Tag Archives: grandmother

Death and Ambiguity

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The Crone

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.

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Baba Yaga – Ancient of Days

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Baba Yaga

In the past months we’ve explored in some depth the feminine archetypes Maiden and Mother.   As autumn season deepens and the old pagan year ends, it seems fitting to spend time with Crone.  We’ve chosen Baba Yaga, the Russian woodland hag to represent her.  Rather than focus on a particular story we will focus on Baba Yaga herself.

Basically Baba Yaga means ‘Grandmother Witch.’  It is wise when speaking of fearsome entities to address them with a euphemistic honorific.  For instance the Irish call their fearsome fairies ‘The Gentry.’  Both appellations carry an ironic undercurrent.

Baba Yaga appears at first glance to be quintessentially Russian, but she is much much older, predating any kind of nationalistic identity with its civilized and Christian veneers.  In her stories she often uses her keen sense of smell to sniff out “the Russian scent.”  Her origin lies deep in Slavic paganism; she comes from a time of endless taiga (forest) when boreal woodlands spread unchecked across northern Europe, Asia and North America. Her roots reach deep into the dawn of human history.  She is “the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”  Like that feminine symbol the Moon, her aspect is both light and dark.

Her identity as the triple goddess archetype Maiden, Mother, Crone is reflected in tales, which include her two sisters.  Dealing with these archetypes is tricky – like all good scientifically minded children of this modern age, we want to analyze, identify, dissect, and isolate; we want to take things apart and see how they work.  But the three sisters work together and cannot be separated.  A woman is never only mother, maiden or crone. The memories, experience and intuitive wisdom of each phase mix, meld, and re-define themselves. They ebb, flow, whirl and lie in static pools of calm.  At any moment in a woman’s life she can be thirteen, thirty, or ninety-three.

And so with Baba Yaga, who can change shapes at will and replace her haggard features with young beauty any time she chooses. She can grow and shrink, fly hobble or run like the wind. She is a solar goddess governing the progression of the days with her three Knights (Red Knight = the day bright sun, White Knight = the dawn, and Black Knight = the night; red, black and white are colors long associated with triple goddesses.)  She is a lunar goddess with her thirteen fiery skulls set on posts around her chicken-legged house.  The house spins on its legs, just like the Earth and Moon when the Baba is away, flying through the air in her mortar and pestle while sweeping her tracks away with a broom.

The Crone is a rich and complex archetype but her chief attribute is wisdom.  She is the keeper of life’s memories and experiences.  She represents the power inherent in each woman and man to transform the pain and suffering of life into wisdom, the ability to learn from our mistakes.

In this collage we approach Baba Yaga carefully from the side, rather than head on. We come as the girl child who appears so often in her tales.  Children, not yet having lost their connection with the spirit realm from which their souls originate, hold their own particular brand of wisdom.  The Crone is able to return to a childlike place of open-eyed and hearted wonder and bring to it the wisdom of experience.  In between childhood and old age, we humans often bumble around on one quest or another searching for self, wealth, meaning, love, substance, answers – all manner of things. The Radiant Child and the Crone reach out to each other across that gap.  We often see this reflected in everyday life by the rapport between children and grandparents that seems to jump a generation.

The forest represents the untamed wilderness where the Baba is most at home.  Our own wild spirits, from which flow courage, grit, determination and endurance, are the raw materials we bring to the work. Baba Yaga, terrible flesh-eater though she is, responds well to respect and a willingness to learn. Beside her sit mortars in which to grind grain and herbs, baskets of seeds for planting, and pots to hold her spells. Cauldrons, pots, cups, bowls symbolically represent the womb – that most ancient vessel of transformation and birth.

For more on Baba Yaga as Crone I highly recommend the essay by Anonymous posted by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D. on her website Mything Links:

Week Four: Light

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Light is the prompt that Leah Piken Kolidas chose for this month. I was having a hard time connecting Red Riding Hood to the concept except in the most abstract way. Then I discovered this interesting quote in John Thackery Bunce’s Fairy Tales, Their Origin and Meaning. It still seems a bit of a stretch to me, but at least I’ve got something to go on.

One of the fancies in the most ancient Aryan or Hindu stories was that there was a great dragon that was trying to devour the sun, and to prevent him from shining upon the earth and filling it with brightness and life and beauty, and that Indra, the sun-god, killed the dragon. Now this is the meaning of Little Red Riding Hood, as it is told in our nursery tales.
Little Red Riding Hood is the evening sun, which is always described as red or golden; the old Grandmother is the earth, to whom the rays of the sun bring warmth and comfort. The Wolf–which is a well-known figure for the clouds and blackness of night–is the dragon in another form; first he devours the grandmother, that is, he wraps the earth in thick clouds, which the evening sun is not strong enough to pierce through. Then, with the darkness of night he swallows up the evening sun itself, and all is dark and desolate. Then, as in the German tale, the night-thunder and the storm winds are represented by the loud snoring of the Wolf; and then the Huntsman, the morning sun, comes in all his strength and majesty, and chases away the night-clouds and kills the Wolf, and revives old Grandmother Earth, and brings Little Red Riding Hood to life again.
Or another explanation may be that the Wolf is the dark and dreary winter that kills the earth with frost, and hides the sun with fog and mist; and then the Spring comes, with the huntsman, and drives winter down to his ice-caves again, and brings the Earth and the Sun back to life.

~John Thackery Bunce Fairy Tales, Their Origin and Meaning

In the Shadow of the Forest

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Waiting in the Shadow

To me, the scariest part of the Red Riding Hood story comes when the wolf dresses up in Grandmother’s clothes. He pretends to be something he’s not in order to fool Red while intending her harm. It’s pretty easy to figure out why this is my negative – I grew up with a mother prone to fits of rage – she could turn on a dime from ordinary mom to a raging fury. Scary. The huntsman could easily be a stand-in for the dad meant to protect me. Although he never approved of her angry outbursts, he believed parents should “present a united front.” Their behavior left me with a lifelong aversion to hypocrisy and a desperate (at least for the first couple of decades) need both to understand how things work and to see them for what they really are. All in all, not such a negative legacy. Both traits stood me in good stead. The drive to understand is a blessing, for as I’ve come to learn, understanding engenders forgiveness and provides the ground from which compassion may arise.

Much has changed since my childhood – more relevantly, much has expanded – mind, heart, memory, information, compassion and comprehension have all increased in capacity. The space taken up in my interior landscape by childhood trauma is decreasing proportionally. In fact, I can now fit it onto an 8×10 piece of canvas covered cardboard. Not that the over-size fangs, preternatural hearing and x-ray vision don’t still lurk in the shadows. Of course, they do. The evidence of their power is right here; captured in the imagery I chose to use.

But let’s go back to the benefits of my shadowy legacy. Not only was I frightened of those huge teeth, ears and eyes – I wanted their power for myself. Just now, writing these words I didn’t expect to say, that have never even occurred to me before, I begin to understand. I used to think I owed my talent for acute observation to the need to gauge my mother’s moods quickly. Probably true, but also (also being one of my most favorite words), I now see that I probably sharpened the acuity of my own senses in order to acquire some of the power those amplified sense organs could bestow.

See how this process works? I could have sworn I’d figured out everything about the dynamic between my young mother and the girl-child I once was. Yet, the collage has revealed a new piece of information. I understand more about why I am what I am. Once again I get to marvel at the interrelatedness of the universe, the prevalence of synchronicity and the elegance of cosmic timing. I am more connected; more humble, easier than I was when I started. Halleluiah.

They got it all wrong

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Little Red picks flowers and enjoys the forest..

Little Red picks flowers and enjoys the forest..

They Got It All Wrong

What the story doesn’t tell you, the information they (the Brothers Grimm) left out is … The wolf and Little Red had met before. They were already friends. See, what the brothers didn’t know was Red Riding Hood often snuck off to the forest and played under the tall trees and along the small stream. She was a wild spirit, that’s right, Red was wild at heart. She loved watching the animals and being in nature. In fact, that’s how she had met Mr. Wolf in the first place.

During that faithful visit to the woods, Mr. Wolf had just had a big meal where he stuffed himself, and I mean stuffed. He had eaten a whole deer, granted it was a bit on the small side. He had also had several rodents and a good size bird that flew into a tree trunk and practically dropped dead on Wolf’s head. Mr. Wolf had waddled over and fallen sound to sleep under a shady bush. Little Red was playing hide and seek with a raccoon when she tripped over Wolf. They got to talking and discovered they both loved the wilderness and disliked rodents. Wolf wisely didn’t mention the ill-fated deer he just ate. So you see there was no reason for Little Red Riding Hood to be afraid of Mr.Wolf.

When her mother told her “Don’t talk to strangers” and “Stay on the path, go straight to Granny’s cottage”, Red knew it was a hard directive to follow but planned to do her best. She struggled to ignore the two deer, the four blue jays and eight butterflies that scurried past her and disappeared into the trees. When she unexpectedly ran into Mr. Wolf of course she told him where she was going and why, he wasn’t a stranger, he was her friend. When Wolfy learned that Granny was ill he suggested a bouquet of wildflowers as the perfect gift to cheer the old gal up. It is then that Little Red lost her self, mentally pictured the bouquet and ran off on a flower-picking quest.

But, you might say … what about Mr. Wolf gobbling up Granny? Or you might ask … Didn’t he eat Little Red? See, they got that part wrong too. All that stuff is an out-and-out lie … he never ate Little Red. In fact, he didn’t even growl at her. The truth be told, As Wolfy explained it was the whole incident was caused by his unresolved hunger issues. He hadn’t eaten in several days. He was out of his mind ravenous. Wolves get ravenous. When he got to Granny’s cottage Granny was a lot sicker than any one knew. She was very, very sick … at death’s door… likely to die soon, very soon. She even said she wished she were dead. Now while Wolf was explaining the Granny excuse his posture changed. His head hung lower and lower, he tucked his tail between his legs… He even rolled over onto his back, wincing and crying. Well, the Woodsman and Little Red took pity on him. He was so pathetic. He clearly had lost control of himself. They agreed to let him go back to his pack.

But, Little Red cried and cried about Granny because she loved her so. The Woodsman suggested that she demand that Wolf pledge with a cross your heart and hope to die promise, to never, ever eat people again and Wolf promised. He hated to see Little Red so unhappy. He told her no matter how hungry he was he would leave people off his menu. However, later he told me that eating Granny had helped satisfy his hunger, and for that he was grateful but… he also said she really tasted awful and in fact had put him off people meat forever.

So you see the Brothers Grimm and a lot of their stories about wolves eating people and stupid little girls blindly embracing danger just doesn’t jive with the facts. The Grimm boys just got it wrong, all wrong.

Christine’s Big Picture – Little Red Riding Hood

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I’ve formatted my first piece and am waiting for the YES glue to dry on the various smaller configurations before gluing the whole thing in place.  I use YES because it doesn’t wrinkle the paper, isn’t toxic and doesn’t dry up and let go after a while (like glue sticks).  Also I can use a damp cloth to get rid of residue without harming or staining most papers.  I spread it on with my fingers, which is a pain because I have to keep rinsing them off.  If anyone has a better suggestion I would love to hear it!

It’s been interesting working with Red Riding Hood.  The first prompt suggests making an overall image of the story.  I chose images of the girl, the hood, the picnic basket, the grandmother, the wolf, the huntsman, the bed, the forest, the path and the cottage.  As always, the most interesting lesson collage teaches me is to let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’m sure to elaborate on that idea in future posts!   For now, I’ll just tell you the thing that took the longest time was forcing myself to discard my favorite wolf.  He just wouldn’t come into alignment with the other elements.  I tried changing the background from forest to garden.  That worked really well.  The garden, painted in the impressionist style, holds a suggestion of a house in the background.  I wanted the cottage (Red Riding Hood’s goal) there because it represents stability and safety.  For many, life’s journey (the path) is to find safety and security.  In this case I chose a ‘garden path” as a visual pun hinting at deception and trickery.

Sticking to the original text, my Red Riding Hood shows a bit of attitude, while grandmother seems sad, apathetic and resigned.  The Huntsman is just a sliver of red in the far left corner at the rear of the wolf he’s stalking.  He appears late in the story and has no particular characteristics ascribed to him, yet his presence is vital – hence the color red.   To me he represents the wolf’s shadow; displaying all the characteristics – integrity, protection, kindness, which the wolf lacks.

I placed the bed prominently because of the implied sexuality in the story.  Look at all the songs, bawdy jokes and ribald tales, which have become take-offs on the tale over the years.  Red Riding hood is a young girl, a virgin.  The huntsman and the wolf are both drawn to her.  Wolves are metaphors for predatory males as are huntsmen.  Granny who should act as adequate chaperone is sick and enfeebled.  Mother’s advice been disregarded and Red is on her own.  But the underlying story isn’t spelled out; it’s implied in the imagery – the bed is an acknowledgement that we get it.

The tree represents the wild forest Red Riding Hood has navigated to get to the cottage garden.  It holds a clutch of red seeds inside a narrow cleft in the bark, another reference to Red’s fertility and appeal.  It hints at a future child, but whose – the huntsman’s or the wolf’s?

Speaking of the wolf, he’s very different from the calm beautiful creature I first chose- this one is stalking his prey, jaws open to devour.  He dominates the idyllic garden with his dark presence, though his mottled fur and stealthy stance allow him to fade into the background and seem to disappear.

That’s my story and I’m sticking it together as soon as I say good-bye!  Bye for now.

Chris

Red Riding Hood 100 C

Little Red Rding Hood
The Big Picture
Click for a larger image

Chris