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The vodyanoy

In Slavic mythology, the vodyanoy (plural vodyanoyovia) is a water spirit.


Etymology

From Russian: водяной, Ukrainian: водяний; also called vodník (plural vodníci).


Family

In Czech fairy tales Vodníci are good creatures in green tail-coat, whereas in Russian (and other East-Slavic) Vodyanoyovia have similar ways as the wassermann or nix of German fairy tales.


Description

The vodyanoy is said to appear as an old man with a bald head, large belly, round cheeks and green clothes either in green clothes or with his body covered in algae and muck. He wears a high, pointed hat made of reed. In his most appaling appearance, he has webbed paws instead of hands, a fish's tail, eyes that burn like red-hot coals. He usually rides along his river on a half-sunk log, making loud splashes. Consequently, he is often dubbed "grandfather" or "forefather" by the local people.


Place

In Russian tales the vodyanoy is a master shape-shifter who is said to live in a whirlpool, or in an underwater palace made from the treasures of sunken ships, the sunken ships themselves and crystals. In Czech tales vodníci live in rivers, pools and lakes, preferably close to a water-mill. Sometimes he can be seen sitting on the river bank combing his long, green hair and beard.


Powers

The vodyanoy can assume many different forms that enable him to deceive and trap his victims. He would appear in the shape of a handsome young man or a well-known person from the village. He is also said to hide during the day as a trout or an old salmon,


Behavior

  • The vodyanoy is essentially an evil and vindictive spirit whose passtime is to drown people. Anyone bathing after sunset, on a holy day, or without having first made the sign of the cross risks being sucked into the water by the vodyanoy.
  • In Russia, he would drag down people to his underwater dwelling to serve him as slaves whereas in Czech tales drowned victims die and vodník stores their souls in porcelain cups which they consider valuable.
  • The vodyanoy often marries drowned or disinherited girls, but he also has a liking for happily married women. Each time a woman is about to give birth to a child of his, he will go to the nearest village to request the services of a midwife, who will be handsomely rewarded in gold and silver.
  • Fishermen ask Wodjanoj for help by placing a pinch of tobacco in the water and saying "Here's your tobacco, Lord Wodjanoj, now give me a fish". Wodjanoj can be appeased by giving him the first fish or pouring butter into the water.
  • The vodníci also enjoys destroying mill-wheels, but when he is in a benign mood he guides the fish into the nets of the fishermen or warns against floods.


Art / Fiction

  • Vodyanoy is one of the best known characters of the Soviet cartoons. In the Soviet animated film "The Flying Ship", he performs a song about his loneliness and need to talk with someone.
  • David Wiltshire's novel Child of Vodyanoi (adapted into the TV series The Nightmare Man) used the water spirit as a metaphor for a miniature Russian submarine.
  • Composer Antonin Dvorak wrote a symphonic poem entitled "Vodnik" or The Water Goblin about this creature, who is also a character in his opera Rusalka.
  • In China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, the Vodyanoi are an aquatic people skilled in water magics. In Miéville's Perdido Street Station, striking Vodyanoi dockworkers use their water magic to blockade a shipping route.