When my daughter was younger, one of our favourite bedtime stories featured Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch from Russian mythology. It is a tale set in domesticity, in Baba Yaga’s kitchen and everyone who ‘keeps a kitchen’ can perhaps recognise the tasks of their own experience here.
In this intriguing tale, Vasilisa the Wise, a young girl, undergoes a journey of growth and transformation, by surviving her experiences at the house of Baba Yaga, the keeper of fire, the old hag who flies around the night skies in a giant mortar, steering with her pestle, whose house is fenced with human bones and lit by skulls and who sometimes eats children.
Vasilisa is sent by her malevolent step-family to ask Baba Yaga for light. In order to be given the light and not be devoured by Baba Yaga, Vasilisa must complete the tasks which the witch sets for her. The tasks are all everyday household chores, concerning cleaning, food preparation and putting order on the place, responsibilities with which all of us are familiar!
And like us, poor Vasilisa simply hasn’t got enough time to do everything she has to do! The unreasonable Baba Yaga has ordered her to do the laundry, sweep the house, cook the food, sort the good corn from the bad corn, put everything in order, and clean the pile of poppy seeds in the yard. Vasilisa succeeds, with the help of a magic doll her dead mother had given her and she is allowed return home with one of Baba Yaga’s illuminated skulls to light her way
Having read many different versions of the tale, the older, more complex tellings of it evoked a resonance for me, perhaps mapping some subterranean geography of my psyche, as real fairytales do. I was intrigued therefore, to come upon Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ fascinating interpretation of the Vasilisa story in her book, ‘Women who Run with the Wolves’.
In Pinkola Estes’ reading, the household tasks Baba Yaga has set Vasilisa, are the metaphorical tasks of recognising ‘the powers of inner purifications: unsoiling, sorting, nourishing, building energy and ideas.’ Vasilisa’s housework chores represent taking care of her psychic house, an ‘ordering of the house of the soul…where magic can happen, joy can be done, appetite is intact, things are accomplished with gusto.’ The laundry is a cleansing of her own persona. The sweeping is the uncluttering of her psychic space, so her creativity can bloom. The cooking is to nourish her creativity, by kindling the flame of her passions.
All these actions of home-keeping are metaphors for ordering the soul-life. And when Vasilisa has to sort the corn and the poppy seeds, she is metaphorically sharpening her powers of discernment and learning about life (corn) and death (poppy seeds). She is honing her intuition and learning to listen to her subconscious wisdom.
Sometimes, in my kitchen, I remember Vasilisa, as I sweep and clean and cook and pour my clean poppy seeds and good (pop)corn kernels into airtight jars and arrange them on my shelves. I do draw psychic nourishment from these ‘home-keeping’ rituals when I make my kitchen into an uncluttered psychic space, where I can contemplate, meditate, discriminate, as I carry out the repetitive, but essential tasks of living.
Many activities and places can be used in this way, but I like the poetic symmetry between the practical chores of the kitchen and their deeper soul resonances. The kitchen is where I spend repetitive time every day. So I like to make it time which serves me, in ways over and above, basic necessity. Because of this, unlike Archimedes in his bath, or Newton under his apple tree, like many generations of women before me, I usually have my Eureka! moments at the kitchen sink and the most important decisions of my life are made as I chop vegetables, stir a pot, sort my poppy seeds and corn, and suddenly discern whatever truth has been eluding me.