For two years I have been in the House of Baba Yaga. After hearing the powerhouse activist, Starhawk, tell the the Russian fairy tale "Vasalisa the Wise" during a winter solstice gathering, I felt there was ripe material for my own psyche to digest. I went home from the gathering and began to deepen my journey to the Wild Feminine - the intuitive dimension of inner knowing.
A brief (and unjust) synopsis of the story:
Once there was a dying mother who gave her daughter, Vasilisa, a doll to guide her through life. After she died, Vasilisa's father eventually remarried and the step family hated Vasilisa and repeatedly attempted to end her life. But each time they tried, the doll Vasilisa inherited from her mother came to life and helped overcome their malevolence. Their final attempt was to send Vasilisa to get fire from the witch known as Baba Yaga.
Vasilisa went to the house of Baba Yaga after meeting three men on horses while walking through the dark forest. The cunning Yaga agreed to give Vasilisa fire after she completed several Herculean tasks, otherwise she would eat her. Vasilisa didn't know how to complete them but during each task the doll came to life and knew exactly what to do.
Baba Yaga eventually gave Vasilisa a skull with a fire lit inside and then kicked her out. Vasilisa used the skull fire as a guide back through the dark forest and home. When she returned to her evil step family the fire inside the skull burned them all to ash.
There are as many interpretations of this story as there are ways of telling it. Of all the interpretations I've come across, I resonate most deeply with that told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in "Women Who Run With the Wolves". In her book, Estes argues that the heart of the story is an initiation of a woman's instinctive intuition - an innate power that often gets buried but that can be reset no matter a woman's age. She explains that the story, and all its components, represent a single person's psyche undergoing initiation. Estes then details the nine rites (tasks) Vasilisa undertook to restore her wild feminine power:
Like other fairy tales, the witch in this story - Baba Yaga - is superficially portrayed as someone to be feared and avoided. And while we should respect Yaga's formidable power to create and destroy, avoid her we should not. For she is the embodiment of the Wild Feminine archetype - numinous life bursting with intuition and unapologetic enthusiasm.
After hearing the story and with interpretation in hand I began exploring which rites I am competent in and which are underdeveloped. Once dedicated to being in the House of Baba Yaga, I painted this rendition and took her on a wilderness fast with me. And most recently she became the center point of an altar during a week long Samhain ceremony. The image of Baba Yaga has been like a tractor beam in my life.
Of the rites Vasilisa undertook, the 6th Task - Separating This from That - has been most pronounced in the past two years of exploration.
The sixth task Baba Yaga demands of Vasilisa encompasses the cultivation of shrewd discernment. In the story Vasilisa must sort mildewed corn from whole corn and then poppy seeds from the dirt and she does so with the help of her intuitive doll. She strengthens her intuition and learns what is food and what is medicine.
In my own life, shrewd discernment has come and gone like a tidal flux. Building psychological muscles for this task has required that I hold tension between relentless attention and felt intuition. Trauma in my childhood and adolescence disrupted 'normal' developmental patterns, leaving my ego underdeveloped well into my twenties. (Here I mean a definition of 'ego' as a tool that serves to transform unconscious material to consciousness). To strengthen and refine my soul's ability to speak and my ego's ability to discern I have turned to my dreams.
As Estes puts it, "It is a phenomenon that a question asked before bedtime, with practice, elicits an answer upon awakening. There is something in the psyche, something of the wildish doll, something under, over, or in the collective unconscious which sorts the materials while we sleep and dream. And reliance on this attribute is also a part of (our) wild nature."
Developing shrewd discernment is an essential task in my journey to conscious, wild femininity - one that helps me decide what I'm really hungry for versus what is merely on the buffet of life. Befriending my dreams helps me discern what must live and what must die. What is feeding creativity and what is medicine for my psyche. Turning toward dreams is, for me, the equivalent of self-empowerment through climbing a mountain or trekking desert terrains. The unconscious is as equally dynamic and interconnected as any external ecosystem and offers powerful material for contemplation.
Like most fairy tales and inner psychic states, linearity is an illusion. In the two years as apprentice with Baba Yaga she's kicked me out and let me return time and again. The nine rites of initiation don't necessarily happen one after the other. Although there is a rhythm, there is not a singular path of our inner wild feminine. This is a story of initiation that one tends to for a lifetime, ever strengthening the fire in the skull.