The Retrieval of Intuition as Initiation - Vasalisa the Wise
Chapter 3 from the book Women who run with the wolves - by Clarissa Pincola Eseés
Nosing Out the Facts: The Retrieval of Intuition as Initiation
The Doll in Her Pocket: Vasalisa the Wise
Intuition is the treasure of a woman’s psyche. It is like a divining instrument and like a crystal through which one can see with uncanny interior vision. It is like a wise old woman who is with you always, who tells you exactly what the matter is, tells you exactly whether you need to go left or right. If is a form of The One Who Knows, old La Que Sabe, the Wild Woman.
In the traditions I was raised in, dedicated storytellers were always off under some psychic hill, up to their knees in story dust, brushing away centuries of dirt, digging under overlays of culture and conquests, numbering every frieze and fresco of story they could find. Sometimes a story has been reduced to powder, sometimes portions and details are missing or rubbed out, often the form is intact but the coloring is destroyed. But even so, every dig holds hope for finding an entire body of story intact and unbroken. The following tale is just such an incredible treasure.
To my mind, the old Russian tale “Vasalisa” is a woman’s initiation story with few essential bones astray. It is about the realization that most things are not as they seem. As women we call upon our intuition and instincts in order to sniff things out. We use all our senses to wring the truth from things, to extract nourishment from our own ideas, to see what there is to see, to know what there is to know, to be the keepers of our own creative fires, and to have intímate knowing about the Life/Death/Life cycles of all nature—this is an initiated woman. Stories with Vasalisa as a central character are told in Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, and throughout all the Baltic countries. In some instances, the tale is commonly called “Wassilissa the Wise.” I find evidence of its archetypal roots dating back at least to the old horse-Goddess cults which predate classical Greek culture. This tale carries ages-old psychic mapping about induction into the underworld of the wild female God. It is about infusing human women with Wild Woman's primary instinctual power, intuition.
The pattern for my literary version of the Vasalisa tale spun here was given to me by my aunt Kathé. It begins with one of the oldest storytelling devices, “Once there was, and once there was not ..." This paradoxical phrase is meant to alert the soul of the listener that this story takes place in the world between worlds where nothing is as it first seems. So let us begin.
Once there was, and once there was not, a young mother who lay on her deathbed, her face pale as the 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 safely 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 will be assisted. Keep the doll with you always. Do not tell anyone about her. Feed her when she is hungry. This is my mother’s promise to you, my blessing on you, dear daughter.”
And with that, the mother’s 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 father’s life rose green from the furrows again, and he married a widow with two daughters. Although the new stepmother and her daughters spoke in polite tones and always smiled like ladies, there was something of the rodent behind their smiles which Vasalisa’s 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 theirs dwindled from meanness. She was helpful and uncomplaining while the stepmother and stepsisters were, among themselves, like rats in the offal pile at night.
One day the stepmother and stepsisters simply could not stand Vasalisa any 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 from gathering wood, the entire house was dark. She was very concerned and inquired of her stepmother, “What has happened;; what will we have to cook with? What will we do to light the darkness?” The stepmother admonished, “You stupid child. Obviously we have no fire. And I can’t go out into the woods because I am old. My daughters can’t go because they are 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 all right, yes, I’ll do that,” and so she set out. The woods became darker and darker, and sticks cracked under her feet, frightening her. She reached 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 should I go 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 tire so the clearing there in the forest glowed with an eerie light.
Now the Baba Yaga was a very 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 rowed this vehicle with an oar shaped like a pestle, and all the while she swept out the tracks of where she’d been with a 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 huge, scaly yellow chicken legs, and walked about all by itself and sometimes twirled around and around like an ecstatic 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 ste