Women Who Run With The Wolves is still my favourite book, so well loved that it’s cover is fading and its pages are dog-eared and highlighted beyond recognition. Clarissa Pinkola-Estes’ masterpiece is one of the few books I can read over and over again and still find something different, a layer or jewel I have never noticed. Wherever I am in my life, there is something in this book that speaks to me. Women Who Run With The Wolves is the antidote to the ocean of quick-fix motivational self-help books that seem to bearely scratch the surface of what it means to be a woman, or more specifically, a wild, healthy woman. The book invites deep self-reflection and creativity without saying ‘you should do this’, which we hear enough of as women. Rather than saying, ‘do more’ it whispers, ‘do less and be more’ – a timeless an authentic message that will be valuable forever.
My favourite part of my favourite book is the ancient Russian fairytale, Vasalisa and the Doll, or rather Estes’ rich translation of it. Here it is retold in my language.
Vasalisa and The Doll
Once there was a little girl named Vasalisa who sat beside her mother’s deathbed. As the mother lay dying, she whispered to the girl, ‘here is a doll for you, my love’. She handed her daughter a tiny doll, who was dressed in red boots, like the girl herself. ‘Here are my last words, daughter’, said the mother. ‘Should you ever lose your way or need help, ask this doll what to do. You will be guided. Keep the doll with you always. Tell no one about her. feed her when she is hungry. This is my blessing on you, dear daughter’. And with that, the mother died.
The child and her father mourned for a long time. Finally, the father chose to marry again – a widow with two daughters. Although the new stepmother and her daughters spoke in polite tones and always smiled like ladies, there was something sinister behind their smiles which Vasalisa’s father could not perceive. Sure enough, when the three women were alone with Vasalisa they tormented her and forced her to wait on them. They hated her because she had something about her that was otherworldly. She was also very beautiful.
One day the three women could stand Vasalisa no more. ‘Let us conspire to make the fire go out, and send Vasalisa into the forest to Baba Yaga, the witch, to beg fire for our home. When she reaches Baba Yaga, the witch will kill her and eat her. They all clapped and squeaked like things that live in the dark.
So that evening, when Vasalisa came home from gathering wood, the whole house was dark. ‘What will we do to light the darkness?’ she asked her stepmother. The stepmother answered, ‘I cannot go into the woods because I am old. My daughters cannot go because they are afraid. You must go to the forest and find Baba Yaga and get coal to start the fire again.’
Vasalisa replied innocently that yes, she would go. The woods became darker and darker and sticks cracked under her feet. She reached down into the long pocket of her dress and there was the doll her dying mother had given her. Vasalisa patted the doll and thought, ‘by just touching this doll I feel better’. At every fork int he road, Vasalisa consulted her doll on which direction to turn. She fed the doll some bread and walked on, following what she felt emanating from the doll.
Suddenly, a man on a white horse galloped by and it became daylight. Farther on, a man on a red horse went by and the sun rose. Vasalisa walked and walked and, just as she came to the house of Baba Yaga, a rider in black came by on a black horse and it became night. The fence made of skulls and bones surrounding the hut began to blaze with an inner fire.
The Baba Yaga was a fearsome creature. Her house was even more strange. The bolts on the doors and shutters were made of human fingers and the lock on the front door was a snout with many pointed teeth.
Vasalisa consulted her doll and asked, ‘Is this the house we seek?’ and the doll, in its own way answered yes. Before she could take another step, the Baba Yaga descended on Vasalisa and shouted, ‘what do you want?’ The girl trembled, ‘I came for fire. My house is cold and my people will die’. Baba Yaga snapped, ‘yes, I know of you and your people. What makes you think I should give you the flame?’ Vasalisa consulted her doll and replied, ‘because I ask’.
Baba Yaga said, ‘you’re lucky, that is the right answer’. Then she quickly added, ‘I cannot give you fire until you have done work for me. If you perform these tasks you shall have fire. If not, you shall die’. Baba Yaga laid down on her bed and ordered Vasalisa to bring her food and drink. She then said, ‘wash my clothes, sweep the floor prepare my food, and separate the mildewed corn from the good corn. I will be back to inspect your work later. If it is not done, you will be my feast.’ With that, she flew off and it became night again. Vasalisa turned to her doll as soon as Baba Yaga had gone. ‘What will I do? How will I complete all these tasks?’ The doll assured her she could and to eat a little and go to sleep. Vasalisa fed the doll a little too and went to sleep.
In the morning the doll had done all the work. In the evening the Yaga returned and found nothing undone. ‘You are very lucky girl,’ she sneered. She then called on her faithful servants to grind the corn and three pairs of hands appeared in mid-air and crushed the corn. Finally it was done and the Yaga sat down to eat for hours. She then ordered Vasalisa to again sweep the house, prepare the meal and launder her clothes. She pointed to a great mound of dirt in the yard. In that pile of dirt are many poppy seeds. In the morning I want to have one pile of poppy seeds and one pile of dirt, all separated from each other. Do you understand?’
Vasalisa almost fainted. She reached into her pocket and the doll whispered, ‘dont worry, I will take care of it’. That night, as Baba Yaga slept, Vasalisa began to try to pick out the poppy seeds one by one. ‘Stop now and sleep’, ordered the doll.
Again the doll accomplished the task and when the Baba Yaga arrived home, all was done. ‘Lucky for you you were able to do these things’, she said angrily. She called for her faithful servants to press the oil from the poppy seeds and again three pairs of hands appeared in mid-air to do the task.
‘May I ask you some questions, grandmother?’ said Vasalisa as the old woman was eating.
‘Ask’, said the yaga, ‘but remember too much knowledge can make a person old too soon.’
Vasalisa asked about the man on the white horse.
‘Ah, that is my day,’ Yaga replied.
‘And the man on the red horse?’
‘Ah, that is my rising sun’.
‘And the man on the black horse?’
‘That is my night. Come child, wouldn’t you like to ask more questions?’
Vasalisa was about to ask about the three pairs of hands but she felt the doll jumping up and down in her pocket so instead she said, ‘No grandmother, as you said, asking too many questions can make a person old too soon.’
‘Ah, you are wiser than your years, my girl’, said the Yaga. ‘How did you come to be this way?’
‘By the blessing of my mother,’ smiled Vasalisa.
‘Blessing!?’ screeched Baba Yaga, ‘We need no blessings here. You’d best be on your way’. She pushed Vasalisa out into the night. ‘Here, take this’. Baba Yaga handed Vasalisa a skull with fiery eyes on a stick. ‘There is your fire. Be on your way and don’t say another word.’
Vasalisa began to thank Baba Yaga but the doll started to jump up and down so she knew she must take the fire and go. She ran quickly through the forest, following the directions of her doll.
Vasalisa came through the forest carrying the skull with fire blazing through its ears eyes nose and mouth. Suddenly she became frightened of its weight and its eerie light and thought to throw it away. But the skull spoke to her and urged her to calm herself and continue toward home. And she did.
As Vasalisa came nearer to her home her stepmother and stepsisters looked out the window and saw a strange glow dancing through the woods. Closer and closer it came. They could not imagine what it could be as they had decided that Vasalisa’s long absence meant that she was dead. Vasalisa advanced closer and closer to home. Vasalisa entered the house feeling triumphant, for she had survived her dangerous journey and bought fire back into her home. But the skull on the stick watched the stepsisters and the stepmothers every move and burnt into them, and by morning it had burnt the wicked trio to cinders.
I love Vasalisa’s journey because it feels like my journey, like life. When I picture myself as Vasalisa I gain strength because I know that everything works out well whenever she listens to her doll (intuition). I too have a doll in my pocket that I can use in place of parenting books, outside opinions and the deceptions of my mind. Having a doll and using it makes me a wild woman.
Five things I’ve learned from the fairy tale of Vasalisa:
I am an intuitive being. My intuition is a muscle I need to strengthen every day. Some tools I find effective for doing this drum journeying, labyrinth meditation, feeling, drawing and writing in my journal. When Vasalisa first set out into the forest, she tentatively consulted her doll and slowly took directions from it. When she returned though the forest, she was able to quickly heed its directions because she completely trusted it. It had proven itself to her again and again, just as my intuition continues to prove itself to me.
I am happiest when I ask my doll for guidance each time a challenge arises.This transfers to my life, particularly as a parent, when each day I ask for guidance (mostly only as challenges arise). I feel a new confidence and resilience that no amount of talk or reading about the concept of intuition could have bought.
The importance of a quiet mind. Magic happens when the mind is not my master. Just as Vasalisa’s dolls tells her to ‘go to sleep’ and then completes the seemingly impossible tasks for her, I am noticing that amazing things happen when the critical, analytical, know-it-all mind ‘sleeps’ and more mysterious visions and messages lead me through the woods. These visions and messages are the ones I choose to remember, where once I would have dismissed them. For example, I was having a challenging time a few months ago, during menstruation, and I remembered what a powerfully intuitive time menstruation was and sat down to meditate. I had a quick vision of me on a boat with three wise women rowing me through the dark. That vision has stayed with me, and the kind faces of those women appear to me often and calm me. I now feel excited when I sit down for my short meditation because I trust the process and know that far more valuable information will emerge from the silence than I ever gleaned in my previous life as a chronic advice-seeker.
That I love the darkness as much as the light. There is so much richness to be found in the dark and that I am not afraid to face my shadow self, however uncomfortable it may be. When Vasalisa had to separate mouldy corn form the good and poppy seeds from the dirt, it represented to me intuition separating the jewels of knowledge form challenging time. I really feel this in my bones now. When dark feelings descend, I feel them more, but I can bear them because I know from experience that I will emerge with a lesson and that light will follow dark if I just roll with it. It doesn’t make descending easier but it makes it richer and more meaningful. Often, it takes dark times or challenges for me to remember that I have an intuitive side and that I need to feed it, just as Vasalisa needs to feed her doll or it won’t work for her.
That I am worthy of shining bright. As Vasalisa came through the forest, the skull she was carrying was burning so brightly that it began to frighten her and she considered throwing it away. If she did, she would have thrown away one of her most powerful gifts. Luckily, she was given the message to hold tight to it and all would be ok. I have thrown away the skull again and again in my life, and feel that I am only now beginning to gain the deep confidence I need to shine bright. Although I am afraid that my version of ‘shining bright’ is probably different to our culture’s idea of success, I am still worthy of shining bright in my own way and that it is vitally important that I have the courage to do so. I am often called upon to be courageous in small ways, like trusting my intuitive parenting decisions even when they look wrong to everyone else (and I can’t see the outcome of them yet). I am also exercising my courage muscle in small ways, like wearing weird socks in public and hosting blessingways for women I have just met! It feels good.
Baba Yaga cautions, ‘do not to ask too many questions’ in order to avoid ruining the beauty and complexity of the mystery. This translates, for me, to asking my intuition before I ask someone else how to make a decision, how to parent my children, how to succeed in something. I now have many tools at my disposal to access my inner truth at any given moment. I am in tune with the cycles of nature and I know the healing power of going with the flow.
What fairy tales do you love?