Rusalka and The Duality of Feminity

I don’t usually do this, but anyone reading this blog deserves to know my all-time favorite book. I’ve owned this same book since I was a teenager, and it is very loved on. There are dog ears (don’t wince) and clobbered corners from years jostling around backpacks, among lesser books. Even though it’s a hardback, part of the cover is a little flimsy. I hope I am buried with this book. I am speaking of “The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook” by Sherrilyn Kenyon.

My copy that I’ve owned for 20 years now.

Throughout this book, I have annotated and highlighted many of my favorite names. My children were bestowed upon the star picks among them, an important gift of which they will never truly comprehend. One of my very favorite names is not one I would ever give any child, despite how hauntingly beautiful I find it. That name is Rusalka, which my beloved book defined as a Czechoslovakian name meaning “wood sprite.” That was enough to intrigue me, but that meaning is only valid in some parts of the world.

What is a Rusalka?

“Rusalki” by Iwan Nikolajewitsch Kramskoj, 1871

That is a very complicated question with many different answers, but let’s start with the most popular descriptions. Rusalki are a lot like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid. Notice I didn’t say they were like Ariel or mermaids in general. Rusalki don’t have fins, they have legs which they use a lot. They climb trees and dance and run around the woods, but they are water-bound spirits all the same. They also have a mission to entice men while on land, sometimes for the fun of it and sometimes for the evil of it. Depending on which rusalka tale you hear, they often end up the same way as Anderson’s Little Mermaid, as well.

They tend to look wet, even on dry land. Their skin may have a pallid, corpse-like appearance. They can be agonizingly beautiful with enchanting voices. They can also be unkempt and terrifying, like that chick from The Ring. They almost always appear to be young women.

They have dual sides, which you may remember is a theme I’ve found in Slavic mythology in the past. See my blog on The Alkonost and the Sirin. I will go over the polarity of rusalki at length.

Sprite/Nymph/Helper

“Rusalka and Her Daughter” by I. Volkov, 1899

In some tales, the rusalki are viewed as land spirits. It’s a very pagan viewpoint, colored by the desires of farmers for a bountiful harvest. A rusalka was a friendly wight who provided the water necessary for crops to grow. They are seen as lovely, enchanting, and pleasant water-bound nymphs that roam through the tall grass of the woods.

This depiction is more prevalent in areas where water plays a loving role, such as the Danube River. This would be why Rusalka is listed as a Czech name for a wood sprite. In Czechoslovakia, a rusalka would have been viewed as a gentle wight delivering water from a much-loved river into fields and woodlands.

This image is also more likely the further back you go in the mythology. Young women roaming around water and woodlands were not something to be feared by people who had no concept of Heaven, Hell, or Christianity in general. It wasn’t until patriarchy, backed by high stakes religion, made its appearance that the rusalki changed. They went from the daughters of the world-creating hearth goddess Bereginya and guardians of Baba Yaga’s rye fields to cautionary tales told to young women.

Malevolent/Unclean/Deathbringer

“Rusalka” by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

Not all water flows like the Danube. Some water is dangerous, treacherous even. So, it’s not a huge surprise that in places like northern Russia, where harsher climates prevail, rusalki are considered wild and vicious. They climb out of the water in the middle of the night, seeking out male victims whom they drown without remorse.

There’s even a week at the beginning of Summer called Rusalka Week. Don’t go down by the water then. Rusalki are known to come out and dance in the moonlight at that time. If you are unfortunate enough to spot them, you will be forced to join them, dancing until your death. Villagers used to hold ceremonial burials at the end of the week to send the rusalki back from whence they came.

Still, the last two paragraphs describe more of an explanation about the dangers of nature. They are still wholly pagan. The tales of rusalki become truly twisted around the 19th century when they stopped being the daughters of a goddess and started being the result of Non-Christian activity. Rusalki were now unbaptized children or young women who died either by suicide or murder, due to a broken heart or a pregnancy outside of wedlock.

This newer, darker rusalki coveted nothing more than revenge. Their vindictive spirits killed men as a result of their desire to hurt those who wronged them. The moral of a rusalka tale was clear: obey Christian law. Marry and serve a man, bear him children, and baptize those children. Do all that, or you will exist eternally as a ghost who never knows happiness again.

Polarity

“Rusalki” by Witold Pruszkowski, 1877

The stark differences in tales about essentially the same mythological entity really cause you to take a hard look at the way femininity has been perceived over time.

In the Pre-Christian, pagan era of Slavic countries, rusalki were viewed as powerful. Their strength and abilities could be benevolent and desired, among many. It also could be your downfall. However, there was no doubt that rusalki were ethereal in nature, deserving of your awe and respect.

Over the centuries, that mutated. They were no longer beings tied to a goddess. How could that be when there was only one God? They weren’t demons, either. Instead, they were victims. Their power was taken from them. They no longer were the farmer’s helper, but the farmer’s foe. Even their malevolence wasn’t their own, but a punishment placed upon them for not becoming the broodmares women were created to be in a patriarchal society.

Nowhere is this more rapidly evident than in the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák. In the beginning, the titular Rusalka is very much like the ancient fertility spirits that were connected to waterways, reeds, fields, forests, and healing wells. By the end of the opera, however, she is an entirely different being. The prince she loved with all her heart has given her up for a foreign princess, leaving our heroine despondent. She turns into a death spirit, cursed to live a joyless existence in her watery purgatory.

As our perception of women changes, I wonder if our tales about the rusalki also will. Could they become the charming nymphs of our imagination again? Perhaps, they could regain the power that was taken from them long ago. The choice is up to us.

Musical Spotlight: “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s “Rusalka”

 

 

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Princess Eya’s life changes forever with the discovery of the Statue of the Goddess Winds, just as she’s coming of age. The long-overlooked kingdom of Hicares finds itself in a war it isn’t prepared for against the far more powerful empire of Pescel. To survive, Eya must flee her home, losing everything and everyone she loves in the process.

Yet, by leaving behind all she’s ever known, she learns that her sheltered life didn’t prepare her for the real world’s strange and frightening nature. She encounters people, places, and creatures beyond anything she ever imagined, along with sinister enemies from every direction. Perhaps her most surprising revelation is that she is developing terrifying powers of her own. Will Eya be able to find happiness in her new life, or will she continue struggling with the current?

Struggling With the Current is the first book of The Telverin Trilogy, a fantasy war story that takes place between several countries in the world of Telverin.

Like reading my blog? Then, you’ll love my book!

Struggling With the Current is the first book in The Telverin Trilogy, a story about an exiled princess who finds herself in a terrifying world with equally frightening powers.

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