Speaking of love, maybe it’s time we look at these love stories that have been engrained in us since we were little girls from a new perspective. Like many stories we’ve been told over the centuries, “Cinderella” serves and perpetuates a narrow sense of self and keeps us stuck in outdated gender roles. It teaches women that we are meant to be gorgeously passive as we wait for our hero to save us with kisses and to give us our perfect ending. Instead, we should be taught to be our own savior, and the heroine of our own story.
That’s why I love another, more authentic and more empowering, version of this story the story of a girl named Vasalisa, which means “queen” (very different from the translation of Cinderella’s name, which is “ashes”).
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In Women Who Run with the Wolves, author Clarissa Pinkola Estes highlights intuition as the main theme of Vasalisa’s story. The only way to connect with our intuition, she argues, is to listen to its still, small voice. To acknowledge it, to nourish it, and to follow it.
Vasalisa the Wise has a similar structure as “Cinderella” up to a point. Just as does Cinderella’s, Vasalisa’s mother dies when she is quite young. Prior to her death, Vasalisa’s mother gives her a doll and instructs Vasalisa to always keep it in her pocket. This doll is her mother’s way of initiating Vasalisa into the rites of intuition. Following her mother’s death, Vasalisa’s father soon remarries a woman who has two daughters. The mother and daughters are mean to Vasalisa. They are jealous, envious, and exclusionary.
Rather than prepping for a glamorous ball and catching the attention of a prince, the stepmother and stepsisters plot to put out all of the fires in the fireplaces throughout their home, and then send Vasalisa out into the forest to request fire from the frightening old hag Baba Yaga. As Vasalisa makes her way through the forest, the doll in her pocket jumps up and down to direct Vasalisa toward Baba Yaga’s hut. Once she arrives, the ugly and scary Baba Yaga tells Vasalisa she will only give her the fire after she has passed a series of tests. And if Vasalisa doesn ’t pass these tests, Baba Yaga will eat her.
With no fairy godmother in sight, Vasalisa passes each test with the aid of her intuition. Through the process, she learns her intuition will direct her well and keep her safe. Which, indeed, it does. At last, Vasalisa passes Baba Yaga’s final test. Although Baba Yaga would love to eat the girl, she is a just witch and has no choice but to give her the fire for which she came. She puts it in a skull on a stick and Vasalisa, again with the guidance of her intuition, makes her way back to reignite the fireplaces at her stepmother’s home. As she approaches the house with the flaming skull, Vasalisa’s stepmother and stepsisters run out to greet her, surprised and elated. They are grateful Vasalisa has returned because they were unable to get the fireplaces going again while she was away, and they thought for sure that Baba Yaga had eaten Vasalisa as they had originally hoped. When the skull came into the view of the stepmother and stepsisters, it burned them all to a pile of little ashes.
So, there you have it! Vasalisa, enmeshed by jealousy, envy, and exclusion, is cast away deep into the forest to meet her demise. Instead, she integrates with wild nature and prevails because she listens to her intuition, a blessing from her beloved mother, and passes a series of tests that teach her discernment. Vasalisa returns as a wiser version of herself and with her own well-deserved and powerful light, which sheds light on what does not serve or support her and burns it all away.
Vasalisa shows us how to go out into the deep, dark wilderness within and find and retrieve the light. The story shows us how to find what we need to be our own savior. This story is a perfect example of radical self-love and the rewards of listening to the intuition, going it alone, facing our fears, and returning triumphant.