Honoring Wise Women

Some have argued that the “wicked witch” stereotype of fairy tales is a construct of patriarchal cultures efforts to oppress women, specifically older women who were the wisdom-holders in the past. I’ve been thinking about this with regard to Baba Yaga. Is she a vilified wise-woman? Or is she an evil old woman to be feared?

Wise WomanI think there is a little bit of truth in both versions. Once upon a time, those who survived into old age were honored. They had contributed their part to society, and they had experiences that younger men and women could turn to for advice.

Now our society no longer holds the same regard for the wisdom that only age can bring. We despise the loss of beauty and virility; we become angry that we have to take care of those who were once able to care for themselves; we shut the old away where we don’t have to see them or think about them except on the rare occasions that we go to visit them. (Please do not take this personally; I am speaking in generalities about our society).

Baba Yaga’s nasty reputation precedes our modern abhorrence to old age, however. Her stories were told to little children as moral guidance and to scare them away from the deep woods, or into following instructions.

During the Inquisition, many women and men were accused of witchcraft for knowing the healing properties of herbs, or being midwifes, or looking at the wrong person the wrong way.  I definitely think that this was an effort to suppress women of knowledge.  And yet, how does this affect Baba Yaga.

I mentioned in my last post that she has been elusive. Boldly seeking her to ask her wisdom was not the right way to approach her.  So I tried again, with awe and reverence, and yes, even a bit of fear. How do I KNOW she is not going to eat me?

She told me that if I want to be honored as a wise woman when I am older, I need to remember and honor and care for the wise women in my own life. I need to seek them out with awe and reverence, and yes, even a bit of fear. For they may react in anger at first, for being so long ignored, and I may be in danger of being eaten up by their hunger to share their wisdom and experiences.

Wise WomanIt is time once again to honor the transitions women go through. To celebrate each one: the passage into life, from maiden to mother, from mother to crone, from crone into death, and from death back into life. It is here, at the end of the cycle that Baba Yaga dwells. She has long been the crone, passing the wise and the foolish into death so that they may be reborn once again.

Our culture is starting to remember to honor ourselves as we age. As the population grows ever older, we are no longer satisfied to be put aside in the golden years. Many women, like Marianne Williamson Jean Shinoda Bolen, are starting to write about reclaiming the power of growing older, the power of the Crone.

Though I am still quite young, I honor the wise woman. I intend to grow gray gracefully, and claim the wisdom and power that only comes with experience. And I look to those women ahead of me in age that surround me and I see bright examples of how I want to be when I grow up.



Back to Baba Yaga

Its been several weeks since I last wrote about Baba Yaga. A lot has happened since then in my personal life, as well as in my research.


Baba Yaga by Ravenari

Baba Yaga is not easy to track down. She is remarkably hard to find, even in my meditation time. There are some folktales and stories about her. It seems, though, that few have delved into her mysteries, and shared what they have learned. Perhaps they were shown to be unworthy and were eaten up?

But she was not always easy to find in the folktales either. She lived deep in the dark forest, in a kingdom far beyond this one. The young hero or heroine had to travel long and far to find her hut that turned on its chicken legs.

One must have courage to go looking for Baba Yaga. For she is the “Dark Mother”, the “Devouring Mother” (as opposed to the “Good Mother” or “Abundant Mother”). The Good Mother feeds us and clothes us and wraps us in her arms to protect us from the things that lurk in the night. She speaks soothing, loving words to us. The Dark Mother eats us instead of feeding us, makes us work to earn the right to continue living instead of nurturing, and speaks harsh words, if she speaks to us at all.

And yet, she prepares us for the next round of life. Like a plant that must wither and die, only to sprout fresh in the spring, we must die to who we were to be reborn to who we are becoming. There is no life without death, and no death without life.

Baba Yaga knows the power of fire – its heat, light, and animating force for life, as well as its destructive nature. She is also the guardian of the waters of life and death. These waters, like fire, have the power to harm or to heal.

To seek Baba Yaga is to seek death to some part of yourself, knowing that this death will create space for something new to flourish.  To destroy that which no longer serves you to allow that which does to enter in. To kill ignorance and denial in search of wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps I have had a hard time finding Baba Yaga because I am not yet ready to let go of the old. Or WAS not ready. I am ready now. And so I pick up my journey once more where I left of before. Time to embrace endings and new beginnings!



Baba Yaga – Witch or Wise Woman?

Last week I shared the story of Vasalisa and Baba Yaga. This week, I’ll share a little more about Baba Yaga herself.

Baba YagaBaba Yaga is a popular hag-like figure from Russian folklore. She was said to have teeth of iron, and a nose that reached down to her chin. In spite of eating enough food every day to feed an army, she was little more than skin and bones. She was often used to scare children – off to bed or Baba Yaga will eat you!

As I mentioned last week, she flew through the air in a mortar and steered with a pestle (a mortar and pestle are used for grinding herbs to a fine powder), and she swept away her tracks with a broom made of silver birch. When she approaches, a wild wind makes the trees groan and leaves swirl through the air.

Three riders are her servants: a white rider on a white horse is her Dawn, a red rider on a red horse is her Day, and a black rider on a black horse is her Night. She also has three pairs of hands that appear out of nowhere to do her bidding.

Her house is said to dance around on chicken legs. The windows of her house are like giant eyes, and the hinges on her door are made of finger bones. Her fence is made of arm and leg bones, and there are skulls around the top of the fence whose empty eye sockets glow in the night.

Despite all of this, she is also revered as a wise woman. “Baba” means “grandmother”, a term of respect. For those who are brave (or foolish) enough to face her, she grants wisdom, or helps them on their quest, as in the story of Finist the Bright Falcon. Though she was said to eat over those with a pure heart, or with a blessing.

Often that which is not understood is feared. I have a lot of stories to read, and I will meditate to see what wisdom Baba Yaga has to offer me.



Vasalisa and Baba Yaga

As the year turns toward Halloween, stories of Baba Yaga have come more and more to my awareness.

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

It started with my son bringing me a short story about Baba Yaga a couple of weeks ago. Since I have read several versions of her folktale, I wasn’t happy with this one, and offered to read him another, much longer version. The story is really about Vasalisa, a young girls whose mother gives her a magic doll as her dying blessing.

When Vasalisa’s father remarries, the wicked stepmother and stepsisters join the story. They don’t like Vasalisa very much, because she is so pretty and pure of heart. (Sounds similar to Cinderella, huh?) They contrive to let the fire go out, a very bad thing back then. They send Vasalisa to go get fire from the Baba Yaga, a horrible witch who flies around in a mortar, steers with a pestle, and sweeps away her tracks with a broom.

The journey through the woods is long, and Vasalisa finally arrives at the home of Baba Yaga, only to find it dancing around on chicken legs. Baba Yaga comes home, and before she will grant Vasalisa’s request, gives the young girl three impossible tasks over three nights. If she succeeds, Baba Yaga will give her fire. If she fails, Baba Yaga will eat her up. Each night, the magic doll helps Vasalisa complete the tasks before the Baba Yaga returns to eat her.

After the third night, Baba Yaga gives Vasalisa the opportunity to ask questions of her, thereby imparting Vasalisa with wisdom. Baba Yaga then asks Vasalisa how she managed to accomplish the tasks. Vasalisa replies that she did it with her mother’s blessing (the doll). When Baba Yaga hears that Vasalisa carries her mother’s blessing, she quickly gives her a burning coal (in a skull from her fencepost) and orders her to leave.

Vasalisa returns home. Depending on which version you read, either her stepmother and stepsisters run away in fear of the skull with glowing eyes, or her father sends them away when he learns what they did to his daughter. Vasalisa has proven herself as a courageous woman, and her beauty and pure heart win her a husband. She lives happily ever after, as is the way with folk tales.

Since Baba Yaga seems to be calling for my attention, I will share more about her next week, and keep your eyes out for the Baba Yaga guided meditation.