The history of Vasilisa

By KATE FORSYTH

This week Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women is finally launched into the world.

To celebrate I thought I would explore the history of the titular tale, which is one of the best-known and best-loved Russian fairy-tales. An old oral tale, it was transcribed by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev between 1855-67 and first published in his collection, Russian Fairy Tales.

There are many different versions of the story, many of which are called ‘Vasilisa (or Vassilisa) the Beautiful’. I deliberately chose the title which did not focus on the heroine’s beauty but rather on her wit and wisdom.

In nearly all of the tales, a young woman is sent by her cruel step-mother to fetch fire from Baba-Yaga, a terrifying witch who lives in the midst of a dark forest and rides about in a giant iron mortar (a bowl for grinding food), which she steers with a pestle (the grinding tool).

Baba-Yaga lives in a house with chicken legs and is known to eat children. The hut has a life of its own. It walks about, spins in circles, and emits bloodcurdling screeches. A fence made of human bones surrounds the hut, topped with skulls whose blazing eye sockets light up the forest.

There are many stories about Baba-Yaga in Slavic myths. The very earliest ones refer to her as ‘Snake-Baba’. In pre-Christian mythology, snakes were not seen as evil. They were instead powerful emblems of rebirth and transformation, since they shed their old skins for new. Snakes was therefore seen as wise and powerful beings that had much to teach about the natural cycles of time and the seasons.

It is thought that the term ‘yaga’ is a corruption of the Russian words ‘uzkii’ which means ‘narrow’ or ‘snakelike’, and ‘uzh’ which means ‘grass-snake’, both developing from the Old Slavic word ‘ужь’.

The same old Slavic word led to the Latin words ‘anguis’ (snake), ‘anguinus’ (pertaining to a snake), and ‘angustus’ (meaning to squeeze or tighten like a snake), which interestingly enough also led eventually to the English word ‘anguish’.

The word ‘baba’ is linked to ‘babushka’, which means grandmother, but in its shorter form means simply any woman, young or old.

So in the earliest tales, Baba-Yaga is not a figure of evil, but rather a wild, dark, wise figure whose role is to help the heroine change and grow.

Once upon a time, older women were seen as ‘crones’, the keepers of wisdom and tradition for the family or clan. These wise women were thought to understood the mysteries of birth, life and death. Often they were healers and midwives, who brought babies into the world and cared for those who were dying.

Baba-Yaga contains within her these wise old women, as well as later ideas of witches as ugly and evil.

Her links to nature and the cycle of time are emphasised by her servants, the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman, who she calls, ‘My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight’ because they control daybreak, sunrise, and nightfall.

Vasilisa comes to her hut searching for fire, which symbolically means the light of wisdom. She has to endure a series of trials and tribulations, but is helped in her quest by the little wooden doll given to her by her dead mother. The doll symbolises the ancient maternal wisdom of the crone, but is also Vasilia’s own intuition, helping her find her way.

Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés interprets the story of Baba-Yaga in her seminal work on fairy-tales, Women who Run with the Wolves. She wrote:

To my mind, the old Russian tale “Vasalisa” is a woman’s initiation story with few essential bones astray. It is about the realization that most things are not as they seem. As women we call upon our intuition and instincts in order to sniff things out. We use all our senses to wring the truth from things, to extract nourishment from our own ideas, to see what there is to see to know what there is to know, to be the keepers of our own creative fires, and to have intimate knowing about the Life/Death/ Life cycles of all nature – that is an initiated woman.

Stories with Vasalisa as a central character are told in Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland and throughout all the Baltic countries. In some instances, the tale is commonly called “Wassilissa the Wise.” I find evidence of its archetypal roots dating back at least to the old horse-Goddess cults which predate classical Greek culture. This tale carries ages-old psychic mapping about induction into the underworld of the wild female.’

I certainly see the tale as one of female liberation. Vasilisa journeys from a position of childlike submission to one of strength, wisdom and independence. The little wooden doll advises and supports her, but Vasilisa herself must choose what actions to take.

Step by slow step, she turns from a girl into a woman. She sheds her old skin and is reborn.

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Castlemaine Launch

Last Thursday, Castlemaine Library hosted the first launch of Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women. About seventy people came along and shared the celebration, one that’s been several years in the making.

The wonderful Carmel Bird gave the launch speech and began:

Once in a kingdom far far away there lived a kind and wonderful witch. In her generous witchy heart she nurtured a deep desire – she longed for a great book of stories, a book that recognised and celebrated the courage and cleverness and power of young women. The wonderful witch mixed a potion, stirred it in her cauldron, and watched the blue and green mist as it rose mysteriously from the pot. It was perfumed with lavender and honeysuckle, eucalypt and wattle, and it wove in and out of the treetops until it began to form into words that hung like spider webs on the branches. And the message was:

By Light and By Dark; By Night and By Day:

Summon Lorena Carrington; Summon Kate Forsyth; Search the wilds of Western Australia for Serenity Press.

And so she did. And lo – you now have before you the self-same book that the good witch desired.

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Many of you will know Carmel’s work. She’s a true literary genius, so I was rather pleased to keep my (relative) cool on stage next to her. She was incredibly gracious and clever and wise, and spoke deeply about the book and its place in the world.

This book comes at a time when women across the world are suddenly speaking out very loudly about the violence and oppression that have been accepted as a normal expectation in western society. Fairy tales, for all their pleasures, are a subtle and powerful way of speaking out. The term ‘sisterhood’ became current, I think, in the seventies, and what is being heard now is the voice of the sisterhood united and enabled by current technology. This book adds its voice in a dramatic and sometimes subversive way.

I spoke afterwards about the power of social media. How one well-timed tweet affected the course of several professional lives, and triggered the creation of a book (and more to come)! I also garbled a lot of thank yous and tried not to go wobbly in front of a theatre of friends and strangers. I also pulled a lot of weird faces.

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We had originally planned to hold the launch in the foyer connected to the library, but had to move the formal proceedings to the attached theatre due to large numbers (yay!). Here is some of the crowd milling about in the foyer afterwards.

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I’m so grateful to our local bookstore Stoneman’s Bookroom, and especially the dedicated people who work there. Here’s the incredible Katherine – oh and look, a pile of books!

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Castlemaine Library went above and beyond in their hosting of the launch, and I can’t thank them enough – just look at these lanterns they made!

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While it felt more than a little strange to have this first launch without Kate and Serenity Press (the pitfalls of geography and time…) they were certainly here in spirit, and there will be more launches to come! It was also a fantastic reminder of the wonderful community here in Castlemaine; filled with fellow creatives and supporters of the arts.

You can order Vasilisa the Wise from the Serenity Press website. Or win a free copy over at Goodreads! The giveaway is open until Jan 10th.

Or support your local bookseller: if they don’t have any in stock, ask them! They will be happy to order it for you, and it helps us too.

Thank you so much to all who came last Thursday. It was an incredible turn-out for a week day evening in a country town. And for those who live elsewhere, do keep an ear to the ground for launches in select capital cities early next year. We can’t wait to see you all!

Trailer: Vasilisa the Wise

“Morning is wiser than the evening.” Vasilisa, Russian fairy tale

Our proofs are at the printer and should soon be on the ship, ready for despatch to Australia – we are so thrilled. We’re also thrilled to announce that Kate and Lorena will be working together on a follow-up book, Mollie Whuppie & Other Tales of Brave Young Women, due early 2019.

Here’s a short book trailer highlighting some of the brilliant images you’ll see when Vasilisa the Wise & Tales of Other Brave Women is released – thanks to Lorena for her hard work in making it.

If you  haven’t already pre-ordered your copy, you can do this here.

The Illustration Process

When you look at Lorena’s illustrations, do you see paint? Ink? Paper cut outs? Her work is certainly inspired by the incredible pen and ink illustrations of Arthur Rackham and the watercolour and cut-out works of Jan Pienkowski, but she uses an altogether different method. In an extract from a conference paper she recently gave at the Australian Fairy Tale Society conference, Lorena describes her method in her own words:

I work entirely with photography, which does surprise a lot of people. These works aren’t paintings or drawings. Instead I photograph many separate elements and montage them together in Photoshop.

We’ll go right back to the beginning of my process. My work always starts with what the landscape gives me. I collect small treasures – leaves, stones, animal bones – and photograph them, then file them into digital folders ready to draw from.

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As you can see below, the bridge of bones is made from an entire fox skeleton, with a couple other skulls thrown in for good measure.  A year or so ago, we had some friends staying, and they returned from a walk in the bush near our house with a bundle wrapped up in a silk scarf. “We have a present for you!” Unwrapping it with a flourish, they revealed a pile of white bones – a fox skeleton! Once I reassembled it, I was thrilled to discover it was completely intact, minus a few tiny toes.

I photographed them one by one on a light box, and assembled them carefully in photoshop. In the end, this image was created from 72 separate photographs, and was the basis for one of the illustrations for The Rainbow Prince in Vasilisa The Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women:

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I start by photographing the pieces I need, either on-location (usually squatting somewhere damp!) or at home on the light box. The light box gives me the silhouette that I need, which I then refine later in Photoshop. If I’m photographing a large subject, like a person, I set up the studio lights, lighting the wall behind the subject, but not the subject themselves.

Next, I upload the photographs to the computer and make any necessary adjustments. These are saved into in my *ahem* extremely well organised filing system, ready for use.

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I usually start a new image with the silhouette components. I either use them as themselves – trees, people etc – or I build creatures out of lots of seperate photographs. The fox bridge for example, or creatures I wouldn’t have a chance of photographing myself. Here are a few animals that I’ve created out of sticks, leaves, bones… stuff from the forest floor. When making a composite creature, I try to be conscious of their surroundings in the story and illustration, and use objects that you would find there. In that way, they are built up from their own ‘landscape’.

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Once I’ve built up the silhouettes, I layer in the background – itself often made from several photographs merged together. And there, after a process that can take anywhere from several hours to many days of collecting, photographing, editing, montaging and layering, we have a completed image.

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You can see Lorena talk further about Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women at the Athenaeum Library in Melbourne, this Thursday evening (July 20th) as part of the Australian Fairy Tale Society’s Fairy Tale Evening. Alongside singers, storytellers & writers, she will discuss the upcoming book and her creative process.

And don’t forget to pre-order your copy of Vasilisa the Wise. The first 1000 pre-orders come with a free gift, so don’t miss out!

10 gift ideas for folklore & fairy tale lovers

Inspired by Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women, we’ve trawled the Internet to seek out a range of gifts for the folklore and fairy tale lover in your life. From the stunning to the quirky, we’re sure there’s at least one thing here that will thrill its recipient.

1. Baba Yaga pendant:

This pendant featuring an ammonite fossil is definitely eye-catching … and looking at it onscreen, there’s a definite sense that she’s watching. There’s wisdom in that gaze. It’s available here.

Baba Yaga Pendant

2. V for Vasilisa:

We loved these custom-designed typeface prints – especially the V for Vasilisa. The original illustration was created using pencil crayons, graphite, water colour crayons and white watercolour. Prints are available here and there are plenty of other fairy tale-inspired letters to choose from.il_570xN.1091697821_91o8.jpg

3. Katie Crackernuts’ bluebird

In Kate’s retelling of ‘Kate Crackernuts’ aka ‘Katie Crackernuts’, Katie gives a fairy child hazelnuts in exchange for a bluebird so she can save the young lord who’s exhausted from dancing all night, every night. This gorgeous pendant is a lovely reminder of freedom. Buy it here.

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5. The Serpent Prince

A brave gardener’s daughter marries a giant serpent to save a prince. That’s a pretty big display of love and so is this solid, high grade silver vintage Indian snake chain belt. It’s not for everyone, but then again, neither is marrying a serpent! Available here.

5. Fairer-than-a-Fairy

A princess is kidnapped by an evil fairy and has only her dog, cat and a Rainbow prince to keep her company. But he only visits when the sky is cloudless. This crystal sun catcher is bound to bring colour and light into your days. Available here.

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6. The Singing, Springing Lark

In her blog post titled The most gorgeous fairy tale books in the world, Kate recommends The Lady & The Lion (a version of ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’, retold by Laurel Long and Jacqueline K Ogburn) for its ‘utterly exquisite’ illustrations. Buy here.

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6. The Stolen Child – shawl pin

In Kate’s retelling of ‘The Stolen Child’, a young woman knits an otherworldly shawl and offers it to the faery folk who have stolen her baby. This antiqued silver plated brass pin with a Victorian-style design of a maiden and harp is a real beauty and would suit a delicate shawl. Available here.

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7. The Toy Princess

For the puzzle-lover, why not check out this hand-cut, collectible wooden jigsaw puzzle. The image reminds us of Ursula in Kate’s retelling of The Toy Princess when she returns to the well-mannered but joyless kingdom of her birth. Buy the puzzle here.

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8. Stories are made for recycling

We truly believe that we need to keep telling and writing stories to keep them alive. This beautiful leather-bound book journal includes illustrations and select “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” stories. You can order this or something like it here.

9. Quirky and cute

This fairy tale themed umbrella will definitely make its owner stand out in a crowd. Best of all, it’s not just for fashion – it can get wet! You can buy this here.

 

10. Tea time

How cute is this fairy tale themed tea cosy? Its creator says:

Fairies like to move about
From their world to our own
And when they come to visit ours
I want them to have a home

You can buy this here. Serve with your favourite tea pot and tea cup – you could even try the Fairy Tale blend from Mountain Rose Herbs.

Are you inspired? Let us know your favourite.

But wait, there’s more …

Pre-orders of Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women are now open and come with a free gift for the first 1000 orders.

 

Fairy tale forest

You wouldn’t think you’d find a place like this in Australia … but that’s exactly where this is. This photo was taken by Serenity Press editorial director Monique Mulligan at Golden Valley Tree Park in Balingup, in Western Australia’s South West.

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Fog and mist shrouded the garden, lifting slowly for a stunning interplay of light and droplet-filled air around lush sequoias and spreading oaks.

“It’s like something from a fairy tale … and I felt connected to Vasilisa and her brave friends as I traipsed up and down hills. I didn’t want to leave!”

“I imagined Baba Yaga’s iron mortar flying through the woods … and Katie Crackernuts holding onto the sick young lord as his horse was compelled through the forest to the faeries’ Great Hall. A wonderful moment of knowing that this project was meant to be…”

Pre-orders are now open and come with a free gift for the first 1000 orders.

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