Category: Russian

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Slavic Mermaids: Water Ghosts and Goblins

Quite distinct from their Western equivalent, Slavic mermaids might better be described as water ghosts, as they are almost always the spirits of departed females, while their male equivalent takes the form of a water goblin or water sprite.  The Russian word for mermaid is rusalka (rusalki pl.) and male creature is a vodyanoy.  Similar words are used in other slavic languages, though the Czech water goblin is known as a vodnik.

The rusalki are found not only found in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, but also Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.  And they’re honored with their own holiday, Rusalka Week, just now coming up in early June.

While they are usually active only at night, during Rusalka Week, they emerge in the daylight when they may be seen dancing, singing, or playing usually in groups.  As they lack the fish tail of Western mermaids, they may also venture into forests and fields for such activities, but while in the water, they may also  pull swimmers, fishermen or others near the water to watery deaths. We open the show with a clip from Mermaid: Lake of the Dead, a 2018 Russian horror film about a rusalka, which depicts the creature in this malevolent aspect.

Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879
Rusalki, Konstantin Makovsky, 1879

Not just any woman who dies will become a rusalka.  Typically, she would have died by violence, suicide, or sudden accident, particularly drowning.  Often these deaths are related to misfortunes in love, rejection by lovers, or suicides due to unwanted pregnancies.  Because of this, the rusalka is particularly focused on capturing men with no interest in attacking adult females.  Men who fall prey to them are either believed drowned or may live with them in a sort of underwater spirit limbo in their richly appointed palaces of crystal, gold, and silver.  Occasionally, their would-be victims may overcome them by the power of the cross, or in rare cases, they may even be domesticated into mortal life (with varying success).  Mrs. Karswell reads several typical and atypical tales describing the interactions of rusalki and men, ones collected from informants in turn-of-the-century studies by Russian ethnographers

While rusalki are most interested in men, they may sometimes capture girls and boys to be kept as the children they failed to have in life. Infants may also become rusalki if they die unbaptized, and will wander the earth in that form for seven years seeking someone who might free them by performing a christening. After that, like other rusalki, they remain in that undying form until the end of the world.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s not clear the rusalki were always regarded as the ghosts of unfortunate females. Instead, they seemed to play some role in connection to fertility.  This is particularly clear in Ukraine, where the rusalki (or creatures nearly the same) are called mavka and a figure called Kostromo is both the center of early spring fertility rites and known the first female to become a mavka. “Mavka” is also the name of under which a contemporary Ukranian musiican performs songs composed, in what she calls “the language of mermaids.”  We hear a clip from one of her performances.

Rusalia Week, or Rusalia, is tied to the date of Pentecost or Whitsunday. It’s also known as “Green Christmas” or “Green Holiday” as  homes and churches are decorated in greenery, and celebrations take place in birch forests where young women and girls wear crowns woven from flowers and plants.  It takes place either 40 or 50 days after Easter, and the biggest celebrations take place on Semik (from the Russian word for “seven,”) the seventh Thursday after Easter, which is June 4 this year.  We describe some rather curious rituals around birch trees involving symbolic dolls used to represent the rusalka, and how these are understood to symbolically free the restive spirits from their existence as rusalki.

Semi Celebration, 19th cent, unknown artist

Rusalia celebrations embrace both aspects of the rusalki — their post 19th-century incarnation as dangerous ghosts, and an older pagan understanding of these beings as bringers of regenerative moisture and fertility of crops.  We also hear a few accounts describing tried and true methods for evading rusalki attacks particularly common during this period.

The rusalka folklore has been adapted into a number of Slavic productions over the years.  We hear of a rusalka in Russian novelist, poet, and dramatist Nikolai Gogol’s 1831 collection of stories Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which served as the basis of a loopy but fun Russian TV series, Gogol, from which we hear a clip.  ( A rusalka briefly appears also in Gogol’s Viy, adapted into a cult classic film of 1967, Viy Spirit of Evil, from which we hear a clip.

Rusalka folklore has been a popular subject for opera. Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, which premiered in 1856 was based on a nearly finished verse drama by Alexander Pushkin.  Its tragic tale involves not only a a vengeful adult rusalka, but also a dangerous child rusalka, and a madman who believes he is a raven.

The better known Rusalka opera, which premiered in 1900, is by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák.  Best known for its lovesick aria “Song to the Moon” in the first act, its story draws partly on Slavic folklore and partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to tell its equally tragic tale.  A vodnik or “water goblin” is cast as the father of the character given the name Rusalka, and the opera also features the witch Jezibaba, the Czech equivalent to Baba Yaga.

Dvořák liked to say the opera was inspired by fairy tales of popular 19th-century poet Karel Erben, namely his 1853 collection Kytice, which means “bouquet”. (The book was given a particularly sumptuous treatment int the 2000 adaptation known in English as Wild Flowers.)  While in fact the opera borrows nothing directly from Erben’s stories, Dvořák did more explicitly embrace one of Erben’s pieces in his symphonic poem known in English as “The Water Goblin.”  Mrs. Karswell reads for us the climactic scenes of this tale, which is gruesome even by Bone and Sickle standards.

Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin
Vodyanoy, the Water Sprite, 1834, Ivan Bilibin

After a bit of further discussion of the vodnik and its Russian near-equivalent, the vodyanoy, we address the elephant in the room — the fact that the rusalki are said to tickle men to death.  I share a few comments on reference to historic tickle torture, as well as some anecdotes from the much more amusing history of death by laughter.

 

#31 Baba Yaga

#31 Baba Yaga

This episode explores the Russian witch, the Baba Yaga, tales in which she appears, possible origins, and regional variations on the character.

We begin by retelling one of the skazi (folk tales) in which she’s particularly well-definined, “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a version recorded in the mid-1800s by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, Russia’s answer to the Brothers Grimm, .

Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899
Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899

Without spoiling the story, I can say that it bears some parallels to “Cinderella,” with a wicked stepmother and step-sisters grievously imposing on the young Vasilisa and sending her into an encounter with the Baba Yaga.  She is aided in the tale by a magic doll bequeathed her by her dying mother.

Like nearly all Baba Yaga stories, this tale features the witch’s famous house perched atop two immense chicken legs on which it turns to reveal it’s entrance if the proper spell is spoken.  Around the house, in this story as in most others, is a fence made of human bones and topped by skulls.

Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916
Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916

The witch herself is not much described in the text of “Vasilisa,” but in the folklore of the Eastern Slavs, she is generally imagined as an hunchbacked old crone, usually large, and with a large nose, sometimes said to be of iron, as are her teeth sometimes.  She’s also occasionally described as an ogress because of her nasty habit of eating visitors, especially children, or those who fail her when she puts them to work (what she often does with visitors).

 

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911
Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911

“Vasilisa” like nearly every other tale featuring the character, describes the witch flying through the skies in mortar, which she steers with the pestle, an instrument sometimes also used as a club or magic wand. Like western witches, she is often depicted with a cat, but the Baba Yaga may also command a pack of dogs, flock of geese or swans, or even be served by pairs of disembodied hands.

“Baba Yaga” is not quite a proper noun, i.e., her “name,” at least not quite.  It’s a class or type of character, and certain stories feature multiple Baba Yagas.  For this reason too, she may be killed off in a particular story — and often is — only to reappear as presumably different witch in another.

Though she’s most often portrayed as malevolent and dangerous, some tales make her more ambivalent, or occasionally even helpful.  We have a look at the best known examples of this, “The Frog Tzarina” (a story offering a sort of reversal on the “Frog Prince” theme) .

"Baba Yaga" book, 1915
“Baba Yaga” book, 1915

Of the tales that feature the Baba Yaga in a more menacing role, one of the better known is called “Princess Marya” or “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” and it features the witch as a character somewhat peripheral to another important character of Russian folklore, Koschei.  He’s a sorcerer, usually represented as a crowned skeletal figure and known for hiding his soul in the form of a needle within an egg within a duck.  We also hear a bit of another tale featuring a malevolent Baba Yaga, “Little Bear’s-Son,” in which the witch lives in an underworld and battles the titlular character and a trio of giants.

Our quick look at a few examples of the Baba Yaga in music and films includes a piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite Pictures at an Exhibition called “The Baba yaga” or “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”  (Here is the Baba Yaga inspired clock design by Victor Hartmann that inspired the piece.) We hear a bit from that and a snippet of “Baba Yaga,” a 1965 garage-rock number by a Minnesota band called The Pagans.  Speaking of music, our show, opened with a clip from a 1997 track “Baba Yaga” by the Australian singer, Judy Small.  Also used in this  episode are two other traditional pieces of music, “Doina Oltului” (instrumental) and “Khorovod,” an example of ancient pagan round dance music of the Slavs.

Probably the greatest modern popularizer of the figure and huge influence upon how the Baba Yaga is imagined in Russia today is work of filmmaker, Alexander Rou featuring the actor Georgy Millyar.  Beginning in 1939, with a version of “The Frog Tsarina,” and running up to 1972, the year before he died, Rou made over a dozen film inspired by Russian fairy tales.The Baba Yaga appearing in many of these was always portrayed by the cross-dressed Millyar, whose comic performances are one of many reasons to seek out Rou’s films on YouTube.

Millyar as the Baba Yaga
Millyar as the Baba Yaga

While the first mention of the Baba Yaga in print only appears in a 1755 book called Russian Grammar, it’s presumed the figure comes from much older mythology. In fact, while the reference in question, though vague, includes her in a list of Slavic deities.  References to the witch’s control over horsemen representing the sun in “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” for instance, have suggested a possible origin in a solar deity. More likely, given her association with bones and her menacing nature, would  be a connection with Marena,  the Eastern Slavic goddess of death and winter.  The witch’s flights in her mortar, always accompanied by terrible winds, have also suggested connections to the aerial phantoms of what’s called The Wild Hunt in Europe.  Similarly her presence in the sky has suggested a connections with the Fiery Serpent, a figure of Eastern Slavic folklore, often represented by aerial phenomena such as lightning or meteors.  All ideas to chew on.  Nothing definitive, though the strongest association would seem to be with Marena.

We close the show with two tales from our own times, in which the Baba Yaga’s namesake or likeness is responsible for some dreadful deeds.

Elevated mortuary huts, a source of the witch's hut?
Elevated mortuary huts, an inspiration for the witch’s hut?

Bone and Sickle is happy to welcome Sarah Chavez as a new voice in the show this week.