Hello my Fairy Tale Friday Followers!
The past Fairy Tale’s have been of the Germanic and French variety and are probably quite well known. This Fairy Tale is Russian/ Slavic in origin and as there appears to be a resurgence (or emergence) in the book world of Slavic Fairy Tale/ Folklore inspired stories I thought it time I include one here.
Vasilisa the Beautiful was included in a collection of stories by Alexander Afanasyev which was published between 1855 – 1863. Alexander seems to be one of, if not the most prolific, Russian fairy tale writers and became known as the ‘Russian Grimm.’
Not all stories in his collection have a Grimm or Germanic/ French ‘counterpart’ but there are quite a few that may appear quite familiar or have some familiar plot elements and Vasilisa the Beautiful can read in parts as the Russian ‘Cinderella.’
Vasilisa’s mother dies but before she does she gives Vasilisa a doll, telling her to feed and take care of it and in return the doll will help her.
Vasilisa tells no one about the doll; not her father, her new stepmother or her two new stepsisters. After some time her father goes travelling leaving Vasilisa with her new family who have grown to hate her because of her beauty and who use her to do all the housework in the hopes this will make her grow tired and ugly.
Vasilisa does what her mother told her to do – she takes care of the doll and so the doll ends up doing all the housework leaving Vasilisa as refreshed and beautiful as ever.
Seeing that their plan isn’t going to work the stepmother needs another solution. One night their final candle is extinguished, Vasilisa is told that she needs to be the one to get a new light and the only person she can get it from is Baba Yaga.
(See ‘My Thoughts’ below on more info on Baba Yaga).
So Vasilisa travels into the woods with her doll and on her journey is passed by three horseman at different times (a white rider, Bright Day; a red rider, Red Sun and a black rider, Dark Night).
Finally she reaches the hut of Baba Yaga who appears and threatens to eat Vasilisa unless she performs tasks to earn the light.
These tasks include sorting rotten grain from good grain and sorting seeds from soil which Vasilisa would fail at if not for the doll that does the work for her.
The story then diverges depending on the version being told. One version is that Vasilisa escapes Baba Yaga and steals the light with the help of Baba’s maid and Baba Yaga has a temper tantrum because she didn’t get to eat her.
The version I prefer is that Vasilisa asks Baba Yaga who the horsemen are to which Baba Yaga answers her. However, when Vasilisa has more questions she is told, ‘not all questions should be given answers.’
When Baba Yaga asks Vasilisa how she managed to get the tasks done the reply is ‘by my mother’s blessing.’ Baba Yaga, not wanting any blessings in her house, sends Vasilisa on her way with the light.
In all versions the light is contained in a skull on a stick and when Vasilisa returns home the light incinerates her stepmother and stepsisters and so she buries the skull in the garden.
Vasilisa travels to a city, lives with an old woman and becomes a cloth-maker. Her skill becomes so great that the Tsar notices her and marries her and so Vasilisa becomes Tsarina but despite leaving her old life behind she always carries her doll with her.
The moral doesn’t seem to be particularly clear but could be interpreted as ‘if you are good and obedient and wise then you will be rewarded in time.’
For me, the most interesting character in this story is not our main one, Vasilisa.
Sure, she has all the trappings of a typical fairy tale heroine; beautiful, obedient and kind (she feeds the doll from her own meager rations after all) but people, I think Baba Yaga is fascinating.
Who is she exactly? Well no one quite knows.
She is often depicted as a frightening, ugly old woman who desires to eat people. She flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle and her house in the woods stands on chicken legs surrounded by skulls and a fence made from human bones.
Her servants are disembodied hands that take the sorted corn from Vasilisa and the three horsemen – Day, Sun, and Night – indicating that she has magic and power over night and day.
For all intents and purposes she is the typical ‘witch in the woods’. But then there is an element of Baba Yaga (especially within this story) that lends herself to the ‘triple goddess.’ She is the crone; she shows wisdom by knowing Vasilisa didn’t perform the tasks alone, she seeks wisdom by asking how the tasks were completed and ultimately she determines when wisdom should be imparted – after all, she tells Vasilisa that not all questions should be answered.
Baba Yaga stands for fate and the balance between life and death, those that enter her hut are expected to die a terrible death (as evidenced by the bones and skulls) but Vasilisa doesn’t. Baba Yaga sets seemingly impossible tasks but in the version of the story that I prefer – she accepts the outcome and lets Vasilisa take what she came for.
Does she do evil things? Yes, she eats people and sets horrible tasks in order to get to eat those people.
Does this make Baba Yaga evil? Controversially, I don’t think so. It seems like she has her own agenda and just ‘is who she is.’ She is both good and bad but which version of Baba you get would probably depend on a multiple of factors relating to who you are. Ultimately she is more chaotic neutral than evil.
Baba apparently refers to any woman who is old enough to marry but can also refer to ‘Grandmother.’ This links back to the ‘wise old woman’ connotations and Vasilisa refers to Baba Yaga as ‘Grandma’ in the story but not because of any familial connections. It seems to be more a term of respect of age and status.
I’ve mentioned the triple goddess in relation to Baba Yaga as the crone but the triple goddess imagery slots in nicely when we look at the other women in the tale.
There is two of everything; one true and one subverted. Baba Yaga is the crone – she has wisdom but obtaining it is dangerous. The old woman who Vasilisa lives with at the end takes her under her care in a more nurturing and less dangerous way, looking out for her welfare with no strings attached.
The mother is represented by Vasilisa’s mother, a woman who loved and cared for her daughter, desperate to help her even after death. This is subverted by the stepmother who loves her own biological children but is happy to send Vasilisa to her death in the woods like someone from another story.
Of course, the maiden is represented by Vasilisa herself and the doll. Both are innocent and industrious (the doll with the housework and later Vasilisa with the cloth-maker) but only one is a true living person.
What exactly is the doll? Does it contain some of the mother’s spirit?
Where can I get one? I friggin’ hate housework.
My knowledge of Russian folklore and fairy tales is limited but it appears that the majority are very female focused and often feature heroine’s than hero’s. This in part may well be due to Russia being seen as the ‘Motherland’ with the country personified as Mother Russia or Matushka Rosa.
Vasilisa the Beautiful is a very female focused story with a host of female characters (mother, stepmother, two stepsisters, Vasilisa, Baba Yaga, the doll, old cloth-maker, inclusion of Baba Yaga’s maid in some versions) especially in contrast to the male characters (father, Tsar, three horsemen).
Let’s beat that wicked stepmother trope again shall we?
Side note though: When Vasilisa tells Baba Yaga that she has been sent to get the light by her stepmother, Baba Yaga refers to the stepmother as ‘kin.’ Background there perhaps?
Although Vasilisa is beautiful (the title tells us so) her beauty serves as the device to make the stepmother and stepsisters jealous. Baba Yaga doesn’t care for her beauty, only whether the tasks are completed, the doll just needs to be fed and even at the end the Tsar loves her first for her skill at cloth making.
Vasilisa is a character who seems to appear in many Russian fairy tales – Vasilisa the Wise, The Firebird and the Princess Vasilisa, Vasilisa The Priest’s Daughter, and The Frog Tsarevna.
I don’t believe they are all the same Vasilisa though, just different women with an incredibly popular name. Like Emma. Everyone is called Emma. Maybe.
Struggled a wee bit on this one! This is what I have:-
- Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter (book)
- Vasilisa the Terrible: A Baba Yaga Story by April A. Taylor (book)
Argh, not much! If anyone else has anything let me know!
You know I am genuinely struggling with doing a ‘My Version’ for this one.
I think if I had my way it would be the full story (as it is not as popular as others) but with more of an exploration as to the viewpoint of the women in the tale especially a strange Baba Yaga/ Vasilisa mentor/ mentee relationship where Baba keeps threatening to eat Vasilisa while simultaneously teaching her magic.
It would be like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride, there is no ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ just a series of successors. I feel like this could be done here, there is no one Baba Yaga but a series of women sent to die and chosen to live.
Until next time when I hope to do an even lesser known fairy tale which even I know nothing about, so I best get reading and researching Roland the Sweetheart asap.