Of all the mythical creatures which threaten to pull humans to a watery end should they stray too close to the shores of so much as a pond—and there are a great many of these creatures, make no mistake—few are quite so varied in their appearance and taste as the vodyanoy.
Slavic in origin and malevolent in nature, the vodyanoy can be found dwelling in lakes, rivers, and streams, or in his favored habitat: millponds. These water spirits are intrinsically linked to the element in which they live, able to stir up storms or shift the currents to suit their shifting moods. A happy vodyanoy might be inclined to chase fish into a fisherman’s net or lead sailors safely to shore, while a displeased vodyanoy is more likely to destroy dams and mill wheels or upset ships. As with many water spirits, however, a vodyanoy’s natural pastime seems to be drowning humans foolish enough to bathe in their waters.
Anyone found bathing after dark or at midday is fair game to the vodyanoy, who will drag humans into the water and put them to work as servants. While some do envision the vodyanoy living happily in the mire and muck at the bottom of a pond, others believe they live in fabulous underwater palaces, furnished in silver and gold and lit with a magical stone that glows like the sun. Of course, such lavish living quarters would require a staff – and who better than a vodyanoy’s unwitting victim?
In light of the vodyanoy’s more murderous tendencies, one might find they want to avoid him; spotting him, however, might prove tricky. A vodyanoy’s appearance is highly changeable, sometimes innocuous, or even enticing. There are reports of vodyany-ye with blue or pitch-black skin, red eyes, furry paws, sometimes with horns and a tail, or comically long noses; they might take the form of a giant fish, or of a mossy log that can fly over the surface of the water; they might even be a naked woman, combing out her wet hair on the riverbank. Yet most often, the vodyanoy is seen as a man, moss-covered and a bit slimy, with green hair and a beard that grows white with the waning of the moon.
Generally speaking, it’s probably safer to just avoid anything that looks out of place on the shores of a Russian body of water. Flying logs are a bit conspicuous.
A vodyanoy is dangerous but, like anything, he can be placated with the right offerings. These offerings do vary nearly as much as the appearance of the vodyanoy does, and may speak to each individual spirit having their own preferences – or it may simply have to do with whatever the people of the region had on hand. Bread, butter, salt, vodka, tobacco, honey and beeswax, fattened sows, and rams’ heads have been given in hopes of earning the vodyanoy’s favor. If one is feeling particularly ritzy—or desperate—they might even try an entire horse smeared with honey.
Millers, in particular, seem to go to great lengths to appease the spirits; the construction of a new mill might see a black rooster buried beneath the threshold, or some other living animal buried somewhere in the foundation. In some cases, millers have even been said to shove drunk passersby into their millponds for the vodyanoy, though this seems like an unsustainable sort of practice; someone would probably get suspicious of all the missing people sooner rather than later.
Though originally the vodyanoy appeared in Slavic folklore, featuring in Russian, Czech, Slovenian, and Polish tales, he is still employed today as a character of fascination. Vodyany-ye can be found depicted in many fantasy series, such as C. J. Cherryh’s series, The Russian Stories, and China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series. He can still be found in Slavic literature, as well, such as in Hastrman, a novel by Czech writer Miloš Urban.
Malevolent water spirits are given many faces throughout the world; even if the vodyanoy isn’t familiar to you, you may recognize his behavior – he certainly isn’t the only water-based creature out to doom unwary humans. The Greeks have told tales of sirens for centuries, who cause sailors to dash their ships to pieces in dangerous waters. The story of La Llorona, the weeping woman who is said to have drowned her own children in life and with whom encounters may sometimes prove fatal, is told throughout Latin America. In Scotland, the shape-shifting kelpie may appear to humans and drag them down beneath the waters of a loch, never to be seen again. All over the world, we have learned to be wary of water, and the dangers it may hold.
As much diversity is found in the myth of the vodyanoy, he stands as a testament to the very human tendency to personify natural forces. Water is an unpredictable and volatile element; we need it to survive, yet when treated without caution it can be the death of us. To give it a face may have helped rationalize the phenomena of storms and sudden changes in the tide, or soothed the ache of what might have otherwise felt like a senseless drowning.
Or, perhaps the vodyanoy really is there, after all. Maybe we just need a brave volunteer to swim down to the bottom of the millpond and check.