Illustration by Ivan Bilibin. Vassilisa the Beautiful. Moscow: Department for the Production of State Documents, 1900.

“Vasilissa the Beautiful”

Baba Yaga is a witch-like character from Slavic folklore that I don’t remember from the fairy tales I heard as a child. Actually the first picture I have in my mind is from when I was watching the PBS cartoon Arthur with Amber a few years ago. I don’t remember the plot of the episode, but for some reason one of the kids was imagining Baba Yaga’s hut, complete with its chicken legs. Actually, Baba Yaga is a rather scary old woman. Apparently there are many tales that feature her, but the one I read for today is “Vasilissa the Beautiful.”

As happens to so many beautiful young fairy tale women, Vasilissa’s mother dies early in the story. On her deathbed, she gives Vasilissa a little wooden doll. This wooden doll is magic. When Vasilissa feeds her, she comes alive, listens to Vasilissa’s griefs and problems, and offers advice and assistance. Eventually, Vasilissa’s father remarries and, surprise, surprise, the step-mom is awful to Vasilissa. She makes Vasilissa do all the difficult chores, while her own daughters do nothing. Yes, father is still around but doesn’t do anything to stop the mistreatment. Thank goodness for the doll’s help.

Eventually, father has to leave for an extended trip, and the minute he’s gone, the step-mother sells the house and moves to a neighborhood at the edge of a dark forest. Baba Yaga lives deep in the forest. It is well known that Baba Yaga eats people, so the step-mother sends Vasilissa into the forest daily in the hopes that she will meet the old witch and be devoured, but the little doll keeps her safe.

One night though, Vasilissa is sent to the witch’s hut for fire and she can’t avoid going. On the way, three horsemen pass her, one white, one red and one black. We later learn that they are Baba Yaga’s servants: day, sun, and night. Vasilissa does find the hut.

But at evening she came all at once to the green lawn where the wretched little hut stood on its hens’ legs. The wall around the hut was made of human bones and on its top were skulls. There was a gate in the wall, whose hinges were the bones of human feet and whose locks were jaw-bones set with sharp teeth. The sight filled Vasilissa with horror and she stopped as still as a post buried in the ground.

Baba Yaga brings her in tot he house and has Vasilissa work for her for two days, performing three tasks in exchange for fire. When she finds out Vasilissa was blessed by her mother, she sends her away, giving her a lighted skull to take back for fire.

The story keeps going and is full of fascinating detail. To shorten it, though, the skull burns the step-mother and sisters to death. Vasilissa moves in with an old woman, weaves some delicate linen that attracts the Tsar’s attention. The Tsar falls in love with her, they marry, father returns, happy ever after.

There are so many similarities to other tales here. Most notable is Cinderella, but the witch in Hansel and Gretel is also well-known for eating children and lives in a hut in the woods. And of course, Vasilissa is fair and beautiful, good and kind. Where are the average girls, the too-smart for the own good girls, the angry girls?

Baba Yaga is certainly an interesting old hag though. She’s evil, wants to eat Vasilissa, but in the end helps here by giving her the skull. It’s the skull that rids Vasilissa of the step-mother. Baba Yaga is also more powerful than most witches. Forces of nature – the sun, night – are her servants, at her command. She’s fascinating.

Have you read any of the Baba Yaga stories?

(updated) Friday’s Tales will be a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.

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