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For other uses of the word, see Rusalka (disambiguation).
Ivan Kramskoi, The Mermaids, 1871
Witold Pruszkowski "Rusałki" 1877

Rusalka is a water nymph,[1] a female spirit in Slavic mythology. Her name comes directly from East Slavic русалка (originally meaning "light-haired girl", русый [rusyy]) and still vernacularly translates as "mermaid" from Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian (even though in literal sense, this is incorrect). Rusalka also appears in West Slavic folklore under the names rusalka (Czech, Slovak) or rusałka (Polish).

Origin and appearance[edit]

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 crop.[2][3]

In nineteenth century versions, the rusalka is an unquiet being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit and is dangerous. According to Dmitrii Zelenin,[4] young women who either committed suicide by drowning out of 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 rusalka occurrences were linked with death from water, and, as the name suggests, red-haired women often aroused suspicion in traditional Russian societies as being "bewitched", a connotation that might have come with the Orthodox faith sometime around late 15th century.[3]

It is accounted by most stories that the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake came back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and will 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, her body would instantly become very slippery, therefore disallowing the victim to cling on to it for reaching the surface. She would then wait until the victim drowns, or, on some occasions, tickle them to death as she laughs.[5] It is also believed by a few accounts that Rusalki can change their appearance to match that reflecting the tastes of men they are about to seduce, although generally a rusalka is considered to represent universal beauty.

Rusalki can also come from unbaptized children, often those who were born out of wedlock and drowned by their mothers for that reason. Baby rusalki supposedly wander the forest creeks as will-o-wisps, begging to be baptised so that they can have peace. They are not necessarily innocent, however, and can attack a human foolish enough to approach them.


While generally, the rusalka could not completely stand out of water, some fiction works tell that rusalki could climb trees, and sit there singing songs, or sit on a dock with her feet in the water and comb her hair, or 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 during summertime (see Rusalka Week section).

Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

Rusalki were believed to often exist in groups:

[V]ilas generally live in little groups in the wild, particularly around water, where they love to swim, dive, splash, and play together in lakes, pools, rivers, and millraces. Unmarried girls from a particular neighborhood, while alive, went around in little bands, socializing together at working bees and singing and dancing together at important festivals. The vilas, also mostly young girls, were assumed to do likewise.[3]

The Rusalka's hair is most often of radiant blond or goldish brown, though in some versions of the myth, she has green hair (Kikimora). It is long (sometimes, twice her own size) and perpetually wet, believing that drying the rusalka's hair would cause her to die. Rusalka's eyes are usually water blue, but sometimes are depicted green, with emerald shine to them. Sometimes a rusalka would yield a hair comb which would prevent her hair from drying out, and accounts exist describing the comb as a powerful item allowing the rusalka to walk on land and conjure water out of thin air, when needed.

Some Rusalki like to play games and can attract children (often with baskets of fruit sprinkled with nectar). They despise other women, however, and only show themselves to them in order to attack or to take away their men.


Specifics pertaining to rusalki differed between regions. Although in most tales they lived without men, in Ukraine they were often linked with water, while 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".[6] Often, in the north, they were ugly and covered in hair.

Rusalka Week[edit]

Main article: Green week

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 rusalka at the end of the week, which remained as entertainment in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine until the 1930s.[7]

In fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Vladimir E. Alexandrov (1995). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Rutledge. p. 597. ISBN 0-8153-035-4-8. 
  2. ^ Ivanits, Linda (1989). Russian Folk Belief. US: Library of Congress. pp. 78–81. ISBN 0-87332889-2. 
  3. ^ a b c Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W.W. Norton and Company, 2013, p. 18.
  4. ^ Zelenin, D.K, cited in Ivanits, Linda J. (1992). Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe. p. 76. ISBN 0765630885. 
  5. ^ Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, "Rusalka," Encyclopedia of Ukraine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
  6. ^ Hubbs, Johanna (1993). Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Indiana University Press. p. 29. ISBN 0253115787. 
  7. ^ Linda Ivanits, Russian Folk Belief, p 80
  • 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.