Wassilissa the beautiful (& Baba Yaga)
In a faraway kingdom there once lived a merchant and his wife. They had only one daughter, and she was called Wassilissa the Beautiful, because she was. When the girl was eight years old her mother called Wassillisa to her and told the child that she (her mother) was dying, but that she would leave Wassilisa her maternal blessing and a doll. She told Wassilissa to keep the doll with her always and never show it to anyone; and if she was ever in trouble, she should ask it for advice. Soon afterwards she died.
Some time later the merchant married a widow with two children who were just about Wassilissa’s age. The stepmother and her daughters slowly turned hostile to Wassilissa, but the doll always comforted her.
One day the merchant had to leave the country for a long time. During his absence her stepmother moved with the three girls to a house which stood near the primeval forest. In this forest stood the house of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga was much feared, for it was known that whoever fell into her hands was eaten like a chicken. This suited the stepmother perfectly, because she hoped that one day she could cause Wassilissa to cross the witches path and so dispose of her.
One evening the stepmother gave her three daughters candles. Ordering them to embroider, to knit, and to spin, she left them and went to bed. In time the candles burned down. The oldest girl took her knitting needle to clear the wicks but purposely used it in such a manner that the light went out. Then she said she didn’t mind because she could do her embroidery without light, and the other said she could knit without light, “But you,” the two girls said to Wassilissa, “must go to Baba Yaga and get fire so that we can have light again,” and they pushed her out of the room. Wassilissa went to her room and asked her doll what to do. The doll said “Do not be afraid but go where they have sent you, only take me with you and I will give you help.”
Wassilissa walked all through the night. Then she met a rider dressed in white, sitting on a beautiful horse covered in white, and the moment he passed her, day broke. After a while she met a second rider dressed in red, riding a horse covered in red, and at that moment the sun rose.
Having walked through the night, Wassilissa then walked through the whole of the next day. In the evening she arrived at the clearing where Baba Yaga’s house stood. Round the house was a fence made of human bones, with posts made of skulls. The bolts on the doors were made of the arms of skeletons and the locks were made of a skeleton’s mouth from which the teeth stuck out. Wassilissa was terrified. She stood nearly fainting and as though nailed to the ground, when suddenly a black rider on a black horse galloped by and it became night. But the darkness did not last long, for soon the eyes in all the skulls on the hedge began to glow, and the whole clearing was bright as day. Wassilissa stood shivering with fear, but soon she heard an uncanny humming noise, and the trees began to rustle and out of the wood came Baba Yaga. She sat in a mortar and rowed with a pestle, and with a boom she removed her traces. When she came to the door she sniffed the air and said, “Ugh! It smells of Russians! Who’s there?”
Wassilissa went to meet her and bowed and said, “It’s I, Grandmother, my stepsisters have sent me to you to fetch fire.”
“Good,” answered Baba Yaga, “I know them. Stay with me for a time and then you shall have the fire.”
Then she spoke some magic words. The door opened and Baba Yaga entered the courtyard and the door shut behind them. She then ordered the girl about, telling her to bring her food and heat the stove. And she ate a lot, leaving a little cabbage soup and a bread crust for Wassilissa, practically nothing. Then she laid down to sleep, but she told Wassilissa that next morning when she went out, Wassilissa was to sweep out the yard and the hut, cook the midday meal, do the washing and then separate the mildewed corn from the good. All had to be finished by the time she came home. Otherwise she would eat the girl.
The girl asked her doll for advice and the doll told her not to be afraid; to eat her supper and say her prayers and lie down to sleep, “Morning is wiser than evening.”
Next morning when Wassilissa woke up and looked out of the window the eyes in the skulls were already closing. The white rider rode by and day began. The Baba Yaga went off and Wassilissa went over the whole house, admiring all its treasures. Then she wondered which piece of work she should begin with, but the work had all been done by her doll, who was just separating the last black from the white corn seeds.
When Baba Yaga came back that evening she found everything down and was very angry that there was nothing with which to find fault. Then something very strange happened, for she cried out, “My faithful servants, grind the corn for me,” and three pairs of skeleton hands appeared and took the corn away.
She gave Wassilissa her orders for the next day, saying she should do as she had done the day before, but in addition she should clean the poppy seeds. The next evening when Baba Yaga came she called up the hands again to press oil out of the poppy seeds.
While Baba Yaga ate her supper Wassilissa stood silently by. Baba Yaga said, “What are you staring at without saying a word? Are you dumb?”
The girl answered, “If I may, I would like to ask you some questions.”
“Ask then,” said Baba Yaga, “but remember, not all questions are good. To know too much makes one old!”
Wassilissa said, “I’d like to ask you about the things I’ve seen: On the way to you a rider dressed all in white passed me, sitting on a horse. Who was that?”
“That is my day, the bright one,” answered Baba Yaga.
“And then another rider overtook me, dressed in red and sitting on a red horse. Who was he?”
“That is my sun, the red one.”
“And then at the gate a black rider came.”
“That was my night, the dark one.”
And then Wassilissa thought of the three pairs of hands, but she didn’t dare ask and kept silent.
Baba Yaga said, “Why don’t you ask me some more questions?”
And the girl answered that those were enough, adding, “You said yourself, Grandmother, that knowing too much made one old.”
Then the Baba Yaga replied (and this is important), “You did well to ask only about what you saw outside and not about what you saw inside the hut. I don’t like it when the dirt is brought outside the hut. But now I want to ask you something: How did you manage to do all the work I gave you?”
“The blessing of my mother helped me,” answered Wassilissa.
“Oh, that’s it, is it? Then get away from here, blessed daughter, I don’t need any blessings in my house!” And the Baba Yaga pushed Wassilissa out of the hut and chased her out of the gate. Then Baba Yaga took one of the skulls with flaming eyes from the hedge and put in one a pole and gave it to Wassilissa saying, “This is the fire for your stepsisters. Take it, carry it with you.”
Wassilissa hurried away from Baba Yaga and ran through the dark forest, finding her way by the light of the skull which only went out when dawn broke. On the evening of the next day she reached home. When she approached the gate she thought of throwing away the skull, but a hollow voice said, “Don’t throw me away, take me to your stepmother.”
So Wassilissa obeyed and when she brought the fire into the room the glowing eyes of the skull stared unceasingly at her stepmother and her daughters, burning into their souls, and the eyes followed them wherever they went to hide. Towards morning they were burnt to ashes, and only Wassilissa remained unhurt.
The next morning Wassilissa buried the skull in the earth, and went to town, to stay with a nice old woman who bought thread to her, with which Vassilissa made linen. The linen Wassilissa made was so beautiful that it was used to make shirts for the King. Through this she became acquainted with him, and before long he married her. When her father, the merchant returned, he was very happy over her good fortune, and came to live with her in the palace, as did the good old woman. And Wassilissa also kept the doll her mother had given her, and carried it with her everywhere she went.
Notes on Baba Yaga
These notes are meant to get you started, but please let the images strike you in a personal way, and find the meanings which feel right to you, whether I’ve mentioned that meaning or not.
Baba: Grandmother, old woman (Bulgarian), ‘midwife’, ‘sorceress’, ‘fortune teller’ (Old Russian), Vicious or ugly woman (Polish),
Yaga: unknown, but possibly related to: jeza (Slovenian) ‘horror, shudder, jeza (Old Czech) ‘anger’, jězě (modern Czech) ‘witch, legendary evil female being’, jezinka ‘wicked wood nymph, dryad’, jędza (Polish) ‘witch, evil woman, fury’
Baba Yaga: sometimes singular, sometimes a trio of sisters. Eastern European AKA ‘Forest Mother’, ‘Iron Tooth’, ‘bony legs’/association w/ Earth mother and death
Wassilissa: literally Queen, an ordinary traditional name
Positive (Loving) Mother: (the merchant’s wife) as in many fairytales a loving mother’s blessing and protection are very powerful and extend beyond death. Sometimes held in a tree (see the Juniper Tree) in this case- a doll acts as the totem. A loving parent can help a child tap into positive mother archetype (energy/power) in their own psyche. Wassilissa has access to this power because of her mother’s empowerment/blessing. We can be given this empowerment by anyone who truly loves/nurtures/mothers us- that is, by given us this gift of nurturing they connect us to this beneficent power in ourselves and in the world.
Negative Mother: (stepmother) The polar opposite of the positive mother. Whereas positive mother lifts up and nurtures the child and her potential selflessly, the negative mother degrades the child, tortures her, is selfish and draining and ultimately aims to kill her. Could these two be two sides of the same coin/energic continuum?
Sisters: There are no positive sister figures in the story. The stepsisters act as extensions of the stepmother’s evil will. Wassilissa makes a triad with her two stepsisters? As in many fairytales, she is the third who must overcome the other two.
To be continued…
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