Vasilisa the Beautiful is a captivating story from a collection of Russian fairy tales published in 1866. The Russian stories were gathered by Aleksandr Afanas’ev, who was considered the Russian counterpart of the Grimm Brothers. Afanas’ev was a lawyer by education and his collection of folklore was instrumental in introducing Russian popular tales to world literature.
Vasilisa also known as Vasilisa the Wise, Vasilisa the Beautiful, Princess Vasilisa and the Frog Princess, is a popular character that appears in multiple Eastern European fairy tales. She usually takes the role of a beautiful maiden or princess, tormented by a wicked stepmother or a villain, and is sometimes rescued by a handsome hero in the story.
Vasilisa the Beautiful
(Russian Fairy Tale)
In a certain kingdom there lived a merchant. Although he had been married for twelve years, he had only one daughter, called Vasilisa the Beautiful. When the girl was eight years old, her mother died. On her deathbed the merchant’s wife called her daughter, took a doll from under her quilt, gave it to the girl and said, “Listen, Vasilisa. Remember and heed my words. I am dying, and together with my maternal blessing I leave you this doll. Always keep it with you and do not show it to anyone; if you get into trouble, give the doll food, and ask its advice. When it has eaten, it will tell you what to do in your trouble.” Then the mother kissed her child and died.
After his wife’s death the merchant mourned as is proper, and then began to think of marrying again. He was a handsome man and had no difficulty in finding a bride, but he liked best a certain widow. Because she was elderly and had two daughters of her own, of almost the same age of Vasilisa, he thought that she was an experienced housewife and mother. So he married her, but was deceived, for she did not turn out to be a good mother for Vasilisa.
Vasilisa was the most beautiful girl in the village; her stepmother and stepsisters were jealous of her beauty and tormented her by giving her all kinds of work to do, hoping that she would grow thin from toil and tanned from exposure to the wind and sun; in truth, she had a most miserable life. But Vasilisa bore all this without complaint and became lovelier every day, while the stepmother and her daughters grew thin and ugly from spite, although they always sat with folded hands, like ladies.
How did all of this come about? Vasilisa was helped by her doll. Without its aid the girl could never have managed all that work. In return, Vasilisa sometimes did not eat, but kept the choicest morsels for her doll. And at night, when everyone was asleep, she would lock herself in the little room in which she lived, and would give the doll a treat, saying, “Now, little doll, eat, and listen to my troubles. I live in my father’s house but am deprived of all joy; a wicked stepmother is driving me from the white world. Tell me how I should live and what I should do.” The doll would eat, then would give her advice and comfort her in her trouble, and in the morning, she would perform all the chores for Vasilisa, who rested in the shade and picked flowers while the flowerbeds were weeded, the cabbage sprayed, the water brought in, and the stove fired. The doll even showed Vasilisa an herb that would protect her from sunburn. She led an easy life, thanks to her doll.
Several years went by. Vasilisa grew up and reached the marriage age. She was wooed by all the young men in the village, but no one would ever look at the stepmother’s daughters. The stepmother was more spiteful than ever, and her answer to all the suitors was, “I will not give the youngest daughter in marriage before the elder ones.” And each time she sent a suitor away, she vented her anger on Vasilisa in cruel blows.
One day the merchant had to leave the home for a long time in order to trade in distant lands. The stepmother moved to another house; near that house was a thick forest, and in a glade of that forest stood a hut, and in the hut lived Baba Yaga. She never allowed anyone to come near her and ate humans as if they were chickens. Having moved into the new house, the merchant’s wife, hating Vasilisa, repeatedly sent the girl to the woods for one thing or another; but each time Vasilisa returned home safe and sound: her doll had showed her the way and kept her far away from Baba Yaga’s hut.
Autumn came. The stepmother gave evening work to all three maidens: the oldest had to make lace, the second had to knit stockings, and Vasilisa had to spin; and each one had to finish her task. The stepmother put out the lights all over the house, leaving only one candle in the room where the girls worked and went to bed. The girls worked. The candle began to smoke; one of the stepsisters took up a scissors to trim it, but instead, following her mother’s order, she snuffed it out, as though inadvertently.
“What shall we do now?” said the girls. “There is no light in the house and our tasks are not finished. Someone must run to Baba Yaga and get some light.”
“The pins on my lace give me light,” said the one who was making lace. “I shall not go.”
“I shall not go either,” said the one who was knitting stocking, “my knitting needles give me light.”
“Then you must go,” both of them cried to their stepsister. “Go to Baba Yaga!” And they pushed Vasilisa out of the room.
She went into her own little room, put the supper she had prepared before the doll, and said, “Now dolly, eat, and aid me in my need. They are sending me to Baba Yaga for a light, and she will eat me up.”
The doll ate the supper and its eyes gleamed like two candles. “Fear not, Vasilisa,” it said. “Go where you are sent, only keep me with you all the time. With me in your pocket you will suffer no harm from Baba Yaga.” Vasilisa made ready, put her doll in her pocket, and having made the sign of the cross, and went into the deep forest.
She walked in fear and trembling. Suddenly a horseman galloped past her: his face was white, he was dressed in white, his horse was white, and his horse’s trappings were white – daybreak came to the woods.
She walked on farther, and a second horseman galloped past her: he was all red, he was dressed in red, and his horse was red – the sun began to rise.
Vasilisa walked the whole night and the whole day, and only on the following evening did she come to the glade where Baba Yaga’s hut stood. The fence around the hut was made of human bones, and on the posts were human skulls with staring eyes; the doors had human legs for doorposts, human hands for bolts, and a mouth with sharp teeth in place of a lock. Vasilisa was numb with horror and stood rooted to the spot.
Suddenly another horseman rode by. He was all black, he was dressed in black, and his horse was black. He galloped up to Baba Yaga’s door and vanished, as though the earth had swallowed him up – night came. But the darkness did not last long. The eyes of the skulls on the fence began to gleam and the glade was as bright as day. Vasilisa shuddered with fear, but not knowing where to run, remained on the spot.
Soon a terrible noise resounded through the woods; the trees crackled, the dry leaves rustled; from the woods Baba Yaga drove out in a mortar, prodding it on with a pestle, and sweeping her traces with a broom. She rode up to the gate, stopped, and sniffing the air around her, cried, “Fie, fie! I smell a Russian smell! Who is here?”
Vasilisa came up to the old witch and, trembling with fear, bowed low to her and said, “It is I, grandmother. My stepsisters sent me to get some light.”
“Very well,” said Baba Yaga. “I know them, but before I give you the light you must live with me and work for me; if not, I will eat you up.” Then she turned to the gate and cried, “Hey, my strong bolts, unlock! Open up, my wide gate!” The gate opened, and Baba Yaga drove in whistling. Vasilisa followed her, and then everything closed again. Having entered the room, Baba Yaga stretched herself out in her chair and said to Vasilisa, “Serve me what is in the stove; I am hungry.”
Vasilisa lit a torch from the skulls on the fence and began to serve Baba Yaga the food from the stove – and enough food had been prepared for ten people. She brought beer and wine from the cellar. The old witch ate and drank everything, leaving for Vasilisa only a little cabbage soup, a crust of bread, and a piece of pork. Then Baba Yaga made ready to go to bed and said, “Tomorrow after I go, see to it that you sweep the yard, clean the hut, cook dinner, wash the linen, and go to the corn bin and sort out a bushel of wheat. And let everything be done, or I will eat you up!”
Having given these orders, Baba Yaga began to snore. Vasilisa set the remnants of the old witch’s supper before the doll, wept bitter tears, and said, “Here dolly, eat, and aid me in my need! Baba Yaga has given me a hard task to do and threatens to eat me up if I do not do it all. Help me!”
The doll answered, “Fear not, Vasilisa the Beautiful! Eat your supper, say your prayers, and go to sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening.”
Very early next morning Vasilisa awoke, and looked out of the window. The eyes of the skulls were going out; then the white horseman flashed by, and it was daybreak. Baba Yaga went out into the yard, whistled, and a mortar, pestle, and broom appeared before her. The red horseman flashed by, and the sun rose. Baba Yaga sat in the mortar, prodded it on with the pestle, and swept her traces with the broom.
Vasilisa remained alone, looked about Baba Yaga’s hut, and was amazed at the abundance of everything, and stopped wondering which work she should do first. For lo and behold, all the work was done; the doll was picking the last shreds of chaff from the wheat. “Ah my savior,” said Vasilisa to her doll, “you have delivered me from death.”
“All you have to do,” answered the doll, creeping into Vasilisa’s pocket, “is to cook the dinner; cook it with the help of God and then rest, for your health’s sake.”
When evening came Vasilisa set the table and waited for Baba Yaga. Dusk began to fall, the black horseman flashed by the gate, and night came; only the skull’s eyes were shining. The trees crackled, the leaves rustled; Baba Yaga was coming. Vasilisa met her. “Is everything done?” asked Baba Yaga.
“Please see for yourself, grandmother,” said Vasilisa.
Baba Yaga looked at everything, was annoyed that there was nothing she could complain about, and said, “Very well, then.” Then she cried, “My faithful servants, my dear friends, grind my wheat!” Three pairs of hands appeared, took the wheat, and carried it out of sight. Baba Yaga ate her fill, made ready to go to sleep, and again gave her order to Vasilisa.
“Tomorrow,” she commanded, “do the same work you have done today, and in addition take the poppy seed from the bin and get rid of the dust, grain by grain, someone threw dust into the bins out of spite.” Having said this, the old witch turned to the wall and began to snore, and Vasilisa set about feeding her doll.
The doll ate, and spoke as she had spoken the day before, “Pray to God and go to sleep; the morning is wiser than the evening. Everything will be done, Vasilisa.”
Next morning Baba Yaga again left the yard in her mortar, and Vasilisa and the doll soon had all the work done. The old witch came back, looked at everything, and cried, “My faithful servants, my dear friends, press the oil out of the poppy seed!” Three pairs of hands appeared, took the poppy seed, and carried it out of sight. Baba Yaga sat down to dine; she ate, and Vasilisa stood silent.
“Why do you not speak to me?” said Baba Yaga. “You stand there as though you were dumb.”
“I did not dare to speak,” said Vasilisa, “but if you’ll give me leave, I’d like to ask you something.”
“Go ahead. But not every question has a good answer; if you know too much, you will soon grow old,” warned Baba Yaga.
“I want to ask you, grandmother, only about what I have seen. As I was on my way to you, a horseman on a white horse, all white himself and dressed in white, overtook me. Who is he?” asked Vasilisa.
“He is my bright day.”
“Then another horseman overtook me; he had a red horse, was red himself, and was dressed in red. Who is he?”
“He is my red sun.”
“And who is the black horseman whom I met at your very gate, grandmother?”
“He is my dark night – and all of them are my faithful servants.”
Vasilisa remembered the three pairs of hands, but kept silent. “Why don’t you ask me more?” said Baba Yaga.
“That will be enough,” Vasilisa replied. “You said yourself that one who knows too much will grow old soon.”
“It is well,” said Baba Yaga, “that you ask only about what you have seen outside my house, not inside my house; I do not like to have my dirty linen washed in public, and I eat the overcurious. Now I shall ask you something. How do you manage to do the work I set out for you?”
“I am helped by the blessing of my mother,” said Vasilisa.
“So that is what it is,” shriek Baba Yaga. “Get you gone, blessed daughter! I want no blessed ones in my house!” She dragged Vasilisa out of room and pushed her outside the gate, took a skull with burning eyes from the fence, stuck it on a stick, and gave it to the girl, saying, “Here is your light for your stepsisters. Take it; that is what they sent you for.”
Vasilisa ran homeward by the light of the skull, which went out only at daybreak, and by nightfall of the following day she reached the house. As she approached the gate, she was about to throw the skull away, thinking that surely they no longer needed a light in the house. But suddenly a dull voice came from the skull, saying, “Do not throw me away, and take me to your stepmother.”
She looked at the stepmother’s house and, seeing that there was no light in the windows, decided to enter with her skull. For the first time she was received kindly. Her stepmother and stepsisters told her that since she had left they had had no fire in the house; they were unable to strike a flame themselves, and whatever light was brought by the neighbors went out the moment it was brought into the house.
“Perhaps your fire will last,” said the stepmother.
The skull was brought into the room, and its eyes kept staring at the stepmother and her daughters, and burned them. They tried to hide, but wherever they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were all burned to ashes, and only Vasilisa remained untouched by the fire. Vasilisa buried the skull in the ground, locked up the house, and went to town. A certain childless old woman gave her shelter, and there she lived, waiting for her father’s return.
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