Rusalka again

There is of course more to life than hopeless melancholy yearning followed by suicidal despair.  Desiccated joyless pedantry for one thing.  So let’s turn our attention to a couple of things that people have been a bit confused about.

The origin of the story

Rusalka is of course a water-spirit from Slavic mythology.  But a story in which the supernatural figure is the victim rather than the predator is unlikely to have unmediated folk-story origins, and so I would think that it derives from a romanticised reworking like de la Motte Fouque’s Undine.

In fact in the programme Sergio Morabito sets this out with exemplary completeness:

Dvorak’s librettist Jaroslav Kvapil names his sources in his preface to Rusalka:  Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’, Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s novella Undine and its operatic version by Lortzing, Franz Grillparzer’s libretto Melusine and Gerhart Hauptmann’s ‘German fairytale drama’ Die versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell).  Indeed, his Rusalka is a European literary ‘fairytale’ that has no precise parallels in either Czech or Slovakian folklore.  Even the name and character of Rusalka are borrowed from elsewhere, this time from Eastern Slavic literature.

The origin of the word

Mark Ronan wants to derive this from Indo-European rus meaning ‘dew’.  There *is* a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *ros- meaning something like ‘dew’, but that leaves the question of how the initial vowel ended up being different.

If we think about Russian, dew is roSA and rusalka is ruSALka.  If we want to derive both of these from an original *ros- we need a good story as to why exactly the initial vowel is different.  The environment is the same in both cases (initial position, followed by stressed a) and it’s a general rule that sounds that start off the same and have the same surroundings should end up the same.

Vasmer’s etymological dictionary derives ‘rusalka’ from the name of a pagan festival, ultimately from the Latin ‘rosalia’ (see here and ignore the anti-Semitic adverts).  Again in the programme, Morabito wants to derive it from rusa ‘river’ or rusa ‘reddish-brown’ and sees the connection with ‘rosalia’ as a later conflation.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t say where he gets these words or roots from…

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