Friday, 3 October 2014

The Rusalka

Rusalka, by I. Bilibin
Even though the tentative weird fantasy setting described within this blog is supposedly "Central European"-flavoured, I will sometimes touch upon more Balkanic or Eastern European subjects. I particularly like Eastern European folklore; it is similar enough to the more familiar Western European folklore, yet it does retain some exotic aspects. I particularly like the Eastern European depiction of the fey people: the various rusalki, domovyie, vodyanyie, etc.

So let's enquire into the rusalka (plural: rusalki) today. The Wikipedia describes her as “a water nymph, a female spirit in Slavic mythology. She is the equivalent of a mermaid: a legendary aquatic creature with the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish. According to most traditions, rusalki were fish-women, who lived at the bottom of rivers. In the middle of the night, they would walk out to the bank and dance in meadows. If they saw handsome men, they would fascinate them with songs and dancing, mesmerise them, then lead them away to the river floor to their death”.

Also: “Rusalki were linked with fertility and weren't considered evil before the nineteenth century. They came out of the water in the spring to transfer life-giving moisture to the fields”.

Well, causing young men to drown isn't particularly 'good' behaviour, but one may think that this was unintentional on the rusalki's side, and that they were overall 'neutral', much like druids are, because they are linked to Nature. Also, as life-giving fertility nymphs, rusalki are definitely the clear opposite of undead. So how come they are listed amongst the undead in many frp games?

I suspect the fault lies with the very first description of the rusalka as a D&D monster by Roger E Moore in issue No.34 of White Dwarf:

"Undead spirits"... OK, the Wikipedia states that “in nineteenth century versions, the rusalka is an unquiet being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit and dangerous”.

"Chaotic evil", OK, we've already seen that drowning people is evil... but why "female magic-users"??

"Who died by drowning"– now this is a complete permutation of the original creature: rusalki were supposed to drown people, not the other way round!

I may be mistaken but apparently there were no other rusalki in early *D&D products, except in issue No.290 of Dragon Magazine, which was a 'Slavic'-themed special issue. The rusalka was amongst the new monsters in that issue:
“Rusalkas [sic] are female spirits who dwell in the lakes, rivers, and streams of Russia. Their beguiling song is known to lure men to their watery graves”
“The rusalkas are believed to be the restless spirits of drowned maidens, tied to the place of their deaths”

They appear in Pathfinder as “cruel and bitter fey”, who “are not undead”, which is quite close to their true Slavic folklore origin.

The various retro-clones seem to have ignored the rusalka, except for Swords & Wizardry, which has the following:
“Rusalka are undead maiden-witches that haunt the cold rivers and lakes in which they drowned. In appearance, rusalka first appear to be comely maidens, clad only in fog. Upon close inspection, however, they are cadaverous with dishevelled hair and eyes that shine with evil green fire.”

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