Much of your pain is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
I have long been enamoured of the Russian Fairy Story, Vasilisa the Beautiful, my favourite in a large and beautifully illustrated book of Russian Folk Tales that lived in my grandmothers bookcase, and which my eyes devoured every time I visited her. This story, which tells of a girl, sent away into the darkness of the forest to fetch light from the gruesome witch Baba Yaga, is an archetypal rendering of the rites of passage that we face through life, where the darkness must be explored, in order to discover the light.
If you would like to read this story in its original form (and I suggest that you do!) click HERE
Of course, like all the best stories, our Vasilisa has no parents… her mother has died, she has a wicked stepmother, and her father is away…. and when he does return, occasionally, we see that he does not understand what is really happening in his house…. Vasilisa is all alone…. apart from her little doll…a magical doll which takes care of her, as long as she remembers to feed it.
It is not long into the story, that Vasilisa is sent away into the dark forest by her stepmother, on the pretence of getting a candle from Baba Yaga… and of course, Vasilisa is not expected to return… she is expected to be eaten up by the monstrous witch.
At the Chiron return, which happens at the age of 50, we often face a similar rite of passage to that depicted in the story. Our life can descend into darkness and confusion as we enter our own archetypal world, and face the spectre of old age, the fear of being dependant on others in the future, the loss of physical vitality and the ultimate foe, death. It may only be now that we begin to consider our earthly
demise, and the future may, for a year or two at least, look very dark, as we walk through the dense forest in search of the witch, the witch who holds the light that we seek. On some level, we can often face the same terrors as our parents, as we finally have the opportunity to reveal our own primal wounds, and the traumas that have been passed down to us through our family line. In this way, we enter the darkness of our own myth.
Vasilisa knows that no-one can help her… her mother is dead, her step mother & sisters (did I not mention the step-sisters!!!) hate her and wish her dead… and her father is a long way away. The closest thing to her now is terror and fear in the form of Baba Yaga… apart from the little doll, the doll that her mother gave her, the magic doll, that gives advice as long as she remembers to feed it.
“Deep in the darkness of the forest I come across a small and poor looking house, reeking of poverty and ill health. The roof needs fixing and the gutters are all full of weeds, trees have fallen near the house, and no one has thought to clear them; they lie where they have fallen, rotting, sprouting fungus and providing a home for the countless beetles of the forest floor. There is an air of desolation and death about the place, but despite this, the hopelessness I feel there is tempered by the thin but warm light that seeps from the windows, a sign that despite everything, life remains within.
I approach quietly, and eventually come as near as I dare, not so close that I am discovered, but near enough to be able to see through the window to watch, to discover who resides within.
I see her there, the woman, the woman who lives in this dark place. She sits in the chair by the mean and paltry fire, her back to me, staring into the few embers that glow in the grate, as if her very life depended on them, as if they alone provided her with her last link to life.
I see, that despite the thick layers of woolen clothes that shroud her, that she is not that old,
and yet here she sits, steeped in mourning, grieving the passing of her life; a life that has slipped slowly from her grasp, despite everything that she tried to do. Her children have gone from her, the once magical forest that they played in, now nothing more than tired weeds growing amongst the shaded thickets of memory. Her husband’s chair is empty now, and only his echo remains, for he has departed too, to take his pleasures in the arms of those young enough to be his daughters.
She sits, in the silence, with her companions, the cat and the dog, one on either side, and she stares into the coals as if her life depended on it.
I watch the woman as she goes about her day, shuffling from one onerous task to another, as she dwells on the meaningless life that she is leading, a life that is filled to overflowing with emptiness and the echoes of what has been left to her. Each day she rises with the sun, and goes about her day, and each day, as the sun sets, she finishes her tasks, and waits for the forgetfulness of sleep to throw his blanket of darkness across her eyes.
I watch the woman, as she turns fear and hatred, pain and loss, over and over in her mourning hands. I watch as she writes, she weaves, she forms dolls out of wax, and then melts them again in the scant embers of the fire. I watch her scanning the ashes for portents, and as she studies the stars, and examines the companies of crows that wait for their portion, watches for signs that will lead her to safety, I watch her walk through her darkness, and the torture of her discontent.
Like Vasilisa, this woman is facing the greatest fears of her life… she is facing the power of her own “witch self” facing all her deepest, darkest nightmares, in order to discover the “light within”, the wise woman that she is becoming. Like Vasilisa, there is no-one to help her, only the magical doll (the inner self/child within) that her mother gave her, that will guide her if she can only remember to feed her.
In the story the doll tells Vasilisa on several occasions that
“the morning is wiser than the evening” suggesting that we need to follow our instincts, the messages that appear to us first, before all the other messages from ‘well meaning’ others, get their say and filter into our psyche. The turning of the days can help us too, the sureness of the routine tasks of daily life, the rising and setting of the sun; these things that can be depended upon, in the way that frail humankind cannot. It is these definitions of the daily life, that are represented in the story by the three horsemen… the Red, the White and the
Black, that can balance and frame our experiences, giving us a firm context in the often nightmarish world of a profound transformation.
The liminal place of transition, the grey wasteland that lies between the worlds is often a lonely one, for none can understand what we ourselves are going through. Often we cut ourselves off from the world around us as, like a caterpillar pupating, we need peace, quiet and aloneness, in order to enter into the “becoming” the “transition” that we are trying to make. This often depressive state is ultimately a place of healing, where there is a “crisis” in regards to our very existence. Like physical illness, if we try to “medicate” the symptoms, rather than allow ourselves to experience the healing crisis that is offered, we may never reap the full benefits of this time of our lives, we may never develop the power that is the greatest potential, as we sidestep the worst case scenarios to avoid the pain, and go a different way.
As Vasilisa faces the gruesome witch, she is set various “impossible” challenges, which, with the help of her doll, Vasilisa manages to accomplish, much to the dismay of the witch. In rage and fury, Baba Yaga demands that Vasilisa tells her how she has managed to outwit her, and Vasilisa answers “because I have my mother’s blessing”. This enrages the witch, and Vasilisa flees from the darkness of the hut, taking with her, a skull which holds the light within it, the light that was the original reason for her journey.
On her return, her stepmother and stepsisters cannot believe that Vasilisa has survived,
and cannot bear to look at the lighted skull that she has brought with her. The skull however, bores its fiery eyes into the wicked women, and they are eventually burned to ashes, never to be seen again. The next day, Vasilisa buries the skull in the garden, and awaits the return of her father, and of course they live happily ever after.
The key to facing the terror of the forest, and in the end, to outwitting Baba Yaga, is for Vasilisa to listen to her doll, and in the same way, we can better navigate this time in our lives, through listening to our inner voice, our inner child…. speaking to us in the darkness. Negative thoughts, fears and old ways of being can be compared to the step mother and her daughters, who would rather that Vasilisa disappeared altogether. In many ways, we are expected to “disappear” when we are older… to drift into the background, as if all that mattered was our physical attributes.
When we emerge from our period of transition, we carry with us the light that we have sought, a light that can often come from a place of death, darkness and despair, as we face our own personal “Baba Yaga”, the representation of all that we fear the most.
Though we are abandoned by all those who love and care for us, we still carry with us, like the magical doll in the story, our own key for confronting the darkness, the skills that we need, to take the witches power for ourselves, to take that power and bring it home.
“I am growing cold with the lack of movement, standing here in the darkness, watching this sorry creature, alone with her silent howling pain. Sometimes I think the woman has died in her chair, she looks so still, staring, like a statue….. into the slowly dying light.
And just when I think that the fire has finally gone out, she reaches forward, and puts
another log on, and the sparks instantly rise up the chimney, as if glad at the chance to get out of there, blasting upwards like miniature comets into the indigo sky. She rises, surprisingly quickly for someone who I have only seen shuffling about the place, and she throws off one of the heavy woolen shawls. She starts moving things around the room, aimlessly picking things up and then putting them down again. She throws a few things on the fire, and then puts on the kettle.
She turns then, towards the window that I am standing next to, and asks me if I want to join her for tea. Horrified by the dawning knowledge that she knows that I have been there all along, I feel ashamed that I have been caught out, watching her, spying on her darkness, greedy for her losses, as if I covet them for myself.
I realise that I have no option, I go around the cottage and find the rotten door, and pull it open. Its time I went to meet her anyway, time to sit down, to take tea with the witch; I am sure that she has much to tell me. “
Header Art Credit: Vania Zouravilov,
My name is Joanna Grant, I am an Astrologer, Tarot Reader and Writer, who lives on the beautiful Beara Peninsula in the South West of Ireland. I can often be found at home, deep in arcane research, or practicing some new form of divination whilst burning the dinner! My children probably wish that I was “normal” but may well remember my eccentricities fondly when they come to face the challenges of their own paths. My long knowledge of Astrology leads and informs my practice, in offering guidance, empowerment and healing, helping others to lead a more authentic and magical life. You can read more about me here.