Herbs, Health and Baba Yaga

Sometime after I relocated from Los Angeles to one of my parents’ homes a few years ago, I sought in vain for alternative spiritualities here in the “boonies” of California’s Mojave Desert.

Searching online for “year-and-a-day” style distance learning, I settled for Magicka School in Italy. The original courses were written by a University of London graduate, which was fine with me. Mom married a London U grad years ago, and it all seemed kind of “homey” at the time. Some of the material was new, some duplicated activities I had done in the past. Given the choice of “spamming” my subconscious with repetition, I admit I breezed through some of the lessons.

Because studying Magic and Wicca is really not at the top of my list of priorities, it was several years before I got around to finishing the program. The final class included a ritual & ceremony for self-initiation at a distance as a second degree equivalent high priestess. The whole shebang ended with a certificate documenting completion of two years of study, and a warning not to look at the online course as “McWicca”. I didn’t.

Yet, with that second degree certificate, I began to wonder what was next? After a series of stops and starts for continuing on the path, with a possible third degree down the road, I finally found Brandi Auset’s Goddess Study Group. I had recently purchased her book The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine, and searched for the author online. The book itself is a pretty comprehensive correspondence manual for contemporary Goddess Spirituality and well worth the price.

To my surprise, I discovered that not only did Brandi and I both migrate through very similar regions of So Cal; our birthdays are one day apart from each other in January. Coincidence? Is there something to these Magic and Wicca studies? Or is it the unique mystique of the California desert, and the call of the Mojave ravens. Fortunately, there was one spot left in the group before it closed. I was going to find out!

The group opened with a promise to study 13 separate Goddesses, and a curriculum in progress. The first six of the thirteen Goddesses were each assigned a different lesson, with a promise that more lessons are in the works. For several reasons, it seemed reasonable to take the study slowly.

For one thing, I had become used to the relaxed, desert pace and didn’t feel like rushing either myself or Brandi into a heated frenzy to finish the material for the course before it was ready. Not to mention, a third degree can take up to 10 years, so why worry? The idea is to make the spirituality part of your daily life.

Fortunately, the pace of the Goddess Study Group seems to correspond with taking time and going slowly. The pattern of dark and light are represented in the first two Goddesses, Hecate and Aphrodite. Last autumn and winter, I delved into a long-term, seasonal invocation and became Hecate. Well, actually my mother is Hecate, since she’s a scorpion (astrologically speaking).

Being Hecate for a couple of seasons in the year really gave me a strong understanding of what is valuable to me, and what I would prefer not to delve into. Surprisingly, Hecate’s darkest aspects seem to be a lot of bad press.

Ancient statues depict Hecate as a maiden; Hecate, as I know Her, is about lighting the way, herbal healing, rescuing children, and providing backup to the Olympians in a time of emergency.

Hardly a dark Goddess after all. Yet, if I hadn’t taken the time to really get to know Her, how would I have known? Goddess study, like any other distance learning, is not fast food.
Spring and summer, I had hoped, would be lighter weight academics, with the glamorous Aphrodite.

I was looking forward to being that pretty and delightful Goddess this year. Surprise again … much of Aphrodite’s lore is linked with darkness; wars, revenge, broken hearts. Yet, She is powerful. The powers of Aphrodite are more than skin-deep. Aphrodite is much more of a “heavy” than I was prepared for.

This autumn and winter promised a change. The Greek Goddesses are in the past, and this season is a study of Baba Yaga, from the Russian pantheon; a pantheon I am quite unfamiliar with. My recollection of Baba Yaga was as a child, reading fairy tales. At the time, I didn’t like the stories much and the house on chicken legs scared me more than the witch inside the cottage.

To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to the lessons of this season, and hoped to either duck out of it, or perhaps to dive in and discover some enlightenment or divine truth about the witch as a Goddess.

Surprise again. I didn’t find any clear references to “the Yaga” being a Goddess. Neither were there any literary treatises beyond frightening fairy tale mythology, and its various interpretations by authors within the Goddess Spirituality genre. Instead; after closing the door on the intimidating Baba Yaga, a large, heavy door of enlightenment creaked open to shed a little light on “real” Russian mythology and herbalism.

Following a hunch that an autumn/winter Goddess study might have something to do with harvest, and drying herbs for the winter, I consulted with Patricia Monaghan’s posthumously published Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, which had been kindly sent my direction as a review copy.

Amazingly, the Russian pantheon is included. Similarly to many mythological cycles, there were an abundance of Russian deities overseeing agriculture and the harvest. Here is a brief list of Slavic Goddesses who were associated with the magic of healing, plants, earth and rain for crops, herbs and herbalism:

Embrace of Topielec and Dziwożony,  public domain painting by Jacek Malczewski
Embrace of Topielec and Dziwożony,  public domain painting by Jacek Malczewski

Berehinia awakened the seeds of spring
Bogoroditsa represented the moist earth of spring
Dziwozony knew secrets of nature and herbal medicine

Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala, public domain painting by Henryk Siemiradzki

Kostrubonko personified new life from earth in spring
Kupala ruled magical herbs, particularly purple loosestrife
Lada, a sea Goddess, was the mother of a masculine spring deity

Public domain drawing of embroidery from the Russian North (XIX century). Interpreted by some researchers as an image of the Goddess-Mother Makosh

Mokosh‘s breast-shaped stones represented spring flowers and rain
Paraskeva was a Christian saint, invoked similarly to Mokosh
Poldunica guarded crops mercilessly

Rusalki, public domain (USA) painting by Konstantin Makovsky

Pszeniczna Matka was a grain Goddess
Rusalki were water spirits of the spring rain
Ved’ma knew the properties of plants

Vesna, public domain stamp folk art
Vesna, public domain stamp folk art

Vesna ended the winter by making love with her husband in spring
Vila knew the secrets of healing and herbcraft
Mati Syra Zemyna was moist Mother Earth

Sculpture "Mother Earth" (copy) at the Central Cemetery in Szczecin, public domain image

Although Baba Yaga was included in Ms. Monaghan’s research, I began to wonder if the witch was a “cover” protecting the real knowledge of the season. As usual, intuition informed accurately; once again, herbs and herbal healing would be the path during the cold season.

Oddly, I could only find one book on the topic in the English language. A Russian Herbal: Traditional Remedies for Health and Healing by Igor Vilevich Zevin, published way back in 1997. I wasn’t too hopeful, but the price was reasonable. Not expecting much, I bought a previously owned copy.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that University of New Mexico had partnered with Coursera to offer its first online “mooc” on the topic of Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine. Possibly as a supplement this offering of a folk healing tradition of the Southwestern United States, Latin America and Mexico, University of California in San Francisco offered Collaboration and Communication in Healthcare: Interprofessional Practice around the same time, as continuing education for licensed physicians, as a free public offering. Because I rely on natural health remedies, I decided to take both courses back-to-back.
After getting past some mild hazing from doctors in peer reviews, I pulled my grade up to acceptable and finished the collaboration course. A glitch in the curanderismo grading system resulted in many of the students being sent an email of non-completion. My dog, who I had been treating with herbal worming techniques, experienced a temporary setback during the interim. I began to wonder if this happens to medical students; is this a rite of passage I was going through?

Soon, the Russian herbal arrived. As I imagined, it included a list of herbs, herb recipes, folk healing methods and a sprinkling of pantheon-specific mythology surrounding some of the botanicals. Pretty much like Susun Weed’s Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, or the Curanderismo text by professor Cheo Torres, Healing with Herbs and Rituals: A Mexican Tradition. Nice cross-reference, and a few new herbs and recipes; otherwise very similar to herbals we all know and love.

Yet, like the studies of Hecate and Aphrodite, Baba Yaga’s introduction to Russian mythology and herbalism comes with a powerful surprise; something unusual of which most western medical traditions are not yet aware. Mainstream Russian doctors are required to learn herbalism in medical school.

Many of the folk herbal traditions have been studied and verified by Russian clinical testing, and many of the pharmaceuticals are derived from herbal traditions. Imagine, going to a family doctor and having a choice whether to be prescribed pharmaceuticals or herbs.

Here, indeed, is the wisdom of the season, and a gift of knowledge from an obscure book written in the 90’s … perhaps the only one of its kind publicly available. A mystery, hiding shyly behind the mask of Baba Yaga; the birth of mainstream medical acceptance of herbalism reveals Herself. This, the Goddess of the cold season, is the Goddess of the harvest, of herbs and of health throughout the year.

My search for alternative spiritualities, snuggled up cosily here in the “boonies” of California’s Mojave Desert, has evolved into a new respect for international studies, and a hope for the “mainstreaming” of proven alternative and traditional healing methods.

Blessed Be!