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According to some fairy-tales, wild springs can give us the water of life. Yet according to other folk ...
2020-09-20 09:00:00

Walking for Water
The Source of Folk Legends

“Boginka w mulannach”, part of the “Rusałki” cycle, 1888, Jacek Malczewski, Jagiellonian University Museum in Kraków
Walking for Water
Walking for Water

Return to the source? By all means, as long as you proceed with extreme caution. An encounter with an utopiec – the ghost of a drowned man – or any other water demon, even the most alluring, is a far from pleasant experience. According to numerous folk legends, a source of spring water can lead you to the source of serious trouble…

Read in 8 minutes

I live in the city, but our house is next to the forest, and it so happens that our nearest local intake of Oligocene water is – untypically – in that forest. ‘Water intake’ is an official term – it sounds technical and makes one think of the subjugation of nature: ‘taking something in’ is like capturing or imprisoning it. It doesn’t reflect the ancient symbolic significance of the source, and indeed, the site to which we make our pilgrimage through the woods to fetch spring water is known as ‘the source’. It is a source in the symbolic sense, even if the professionals call it an artesian well, and can tell us how our water comes from in between layers of glauconite rock millions of years old, dating back to the Oligocene era. Say what you like, the soul has no concept of an artesian well, but it knows what a source is.

We all go there at any time of year – whether acquainted or not, we recognize each other by sight, with our cans or reusable bottles stuffed into backpacks or bags on wheels. The little source summons us, and we enjoy visiting it, whether it’s a bright summer night or a winter afternoon. Each of us heads towards it, following our own route, but always in the silence that our forest-host gently but firmly imposes on its guests. Mud or sand (or ever more rarely snow) muffles our footsteps. We walk noiselessly, like the spirits of the source.

Just like the god-fearing people who obtain their holy water from the springs at sanctuaries, we believe that the water from the forest will quench our thirst and bathe us, our plants and animals better than tap water, though there is no scientific proof of the miraculous properties of artesian water. However, the image of water flowing from deep underground stirs our memory of ancient beliefs – so we go on a walk for water, the secularized pilgrims of the post-religious era, with a different image at the back of our minds: that of a bearded man in a white robe who was the son of God, and who walked on water.

Science seems to approve of our cult. Water is life, say the scientists, and memory reminds us of the fairy-tale motif of living water, or the water of life. We can go without food for a long time, but without liquid we would die in a few days, depending how fast our tissues became dehydrated. The body of a new-born human being is more than 80% made up of water, and in adults it can be as much as 70%. It is becoming particularly valuable to us with the rise of global warming, when the water level is falling by the year, and we are witnessing the gradual transformation of our formerly green country into a prairie or even a desert. In these circumstances a local source in the middle of the forest advances to the rank of a miracle, if not salvation. But what lives in the source? What’s in there, summoning us to come and fetch the water?

Sons of the Titans

In ancient Greek mythology waters are alive – as individual beings deceptively similar to humans. But they have a divine nature, and their biographies are bizarre, often including elements of incest. For instance, apparently the Titan Oceanos and the Titaness Tethys jointly begat 3000 sons, collectively known as the Potamoi. 3000 is quite a few, but in Greek mythology plenty of unusual things occurred. These sons inherited some divine capital from their parents, and became river gods. The Greeks usually depicted them as a cross between a man and a bull or a snake, though there were some plainer images too, featuring the river god as the figure of a reclining man holding an amphora.

It’s not so easy to keep an eye on three thousand sons, so among the Potamoi there were some first-rate rascals, including the occasional flagrant delinquent, the sort of fellow who these days would end up like Harvey Weinstein. Take for instance Alpheus, the god of the river that bears his name, which has its source in the Taygetus massif in the Peloponnese and flows out into the Ionian Sea. First of all, this Alpheus fellow went in ardent pursuit of the goddess Artemis – the great huntress, who is also the patron of hot springs – and then he ran after her companion, the water nymph Arethusa. He chased her all the way across Greece, to Syracuse in Sicily, where Artemis changed Arethusa into a spring, but unfortunately failed to save her; perfidious Alpheus ‘united his waters with hers’, to use a colourful metaphor for procreation.

Arethusa’s spring can be seen in Syracuse to this day, at least according to legend. A murky, emerald-green pond surrounded by a plume of papyrus plants reveals its charms not far from the atmospheric Hotel des Étrangers, where the Polish poet and writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz used to stay (though in his view “the goddesses have left this place, Syracuse is dead”). The capacity to procreate turns out to have more than one form, and it should not always be understood in the literal sense, because here in Syracuse the ancient myth unexpectedly gave birth to some exotic siblings: Iwaszkiewicz’s ‘nocturnal’ sonnet, “Arethusa’s Spring”, and Karol Szymanowski’s beautiful concerto of the same title, opus 30, which murmurs like water. The two compositions are linked by a subtle thread, despite the difference in genre, just as the two authors were connected. It is wonderful to read and listen to them alternately.

Daughters of the gods

As for the Potamoi, those somewhat monstrous sons of Oceanos and Tethys, by contrast they begat a multitude of daughters. We don’t know exactly how many of them there were, but they must have run into the tens of thousands. They were the naiads, or land water nymphs – the spirits of waterfalls, brooks, streams, springs and lakes (and thus by molesting Arethusa, Alpheus was molesting his own niece). The naiads are not the only water nymphs in Greek mythology, of course – there are also the Hyades, who were seven sisters known as ‘the rainy ones’. They were the nursemaids to Dionysus and Zeus in their infancy, and they also moistened the earth with wetness, making it fertile. Whenever they appeared to one of the ancient Greeks, it meant the start of the rainy season. They were born of the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione, and were sisters to the Pleiades. The Hyades and the Pleiades were changed into stars – both groups are part of the constellation Taurus, neighbour to the striking constellation of Orion. They lie within arm’s reach – only 444 million light years away from us – and we can see them with the naked eye. Yet the Pleiades are an October constellation, so let us return to Earth – this time to our north-eastern regions.

The primordial element

Waters were alive among the ancient Slavs too – in fact they thought of water as the primordial, ur-element, from which life emerged. The creative, fertile power of water could have a masculine or a feminine nature: raindrops falling from the sky symbolized male fertility, and moisture trickling from the earth symbolized the female (in other words, our sources from the Oligocene era are feminine). The Slavs also associated water with the land of the dead. In ancient Slav beliefs a river is often the border between this world and the next, just as in Greek mythology it is the River Styx. The ancient Greek Lethe also has its Slavic equivalent, Zabyt Rieka – the River of Forgetting. The Slavs believed that the soul of a dead person crossed it 40 days after death, and as a result lost its memory of earthly existence, and underwent purification and relief from the hardships of life.

Drawing from the archives (no. 1112/1966)
Drawing from the archives (no. 1112/1966)

Water demons

In Slavic beliefs water can also be deeply demonic, the most powerful of all the elements. This sort of ambivalence is a hallmark of the sacrum – only the holiest of holies can feature such contradicting qualities. Veles, the Slavic god of the spirit world and the enemy of the god Perun, resided in swamps unfavourable to human life. Only flowing water had positive spiritual significance, while stagnant water brought death. On the other hand, all bodies of water were populated by demons that in Slavic mythology had a fiercer temperament than their cousins from other domains, and on top of that they were alarmingly mobile. There was a danger of encountering one of them at any source or body of water, but also – here’s the surprise – in the forest and fields.

The most important is topielec, the spirit of a drowned man (also known in Polish as utopiec); drowning was regarded as a death that was particularly charged with evil consequences because it involved the breaking of a taboo – water was seen as not just a sacred, but also a crucial element, and using it was protected by a series of prohibitions: for instance, it was forbidden to piss or spit into water, and also to bathe at night or before the first spring storm. Evidently, this taboo was always being broken, because whatever they may have lacked, the Slavs had plenty of victims of drowning. They were visualized in various ways: as slimy figures covered in silt and festooned in water plants; as innocent babes with superhuman strength that no one could have expected of them; as animals, or as people with bull’s horns. Yet sometimes these demons had no visible body, and their presence was proved irrefutably by someone else’s drowning.

As for their character, these demons were murderously patient – they could wait all day to assail a chosen victim in the dark. The night was their realm. That was why they flew into a rage as soon as someone uttered the words: ‘Dawn is breaking’, which meant that the drowned spirit must now return below the surface of the water – just as for a vampire the first ray of sunlight meant that it had to return to its coffin without delay. In their fury, the drowned spirits created dangerous whirlpools, or flooded cultivated fields, homes and farms, yet their major occupation was dragging people and domestic animals under water. These monsters were eager to inflict death. It was believed that anyone who felt an ‘innate’ attraction to water had been singled out at birth by a topielec, and sooner or later would fall victim to it.

The ladies’ section

The realm of Slavic water demons also had a ladies’ section. Gifted with above average beauty, the female spirits (in the singular, topielica) were recruited in particular from among women who had died in pregnancy. Their activity was as repetitive as working at a conveyor belt: they lured men into deep water and drowned them. Adam Mickiewicz tells one such story in his blood-curdling poem, Świtezianka (variously translated as The Nixie or The Water Nymph); its heroine is a nymph from the Belarusian lake Svitiaz, employed at the mythological ministry for combatting male infidelity, who resorts to a cruel stratagem to mete out justice to a faithless young man.

More interesting than the work of the topielica was the job done by the rusalka or boginka, the water nymphs who had once been girls who committed suicide by drowning. Just as beautiful, they were distinguished by their long, green hair and their original ways of inflicting death: they did not drown their victims, but brought about their end by making them dance like mad until they dropped, or else by relentlessly tickling them to death among fields of rye. They couldn’t stand boredom – it was known that if you fell into their grip, you could only wriggle your way out of it by means of intelligence and cunning. Because the rusalka loved riddles and always posed them to her victims: if you could solve the riddle set by one of these cerebrally sexual nymphs or pose one of your own that she couldn’t answer, you got away with your life. They were particularly on the prowl at Pentecost – they hung in the trees, tied to the branches by their plaits, and there they dangled, sniggering in such a ghastly way that human hearts would burst with terror.

Bad addresses

The Slavs believed that water demons could be appeased with animal victims, which unfortunately were drowned for this purpose – the ethnographer Zygmunt Gloger found evidence of rituals of this kind in the Augustów Lakeland, for instance. They also resorted to magic spells that were supposed to tame water demons, but the most frequent and effective method of self-defence was prevention, in other words avoiding evil places: deep water, river basins and backwaters that had an ominous aura. There are various bad addresses to be found in the works of Polish ethnographers, or you can learn about them from the locals – they are located in the above-mentioned Augustów Lakeland, but also at Lake Gopło in the Gnieźno Lakeland, in the old bed of the river Bug, and in Warmia’s Lake Święte (meaning ‘Sacred/Holy Lake’), near the tourist site of Kurka, where rituals in honour of water divinities were performed by the ancient Prussians. The utopiec also features plentifully in Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series of fantasy novels, but these ones are not particularly dangerous.

As for the water sprites from our forest, they seem to be benevolent, but just in case I always have a riddle for a rusalka up my sleeve.


Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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Renata Lis

is a writer and translator, whose works include “Lesbos” (a book about love and exile), and completely unique biographies of Flaubert and Bunin, for which she was nominated for awards (one of which she won). She can’t decide whether she’s a pine dreaming of being a palm, or the other way around, so she alternates her travels between Greece and Russia; she’s been as far as Kamchatka.