Me, age 3. I am playing in my backyard, against the white fence where we later planted the raspberry bushes. It's Spring. There are thousands of little tiny frogs hopping around everywhere. I am a little bit afraid of them, but I also love them in the way that some children love frogs and all creepy, crawly, hoppy things. My curiosity gets the best of me and I step on one. It looks so springy, and maybe if I can step onto it, it will hop around with me on its back!
My mother finds me outside, weeping, trying to stuff the tiny frog's guts back down its throat. I now know Death. I know that it is swift and wet and that it cannot be undone. This is one of my earliest memories.
Thank you, little frog, for giving me this lesson. For as long as I draw breath, I will be grateful to you.
Thirty-five years later, I am a priestess of Baba Yaga. Death has been a longtime friend on my life journey. We came to an understanding early on. I know Her to be life's blood and viscera, the raw matter of form and the black expanse of formlessness. I channel Her in rituals, speaking of what it feels like to be misintrpreted, vilified, silenced. I know Her when I make medicines, and She guides my hand...Just a little more of this, not too much. Too much will make you sick. Too much will make you die. Just enough. There. I know Her in the dark corners of my mind, where mocking cackles taunt me and fortify me and remind me of my ego attachments.
I am living what I think to be a whole life, but I have a nagging sense that something is wrong. There is a burl on the root of my tree, and I can feel it, but I can't quite place it. A nameless guilt. A shame. It's small and it croaks.
I am invited to a ritual at friend's family coven. There, at the dark of the moon, we take a journey to meet Our Dark Mother. The purpose of the rite is to confront a piece of ourselves we need to heal or let go.
I enter the glade. I usually don't like visualization exercises very much. I'm less of a visual person, more of a singing/feeling person. I would do better if we were chanting. Then, poof...the vision arises...
I am surprised by the immediacy of Her presence. There She is, predictably squatting in a swampy, forested area. Around Her leap hundreds of tiny frogs. She is laughing, cackling. The air smells rank. She picks up a little frog, bites its head off, spits it out. Drops the body, picks up another one. I am horrified. She looks at me, "You! This is YOUR FROG. I ate it for you! It died for you! I will eat ALL OF YOUR FROGS."
I snap back from the trance. I am filled with awe, clarity and purpose. I now know, for sure, in a way I didn't know before: everything and everyone I will ever love or hate will die, and none of these lessons will matter unless I choose to hold them wisely. I can choose to shame myself with my lessons, whereby I create an aversion to learning. Or I can uplift myself with gratitude for my lessons, whereby learning is a joy.
All of these years, I have shamefully carried that little frog. I have wept over it, felt guilty for it, wondered if perhaps it was a sign that there was something wrong with me. I placed so much undue pressure on this little frog to bear the burden of my guilt and shame, rather than correctly and gratefully holding it with praise for the lesson it taught me.
Let me tell you about this pattern I have observed in myself, and in others: when we find something distasteful, we look away. We then suffer with shame at our own lack of courage and compassion in our aversion, and we project that shame upon what we turned from. By looking at the pain, looking at the shame, walking right up to it and confronting it directly and with gratitude for all of its strength in bearing the weight of our lesson, we transform pain into wisdom and learn more.
Baba Yaga represents the collected shame we carry over natural things: our all-too-human desire for conflict, the times we inadvertently or maliciously cause harm, the parts of ourselves we hate to acknowledge, the parts of ourselves we reject as imperfect, the parts of ourselves we don't want to admit to.
Back at the ritual, we move on to our activity. Given beeswax, a wick, and some paper, and told to fashion a candle and write a note about my trance, I move swiftly, shaping the black wax into a little frog, anchoring the wick down through the center. I cut and bunch up some red thread to represent the guts coming out of its mouth. I write a letter of passionate gratitude, also asking for forgiveness and offering to take upon myself in the next life the damage I did in this one. I take that candle home and burn it, grateful for the ritual, grateful for the learning, grateful for the frog. I light the candle. It burns the guts out of the wax frog. I integrate the knowing, and realization arises.
For many, many years, I have had this little pewter frog figurine. I never made the association between the frog of my young learning and this little figurine- I just liked the figure. It is one of the things that means "I'm home" when I have moved. It was originally mounted upon a piece of agate with glue. I got it at a souvenir shop when I was a child, in New Hampshire. Is it any coincidence that the day or so after this transformative ritual, it accidentally falls off the shelf, breaking the frog loose from the agate- basically freeing him from where he had been stuck?
I go to Baba Yaga's altar, place him tenderly there. This little Ancestor who taught me so much is given a place of honor upon my altar. Exalted now, where once he was banished to the recesses of my consciousness by shame and aversion.
Baba Yaga is not one for high-fallutin' ways. She teaches me the courage to face myself in all mirrors, to embrace that which causes me pain or shame, to hold it up as a mighty teacher, to launch myself into the unknown of vulnerability. She tells me that the one who goes vulnerably, humbly, and authentically to Death is met with tender care and a soft, warm lap, while those who go to Death fighting are dragged roughly. She teaches me to be whole in Life and filled with Life, for Death is always certain. She teaches me not to flinch away from my fears, from shame, but instead to embrace and transform them. She teaches me all of this, and much more.
Na zdorovie, Baba Yaga!
Hidden Track on this blog:
Recently, I made a D & D character for a game with some friends. I made a Druid Halfling with very low charisma who rides a battle boar and is wildly inappropriate in conversation. I called her "The Ropemaker's Daughter." Today, googling Baba Yaga, I find this woodcut of Her riding a boar as a political satire from the 1700's. I love it when stuff like this happens. Magical nerdery.