Poet’s notebook: The invisible servants of Baba Yaga (finding new meaning in an old story)

The invisible servants of Baba Yaga: finding meaning for our times in an old story
In the classic Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga, “Vasilisa the beautiful”, Vasilisa’s hateful stepmother sends her into the primal forest to ask the powerful witch, Baba Yaga, for fire. Baba Yaga is a fearsome mythic hag whose house stands on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence surmounted by skulls with eye sockets that glow at night. Sending Vasilisa to Baba Yaga is the jealous stepmother’s way of destroying the gentle Vasilisa once and for all. Vasilisa winds up serving the witch, by accomplishing all of the impossible tasks she is assigned thanks to the intervention of a magical doll that Vasilisa’s dying mother gave to her for her protection. The whole time Vasilisa is working for Baba Yaga, she is observing the hag to try to learn what makes her tick. When her service is completed, Baba Yaga has to give her the fire she came for but, in an attempt to trick her into damning herself, she allows her to ask three questions, but only three. Vasilisa has noticed that Baba Yaga is waited on by a pair of bodiless hands that faithfully execute her bidding. Vasilisa yearns to ask Baba Yaga about the hands, but her doll warns her not to go there, so she reigns in her curiosity when it comes to the hands. After she has asked her three questions, the furious witch, informs her that if she had asked about, or even mentioned, the hands she would have been reduced to a cinder!
I would like to suggest that we, many of us, American citizens, are like Vasilisa at the point when she is asking her three questions. Intelligent as Vasilisa is, and bent on sticking with the original plan, she doesn’t ask the one thing that will change the power-structure, the one question that will pull the rug out from under the witch. The privileged class of our society, which includes a vast majority of us, like the tyrannical witch, has been served by the magical hands for decades. Those hands have cleaned our homes and buildings, taxied us to the airport, picked our fruits and vegetables, served us coffee and even watched over our children. The disembodied hands are our “illegal” or undocumented immigrants. So, receiving the fire from Baba Yaga and being sent on our way, is one way of not rocking the boat. Asking the taboo question of power – “Who serves you? Who does your bidding, but has no face, no life and no identity?”. . . asking that question of power stirs up the witch’s wrath, and puts us at risk in that it messes with the status quo, but it also utterly changes the balance of power.
That’s where we are at. In a sense we have asked about the hands! And those in power are furious. How dare we ask what our wealth is based on, what magical relationship sustains this delicate one-sided power over a class of human beings who subsist by hiding in our midst? So, are we going to be reduced to a cinder? Or are we going to challenge the old witch’s authority and restore an identity and a face to those hands, which, in the times this old story was being told around a fire, would have been the hands of the landless serfs.


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