Vasalisa the Wise is a folktale that has many versions from Russia and Baltic countries. This story has several powerful teachings, but the ones we choose to emphasize in our program are trusting your intuition, facing what scares you, and cultivating discernment. We liked how this story explores the gifts of the darkness and how fear and uncertainty sometimes give us gifts we wouldn’t necessarily receive otherwise. We kept much of the format the same but added in experiences, like making wild fiber cordage and practicing fire skills, that help the girls develop emotional intelligence.
The following rendering is from Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarisa Pinkola Estes.
Once there was, and once there was not, a young mother who lay on her deathbed, her face pale as white wax roses in the sacristy of the church nearby. Her young daughter and her husband sat at the end of her old wooden bed and prayed that god would guide her safety into the next world.
The dying mother called to Vasalisa, and the little child in red boots and white apron knelt at her mother’s side.
“Here is a doll for you, my love,” the mother whispered, and from the hairy coverlet she pulled a tiny doll which like Vasalisa herself was dressed in red boots, white apron, black skirt, and vest embroidered all over with colored thread.
“Here are my last words Beloved,” said the mother. “Should you lose your way or be in need of help, ask this doll what to do. You’ll be assisted. Keep the doll with you always. Do not tell anyone about her. Feed her when she is hungry. This is my mothers promise to you, my blessing on you, dear daughter.”
And with that, the mothers breath fell into the depths of her body where it gathered up her soul and rushed out from between her lips, and the mother was dead.
The child and her father mourned for a very long time. But, like the field cruelly plowed under by war, the fathers life rose green from the furrows again, and he married a widow with two daughters. Although the new step mother and her new daughters spoke in polite tones and always smiled like ladies, thee was something of the rodent behind their smiles which Vasalisa father did not perceive.
Sure enough, when the three women were alone with Vasalisa, they tormented her, forced her to wait on them, sent her to chop wood so her lovely skin would become blemished. They hated her because she had a sweetness about her that was otherworldly. She was also very beautiful. Her breasts were bounding while their dwindled from meaness. She was helpful and uncomplaining while the step mother and step sisters were, among themselves like rats in the offal at night.
One day the step mother and step sisters simply could not stand Vasalisa much longer. “Let…us…conspire to make the fire go out, and then let us send Vasalisa into the forest to Baba Yaga, the witch, to beg fire for our hearth. And when she reaches Baba Yaga, well, old Baba Yaga will kill her and eat her.” Oh, they all clapped and squeaked like things that live in the dark.
So that evening, when Vasalisa came home form gathering wood, the entire house was dark. She was very concerned and inquired of her step mother, “What has happened; What will we have to cook with? What will we do to light the darkness?”
The step mother admonished, “You stupid child. Obviously we have no fire. And I can’t go out into the woods because I am old. My daughters cant go because they’re afraid. So you are the only one who can go out into the forest to find Baba Yaga and get a coal to start our fire again.”
Vasalisa replied innocently, “Well alright, yes, ill do that,” And so she set out. The woods became darker and darker, and the sticks cracked under her feet, frightening her. She reach down in the long deep pocket of her apron and there was the doll her dying mother had given her. And Vasalisa patted the doll in her pocket and said, “Just touching this doll, yes, I feel better.”
And at every fork in the road, Vasalisa reached into her pocket and consulted the doll. “Well, should I go to the left or to the right?” The doll indicated “Yes,” or “No,” or “This way,” or “That way.” And Vasalisa fed the doll some of her bread as she walked and followed what she felt was emanating from the doll.
Suddenly a man in white on a white horse galloped by and it became daylight. Farther on, a man in red sauntered by on a red horse, and the sun rose. Vasalisa walked and walked and just as she came to the hovel of Baba Yaga, a rider dressed in black came trotting on a black horse, and rode right into Baba Yaga’s hut. Swiftly it became night. The fence made of skulls and bones surrounding the hut began to blaze with an inner fire so the clearing there in the forest glowed with an eerie light.
Now the Baba Yaga was a fearsome creature. She traveled not in a chariot, not in a coach, but in a cauldron shaped like a mortar which flew along all by itself. She rode this vehicle with an oar shaped like a pestle, and all the while she swept out the tracks of where shed been with the broom made from the hair of a person long dead.
And the cauldron flew through the sky with Baba Yaga’s own greasy hair flying behind. Her long chin curved up and her long nose curved down, and they met in the middle. She had a tiny white goatee and warts on her skin from her trade in toads. Her brown-stained fingernails were thick and ridged like roofs, and so curled over she could not make a fist.
Even more strange was the Baba Yaga’s house. It sat atop a huge scaley yellow chicken leg, and walked about all by itself, and sometimes twirled around and around like an aesthetic dancer. The bolts on the doors and shutters were made of human fingers and toes and the lock on the front door was a snout with many pointed teeth.
Vasalisa consulted her doll and asked, “is this the house we seek?” and the doll, in its own way, answered, “yes, this is what you seek.” And before she could take another step, Baba Yaga in her cauldron descended on Vasalisa and shouted down at her, “what do youwant?”
And the girl trembled. “Grandmother, I come for fire. My house is cold…My people will die…I need fire.”
Baba Yaga snapped, “Oh yesssss, I know you, and your people. Well, you useless child…you let the fire go out. That’s an ill-advised thing to do. And besides, what makes you think I should give you the flame?”
Vasilisa consulted her doll and quickly replied, “because I asked.”
Baba Yaga purred, “you’re lucky, that is the right answer.”
And Vasalisa felt very lucky she had given the right answer.
Baba Yaga threatened, “I cannot possibly give you fire, until you have done work for me. If you perform these tasks for me, you shall have the fire. If not…” And here Vasalisa saw Baba Yaga’s eyes suddenly turn to red cinders. “If not, my child, you shall die.”
So Baba Yaga rumbled into the hovel and layed down upon her bed and ordered Vasilisa to bring her what was cooking in the oven. In the oven was enough food for ten people, and the Yaga ate it all, leaving just a tiny crust and a thimble of soup for Vasalisa.
“Wash my clothes, sweep the yard, and clean my house, prepare my food, and separate the mildewed corn from the good corn and see that everything is in order. I will be back to inspect your work later. If it is not done, you will be my feast.”
And with that, the Baba Yaga flew off in her cauldron as the windsock and her hair as the sail. And it became night again.
Vasalisa turned to her doll as soon as the Yaga had gone. “What shall I do? Can I complete these tasks in time?” The doll assured her she could, and to eat a little and go to sleep. Vasalisa fed the doll a little too, and then she slept.
In the morning, the doll had done all of the work and all that remained was the meal to be cooked. In the evening, the Yaga returned and found nothing undone. Pleased, in a way, but not pleased because she could find no fault, Baba Yaga sneered, “you are a very lucky girl.” She then called on her faithful servants to grind the corn and three pairs of hands appeared in mid air and began to rasp and crush the corn. The chaff flew in the house like a golden snow. Finally if was done and Baba Yaga sat down to eat. She ate for hours and ordered Vasalisa on the morrow to again clean the house, sweep the yard, and launder her clothes.
The Yaga pointed to a great mound of dirt in the yard. “In that pile of dirt are many poppy seeds, millions of poppy seeds. And I want, in the morning, to have one pile of poppy seeds and one pile of dirt all separated out from each other. Do you understand?”
Vasalisa almost fainted. “Oh my, how am I going to do all that?” She reached into her pocket and the doll whispered, “Don’t worry, I will take care of it.” That night Baba Yaga snored off to sleep and Vasalisa tried…to pick…the…poppy seeds…out…of…the…dirt. After a time, the doll said to her, “Sleep now. All will be well.”
Again the doll accomplished these three tasks, and when the old woman returned home, all was done. Baba Yaga spoke sarcastically through her nose. “Wellllll! Lucky for you that you were able to do these things.” She called for her faithful servants to press the oil from the poppy seeds, and again three pairs of hands appeared and did so.
While the Yaga was smearing her lips with grease from her stew, Vasalisa stood nearby. “What are you staring at?” barked Baba Yaga.
“May I ask you some questions, Grandmother?” Asked Vasalisa.
“Ask,” Ordered the Yaga “But remember, too much knowledge can make a person old too soon.”
Vasalisa asked about the white man on a horse.
“Aha,” said the Yaga fondly, “That first is my day.”
“And the red man on the horse?”
“Ah, that is my rising sun.”
“And the black man on the black horse?”
“Ah yes, that is the third, and he is my night.”
“I see,” said Vasalisa.
“Come, come child. Wouldn’t you like to ask more questions?” wheedled the Yaga.
Vasalisa was about to ask about the pair of hands that appeared and disappeared, but the girl began to jump up and down in her pocket, so instead Vasalisa said, “No, Grandmother. As you yourself say, too much knowledge can make one old too soon.”
“Ah,” said the Yaga, cocking her head like a bird, “You are wiser than your years, my girl. And how did you come to be this way?”
“By the blessing of my mother,” smiled Vasalisa.
“Blessing?!” Screeched Baba Yaga. “Blessing?! We need no blessings around this house. You’d be best on your way, Daughter.” She pushed Vasalisa out into the night.
“I’ll tell you what, child. Here!” Baba Yaga took a skull with fiery eyes from her fence and put it on a stick. “Here! Take this skull on a stick home with you. There! There’s your fire. Don’t say another word. Just be on your way.”
Vasalisa began to thank the Yaga but the little doll in her pocket began to jump up and down. And Vasalisa realized she must just take the fire and go. She ran for home through the dark forest, following the turns and twists in the road as the doll told her which way to go. Vasalisa came through the forest carrying the skull, with blazing fire from its ear, eye, nose, and mouth holes. Suddenly, she became frightened of its weight and its eerie light and thought to throw it away. But the skull spoke to her and urged her to calm herself and to continue toward the home of her stepmother and stepsisters. And this she did.
As Vasalisa came nearer and nearer to her house, her stepmother and stepsisters looked out the window and saw a strange glow dancing through the woods. Closer and closer it came. They could not imagine what it could be. They had decided that Vasalisa’s long absence meant she was dead by now and her bones dragged away by animals and good riddance.
Vasalisa advanced closer and closer to home. And as the stepmother and stepsisters saw it was her, they ran to her, saying they had been without fire since she’d left, and no matter how hard they tried to start one, it always went out.
Vasalisa entered the house feeling triumphant, for she had survived her dangerous journey and brought fire back to her home. But the skull on the stick watched the stepsisters and the stepmothers every move and burnt into them, and by morning had burnt the wicked trio into cinders.