Want to make it out of the dark forest alive? Make sure you've got your guiding light with you. Brave the perils of Baba Yaga's woods with Vasilisa, as she discovers that sometimes, a little danger is needed to bring out the best in us.
Translation of Baba Yaga
Lost and Found: Stories of Displaced Female Identity - Episode 5
“Vasilisa the Beautiful: A Lamp Unto My Feet”
Welcome to Lost in the Woods: Finding Your Way as God’s Daughter Through Fairy Tales ™. I’m your host, Autumn Woods, and I’m so excited you’re here. We’re coming to the end of season one with our fifth episode, and I’ll be back with Season 2 in late September/early October after a brief hiatus to record an audiobook for author Melinda Michelle. Check her out in the show notes. Season 2 is called Shield Maidens and will focus on stories of women who protect themselves and those in their charge, exploring what it means to be a warrior woman in the spiritual battlefield.
This brings me to today’s story, one of my all-time favorites that I’ve been dying to share. “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” from Russian folklore collector Aleksandr Afanasiev, is unique to our first season because it is not truly about displaced female identity, but it follows the Cinderella pattern. Vasilisa doesn’t take as long as some of her predecessors to discover who she is and find her courage despite difficult circumstances. She is a healthy symbolic example of constant reliance on the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom. Courageous and steadfast, she takes her problems to the source of her help and behaves wisely and diligently in her trials, fully confident that good will triumph over evil in the end. We’re taken on the journey with her as she travels through the dark forest, comes face to face with one of the most frightening characters in Slavic folklore, and defeats the forces of evil threatening to take her down.
So, let’s get lost, as we read the story of (Vasilisa the Beautiful).
Now that’s a happy ending! Evil supernaturally defeated, time to heal, and restoration and rewards for endurance and diligence. See why it’s one of my favorites? Don’t wander away from the campfire. We’re about to shed some light on the incredible treasure hidden in this story.
We begin, as we so often do, with a mother’s love and blessing before death. Vasilisa’s mother gives her the double portion blessing of the firstborn, as she is the first and only child. We have spoken before about the power of words and prayers lasting well after death, and hers are certainly potent. The mother’s blessing and gift of her doll give Vasilisa assurance and protection throughout her life, even when she is afraid and uncertain.
Before anyone gets offended and makes connections between Vasilisa feeding her doll and pagans laying food offerings before idols, let me stop you right there. The way I interpret this, the doll is very clearly a Holy Spirit figure. Like Cinderella’s dove, the doll builds Vasilisa’s faith and makes her secure in her identity by giving her comfort, instruction, and help in place of an earthly mother. With her dying breath, her mother tells her to always keep the doll hidden with her, and to feed it when she is in trouble to receive its advice. Before Jesus ascended into heaven in Acts chapter 1, He instructed his followers to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is our unseen comforter, teacher, and helper. The more time we spend reading the Word and remaining in God’s presence, setting aside time to feed our spirits with daily bread, the stronger we are in tune with the Holy Spirit. We are more capable of discerning the next right and wise thing we should do or say in a crisis. Like Vasilisa with her doll, it is crucial for us to stay in communication with the Holy Spirit so that we are not easily deceived by something that is not truly God’s will.
In contrast with Cinderella’s surviving parent, Vasilisa’s father is not a cruel or indifferent man, and truly believes that he is doing right by his daughter when he chooses his new wife. She gives all the appearances of being a good housekeeper and mother, but we can see the truth a mile away through the binoculars of fairy tale rules. I’ll bet you even twitched or groaned involuntarily when I said he was thinking of marrying again. I guarantee that you shook your head when the other two daughters were mentioned. Threatened by the beauty of our heroine, the mother and daughters waste no time in tormenting her to break her spirit, laying the yoke of hard labor on her shoulders to destroy her loveliness.
Vasilisa endures a miserable existence. Being stuck in the same place for years with women who hate your guts is absolute agony. Believe me, I know. It’s worse when the only protector who could potentially do something about it is unintentionally absent or oblivious to what’s going on. It definitely feels that way growing up girl. Like you’ve crossed over into this bizarro world that a dad can’t even begin to navigate, so he doesn’t always try. But we as daughters of God have a heavenly protector to help us. One of His names in Hebrew is El Roi, the God who sees me. He is aware of our pain and sees what is in our hearts and the hearts of the broken people torturing us. He is our refuge and strength and help in times of trouble. We are to go to Him with our wounds and worries and allow Him to work wonders in our shattered lives, as the Holy Spirit guides us and shows us our next move.
Vasilisa experiences this through her mother’s gifts. When she cannot stand the ill-treatment of her family, she locks herself in her room, gives her doll the choicest morsels, her first fruits from her meals, tells her her troubles, and asks her “how [she] should live and what [she] should do.” Sounds like Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Vasilisa’s doll rewards her by giving her time to rest while she does the hard work set before them by the stepmother. She even shows Vasilisa an herb that protects her from sunburn.
It is interesting that the action Vasilisa is instructed to perform in this exchange is a simple, childlike one. Even if someone did walk in on her alone in her room feeding her doll, it would look like she was just playing with it, performing a nurturing game in preparation for adult motherhood as is common with girls who have dolls. No one would see at first glance that this seemingly innocent act has great impact on Vasilisa’s life and consequently, the lives of those around her. That’s what prayer is. That’s what reading the Word is. People look at us on our knees or bent over our Bibles and think that we are weak, helpless, and uninformed, bowing under the force of what is attacking us and surrendering. They have no clue that we are meek, not weak, and that from these lowly positions we wage war in the spiritual realm. We’re surrendering all right, but not to the forces of darkness.
Spoiling the plans of her stepfamily, Vasilisa grows more beautiful every day while they become uglier as their inner selves rot with envy. A little bit of Psalm 23 is happening here as a table of youth and vitality is set before Vasilisa in the presence of her enemies. She grows lovelier not only because she is aided by her doll, but because she is wise and good-hearted; her inner glory spills outward and is reflected in her physical beauty. She does not grow vengeful and bitter because of the brutality of her homelife. She takes her troubles to the source of her help and listens to the wise advice she receives in return. Wisdom produces true beauty. And the young men in the village can’t help but notice. One by one, they are swatted away like flies, as the furious stepmother scowls that she will never give Vasilisa in marriage before her own daughters. Beating her stepdaughter does not satisfy her outrage. In her heart, she determines that Vasilisa must die.
The next time her husband goes away on business, she deliberately moves her family into the dark woods, near the house of death. If this is your first introduction to Baba Yaga, you’re lucky. Most other stories she shows up in give frightening physical descriptions of her, and there are few illustrations that don’t chill me to the core, even as an adult. She has the stereotypical witch nose, bony legs, and horrible, sharp iron teeth. And more often than not, she is cannibalistic. According to Historic Mysteries,
“Baba has been translated as old woman, hag, or grandmother, depending on which Slavic language is being referenced. Yaga or Iaga …means horror and shudder in Serbian and Croatian, anger in Slovenian, witch in old Czech, wicked wood nymph in Modern Czech, witch and fury in Polish, and serpent or snake in Sanskrit.”
The imagery of bony legs is doubly reflected in her house, which traditionally spins around crazily on chicken legs. Both sets of limbs suggest that she is an all-consuming devourer who is never satisfied. She symbolizes hunger, death, testing, and elemental power. Stop me when you hear enough similarities between her and the enemy.
Baba Yaga is also one of those fascinating characters in folklore who bends to the needs of the storyteller. She can be relatively innocuous and help the hero or heroine on their quest if she is part of a trio of sisters. Yagas in three let you be. But when she is a star player in the story, she is usually meant to be a test of the protagonist’s character in the face of death. Will they give in to fear, anger, and apathy, only to be consumed in the end? Or will they be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, securing their escape through industriousness and steadfast wisdom? Fortunately, our heroine comes from the latter stock.
Guided by her doll, Vasilisa avoids the traps set by her wicked family, never setting foot in the direction of Baba Yaga’s house. Several verses come to mind about how God guides us and directs our paths away from danger when we cling to His teaching. His Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119: 105). If we acknowledge Him in all our ways, He will make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:6). Psalm 91 in its entirety fits this story. But we can only escape trouble for so long. A little danger is needed to bring out the best in us. And sometimes, in order to find the next phase of our lives, we have to get lost in the woods.
Autumn arrives. The season of harvest, change, and transformation. From this moment on, nothing will be the same. Vasilisa’s old life will pass away and a new one will begin after she endures the most frightening three nights of her life. Like Joseph in Genesis, the envy of her family will nearly sentence her to death, but what the enemy means for evil, the Lord turns around for good. As the leaves start to turn, the stepmother’s plan to be rid of Vasilisa accelerates. One night, she gives all three daughters work to do by the light of a single candle. Before going to bed, she instructs one of her daughters to snuff it out. Claiming that they can see to keep working by the faint glimmer of their pins and needles, the evil sisters insist that Vasilisa to go to Baba Yaga’s house to get a light, pushing her out of the room.
Vasilisa does not bend so easily under pressure. Rather than dashing out the front door in panic, she slips into her room, feeds her doll, and asks for help and advice. The doll’s eyes gleam like two candles as she gently assures Vasilisa that she should go to Baba Yaga without fear, and that no harm will come to her as long as the doll remains in her pocket. How many times does the Lord tell us “Fear not”? Or “Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9)? As hard as it can be to remember, we too need to get into the habit of running straight to God when something or someone terrifies us. David says in Psalm 27:1 that we should not fear anyone because the Lord is our light and our salvation. I also can’t help drawing attention to the connection between the eyes being the lamp of the body, the Holy Spirit being represented by a lampstand in the Old Testament, and the gentle candlelike glow of the doll’s eyes. Once again, she is shown to be a benevolent protector and guide, like the Holy Spirit, encouraging Vasilisa to take the next step into her destiny.
Saying her prayers and shutting the door, Vasilisa ventures out into the dark forest. She cannot help being nervous, but neither could anyone else in those circumstances. Your human body still processes visceral reactions to what is said or done or unknown around you, even if your spirit is strong. The trick is determining which of the warring forces in you gets to remain in the driver’s seat. And even veteran Christians aren’t always good at that. Sometimes I royally stink at it. But, like the little mermaid clinging to her ultimate goal, we need to keep our focus on what we are promised so that we can endure the trials along the way and count them joy.
Suddenly, three horsemen, one white, one red, and one black gallop past her on her journey, indicating the arrival of daybreak, sunrise, and night. I always end up connecting them to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, or the Antichrist, war, and famine respectively. Check out Revelation 6; the colors and order of appearance even match. Baba Yaga in her house of bones represents the fourth horseman: death. Why am I even bringing this up? The horsemen are released and given authority to plague mankind as a first form of judgement for ungodliness. The righteous will be spared, but the destruction must be allowed to happen around them. In Ezekiel 14, the Lord says that when He releases these judgements against a country that has rejected Him, “even if … [Noah, Daniel and Job] were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness.” Remember this when we get to the part of the story when Vasilisa brings the skull light home and is the only one to walk away unscathed.
Before justice can be done, she must face her challenger head on. Following the disappearance of famine—I mean night—through the door of the hut, a terrible forest fanfare announces the arrival of death herself. Baba Yaga barrels toward Vasilisa in her mortar and pestle, crying out in traditional ogre fashion that she smells living flesh. Respectfully, like Daniel in Babylon, Vasilisa explains her situation, and agrees to live and work under Baba Yaga’s roof in exchange for the light for her family. If we doubt that Vasilisa has a decent work ethic, we’re about to be proven wrong. She has the wherewithal to light a torch in the witch’s house upon entering (wouldn’t you?), and the perseverance to serve her enough food and drink to satisfy ten men without filching any for herself or complaining that she too is hungry. We see that she is brave and honorable, because even though she trembles, she does not try to escape after Baba Yaga gives her a laundry list of hard chores and threatens her, nor does she snatch the light she came for and barrel back home through the forest after Yaga goes to sleep. She does as she always has when her back is against the wall, and sneaks what’s left of the witch’s supper to her doll. Gently, her mother’s gift advises her that she should take care of herself. Eat, pray, sleep: “the morning is wiser than the evening.” Most of the time, I find that to be true. The schemes and desperate plans from the night before can disintegrate or come into an idea that makes more sense if I can get some decent sleep. The doll’s advice also sounds something like Psalm 30:5: “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Sure enough, early in the morning, shortly after the white and red riders and Baba Yaga fly about their business, Vasilisa looks about the hut to decide where to begin, only to find that the work is already done! Even the maiden task of sorting the wheat from the chaff! Why isn’t Vasilisa required to do the maiden task of sifting? Even Cinderella has to ask for help before the birds come to her aid. Vasilisa’s discernment is already strong; she can easily distinguish good from evil and chooses to repay evil with good because she is secure in her identity and value. She knows that she can ask for anything in prayer, believing that she will receive it, and it will be hers (Mark 11:24). She recognizes the source of her help and presents her case to her rescuer before ever setting herself to work. “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established” (Proverbs 16:3). This isn’t an area in which she has to grow. Now she can just enjoy the blessings that come with her steadfast faith, after cooking the enormous dinner for Baba Yaga.
She is required to cook the dinner for two reasons. First, the storyteller wants us to remember that Vasilisa is industrious and has a good work ethic. She may catch a break now and then, but not everything is done for her. The same rules apply to us. It is unreasonable to expect that we will get everything we want and need without putting in any effort at all. Our God supplies our needs according to His riches and glory, but one casual glance through the book of Proverbs is enough to light a fire of shame under anyone who does not work diligently.
Second, in peasant culture, sifting is a young girl’s task, but preparing meals is the job of a grown woman. Vasilisa has reached the marriageable age and should no longer be required to perform the labor or occupy the position of a little girl, despite the efforts of her stepmother to prevent her from progressing into womanhood. Vasilisa has been a grown woman on the inside with her spiritual wisdom, and on the outside with her developing body, much longer than the stepmother has wanted to acknowledge. Acting out of fear, she has tried to suppress Vasilisa’s maturation and autonomy by treating her as a slave and chasing away her suitors, ashamed that her own daughters are not as advanced as she. As long as our heroine labors under the evil stepmother’s roof, she will never be allowed to thrive as a whole adult individual. It takes a life and death situation to free her from the tyranny of a stunted existence, allowing Vasilisa’s skills and individuality to flourish. She does not struggle to produce the huge banquet and obviously creates a masterpiece under pressure, because Baba Yaga is annoyed that there is nothing that she can complain about when she returns home. The grinding of the wheat by the riders’ hands represents transformation as Vasilisa passes the day’s test and crosses into adulthood. This symbolism is further reinforced the next night when events repeat as before, and the riders press oil out of the poppy seeds. Under pressure, a new role and stage of life are achieved.
With this new stage comes the wisdom of a devoted believer, and her metaphorical rescue from the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. She has submitted to authority without debasing herself, besting the white horse of conquest. She has kept peace by doing her work well defeating the red horse of war. She has beaten the black horse of famine by using her skills to provide meals. In doing so, she triumphs over Baba Yaga, keeping death and destruction at bay. And she has done all of these things with the help of and in the name of love, as we are commanded to do.
While the old crone polishes off her dinner, she invites Vasilisa to speak to her and ask her questions. When she asks about the three riders, Baba Yaga tells her that they are the dawn, the sun, and the night, her faithful servants. It is a bit uncomfortable to hear that, because we know who separated light and darkness and created the times and seasons. Remember that Baba Yaga is a type of the devil, the prince of the power of the air. He is given a limited amount of authority over this world, but greater is He who is in us than he who is in the world. One day, the devil, death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire to be consumed forever, as they once consumed the world, but the children of God will remain and rule with Christ forever (Revelation 20). Until then, we must battle evil with the spiritual weapons entrusted to us. One of these is the powerful Word of God. We speak it over each other as a blessing and reminder of authority, and there’s nothing the enemy hates more than being reminded who’s really in charge.
Curious, the witch asks Vasilisa how she is able to complete the difficult tasks she sets before her. When Vasilisa confesses that she is helped by the blessing of her mother, Baba Yaga flies into a terrible rage. For three nights, she has unwittingly allowed someone touched by the hand of God into her home, doing good in a place where evil is meant to reign supreme. Furious, she throws Vasilisa out of her house and shoves a skull light into her hands, keeping her end of the bargain. Clutching the terrible lantern, Vasilisa dashes home as fast as she can. Like Jesus, she has spent three days in the house of death in order to gain new life, and it is about to be won by supernatural intervention.
After making the long journey from one night to the next, Vasilisa comes upon her stepmother’s house. She nearly throws the skull away then, thinking that surely her family has found their own light by now. But the skull speaks to her and instructs her to take him in to her stepmother. Upon being received kindly for the first time ever, Vasilisa learns that since she left, there has been no light in the house. A plague of darkness has been placed there. Any light created by the stepfamily or brought to them by the neighbors is immediately extinguished. Sounds like something straight out of Exodus. It has been divinely determined that these terrible taskmasters will let Vasilisa go. The persistent darkness also represents their unchanging hearts. Like Pharaoh, they are hardened against Vasilisa and only pleased to see her because she can solve their problem. They welcome the skull light at first. But then, its fiery eyes begin to incinerate them, chasing them throughout the house until all three wicked women are “burned to ashes.” Only our heroine with her doll in her pocket remains unscathed. She has “observed with [her] eyes and seen the punishment of the wicked” (Psalm 91). Isaiah 41:11-13 says
“All who rage against you will surely be ashamed and disgraced; those who oppose you will be as nothing and perish. Though you search for your enemies, you will not find them. Those who wage war against you will be as nothing at all. For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’”
In the morning, after justice has been done, Vasilisa buries the skull, locks the door, and goes into town, never to return to the house of sadness again. These actions signify that she is ready to move on and start over, never to be a prisoner of her past or haunted by the horrors she has seen on her journey to freedom. She is still waiting for her father to return but does not allow this to make her anxious or consume her life. Instead, she seeks shelter with a kind old woman, who is exactly the type of mother figure she needs during this phase of her life. Someone who will understand her need for silences and rest while her mind and heart cope with all that they have endured and be equally supportive when it is time for Vasilisa to begin to work again. Her benefactor never treats her as a slave or forces her to go back to work. They are more like friends and business partners than mother and daughter. And that’s perfect for Vasilisa as she further establishes her independence.
We too are meant to wait for our Heavenly Father to announce Jesus’ coming and to continue the work we are created to do until then. There are seasons of warfare, rest, and work. Often, they come in this pattern. Vasilisa is resting from her season of warfare and is soon refreshed and ready to enter into her new time of work using her gifts. When our hearts our ready to take the next step in God’s plans for us and the other factors and timing known only to Him all align, the raw materials, resources, and contacts we will need on the way begin to arrive. Vasilisa’s benevolent friend wastes no time in procuring the best flax she can find so that the young woman may begin her new venture. Our heroine is so talented that the yarn she creates is too fine to be woven by a common loom. Both women are at a loss to find a comb fine enough to work with and no one wants to make one for them. Vasilisa once more turns to her doll for aide. At the request of her mother’s gift, she finds an old comb, an old shuttle, and a horse’s mane, gives them to the doll, and allows herself to rest. Out of these items, her doll constructs the ideal loom for Vasilisa’s yarn. God is always doing crazy wonderful miracles with the things we have on hand. He made new eyes for a blind man out of the clay at his feet. He multiplied the oil in a widow’s home so that she could save her family from destitution. He used a boy, a sling, and a stone to demoralize the Philistine army. And He used a young girl willing to defy social convention to bring salvation into the world. The list goes on forever, but the point is that when we put our faith and trust in Him, He can do wonders with us, no matter what we have or don’t have in our toolbelts.
Vasilisa eagerly sets to work with the miraculously constructed loom, creating a linen “so fine that it [can] be passed through a needle like a thread.” Grateful to be given a wonderful place to live, Vasilisa tells the old woman to sell the linen and keep the money. Her benefactor is shocked at her request and insists that only the czar is fit to wear such gorgeous linen. It is so unique in its fine craftsmanship that she cannot even put a price on it when she meets the czar, choosing to honor Vasilisa’s intentions and give the fabric to him as a gift.
Fascinated by the beauty of the linen, the czar orders shirts to be cut and sewn from it. While cutting out the patterns is easily done, finding anyone willing to sew the shirts is extremely problematic. Everyone is afraid to ruin the fabric and refuses to take the job, leaving Vasilisa to do it herself. I love the moment when Vasilisa says, “I knew all the time that I would have to do this work.” Vasilisa is an intelligent woman. She crafts such gorgeous fabric on purpose so that she can secure further work by being the only one skilled enough to handle the material. Since it has been taken to the czar, this could mean wonderful things for her in the future. Determined to stay on this course, she works diligently behind closed doors to make the shirts swiftly and efficiently, to the best of her ability and then some.
She does not accompany the old woman to deliver the shirts but makes herself presentable and watches by the window in expectation. She knows her life is about to change again, and she waits in eager anticipation for her summons, like the Bride of Christ. At last, the messenger comes and escorts her to the palace. When the czar sees her, he “[falls] madly in love with her” and makes her his queen. Before you get uppity about love at first sight, let me throw something at you. The czar has been getting acquainted with Vasilisa through her work. It symbolizes her beautiful character. She is industrious, working for months to create this yarn and weave this linen. She is determined, going without sleep to produce twelve gorgeous shirts from the fruits of her initial labor. She is rare and beautiful like her material, able to maintain grace under pressure, like the fabric passing through the eye of a needle. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a woman like that? She comes straight out of Proverbs 31! He knows enough about her to understand that she is exactly the kind of queen he and his kingdom are looking for.
The number twelve is very significant in the Bible. We have twelve disciples; we have twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve represents the number of government. By creating twelve beautiful shirts out of the material, Vasilisa proves that she is worthy to govern.
The czar himself is fair and kind, offering rewards and gifts for Vasilisa’s beautiful work, and taking delight in her. He even restores to her the family she has been longing for by allowing the old woman and her newly returned father to live with them. We too will experience glorious restoration when we arrive in the kingdom of heaven. Each of us will be given a new name, a glorified body, rewards for being good and faithful servants, and will reign forever with Christ, our eternal bridegroom, who has loved us with an everlasting love. Until then, like Vasilisa with her doll in her pocket, we must keep the source of our help close to us, hiding His Word in our hearts, allowing it to be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
Thanks for stopping by. I’m Autumn Woods. And I can’t wait to see you on the path next season when we get Lost in the Woods.