Sadly, Michelle’s new computer has also malfunctioned so her silence is based on a lack of means rather than will or desire. We wonder if we have slighted some creature of myth or overlooked some entity in one of the tales. If so, we are heartily sorry and do here apologize.
I on the other hand am stuck! I simply can’t find any more images, so far, that resonate for me with Baba Yaga. I think we erred in picking an iconic figure rather than delving into a particular story, though it does underscore our point about the efficacy of story in deepening self-knowledge, connecting to community and inspiring creativity.
As I mentioned earlier, Baba Yaga has been part of my personal mythic line-up for a long time. Several years ago, I created a Baba Yaga figure out of one of those small wooden anatomical figures used by artists to remind them of the proportions of the human form. I decided to photograph her for you in lieu of a collage.
Much as I love collage, if one is not a painter (I am not; Michelle is.) it can be very restrictive if one is attempting to express a specific idea – for example finding the picture of an ugly old woman is difficult. Google springs immediately to mind- but somehow to me it feels like cheating. Silly isn’t it! Or I could go out and buy a new magazine, but that seems to violate the element of serendipity I value in my work. Collage, the way I do it, has to do with recycling, rearranging and refreshing already created images into new contexts and juxtapositions. The work reflects the larger work of nature, in which basic elements are constantly being shuffled and redealt into new alignments to produce a novel shape or configuration. Collage is humbling because one can never forget that the parts and pieces, the ideas and symbols are part of a larger whole and derive from many sources. Painting, drawing, sketching leaves more room for ego and idiosyncrasy. In it, connections, borrowings and derivations are more subtle and the unique contributions of the artist more immediate and visible. I often long to be able to paint what I see, but there is some disconnect between hand and eye for me that increases my frustration level to the point it is no longer satisfying to attempt.
Doll making on the other hand – at least with a basic body shape to work with, seemed more within my grasp. Actually assembling the pieces parts was rather like making a collage. My Baba Yaga wears purple velvet pantaloons tucked into felt boots sporting pearl buttons. Her long-sleeved peasant shirt is silver to represent the moon. She wears a fur-lined vest in the colors of autumn leaves and her fur-collared velvet cloak is springtime green. I sewed three small brooms to the hem so she can sweep away her footsteps as she goes. A tiny skull hangs around her neck, reminiscent of her Indian cousin Kali. A babushka – the traditional head scarf worn by Russian women – covers her gray head (I donated a lock of my own hair) and her face is fierce and smeared with red. Nose and teeth are made from real shards of bone. She wears a bunch of keys at her waist because she holds the keys to our questions about the mysteries of Life/Death, our relationship to nature and our connection to the past and future.
Working with the doll, gluing my own hair on her head, engendered a more profound grasp of what it means to be a crone, a wisdom holder, an elder and a quintessentially wild woman. As always, I am deeply grateful to my estimable guide Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She is a mentor par excellence; her book Women Who Run with the Wolves is one of my Bibles. In it Dr. Estes explores Vasilisa, the story most often associated with Baba Yaga. It contains many parallels with Cinderella (the reason M. and I chose to concentrate on the witch). However, in Vasilisa the dead mother is represented by a doll. Not until I reread the chapter for this essay did I realize the connections between my doll and the one in the story.
The talismanic numen of the doll is that it reminds us, tells us, sees ahead for us. This intuitive function belongs to all women. It is a massive and fundamental receptivity … possessing immediate access to a profound wisdom that reaches to women’s very bones. ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Baba Yaga provides a direct connection, not only to our own old age, but also to our oldest ancestors. (From another perspective – our youngest predecessors) Her lineage is very old. I think she probably first came to consciousness among the hunter-gatherers of the primeval forests of Northern Europe. As people became more agrarian and expanded the clearings and meadows into farmland they kept her stories alive. As Pupul Jayakar states so eloquently in her book The Earth Mother, speaking of Indian history:
… like a spiral it coils and uncoils. Within this movement nothing is totally rejected, nothing discarded, no issues polarized. The alien and heretical are neither confronted nor destroyed; instead they are transformed. The rural tradition has a skill of genius, in inventing myths and reinterpreting texts, that reduces the alien to familiar symbols and metaphors.
The gap between orthodox dogma and heretical belief is never unbridgeable. Deities and systems maligned and ostracized in one age become benevolent and respectable in another.
This is why folk tales are so important because they contain the seeds of the past and future. Seeds thousands of years old, found buried in tombs or encased in long-forgotten storage jars have been sprouted by anthropologists. Just so, ancient concepts and insights can be held in folktales to re-emerge centuries later and blossom into something with contemporary relevance. Who knows what of our wisdom, understanding or technology will disappear to re-emerge in the future?