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Remembering the tale of Vasalisa the Wise

Yesterday, while I swept the kitchen floor, I remembered an old story I studied in college.  Sometime during my junior year, a friend whom I had gotten to know through an alternative healing class and our mutual interest in yoga gifted me his copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Run With the Wolves, a collection of “myths and stories of the wild woman archetype.”  I mentioned the title to my professor who was teaching myths and legends at the time, and I can still remember her face light up as though I had come into possession of something very special and important.  She knew the collection well, and encouraged me to study the book on my own.  I soon discovered a story which I would later present on in class, and it is this same story that came back to me the other afternoon while cleaning in the kitchen.  In short, it is the Russian and Baltic folktale of Vasalisa, a young girl whose journey takes her into the woods and brings her face to face with the old hag, Baba Yaga.  Baba Yaga gives the girl a series of impossible tasks at the stake of her life.  Vasalisa, with the help of a doll in her pocket (fashioned after the girl herself), is able to complete each task and return home all the wiser for having discovered her intuition.  Estés writes that this tale “is about infusing human women with Wild Woman’s primary instinctual power, intuition.”  Well, while I was sweeping I thought about young Vasalisa, and how Baba Yaga set her to wash her clothes, sweep her yard, prepare her food and separate the spoiled corn from the good corn.  She also orders Vasalisa to separate a mound of dirt and poppy seeds into two separate mounds, one of dirt and one of seeds.  Sometimes when I’m cleaning it begins to feel like an exercise in discernment.  I’m not sure how to explain why.  Maybe in sweeping away the dirt on the floor, I give myself over to clearing a path to see deeper within myself.

Perhaps Estés says it best:

“To sweep the premises means not only to begin to value the non-superficial life but to care for its orderliness.  Sometimes women become confused about soulful work, and leave its architecture all in a mess till it is taken back by the forest.  Gradually it becomes overgrown and finally becomes a hidden archeologic ruin in the psyche.  The cyclical sweeping will prevent this from occurring.  When women have clear space, the wild nature can better thrive.”

Well, the story is only a few pages long but the symbolism and underlying themes warrant careful consideration.  I’ve only just touched on a few bits that resonate with me now, but if you’re at all interested I encourage you to read the story for yourself.  Also, who can resist a good spook this time of year, especially with October just around the corner?  If houses that sit atop scaly chicken legs that sometimes twirl around ecstatically are your thing, or if you’re just plain curious about a fearsome creature that flies around in a cauldron shaped like a mortar and rows with an oar shaped like a pestle, all the while sweeping away her tracks with a broom made of hair, this one is for you.  (Smirk)

Baba Yaga's Hut by Ivan Bilibin, courtesy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Yaga.
Baba Yaga’s Hut by Ivan Bilibin, courtesy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_Yaga.
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9 thoughts on “Remembering the tale of Vasalisa the Wise

  1. Hi this pipers papa. I forbid u to let my granddaughter read that scary but enlighten material until she is at least three three and half. Love ta style little daughter🌻in🌸law.
    Bobo yogo

  2. Hi this is Piper’s papa. I forbid u to let my granddaughter read that scary but enlightening material until she is at least three, three and half.
    Love ya style little daughter🌻in🌸law.
    Bobo yogo

  3. What a reminder of a phase of my life. I too relished “Women who run with the wolves”. The idea of metaphorically sweeping the premises resonates with me too – no room for anything creative or reflective until it’s been done. I love your last paragraph.

    (I must confess to feeling a bit defensive of Baba Yaga, after reading somewhere a feminist interpretation of her.)

    1. Thanks! And I know what you mean about Baba Yaga, I meant “old hag” in the best way possible — I love how Estes gives the etymology of the word witch in the book, saying it derived from wit/wisdom and has a positive history with female healers, before it became misconstrued once patriarchal theology became dominant. She even talks about how we must all be a bit “Yaga-ish,” and feed that part of ourselves, to keep our psyches balanced or else we will “gnash and grit” our teeth at night, when the inner Yaga that we have somehow neglected during the day tries to get a hold a night (I guess because of resentment, and things like this). Soo interesting.
      Do you remember the piece that you read? I’d love to read it as well!

      1. I think it might have been in a book by Dubravka Ugrešic called “Baba Yaga laid an egg”: a fiction and then an endpiece investigating manifestations of Baba Yaga. I’m glad you’re indulging in a bit of rehabilitation! But I read it a while back, beyond the boundaries of clear memory.

    2. P.S. Taking out the word infamous from my original post — didn’t realize I had it in there until I reread the entry. It’s not quite what I wanted to say–Baba Yaga is more ambiguous than that, being known in tales for her equal power to give and to take away. Estes even points out her fairness in this particular tale of Vasalisa, so I’ve done her a bit of an injustice I think. Editing now. Thnx.

  4. I first read this this story as Vasilisa Most Lovely, in Ruth Manning Sanders ‘A book of Witches’ with some fab illustrations by Robin Jacques. I thought the underlying themes were about Hunger, and a cuisine that is seed related: poppy seeds, millet, a pestle and mortar for grinding them up in. And mothers. And a very ancient and powerful feminine force that rules over day and night.

    I also have a sneaking admiration for Baba Yaga. It would be wrong to say I identify with her, but I do plan to paint my allotment shed with chicken feet!

    Like your blog very much

  5. Reading this post does reminds me that fairytales/folklore of old do have their share of morbidity, but also serves pass wisdom down. Thank you for sharing, Wren 🙂

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