Rusalka - Fairies

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


These are Russian nature spirits associated with water, fields, and forests. They often appear in groups. Rusalka are exclusively female: they may be young and beautiful or old, fierce, and scary, but they are never feeble old ladies. When manifesting as crones, they are ancient hags of power.

There are fierce debates as to the true identity and origin of Rusalka and to some extent their appearance depends upon which version of events is believed. The Rusalka are shape-shifters and perhaps willing to conform to expectations.

“Rusalka” derives from the same roots as Rus and Russia, and so they are often classified as primal Russian ancestral or totemic spirits. Spirits of moisture, they officially bless the land once a year with fertility.

Another suggestion is that Rusalka are the transformed souls (ghosts) of young women who’ve drowned, either as a result of accidents (perhaps lured in by spirits including other Rusalka), suicide or murder: many legends suggest they were pushed in by their mothers, perhaps referring to ancient traditions of human sacrifice.

Christian-oriented explanations suggest that Rusalka are the souls of girls who’ve died unbaptized, with the added inference of “So, young lady, if you’re not baptized, you’re doomed to become a damned Rusalka too!”

Sometimes the Rusalka are described as beautiful, wild-haired, big-breasted women—which is quite apparent as when encountered they’re usually naked, although sometimes they wear white and twine poppies in their hair. Others describe them as resembling cadavers, pale and bloated like drowned corpses. They are also envisioned as incredibly beautiful mermaids.

Although they can be benevolent and were venerated for centuries, they can also be dangerous if they choose. Rusalka sometimes live in rye fields as attendants of the Corn Mother, Baba Yaga, and act as guardians of the rye. Like Baba Yaga, they are powerfully identified with birch trees and poppies.

In the Ukraine, Rusalka perch in birch trees like birds. In the spring, they move out to the branches where they sit, washing and combing their abundant hair and weaving linen garments, which they wash and hang from branches to dry. Another legend suggests that Rusalka live in beautiful underwater palaces during the winter but move to the trees when the weather heats up.

The Rusalka’s ritual act of ornamenting trees with fine handiwork serves as a role model for women who weave and embroider special cloths, which they drape on birch trees as offerings to the Rusalka and the trees. Rusalka expect veneration and offerings from women as their due. They ask passing girls for gifts. Girls decorate birches with ribbons and embroideries.

Sometimes the Rusalka get bored living quietly in the forest, at which time they allegedly seduce, and then kill men. Whether this is Christian defamation and completely untrue, or whether this refers to now-forgotten human sacrifice is now unknown.

Rusalka come down from the trees at night to circle-dance in the moonlight. Allegedly if caught in the act, they drown observers. Water is the Rusalka’s natural element and home but also their weapon. On the other hand, the Rusalka’s water also cures: Rusalka own secret wells in the forest with miraculous powers of healing. They can be petitioned for assistance.

See BOTANICALS: Birch, Opium Poppy; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Baba Yaga.