By Anne Coombes
Any young man who finds himself wandering home along a river in the dead of night should beware. If he hears wistful singing nearby, or catches a glimpse of an ethereal beauty dancing in the moonlight, he should run to his bed as fast as his feet will carry him. He may have seen a Rusalka – a beguiling siren whose sole purpose is to lure men to their watery deaths in her river. These ‘river mermaids’ are the ghosts of girls who have drowned themselves after being jilted by their lovers. Unsurprisingly, they try to avenge their misfortune on any young stud that might happen by, but can only find peace if their real tormentor is punished.
The Belarusians say that these lovelorn spirits have green hair and blazing emerald eyes, pale skin, a melodious laugh, a charming voice and an attractive figure. They usually appear naked and, predictably, are almost irresistible to the opposite sex. Once they have enticed a man into the water, they tickle him – so that he cannot swim – and he soon drowns. Of course, some would assert that vodka is far more likely to be responsible for men falling into rivers as they stagger homeward. However, the threat has been taken very seriously and Rusalka Week (held originally on the eve of May and then later in early June) has witnessed a series of rituals to banish the Rusalki. Memorial rites are performed for family members – soothing any unquiet spirits who might be lurking around the village. The Rusalki were thought to be at their most dangerous during this time; leaving their waterways to climb birch and willow trees where they would sit combing their hair. They would also join other Rusalki in circle dances and, of course, get up to mischief with menfolk. Swimming during this time was strictly forbidden for the locals.
All the girls in a village would go out into a field, headed by an ‘honorary Rusalka’ who is one of their own taking on the role of the legendary siren. She would be left alone there; symbolically “cast out” while the others returned to their homes. Additionally, the girls would go into the forest to choose a birch tree. The tree would be dressed in women’s clothes and used to represent all things female. They placed omelettes (eggs representing fertility) around it and twisted the tree’s twigs to form circular wreaths. Special songs (called Semickajas) were sung and the girls kissed each other through the wreaths, swearing friendship for life. This assertion of sisterhood would help them weather the travails of love (and the fickleness of their men) without resorting to suicide which of course would create more Rusalki. Men were strictly forbidden to touch this tree - which might be brought into the village as a reminder to the girls of their promises. Sometimes, it was thrown into the river to warn the Rusalki to leave their men alone.
These days, Rusalka stories tend only to be conjured up when Belarusian women want to teasingly remind their men of the consequences of unfaithful behaviour. Nevertheless, any man walking alone beside a river at night would do well to put speed in his step.