‘Essays on Russian Mythology’ was the Doctor thesis by Russian and Soviet ethnographer Dmitry Constantinovich Zelenin (1878-1954), publ. in 1916. For the first issue of his work, Z. chose a specific segment of beliefs: conceptions of Rusalka (a kind of mermaids, but not exactly the same phenomenon) and those who died with unnatural death. Unfortunately, the work has not been prolonged, but it does not diminish its fundamental character.
The source base for the research was found in ethnographical material on beliefs and habits, folk demonological and mythological conceptions, fixed by the author and his predecessors. That is why, in the introduction to his work, Z. notes that he is interested mostly in rites, than in myths, and he uses the term ‘mythology’ only in the absence of the term ‘rite–ology’. Following the ideas by V. F. Miller, the author starts his studies not from the ancient beliefs, but from contemporary ones, supporting his work with comparative-historical methods. He considers it is necessary to study the history of the facts on their ‘native soil’, before comparing data from various other peoples. He prefers to compare Russian data with the general Slavic background – before searching for the European context; he explains it with deep relations of the adjacent peoples – for him the long neighborhood is more important than common origin. Another approach was typical for E. V. Anichkov, an ideological predecessor of Z., who made comparison with vast European material.
According to his own remark, Z. was the first one, who noted the differences in folk conceptions of those who died in a ‘natural way’, and Nav’ who died ‘unnaturally’, in a ‘wrong way’. The second category included prematurely died, died in an accident, killed, died in a suicide, lost without finding their bodies, cursed by their parents, and sorcerers. Because those people ‘had not lived through their age’ and had been deprived from Christian commemoration, they could not find peace and rest after their death and had to wander on the earth, frightening and disturbing alive people. The soil does not accept them (there is a special chapter on the rites of funerals for such ‘unnatural’ deceased); Z. notes that, according the folk beliefs, after the death such dead people are in the power of demons. Particularly, they carry demons on their backs or bring them water. Young women died with ‘unnatural death’ (mainly drown but not only) and non-christened children, according to folk beliefs, turn into Rusalka. The author collected much data from all regions of Russia: local customs, names, stories about the activity of Rusalka (their singing, washing linen, spinning, combing the hair, flirting with men, etc.). Rusalka has a certain time to appear and to frighten alive people; the author describes special rites of sending off them in those periods.
Making accent at the Slavic material, the author gives some comparative data about ‘unnatural deceased’ of other peoples. The book is still actual, especially in the part of materials on Rusalka.