Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ classic work, Women Who Run with the Wolves, encourages readers to embrace their inner ‘wild woman’ using myths from around the world. Here, our writer Emma Hanson explores the importance of night in one of the book’s tales, ‘Vasalisa’.
Night opposes day, just as dreams oppose reality.
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés is a presentation of short, mythological tales from around the world, birthed through connection and conversation, and matured within as exemplars of the ways and wiles of the divine feminine or Wild Woman. Through this collection of stories, Estes’ aim is to realign women with the process of individuation – a reclamation and becoming of the Wild Woman.
In addition to folklore interpretations of old coupled with Jungian theory, insights are also divined from the dreams of her contemporary clients; women seeking to return to the soul. In this sense, the night deftly weaves together Estes’ analyses, despite being a central theme to only some fairytales. However, in the three that it does feature, ‘Vasalisa and Baba Yaga’, ‘Sealskin, Soulskin’ and ‘La Llorona’, the night takes centre stage as a locality for feminine growth and discovery. The earliest and most stark opposition of day to night within the collection comes in the tale of Vasalisa.
Vasalisa is the Russian fairytale of a small girl whose mother bequeaths her a doll from upon her deathbed under the strict instruction to “keep [it] with [her] always”, “should [she] lose [her] way or be in need of help, ask this doll what to do. [Vasalisa] will be assisted”. The events that follow see the girl’s father remarry a mean-spirited woman who, accompanied by her two equally yoked daughters, inadvertently sees to it that Vasalisa acts on her mother’s wishes. The stepmother and stepsisters send the small girl off into the dark woods at night in search of firewood to keep them warm; a quest which renders Vasalisa in need of help, and as such, the doll’s guidance.
Off into the night Vasalisa goes, consulting with the doll at every twist and turn, until she arrives at the house of Baba Yaga, a witch-like figure, described in some versions of the tale as the old wild female Goddess of the night. Vasalisa’s journey into the woods sees her pay close attention to the doll, caring for and working in partnership with it to complete the series of tasks set by Baba Yaga.
While it would give me great pleasure and personal reaffirmation to retell the entire story, I arrest candor here as, in this instance, it wouldn’t serve to reveal the fairytale’s ending. Rather, I hope that my secrecy will encourage another to wander into the night towards the Wild Woman and read Estés’ work, if only at the behest of my observation that this tale, among the multiple others within the book, is as pregnant with hope as it is with trope.
From its beginning to an abrupt, just and retrospectively expected end – as is often the reawakening to the real world from a dream world – this tale correlates uncannily with the transition from night to day, focusing particularly on the magic of the former.
Vasalisa is a tale of inversions. The first notable one being the small girl being banished out to the woods; a place which conversely symbolises an inner world of knowing, where Baba Yaga, the witch lives. The presence of a witch – a derivative of the word wit, meaning wise – at the end of Vasalisa’s passage into darkness is a heavy emblem of the knowing within the psyche (see note 1). As Jung remarked, nothing is ever lost in the psyche, and here it is shown to be home to the wit.
The dark woods and doll can be viewed as analogous to the night time and the limp body, asleep while dreaming, yet autonomous, communicative, and mobile within the dream. It is this limp version of herself that Vasalisa is to trust, as she retrieves that which is not truly lost – simply hidden within the psyche – in the night, while dreaming. Estés’ description of the doll as a homunculi [sic] captures the essence of such imagery.
A Homunculus is a visual representation of a small human being resulting from the mapping of neurological action (motor function) or reaction (somatosensory function) in the brain. Its use in modern medicine sees a little man in the brain mapped over either motor or sensory cortices; both jointly and severally referred to as the cortical homunculus.2 The typically outward facing representation of homunculi in relation to the brain can be seen as symbolic of their role in enshrouding and protecting the brain and the dreams generated within from outside threat. First popularised in sixteenth-century alchemy and nineteenth-century fiction, the homunculus has deep roots in folklore, and has established psychological applications, particularly with respect to behavioural therapies.3 Psychology’s fringe-like dearth of entrenchment in, yet heavy overlap with both folklore and medicine, mirrors Estés’ own positioning as a Jungian Psychoanalyst and objective guide to her clients and readers, whose words and observations still carry the innate propensity to alter affectations, as if a little man or doll.
While Vasalisa and her magic doll symbolise the personification of the intuition of the Wild Woman, Women Who Run with the Wolves is a wider symbol of searching for the self in the nighttime. It is a book filled with tales told over lit fires, that together serve as portals to this place of great psychic healing, a locus betwixt the worlds of consensual and non-consensual reality – the land of Nod.
- Estés, Clarissa P. ‘Nosing Out the Facts: The Retrieval of Intuition as Initiation’ in Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992).
- Wikipedia contributors. (2020, September 19). ‘Homunculus’ in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (Retrieved September 27, 2020, see here for full entry).
- MacKay, Tommy & Greig, Anne. (2013). The Homunculi: a flexible CBT approach to social and emotional wellbeing in children and adolescents on the autism spectrum.
- Estés, Clarissa P. ‘The Howl: Resurrection of the Wild Woman’ in Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992).
Feature image detail from Kiki Smith’s Lying with the Wolf, 2001, ink and pencil on paper, 72 x 88″ © Kiki Smith.
This piece was commissioned under our current theme, Night / Shift
For Night / Shift, we at Lucy Writers want to close our eyes to the rituals of the day and open them wide to the possibilities, sites, moves, sounds and forms visible only by night. Using Leonora Carrington’s work (see image above) as an entrance into this broad theme, we welcome writing – reviews, features, essays, creative non-fiction, (flash) fiction, poetry – and art work that explores night and its multiple shifts, liberating and otherwise, for womxn in particular.
Is night, as Carrington suggests, a feminine and feminist zone in itself, one which subverts daily codifications and rethinks day’s conditions? Or is night – also known as Nyx in Greek mythology, the maternal goddess of death, darkness, strife and sleep – still a period of discord, a stretch of time that threatens as much as it frees? For more information, see our Submissions & Contact page.