] 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.[10]

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.[12] 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,[citation needed] although a rusalka is generally considered to represent universal beauty, therefore is highly feared yet respected in Slavic culture.


Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

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 Russia, they appeared as women who come out of the water on Kupala night and participate in the festival without harming anyone, and in harsher areas they were pictured as "large-breasted amazons".[13] However, sometimes they tickled men to death. According to some Russian beliefs, rusalki had the appearance of very pale little girls with green hair and long arms. In other beliefs, they were described as naked girls with light brown hair.

In Poland, water rusalki were younger and fair-haired, while the forest ones looked more mature and had black hair – but in both cases, if someone looked up close, their hair turned green, and the faces became distorted.[14] They killed their victims by tickling them to death or forcing them to participate in a frenzied dance.[15] In Polish folklore, the term rusalka could also stand for boginka, dziwożona and various other entities.[16]

Rusalka Week[edit]

The rusalki were believed to be at their most dangerous during the Rusalka Week (Cyrillic: Русальная неделя, romanized: Rusalnaya nedelya) 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 bed. 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.[17]

Modern popular culture[edit]

Regarding representations of the rusalka in modern popular culture, folklorist Natalie Kononenko says, "the currently dominant presents her as something like a mermaid, though she is pictured as having legs rather than a fish tail ... The current view of the rusalka as a seductive or seduced woman was probably influenced by written literature. In the past, her image was more complex and she more closely resembled a nature spirit, found not only near water but in fields, forests, and mountains, rather like the vila ...".[18]

List of notable works featuring rusalki[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

  • 1980 - A rusalka is featured in Poul Anderson's The Merman's Children.
  • 1993 - In the book The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski, which chronicles the adventures of The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, The monster he meets in 2nd story has a love interest in a Rusalka.
  • 1993 – Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness, which draws upon Slavic mythology, features a Rusalka; Paladin characters have the option to avenge her murder and let her move on to the afterlife.
  • 2006 – A cycle of creatures in the trading card game, Magic: the Gathering called Rusalka are printed in the Guildpact expansion.
  • 2007 - The visual novel Dies Irae features a witch under the name Rusalka who, in a chapter that also references the Pied Piper of Hamelin, uses a spell to lure the local students to their demise.
  • 2008 – In the video game Devil May Cry 4 a demon called Ba'el has two angler fish-like glowing feelers called Rusalka, they are used to entice human prey and resemble young, nubile women.
  • 2008 – In the video game Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia Rusalka appears as the fifth boss, shown as an aquatic demon.
  • 2010 – Rusalka is the name of a number station transmission ship in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • 2012 – Rusalka is the name of a water nymph-like boss fought in the Nintendo 3DS video game Bravely Default.
  • 2013 - Rusalkas appear as monsters in the action role-playing video game The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing
  • 2015 – "The Rusalka" is the name of episode three in season two of the television series Madam Secretary.
  • 2015 – Rusalka is the name of a number of beings in video game Axiom Verge. In in-game dialogue, one rusalka translates this designation as a "water machine".
  • 2018 - Rusalkas feature in "The Surface Breaks", a YA novel and retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" by Louise O'Neill.
  • 2018 - Rusalka is the name of a song by the band The Decemberists
  • 2018 - In the film The Bastard Sword the protagonist Tias encounters a Rusalka who guides him on his journey to find The Sword.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ρουσάλια" [rousalia]. – Greek Dictionary (in Greek).
  2. ^ Hampson, R. T., Medii Aevi Kalendarium or, Dates, charters, and customs of the Middle Ages, p. 341.
  3. ^ "Rosalia". Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 2020-09-08.
  4. ^ "Rusalka". Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 2020-09-08.
  5. ^ Фасмер 1987.
  6. ^ Черных 1999.
  7. ^ Левкиевская 2000.
  8. ^ Мавський (нявський) великдень // Українська мала енциклопедія — Т. 4. Кн. 7: Ле-Ме — Буенос-Айрес, 1950. — С. 882
  9. ^ Linda J. Ivanits (15 February 1989). Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 78–81. ISBN 978-0-7656-3088-9. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  10. ^ a b Elizabeth Wayland Barber (11 February 2013). The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W. W. Norton. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-393-08921-9. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  11. ^ Zelenin, D.K, cited in Ivanits, Linda J. (1992). Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe. p. 76. ISBN 978-0765630889.
  12. ^ "Rusalka". Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. University of Toronto Press. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  13. ^ Joanna Hubbs (22 September 1993). Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Indiana University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-253-11578-2. Retrieved 12 July 2015.
  14. ^ Gołębiowski, Łukasz (1831). Gry i zabawy różnych stanów w kraju całym... [Games and Plays of Various Estates...]. pp. 279–280.
  15. ^ Encyklopedja Powszechna. Warsaw. 1866. pp. 531–532.
  16. ^ Łowmiański, Henryk (1986). Religia Słowian i jej upadek, w.VI-XII [The Religion of the Slavs and its Decline from the Sixth to the Twelfth Centuries]. p. 227.
  17. ^ Ivanits, Linda, Russian Folk Belief, p. 80.
  18. ^ Kononenko, Natalie. 2007. Slavic Folkore: A Handbook, p. 18-19. Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-33610-2
  19. ^ Somov, O 2016, The Witches of Kyiv and other Gothic Tales, Sova Books, Sydney
  20. ^ Itzik Manger, Midresh Itzik, Hebrew University 1969.
  21. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Hilton, Alison. Russian folk art. Indiana University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-253-32753-9.
  • Д.К. Зеленин. Очерки русской мифологии: Умершие неестественною смертью и русалки. Москва: Индрик. 1995.

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Rusalka at Wikimedia Commons