If you (like myself) never quite left the idea of monsters behind, then the various inhabitants of another culture’s myths, dreams and superstitions will always hold some degree of interest. The relegation of these varied and fanciful characters to the ‘back-burner’ of superstition belies our modern, Judeo-Christian influenced society, however. To a great many outside of this particular sphere, these entities were just as real as the wind and the rain – and to some they still are.
Even those who pride themselves on modernity may still find some element of a pre-Christian past creeping into their lives in the form of superstitious behaviour: knocking on wood or cursing the devil over their shoulders to ward off evil influence. ‘Better safe than sorry, right?
Possibly Russia’s most famous (mythical) bogey-person was/is Baba Yaga, the witch of the woods, whose exploits were given a cursory glance in a two part article starting here. She’s even famous enough to transcend her Russian boundaries and be known (to some degree) here in the West.
Aside from this legendary celebrity, others who have not yet matched the public profile of Ms Yaga still haunt the myths and dreams of Russian/Slavic peoples; their influence and reach remaining localised by comparison.
Curiously, there was a direct reference to another fantastical Russian being, dropped right into the heart of mainstream British TV during May of 1981. David Wiltshire’s novel Child of Vodyanoi was dramatised by the BBC and broadcast as The Nightmare Man, with the eponymous Vodyanoi revealed to be a Russian special-ops craft from which the “child” – a psychopathic military specialist – emerged.
The “real” (?) Vodyanoi were the kings of their underwater world, served by mer-people and prone to take foolhardy humans into eternal post-mortem servitude, should they disrespect the ‘rules’ of Russian lakes and waterways, and by extension: the Vodyanoi themselves. These rules outlawed swimming, collecting water or other such aquatic interactions during night-time (when ‘they’ are on the prowl) or on major drunken holidays, and forbade the showboating of your swimming prowess at all times.
It’s not hard to see a connection between such misdemeanours against the Vodyanoi and situations where a person may put themselves in real mortal danger on the water, thereby providing a neat explanation for the accidental deaths that did occur. They were obviously drowned by one of these aquatic monster-kings.
The belief in these beings was so strong, particularly in the White Sea area of North Russia, that it influenced the funeral beliefs of the region. Those bodies of those ‘claimed’ by such creatures were not interred in the cemeteries of Russian Orthodoxy lest it antagonise the entities further, causing them to retaliate with hail storms, drought or the destruction of dams and watermills. Certain rural practitioners would therefore make offerings to the Vodyanoi by way of appeasement.
Physically they were said to be finned and fish-tailed with blue-black scales and green-tinged hair and beard. Their eyes burned like red hot coals and they had enough humanoid characteristics to resemble unkempt old men from the waist up, in spite of the aforementioned amphibious features: arms terminating in webbed paws and a liberal body-coating of algae and river-filth. A half-submerged log provides them with a convenient mode of transport allowing them to splash around the copious Russian waterways during the dark hours, happy to pounce upon any errant humans who dared to break their rules.
More nightmares, next week.