The Vodyanoy (Vodnik in some cases), or Water-sprite, like his kin spirit the Domovoy, is affectionately called ‘Dyedushka’, or Grandfather, by the peasants. mention Vodnik.
Vodyanoi and Vodnici generally inhabits the depths of rivers, lakes, or pools; but sometimes dwells in swamps, and is specially fond of taking up his quarters in a mill-stream, close to the wheel.
Vodyanoy physical description
Vodyanoy can transform himself in many ways, from a fish, usually a pike, to a wooden log or even a beautiful maiden. Sometimes, also, he is represented, like the western Merman, with a fish’s tail.
When in a village, a Vodnik assumes the form of a human being, though his true nature is revealed by the water which oozes from the left side of his coat, and the spot on which he sits instantly becomes wet.
The Vodyanoy showed himself to people as a naked old man, with a great paunch and a bloated face. Sometimes with a fat belly and puffy cheeks, a high cap of reeds on his head, and a belt of rushes round his waist.
His true form, however, was green-skinned, covered in weeds, slime, bumps, and hideous warts.
Although the vodianoi were immortal, they aged like humans and were rejuvenated according to the phases of the moon.
Powers of Vodyanoy and interaction with humans
The Vodyanik is the master of the waters; but although he is endowed with terrible strength and power so long as he is in the water, he is weak when on dry land.
All that happens in the waters is done by his will. When in good humor, he drives the fish into the fisherman’s net and guides sailors to safe places in stormy weather; but when his mood is irritable, he lures them to dangerous coasts and upsets their boats.
He tears the spikes out of the mill-wheels, diverts the water from its course, and floods the mill; and if the miller wishes to succeed, he should bury some living being in the foundations of his mill, such as a cow, a sheep, or even a man. There is also a widespread belief that the Vodyanik drowns those who bathe at midday or at midnight.
During the day he generally lies at the bottom of the deep pools, but at night he sits on the shore combing his hair, or he sports in the water, diving with a splash and coming up far away; sometimes, also, he fights with the wood-sprites, the noise of their combats being heard afar off.
When on land, Vodyanoy likes to visit markets, and his appearance foretells the price of corn; if he buys dear, there will be a bad harvest, if cheap, a good crop may be expected.
He likes to ride a sheatfish, or saddles a horse, bull, or cow, which he rides till it falls dead in the morasses. He is much given to drinking, and delights in carouses and card-playing.
Sacrifices to Vodyanoy
Early legends said that a vodianoi would claim a life in compensation every time a new water mill was built, for the vodianoi tended to favor the still waters of the millpond.
Thus, every mill is supposed to have a Vodyanoy attached to it, or several if it has more wheels than one. Consequently millers are generally obliged to be well-versed in the black art, for if they do not understand how to treat the water-spirits all will go ill with them.
Millers and peasants also crossed themselves before swimming or stepping into the water to bathe, just in case the vodianoi was angry and tried to drown them. However Vodniks were not omniscient and might easily be tricked.
Vodnik is also a patron of bee-keeping, and it is customary to enclose the first swarm of the year in a bag, and to throw it, weighted with a stone, into the nearest river, as an offering to him. He who does this will flourish as a bee-master, especially if he takes a honeycomb from a hive on St. Zosima’s day, and flings it at midnight into a mill-stream.
In his own realm he not only rules over all the fishes that swim, but he greatly influences the lot of fishers and mariners. Sometimes he brings them good luck; sometimes he lures them to destruction.
Sometimes he gets caught in fishermen nets, but he immediately tears them asunder, and all the fish that had been enclosed in them swim out after him.
During the winter the Vodyanoy sleeps, but with the early spring he awakes, wrathful and hungry, and manifests his anger by various spiteful actions.
In order to propitiate him [earning his favor and good will] the peasants in some places buy a horse, which they feed well for three days ; then they tie its legs together, smear its head with honey, adorn its mane with red ribbons, attach two millstones to its neck, and at midnight fling it into an ice-hole, or, if the frost has broken up, into the middle of a river.
Three days long has the Vodyanoy awaited his present, manifesting his impatience by groanings and upheavings of water. After he has received his due he becomes quiet.
Fishermen propitiate him at the same season of the year by pouring oil on the water, begging him, as they do so, to be good to them; and millers once a year sacrifice a black pig to him.
A goose, also, is generally presented to him in the middle of September, as a return for his having watched over the farmer’s ducks and geese during the summer months.
In order to make dams durable and to prevent the Vodnik from destroying it, Ukranian used to bury a horse’s head in it.
Vodnik interactions with humans
A fisherman once found a dead body floating about in the water, so he took it into his boat. But to his horror the corpse suddenly came to life, uttered a wild laugh, and jumped overboard. That was one of the Vodyanoy’s pranks.
A sportsman once waded into a river after a wounded duck. The Vodyanoy got hold of him by the neck, and would have pulled him under if he had not cut himself loose with his axe. When he got home his neck was all over blue marks left by the Vodyanoy’s fingers.
Sometimes the Vodyanoy will jump on a horse and ride it to death; so, to keep him away while horses are fording a river, the peasants sign a cross on the water with a knife or a scythe.
One should not bathe, say the peasants, without a cross round one’s neck, or after sunset. Especially dangerous is it to bathe during the week in which falls the feast of the Prophet Ilya (Elijah, formerly Perun, the Thunderer), for then the Vodyanoy is on the look out for victims.
In Bohemia fishermen are afraid of assisting a drowning man, thinking the Vodyanoy will be offended and will drive away the fish from their nets ; and they say he often sits on the shore with a club in his hand, from which hang ribbons of various hues : with these he allures children, and those whom he gets hold of he drowns.
The souls of his victims the Vodyanoy keeps, making them his servants, but their bodies he allows to float to shore.
In the Ukraine there is a tradition that, when the sea is rough, such half-fishy “marine people” appear on the surface of the water and sing songs.
Family of vodyanoy
The Vodyanik is married and is the father of a family, being said to have one hundred and eleven beautiful daughters who torture and torment the drowned. The water-sprites have their subaqueous dwellings well-stocked with all sorts of cattle.
Some legends said that the vodianoi tended their own cattle on dry land and would creep out at night to pasture them on the peasants’ land. On these occasions he would be dressed as an ordinary peasant but was nonetheless instantly recognizable, for his clothes were always damp and he left a trail of wet footprints wherever he went.
Many a girl who has drowned herself has been turned into a Rusalka or some such being, and then has married a Vodyanoy. He also marries water-nymphs or girls who have been cursed by their fathers or mothers.
On the occasion of such a marriage, or indeed of any subaqueous wedding, the Vodnici indulge in drunkness, mad revels and pranks that the waters are wildly agitated, and often carry away bridges or mill-dams. That is how the peasants explain such accidents as arise when the snows melt and the streams wax violent.
Here is one of the stories about a mixed marriage beneath the waves:
“Once upon a time a girl was drowned, and she lived for many years after that with a water-sprite. But one find day she swam to the shore, and saw the red sun, and the green woods and fields, and heard the humming of insects and the distant sound of church-bells. Then a longing after her old life on earth came over her, and she could not resist the temptation.
So she came out from the water, and went to her native village. But there neither her relatives nor her friends recognized her. Sadly did she return in the evening to the water-side, and passed once more into the power of the water-sprite.
Two days later her mutilated corpse floated on to the sands, while the river roared and was wildly agitated. The remorseful water-sprite was lamenting his irrevocable loss.”
When a Vodnik’s wife is about to bear a child he assumes the appearance of an ordinary mortal, and fetches a midwife from some neighboring village to attend her. Afterwards, he richly rewards the midwife with gold and silver.
Sometimes his babies would stray from home and be caught in fishermen’s nets. If the fishermen gently returned them to the water, Vodyanoy would reward them with a good catch; but if they did not, he would vent his anger on them, tearing their nets and capsizing their boats.
On one occasion for instance, capturers returned a Vodnik’s baby to its father on his promising to drive plenty of fish into their nets in future—a promise which conscientiously fulfilled.
Vodni Panny – Female Slavic Water nymphs
The “Water-Nymphs” (Vodni Panny), often called “White Women” (Bile Pam) as well, are tall, sad, and pale, and are dressed in green, transparent robes. They live under the water in crystal palaces which may be approached by paths strewn with gold and silver gravel. They like to rock on trees and lure young lads by their wonderful singing.
In the evening they leave their hiding-places and betake themselves to villages to join the dancing and other amusements of the village folk. A water-nymph who has been captured will help people wash their linen and tidy their rooms; but she will disappear if presented with a new robe.
Dixon-Kennedy, Mike – Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend
Machal, Jan – The Mythology of all races, Volume III, Slavic Section
Monaghan, Patricia – Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines
Ralston, William Ralston Shedden – The songs of the Russian people, as illustrative of Slavonic mythology and Russian social life