The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Vasilisa the Wise (Also called Vasilisa the Beautiful or Vasilisa the Brave)
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose
“Not every question has a good answer; if you know too much, you will grow old too fast” warns Baba Yaga in this epic saga. It is the best known and most fully realized of the Baba Yaga tales.
The story begins like Cinderella: Vasilisa’s mother has died and her father has remarried a woman with two daughters of her own. Eventually the father dies, too. The stepmother inherits his money and property and Vasilisa is left to her stepmother’s mercy.
The stepmother is cruel and abusive to her, treating her like the household drudge. Vasilisa is good, kind, hard working, and exceptionally beautiful. She is not unaware of her situation but feels hopeless: she would run away if only she had somewhere to go.
Vasilisa does have a secret weapon. Before her mother died, she gave Vasilisa a small handcrafted doll, advising her to keep it with her always as it will bring comfort and protection in time of need. The doll embodies Vasilisa’s mother’s love and blessings: it is a living doll. Although very plain (the story makes it clear that the stepsisters who possess fancy store-bought dolls would scorn the little doll), when Vasilisa is alone, the doll talks with her, offering comfort, encouragement, and advice. Vasilisa is wise as well as beautiful: she tells no one of her miraculous doll.
As the girls reach marriageable age, the stepmother becomes more anxious about Vasilisa, whose charm and beauty, she fears, threatens her own daughters’ prospects. She decides to be rid of Vasilisa and hatches a plan. One night, she seats the three girls at a table lit by a single candle and gives them tasks. Vasilisa darns and mends while the stepsisters craft fine lace. Near midnight, the flame goes out and the house is plunged into darkness. The girls rush to light more candles but all attempts to light them fail. The story now reveals that the stepmother is a witch: she has cast a spell over the house so that no light can be lit within.
In Vasilisa the Wise, the heroine’s dying mother gives her a miraculous doll that speaks, does household chores, and saves her from the witch Baba Yaga. Although the doll is usually interpreted as a fantasy device, it may, in fact, stem from the practice of the alraune. See BOTANICALS: Mandrake.
Instead she demands that Vasilisa journey across the forest to Baba Yaga’s house and fetch them a light. Vasilisa goes to her room to prepare; the doll sensing her despair asks what’s wrong. Vasilisa says she’s been sent to Baba Yaga and is sure that she will never return. The doll tells her not to be afraid, to do as her stepmother says but to take the doll with her.
It’s after midnight when Vasilisa begins her journey on foot across the forest, the doll safely and secretly in her pocket. She walks all night. As the night fades, a mysterious pale horseman on a white stallion rides directly across Vasilisa’s path and disappears. She continues to walk.
At noon, suddenly a sunburnt horseman in scarlet armor riding a red stallion crosses her path and disappears. She continues to walk. Finally, as darkness falls, Vasilisa reaches Baba Yaga’s little hut standing on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of bleached human bones, a human skull with glowing eyes atop each fencepost. As Vasilisa hesitates, a black rider on a jet-black stallion crosses her path and disappears. She hears a rustling in the trees and Baba Yaga appears, riding in her mortar, a pestle in one hand, and a broom in the other.
Baba Yaga twitches her nose and announces that she knows someone is there. Whoever it is should step forward or else she’ll come and get them. Vasilisa takes a deep breath and approaches, courteously greeting Baba Yaga, explaining that her stepmother sent her to fetch a light. Baba Yaga snorts, exclaiming that she’s quite familiar with this stepmother and that Vasilisa is very welcome to a light—providing she earns it. Vasilisa is ordered to go inside the hut and work for Baba Yaga.
The house is full of mysterious things: disembodied hands, for instance, that materialize out of thin air and perform tasks. Baba Yaga sets Vasilisa to various household chores, warning her that if she fails, she’s dinner.
For the next three days, Baba Yaga sets impossible tasks for Vasilisa to accomplish before leaving home riding in her mortar. As soon as Baba departs, the doll pops out of Vasilisa’s pocket: it can do more than just talk. The doll performs miracles, literally finding needles lost in haystacks. All Vasilisa must do is cook. She labors in Baba’s kitchen creating meals fit for a goddess. Meanwhile, like clockwork, the three riders continue to be seen outside.
Baba Yaga expects Vasilisa to fail but grudgingly acknowledges that all tasks are completed to perfection. Vasilisa is always gracious, respectful, and polite, never complaining, cringing or showing fear.
Finally, Baba issues a complaint: Vasilisa’s cooking is wonderful but her conversation is dull. Ask me something, Baba demands. Vasilisa says there is one thing she is curious about: who are the three mysterious riders? Baba Yaga identifies them as her faithful knights, Dawn, Day, and Night.
Baba Yaga urges Vasilisa to ask more but Vasilisa politely declines. Baba Yaga’s response: “You’re wise to ask only about what you see outside my house, not inside. I do not like to have my dirty linen washed in public and I eat the over-curious. Had you asked about what was in the house, I would have to eat you.”
Baba Yaga then announces that it’s her turn to ask a question, and she asks Vasilisa point-blank how she accomplished the impossible tasks. Vasilisa doesn’t want to expose the doll and so explains that she accomplished her assigned tasks with the help of the blessing of her mother. She says the magic words: Baba Yaga kicks her out the door, saying she wants no blessed ones in her house.
Vasilisa, relieved to be out of the house, begins to run away but Baba calls her back, asking if she isn’t forgetting something. She pulls a skull with glowing eyes off her fence, sticks it on a post and hands it to Vasilisa, telling her to be sure to give it to her stepmother. The skull turns out to be useful: it’s dark and the eyes light Vasilisa’s path. During the day, the lights go out but reappear in darkness.
Five days have now passed since she left home and Vasilisa assumes the light is no longer needed. When she arrives home, she starts to leave the skull outside when suddenly it speaks to her, advising that Baba Yaga would be very angry if Vasilisa didn’t follow her directions and give the light to her stepmother.
Vasilisa enters the house: the stepmother and sisters are sitting in pitch darkness. The stepmother’s spell worked too well; they haven’t had light since Vasilisa left, nor have they been able to leave. They are initially relieved to see Vasilisa when, suddenly, the glowing skull in her hand comes to life. The eyes seek out each steprelative in turn and, like a laser, burns each one to ashes. Then the light goes out.
This is just too much for Vasilisa: she runs out the door, empty-handed but for her doll. Having stayed with Baba Yaga, she is transformed: no longer afraid to run away, she walks until she finds a village where an old woman takes her in. Vasilisa weaves cloth that she gives the old woman to sell, but Vasilisa’s work is so exceptionally fine that the old woman offers it to the Tsar instead. Even in the Tsar’s palace, Vasilisa’s exquisite work stands out: the Tsar’s tailor insists that only the woman who wove the cloth can cut it. Vasilisa is summoned to the palace where the Tsar falls in love with her and all live happily ever after.
See Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Frau Trude.
Further Reading: Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer (Morrow Junior Books, 1994) is a particularly evocative retelling of this story. Ernest Small combined various Baba Yaga themes to create his own Baba Yaga (Houghton Mifflin, 1966), in which Baba’s skills as an herbalist are emphasized.
Baba Yaga’s male counterpart is the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless. He is also a reoccurring character in Russian folklore, although not as frequently as Baba Yaga.
Koschei’s name derives from Old Russian and Turkic tribal sources and literally indicates “Prisoner.” Suave, sardonic, and sinister, but usually foiled, he is Baba Yaga’s adversary in some tales, but her husband or ally in others.
Koschei and Baba Yaga both appear in the epic story of the warrior queen Maria Moreevna. In the opposite of a Bluebeard story, handsome Prince Ivan wins the hand of the beautiful, powerful, rich Maria Moreevna. She leaves him alone in her palace, handing him her keys but warning him not to open one door. Of course, like everyone else in these stories, he can’t resist and discovers Koschei the Deathless hanging in the closet chained with twelve chains. Koschei pleads for a drink of water and good-hearted Ivan takes pity on him. The drink enables Koschei to regain his strength. He shakes his chains and they all snap. “Thanks Prince Ivan,” says Koschei. “You’ll never see Maria Moreevna again!” Koschei disappears into a whirlwind, Moreevna with him.
Prince Ivan, feeling like an idiot, determines to get her back. He does, thrice, but each time is foiled because of Koschei’s magical táltos horse, which comes straight from Baba Yaga’s famed stables. Twice Koschei shows mercy because of Ivan’s gift of water, but the third time he kills and dismembers him. Ivan’s animal allies perform a shamanic resurrection. He comes back to life with the knowledge that there is only one thing now to be done—he has to get a horse from Baba Yaga too.
He finds her house surrounded by twelve stakes, eleven crowned with human heads but one ominously empty. He greets Baba Yaga politely, “Good day, Grandmother!” She responds in kind, knowing his identity immediately. Already a hero, she greets him with respect, “Good day, Prince Ivan! Why are you here? From free will or need?” He explains he’s come to earn a horse. She says he can try. If he can tend her mares for three days, he can have his horse and depart but if he can’t, she warns, “don’t hold it against me Ivan, but your head goes on that last stake.” (Ivan wins his horse, keeps his head and, with the horse, is able to regain the beautiful Maria Moreevna, too!)
Not every Russian witch is Baba Yaga. The Sorceress takes place “in a certain kingdom” ruled by a king whose daughter is the eponymous sorceress. At the same court is a priest with a ten-year-old son who takes lessons from “a certain old woman.”
One day passing by the palace the boy looks in at the window (and although it’s not explicitly stated that he’s snooping or spying, it does just happen to be the sorceress-princess’ bedroom.) He discovers that she has a novel way of preparing her coiffeur: she removes her head, shampoos, rinses, and combs out her hair, plaits it into beautiful braids and then puts her head back in place.
The boy goes home and tells everyone what he’s witnessed. The princess suddenly falls ill and requests her father that, if she dies, he will ensure that the priest’s son reads Psalms over her body for three consecutive nights. She dies and the king orders the priest to send for his son. The next day at his lessons, “the old woman” notices the boy looking glum. He explains that he must go to Church to read over the sorceress’ body that night and he’s sure he’s doomed. The old woman gives him an iron knife and tells him to use it to cast a circle around himself in the Church and that no matter what happens to keep reading and never look around.
Alone in the church at night, he follows her advice. Indeed, at the stroke of midnight, the princess gets out of her coffin saying, “Now I’ll teach you what it means to spy on me and tell people what you saw.” She lunges at him but, because of his spell, is unsuccessful. At daybreak she jumps back into her coffin.
The same thing happens the second night. The next day he goes back to the old woman. She asks what he saw and warns that tonight will be worse. She gives him a hammer and four nails, advising him to drive one nail into each corner of the coffin and hold the hammer before him while reading. The old woman was right: the boy’s experiences that night are truly horrific. In addition to rising from her coffin and attempting to kill him, the sorceress-princess surrounds the boy with terrifying illusions—for instance, the church appears to be on fire. However, the boy faithfully follows the old woman’s instructions and resists the impulse to flee. He does not leave his circle of safety. At daybreak, the princess dives back into her coffin.
The king comes in. Finding the coffin open and the princess lying face down, he demands an explanation from the boy who tells all. The king orders an aspen spike thrust through his daughter’s heart to prevent her from rising. The priest’s son is rewarded with money and land.
This is a particularly subversive story: even though it occurs in Church (perhaps particularly because it occurs in Church) and the hero is a priest’s son, solutions to his dilemma are pagan ones. The boy doesn’t go to his father, the priest (who is oblivious) for assistance but to an old Baba.
What do listeners learn from this story? Methods of surviving a vampire plus the underlying moral of the story: keep your mouth shut about magical people you observe.
See BOTANICALS: Birch; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: Mask of Satan; DICTIONARY: Táltos, Upir, Vampire; DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga, Hulda; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Baba Yaga; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Bereginy, Rusalka.