Vasilisa and The Fiery Skull

Vasalisa and The Fiery Skull is a heroine in Russian Folklore.

A merchant and his first wife had a single daughter, who was known as Vasalisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa’s mother died when Vasilisa turned eight years old. Her mother on her deathbed, gave Vasalisa a small, wooden doll with instructions to give it a bit to eat and a bit to drink if she were in need, and then it would help her.

When her mother died, Vasalisa gave it a bit to drink and a bit to eat, and it comforted her. Over time, her father remarried; his second wife was a woman with two daughters. Vasilisa’s stepmother was mean and vicious towards her, with her doll’s aid, she was able to perform all the tasks forced upon her. When young males came courting, the stepmother dismissed them all because it was not proper for the younger to marry before the older, and none of the suitors wished to marry Vasilisa’s stepsisters.

The merchant one day, had to set out on a journey. His wife sold the house and moved them all to a dreary hut by the forest. One time she gave each of the girls a task and extinguished all the fires except a single candle. Her older daughter then extinguished the candle, whereupon they sent Vasalisa to fetch fire from Baba Yaga’s hut.

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Above Illustration: Baba Yaga in her mortar, by Ivan Bilibin. (Public domain)

The doll advised her to go, and she went. While she was sauntering down a dark path, a mysterious man rode by her in the hours before dawn, dressed in white, riding a white horse whose equipment was all white; then a similar rider in red.She came to a house that stood on chicken legs and was walled by a fence made of skeleton bones. A black rider, like the white and red riders, galloped past her, and night fell, whereupon the eye sockets of the skulls began to glow. Vasilisa was too frightened to run away, and so Baba Yaga found her when she arrived in her mortar. Baba Yaga said that Vasilisa must perform tasks successfully, in order to earn the fire, or be killed. Her list of chores consisted of cleaning the house and yard, wash Baba Yaga’s laundry, and cook her a meal.

Vasilisa’s other tasks were to separate grains of rotten corn from sound corn, and separate poppy seeds from grains of soil. Baba Yaga left, and Vasilisa’s heart grew heavy, as she worked herself into exhaustion. When all hope of completing the tasks seemed lost, the doll whispered that she would complete the tasks for Vasilisa, and that the girl should sleep.

At dawn, the white rider passed; at or before noon, the red. As the black rider rode past, Baba Yaga returned and could complain of nothing. She bade three pairs of disembodied hands seize the corn to squeeze the oil from it, then asked Vasilisa if she had any questions. Vasilisa asked about the rider’s identities and was told that the white one was Day, the red one the Sun, and the black one Night.

When Vasilisa thought of asking about the disembodied hands, the doll quivered in her pocket. Vasilisa realized she should not ask, and told Baba Yaga she had no further questions. In return, Baba Yaga inquired as to the cause of Vasilisa’s success. On hearing the answer “by my mother’s blessing,” Baba Yaga, who wanted nobody with any kind of blessing in her presence, threw Vasilisa out of her house, and sent her home with a skull-lantern full of burning coals, to provide light for her step-family. Upon her return, Vasilisa found that, since sending her out on her task, her step-family had been unable to light any candles or fire in their home. Even lamps and candles that might be brought in from outside were useless for the purpose, as all were snuffed out the second they were carried over the threshold. The coals brought in the skull-lantern burned Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters to ashes, and Vasilisa buried the skull according to its instructions, so no person would ever be harmed by it.

Later, Vasilisa became an assistant to a maker of cloth in Russia’s capital city, where she became so skilled at her work that the Tsar himself noticed her skill; he later married Vasilisa.

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Above Illustration: Vasilisa at the Hut of Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin (Public Domain)

Sources:

Satran, Paula Redmond, and Rosenkrantz, Linda (2007). Baby Name Bible. St. Martin’s Griffin. ISBN 978-0-312-35220-2

Tatar, Maria (2002). The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company.

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