In Slavic mythology, a rusalka (plural: rusalki, or rusalky) is the spirit of a girl who has drowned or died violently before her time in or near one of Russia’s many rivers. During the cold Winter months, rusalki live deep in the water and even survive under the ice. When Summer sunshine warms the waters, the rusalki climb the branches of overhanging trees and go to spend a kind of Summer holiday in the forest spent dancing in the meadows by day and swinging on branches of birch and willow by moonlight.
While a rusalka’s dwelling place is the body of water in which she died, she is able to come out of the water, usually at night. It is then that she will climb a tree and sit there singing songs, sit on a dock and comb her hair, or join other rusalki in dancing circles within the field.
While some accounts report that rusalki eyes shine like green fire, others describe them with extremely pale and translucent skin, and no visible pupils. Their hair is either green or golden, and perpetually wet. Rusalki cannot live long on dry land, but with her comb she was always safe, for it gave her the power to conjure water whenever she required it. However, if ever she lost the comb and was unable to find a water source, her hair would dry out and her life come to an end.
There are two species of rusalki: northern and southern. Both are dangerous to humans who venture near the water, but the two species use very different methods of destroying them. The rusalki of the gloomy northern rivers, who look like the naked corpses of drowned women, snatch any innocent wayfarer and drag him down into the depths. There, they bully and torture him before putting him out of his misery. But the southern rusalki, who resemble beautiful girls clad in gossamer garments of water vapour, entice mortal children with baskets of fruit and mortal men to join them by singing with irresistible sweetness. The man who hears a rusalki’s song wades into the depths and drowns with a smile on his lips.
Both types of rusalki are extremely mischievous during their Summer holidays. They may ruin the harvest with torrential rain, tear up fishermen’s nets, damage such constructions as dams and watermills, and steal the garments which women are making for their families.
Anyone who ventures near Russian rivers should protect himself against rusalki by carrying a few leaves of wormwood (Artemisia Absinthium) in an amulet. Wormwood also protects any article which rusalki might steal, damage, or destroy. In cases of severe infestation, one should scatter a quantity of the leaves upon the surface of the river.
— Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were, by Michael Page.
[Artwork: Rusalka, by Katrina Sesum.]