Monday, January 21, 2013

The Power to Stand Apart

illustration by Ivan Bilibin
A merchant and his wife had a daughter named Vassilisa. When the girl was eight years old, the mother fell gravely ill.  On her deathbed, the mother gave the girl a blessing and a wooden doll. “Care for it and keep it with you always, and whenever you are in trouble it will help you,” she told the child and then she died.  After a time, the girl’s father remarried and with the help of the doll Vassilisa was able to perform the endless tasks imposed on her by her cruel stepmother and two lazy stepsisters.  One day, when the father had gone on a long journey, the stepmother put out all the lights in the house and ordered Vassilisa to fetch the fire from Baba Yaga’s hut deep within the forest, knowing that whomsoever should enter the lair of Baba Yaga would be eaten by the witch.  The girl consulted the doll who advised her to go. “Never fear,” said the doll to Vassilisa. “Keep me always beside you, and you will be all right.” So Vassilisa slipped the doll in her apron pocket and went into the forest.  At nightfall, Vassilisa found the hut of Baba Yaga.  “It is I, grandmother,” she called out.  The skulls on the old witch’s fence began to glow. “What do you want?” Baba Yaga growled from inside the hut.  “My stepmother sent me to ask you for fire to light our house,” Vassilisa replied, bowing low. “Very well,” said Baba Yaga emerging from the hut and she invited the girl to come inside.  That night, with the help of the doll, Vassilisa performed all of the tasks the witch had set for her on pain of death so that, marveling, the old crone wondered the next day how the girl had survived.  ”By my mother’s blessing,” the girl replied. “Is that so!” Baba Yaga shrieked and, pushing Vassilisa out the door,  grabbed a skull lantern with glowing eyes from the fencepost and thrust it at her.  “Here is the fire you came for.”  When Vassilisa returned home, the eyes from the lantern fixed themselves onto her stepmother and stepsisters and burnt them all to ashes.  Vassilisa buried the lantern and went to live with an old woman she knew.  One day, wishing to do something to pass the time, Vassilisa asked the doll to fashion her a loom.  By the end of that winter Vassilisa had made so much fine cloth that she went to sell it in the capital where her work was admired by the Tsar and he married her.  

In this Russian version of the Cinderella fairytale, the doll is the symbol of the young self as it separates from the mother and learns to stand on its own.  

Women are more relationship-oriented than men and have more difficulty distinguishing themselves from others of their sex, especially from their mothers. They are more prone to losing themselves in relationship.  So in the story, when the mother dies, the daughter is suddenly confronted with the task of finding her own identity, which is the great problem in feminine psychology, according to Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz.  

In her book, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, von Franz notes how girls go about in pairs, copying each other’s hairstyles, dress and even their way of talking.  The fact that girls have trouble sorting out who is who accounts, she says, for certain catty or spiteful behavior:
Because they are so apt to identify, they malign each other behind their backs.  Being unconscious of their own unique personality, they indulge in all such tricks in order to make a separation.
The cruelty exhibited by the stepmother is an example of this.  The stepmother’s value of herself is mixed up with the stepdaughter.  The older woman does not appreciate her own worth and tries to do away with the girl so that her ego can survive.  The stepmother has no desire for insight into the problem either, as symbolized by her putting out all the lights in the house and sending the girl away.  

Vassilisa, on the other hand, chooses another path.  Strengthened by her mother’s positive blessing (symbolized by the doll), the girl bravely accepts the difficult course of individuation.

The daughter’s task of finding “her own femininity in her own form” – as von Franz puts the problem – is presented at the mother’s death, when the girl is eight years old, a time when a child is just beginning to experience a sense of self.  Instead of seeing herself through her own eyes, or through the eyes of her mother (with whom until now she was one), the child begins to realize that there are “others” who are separate and apart from her.  Indeed, it is as if her consciousness has split in two and she now experiences herself as she imagines others see her.  This is the birth of self-consciousness.  But Vassilisa goes even further.  When confronted at this tender moment with the malignant force personified by the stepfamily, the doll instructs the girl to go deep into the forest – to face the witch.

This is no coincidence. According to von Franz “that first intuitive realization of the Self”—much more profound than mere self-consciousness – is always accompanied by the appearance of the powers of darkness and desolation. “Where the pearl is,” she says, “There is also the dragon, and vice versa.  They are never separate.”

Put another way, there can be no birth of the Self without an encounter with and insight into the shadow. Vassilisa instinctively knows that in order to be released from the dark forces that surround her, she must face them. The girl’s discussion with the doll as to whether to enter the forest is an example of the conscious decision to do so.

Baba Yaga is not an entirely evil figure, however.  In fact, Vassilisa calls her grandmother.  Her power, exemplified by the staring eyes of the skull, symbolize what Sylvia Brinton Perera in her book Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women calls “the cold yin of Erishkigal’s vision,” Erishkigal being the Sumerian goddess who survives alone, Queen of the Underworld, cold, brutal and uncaring, completely detached from others, stuck in childbirth, groaning in pain and deepest despair.  Here, in these cold chambers, there is a complete standstill “where all is miasmic and inhuman and inchoate.”  There is no hope of “effective, yang answer” as Brinton puts it, “no way out by work or will.”  And yet, as the story shows, the encounter with and indeed acceptance of the cold, dark goddess, exemplified in Vassilisa’s story by her willingness to confront Baba Yaga leads to illumination and rebirth.    

How does Vassilisa do it? 

She holds on to her self (care for it and keep it with you always).  

Too often women lose themselves in relationship, giving in to the urge to merge with another in love, or denying parts of themselves, especially that cold impersonal potency symbolized by the staring skull lantern, frightened no doubt by its powerful effect.

Letting go of sentimental forms of loving and the sense of well being she may have once gotten from being merely agreeable or loyal or good, Vassilisa claims her right to fire and survives the night in Baba Yaga’s hut.  It is her birthright and she owns it, proclaiming that she has come through the night "by my mother's blessing," whereupon she is immediately released from possession by the witch - and from the bondage of her cruel stepmother.  

The story teaches us that to become a graceful, whole and self-loving person, capable of taking action in the world (weaving our fine cloth), a woman must care for herself and hold on to all of her parts, acknowledging the dark powers of the goddess rather than attempting to destroy or escape them. 

Is there some part of you that you have lost and need to reclaim?


Linda said...

nice analysis and illustration of women's process...

i thought you were going to tie it in to the Ladies Friendship Clothing Exchange party -- girls trying to find their style identities by comparison with each other!

Sarah said...

Cinderella was one of Gwyneth's favorite stories when she was 3-4 years. We read all the versions available from our local library but never the Russian version. I can't wait to share it withGwyneth along with your analysis which I think she will appreciate even at age six. When I think about Gwyneth's challenges lately, it occurs to me she may already be experiencing her sense of self and has wisely chosen Peggy (her therapist) as her confidant and guide.

The Red Coat Writer said...

Good idea, Linda. I'm working on the clothing exchange pamphlet - but I never thought of doing it as a post! Sarah, you can borrow my copy. I have a beautiful illustrated edition that I bought in St. Petersburg - when it was still called Leningrad!