The Wee Folk: The Ondine, Lamiak & Rusalki

The Wee Folk: Strictly Fantasy, Or Was There A Basis In Fact? (Part 8: The Ondine, Lamiak & Rusalki – Wish-Fulfillment Fantasy?)

OK, the Ondine, the Lamiak, the Wild Women: Were these female characters projections of male wish-fulfillment fantasy, with no basis in fact? It’s a fair point, and fantasy/wish-fulfillment characteristics were grafted onto them, as they invariably are to any fairy/folk tale character.

But created from whole cloth? Doubtful. The Ondine, once they marry and bear a child (and thus “get a soul”) retain no more enchantment: They become like any other mortal, including a propensity to age, for their beauty to fade and to ultimately die a mortal death. Some fantasy. No man stayed with a Wild Woman long enough to know whether they age, fade, die or what, but their excessive piety and rigid sense of “morality” would send most men running for the hills. If these are merely a wish-fulfillment fantasy then they’re ones with very ironic twists.

LamiakThe Lamiak did seem to be hard working and of sweet temperament – but then again, there were those duck-like feet – and it’s possible that they age in a rather unsetting way. Bretons also tell of duck-footed women – ones they call Canard Noz or ducks of the night: Hideous old crones who wash shrouds of those about to die, or bloody clothes of men about to be killed. They predict who is about to die; to see them is an omen of death. See (above) Les Lavendieres de la Nuit (1861) by Jean-Eduard D’argent.

So were the Lamiak/Canard Noz characters of fantasy/magic realism from whole cloth?

Again, it seems rather dubious as a male fantasy. Again, they seem more likely to be mixed-blood descendants of Wee Folk and fugitives from the mainstream population, possibly with a condition not dissimilar to Split hand/split foot malformation (SHFM).

The featured illustration is Rusalka, a 1934 woodcut by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin. Rusalki are a curious, fascinating lot. Clearly dark versions of the Ondine, they resided in trees, near bodies of water. They had pale, translucent skin, eerily large eyes – eyes with no pupils – and long, long hair that was straight, pale blonde, white, or silver – and perpetually wet. Indeed (not unlike the the Redcaps), if their hair ever dried, they withered and “died.” But they possessed an enchanted comb that they used to keep their hair wet.

In a way, they were neither dead nor alive, spirits of young women who’d drowned, committed suicide or had been killed who’d taken temporary corporal forms until their deaths could be avenged. (in some versions they were strictly brides dying before their wedding day, in others any young woman who’d died such an untimely death)

Carl Jung insisted that the Rusalka was a dark manifestation of the part of the male unconscious known as the Anima. an inner female personality that Jung believed every male had (just as every female had an inner male personality called Animus). Again, there may be aspects of the dark anima that’ve been grafted onto the Rusalki, but they were not, per se, evil, and there are too many caveats with respect to their power and behavior. True, they were lustful and wild if one met them in the woods, and any male seeking to take advantage of this for his own ends was almost certain to find himself drowned, tickled to death or even killed by a Rusalka’s strange and frightening laughter – clearly male anxiety about female power. But Rusalki had no power to do any of this if a man kept a fern in his hair – even when he did not, a particular Rusalka could be merciful, particularly to a man she thought might either avenge her or – back to the Ondine – marry her. Apparently, marriage released the Rusalka from her intermediate state: She took on a permanent physical form and became mortal. Indeed, if she married a mortal man, the Rusalka became sweet and demure, though always a bit unstable beneath the surface. Only

Apparently, marriage released the Rusalka from her intermediate state: She took on a permanent physical form and became mortal.

Indeed, if she married a mortal man, the Rusalka became sweet and demure, though always a bit unstable beneath the surface. Only witches, or those under protection of a witch (a Cunning Woman who knew the ways of the “familiar spirits”?), were ever completely safe with a Rusalka.

Even if the man chose to avenge the Rusalka, in about half the stories, the avenged Russalka took on a mortal form and married her champion, rather than move on from both the temporal and spectral planes. So what are we to make of this? Most likely, that they weren’t any form of ghost or spirit at all, but neither were they fantasies from whole cloth.. They were mixed-blood Wee Folk descendants, rather like the Ondine, but more closely affiliated with “familiar spirits” – family is family, after all – and a bit wilder, more unstable and less acclimated to the rules of “civilization” than the Ondine.

But why was it always the female seeking to seduce the males from the outside world. Were there no analogous cases of mixed blood males seducing females from the outside world? Actually, there were. We’ll discuss them – and a few other manifestations – in the final part.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.