Looming up out of the murky depths of Slavic mythology, the vodyanoy are water spirits that love nothing more than partaking in a game of cards, smoking a wooden pipe, and dragging innocent victims into their swamp. They are never seen too far away from their watery abodes, as they have no power on land but are virtually invincible in water. They usually float in rivers, streams, or ponds on a half-sunken log, making obnoxiously loud splashes as they go, and have a particular preference for rivers with strong currents and swamps.
Be forewarned, peeve these slippery little suckers off and they’ll break dams, destroy watermills, and drown people and animals. Historically, fishermen, millers, and even bee-keepers would make sacrifices in a desperate attempt to appease this watery OAP. Because nothing effects bee-keeping like the state of a nearby river, apparently. And, if drowning gets a little too cliché for them, the odd hipster vodyanoy will drag their victim down to their underwater realm and make slaves of them for all eternity.
Anyone bathing after sunset, at midday, at midnight, on a holy day, or without having made the sign of the cross before entering the vodyanoy’s territory immediately makes themselves a target for its wrath. Further solid proof that showering is better than taking a bath or, as we like to call it, stewing in one’s own filth. They have a preference for attacking inexperienced swimmers, but will also place alluring items such as ribbons and hand mirrors near the banks of water bodies to entice fishermen closer before launching at them like a soft, wrinkly crocodile. Fancy ribbons must have been worth a lot more in olden times, seeing as people were willing to risk their lives for them.
The Czech, Slovenian, and Slovak equivalent of the Russian vodyanoy, known as a vodník (plural vodníci, to get technical), rather comfortingly comes in both good and evil varieties. That being said, their main aim is to trap the souls of drowned people into porcelain lid-covered cups, so swings and roundabouts. They perceive these screaming ghosts cups as a form of currency, with the number of cups representing their status or wealth to other vodyanoy. Should the lid of the cup be removed, the soul will float away and escape in the form of a bubble, because apparently being a bubble is preferable to being trapped in a cup.
It seems Slavic women either have incredibly low standards or vodyanoy have a few romantic tricks up their sleeve, because they are commonly known to marry drowned or disinherited girls, although they will occasionally target happily married women. Every time a woman gives birth to a vodyanoy’s child, he will emerge from his swamp to request the services of a midwife, who will be handsomely rewarded in gold and silver. We imagine the extra costs incurred are thanks to the obvious need for a water-birth, and the fact that any midwife who’s willing to help deliver a slimy frog-child deserves a little bit extra.
They are believed to hibernate during winter which, we imagine, accounts for about 90% of the year in Russia. When they awaken, they crush the ice in the river and disperse it, occasionally stopping to take a breather and destroy the odd watermill. If they happens to be in a good mood, they may just guide fish into fishermen’s nets or warn them against floods, which is a totally reasonable way to make up for drowning their friends, neighbours, and relatives.
Aside from homicide, vodyanoy enjoy a dizzying variety of hobbies, including playing cards, smoking a pipe, riding catfish, destroying the nets of hardworking fishermen, and turning themselves into other animals to confuse people. You know, just your average Friday night. In some instances, fishermen would even place a pinch of tobacco on the surface of the water in the hopes that the resident vodyanoy would give them a fish in return. At night, they emerge from the water to let their sea cows and sheep graze on the surrounding land.
We’re betting that you’re all wondering what a sea-sheep might look like now.
Like that creepy old man who always stares at you from the window of the old folk’s home, the vodyanoy resembles a naked pensioner with a swampy beard, long green hair, and a face like a frog. His body is inevitably covered in algae and mud, since living in a swamp doesn’t afford the most hygienic of lifestyles, and he’s typically covered in black fish scales. He has large webbed paws instead of hands, a fish’s tail, and eyes that are said to burn like scorching hot coals.
In Czech, Slovenian, and Slovak accounts, the vodník looks markedly different and has far more human characteristics. They essentially just look like regular men, with the exception of the gills, webbed hands, and algae-coloured skin. So they’re pretty easy to differentiate from people; unless you’re in the Deep South that is. If the bright green hair wasn’t an obvious tell, they are also known to dress in a very strange manner, with a preference for patchy shirts, odd hats and coat-tails that are perpetually wet.
Vodyanoy are masters at shape-shifting, meaning they can take the appearance of a handsome young man, well-known and beloved local villager, or even an old salmon. He uses these guises to trick unsuspecting victims into drowning, becoming his slaves, or eating him. Okay, we’re not entirely sure on that last one, but what else could you accomplish as an old salmon?
Vodyanoy are believed to be a later incarnation of one of the many pagan demons associated with water. Right up until the 19th century, people in Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, and other Slavic countries still readily made sacrifices to the vodyanoy, demonstrating that this belief existed alongside Christianity for many centuries. In fact, the vodyanoy’s preference for those who bathed on holy days or did not make the sign of the cross before entering the water shows some incorporation of Christian belief into the vodyanoy myth.
Their association with water-bodies and penchant for destroying anything that might hinder water flow, such as dams, watermills, and hapless fishermen, makes him a sort of Poseidon figure; a protector of the rivers, streams, and ponds that populate the Slavic countryside. Although it is unsure precisely where vodyanoy came from, their status as a guardian of water is undeniable.
We’re sure you’ll agree that the vodyanoy, with his flaring gills, soul-filled cups, and inappropriate levels of nudity, is a pretty peculiar fella. So it comes as no surprise that references to this aquatic pensioner are equally as weird:
- In the 2013 thriller Croaker, directed by Fred Terling, Vodnik features as the main character.
- Bizarrely, Vodyanoy is one of the best known characters of the Soviet cartoons, which are clearly things we are all aware of. In the Soviet animation The Flying Ship (1979), he sings a song about how lonesome he is and how he longs to talk with someone.
- Composer Antonín Dvořák, perhaps most famous for his frequently abused and blatantly plagiarised Symphony No. 9, wrote a symphonic poem entitled Vodník about our slippery stud. He also features as a character in Dvořák’s opera Rusalka.
- In the superlative novel Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (go read it), the Vodyanoi are a race of fish people who are able to manipulate water. Most notably, a group of Vodyanoi dockworkers are shown to be on strike and create a water-dam to block shipping routes (why aren’t you reading it yet?).
- In the video game series The Witcher, which was in turn based on the book series by Andrzej Sapkowski of the same name, there is a race of water creatures known as vodyanoi or Fish People.
- Vodyanoi appear as enemies in the MMO game Final Fantasy XIV. Because what legendary creature hasn’t weaseled its way into Final Fantasy by now.