31 October 2007

Mermaids, Werewolves, Vampires, and Catholic Saints

Of those four, the mediaeval Russians thought one group were heroes and the other three were unholy abominations. Any guesses? Hint: the mediaeval Russians were Eastern Orthodox, not Catholic.

In honour of Hallowe'en, let's take a look at a few modern mythological monsters and how their counterparts were viewed by the mediaeval Russians. Because you know, once you get past the threat some of them pose to the survival and progress of humanity, religious beliefs can actually be really cool. I mean, people believe some crazy stuff for crazy reasons.

(Today's post draws from what I learned in "Russian 13: Vampires, Witches, & Firebirds," Dartmouth College, Fall 2006.)

Mermaids were hyper-erotic members of the undead

The Russian word for "mermaid" is rusalka (plural rusalki). Today, "rusalki" refers to the same sweet little fish-tailed good-natured water nymphs of the Hans Andersen variety that most of us think of when we think of mermaids. But such was not always the case. "Real" rusalki were members of the undead. One became a rusalka by dying a "bad death"--that is, one for which no death ritual could be performed, either because there was no body over which to perform the ritual (for example, victims of drowning) or protocols dictate that the rituals may not be granted to the deceased (for example, if the deceased was a suicide or a heretic).

Rusalki were almost exclusively female, lived in bodies of water (particularly lakes and rivers) but could wander out of water into the forest, generally looked like ordinary human beings (ie, no fish limbs, sorry Ariel), and usually wore nothing or next-to-nothing. They ran the gamut from gorgeous to hideous, but one universal theme prevailed in most accounts: rusalki had huge breasts. Pendulous breasts. We're talking boom-boom-what-knockers-thank-you-doctor breasts.

Although not particularly bad-natured, rusalki were highly dangerous due to their apparent naivete. Death by rusalka typically happened in one of two ways, both highly erotic. The first way was simply for a rusalka to lure a man into the water with promises of sexy sex, where he would drown (to the rusalka's disappointment... she liked sexy sex as much as her victim did). The second way was much more interesting; the rusalka (and sometimes a friend or two) would wander into the woods, find a sleeping man, and tickle him. Often with their breasts. Now, that sounds like a good time, but the rusalki just didn't know when to quit. They would tickle their victims to death. They get an "A" for effort, but seriously... Worst. Foreplay. Ever.

So to avoid death-by-mermaid, stay away from water, be chaste, and don't engage in any tickle fights with buxom undead.

Werewolves were the good guys

We typically think of werewolves as being cursed... but in mediaeval Russian folklore, lycanthropism was the mark of a hero. Such heroes could usually transform into animals at will; wolves were most popular, but bears ran a close second. Connections have been drawn between werewolves and both the ancient cthonic god Volos and the leshii ("forest master"). Among the more notable suspected werewolves of Russian folklore were King Vseslav and epic hero Volkh Vseslavevich. (More on all those guys in a later post.)

So there's no need to worry about wolfsbane or silver bullets or full moons or all that hooey. Werewolves were the good guys.

Vampires had OCD (and I would have been one!)

Vampires in Russian folklore were a lot like the vampires we think of now: members of the undead that rise at night and steal the blood/life essence from the living. Like the rusalki, vampires were the result of a "bad death." There was especially a connection between heretics and vampires. It is thought that this was largely a response to church persecution of heretics. The peasantry invented horrifying vampire myths to justify the church's otherwise irrational fear and hatred of heretics. So if I were to go back to mediaeval Russia, I would be hunted by the church and then pegged as a vampire. Yay!

The best sure-fire way to get rid of a vampire was to cut off the head and incinerate the body. But for corpses suspected of being vampires, other tricks would work as well; your prime directive was to keep the vampire from getting out of its grave. A stake through the heart won't destroy a vampire like you might think, but a stake through the heart and into the ground will keep him pinned in place, kinda like a macabre butterfly collection. If you don't have a long stake handy, breaking the kneecaps or cutting the leg tendons would work in a pinch. But my favorite method for keeping a vampire in bed is to pour a pile of grain, sand, or salt on the grave. The idea was, when the vampire woke up, he would see the pile of sand or whatever and would be compelled to count every single grain. Because apparently, Russian vampires all had OCD. By the time he was done counting, then, the sun would be rising and he would have to go right back into his grave. (I bet you never realized how true to life Sesame Street's Count von Count was!)


So here's the thing about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. They differ on how they treat undecayed flesh. For Catholics, if a body doesn't decay, that's an indication that the body is blessed by God and the deceased was probably a saint. For Eastern Orthodox, a corpse that doesn't decay goes against the natural order and must therefore be an unholy abomination (lack of decay is one warning sign that a corpse is actually a vampire).

So stay away from Catholic churches this All Hallow's Eve. But of course, you should stay away from Catholic churches all the time. ;-)

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