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THE STORY OF
Inanna's Descent

Ancient Sumerian Myth, maybe the oldest poem every written, c1900-1600 BCE. 

As she lay dying, she called her young daughter to her and gave her a little doll that she had made with auburn hair and hazel eyes, dressed in a blue dress and white apron with red boots just like Vasalisa. "Here is a doll for you, my love”, the mother whispered, "should you lose your way or be in need of help, ask this doll what to do. You will be assisted. Keep the doll with you always. Do not tell anyone about her. Feed her when she is hungry. This is my mothers promise to you, my blessing on you, dear daughter. Take care of her and make sure to listen carefully, for she will guide you". Then the mother died.

 

Vasalisa and her father mourned for a very long time. Vasalisa took to sleeping in her mothers castaway dresses, many sizes too large, and she avoided the garden patch of fresh earth that had been so freshly tilled for her mothers spring plantings. But life continued and soon enough, Vasalisa's father was married again to a widow with two daughters. He thought he had done well for them all, and he congratulated himself that his child would have a mother again.

 

Although the new step mother and her daughters spoke in polite tones, and always smiled, there was something of the rodent behind their smiles, which Vasalisa's father did not perceive.

Sure enough, when the three women were alone with Vasalisa, they tormented her, forced her to wait on them, and sent her to chop wood so her lovely skin would become blemished. Around the family hearth at night as Vasalisa sat by her father’s feet the women only dare to make the subtle comments that his good heart would allow. "Oh, Vasalisa, your hair is always such a mess. Oh, Vasalisa, are you going to wear that? Oh, Vasalisa, I can’t believe you said that?" her stepsisters cackled. They hated her because she had a sweetness about her that was otherworldly. She was also very beautiful, on the inside and out. She was helpful and uncomplaining. She was patient, kind and hard-working. She had good sense and good humor, and she believed in the inherent goodness of each living creature.  It wasn’t long before the three women had enough of Vasalisa's kind ways and began to plot against her.

 

The stepmother devised an evil plan. They would let the fire in their hearth go out and complaining of the cold, they would send Vasalisa into the dark woods to beg for fire from the witch Baba Yaga.  They knew that Baba Yaga was a fearsome, ugly and terrible creature. She was half beast and half hag and would kill her and eat her and then they would be rid of Vasalisa forever. So that evening, when Vasalisa came home from gathering wood in the forest, the entire house was dark. She was very concerned and inquired of her stepmother, "What has happened? What will we have to cook with? What will you do to light the darkness?" The stepmother admonished, "You stupid child. Obviously, we have no fire. I can’t go out into the woods because I am old. My daughters can’t go because they are afraid. So you are the only one who can go out into the forest to find Baba Yaga and get a coal to start our fire again".  Unsuspecting of her stepmother‘s trickery and eager to help, Vasalisa replied innocently, "Well, all right, yes, I’ll do that" and so she set out that very evening on the dark winding path into the woods.

 

Baba Yaga means grandmother in Russian and she was thus named in reference to her tremendous age. Baba Yaga lived in the heart of the woods that began at the edge of the village. She had no partner, and to the best of everyone’s knowledge no children to speak of. All that was known of her and her hut were tales of ghosts, witchcraft, and a crotchety old woman, with thick and matted white hair that fell below, her knees with a little beard that curled its way in white tendrils along her chin.  Word had it that she sat on her rocking chair at the top of her porch steps, shrieking obscenities at anyone and anything that crossed her path.

 

In the woods, Vasalisa was frightened, and soon became lost, for she had never been into the woods before. The woods became darker and darker and sticks cracked under her feet frightening her. The branches were so thick, that no moon light made it onto the path below, and no matter how hard she squinted, Vasalisa could not see her feet. But then she remembered the little doll with auburn hair and hazel eyes that her mother had given her. She reached down in the long deep pocket of her dress, and there was the doll. Vasalisa patted the doll in her pocket, and said "just touching the doll, yes, I feel better".  And at every fork in the road Vasalisa reached into her pocket and consulted the doll, "Should I go to the left or should I go to the right?" The doll indicated yes or no or this way or that way, and Vasalisa fed the doll some of her bread as she walked and followed what she felt was emanating from the doll. Vasalisa trusted the doll's, strong little voice, and continued onward.

 

Finally, Vasalisa arrived to the fearsome hut of Baba Yaga. The fence was made of skulls and bones surrounding the hut and they began to blaze with an inner fire so the clearing in the forest glowed with an eerie light. The house itself was a wreck. The walls of the little hovel, were dank and dripping, with leaks from its sagging roof, and Vasalisa was quite sure she spied the beady eyes of a rat peeking out from behind the door. Vasalisa consulted her doll and asked, "is this the house we seek?" and the doll in its own way answered, "Yes, this is what you seek". And before she could take another step, Baba Yaga in her cauldron descended on Vasalisa and shouted down at her.

 

Trembling from chilled fingers to chilled toes Vasalisa looked upon Baba Yaga for the first time.  Now, the Baba Yaga was a fearsome creature. She traveled not in a chariot, not in a coach, but in a cauldron shaped like a mortar which flew along all by itself. She rode her vehicle, with an oar shaped like a pestle, and all the while she swept out the tracks of where she’d been with a broom made from the hair of a person long dead. And the cauldron flew through the sky with Baba Yaga's greasy hair flying behind it. Her long chin curved up and her long nose curved down, and they met in the middle. She had a tiny white goatee and warts on her skin from her trade in toads. Her brown stained finger nails were thick and rigid, like roofs, and so curled over she could not make a fist. Even more strange was the Baba Yaga‘s house. It sat on huge scaly, yellow chicken legs and walked about all by itself, and sometimes twirled around and around like an ecstatic dancer. The bolts on the doors and shutters were made of human fingers and toes, and the lock on the front door was a snout with many pointed teeth.

 

"What do you want girl?" demanded the old witch peering down at her. "Grandmother," said Vasalisa, feeling her mouth go dry. "Speak up!!" Baba Yaga shrieked. "I come for fire grandmother. My family’s hearth has gone cold. My people will die. I need fire" replied Vasalisa. Baba Yaga snapped, "Oh yes, I know you and your people. Well, you useless child, you let the fire go out. That is an ill advised thing to do. And besides, what makes you think I should give you the flame?" Vasalisa consulted her doll and quickly replied "Because I ask". 

 

Baba Yaga purred "You’re lucky. The right answer".  And Vasalisa felt very lucky she had given the right answer. Baba Yaga threatened, "I cannot possibly give you fire until you’ve done work for me. If you perform these tasks for me, you shall have the fire. If not, you shall die. The girl felt her self shrink away from such a terrible possibility, but the doll her mother had given her, whispered from her pocket and assured Vasalisa, that all would be well.

 

Baba Yaga rumbled into the hovel and laid down upon her bed and ordered Vasalisa to bring her what was cooking in the oven. In the oven was enough food for 10 people and the Yaga ate it all, leaving just a tiny crust and a thimble of soup for Vasalisa. "Wash my clothes, sweep the yard and clean my house. Prepare my food and separate the mildewed corn from the good cord and see that everything is in order. I will be back to inspect your work later. If it is not done, you will be my feast".  And with that the Baba Yaga flew off in her cauldron, and it became night again.

 

Vasalisa turned to her doll as soon as the Yaga had gone and asked, "What shall I do? Can I complete these tasks on time?" The doll assured her she could, and to eat a little and to go to sleep. Vasalisa fed the doll a little too, then she slept.

 

In the morning the doll had done all the work, and all that remained was the meal to be cooked. In the evening the Yaga returned and found nothing undone. Pleased in a way, but not  pleased because she could find no fault, Baba Yaga sneered, "You are a very lucky girl". Then she called on her faithful servants to grind the corn, and the three pairs of hands appeared in mid air, and began to rasp and crush the corn. The chaff flew in the house like a golden snow. Finally, it was done, and Baba Yaga sat down to eat.  She ate for hours and ordered Vasalisa on the morrow, to again clean the house, sweep the yard and launder her clothes. This repeated for many days, even months. One day, she pointed to a great mound of dirt in the yard and said, "In that pile of dirt are many poppyseeds, millions of poppyseeds. And I want in the morning to have one pile of poppyseeds, and one pile of dirt all separated out from each other. Do you understand?"

 

Vasalisa almost fainted. Oh my, how am I going to do that? She reached into her pocket and the doll whispered, "Don’t worry I will take care of it". That night Baba Yaga snored off to sleep and Vasalisa tried to pick the poppyseeds out of the dirt. After a time the doll said to sleep and that all will be well. Again the doll accomplish the tasks, and when the old woman awoke all was done.

 

Baba Yaga spoke sarcastically through her nose, "Well! Lucky for you that you were able to do these things". She called for her faithful servants to press the oil from the poppyseeds and again three pairs of hands appeared, and did so. Vasalisa looked at the Yaga. "What are you staring at?" barked Baba Yaga.

 

"May I ask you some questions grandmother " asked Vasalisa.  "Ask", ordered the Yaga, “But remember, too much knowledge can make a person old too soon”. 

Come child, come, what would you like to know?" urged the Yaga. Vasalisa was about to ask about the pair of hands that appeared and disappeared, but the doll began to jump up and down in her pocket so instead, Vasalisa said, "No grandmother, as you say yourself, too much knowledge can make one old too soon".

Baba Yaga cocked her head like a bird, "My, you are wiser than your years my girl. And how did you come to be this way?"

"By the blessing of my mother" smiled Vasalisa. “Blessing?" screeched Baba Yaga. “Blessing? We need no blessings around this house. You best be on your way daughter. She pushed Vasalisa out into the night. I’ll tell you what child. Here!" Baba Yaga took a skull with fiery eyes from her fence and put it on a stick. "Here, take the skull on a stick home with you. There! There is your fire. Treat it with respect for it is both precious and powerful. Don’t say another word just be on your way". The girl hesitated, afraid that the fire would burn her hands. "Take it!" insisted, Baba Yaga, "what are you scared girl?" And the doll in Vasalisa's pocket, spoke to her and assured her that the fire could do no harm.

 

Vasalisa began to thank the Yaga but the little doll in her pocket started to jump up and down and Vasalisa realized she must just take the fire and go. She ran for home through the dark forest, following the turns and twists in the road as the doll told her which way to go. Vasalisa came through the forest, carrying the skull with fire, blazing from its ear, eye, nose and mouth holes. Suddenly she became frightened of its weight, and it’s eerie light, and thought to throw it away. But her doll and the skull spoke to her and urged her to calm her self, and to continue toward the home of her stepmother and stepsisters. And this she did. As Vasalisa came nearer to the house, her stepmother and stepsisters looked out the window and saw a strange glow dancing through the woods. Closer and closer it came. They could not imagine what it could be. They had decided that Vasalisa's long absence meant she was dead by now. Vasalisa advanced closer and closer to home. As the stepmother and stepsisters saw it was her they ran to her saying they had been without fire since she left, and no matter how hard they tried to start one it always went out. Vasalisa entered the house, feeling triumphant, for she had survived her dangerous journey and brought fire back to her home. But the skull on the stick watched the stepsisters' and the stepmother's every move and burnt into them and by morning, it had burnt the wicked trio to cinders.

The End

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