05 August 2010

Introduction to the Amazon Legacy: Rusalki!

"Rusalka" by Konstantin Vasiliyev
I was planning on posting a series of short excerpts from one of my thesis papers, titled “Rusalki, Mother Earth, and Baba Yaga: The Amazon Legacy in Russian Myth and Society,” but then I realized that my papers were written assuming an audience with a basic understanding of Russian myth, and that most people can maybe list a few names like Zeus and Hera and Aphrodite, but don’t have the first clue about anything outside the Greek pantheon, let alone what rusalki are, or even the iniatatrix Baba Yaga. Slavic mythology, rich and varied as it may be, is simply not as well known, at least not outside of Eastern Europe. Thus, I’ve decided instead to give a brief background of each of these figures--the rusalki, Baba Yaga, and the Slavic version of Mother Moist Earth--and then, perhaps, we’ll jump into some thesis excerpts! For tonight, let’s talk about rusalki.

Rusalki are complicated figures of Russian mythology. They have been linked to the Greco-roman sirens, and in fact, one of the rusalki aliases is syriny. Like the Greek Sirens, they could sing and tempt men to join them in their watery graves; like the Celtic Selkies, they could take the shape of an animal (although usually a swan or other bird) by wearing its skin. Whether rusalki myth originated in Russia spontaneously or was influenced by contact with other cultures is uncertain, but as in so many cases, the truth likely lies somewhere in between. Russia spent a lot of its history isolated, but Greek merchants did infiltrate their borders at a mythologically impressionable time. Regardless, rusalki retain a flavor that is distinctly Russian. While modern pop culture represents rusalki more as mermaids (expect a rant on the Disneyfication of Russian mythology in the movie Kniga Masterov, or Book of Masters, sometime in the near future), in actual legend, rusalki were rarely depicted as having the parts of fish. Depending on where in Russia the stories were told, they could either be hideous and hairy witches; ancient hags with large, pendulous breasts; or young, beautiful, watery temptresses. Most often they were young and beautiful, but no matter what they looked like, they were always considered dangerous. They lived outside of society and society’s rules, often attached to specific groves and springs and streams as “spirits of place.” Their hair, sometimes green like seaweed and sometimes pale blonde like wheat, was always unbound, which in Russian lore symbolized liminality and transition. In their incarnation as young women, they were sometimes considered the spirits of drowned girls, victims of murder or suicide, and thus became tragic objects of sympathy. However, this theory of the origin of rusalki as drowned virgins did not spring up until after Russia’s adoption of Christianity. Prior to that, they were more of the maiden-aspect in the maid-mother-crone triad. That’s right--the Celts were not the only culture to see the Goddess in triple form! Divine Feminine in all Her stages has been a concept in Russia from the start, although like in many other parts of the world, Her influence has since faded.

As symbols of feminine power and independence, rusalki represented a threat to the patriarchal status quo and hearkened back to a time of pre-Orthodox pagan individualism. Even after the adoption of Christian limits, the continued insistence of the peasantry to maintain their traditions resulted in dual-faith: Christian in name, pagan in practice. Sometimes the pagan deities were masked as Saints, and often spirits like the rusalki, vodyanoi, domovoi, and others were demoted to demon-status, but pagan traditions and practices--even spellcasting--continued to thrive until well into the 18th century and in some places, even the 19th. One of the popular spring fertility holidays, appropriately named Rusalia, involved luring the rusalki into the fields. During the rites of Rusalia, the young maidens of the village would unbind their hair and dance into the forest, their very selves symbolic of the rusalki. They would leave offerings of ribbons and bits of cloth tied to trees near bodies of water, and then the mothers and grandmothers of the village would enter the forest after them, round up their daughters, and process back into the village fields, waving branches and boughs and singing the whole way. The procession of women was believed to lure the real rusalki into the fields, which their presence then made fertile.

Hopefully that paints a basic picture of rusalki, at least enough to render my later entries with excerpts from my papers understandable. Don’t worry, I won’t post anything in Russian :) I’ll translate! Or at a minimum, transliterate the names. Next time we’ll talk about the ever embracing Mother Moist Earth, or Mati Syra Zemlya.

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