|Ivan Bilibin, "Vasilisa the Beautiful"|
The soil of Russia is rich with folk tales and stories of heroes and their mystical journeys, tasks, and initiations. Some of the heroes in these stories are, in fact, not heroes at all, but heroines, and the stories themselves are saturated with feminine symbolism. An archetypical evil stepmother sends one such heroine, a young maiden named Vasilisa, on an errand to seek light from Baba Yaga after extinguishing the oven fire. When Vasilisa reaches Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut, the crone requires Vasilisa to complete several impossible tasks. If she fails, Baba Yaga will eat her and add the bones to her grisly collection. However, Vasilisa accomplishes everything required of her with the help of a magic doll, which was a gift from her biological mother on her death-bed and thus, a powerful conduit of her mother’s love. Baba Yaga, discovering that Vasilisa bears her mother’s blessing, sends her back home with a lantern fashioned from a skull. Once Vasilisa enters her own cottage, the skull shoots flames from its eye sockets and burns the evil stepmother to ashes.
The story of Vasilisa the Wise contains many symbols, such as the oven and the skull. For Russian peasants, fire was synonymous with life and the stove was linked to the ancestral spirits of the family. Thus, in letting the hearth fire die, the stepmother displays both irresponsibility and disrespect for her husband’s ancestors. The flaming skull given by Baba Yaga indicates the connection between life and death, and in punishing the evil stepmother, it represents a sort of justice. Vasilisa, despite her stepmother’s cruelty, is a dutiful daughter and fulfills her journey to seek light, which also represents knowledge in an initiatory sense. When Vasilisa first begins her journey, she knows little of the world beyond the threshold. At the end of her journey, the young maiden is ready to marry, for she has learned how “to imitate in the most exacting manner the tasks which will be her lot when she assumes the role of mother” and that the “power she must obey is also the power which she will one day exercise” (Hubbs).
Elizabeth Warner The Legendary Past: Russian Myths (2002)
Joanna Hubbs Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture (1993)