I first read this story in Women Who Run with the Wolves, and it was one of those ‘scribbling hexagrams in the margins’ moments for me. You can read a longer version of the tale here, but this is the core of it:
Vassilissa was a beautiful young girl who lived with her father and mother. When her mother died, she gave her daughter a doll to keep and feed in secret, that would protect and guide her. Whenever Vassilissa offered the doll food, its eyes would light up and shine, and it would help.
Vassilissa’s father remarried a woman with two daughters, and Vassilissa soon found that her new stepmother was exploitative and cruel. She survived and flourished, though, through the help of her doll, until the day when her stepmother and stepsisters resolved to get rid of her. They extinguished the hearth fire of their home, and told Vassilissa she must go out and make her way through the dark forest to the hut of Baba Yaga, the witch, to ask her for fire. This, they thought, would be the end of her.
Vassilissa – guided always by her doll – went out into the forest and through the dark. There she saw the most extraordinary sights – strange riders on horseback, gates of bones, skulls full of fire, Baba Yaga’s hut turning on its chicken legs, and Baba Yaga herself flying through the air in her mortar.
Baba Yaga set Vassilissa a series of impossible tasks, planning to eat her when she failed. But the doll completed every one of them, so the witch could never find fault. When Baba Yaga in her frustration demanded to know how she had managed this, Vassilissa explained that it was by her dead mother’s blessing. Then Baba Yaga couldn’t throw her out of the hut fast enough – but she gave her one of the burning skulls to take back to her stepfamily for fire.
So Vassilissa carried the burning skull back home, where the fire leapt from its eyes and consumed the wicked stepmother and stepsisters.
Well… many hexagram marginalia here. There is the mother’s blessing (35.2?) that must needs be kept hidden away, so no-one else can see the light in its eyes (36). Sometimes the light must be taken inside and hidden to keep it safe.
The fire on the inside is meant to be the hearth fire, at the centre of the home where everyone has their place and everyone is safe and protected. Such was Vassilissa’s father’s hope when he remarried. But ‘when the dao of the home is exhausted, there must needs be turning away’ – so says the Sequence from hexagram 37 to 38. What could be a better image of the way of the home coming to an end than the extinguishing of its fire?
‘Opposing means outside; People in the Home means inside’ says the Zagua, the Contrasts. Vassilissa is sent out, and the fire trigram in hexagram 38 has also moved to the outer position. In the forest (a word that actually means ‘outside’), Vassilissa sees sights as uncanny as anything in 38.3 or 6. She gets the fire she came for – but now it’s become eldritch fire, burning of its own accord and devouring falsehood.
This is where my scribbles in the margin come to an end – but not before they’ve given me an abiding image of 38’s ‘different seeing’ as the burning skull.