“I have been working with Baba Yaga for the last two years and, two nights ago, much like in the story, Baba Yaga gave me a task. She asked me to rewrite the story of her and Vasilisa. The traditional story ends with Vasilisa escaping Baba Yaga’s hut because the latter does not want anyone who carries a blessing in her house, followed by Vasilisa marrying the tsar and living “happily ever after.” That ending, and much of the rest of the story, never sat right with me–I’ve always felt that the story went much differently, but I was never sure how, and I’ve been thinking about it on and off since I first read it. Then, two nights ago, the thought popped into my head: “What if, after the death of her stepmother and stepsisters, Vasilisa returned to Baba Yaga’s hut, and Baba Yaga taught her everything she knows?” To my surprise, I found Baba Yaga nodding in agreement, and then insisting that I write out exactly the rest of what she was going to relay to me. The story she relayed was one of the power of our ancestral maternal lineage, trusting the wisdom of our foremothers, and knowing our power when we see it.” – Some back story by author of Vasilisa the Brave and Baba Yaga the Wise, by Ilyssa Silfen
Many years ago, in a small town somewhere in Russia, a little girl named Vasilisa lived with her father and mother. They lived many happy years together, and Vasilisa was very much loved by both of her parents. Unfortunately, when Vasilisa was very young, her mother became very ill. Eventually, it became clear that she was not going to survive to see Vasilisa grow up. Vasilisa was heartbroken. “How will I live without you, Mama? Who will protect me from the dangers of the world? I need my mother,” she cried. Her mother’s eyes filled with tears, and she asked Vasilisa to come to her bedside. When Vasilisa came near, she took a small, wooden doll out from underneath the blankets.
“Vasilisa—my dear, brave daughter. I need you to listen to me and listen closely. Although I may be dying, you will always have my blessing. When I am no longer of the physical world, you will always have my blessing. Do you see this little wooden doll?” Vasilisa nodded her head quietly. “This wooden doll was passed down to me from my mother, and from her mother to her, and from your great-grandmother to your grandmother, and has been passed down from mother to daughter for as long as our line can remember. I now pass it on to you. This is a very special doll—do not tell anyone that you have it. Whenever you are sad or in danger, offer the doll a little food and drink. The doll will eat and drink, and then you can tell it your troubles and ask for its advice, and it will tell you what you must do.” She embraced her dear, brave daughter, gave her a kiss on her forehead, and blessed her in their native tongue. Later that night, with her husband and her dear daughter at her bedside, she passed from this world to the next.
Vasilisa was overwhelmed with grief. Her father did his best to comfort her, but there was no stopping her heart-rending sobs. Late at night, when she was unable to sleep due to her grief, she remembered her mother’s words and took the little wooden doll out from its hiding place under her mattress. She gave the doll some of the bread she had been unable to eat at dinner, and a cup of kvass, a traditional Slavic beverage made from fermented rye bread, and as she made the offering to the doll, she said, “My little doll, gift of my mother, please take this offering of food and drink, and listen to my grief. My mother has passed to the other side—though I know her spirit lives on, I can no longer see, hear, or touch her, and my heart aches.” The little doll’s eyes began to glow like embers, and it sprang to life. It ate a few morsels of the bread and took a few sips from the cup of kvass, and then it began to speak. “Dear Vasilisa, gift of your mother, do not cry. Grief is always its worst at night—comfort yourself, know that your mother watches over you, still, and get some rest. Your grief will feel lighter in the morning.” Vasilisa did as the doll told her, and when she woke the next morning, while she was still sad, her heart felt just a little bit lighter.
Her father, a kind, loving man, mourned his wife for a very long time. However, eventually, he began to grow lonely, and he decided to remarry. The woman he chose was a widow with two daughters—in his mind, this was perfect. He would be happy with his new wife, Vasilisa would have a motherly figure to guide her, and she would have company in the form of her new stepsisters. He believed that this woman and her daughters would treat Vasilisa well—however, unfortunately for Vasilisa, he was very wrong. Her stepmother and stepsisters treated her cruelly, forcing her to do all sorts of difficult tasks and errands meant to break her body, and bullying her ceaselessly in the hopes of breaking her heart and spirit. Vasilisa was ever mindful of the wooden doll her mother blessed her with, and when she was feeling particularly broken, she would lock herself in a closet, give the doll a little food and drink, tell it her troubles, and ask it what she should do. The doll would tell her exactly what wisdom she needed to hear to ease her heart and spirit, and would often complete the tasks given to her by her stepmother and stepsisters so that she could rest her body, as well.
Many years passed and, despite the stepmother and stepsisters’ best efforts, Vasilisa grew up into a strong, capable young woman. Eventually, for reasons that have been lost to time, Vasilisa’s father was called to go to another town, and so he said goodbye to his wife and stepdaughters, gave Vasilisa a kiss on her forehead with his blessing, and asked them to pray daily for his safe return. Instead, as soon as he was out of sight, Vasilisa’s stepmother sold his house, packed up all their belongings, and moved them all to a town far away, to a gloomy house at the edge of a dark forest.
Deep in this forest lived Baba Yaga, a powerful witch. She lived in a wooden hut resting on chicken legs, and the fence was made of human bones, topped with human skulls. She rode through the forest in a giant mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. It was said that the trees would creak and groan when she was near, and she would kill and eat anyone who was unlucky enough to cross her path. This was why Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters loved sending her into the forest to gather all kinds of rare herbs, flowers, and berries—they hoped that she would get lost, stumble onto Baba Yaga, and meet her doom. However, whenever they would give her these tasks, Vasilisa would lock herself in the closet, give the little wooden doll some food and drink, and the doll would guide her to where the herbs, flowers, and berries were located. After a time, Vasilisa became so knowledgeable of the forest and its treasures that she no longer needed the doll’s assistance to guide her way, and she was able to identify the plants by memory.
One night, the stepmother called her daughters and Vasilisa to her. She tasked one stepdaughter with making a piece of lace, her other stepdaughter with knitting a pair of hose, and gave Vasilisa a basket of flax to be spun. She told them that they must each finish a certain amount, then she put out all the fires in the house, except for a single candle in the room in which the girls were to work, and went to bed. The three girls worked for many hours and, after the third hour, one of the stepsisters took up tongs, pretending to straighten the candle wick, and instead intentionally put out the flame, as instructed by her mother. The stepsisters talked amongst themselves about what to do—there were no fires left in all the house, and their tasks were not yet done. They decided that someone must go to fetch fire from Baba Yaga herself, as hers was the only house nearby their own. Of course, the stepsisters refused to go, so they shoved Vasilisa out the door, locked the door behind them, and told her she would not be allowed back in until she had fetched the fire.
Vasilisa was terrified—whenever she was sent into the forest, her stepmother loved to torment her beforehand with stories of Baba Yaga and the ways she tortured and killed people before consuming their remains. Thankfully, she had her little wooden doll in her pocket, and she had long since made it a point to keep a chunk of bread in her other pocket should she find herself in need of the doll’s guidance. She took the doll and the bread from her pockets, put the bread in front of the doll, and said, “Little doll, gift of my mother, my stepsisters have locked me out of the house and will not let me back in until I have fetched the fire from Baba Yaga. I know the way through the outskirts of the forest, but I have never been that far in the woods before—I am afraid that I will be lost, in more ways than one. What do I do?” The doll’s eyes shone brightly, like a Full Moon in the sky, and sprang to life. The doll ate a little of the bread and said, “Vasilisa, gift of your mother, I will guide you on your journey, and I promise that no harm will come to you from Baba Yaga.” Vasilisa, feeling a little less afraid than before, put the doll back in her pocket, took a deep breath, and stepped over the threshold into the deep, dark forest.
After Vasilisa had walked a while, she was not sure how long, she began to hear a horse’s hooves, muffled against the earthen pathway. She looked around her and saw a white horse, as pure white as the Russian snow, gallop past her. As the horse disappeared from her sight, the darkness began to recede, and a thin strip of light appeared at the horizon. A little while later, she heard the sound of hooves against earth again. This time, she saw a red horse, as red as the blood that flowed from her each month, racing in the same direction as the white horse had gone. As the red horse left her sight, the sun rose over the trees. She continued walking, the sun lighting her way, with her hand in her pocket caressing the wooden doll. Eventually, she came to a clearing, and she saw the wooden hut—just as her stepmother had described it. It stood on chicken legs, just like she said, and the fence was made with human bones, topped with human skulls. The fence had a gate with hinges made of human foot bones, and locks made of wolf jaw, covered with sharp teeth. Vasilisa had been afraid her whole journey—but now she was truly terrified. Frozen with fear, she again heard the sound of horse’s hooves, and she saw a black horse, black as the night sky on a new moon, sprinting towards the hut. When the horse reached the gate, it disappeared, and the sky grew dark.
This is part 1 of 3 in a series of this retelling of the story by guest author Ilssya Silfen. Stay tuned for the next release of this story.
Ilyssa Silfen has been a practicing Witch for nineteen years. Her poem “Sekhmet as Healer” was published in Sekhmet: When the Lion Roars, an anthology compiled by Galina Krasskova, published by Asphodel Press. She also had an article (“Fire in the Belly: Sekhmet and Me,” Issue #26) and a poem (“A Witch’s Prayer,” Issue #33) published in Witches and Pagans magazine.