Fairy Tale Friday

Bookish: Fairy Tale Friday – Vasilisa the Beautiful

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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

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(Artist: Cryptosilver)

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.’

the story

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.’

My Thoughts

Flowers

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.

Flowers

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.

Flowers

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.

Flowers

What exactly is the doll? Does it contain some of the mother’s spirit?

Where can I get one? I friggin’ hate housework.

Flowers

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,Β  inclusion of Baba Yaga’s maid in some versions) especially in contrast to the male characters (father, Tsar, three horsemen).

Flowers

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?

Flowers

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.

Flowers

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.

Flowers

Retellings

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!

My Version

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.

Breaker

Until next time when I hope to do an even lesser known fairy tale which even I knowΒ nothingΒ about, so I best get reading and researching Roland the Sweetheart asap.

16 thoughts on “Bookish: Fairy Tale Friday – Vasilisa the Beautiful

  1. I love the tale of Vasilisa, I have a copy of Russian fairy tales somewhere, I need to dig it up because there are many good stories there. πŸ™‚ There’s a book (comic?) Baba Yaga, illustrated by Emily Carroll, I think you’d love it. πŸ™‚ Can’t wait to see what you come up with for Roland the Sweetheart. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh I’ll have to check it out, I need to get more into comics because I have been enjoying the Webtoons ones! I find Baba Yaga such a fascinating character and I love other cultures folklore, the same archetypes keep cropping up!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh if you need comic recommendations I am here! 😁 Oh me too, plus Slavic folklore is a lot darker than any of the other ones and I love that, if you’re interested in it, try to read a bit about: Rusalka, Karakondzula, etc πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well you know me Marina, I like dark! I’ve heard of Rusalka – mainly through The Bear and the Nightingale. I’ve never heard of the Karakondzula but have just checked them out – it’s honestly fascinating how they are linked to the Twelve Days of Christmas because we have nothing like that in the UK! I love other countries folklore, it’s so interesting! Are there superstitions that are acted on during that time?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh there are tons of superstitions here. πŸ˜‚ I tried as much as I could to distance myself from all that because you aren’t considered “modern” or “urban” if you’re superstitious, but as I get older I’m becoming more interested in all that haha. πŸ˜‚ Belief in those beings is much more noticeable in other parts of my country, I can only read about it. πŸ™‚ I only know that Karakondzula is a female demon who appears at night, mainly to men, especially adulterers and then they ride the men all night and scratch them with their claws 😁 There’s an amazing book covering all those demons from Serbian folklore, too bad it’s not available in English, but when I have some spare time I’ll translate a bit for you. 😊

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Ah see half my family are Irish and they are incredibly superstitious and ‘own it’ so I grew up doing all the superstitious actions. The other day after cooking eggs I had to break up the eggshells and told my husband that it’s because if we didn’t they could be used as a witches boat! He hasn’t grown up with a superstitious family so he thinks it’s hilarious!

              I love all that stuff though, the Karakondzula sounds proper hardcore and I love that it was clearly one way to discourage adultery!

              Ooh that would be amazing!!

              Liked by 1 person

              1. As I said in one of my posts, if I were born in rural Ireland I’d definitely be an Arthur Conan Doyle incarnated xD I’d probably talk to fairies in my garden and think my sister was a changeling. πŸ˜€

                Oh I’ve heard of the eggshell boats! I don’t think that’s freaky, it’s kind of cool. πŸ˜€ Only one I do is knocking on wood to dispel bad luck. xD

                Yup, I definitely need to read more about it myself!

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Heck, I talk to fairies in the garden now! I mean I’m pretty sure I’m just talking to myself but someone could be listening….

                  Oh your poor sister – haha! I’m sure she loves that you think that!

                  I do all the superstitious stuff; knock on wood, throw salt over my left shoulder, don’t step on cracks and more. We’re a superstitious folk πŸ˜‰

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Hahaha, well I talk to my cat quite a lot, and I got caught once and it was umm, a weird experience. πŸ˜€ Actually, my sister would kill me for it, if she even knew what a changeling is. xD

                    Oh, actually I avoid the cracks too haha. πŸ˜€ I don’t do salt, but just yesterday I was watching My Kitchen Rules (A cooking competition show), and it was an episode where the contestants had to rush and in all that chaos one woman was salting her dish and in a split second I noticed her throwing salt over her shoulder, I snorted a bit. πŸ˜€

                    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hehe fyi, Baba Yaga makes an appearance in the third book of the Winternight trilogy! Very interesting to actually get an in-depth description and analysis of her. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but I am definitely seeing some parallels here, like Baba Yaga wanting to protect her daughter, being that old crone in the deep of the woods, etc. And the protagonist of Bear and the Nightingale is Vasya! Hmm… πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I still need to read the second one, I am soooooooo behind. Baba Yaga was also referred to in Uprooted and as she’s such a prolific character in Russian/ Slavic folklore I’m not surprised if she makes an appearance in the Winternight trilogy!

      Like

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