To the early Slavs, forests and swamps were omnipresent. Around farms and villages as well as on the mountains, the woods were inescapable. And in the shadows of those trees, spirits lurked.
Most spirits in Slavic mythology aren’t depicted in a positive light. Tales of demons in the shadows of the night spread all across the Slavic tribes and nations, and one of the most frightening tales told was that of Vodyanoy.
Vodyanoy is an evil male water spirit who looks like a naked old man with a frog-like face.
The word Vodyanoy comes from the Russian “водяно́й”, read [vədʲɪˈnoj] with the meaning “he from the water”.
Some of his other names include Wodnik, Vodenjak, Vodyanyk, Vodník or Hastrman.
The many faces of Vodyanoy
As mentioned above, Vodyanoy has the appearance of a naked old man with a frog-like face, green hair and beard. He has black/gray/green fish scales instead of skin and his body is covered in algae and muck. Instead of hands with fingers the river demon sported paws with membranes, their eyes were red as burning fire and their backside sprouted a tail which every fish would envy.
In Slovakia and the Czech Republic the Vodyanoy is called Vodník and Hastrman respectively, and his appearance changes from a frog-like creature to an anthropomorphic being. The features that make them different from humans are gills, membranes between their fingers and, most remarkably, green skin covered in algae. They were also sporting fashionable pale green hair, and could as such be considered true trendsetters, if one were to compare them to influencers nowadays.
Usually, Vodník would wear really odd clothing: patchy shirts, water-soaked coats or bizarre hats, ranging from boaters with long speckled ribbons to bright red top hats.
Vodyanoy could often be seen riding around along the river on half-sunken logs, while loudly splashing in the water so it was hard to miss them. While they might appear whimsical, harmless even, they were rumored to be the responsible for the lion’s share of water related deaths, together with water dryads and rusalky.
When Vodyanoy were in a good mood, they might have even been inclined to help people, but most of the time the water dwellers were a menace to life in early Slav villages. When angered the wrath of a Vodyanoy is hard to escape, dams were broken, water mills washed away, people and their animals drowned. When the water-bound demons felt especially vindictive, they subjected their victims to slavery in their underwater dwellings, which the poor wretches, who were subject to every whim of the benthic miscreants, could not escape.
In Slovak and Czech lands, the river fiends were said to store the souls of their victims in tea pots, which represented their status in Vodyanoy society. Those with the most soul pots enjoyed greater societal privileges. Fortunately for the victims, their souls could be freed by opening the tea pots.
In their free time Vodníci(the plural of Vodník) played cards, smoked pipes or just lazed around on rocks near rivers and lakes.
The fish in the river or a lake, in which the Vodník resides, were the servants of the green men.
Precautions against Vodyanoy
In order to appease the Vodyanoy, people, mostly fishermen and millers, would make sacrifices. For example, fisherman would place a bit of tobacco on the surface of the water and recite a line saying “Here’s your tobacco, Lord Vodník, now give me a fish”.
Other types of preventive measures included sacrificing animals or even other people. Less drastic ways of averting a Vodyanoy’s attack come from the Ukraine, where sage advice recommended burying a horse’s skull near the water, and from Belarus, where the people suggested burying a black rooster under the mill’s doors or populating said mill with black cats and roosters.