Death and the Rusalka

Antonin Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, based on Slavic folklore, was first performed in Prague on March 31, 1901, and went on to become one of the most successful Czech operas. The opera’s Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (“Song to the Moon”) is frequently performed in concert and has been recorded separately to this day.

Soprano Vlasta Urbanová in the opera Rusalka, By Vlasta Urbanová – Privátní archiv pí. Jarmily Rýznarové, CC BY 3.0

Although the rusalka folklore has been traced back to the eighth century, it was most likely part of the oral tradition for a long time before it was written down. The rusalki are lovely young women who live in bodies of water and enjoy seducing men. The concept of rusalki arose from a Slavic pagan tradition in which young women were regarded as fertility symbols. When they came ashore to dance in the spring moonlight, these nymphs did not interfere with human life too much, instead focusing on providing life-giving moisture to the fields and forests. The water spirits were revered because they were thought to help crops grow abundantly.

The rusalka is unique to East Slavic folklore, where she appears as the most ambivalent and multifaceted female figure – even more so than the powerful Baba Yaga. Long a source of fascination for Russian writers, artists, composers, and filmmakers, the rusalka is traditionally portrayed as the soul or spirit of a beautiful maiden who died an untimely, unnatural death, evolved into a “unclean force,” and poses a lethal supernatural threat – mostly to men.

“The Mermaids” by Ivan Kramskoi (1871)

Like many other cultures around the world, East Slavic folk culture divides death into two categories: “good” and “bad.” A society typically attempts to control the unpredictability of biological individual death by portraying death as part of a repetitive cyclical order via elaborate mortuary and funeral rituals. A “good” death is a pattern for life reproduction that “replicates a prototype to which all such deaths conform.” The “bad” death, on the other hand, deviates from the pattern and thus clearly demonstrates a lack of control, as well as the uncanny presence of arbitrariness, contingency, and/or volition that contradicts the society’s social order, procreation, regeneration, and moral code.

“Rusalki” by Andrey Shishkin (2015)

Those who died naturally, at the right time, and in peace with the world become common ancestors who live somewhere far away from this world and return to the world of the living only when they are ritually invited on the important holidays of the year, during the time of remembrance. Those who died unnaturally, on the other hand, are unable to enter the afterlife and are classified as the dangerous deceased, who are trapped in an eternal limbo of un-death and bother the living at times. What causes a person to become an unclean dead? Essentially, this category of the deceased is most commonly recruited from those who met unnatural, violent, or unexpected deaths (people drowned, lost in the forest, frozen to death, fallen into a swamp, assassinated by someone), those who committed suicide, regardless of the manner of death they chose, those who died during a liminal period of their lives, that is, unbaptized children or miscarried foetuses, and also young people deceased, for example. The primary issue with this group of deceased is a lack of a proper funeral. They were not worthy of a Christian funeral ceremony at the cemetery because their burial in consecrated ground would cause drought and famine.

Konstantin Makovsky. “Rusalki” ( 1879)

Rusalki are, for the most part, the same. They are widely believed to belong to the liminal realm of the unclean dead in East Slavic tradition. Their most distinguishing feature, however, is that they are the ideal feminine representation of the unclean dead. Although there are some inconsistencies, even in such a small area as Polesia, we can generally conclude that, in the vast majority of ethnographic data, rusalki are recruited primarily from deceased females, either children or adults. Thus, rusalki are most often the souls of maidens who died prematurely and often unnaturally, or of those who died in the liminal period between betrothal and marriage. Finally, there are some hints that any woman who did not marry, that is, did not fulfil her life role, had the potential to become Rusalka after her death.

The rusalki sleep during the day and only emerge at night, revealing the true realm of spirits, demons, and “unclear” forces. Legend has it that one can see them combing their hair or making flower garlands with their beauties mostly exposed as they usually go about naked or simply dressed in white gowns with no belt; their long hair (always unbraided and wild, like witches or soon-to-be brides – basically women who belonged to no man) is sometimes green due to the sea weeds to which she has been long exposed. Their pale skin may also be greenish.

“Water Depth” , Omut Kholst (1907)

Rusalki can be found in lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, swamps, and other bodies of water. They are frequently described as slim with large breasts. They have fair skin and long, loose hair that is blonde, light brown, or green. Their eyes are said to lack pupils and to be a blazing green colour if the rusalka is wicked. The women are always dressed in light, sheer robes that appear to be made of mist. Rusalki are symbols of universal beauty, and even the evil ones are revered and feared in Slavic society.

A rusalka’s motivations differ depending on where she lives, which may have roots in ancient pagan myths. Rusalki are charming and playful in places where plant life is abundant and crops grow well, such as Ukraine and areas around the Danube River. The rusalki, on the other hand, are wild and wicked in harsher climates. These malevolent spirits would emerge from the water in the middle of the night to ambush humans, particularly men, whom they would then drag back into the watery depths alive. And that is most likely the reason for their lethal nature: retaliation for wrongs done to them. In other stories, a rusalka may fall in love with a man from the living world, but the relationship always ends tragically. No good can come from such a love story, and there will be no happy ending for Rusalka’s damned soul, who will haunt the river forever with her sorrow and vengeful fury.

Slavic cultures celebrate Rusalki Week every year at the start of summer, around the first week of June. Swimming in any body of water is strictly prohibited during this time, as it will result in death. The rusalki are said to come ashore to play in the weeping willow and swing in the birch trees before gathering for circle dances in the moonlight. Any bystander who happens to witness one of these events is forced to dance with them until he dies. Towns and villages near bodies of water hold ceremonial burials at the end of the week to appease the rusalki and/or banish them back into the water. These traditions were kept alive until the 1930s, when they were suppressed by Soviet forces.

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