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Baba Yaga/Mother Earth, Sculptural needle felted and mixed media and Vasilisa, the Brave, Sculptural needle felting and mixed media in 2019 exhibit.
What helps us through our dark times?
Recently a participant in the Befriending Our Shadow class mentioned the impact that my Baba Yaga and Vasilisa dolls had on her. She has been going through the painful experience of accompanying a close friend through the last stages of a terminal disease and then her death. What could she do to support her friend when there was seemingly nothing left to do? And what could she do for herself to ease her way through her own grief?
These concerns were all exacerbated by her not being able to be with her friend during this time of COVID. She resonated with the helplessness of one of the central figures in the story, Vasilisa, but also with the way this character receives help. She said, “when I translated my experience into Vasilisa's encounter with Baba Yaga it was enormously comforting to me. The story helped me see how helpless I felt in the face of my friend's impossible demands and where I could turn for help.”
The Baba Yaga and Vasilisa Story
Here is the story, in the way that I understand it. There are many variations and in Russia, it is a very common story, as familiar to Russians as the story of Hansel and Gretel is to us. A young girl, Vasilisa, is given a special doll, by her dying mother. Her mother tells her to keep the doll with her always. The mother dies and the “wicked step-mother” forces Vasilisa to go to the woods to get fire for the hearth from Baba Yaga. “Everyone” knows that Baba Yaga, the “wicked witch,” lives in the woods and kills anyone who visits her who cannot answer her questions or perform the tasks she sets them. The evidence of this is the skulls that grace the outside of Baba Yaga’s house and that Baba Yaga wears around her neck. Vasilisa is frightened but she goes anyway. The doll secretly tells Vasilisa the answers to Baba Yaga’s questions, so that instead of killing Vasilisa, Baba Yaga is obliged to give her a flaming skull. There is more to the story, including what Vasilisa eventually does with the flaming skull.
Accompaniment in Times of Grief and Loss
Dying and illness can be a time of isolation and the pain of this isolation can exacerbate the pain of the grief itself. The story of a mother giving a doll to her daughter upon her death symbolizes the passing on of comfort and guidance, from one generation to the next. The story also reflects how we as women can mature into a new way of seeing when we have experienced great pain and sorrow. The doll that Vasilisa receives symbolizes the internalization of her mother’s wisdom and nurturing presence, and of her maturing into her own sense of agency.
Another level to the Baba Yaga story is how we can all access an infinite source of inner guidance when we are faced with losses such as illness and death. It reminds us that we are not alone. The dying mother gives Vasilisa part of herself, which Vasilisa then internalizes and then is able to use in her communication with the scary Baba Yaga. This second exchange between Vasilisa and Baba Yaga is another form of internalization of wisdom. Scary and harsh as Baba Yaga is, she helps Vasilisa by giving her the flaming skull, a symbol of fierce wisdom, which Vasilisa is then able to make her own.
Facing Powerlessness and Death
One of the most difficult aspects of facing the death of someone we are close to is our powerlessness. We feel powerless, both because we are reminded of our own deaths and because there is nothing we can do to help. Death is scary to look at, especially in the dominant culture where there are no rituals of acceptance of death as a natural part of the cycle of life. Death and grieving are relegated to the shadows in our society.
During a large-scale crisis, such as the one we are currently living in, we are forced to face losses on many levels and yet, still are left with inadequate tools to process these losses. Stories such as Baba Yaga can help us to find ways to wrap our minds around these impossibly challenging realities, by, for one thing, reminding us of our interconnectedness. The many archetypal roles in the Baba Yaga story, “maiden, mother, crone” are all interconnected parts of the cycle of life.
We can be the young child, in her fear and helplessness, we can be the mother, providing guidance in the form of a symbolic doll to our own inner child and our mothering self and then to others who are suffering in grief and loss. And we can also be the crone, softening in response to the answered attuned to our questions and then providing fierce wisdom and power to our younger self. We can align ourselves with all these self-identities, and recognize the ways in which they are all one.
What can we take with us from this story?
No matter where you are along this continuum of a woman’s life, you can benefit from this story. Think for a moment of a time when you have felt loss or grief and have been comforted by those who represent these various archetypal roles. And can you think of a time when you have been able to find these archetypes within yourself? If we can make room in our lives for rituals that allow us to experience grief and loss, we begin to have the inner spaciousness to be there for others as well.
Perhaps you can challenge yourself by creating an image of your inner Vasilisa, mother or Baba Yaga, by drawing it in your journal or maybe making it into a doll. Or you can visualize one of these powerful figures and imagine what she would look like or where she would live in your body. Or you may respond to this story by journaling the ways in which you feel a connection to each of these archetypal representations of a woman’s life stages. We need each other but with a sense of this outward support, we can also have access to symbolic reminders of what can help us through dark times of sorrow and loss.
I've been making dolls for about five years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am exited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!