Cronnie Wisdom

Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen


Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Folklore We Make Today

 



We often think of folklore as coming from the past, but it’s constantly being created and  in the process of becoming. It’s part of our culture.  It surrounds and enfolds us in our language, rituals, crafts, and especially stories. But what is folklore? Simon J. Bronner defines folk as “a group or everyday life and ‘lore’ as cultural or oral learning and expression.”  This can include traditional speech, tales, songs, dances, and customs. 

My area of interest is stories from the oral tradition – folktales, legends, and myths. I am especially interested in the way story variants continue to emerge in today’s culture and the sharing of stories through digital transmission.  As a traditional storyteller it is part of my personal mission to be the keeper of the old stories.  What that means to me is that I tell them, teach about them, and write about them.  But sadly, I am constantly reminded in the classroom how little knowledge my students have of these old tales. If a story hasn’t been the subject of a film, it probably isn’t well known today.  And those stories that have been memorialized in that way have little to do with the actual story itself.  A thousand years of Snow White or Cinderella is reduced to a sanitized Disney film. Hence, my feeling of urgency and sometimes futility in being the “keeper of the stories.”

On the other hand, there is a “fairytale fantasy” that remains a very popular genre both in young adult books and adult fiction.  It is also found in poetry, television, and film. The “author” can explore the story from a different perspective (such as seen in the film, “Maleficent”), or create a back story, fill in a character’s motivation or simply ask a “what if” question. The original myth of Persephone is a story of violence and rape, while many contemporary retellings turn the story into a romance with a controlling mother. There are mash ups and rehashing’s such as the television series “Grimm” which created a backstory to all these tales.  This transmission of these new stories is different than the one that occurred through the oral tradition – but it is more widespread. Rather than stories moving slowly through migration or trade, we see them spread throughout the world with a single posting on the Internet.

While it is true that these modern depictions have a set format, this does not prevent or restrict the transmission. Copyright applies to a single “work,” not to an idea. We once distinguished “authored” work from folklore, yet the work of film and novels is often the kernel of much folklore. The spread of literary and film stories now occurs as the traditional stories did, one by one, but much more quickly.  We see this exemplified in the “Star Wars,” “Doctor Who,” or “Harry Potter” fan fiction. How many Darth Vaders have you seen in a meme?  Once a story, or a character catches the imagination, that thread is hard to extinguish. The “people” have made the story its own.  It continues to live within our imagination just as Cinderella and Snow White once did.  We have Harry Potter theme parks and dress as Princess Leia at cosplay conventions.  The story lives far beyond the author’s imagination. 

Legends continue in the same fashion, except that new “stories” are spread much quicker. Digital images of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster are also subject to greater scrutiny than the Cottingley fairy images of long ago. For even if the technology is better to share and discuss, there are more eyes to point out any irregularity (as Princess Kate herself recently discovered).

I heard an interview with a traditional Asian storyteller regarding the BBC podcast “Yeti.”  When asked if the old woman cared if the Yeti was ever discovered, she said “no.” It was the story and the folklore around it that was the most important to her.  It was the folklore she wanted to retain.  It mattered little to her whether anyone could ever definitively prove the existence of the Yeti. The same could be said of Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy.  It is the mystery and the ambiguity that captures us.  It is the meaning and ritual of the folklore we seek to hold on to.  So, even if we have the technology and skill to find an answer – that really doesn’t matter in the end. The existence of the thing is meaningless.  It is the story about it that contains the meaning.

In the book Winning the Story Wars, the author Jonah Sachs argues that we have lost the mythology that once bound us together as a culture.  Today he contends that marketers have become today’s mythmakers.  They are the ones providing society with explanation, meaning and ritual.  It’s marketers not philosophers, theologians, storytellers, or artists who have the pulse of our culture.  It’s marketers who define our moral course. But there is more, Sachs also contends that social media is now fulfilling the same function as the oral tradition once did. His ideas leave us with a rather dystopian projection of the future, but wait.  

There is more. Sachs also contends that social media is now fulfilling the same function as the oral tradition. Certainly, an image or video going viral is the fastest way to spread it. Although of course, these online “stories” are very brief, perhaps only a minute or two, some may contain content that cries out to be shared.

While it's true that most of what I see online strikes me as rubbish, there are bits and pieces that are creative and it’s these abbreviated snippets of story that fascinates me now. While in the past, storytellers would tell long epic tales, little bits of life are shared today in brief TikTok videos.  Certainly, it exemplifies our shorter attention span. And while each individual posting is of little significance, when compiled, they are the stories of a people.  It is the making of folklore.  So, the next time you debate the best recipe for Deviled Eggs, after watching “Landon Talks a Lot,” remember you’re spreading a bit of folklore. You too are a part of the folk and sharing our stories and traditions is just what we do. 

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Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 – 1935) - https://socialistreadinggroup.wordpress.com/2018/07/08/little-red-cap-and-brier-rose/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17837440

Thursday, April 4, 2024

If you don't like the story...keep it to yourself!

 

I am saddened and disturbed by the criticism of traditional tellers and the stories they share at events or concerts.  Honestly, I can't even imagine complaining about a story told at a performance any more than I would feel compelled to share my opinion about a play to an actor or about a song to a musician.  It's just plain rude. Yet this seems to be who are today in our de-civilized world. 

But storytelling takes this criticism to another level. It seems to be part of our current cultural debate regarding book banning and history rewriting because what is presented seems “too upsetting” to someone.  At one event, someone from the audience objected to a traditional folktale in which a rabbit was cooked by a farmer. This story can hardly be seen as overly violent in the way that most television and films are today (even those that are G rated).  Let us remember the Bugs Bunny cartoon character in which there was always lots of hunter references and explosives.  I still recall Elmer Fudd, as the hunter, singing or saying, “Kill the Wabbit!”

I have a friend who was an elementary school teacher.  She now reads stories to children at public schools, but each book she reads must be pre-approved.  What can’t be read?  A book about the Civil War perhaps?  A book in which a family is depicted as biracial or in which the parents are gay?  What about the librarians who face prosecution? This is our world and if we can no longer speak of our history of hatred and oppression because our children are too fragile to hear of these things, how do they ever learn empathy? What happens to the storytellers in historical museums?

It reminds me of the debate as to whether you can tell fairy tales to children at all.  While being age appropriate is important, I follow the psychologists who believe that these stories give children a safe place to ponder and make sense of a very unsafe world.  I think it provides that same function for adults.

I like to consider myself as a “keeper” of the old stories.  I like discovering the history, culture, and people within them - learning what was coded and how they spoke truth to power.  I especially treasure the messages within them that need to be heard today. But I’m not sure if I have a story to tell that might not offend someone.  I doubt that the bard or the seanchai of the past ever worried about that. I doubt that the medicine men or grandmothers did either.  Sometimes being offended was the point!  Could they tell a story about a changeling today, or a selkie without nary a complaint?  What about poor Demeter trying to give immortality to the king’s son by placing him in the fire?   What happened to poor Ariadne when Theseus abandoned her on the shore of some deserted island?  Is Tatterhood’s unfeminine demeanor an appropriate role model for girls? 

I love to tell stories, but I don’t want to be censored.  I love to tell stories in a safe environment which is why I like telling in class.  We can stop and talk about what might be disturbing in a story.  We can talk about all the mothers and stepmothers who needed to abandon their children. I love to write about stories and share them in my podcast.  I just turn off the comments, knowing someone somewhere has something negative to say.  I know I’m not the best to ask, because there is something in my core that believes the story is the most important.  I hope that there are tellers throughout the world telling stories of oppression, urging the people to seek justice and peace.  I hope they keep telling them even if people squirm in their seats, even if some walk off in a huff, even if they face prosecution. Perhaps that’s just my 71-year-old crone speaking.

I understand the need to nurture performance storytelling in community. My question is, how can we be both the keepers of the story while also the keepers of the tellers? How can we create a safe place to tell traditional stories, especially the stories that need to be told today? 

Here's my advice.  If you don't like the story, just keep it to yourself!  Or perhaps you'll like it better, once you learn a bit more.

 

Monday, January 29, 2024

"Tatterhood" - A Norwegian Folktale

Tatterhood is one of my favorite stories!  This tale is rich and unexpected with many twists and turns.  But what makes the story shine most is the character of Tatterhood - a very unlikely female heroine. In the upcoming weeks, we'll be exploring this story from an archetypal perspective on the "Wise Crone Cottage Podcast."  But in the meantime, read the story for yourself, or better yet, read it to a little girl. Tatterhood has much to say to women of all ages

TatterhoodCover.

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen who had no children, and that made the queen very sad. She seldom had a happy hour. She was always crying and complaining, and saying how dull and lonesome it was in the palace. "If we had children there would be life enough," she said. Wherever she went in all her realm she found God's blessing in children, even in the poorest hut. And wherever she went she heard women scolding their children, and saying how they had done this and that wrong. The queen heard all this, and thought it would be so nice to do as other women did. At last the king and queen took into their palace an adopted girl to raise, that they might always have her with them, to love her if she did well, and scold her if she did wrong, like their own child.

One day the little girl whom they had taken as their own, ran down into the palace yard, and was playing with a golden apple. Just then an old beggar woman came by, who had a little girl with her, and it wasn't long before the little girl and the beggar's child were great friends, and began to play together, and to toss the golden apple about between them. When the queen saw this, as she sat at a window in the palace, she tapped on the pane for her foster daughter to come up. She went at once, but the beggar girl went up too; and as they went into the queen's apartment, each held the other by the hand. Then the queen began to scold the little lady, and to say, "You ought to be above running about and playing with a tattered beggar's brat." And she started to drive the girl down the stairs.

"If the queen only knew my mother's power, she'd not drive me out," said the little girl; and when the queen asked what she meant more plainly, she told her how her mother could get her children if she chose. The queen wouldn't believe it, but the girl insisted, and said that every word of it was true, and asked the queen only to try and make her mother do it. So the queen sent the girl down to fetch up her mother.

"Do you know what your daughter says?" asked the queen of the old woman, as soon as ever she came into the room.

No, the beggar woman knew nothing about it.

"Well, she says you can get me children if you will," answered the queen.

"Queens shouldn't listen to beggar girls' silly stories," said the old woman, and walked out of the room.

Then the queen got angry, and wanted again to drive out the little girl; but she declared it was true every word that she had said.

"Let the queen only give my mother something to drink," said the girl; "when she gets tipsy she'll soon find out a way to help you."

The queen was ready to try this; so the beggar woman was fetched up again, and treated with as much wine and mead as she wanted; and so it was not long before her tongue began to wag. Then the queen came out again with the same question she had asked before.

"Perhaps I know one way to help you," said the beggar woman. "Your majesty must make them bring in two pails of water some evening before you go to bed. Wash yourself in each of them, and afterwards throw the water under your bed. When you look under your bed the next morning, two flowers will have sprung up, a beautiful one and an ugly one. Eat the beautiful one but leave the ugly alone. Be careful not to forget this last bit of advice." That was what the beggar woman said.

Yes, the queen did what the beggar woman advised her to do; she had the water brought up in two pails, washed herself in them, and emptied them under the bed; and when she looked under the bed the next morning, there stood two flowers; one was ugly and foul, and had black leaves; but the other was so bright, and fair, and lovely, she had never seen anything like it, so she ate it up at once. But the pretty flower tasted so sweet, that she couldn't help herself. She ate the other one too, for, she thought, "I'm sure that it can't hurt or help me much either way."

Well, sure enough, after a while the queen was brought to bed. First of all, she had a girl who had a wooden spoon in her hand, and rode upon a goat. She was disgusting and ugly, and the very moment she came into the world she bawled out "Mamma."

"If I'm your mamma," said the queen, "God give me grace to mend my ways."

"Oh, don't be sorry," said the girl on the goat, "for one will soon come after me who is better looking."

After a while, the queen had another girl, who was so beautiful and sweet that no one had ever set eyes on such a lovely child. You may be sure that the queen was very well pleased. The elder twin they called "Tatterhood," because she was always so ugly and ragged, and because she had a hood which hung about her ears in tatters. The queen could hardly bear to look at her. The nurses tried to shut her up in a room by herself, but it did no good. She always had to be where the younger twin was, and no one could ever keep them apart.

One Christmas eve, when they were half grown up, there arose a frightful noise and clatter in the hallway outside the queen's apartment. Tatterhood asked what it was that was making such a noise outside.

"Oh," said the queen, "it isn't worth asking about."

But Tatterhood wouldn't give in until she found out all about it; and so the queen told her it was a pack of trolls and witches who had come there to celebrate Christmas. So Tatterhood said that she would just go out and drive them away. In spite of all they could say, and however much they begged and asked her to leave the trolls alone, she just had to go out and drive the witches off. She begged the queen to be careful and keep all the doors shut tight, so that not one of them would open the least bit.

Having said this, off she went with her wooden spoon, and began to hunt out and drive away the hags. All the while there was such a commotion out in the gallery that the like of it had never before been heard. The whole palace creaked and groaned as if every joint and beam were going to be torn out of its place. Now I can't say exactly what happened; but somehow or other one door did open a little bit, and her twin sister just peeped out to see how things were going with Tatterhood, and put her head a tiny bit through the opening. But, pop! up came an old witch, and whipped off her head, and stuck a calf's head on her shoulders instead; and so the princess ran back into the room on all fours, and began to "moo" like a calf. When Tatterhood came back and saw her sister, she scolded them all, and was very angry because they hadn't kept better watch, and asked them what they thought of their carelessness now that her sister had been turned into a calf.

"But I'll see if I can't set her free," she said.

Then she asked the king for a ship with a full set of sails and good load of stores, but she would not have a captain or any sailors. No; she would sail away with her sister all alone. There was no holding her back, and at last they let her have her own way.

Tatterhood sailed off, and steered her ship right up to the land where the witches lived. When she came to the landing place, she told her sister to stay quite still on board the ship; but she herself rode on her goat up to the witches' castle. When she got there, one of the windows in the gallery was open, and there she saw her sister's head hung up on the window frame; so she jumped her goat through the window into the gallery, snapped up the head, and set off with it. The witches came after her to try to get the head back. They flocked around her as thick as a swarm of bees or a nest of ants. The goat snorted and puffed, and butted with his horns, and Tatterhood beat and banged them about with her wooden spoon; and so the pack of witches had to give up. So Tatterhood got back to her ship, took the calf's head off her sister, and put her own on again, and then she became a girl as she had been before. After that she sailed a long, long way, to a strange king's realm.

Now the king of this land was a widower, and had an only son. When he saw the strange sail, he sent messengers down to the beach to find out where it came from, and who owned it; but when the king's men came down there, the only person they saw on board was Tatterhood, and there she was, riding around and around the deck on her goat at full speed, until her strands of hair streamed in the wind. The men from the palace were all amazed at this sight, and asked if more people were not on board. Yes, there were; she had a sister with her, said Tatterhood. They wanted to see too, but Tatterhood said no.

"No one shall see her, unless the king comes himself," she said; and so she began to gallop about on her goat until the deck thundered again.

When the servants got back to the palace, and told what they had seen and heard down at the ship, the king wanted to set out at once to see the girl that rode on the goat. When he arrived there, Tatterhood brought out her sister, and she was so beautiful and gentle that the king immediately fell head over heels in love with her. He brought them both back with him to the palace, and wanted to have the sister for his queen; but Tatterhood said "No," the king couldn't have her in any way, unless the king's son would take Tatterhood. That, as you may guess, the prince did not want to do at all, because Tatterhood was such an ugly hussy. However, at last the king and all the others in the palace talked him into it, and he gave in, promising to take her for his queen; but it went sore against his grain, and he was a very sad man.

Now they began making preparations for the wedding, both with brewing and baking; and when all was ready, they went to church. The prince thought it the worst church service he had ever been to in all his life. The king left first with his bride, and she was so lovely and so grand, all the people stopped to look at her along the road, and they stared at her until she was out of sight. After them came the prince on horseback by the side of Tatterhood, who trotted along on her goat with her wooden spoon in her fist. To look at him, he was not going to a wedding, but to a burial, and his own at that. He seemed so sad, and did not speak a word.

"Why don't you talk?" asked Tatterhood, when they had ridden a bit.

"Why, what should I talk about?" answered the prince.

"Well, you might at least ask me why I ride upon this ugly goat," said Tatterhood.

"Why do you ride on that ugly goat?" asked the prince.

"Is it an ugly goat? Why, it's the most beautiful horse that a bride ever rode," answered Tatterhood; and in an instant the goat became a horse, the finest that the prince had ever seen.

They rode on a bit further, but the prince was just as sad as before, and couldn't say a word. So Tatterhood asked him again why he didn't talk, and when the prince answered, he didn't know what to talk about, she said, "Well, you can ask me why I ride with this ugly spoon in my fist."

"Why do you ride with that ugly spoon?" asked the prince.

"Is it an ugly spoon? Why, it's the loveliest silver fan that a bride ever carried," said Tatterhood; and in an instant it became a silver fan, so bright that it glistened.

They rode a little way further, but the prince was still just as sad, and did not say a word. In a little while Tatterhood asked him again why he didn't talk, and told him to ask why she wore the ugly gray hood on her head.

"Why do you wear that ugly gray hood on your head?" asked the prince.

"Is it an ugly hood? Why, it's the brightest golden crown that a bride ever wore," answered Tatterhood, and it became a crown at once.

Now they rode a long way further, and the prince was so sad, that he sat without making a sound or uttering a word, just as before. So his bride asked him again why he didn't talk, and told him to ask now why her face was so ugly and gray?

"Yes," asked the prince, "why is your face so ugly and gray?"

"Am I ugly? You think my sister beautiful, but I am ten times more beautiful," said the bride, and when the prince looked at her, she was so beautiful, he thought that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. After that it was no wonder that the prince found his tongue, and no longer rode along with his head hanging down.

So they drank the bridal cup both deep and long, and, after that, both prince and king set out with their brides to the princesses' palace, and there they had another bridal feast, and drank once more, both deep and long. There was no end to the celebration. Now run quickly to the king's palace, and there will still be a drop of the bridal ale left for you.

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Lurvehette, Norske Folkeeventyr (Christiania [Oslo], 1842-1852), translated by George Webb Dasent (1859).

Lauren Hill beautiful version of Tatterhood is now out of print.  Search for it in libraries and used book stores.


Tuesday, December 12, 2023

"Go I Know Not Whither, Fetch I Know Not What" (Part II)

 


(Because this is a long story, our discussion was broken into two parts.  The story was shared in the October 29, 2023 blog post. This posting furthers the discussion.)

Just like every other story, this one has many interpretations.  Most commentators see this as an initiation tale – a hero’s journey in which a young man's actions determine if he is worthy of his magical bride.  Fedot is young and skillful as an archer. But he hasn’t been tested in the ways of life.  We don’t know if he can distinguish right from wrong.  Is he marriage material?  Will he make a worthy husband?

One day Fedot unexpectedly comes upon a magical bird.  Is this his destiny?  He shoots the bird and breaks her wing. Before he can wring her neck, she begins to speak and convinces him to save her life.  As we later determine, she is magical and can shapeshift at will.  The unusual and detailed instructions given to Fedot are not necessary. So why does she appear so vulnerable here?  She’s determining his nature.  The stage is set for the archer’s adventure.  In the hero’s journey cycle, Fedot now finds himself at the threshold.

The two marry, and the story moves to their future.  The bird maiden does not want a hunter as a husband.  The archer’s wife wants to make a rug that will provide the couple with enough money, so he no longer needs to be in the king’s service.  He sells the rug without haggling. He is told not to offer a price. He is an honest seller who doesn’t know the value of the rug.  The steward sets a price, half of the rug's value.  But that’s not enough, the greedy steward wants more.  He seeks her out, tells the king and then both the steward and the king fall under her spell.  The only male in the story who isn’t dumbstruck by her beauty is Fedot.  Perhaps this also speaks to his character, for Fedot finds virtue beyond superficial beauty.

The king in his lustful and envious state wishes Fedot harm. He gives the task to the steward who doesn’t know what to do until he runs into Baba Yaga.  Is that a fortuitous event or was Baba Yaga waiting for him?  It may appear to be a random turn of events but what if Baba Yaga is the bird maiden’s mother or aunt? If so, she knowingly comes up with the impossible task that will determine his worth.  It’s what crones do, after all.

In folktales, Baba Yaga speaks cryptically.  Her words both test the protagonist while also sharing information that will prove valuable later in the story. It’s sometimes a test, sometimes a prophecy, and sometimes a warning. She starts Fedot’s adventure by saying he needs to “go I know not where and fetch I know not what.” It will be a difficult adventure, but if Fedot succeeds, he will be rewarded.  Fedot doesn’t know this, He’s just wanting to save his life and get back to his wife.

This is how most hero’s journeys begin.  It’s how most lives play out. We start in the ordinary world.  But somehow, we are pushed into more than a poorly defined task.  We are entering the road of obstacles and challenges.  It might be a health challenge, a relationship trial, or losing a job. There are many times we feel a bit lost. What do we do?  Where do we look for a solution?  We often feel as if we are going I know not where to get I know not what!

Baba Yaga’s advice is taken.  Fedot’s wife sends him off with some of the king’s gold, her handkerchief, and a ball.  It’s going to be an 18-year journey. The bird maiden doesn’t tell him to go to her homeland.  But she tells him to throw a magical ball before him and follow wherever it goes. She tells him to use only her handkerchief to dry his face. Fedot’s course is set, and he arrives at the magical palace, the home of his bird maiden wife.

There he finds three lovely damsels.  They begin to ask him questions which he refuses to answer.  Instead, he tells them to offer him something to eat, and drink and give him time to rest.  Only then will he speak to them.  This part of the story seems a bit out of character, for Fedot has not been assertive before.  But his behavior fits with the pattern of Baba Yaga stories in which there is a male hero.  In many stories, the protagonist is sent to find Baba Yaga.  Her standard question is, “Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion, my good youth?” It’s the first test of the soon-to-be hero.  If he replies he is sent, his interaction with Baba Yaga goes quite poorly; but if he shows agency, he will succeed.  Here he is more confrontational. The young beauties respond as Baba Yaga often does when the hero does the unexpected.  When he tells them what to do, they comply.

The next day, the beauties offer him a basin to wash his face.  He dries his face on his wife's handkerchief.  They recognize it as being associated with their family – just as seeing a family crest.  The beauties call for their mother and the old woman identifies the handkerchief as belonging to her daughter.  But who is this old woman? She has no name.  Many Baba Yaga stories have two old women characters.  One is Baba Yaga who appears in her more ferocious aspects and the other is a grandmotherly figure who acts kind and helpful. But are they both Baba Yaga?  Remember, Baba Yaga is not a singular figure.  We discover in other stories that she has sisters and children too. In this tale, the bird maiden’s mother could be the first Baba Yaga, her sister (that is the second Baba Yaga) or some random magical old woman. The latter is unlikely. It’s more probable that she is one of the Baba Yagas.  In this instance, Baba Yaga #2 becomes Fedot’s donor – the one who gives him just the magical object needed.

Russian folklorist and scholar, Vladimir Propp, writes in his book “Morphology of the Folktale”:

“Baba Yaga guards the boundary of the other world and the entrance to it.  She lets only the worthy pass through. The hero is never disturbed by her welcome.  This is the benevolent type of Yaga, the gift-giver and advisor.  She shows the hero the path.  From now on, he knows where to go. She gives the hero magical objects or a magical helper, and the action moves to a new stage. Yaga belongs to the broad category of the folktale donor.  Meeting with a donor is a canonical form of development of the action.  He/she is always met by chance, and the hero earns or somehow otherwise obtains a magical object.  Possession of the magical object defines success and the story’s outcome.”

And that is exactly what we see in this story. Fedot’s mother-in-law (and the entire family) is magical.  After he tells her his story, she asks her magical servants for their help and advice.  Scholar, Joanna Hubbs contends that Baba Yaga represents a powerful female deity.  Maria-Louise von Franz agrees, believing that Baba Yaga represents an aspect of the Great Mother.  It’s easy to make that comparison in this story.  Fedot’s mother-in-law goes with him to the center of the earth. It’s a place of transition to the other world.  She is the one who can request help from all the universe.  She is the one to whom the old lame croaking frog speaks.  He is the only one who has the answer to “Go, I know not where, and fetch I know not what.”

But the frog is old and lame, how can he guide the archer?  It’s the wisdom of the wise crone that appears now.  Fedot’s mother-in-law knows to put the frog's feet in milk.  It may seem to be an odd act, except that it was an ancient Russian way of keeping milk from going sour. (BTW, science is showing that might be true!)

Obviously, Fedot’s mother-in-law is a Baba Yaga, too!  She gives him the help he needs just when he needs it most. And so even though the story continues for the hero, his success is assured as soon as she finds the frog.  Fedot meets an invisible servant (Shmat-Razum) who agrees to come with him because he treats the genie with kindness and respect.

Instead of going straight home, they return first to his mother-in-law’s house. The story says that Fedot “made his new servant regale the old woman and her daughters right royally.” The genie “feasted them so bountifully that the old woman very nearly danced for joy and ordered the frog three jars of fresh milk every nine days for his faithful services.  The archer then took leave of his mother-in-law and wended his way homeward.”

And as Fedot takes his leave, we do too, for this is the end of the story of Baba Yaga and his Yaga-in-law. Throughout the tale, we see her hand in crafting the events that followed.  And yet, throughout, we see Fedot showing kindness and respect again and again.

Folklorist Jack Zipes writes in his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale, “At times, she can also be generous with her advice, yet her counsel and help do not come cheaply, for a Baba Yaga is always testing the people who come to her by chance or choice. Demands that young men or women deserve her help. But what Baba Yaga also defends in the nineteenth-century tales are qualities that the protagonists need in order to adapt and survive, such as perseverance, kindness, obedience, integrity, and courage.”

Fedot proved his worth as husband to the bird maiden, son-in-law to Baba Yaga, and ruler of the land. Zipes argues that “Baba Yaga is not portrayed as malignant in any of these tales. Of course, she is dangerous and wary of anyone who enters her terrain.  She has enormous powers and is inscrutable.  Without her assistance, the protagonist, female, or male, cannot overcome evil.”

Perhaps we need a little more Baba Yaga in the world today to overcome the evil that we face. If you have questions about how to do that, it’s best not to ask.  For as Baba Yaga says in her folktale “Vasilissa the Beautiful.”

“Well,” said the old witch, “only remember that every question does not lead to good.  If thou knowest overmuch, thou will grow old too soon.  What wilt thou ask?”

Nothing, my dear Yaga, nothing at all.

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 "Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What." Adapted from Bain, R. Nisbet, Russian Fairy Tales: From the Skazki of Polevoi. 3rd ed. London: A. H. Bullen, 1901.
 Image:   Russian Wonder Tales, illustrated by  Ivan Bilibin (1902) .