Rusalka songs

Rusalka songs. Folk songs connected with the folk rituals of the Rosalia feast. In time and theme they were related to the vesnianky-hahilky. Rusalka songs were sung mostly by girls during Whitsuntide, known as rusalka, zelenyi ‘green,’ or klechalnyi ‘green-branch’ week when the young unmarried people engaged in dances and games in the woods or by the rivers. In manuscripts of the 11 and 12th centuries they are described as ‘demons' songs.’ Despite church opposition some of the rusalka games survived into the 20th century. In the game of Topolia (Poplar) a girl decorated with floral wreaths was led through the village, to the accompaniment of songs with the refrain ‘Stand still, O poplar, do not grow. Do not give in to the wild wind.’ The ritual of zavyvannia berizky (wrapping the birch) was accompanied by songs about the birch tree. The ritual of kumannia (making friends) was also accompanied by special songs, such as ‘O, godmothers and doves, we are going to the woods, we are going to make friends.’ In the Pynsk region of Polisia, on the second day of the Rosalia the women and girls led a kusta, a girl wearing a rich wreath of birch, maple, and linden leaves, various flowers, and ears of wheat, from house to house, singing a cycle of rusalka songs. In Svarytsevychi, Rivne oblast this ritual was still being observed in the 1970s. The songs often mention the rusalky (water nymphs), who, according to folk beliefs, lost their power over human beings after the Rosalia. In Horodnia county, near the Desna River, girls, wearing wreaths of fragrant grasses, led the rusalky back to their lakes and rivers at the end of the week. In the Kharkiv region girls sang rusalka songs around a female scarecrow, which they finally tore apart and scattered over the fields. The rusalka songs are derived from ancient magical incantations that were supposed to secure a rich harvest or attract a lover to a girl. More recent songs often have a love plot in which an abandoned girl is transformed into a poplar, a young wife is poisoned by her mother-in-law, or a young bride commits suicide to escape from a repugnant husband. The tsarynni (from tsaryna ‘sown field’) songs are a separate group of rusalka songs, connected with farming, and are sung during a ritual procession through the fields. Various writers, such as Taras Shevchenko, Nikolai Gogol, Petro Hulak-Artemovsky, Mykola Lysenko, and Vasyl Symonenko, have drawn on rusalka songs in their works.

Dei, O.; Ryl’s’kyi, M. (eds). Ihry ta pisni: Vesniano-litnia poeziia trudovoho roku (Kyiv 1963)
Voropai, O. Zvychaï nashoho narodu, vol 2 (Munich 1966)
Dei, O. Narodnopisenni zhanry (Kyiv 1977; 2nd edn 1983)
Sokolova, V. Vesenne-letnie kalendarnye obriady russkikh, ukraintsev i belorusov XIX–nachala XX v. (Moscow 1979)

Mykola Mushynka

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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