It’s pleasant to imagine walking through the woods and meeting a gorgeous maiden sitting by the riverside with a wreath in her hair, smiling radiantly as the sunlight shimmers on her face.
There’s just one problem. That beautiful girl in the woods could actually be a Rusałka, and you don’t want to mess with that piece of work.
In Polish and Slavic mythology, a Rusałka is the ghost of an unmarried girl who happened to drown by the river, and now she’s out for blood. Man blood.
Rusałki are typically described as girls with long light-brown, red, or green hair, wearing white dresses with flowers on them. Although extremely pale, they are very beautiful, and supposedly no man can resist falling in love with one.
During their free time, Rusałki like singing and dancing in the forests of eastern Europe. They especially love swinging on branches in groups. If a man happens to be walking through the woods and notices one, it’s his unlucky day.
He’ll immediately become infatuated with the undead temptress and follow her into the water. Once submerged, the Rusałka will entangle the poor schmuck with her long hair and pull him to the bottom where he’ll drown. If he somehow manages to survive this, she’ll resort to her deadliest weapon—tickling. Yes, according to legend the man will be tickled to death.
As for women, Rusałki really don’t like them, probably out of jealousy. In olden days, Polish peasant women would hang scarves and linen in the forest to appease the Rusałki and keep them from stealing their man. I guess no woman can resist clothes, not even dead ones.
Early June is the time of year during which Rusałki are supposedly most dangerous, especially during a time known as “Rusałka Week,” aka Trinity Week. At this time they are believed to leave the woods and cause crop damage, illness and death across the countryside. For protection, peasants used the sign of the cross, incense, garlic or wormwood.
Some regions of eastern Europe once believed in Rusałka babies, who were the souls of unbaptized or stillborn children. Far from harmless, these crawling bundles of death could attack anyone who approached them. It’s unclear how they attacked people, but that just makes it all the more creepy because you have to use your imagination.
The belief in Rusałki goes back to pagan times. In fact, the idea of deadly, supernatural temptresses can be traced to the ancient world. The Greeks believed in the Sirens, women whose beautiful singing would drive sailors mad and cause them to crash their ships. In a way, the Rusałki embody the male fear of the femme fatale, the “man-eater” or the crazy ex-girlfriend. It really is an age-old idea that spans across all cultures.
Today, no one seriously believes in Rusałki. Centuries of Christianity in Poland have largely uprooted that pagan idea. So you can probably rest assured that if you go walking in the Polish woods, you won’t run into an undead woman. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t living women out there who act like Rusałki. For them you need to watch out.