Vasilisa, Baba Yaga, and a Whole Lot of Work

Vasilisa the Famous

My research leads me to suspect that “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is a likely candidate for Best Known Tale Featuring Baba Yaga. If so, we have Alexander Afanasyev to thank. In the 1850s and 1860s, he meticulously collected and transcribed Russian folktales, and the one about Vasilisa’s attempt to fetch a flame from Baba Yaga, the dreaded witch of Slavic lore, appears in a variety of reprints and translations. Even if you can’t read Russian, Ivan Biliban‘s color illustrations in this 1902 edition of the story are well worth a gander, and I reproduce two of them below. If you want to read the story in English, you can choose your translation: W.R.S. Ralston’s in Russian Folk-Tales (1873), Nathan Haskell Dole’s in The Russian Fairy Book (1907), or Leonard A. Magnus’s in Russian Folk-Tales (1916). Since these translators were all working from Afanasyev’s transcription, the results all about the same.

There are some differences in the title and the title character’s name, though. Should we spell it “Vassilisa the Fair” or “Vasilísa the Fair”? Or call her “Vasilisa the Beautful,” “Vasilisa the Brave,” or “Vasilisa the Wise”? I’ve come across all of these, and indeed, the character is all of the above.

One of Ivan Biliban’s depictions of Vasilisa the Fair, Wise, and Brave (with a glimpse of Baba Yaga’s hut that stands on chicken legs)

Work, Work, Work

It strikes me that calling the story “Vasilisa the Managerial” might draw attention to one of its key themes, since demands on the title character to work (and work and work) keep popping up. I’ll follow Ralston’s translation to explain how Vasilisa’s cruel stepmother and stepsisters attempt to ruin her beauty with “every possible sort of toil, in order that she might grow thin from over-work, and be tanned by the sun and the wind.” Yet Vasilisa only grows more attractive because she maintains a good relationship with a certain laborer. You see, when her biological mother died, Vasilisa was bequeathed a magical doll “who would do Vasilisa’s work for her.”

The situation takes a turn when the last bit of fire is extinguished in Vasilisa’s house. Apparently, there weren’t any matches or a flint or two sticks, so those nasty stepsisters send Vasilisa to fetch some fire from the horrible Baba Yaga. Even here, the witch stipulates that the young woman work for it. “But if you won’t work, I’ll eat you!” threatens Baba Yaga. As one might expect, the sinister keeper of the flame tries to get the better end of the bargain by giving Vasilisa an exhausting list of chores. That worker-doll comes in handy once again, doing most of the labor. This permits Vasilisa to keep up with the demanding tasks, much to Baba Yaga’s surprise. Much to her disappointment, too, since she was hoping to eat her guest.

Eventually, Baba Yaga feels compelled to ask: “How is it you manage to do the work I set you to do?” Manage is right! Vasilisa slyly answers: “My mother’s blessing assists me.” Well, the witch is uncomfortable around blessings, and she gives Vasilisa her fire — in the form of a skull with flaming eyes! — and rushes her out the door. The young woman returns home, where Folktale Justice jumps onstage and that skull-with-the-flaming-eyes burns the stepsisters and stepmother to crisp. In a sort of epilog, Vasilisa’s talent as a weaver — which again springs from the worker-doll — leads to her marrying the king. Granted, she’s pretty, but her weaving expertise is central to sparking the king’s love. In other words, a person can rise in the world by displaying good occupational skills and good employee relations.

Interestingly, Baba Yaga oversees employees, too, and they have very important jobs. Flip back to when Vasilisa is walking to Baba Yaga’s hut. She spots someone dressed in white, riding a white horse; a red-clad rider on a red horse; and a person with black clothes on yet another color-coordinated steed. When asked about this, Baba Yaga explains that, respectively, these are the Day, the Sun, and the Night. Furthermore, says the witch, “they are all trusty servants of mine.” Baba Yaga, then, might be considered the Time Manager! Of course, this impressive job title depends on whether or not we trust a woman who eats kids and lives in a chicken-legged cottage.

Here is Biliban’s depiction of Baba Yaga riding her pestle-guided mortar. Apparently, this curious vehicle travels close enough to the ground that the witch needs a broom to erase her tracks.

Does This Tale Still Resonate Because We, Too, Feel Overworked?

While this folktale lends itself nicely to a Marxist or a feminist interpretation, I’ll simply suggest that it resonates with the audience’s experience of work — and, especially, the weariness of being overworked. In the case of the original audience, those poverty-class Russians telling fireside tales in the 1800s, the motivation to work and work and work was probably closely tied to the urge to survive. Speaking as a mainstream American in the 2020s, my own drive to work and work and work — well, I don’t know what it springs from, to be honest. But I’m certainly not alone in feeling that weariness of overwork.

Does this explain why “Vasilisa the Beautiful” (or whatever we should call it) seems to retain more attention than other Baba Yaga tales? On the one hand, such stories dazzle us with images of houses on hen’s leg and skulls with fiery eyes. They offer escape. On the other hand, if they were nothing but escape and entirely detached from our own lives, I wonder if we would have any interest in them at all. Why would certain stories strike a popular chord while others don’t? Phrased differently, is that famous series of novels and movies simply about a kid attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Or is it about a kid struggling to grow up, like a good many of us are doing or have done? I have a hunch it’s about both.


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