So, we’ve done a collection (Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights), a childhood favorite (Anne of Green Gables), and an epic which was also a dance drama (Meghaduta). Now, let’s do a folktale!
There is much to be learned about a culture through their folklore, and I’ve read a good many of a number of origins, including Persian, Native American, West African, Mesoamerican, Aborigine, German, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Slavic, to name a few. For this, I picked a Russian story that I’ve read a thousand times over. It features Baba Yaga, a witch-like crone who features in a number of Slavic and Germanic tales, both as foe and friend. The general crone archetype in folktales could work both ways. They’re either horrifically ugly witches who will eat you for supper or they’re grandmotherly old ladies who will give you a blessing if you do them a good turn. Baba Yaga has been both, and is known by a number of names in different countries and cultures. These (could) include Ježibaba of the western Slavic people, Baba Roga in Croatia and Bosnia (where she’s a scary old lady), the Bulgarian Gorska Majka, Muma Padurii of Romania, Mother Holle of Northern Germany, Baba Korizma of Serbia. She has appeared in a number of well-known Russian folktales, the most famous of which are this one and that of Ivan and the Firebird.
Anyway, Vasilisa was the beautiful daughter of a Russian merchant, whose wife died when she was around eight years old. On her deathbed, the mother gave Vasilisa a little wooden doll and told her that if she is ever sad or in need of help, give the doll a little food and some water, and it would help her. So, after a time, the merchant remarried and the new wife was a spiteful woman with two daughters of her own, and naturally – because this is a traditional folktale with archetypal characters – the stepmother and stepsisters were ugly and mean and hated Vasilisa, who was beautiful and good and kind. Thus, she made the girl do all the work in the house and the fields, and never let her marry. Every time Vasilisa was sad, she gave the doll a little food and water, and it comforted her.
So, one day, the merchant had to take off on a long journey. During this time, the stepmother hatched a plot to get rid of Vasilisa for good. She sold the house and moved her and the girls to a little hut near the edge of the woods. One day, she gave each of the girls a job to do and put out all the candles except one. When one of the stepsisters surreptitiously blew out the candle, they sent Vasilisa into the woods, where the fearsome Baba Yaga lived, and told her to get some light from her for them. On the doll’s quiet advice, she went.
As Vasilisa walked through the woods, she came upon three riders (one at a time, not all at once). One came as dawn was breaking, dressed completely in white and astride a white horse. The second came soon after, attired in red upon a red horse. It was nearly nighttime when Vasilisa reached Baba Yaga’s house on giant chicken legs behind a fence of human bones, and a rider in all black upon a black horse passed by her. Baba Yaga arrived in her flying mortar and pestle, and tells Vasilisa that she has to work for the light she wants, and if she doesn’t perform, she’ll be eaten. Not much of a choice there.
So, Vasilisa was put to work. She had to clean the house, clean the yard, do the laundry, cook the food. She also had to separate chaff from grain, poppy seeds from soil, and squeeze oil from the corn kernels. Vasilisa gave the doll a little food and water, and the doll told her to rest before finishing up the work for her. When Baba Yaga returned, she could find nothing to complain about and no excuse to eat Vasilisa. All the work was done, except from the squeezing oil from the corn. Baba Yaga clicked her fingers and three disembodied hands appeared to do the work. She then asked Vasilisa if she has any questions.
Vasilisa asked Baba Yaga about the three riders, and Baba Yaga explained that they were Day (white rider), the Sun (red), and Night (black). She thought to ask about the disembodied hands, but the doll trembled in her pocket and Vasilisa decided not to. Baba Yaga then asked Vasilisa how she got all that work done. It should have been impossible. Vasilisa replied that it was by the grace of her mother’s blessing, and Baba Yaga went nuts. She wanted none of that blessing business in her house, so she threw Vasilisa out and sent her away with the light she came for, in the form of a skull with glowing eyes.
When Vasilisa brought the light back to her stepmother and stepsisters, who had been bathed in unforgiving darkness the whole time, the skull’s eyes glowed bright, so bright that it blinds them all. In other versions, it burned them to ash. You can pick which one you like better. Anyway, they weren’t going to be hurting Vasilisa anymore and she buried the skull so that it wouldn’t hurt anyone else. After that, she went to the capital where she became an assistant to a clothmaker, stitched beautiful shirts which found their way to the czar, who was so enamored by them that he found Vasilisa, fell in love with her, and married her.
(Somehow, all Russian stories seem to involve a wedding with a czar. Or a prince who becomes a czar.)
A few fun facts:
- The entire aesthetic and design of this piece was based off the illustrations of Ivan Biblin, a 20th Century Russian illustrator and stage designer. Most of his works were inspired by Slavic folklore and his illustrations are the most well-known when it comes to the stories.
- I haven’t mentioned it before, but all of these are done on A4 300 GSM Montval watercolor paper and the circles are 18cm in diameter.
- The title calligraphy was borrowed from the font Voyage.