Reading this book is like finding a treasure. I think it will take at least a year for me to fully process all I’ve learned. Thank goodness for highlighters.
Chapters three of four of this book cover the stories of Vasalisa and Manawee.
Chapter Three: Vasalisa the Wise
Vasalisa’s tale includes a wicked stepmother and sisters (think Cinderella) that abuse and use Vasalisa and finally send her to the forest to retrieve light from Baba Yaga in order to kill her. In the end, Vasalisa learns a great deal from Baba Yaga and destroys her stepmother and sisters.
Clarissa Estes breaks down this story into nine tasks. I think each are worth reading through, but will only focus on two that struck me for this post.
The Second Task – Exposing the Crude Shadow
Estes explains that the wicked stepmother and stepsisters represent our shadow nature, or “the exclusionary, jealous, and exploitative aspects of self” that we must acknowledge, make a relationship with, which will ultimately allow the old self to die and the new intuitive self be born (p. 88).
My shadow nature is petty, immature, vindictive, and ruthless. Much like the stepmother and stepsisters of the story, this part talks to me with cruel statements like “you are worthless,” “you have no talents,” “no one will hire you” “you will fail at whatever task you attempt” and so on.
I have encountered this in my culture as well. It’s the harmful, patriarchal notions that tell me what I must do as a woman – I must nurture, have (lots of) babies, stay home, act gracious, calm, and pleasing at all times. I’ve also found it in groups of friends, among family members, at church, and at work when people have told me what I must do/must not do, putting my dreams and desires down in an attempt to control my future. As Estes explains, “the culture in which a woman lives, and the family in which she was raised, can painfully exacerbate that natural but moderate nay-saying aspect in the psyche” (p. 90).
How do we, then, overcome the shadow nature?
In the story, the light has gone out inside the home and Vasalisa is sent to the forest to retrieve some from Baba Yaga. Estes explains that when the light goes out inside our psyche, “”a woman begins to lose her psychic bearings. She may feel cold, alone, and willing to do anything to bring back the light again” (p. 90).
As Vasalisa enters the forest, she sheds her old self and begins the birthing process of the intuitive self begins.
One concept I find important is that our shadow self isn’t bad. Darkness is part of human nature. When we force it to form some kind of evil vs good nature is to ignore an inherent and natural component of our real selves. Rather than ignore and put down our shadow character, Estes advocates understanding of all parts of our psyche – the positive and the negative.
The Fifth Task – Serving the Non-Rational
Vasalisa has found Baba Yaga and asked for fire. Baba Yaga agrees but only if Vasalisa performs tasks and household chores in exchange. These chores include washing Baba Yaga’s clothes, cleaning, sorting (discussed in the sixth task), and cooking. Estes describes the meanings of these tasks thusly, “coming to recognize your power and the powers of inner purifications; unsoiling, sorting, nourishing, building energy and ideas” (p. 98).
“Baba Yaga charges Vasalisa to do the laundry to bring this weaving, these patterns known to the Life/Death/Life Goddess, out into the open, to consciousness; handling them, washing them, renewing them. (p. 99)
“To wash her laundry is a metaphor through which we learn how to sort, mend, and renew the instinctive psyche through a purificatio, the washing of the fibers of being.” (p. 100)
“To sweep the premises means not only to begin to value the nonsuperficial life but to care for its orderliness.” (p. 101)
“To cook for Baba Yaga, one lays a fire—a woman must be willing to burn hot, burn with passion, burn with words, with ideas, with desire for whatever it is that she truly loves.” (p. 101)
“The fire bears, requires watching, for it is easy to let the flame go out.” (p. 102)
“So, it is the cooking up of new and completely original things, of new directions, of commitments to one’s art and work that continuously nourishes the wild soul.” (p. 102)
“Women’s cylces according to Vasalis’as tasks are these: To cleanse one’s thinking, renewing one’s values, on a regular basis. To clear one’s psyche of trivia, sweep one’s self, clean up one’s thinking and feeling states on a regular basis. To build an enduring fire beneath the creative life, and cook up ideas on a systematic basis, means especially to cook, and with originality, a lot of unprecedented life in order to feed the relationship between oneself and the wildish nature.” (p. 103)
According to Estes, “A wise woman keeps her psychic environ uncluttered” (p. 100). To organize our psychic selves requires that we recognize what our psyche is telling us by sweeping away the dust and removing things we don’t need. In my life, to really create I need to have my space clean. Thus, to help my psyche in its creative powers, I need to cleanse my mind of negative self-talk and developing those things I have long wished to develop. While pregnant with Amelia, I became a certified Zumba instructor. The steps leading up to that were over a year of passionate longing to pursue something I love and to share my passion with others. But I consistently ignored the washing and cleaning ceremonies and starved my instinctive nature. I allowed the wicked stepmom and stepsisters to rule my psyche, until I was forced into the forest by them to find fire. In one evening, I signed up for the class vowing that nothing would stop me. I actually signed up for the training unaware that I was pregnant and sure that any pregnancy I had would end in loss. When things turned out differently, and I found myself pregnant (with all the ultrasounds and blood draws indicating it as a healthy pregnancy), I decided to continue with the training program. While I have yet to use this certification, taking that step was necessary to incinerate the step mother and step sisters inside and allow for a new creation within my psyche.
Chapter Four: Manawee
Estes recounts the tale of Manawee as he courts two sisters. We learn of what partners to seek and how to find these partners.
This chapter, for me, was less about teaching and more about validating my belief in the dual character of each person’s nature and of the necessity for a partner – be it friend or lover – to embrace these parts equally. To tie it in to the previous chapter, a woman has opposing parts to her psyche that she must balance out: the shadow and the instinctive natures.
In a podcast (the Official fMh Podcast) I was listening to earlier today, a panelist mentioned her belief that darkness is not inherently evil. For a relationship to have depth and substance, a person must accept both the dark and light features of your character. While traditional society, especially within the culture I grew up in – Mormon culture – women are generally taught to hide their “dark” selves from the world and always have a cheerful front with which to greet people. The previous chapters of this book have described why this is harmful. In this chapter, we learn that partners who are worth having around are those that will accept your shadow and instinctive natures. Furthermore, they will seek out the names to your characters which will require that they ignore temptations along the way and fight a shadow creature to prove themselves.
As Estes says, “We know that the creature Wild Man is seeking his own earthy woman. Afeared or not, it is an act of deepest love to allow oneself to be stirred by the wildish nature of another.” (p. 136)
I am lucky to have such a partner in Ben. He does not hide from my shadow character, nor does he encourage that I only show the instinctive nature. He loves and encourages both.
“The good match is the man who keeps returning to try to understand, who does not let himself be deterred by the sideshows on the road.” (p. 136)
I have that match.
Now tell me what your thoughts on these chapters were. Did any of the tasks in chapter 3 particularly strike you? Have you had experience being courted by a Manawee?