Saint Petersburg: the Slavic Rusalki
The Rusalki were Slavic spirits of young women who met a violent end. In some versions of the myth, they were young brides who were murdered by violent partners. In others, they were young women of marriageable age, or young newly-weds who suicided or drowned.
Rusalki lore varies from place to place. In Poland, Rusalki are generally depicted as fair-haired and petite. In parts of Russia, Rusalki have giant, pendulous breasts. Hair colour varies, but one common feature is that their hair was long and unbound, regardless of other traits the local Rusalki may possess.
After death, a Rusalka would use their beauty, guile and singing to lure men to their deaths by drowning, tangling their limbs in her long hair. In some cases, a Rusalka may also tickle a man to death.
But Rusalki are not just “drowners”. While some Rusalki are bound to the water and must be at least partially submerged at all times, other Rusalki are far more adventurous. Depending on the locale, some Rusalki are said to be able to leave the water and dance on the riverbanks. Others are known for their proclivity to climb trees.
One commonality in the lore is that these out-of-river adventures are normally bound to certain seasonal cycles (e.g. summer or harvest). It is possible that Rusalki origins were more pagan-water-and-fertility-spirit than vengeful-undead in the centuries gone by. The fact that some Rusalki are able to exit the water to dance, or are bound to forests or even crops suggests they may have origins as nature spirits.
The action of drowning men is typical of medieval Christian European mermaid myth. In a time when many could not swim and entering the water was fraught with danger, humans naturally feared drowning. The water is also deep and murky; humans did not know the bottoms of lakes, rivers and the sea. It was a world apart. Who knows what monsters may call it home?
Saint Petersburg was a city that had fascinated me since my childhood. Being there was a dream come true. I visited the usual tourist sites - the Bronze Horseman, the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, the Saviour of the Spilled Blood Cathedral and the mausoleum that housed the recovered remains of Tsar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra and their children.
Saint Petersburg is also a city where I had a magical first date with my now husband in a sandwich shop, but that is another story!
As a port city on the Baltic, Saint Petersburg is criss-crossed with canals (totalling 300km’s of waterways) and traversed by 340 bridges. The bridges across the Neva open at night, to allow commercial ships to sail through. These canals are in many ways the life-blood of the city.
I had one personalised and peculiar experience in Saint Petersburg that changed the way I viewed the Rusalki. Concerned about the language barrier and having planned to visit Russia alone (not knowing I would meet my now-husband in Scandinavia and again in Russia), I had organised a private guide for the day. My guide was a matronly figure who was determined to show me as much of true Russia as possible. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, she was extremely proud of her faith and country. Bolstered by my curiosity in history, she tweaked my outfit (loaning me a shawl) and tied a headscarf around my hair. She told me, with an excited glint in her eye, I was about to see something incredible that wasn’t open to tourists. I was to pose as her niece. And that is how I entered the most glorious little church, full of ancient frescoes detailing the life of Jesus.
Rusalki are known for their luscious hair. It is long and full and tangled and always, always unbound. In fact, the majority of mermaid myth depicts them with long, unstyled hair. In many stories, they are even depicted as brushing their hair, drawing more attention to it as a source of power. Rusalki also use their hair to tangle and drown their victims.
Hair has long been associated with personal power. In the bible, Delilah cuts Samson’s hair precisely for this reason. The act of cutting his hair is a curtailing of his power. In many Slavic cultures, a woman’s hairstyle gives you information about her status. Unmarried women wear their hair in certain styles, that vary from region to region. And married women style their hair a different way, or cover it with a headscarf. This is because hair has been seen as a potent sexual symbol. A woman’s unbound locks are for her husband’s eyes alone.
Patriarchy has long found ways to differentiate women by class and status. In medieval Europe, upper class and good Christian women were forbidden from wearing makeup. Prostitutes meanwhile were encouraged or even forced to wear makeup by law. This was so men would know which women were essentially available to fulfil their needs.
The simple act of covering my hair to enter the church transformed me, in the eyes of the local people, from a foreigner to a local.
When hair is a sign of your position in society, what does long, unbound hair mean? In many cultures, it has literally been a sign of a woman who belongs to no man. Unfortunately, Patriarchy means that women who belong to no man are often seen as belonging to all men and long loose hair has been inextricably linked with sexuality.
As women with unbound hair, Rusalki are women who belong to no man. These women are viewed as dangerous. They are also women “in-between”. Many are described as young brides who met a violent end, be it murder, suicide or accidental drowning. Murder by intimate partners is something that has long been a part of society. A woman is most in danger in her own home and most at-risk from her own partner. Suicide is often viewed as the last refuge of the desperate – an escape for those who can no longer cope with the circumstances of their life. As young brides (or brides-to-be), Rusalki are liminal. They are between belonging to their father and belonging to their husband. Their long, lush, unbound hair is a symbol of this freedom. By ending their life they maintain this fleeting freedom.
The Rusalki in many ways represent our own search for justice against those who do us ill as women, and freedom from a society that often treats us as possessions. Rusalki were mistreated, but were not powerless. They were dangerous, but not inherently evil. They were liminal, between status and between worlds. And most importantly, they were free.
I see Rusalki as symbols of freedom from oppression. They were victims of sexist, patriarchal attitudes and the violence that accompanies misogyny, like many of us still are in many ways. But they also represented what men feared most. Patriarchy’s greatest fear is a free woman. Women who are liberated from and no longer served the roles of dutiful daughters and obedient wives. Women who own their own sexuality.
From that day, I have worn my hair down, as my own reminder that like the Rusalki, I too am free.