Serbian Mythology

Spellbound by the Week of Joy
Some say that myths are the “memory of the race”, beyond the opaque curtain preceding history. Description of great events older than time. Life story of the one that fell as a Human and woke up as mankind. For others, they are only made up stories, imaginations of an “omniscient storyteller”, “legends made by the people”. Whatever they are, the richness of myths and fairy-tales is a certain indicator of the richness and depth of a culture. Serbian culture does have a lot to show, which is to be seen in the upcoming mini-series we begin now

By: Milenko Bodirogić
Illustrations: Miloš Vujanović, MA

Rusalkas are red-haired beauties who had only seven days a year to show themselves. It was in spring, when the wheat blossoms, when nature flourishes like they do, in the week around the Holy Trinity holiday, from Tuesday to Tuesday. This was the most beautiful week in the year because of them and named after them – the Rusal week. For fifty-one weeks, in their water dwellings, in the depths of rivers and lakes, they dreamed about the seven days they would come out to the banks, meadows and glades and show themselves in full bloom; three hundred fifty-eight days a year they imagined taking deep breaths of spring air. Who could then blame them for being dissolute and wild in the Rusal week, untamable, for dancing and singing, for being covered only with their hair? Who could have the heart to blame them?
Rusalkas were girls who drowned, unmarried, whose life was stopped in its full force and blossom, and their strength and life waited for the seven days to flow and flood everything around them.
In the Rusal week, they danced and sang, climbed trees, combed their long hair, made wreathes and kissed through them, seduced young men… It was a week of joy. They danced in the night, in the moonlight, because the moon is their sun, and anyone who saw the dance of the Rusalkas would start wildly laughing and his or her limbs would cramp and twist in an uncontrollable dance.
In places Rusalkas passed through, wheat would grow as if sprung by heavenly dew. In order to make Rusalkas bring fertility to crops, people respected prohibitions and constrained from works which could insult them. Thus it was forbidden to go to the woods during the Rusal week, to sleep away from home, to bathe in rivers and lakes, women did not wash, weave or plant. If they planted something, it would grow crooked and stunted. Girls used to weave the bitter plant absinth in their hair to protect themselves from jealous Rusalkas, since Rusalkas were hungry for love and had only their seven days for it, while the girls had their whole lives ahead of them.
Good Pavle Obrni told the breathless audience of children a story about the love of a Rusalka. The story was told to him, into his left ear, by the mysterious whisperer.
– The Rusalka – said Pavle – was Rusla, which in our ancient language means the river, the deepest part of the river.
Like all his other stories, this one too was related to the Danube, but down, down, downstream, in the Negotin Krajina.


It was springtime, the Tuesday before the Holy Trinity, and the Rusalkas came out of the water. Nine of them appeared; beautiful, white, with skin untouched by the sun, covered only with their long red hair. The youngest among them, Rusla, did not wish to dance and sing with the others. She wanted to walk through the meadows, to feel the grass, to go into the woods and breathe, breathe. She drowned three months ago and this was her first appearance on earth. She still remembered all the colors, scents, bird songs, and wanted to see, feel and hear all this again. She walked barefoot and felt the grass that bent and caressed her; she touched the tree bark, the leaves, breathed deeply and, like a young she-wolf, absorbed scents. They, the scents, led her deeper and deeper into the forest, until one scent singled out, unknown to her, but somehow close, irresistible and dear. She walked after it, convinced that this scent is the key of her new nature. She could almost see it. It resembled a bluish, swinging haze, which swarmed among the trees. The scent was getting stronger, sweet and a bit tired, resembling fading grasses. Then she saw a young man sleeping on a pillow made of a bunch of herbs. The young man was somehow strange, husky, with a big head and ruffled untamable hair, with strong arms and legs and with a chest wide enough for two men. Rusla watched him sleep on a pillow of withering herbs, and felt a bit sorry for him.
What a beginning of the first day. The young men went deep into the forest, fell asleep on the ground, broke two bans and she will have to punish him. I will distort his lips, she thought. It will not be nice, but it’s certainly better than drowning him.
Then a shadow of a bird flew over the sleeping man’s face and, still asleep, he turned toward the Rusalka. “Oh, spirit of the waters”, sighed Rusla, “his lips are already distorted.” And indeed, the left end of the young man’s lips was much lower than the right. She watched that big sleeping head, framed with a mane and illuminated with a distorted smile; she watched the wide chest move with force and felt sadness once again. The thought of this strong body woven into the roots of willows made her sad.
Rusla touched his hair and the young man snapped out of his sleep.
– What is your name? – she asked.
– Vidoje!
– Do you know who I am?
– Rusalka. I was waiting for you, I called for you before I fell asleep.
– Good, Vidoje! I will call your name three times, and then you will feel the urge to go to the river...
Rusla stopped, looked into his eyes, somehow small and narrow, as if they didn’t let anything break through them, as if they reflected looks.
– … and you will drown! – she said.
– Good. Call me! I am ready. Call me, now!
Rusla smiled and thought there is always time for the inevitable.
– What do you mean you called me?
– Today everybody is picking absinthe for protection and I picked a handful of dittany, your herbs, to call upon you. I deliberately went into the forest, I deliberately fell asleep in it. You must drown me.
– What do you know about drowning? – asked Rusla bitterly.
– I have already tried twice. The water always throws me out. As if there is air for three men in this chest of mine. The water doesn’t accept me.
“Then the water spirit either doesn’t have power over him or doesn’t want him”, thought Rusla.
– Why did you want to drown?
– I am all alone. Anything I do, I do it wrong. I want good, it turns out evil. I am distorted. Nobody wants me. Would you like to hear more? – told Vidoje while squeezing dittany between his strong fingers.
The scent of squeezed dittany spread and intoxicated Rusla. She took Vidoje by his hair, firmly, bent her head a bit to the right, and kissed him. “Perhaps the first day is not too bad after all”, she thought.
And so, on the Tuesday before the Holy Trinity, began the love between Rusla and Vidoje, burst and lived, as you might have already assumed, until the following Tuesday. During that week, Vidoje became somehow beautiful, handsome and agile, and Rusla was smiling and joyful. The two of them lived only for the day, only for the moment of breath, as long as it takes to take a breath of air, without letting the close end cast a shadow over their happiness and joy of every moment spent together. However the shadow did not mind their permissions, it grew and became darker until it covered them completely, murky and opaque, on the Tuesday after Holy Trinity, when the Rusalkas, among them also Rusla, had to return into the water. Then it became more than love – it was accompanied with the impassable pain of the separated ones.
For Vidoje, the Negotin Krajina became desolate in the middle of spring. He spent his days on the water. He swam, dived as deep as he could, and he could indeed dive like no one else, however there was no trace of Rusla. He walked on the bank, skinny and ragged, and waited for a sign from her. But there was none. Only the Danube continued flowing, powerfully lazy and wide between its puddly banks.
Then winter came. The icy cold mountain wind blew from the Homolje mountains, taking turns with the kosava wind from the river. Vidoje was freezing and shivering like a frozen dog, but continued wandering on the banks, waiting for any kind of sign. And when he thought he was losing the last drops of his strength, the Danube decided to make his first year of love a bit bitterer – it froze. It became a vast white surface upon which the wind swirled and rolled the dry snow.
Vidoje began digging and drilling holes in the ice. It seemed to him that down there, in the depths of the cold water, Rusla will suffocate pressed by the thick ice. He dug, drilled and sawed like a wild man, as if next Rusla’s breath depends on each of the holes he made in the immense mass of ice. It was a battle lost from the beginning. While Vidoje was digging and opening the second hole on the frozen river, the frost and ice were already closing the first one. Then his fingers stopped obeying, they became numb and the saw fell out of his hand. He could clearly hear it falling onto the solid layer of ice and calming down with a dull sound, like a dizzy fish. Then he fell too, like a royal carp tired of wiggling outside of the water. The wind started playing with his hair and covering him with snow.
Some children found him an hour or two later. His face was already covered with a thin crust of ice and only a small hole around his mouth indicated that perhaps he was still alive. The children wrapped him into wolves’ skins, put him on a sledge and pulled him to the bank. They made a small fire, rubbed his face, hands, legs and chest, breathed into his face. Vidoje woke up from his sweet death, looked at them and said:
– She is calling me!
He somehow got up and started towards the Danube, staggering and tottering. Then he fell, but continued crawling to the river. The children followed him, terrified and silent. He got to the first hole in the ice, broke the crust of snow with his elbow and slipped into the water.
The children later said that, in the moment he dived under the icy surface, Vidoje didn’t look like a frozen human at the verge of death. He resembled a fish, a gigantic, strong carp, who, after painfully suffocating, returned to the water.
Many, many years later, pirate fishermen from the vicinity of Negotin told that their biggest fear is a hairy water spirit, with a big head and distorted lips.


Tenderness for the Exiled
Milenko Bodirogić, writer and publisher, moved the limits of literary research of Serbian mythological heritage. Along with detailed knowledge of the material, his language is cultivated and adjusted to all ages, especially enriched with the tone of legends, fairytales and restrained lyricism. He is accompanied by a team of excellent illustrators: Ivica Stevanović, Miloš Vujanović, Petar Meseldžija, Dragan Bibin, Vanja Todorić.
In his book Exiled Creatures. Serbian Mythology, published in Novi Sad in 2010 and awarded with the Politikin zabavnik Award, besides rusalkas, we also meet vodenjak (water spirits), šuman (forest spirits), šumska majka (forest mothers), suđenica (Fates), čuma (were-creatures bringing illness), talason (spirits dwelling in deserted houses), zmija čuvarkuća (snakes – house protectors), mora (spirits bringing nightmares), div (giants), patuljak (dwarfs), karakondžula (female nocturnal demons), psoglavi (doghead demon)... Some of them will be guests on our pages.


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