While Baba Yaga may have her more benign moments, in truth, she is a terrifying creature of great power; a cannibal, said to have devoured the flesh of those whose flaming skulls form a palisade around her chicken-legged hut. Cannibalism seems repulsive and horrible to modern eyes, but originally people ate bits of the dead in order to share their manna, their spirit, and make it their own. Taking a bite of one’s ancestor meant incorporating some of her/his power and wisdom into oneself and opened a door to communication with the dead. In the same way, eating some of one’s enemy allowed access to their courage and intelligence. In a way its about conservation, recycling and continuity; learning from the past and bringing its lessons forward.
Skulls served the same purpose. Many ancient cultures from Celts to Mayans collected skulls and incorporated them heavily into their culture and art considering them the repository of intelligence and home to the soul. Within it repose the organs of all the senses including touch (though skin spreads across the rest of the body as well). To behead a person is to sever his/her connection to Earth; to collect it is to retain some of their essence. To preserve the skull of one’s ancestor maintains an immediate and personal souvenir, which acts as both a mnemonic device and a means of communication with the dead. Read more about skulls on Magdalene A.D.’s Facebook page.
The skull has long been a symbol of death, but in more ancient times it also stood for rebirth. After all, bones last longer than any other part of us – sometimes for century upon century – look at our own far distant great, great, great, great, etc. grandmother Lucy! Thus, in a weird paradox bones represent both immortality and mortality. The witch Baba Yaga embodies that same ambiguity with capricious displays of ferocity and benevolence. So too, do her familiars the cock and the cat. These animals are powerful symbols in many cultures around the world – sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. Both are psychopomps – spirit guides who move between worlds carrying messages and leading souls through the veils that separate one plane from another. Out of all the tangled myth and meaning associated with these animals two things stand out for me.
The cat, a known familiar of witches, hunts in the dark, pouncing on her prey and bringing it into the light. She symbolizes the work the Crone demands of us- to hunt through our own shadows for whatever gnaws, festers and corrupts and bring it into the consciousness.
For Malays, the foot of the rooster represents a three-way cross roads; a place where destiny can change. Hecate, ancient Queen of witches, herself the crone aspect of a pre-Olympian triple Goddess (Persephone, Demeter, Hecate) was worshiped outdoors at places where three paths crossed. The number three has been considered sacred since the dawn of time and still survives in modern Christian culture as The Trinity. Hecate’s crossroads can represent the past, present and future as well as possible new directions to take in one’s life. It’s interesting that she offers a three-way choice, rather than an either/or decision. Hecate, like Baba Yaga represents choice and ambiguity.
The Crone understands connection and entanglement and yet she is essentially simple, basic primitive. Her mantra is easy to understand: Change or die. She grasps the meaning of life’s most basic paradox: the one is contained in the many and the many in the one; all entities formed from the same matter, connected by the same life force, but each one singular and unique.
This is a lot of telling to explain what the collage intends to show! Hopefully, it’s all there. If nothing else, the feminine symbols carved into the trees, half-hidden behind their trunks, indicate the unequivocally feminine nature of this goddess and her mysteries. Or do they? As humans age their bodies change; women and men become more and more androgynous in appearance and wisdom. Individuation is about becoming more completely human. The true Crone integrates within herself both cat and rooster, feminine and masculine.