“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Just in time for Halloween, I wanted to write about my most favorite fairy tale character for whom this blog is named, Baba Yaga. If you do not know her, you should. She makes several important appearances in Russian folklore, most notably in Vasilissa the Beautiful.
Baba Yaga is a fearsome, bloodthirsty hag. She rides through the Russian forest in a mortar, pushing herself along with a pestle. Her hut stands on chicken legs, and can turn around at will. A fence surrounds her house made out of human bones, and on every fence post stands a skull with glowing eyes. She is “eats people as one eats chickens.” She is an embodiment of archetypal evil.
And yet, she is also ambiguous. In Vasilissa the Beautiful, we learn that Baba Yaga controls the coming and the waning of the day. She has access to powerful, elemental magic which she can choose to bestow on ordinary mortals if they prove their worth. It is she who holds the secret to overcoming the terrible situation faced by the heroine in the tale, and it is she who possesses the colt that Ivan will need to defeat Koshchei the Deathless.
She is more than a witch. She is a great nature goddess, possessing the power of both life and death like nature herself. She is an image of the Divine Feminine, that which is capable of ruthless destruction and loving nurturing. She is the folklore equivalent of other bivalent goddesses such as Kali. In this sense, it isn’t correct to categorize Baba Yaga as evil, any more than it would be to describe nature itself with this word. Nature is amoral, sometimes fantastically destructive and cruel, and other times just as life-giving and nurturing. Jung explores this theme in his famous essay “Answer to Job.” In it, he makes the case that Yahweh is unconscious, and therefore amoral. “This is I, the creator of all the ungovernable, ruthless forces of Nature, which are not subject to any ethical laws. I, too, am an amoral force of Nature, a purely phenomenal personality that cannot see its own back.” Evil can only exist where there is consciousness.
Baba Yaga’s grotesqueness and power are illustrative of the problem of dealing with these dark, primordial psychic contents. All of us contain this kernel of darkness. We manage to hide it away from ourselves for the most part, remaining naïve to our own capacity for evil and destruction. What happens when we do confront it? Sometimes, it can destroy us, overwhelming us and turning us into the very monster we sought to overcome. This is a story of the ego’s hubris, the imperial belief that it can colonize and rule over the contents of the unconscious. When consciousness does not approach the archetypal energies within the collective unconscious with sufficient humility, it will be vulnerable to being devoured or corrupted by the darkness therein.
Here, I invite you to watch this delicious award winning short film by my very talented friend Dr. Jamieson Ridenhour called The House of the Yaga. It illustrates what can happen when the ego confronts the heart of darkness. It contains the wonderful artwork of Ali LaRock.
Ridenhour’s take on what happens when we stare into the abyss is similar to Franics Ford Coppola’s. In Apocolypse Now, Captain Willard is assigned the mission to infiltrate the compound of Col. Kurtz who has gone “insane” and set himself up deep in the jungle as a self-styled demi-god. Willard is to confront this evil and terminate it. Of course, whether Kurtz is actually insane or making rational choices in the midst of an insane war is an open question. He has stared into the abyss and seen the truth about our capacity for evil that the rest of us would be happy not to know about. His ability to confront this darkness is what has given him power over his tribal followers, what leads Dennis Hopper’s character to praise him as a “genius.” Kurtz has left aside the trappings of human morality that is valued by consciousness, and lives a life of archetypal evil. Now Willard confronts the same horror. Like Natasha in Ridenhour’s short, the risk is that he will become the successor to the evil he set out to conquer.
Baba Yaga is in image of nature herself, capable of great destruction and great creativity. Kurtz and Natasha, however, are human. When a mortal psyche encounters an archetypal force too intimately, it is destroyed. Semele is immolated immediately upon Zeus revealing his true form to her. The ego cannot survive a direct confrontation with the Divine. Such a direct experience is de-humanizing in all senses of the word. Kurtz and Natasha both are robbed of their humanity as a result of their contact with darkness. What they share in common that makes them susceptible to total corruption is hubris. Kurtz has declared himself emancipated from the rules of society. Natasha’s decision to stop and enjoy the soup is naively over-confident.
Vasilissa’s journey into the depths and her confrontation with archetypal evil go very differently, however. She has a correct attitude toward the unconscious – she is humble before it. She is able to use her wits and her mother’s blessing to serve Baba Yaga well, and she does not presume too much upon her. (This is revealed in her being careful not to ask too many questions of the witch.) In the end, Baba Yaga grants her the light she had come to seek. The witch gives Vasilissa a glowing skull and bids her to take it home to her cruel step mother. Baba Yaga is helpful to the heroine. This ambiguous psychic energy is serving the ego here in the interest of individuation. The secret boon that Baba Yaga has to offer Vasilissa is a knowledge of dark things – anger, aggression, and even violence. These are shadowy contents that we must come to terms with and even integrate if we are to grow beyond our innocence complex and claim our own authority.
Baba Yaga is hideously ugly. She has a prodigious appetite. She does not care if she is liked or admired. She is fully authentic in her witchiness. Many older women feel liberated as they age from having to be “nice” or “pretty.” They can be cantankerous and ugly if it pleases them, and this brings with it a kind of freedom and authority. Baba Yaga is able to give the young woman in her care the gift of fiery rage that can protect. When Vasilissa is almost back home to her cruel step-mother, she thinks to herself that they must have found some light already, and throws the skull into the hedge, but it speaks to her, and tells her very directly to bring it inside. When she does so, the eyes of the skull burn up the evil step mother and step sisters who treated Vasilissa so cruelly earlier in the story. Returning home, Vasilissa was about to slip back into her former “nice girl” role, forgetting the dark secrets she learned during her apprenticeship to the goddess. She was going to throw away the aggression Baba Yaga had encouraged her to own. Fortunately for her, she did not do so. As a result, she was able to continue on her individuation journey.
Whether our own encounter with shadow contents leads us to being devoured, burned up, or dehumanized will depend on many factors. In little ways, each may happen to us at different times. To grow fully into whom we were meant to be, we will have to confront these contents.
The dark corners in the soul will forever hold great fascination for us. They inspire fear, horror, but also curiosity and even delight as we enjoy being scared or violating taboos. Titrating our exposure to darkness can help us take in healing doses of it. Allow me to offer another way to enjoy the darkness this Halloween, a special recipe for Yaga Stew created especially for Ridenhour’s short by chef Jenni Field. Be warned! Ingest with caution — and an attitude of appropriate humility toward the dark places in the psyche.