A few weeks ago, I was in East Yorkshire on a research trip with a couple of friends. It’s a long story, but in essence we were treading in the footsteps of a late friend and mentor of ours, filling in background to his life story. We’d visited the old radar station on the flatlands of Holderness, magnificently elemental and striking in their open vistas and huge, golden cornfields. We’d combed the village of Patrington, once the most important port in Yorkshire and now marooned some miles inland, but with a magnificent church to show for its former fame, steepled like a galleon. Now we were strolling through the adjoining hamlet of Winestead, where the poet Andrew Marvell was born, and old cottages dozed in the summer sunshine. It was our last call, and in the hedgerow by a dilapidated cottage that was up for sale, I noticed a strange piece of rock lying in the grass. I turned it over. It was a piece of sculpture, a beautiful lady with sleepy, mysterious eyes.
I didn’t know whether to take her or leave her. The place was abandoned, but theoretically, the hedgerow was not public. I hesitated, and left her there, driving the 25 miles back to the hotel.
The next morning I was due to drive west, to meet my husband near Ilkley. But I woke up seized with the urge to travel back east and rescue the Lady of the Hedgerow. I felt that it was no accident I had found her there and that she should come home with me. I found her as I’d left her, wrapped her gently in a cloth, and took her, a couple of days later, back to Devon.
As we arrived at our house I spied a parcel on the doorstep. It was the advance copies of The Circle of Nine, my new book about feminine archetypes. I was astonished, as I hadn’t expected these for a few weeks yet. The Lady had timed her appearance with miraculous precision. She now has a place of honour in our garden – or at least, she seems a little picky, and I move her from place to place, looking to see what suits her best. And another surprising feature emerged. With the help of knowledgeable friends and the internet, I established that she was most probably once a mermaid. It’s typical for a mermaid figure to have her hands folded on her head. She had apparently lost her tail, and surfaced in a hedgerow. Now, make of that what you will, but I doubt we will ever know her full story.
Baba Yaga in a fight with a wolf-wizard
In writing The Circle of Nine, I’ve been looking out for figures from myth and legend which align with the nine feminine archetypes that I describe in the book. One of the nine – and one of my favourites, I confess - is the Queen of the Night. She is wild, instinctive, a force of nature – she understands beasts and birds, and has a dark, powerful sexuality. A figure from Russian mythology that really does have an alliance with her, in a crone form, is Baba Yaga, the witch.
The way Baba Yaga is usually represented, and what she really is deep down, are two different things, however. She often appears in fairy tales as a cantankerous, ugly old witch who makes trouble and eats her enemies. In popular culture, she becomes a terrifying bogey-woman who threatens badly-behaved children, and you can also find her as long-nosed, evil-eyed puppet or a gruesome cartoon character.
But the really intriguing role of Baba Yaga is as an initiator. She challenges intention, blocks the way to those who are not true of heart, and can take on the role of guardian of the threshold. She stands at the border between this world and the supernatural kingdom. In this respect too, she is linked especially to initiation, and some scholars believe that she has emerged from an older goddess who played a part in male initiation rituals, taking young boys into manhood.
Baba Yaga often greets the seeker on the path with a question: ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ It’s a wonderful question - how often do we think we are doing something bold when in fact we’re running, tail between legs, to get away from a bad situation? It might pay us to ask ourselves this question if we find that we’re galloping down a path in a heedless fashion. Find the Baba Yaga in your own soul to test your resolve and inner motivation!
She is also, according to different tales, in command of fine horses who carry her across the face of the earth. And she can whistle up the four winds, and demand to know what they see as they blow around the world. Baba Yaga harnesses the forces of nature, and is herself elemental, unstoppable and ruthless in her actions.
But she respects hard work, and a true heart. She may nail the heads of her enemies to the gatepost and boil up tender mortals for her supper, but she may also come to the aid of those who are loyal, brave and diligent. Baba Yaga does not just attack and slaughter – she stands her ground to find out if a man is made of true metal, and a woman capable of patient work. Her particular feminine strength isn’t based on beauty. It may derive from wisdom, but it’s a hard, ruthless kind of wisdom that won’t allow useless sympathy or sentiment to get in the way. A man must do or die under the eye of Baba Yaga. A woman had better find the iron in her own soul and stick by her principles.
Baba Yaga’s dwelling is usually depicted as deep in the forest – a hut which stands on chicken’s feet, and revolves around its own axis – but she is also, some stories hint, the guardian of the gateway between life and death. A soldier in search of his lost love finds her home right at the end of the world:
‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it.’
Only Baba Yaga can take him across that borderland into the unknown. The soldier knows that he cannot run away. ‘If I do not find out what I want to know here, there will be nowhere else for me to go.’ he says in realisation that the moment of truth has comes. And, being a fairy tale, he is indeed reunited with his sweetheart after he enters the supernatural world of Baba Yaga and the four winds.
You can read more about the Queen of the Night in my book The Circle of Nine: An Archetypal Journey to Awaken the Divine Feminine Within, published by Weiser Books Sep 2018. You can also read more about Baba Yaga in Russian Magic: Living Traditions in an Enchanted Landscape (Quest Books 2009)
Baba Yaga appears in a number of fairy tales, notably Vasilisa the Fair and The Enchanted Princess.
This week, I’m going to write about three archetypal feminine figures – a witch, a goddess, and a lady of mystery. These are Baba Yaga, the fearsome, wise and enigmatic Russian witch, the Goddess Kuan Yin, spirit of healing and compassion, and a figure of stone who I recently found in a hedge and who may be part White Lady, part mermaid. At present I’m on a personal trek to explore the significance of these. I have a story to tell about each one of them, and then I’m also going to let them interact as they will, and see what dances, what images or dreams emerge. I’ll be posting on my two blogs www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk and www.circleofnine.org, and probably other sites too. As publication of The Circle of Nine approaches, I find that the work isn’t over yet – the cauldron of myth and legend, and the ever fascinating questions that they raise in our lives, is still drawing me in. Wish me luck on my journey! And I'll plan to post soon. Once I've put this up, I can't really back out, can I?
And in the meantime, here are some images to whet the appetite.