Slavic Mermaids

Mermaids, or water maidens (Mavka, Navka, Loskotukha, Lokhmatka, Shutikha, Kupalka, Vodyanitsya, Leshachikha, Berehinya … and so on), are know in many cultures.  Creatures that live underwater, have an unusual appearance, have some connection with the other world, are known in history and mythology of almost all countries of the world.  And yet, for some reason, mermaids of one culture are very different from mermaids of another culture.  For example, in Europe there were beliefs that mermaids are maidens with fish tails.  In our own culture, traditions and mythology of the Slavs, mermaids are the spirits, the souls of the unrested dead, that is, those who died not by their death.  Unlike ordinary ghosts and spirits, our mermaids, although they are spirits, still have quite real features, are quite tangible and are quite difficult to distinguish from ordinary people.

The celebration of Slavic mermaids is Kupala Week and, in fact, the apogee of the celebration, its peak – Kupala (Summer solstice).  On this night, they are having fun and going to their own pools until next summer.  Judging by the studies of ancient beliefs and myths, in olden times water was represented as a gate to another world, to the underground kingdom.

As already mentioned, there are mermaids in many cultures around the world.  In different forms, with different names and titles.  In some myths they are deities, in other myths they are creatures and spirits.  Many researchers consider the first mention of the mermaids of the Babylonian deity Oannes, who changed his form and became a creature with the head and torso of a man and a tail instead of legs.  In Syria, ti is the deittess Atargat, who also has a fishtail and is the patroness of anglers.  In Central Asia – Vedyava (Mother of Water).  In Central Asia (also), it is Su-Kuz (half maiden, half fish).  In Ireland – Merrow.  In ancient Greece, people with fish tails of the female gender were called Sirens, and men were called Tritons.  Mermaids are still called sirens in many European countries – France, Italy, Spain, etc.  Also tailed creatures in Greece were called Nereids, but similar to our mermaids living in rivers and lakes, they were called Nymphs.  We can say that it is precisely the Greek Nymphs that are closest to our mermaids-Beregini.  German Ondine also has no tail.  In the South Slavic mythology, mermaids were called Vily.  Vily are the inhabitants of the waters, own springs, rivers, lakes, ponds and wells.  It was believed that it was the Vily that shut off the water for the winter with a layer of ice.

In the Slavic antiquity mermaids were called Mavki (singular – Mavka).  in ancient times, the spirits of the dead children were also called Mavki.  They were either portrayed by beauties with algae-green hair, or by ugly old women.  And ugly old woman, often shaggy, with sagging breasts, a big belly, a hump on her back, a terrible face and habits, seems to have come from a more ancient belief of Vodyaniha or Water Demon.  It is possible that in ancient times there was a place in the reservoirs for all Vodyanoy (male water spirit), Vodyanikha (female water spirit) and mermaids themselves, but later these concepts were mixed.  Mavki also appear to be the companions of Vodyanoy – the ruler of the waters.

Most often, the mermaid is portrayed as a beautiful, simple-haired girl who walks either without clothes or in a shirt without a belt.  When meeting with such spirits, one should throw clothes or a scarf to them to avoid misfortunes.

The ancient Slavs also believed in mermaid children.  Surprisingly, but the spirits, it turns out, can also have children.  Most often, mermaid children are the children of the mermaids themselves, who were born after the mermaids were “connected” with their husbands from the underwater world or with their husbands from the human world, or with Vodyanoy himself, the ruler of the backwater.  However, sometimes mermaid children were presented as spirits of drowned children.

There are amazing legends of the ancient Slavs and the ability of mermaids.  They are credited with truly fantastic abilities.  And so, mermaids can turn into a bundle of hay, a red cow, a horse, a calf, a dog, a mouse, a bird, a hare, etc.  However, these transformations often refer to one or another mythical tale, where a mermaid turns into a particular animal or thing for some need.  In classical folk beliefs, the mermaid remains herself.

Another surprising fact is that in many cultures – and in those where mermaids appear to be wondrous creatures with fish tails, and in those where mermaids represent spirits and come from a  different world – mermaids tend to comb their hair.  What is the reason for such a belief of different peoples is not known for certain.  But in fairy tales and myths of the whole world, mermaids are seen precisely doing this deed – sitting by the backwater, on a stone or a tree, and invariably combing their hair.  Many researchers consider combing long hair with a comb to be an ancient witchcraft rite, which was used by ordinary people.  Most likely, the ritual of combing long hair with a special comb was timed to a magical effect on the weather – causing rain.

During Kupala Week, people often left offerings to Mavki, so that they would not be angry with people and would avoid them with their amusements.  These offerings are usually shreds of clothes, clothes for mermaid kids, threads, balls of yarn (mermaid were believed to be lovers of sewing, embroidering and spinning, and often they steal yarn, threads from women, who leave them outside).  Some researchers believe that the Kupala Week was originally a commemoration not of water maidens, but of people who died not by their death.  The spirits of such people were considered restless and dangerous, so on these celebrations people wanted to appease them.  Then, those who died unnatural deaths became mermaids.  Moreover, it should also be said that mermaids, who were mostly maidens, are of particular danger to young men and men in particular, as they can drag them to the bottom of their water dwelling and make them their husbands.  Escape from them came in many different ways.  Besides the fact that certain protective spells were pronounced, mermaids could be repelled with garlic and wormwood.  Wormwood is still used in Kupala ceremonies today.  Wormwood is hung on the exterior and interior of the home, worn all week upon the body, and also thrown into Kupala fires.  The bad spirits cannot stand the smell of wormwood and go home, without causing people any harm.  It is also considered a good remedy against mermaids is to look away from them.  Should mermaids begin to harass you, you need to look not at them, but at the ground.  In order to discourage the attacking Mavki, you can prick one of them with a needle or a pin.  In this case, all the mermaids will immediately run away.

In addition to the fact that the mermaids were represented by people who died of unnatural death, they adopted even greater features from the ancient deities and spirits, who were called Beregini.  Beregini are closely related to the cult of water.  There are two opinions about how Beregini are.  Some believe that “Bereginya” comes from the word “protect” and these creatures protected people, forests, animals and so on.  Others believe that “Bereginya” comes from the word “coast” and these mythical creatures lived along the banks of rivers.  Although it is quite possible, and this is also not rejected by anyone, that both of these beliefs are correct and have occurred in antiquity.  Specifically Beregini were previously a predecessor of the mermaids.  This does not mean that some were forgotten, and others were glorified.  Just appeared a new word “mermaid”, which came into use, in conversational speech and slowly replaced Bereginya.  It is believed that the word “mermaid” itself appeared in the Slavic culture and language relatively recently.  The first literary mention refers to the XVIII century.  Before the water maidens were called by other names – Mavka, Loskotukha, Vodyanitsa, Bereginya and others.

Mermaids-Mavki are credited with a real sense of humor.  They love to walk, laugh, create various intrigues, joke.  For example, for the sake of fun, mermaids can tangle the wings of the sleeping upon the water geese, so that when they wake up, they cannot spread their wings and, accordingly, take off.  Mermaids are great hunters of entertainment.  Folk fantasy represents them dancing around a fire, playing various games, circling in round dances on land or directly in the water.  They love to sing and constantly laugh, whether at their jokes, or at human nonsense.  It is believed – where mermaids are dancing, playing or having fun, there the grass grows thicker and juicier.  In all sorts of ways, people tried to invite the mermaids into their fields, so that Vodyanitsy would make their crops abundant.  After all, mermaids are also considered the patronesses of fertility!  Tickling is considered the most formidable joke of mermaids.  Having caught a man in the forest, field, or near water, they can tickle him to death.  After that, a person can be dragged to the bottom, or left in place … to be danced around.  There is a belief that the body of such a person will not decompose until the moment, when it is found by other people.

Mermaids are also called liho-splashers (liho is “disaster” in Slavic); from the fact that they constantly splash in the water, they dance to disaster.  A special place in the beliefs in the mermaids is assigned to their songs.  In Kursk Governorate, it was even believed that all the songs and melodies that people have were overheard in antiquity and taken from the water maidens.

Mermaids are the poetically sung spirits of rivers, lakes and reservoirs.  They are beautiful, gorgeous, cheerful, perky and playful.  They are associated with many beliefs, myths, amazing stories and tales.  Celebrations were dedicated to mermaids.  They were feared, but in their own way loved and appreciated.

If you happen to see a mermaid in the forest, in the field, or near a body of water.  Direct your sight away from her and keep on walking … do not tempt fate or try your luck.


Translated by:  Dmitriy Kushnir

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