By the Light of the Fiery Skull

Chapter 3 of WWRWTW tells the tale of Vasalisa the Wise, a little girl who is given a doll by her mother just as she passes away. The mother’s dying words to her daughter are that anytime in life when she doesn’t know what to do, she is to ask the doll and the doll will guide her.

A few years pass and the little girl’s father remarries a widow with two daughters of her own. Soon after they all move in together the wicked stepmother and stepsisters, who hate Vasalisa for being sweet and pure, devise a plan to send her into the forest to a wicked witch called Baba Yaga. She is to go to the witch’s dwelling to retrieve a hot coal or burning flame, which she’ll then need to carry back to the house to restore the fire they purposefully let go out.

Dr. Estes’ interpretation begins with the death of Vasalisa’s too-good mother, equating it to a natural period of maturation when we have to learn to let go of the protective mother in our psyche once it starts to keep us from responding to challenges and deepening our development. Letting this part of us die allows us to move into our intuitive nature.

However, Dr. Estes speculates that most of us will not let the too-good mother die . . . because . . . it is so nice to be with her, so comfortable . . . Often we hear voices within our minds which encourage us to hold back, to stay safe.”

Right off the bat I was scratching my head and scrunching up my face. This is a huge point of deviation from the norm for me. Not let the too-good mother die? I think I murdered mine before I even came out of the womb. Does that make me an outlier?

I will take a risk and say this: as a child I never needed an initiation into my intuition. This chapter lost me a bit from that perspective. My earliest memories revolve around me, at three or four or five-years-old, being absolutely confounded by the adults in any given room who could not see what was clearly going on beneath the surface of their idle chit chat.

Furthermore, there was never a voice in my head encouraging me to play it safe. Quite the opposite really. Every voice I heard cried, “Go now! Quick! This is your chance!” So perhaps I am revealing the onset of my masculine qualities. Did they develop from societal shifts and pop culture, or were they always in me? This chapter makes me think they’ve always been there.

My mother was actually saying the exact phrases Estes uses aloud. “Don’t say that,” or “You can’t do that.” I can hear her on repeat ad nauseum warning me about how dangerous it would be out there in the big bad world. But my inner voice overrode her outer cries from a very young age. I always knew that secretly she wanted me to go forth and be stronger than she ever dared to be, but externally she thought it her parental duty to be overprotective. She projected her fears onto me and I squawked back, “Ain’t no fucking way!”

No one from home was pushing me the way I needed to be pushed, so I left.

Estes goes on to say, “It is typical for women to be afraid . . .”

So why wasn’t I?

This is where I feel like I’ve always been on track. I’m rarely afraid now and when I was young? Pffft . . . fear barely registered at all. And in the rare instance that it did, it felt like drugs. Awesome, hallucinogenic, speed-filled, fun, happy drugs.

“To be ourselves causes us to be exiled by many others, and yet to comply with what others want causes us to be exiled from ourselves . . .”

Yes. And. I never struggled with that as a kid. What harm did a little exile do? In fact what I struggled with was judgment when I observed those fears in the young women around me. What was wrong with these girls? Why were they such scaredy cats? Why were they so lame as to want to stay home and marry idiot boys and have annoying babies? Why would they waste their one precious life that way? As a young girl I was very clear about my intuitive powers and I adored them. That’s what made me the odd one out.

I have to say I expected this book to tell me I’ve gotten everything assbackwards my whole life, but this chapter made me feel like I got something very right—especially when Estes says that, in fairy tales, the outcast is often the one most deeply connected to their intuition. Aha! Something I can smile about! I don’t have the answer for why I was able to block out the cultural noise as a child. To risk quoting Lady Gaga I might simply say: I was born that way.

As Vasalisa makes her way through the dark woods to Baba Yaga’s she relies on the doll her mother gave her to tell her which way to go. I couldn’t relate to this idea either. A doll “is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self.” Dolls represent our inner voices of reason, the homunculus, an always accessible yet completely invisible little helper. But there’s more. Strong ties to our intuition allow us to embody a pre-cognitive animal consciousness that heightens our ability to move with confidence. OK so what?

So I never had a human doll. I had more stuffed animals than could fit on my bed (no exaggeration) but dolls, Ick! My mother will cry foul and tell you all about how I begged for a Cabbage Patch Kid in the mid-80’s, and sure, yes I did that. But that was the little kid in me being appropriately jealous of friends. That had nothing to do with what I really wanted. My father could tell you about my real guide doll.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, he was a male grey dog. I never thought of him as a wolf, though I’d love to place that meaning on him now. To me he was a boy dog who never left my side and his name was Puppy. Here is a picture of me sleeping with him as a child.

And here’s us last night tucked in so I could read to him.

I don’t normally sleep with him. In fact he’s been locked away in storage for many, many years. (We could pause here to notice the coincidence of me unpacking him and putting him in my closet when I moved to Colorado months ago, but do we need to?)

As a young girl, I related to this animalistic intution so much more than I did to the conforming and demure feminine girls I went to school and dance class with. And I related to animals more than people.

Once Vasalisa gets to the witch’s house in the forest she is greeted by the fierce mother—the wild hag Baba Yaga—a scary and somewhat gross figure who she works hard to keep up with, respecting and learning from her the whole time.

This made me think of my first serious boyfriend.

At seventeen I attracted an older man and knew the second I saw him that he was good for me, even though EVERYone else disagreed. From him I received an education I was going to get no matter what, and I was very lucky to get it from him. Like the Baba Yaga he looked dangerous at first glance. A twenty-three year-old man involved with a seventeen year-old girl must only have vile and evil things in mind. And yes we did drugs and drank alcohol and had sex. But I was not a girl. Nor was a naïve. And to me, he was a teacher, a best friend, a kind-hearted lover. There was nothing gross or scary about him.

Most around me at the time created their own vision of who he was and what he represented. They only saw what they feared. I, on the other hand, got everything I wanted out of that relationship and even more than I bargained for. Because he actually loved me. He looked out for me, guided me, always had my best interests at heart.

Even though the Baba Yaga is rough on Vasalisa, she does her a great service in teaching her how to be self possessed and unafraid. In the end she gives the girl what she came for: a skull on a stick with fiery eyes, the flame she needs to re-light the fire back home. Vasalisa makes her way back through the woods with much more confidence than she had at the onset, yet at one point she becomes afraid of the powerful skull she is carrying and almost throws it away.

“Each woman who retrieves her intuition and Yaga-like powers reaches a point where she is tempted to throw them away, for what is the use of seeing and knowing all these things?”

For the first time in my life I considered throwing everything away. Shortly after I was accepted into a first rate private college, I strongly considered quitting to move back home and get married. His response was to break up with me. We had to break up so I could live my life, is what he told me. He wasn’t enough for what I was becoming.

There was nothing easy about the experience of letting that relationship die. I fought hard to keep it alive but he insisted. The shock came when he said he wouldn’t visit me at college anymore, that he wouldn’t even call.

Oh my goodness look what just happened . . . Do I have this backward? Was he not my Baba Yaga but instead my too-good mother? Was he the safe comfortable protector I needed to let die in order to truly move into my power? Hot diggity! It is so fun figuring all of this out 😉

To this day I consider my experience with him one of the purest and happiest times of my life. He called me out of the blue two months ago just before he got married. We hadn’t spoken in over twenty years but he wanted me to know that he always loved me, he had always wondered what if we stayed together, and most importantly that he never intended to hurt me when he left. I assured him I had never for one second thought he had.

By the light of the fiery skull we can see everything we need to know, even in the painful scary moments.

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