Sacred Teaching – the Structure of Belief


As you can see from the last post, there is an underlying spiritual or religious tradition behind these stories. Spiritual teachings or perhaps we could say, the religion and belief system underlying them, should be understood, and excavated in the tales. For the hero, the quest cannot be achieved without it a deep knowing of these traditions.

In the first part of The Little Humpbacked Horse we can see this clearly, when the three brothers set out to catch the demon which is trampling the Tsar’s corn each night. The older two brothers make much of performing the outer rituals of their religion – they bow and pray, before going out to challenge the demon, while in fact they are afraid and hide themselves. They come home in the morning pretending that they have waited for the demon, to challenge it. The outer trappings of their religion do not give them the courage or belief to make a stand against something that they know to be destructive. They are superficial and no longer have a function.

The youngest brother Ivan (our hero) does not do any of this. He is depicted as a fool, and yet is shown as being connected to a deep sense of the feminine and of the mystical. When it is his turn to confront the demon, he simply takes a crust of bread and waits for her to show herself. She is indeed a representation of the feminine (a white mare) which has been repressed and denigrated in that society. When Ivan eventually overcomes this demon, after a great battle, she does a deal with him and so he wins his friend and guide, who represents the Spirit of Guidance, the Teacher, and the Teachings – his little humpbacked Horse. When he returns home, he does not tell his brothers or his father what has happened but simply goes about his business. He is laughed at but this does not bother him at all. He has done the deep inner work and can now proceed on his quest, with his guide and teacher.

Later in the story the same brothers try and cheat Ivan out of his hard-won prize – his horses, with no thought to what is right and wrong. Later in the court of the Tsar, where Ivan finds himself, there is again this outward show of devotion, which causes Ivan much grief. The whole land and of course the Tsar, is devoid of a spiritual or mystical underpinning. Ivan’s task is to restore and integrate the sacred feminine principal and so heal the empire.

In the story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram, it is clear that the people in the village did not have an active working belief system or religion which sustained them deeply. We are told that they had no fresh spring water for their tea and food – no water of life, no spiritual nourishment, to sustain them. But there was a tradition, which was well known and a prophesy – that one day spring water would burst forth from the lips of a stone ram. A young stone mason (Golden Chisel), after spending a night in the mountains (in a ‘high’ place, possibly meditating or contemplating), sees a light shining in the dry pond near the village. This light is the Divine Light or Spirit of Guidance. He digs where he sees the light and finds a brilliant stone roughly in the shape of a ram. The time he has spent on his inner work, has allowed him to ‘see’ this Light.  He has in effect found the core or kernel of a true teaching, –  there in the old spiritual beliefs of the village, where he found the light and went digging. The stone was very hard and blunted his tools as he chiseled his stone ram. So we too must chisel out our own Ideal of God and create our ‘structure’ of belief. It is hard and difficult and requires all the tools that we have – our practices and belief systems. When the stone ram is at last complete, the little stone ram comes alive and speaks to Golden Chisel, offering gold and riches, but Golden Chisel only asks for fresh water for the village. In a sense he was being tempted, just as Christ was tempted in the desert after his baptism. With the insight and wisdom he had achieved, he could have anything he wanted, but he was a true Teacher and only asked for this wisdom and life to flow to the village. The Stone Ram brought fresh water from the sacred Yellow River to the village each night. As the story unfolds we discover much about the difficulties and ultimate success in bringing new Teachings to the world. Golden Chisel had to contend with the jealous god of the Yellow river, before he could be successful in allowing the water to flow directly to the village. He truly was a new messenger or prophet.

Cenerentola (an old version of the Cinderella story) shows very clearly that there has been an old and hidden matriarchal or Goddess religion in Sardinia since ancient times, and it is this which underpins the whole story. The Dove of the Fairies is the leader or high priestess of this religion, and it is she who teaches and advises Cenerentola. We see as the story develops how Cenerentola learns and evolves until she is ready to become the Queen she was destined to be. The story is about her quest and she is the only person named. It is unusual, as it demonstrates the path that the feminine must take towards enlightenment.

The Frog Princess gives us very little hint as to any tradition, except that there is a lack of any understanding of feminine spirituality, and so the hero must find the old witch – the Baba Yaga, to help him. She also comes out of that ancient tradition of a matriarchal religion.


The Structure of the Sacred Teachings, in the story ‘The Fairy of the Dawn’

Petru's beautiful horse


There is a part of The Fairy of the Dawn story which demonstrates the search for hidden or lost teachings; so that the hero has a wisdom structure to carry him through the inner realms, and who can advise him on his journey.

When our hero, Petru first comes to the bridge at the edge of his father’s realm, he must fight the terrible dragon guarding the bridge. He is unable to do this because his horse cannot handle the sight of the dragon and neighs and rears up at the mere sight of it. He knows that he cannot fight the dragon as his horse is not steady or strong enough. He must return for a better horse. This horse is a symbol of the structure – of his belief system or religion, which in this case could not quite sustain him. So, he returns to find his old nurse and teacher Birscha eagerly waiting for him at the gate of the palace. She tells Petru that he will never reach the spring of the Fairy of the Dawn unless he rides the horse which his father the Emperor rode in his youth. In other words, he must use the ancient teachings or knowledge base and steed of the Emperor, who is in fact the Heart, according to Sufis. He represents the Divine One. Birscha tells Petru to ask his Father where the horse is to be found, and then mount it and be off.

Petru does as he is told and the Emperor immediately knows that it can only have been the witch Birscha, who has told him this. ‘Fifty years have passed since I was young’, he says. This symbolises the completion of a (7 x 7) cycle – it is a Jubilee, a return to the beginning. A fresh start. ‘Who knows where the bones of my horse are rotting; or whether a scrap of his reins still lie in his stall?’ the Emperor tells Petru. Petru is devastated at this but Birscha understands the hints and symbols he has been given. The bones or structure of the Teachings are still in the horses’ stall somewhere – hidden. The scarps of the reins signify the remains of practices – means of mastery of the ego – like prayer, chanting, song or sound, breathing practice, meditation, and contemplation. These are the reins which control life. Birscha understands and sends Petru to find the scrap of the reins; the place was full of saddles, bridles, and bits of leather, but he picked out the oldest, blackest, and most decayed pair of reins and brought them to old Birscha.

With respect to Teachings and mysticism, it is thought that the Illuminated Souls, who came to earth, like Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Buddha, Abraham, Solomon, Zarathustra, Moses, Jesus, Mahomed and in many others known and unknown to the world,  have directly received the sacred wisdom as a transmission from ‘above’. The Wisdom is always the same, but understood through the prism of the culture or times it was received. From this direct vertical transmission, a religion is perhaps eventually formed. Followers of the original Prophet or Teacher are taught, and the religion is spread horizontally over the regions and the peoples of the land, sometimes over hundreds and thousands of years. But the purity of the teachings become diluted or distorted over time, so that they are gradually lost, being constantly re-interpreted. Therefore, many teachers ask that their words are not to be changed under any circumstances.  Petru must search in the stable (the Temple of God) for the oldest version of the practice, so to discover their original purity and wisdom.

When he brings the reins to the old woman, she performed a ritual – murmured over them and sprinkled them with incense, before holding them out to the young man. In a way, they are transformed and now carry the real mystery. ‘Take the reins’ said she ‘and strike them violently against the pillars of the house’.  The pillars of the house can be seen as the Seven Pillars of Sophia – of the Feminine Wisdom – the Spiritual structure of the Teachings. In the Book of Proverbs (9 1) ‘Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars. Sophia calls out to humanity, ‘Let the simple turn in here — Abandon the company of simpletons and you will live, you will advance in understanding’. (Prov. 9. 4 – 6). The Seven-pillared temple, upon which Wisdom is standing, symbolises Her Church or structure. She teaches and protects. It is very interesting that the central figure seen with Sophia is a man holding a sword above a dragon, signifying strength. This could indeed be Petru. Petru did what he was told, and scarcely had the reins touched the pillar when, to his amazement, a horse ‘whose equal in beauty the world had never seen; with a saddle of gold and precious stones, and with such a dazzling bridle you hardly dared look at it, lest you should lose your sight.’ By striking the reins against the pillar of wisdom, he has manifested his inner guide, his psychopomp – the whole wisdom teaching.

‘Jump on the back of the brown horse,’ said the old woman, and went into the house.

Now the horse tells Petru to ‘sit firmly in the saddle’, and off they go to fight the dragon, cut off its head, and cross the bridge, before travelling deeper and deeper into the other realms;  to the spring of the Fairy of the Dawn and back again. We need a teacher like old Birscha, to lead us to our guide, who shows us the way; – the steed who carries us through the realms.





The flying Horse and the stone Ram, as vehicle, steed and guide.

The flying horse, or the stone ram, is ridden by the hero on his or her journey through the realms. It really represents pure intellect, life, and light – all aspects of the Divine. It is in effect a Psychopomp, the archetype which guides the soul through its various transitions – through the inner realms of the journey. Perhaps in Sufi terms, it can be seen as the Spirit of Guidance. Without it the hero cannot proceed in his or her quest.

In each of the Fairy Tales in my book, the hero wins his faithful steed and guide, after a great battle, conflict, or inner work of some kind. In Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram (an ancient Chinese Han Fairy Tale), the hero Golden Chisel finds a brilliant stone, in the centre of the dried-up pond in his village. He had spent the night in the mountains before this, perhaps meditating, so that he could finally ‘see’ the light in the stone shining there. He then had to chisel or carve the stone, which was vaguely in the form of a ram. The Prophecy had said that water would flow from the mouth of a stone ram. So, Golden Chisel spent a long time chiselling the hard stone, into the shape of a ram. When it was finally complete it came alive and the stone ram speaks to him. They make a deal so that the stone ram will bring water from the sacred Yellow River to the village, so that the villagers could have fresh spring water for their tea and their food. Nourishment of the soul. It is the Stone Ram who takes Golden Chisel to the river each night, and who carries the water from the river to replenish the village.

The Little Humpbacked Horse is the true Psychopomp in this story but he also was hard- won. The hero wants to find the ‘demon’ who is trampling the Tsar’s golden corn. This demon turns out to be a white mare (representing the inner Light of the feminine which was totally lacking and repressed in the land of the Tsar). The hero does battle with her, by jumping on her back, facing her tail, and hanging on for dear Life, never letting go. After a long time trying to dislodge him in violent ways, the mare gives up. He has passed the test and now they too make a deal. If he lets her go, she will give him two magnificent horses and a little humpbacked horse with long ears like a donkey. She tells him that he can do what he wishes with the two horses but on no account, must he give up his little humpbacked horse. This will be his guide, friend, and steed, although he has no idea of this at the time. This little horse advises him, takes him to the various realms that he needs to journey through and finally guides him to his goal.

While in the Fairy of the Dawn story, there is yet another way in which a beautiful brown horse, manifests for the hero. At first Petru the hero, rides a horse to the edges of consciousness, to fight the fearsome dragon which guards this bridge between the realms. In trying to overcome the dragon, Petru realises that his horse is not steady enough  to hold him, as he fights. He returns to his father’s palace and is met by his old nurse / witch, who immediately knows exactly what the problem is. She teaches and guides him to find the oldest reins in the emperor’s stables, and in striking the reins against the pillar, a magnificent, beautiful brown horse stands before him. There is much symbolism here but the pillars represent the wisdom of Sophia (the Divine Feminine) and the structure which holds this wisdom. This horse carries Petru to the bridge, where he fights and overcomes the dragon, cutting off its largest head. Now he is in the next realm of consciousness, where his horse advises, and explains his journey, so that he eventually reaches the centre where the Fairy of the Dawn guards the sacred water. He then must carry this water back to his father the Emperor, so that he can be healed. This return journey is very unusual in fairy stories and is important. After all we do have to return to this outer realm and our lives.

I would say that the Baba Yaga – the witch and Teacher in the Frog Princess, who guides the hero in that story, is also a Psychopomp. She rides a ‘horse stick’ in many stories and takes on this function of the flying horse. She teaches the hero, when he is near the end of his quest and without her, he would never have found his princess wife again.

And in the final story of Cenerentola (Cinderella), the Dove of the fairies acts as a spiritual teacher and guide for the heroine, so that she grows and evolves into the Queen she really is. Birds also can act as a Psychopomp in ancient myths.



Letting Go: Opening to Spirit

This is a Reflection given at The Interfaith Centre of Melbourne’s  Interfaith Service, Letting Go: Opening to Spirit.
The spiritually inclusive service was held at 3pm Sunday March 12, 2017, at Toorak Uniting Church.

Dr Nicholas Coleman’s Welcome to Spirit

We acknowledge
The One beyond All
Source of the Universe
Substance of Life
Known and worshipped
By many names and by none
Here – now and hereafter

I really love Nick’s Welcome to Spirit – this acknowledgement that the Divine One is the whole universe and nothing exists save God or the One, is the core of Sufi belief and knowing. We are all part of this One, of the Unity that we are born into. Little ones are happy and still close to the Source, but as we grow up we develop our ‘personality’, we learn attitudes and opinions, develop coping mechanisms which help us deal with the world we live in.

However, these things, make us feel more and more separate from the One, and it is this separation which makes us ‘panic in our humanness’. What has been lost is our feeling of Unity with God, of Peace and happiness. Murshid Hidayat (the son of Hazrat Inayat Khan) used to say, very emphatically that the Soul is happy, it is happiness.

We come to realise that our attitudes and expectations of ourselves and others have to be ‘let go of’, before we can return to the place of Peace and happiness. This is a long and difficult task, and for the small self, it feels like death.

We can let go of fear and anger, not by ‘killing them’, which is repression: things repressed come up and bite us when we least expect it to, but by having mastery over them. We need to have fear when we are in danger, so that we can run or fight! We need the energy of anger to support the fight sometimes!

What makes us angry or fearful? Why? What can we do about it? What is it that causes our heart to be ‘wrenched and torn’? When we discover this, we can let it go. This is what separates us – instead of thinking that we are right, let us listen to what the other has to say. There is a possibility that we have much in common with them. Silence is often better than arguing, especially with someone who has made up their minds – just let it go. It is even harder sometimes, in our own families – to let go of giving ‘advice’ to our grown children, for instance. They don’t listen anyway, and just resent the interference. Love and silence and the occasional ‘Really!’ when we are told something we disagree with, goes a long way.

I had a dream, just after I was pondering this. My husband was working with Donald Trump. Yes Really! I noticed that he was using pencil and paper, and that he was quietly looking for a common ground behind all the mayhem. If we listen to others, we will find a truth that we can work with, rather than seeing and objecting to something we disagree with.

Hazrat Inayat Khan was a very charismatic and noble being; he was often taken for a religious leader or a prince. People would ask him what he believed in but he would first ask what they believed in. In the case of a young man on a boat he was travelling in, the young man said – Oh I don’t believe in God but I do believe in Nature. Then Murshid replied ‘Ah, I too believe in this’ and so they had a common ground on which to continue their conversation.

Sometimes it is interesting to ask Why. I was listening to a talk on RN last week. A book had been written called Love Dog, eat Pig, wear cow. This is shocking but it reflects our attitudes. I have a friend who is Korean – for her, dog meat is cooling if you have a fever. We take chicken soup for the same reason. Why do we have an attitude that we ‘know’ is right. It can be cultural, religious a parental dogma. Do we need it? Let it go!

Letting go of expectations is another great burden we can relieve ourselves of. Expectations of ourselves – often our inner parent still ruling us. We so want our parents to be proud of us, but what would we do to make ourselves proud? I had a friend in S. Africa – he left Germany as a 19-year-old, to get away from his father who was cruel and autocratic, but when he became a director of a small Safari company he had started with my ex-husband, he told me his father would be so proud of him if he knew. I was very surprised.

We also carry the expectations of others – let them go. Say no or act ‘no’ if it can’t be said! So freeing!

But we also expect things of others – our families and workmates. I have a friend who after years of frustration and anger with her husband for not taking out the kitchen rubbish every day, and not putting the bin out weekly (or bringing it in), finally gave up and did it herself. Of course he ‘should’ have done this for her, but rather than have a constant battle about it daily, better to accept and use the energy for something constrictive. As my dear husband would say – ‘what do you expect from a pig, but a grunt’!

We need to let go of the ‘Shoulds’ in our lives. I should be a good, I should be kind and supportive, I should look after the weak and defenceless! Well no! I have learned that the more we do for others, the more they expect.

We need to let go of so much in our lives.

This takes a long time, but knowing and experiencing we are all one, letting go of our differences, seeing God in one another, is truly the way towards a Lightness of Being.

In our beautiful prayer Khatum, we say ‘Raise us above the distinctions and differences which divide, and unite us all  in Thy perfect Being.’


Illustration by Hannah Baek Wha

I was much struck by the mention of sound and music in some of the fairy tales I worked with in my upcoming book ‘The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales’. This book came about when Murshid Nawab, many years ago, told us an ancient Chinese Han Fairy Tale, as an allegory for Service, at our Summer School. I was so taken with the idea that even ancient stories from other faraway lands and cultures, contained an understanding of mysticism and spirituality, even though this was hidden. So, I begged Nawab to send me the full story of Golden Chisel and the Stone Ram: and I then interpreted it using a Jungian understanding of the symbols but from a Sufi perspective. This was published in Toward the One Journal of Unity in 2007. Following this Nawab sent me four other stories to work with, each one containing an increasing focus on the hero’s quest for the Beloved or Soul. These five stories became the core of my book. When I decided to write a prologue, this expanded into, what became the main part of the book – the Weaving – a weaving of the elements or strands of these five fairy tales, into our modern lives.  They are just as relevant now as they were when they were told hundreds and perhaps thousands of years ago.  At the same time, I was able to work through some mysteries of my own in relation to the character of the Witch. It was mentioned to me that some of the wonderful Sufi Saints would disguise themselves as magicians or witches, in Sufi teaching tales. When I heard this, I suddenly understood the role of the witch as a Teacher in fairy tales.

Another strand of meaning which I found in the stories, was that of Sound and Music – in fact I quote extensively from Murshid’s book, The Mysticism of Sound and Music.  We work with music and sound in our Sufi practices: The Chromatic Zikar especially opens and resonates the various centres or chakras by use of particular sounds, Like a sounding of the chakras.

In Zikar we move and chant to a special rag – a most powerful practice. And of course, we have a practice of hearing the inner sound.

The first story to specifically mention sound, that I came across was The Little Humpbacked Horse. In this, Ivan, the hero, is initially portrayed as singing a merry song to a dark-haired beauty. This dark-haired beauty is the only mention of the feminine, until much later in the tale. Ivan ‘wins’ his little humpbacked horse in a massive battle with a ‘demon’ mare. This little horse became his steed and his guide.

Ivan also sings as he feeds and cares for his magical horses. Our reluctant hero is tricked and forced into catching and bringing the fabled Firebird to the Tsar. Ivan’s little humpbacked horse is, for him a voice of guidance, which always helps and advises him. In a beautiful glade in the forest, the Firebirds come, every dawn, to drink water from the stream. Ivan puts out special food for the Firebirds and waits, but his little horse tells him to ignore the chatter of the birds and seize the nearest one. This he does. In our inner life, one of the first things we must learn is to ignore the chatter of our mind, so that we can focus on the ‘work’ at hand. To catch the Light of the Firebird is our first task in the inner life.

Ivan is again tricked and forced into going on his next quest to find the glorious Tsar Maid for the Tsar. She it is who later in the story becomes the Tsar in her own right, with Ivan as her consort. A female Tsar (not a wife or consort)! She represents the Soul / Beloved in all her Wisdom and Beauty. Ivan, after finding the Tsar Maid on the sea shore, lures her with sweetmeats, laid on a golden service, within a golden tent. He is warned by his little horse that when the Tsar Maid takes up her musical instrument and plays on it, he is on no account to fall asleep, otherwise he will fail to catch her. When we are on our inner spiritual journey (in meditation, or contemplation), we must not be lulled into sleep, by the wonderful music or song of the Soul. But of course, Ivan does drift off to sleep (we all do) and is woken by his horse furiously neighing – yet another sound – a warning! This time Ivan has one more chance and he manages to overcome his sleepiness by becoming angry with the Tsar Maid for trying to cheat him. The energy of anger does have its uses, even on a spiritual quest.

Sound is again used in this story, right at the climax of this great tale: where Ivan is forced to accomplish his final feat of transformation, on behalf of the Tsar. His little horse whistles loud and long three times. This piercing sound has a profound effect on the psyche, directed towards the crown chakra – it becomes the sacred sound of Hu. At this point in time, Ivan plunges in and out of the three cauldrons (one boiling, one icy cold and one just right): he emerges completely transformed, beautiful and handsome. On seeing Ivan’s transformation, the Tsar himself dives into the cauldrons and is boiled on the spot.  Ivan had done the inner work, transformed, and thus became the consort of the Tsar Maid.

In the story of the Fairy of the Dawn, Petru, our hero, is on a quest from consciousness, through various realms, towards the Centre, where the Fairy of the Dawn guards the sacred spring, from which Petru must take the water of life and bring it back to his father the Emperor, so that his ‘sight’ will be cured. In the process Petru too has gained a horse – a magnificent brown horse, which now guides him. After many battles he arrives at the copper woods, the silver woods, and the golden woods. In each of the woods his horse guide tells him, that he must not pick the flowers on either side of his path. Each time he cannot resist and must fight a monster – a Welwa, in a fearsome battle. Each time he overcomes the Welwa by gaining mastery over it, and each time the Welwa turns into a beautiful horse – another voice of guidance. Towards the end of his battle with the Welwa of the golden woods, the Welwa ‘uttered a sound so loud that Petru thought he would be deaf for life.’ This loud sound which the Welwa made is one which accompanies a great moment of transformation. It is very real and very loud.

Petru now journeys through the realms of the three great and fearsome goddesses. First through the realm of the female aspect of Mercury – a freezing cold realm, related to communication and intuition. Then through the super-hot realm of the goddess of Thunder, where the sound of thunder and of drumming is so powerful on the inner journey. Finally Petru comes to the realm of Venus / Freya – a place which is neither too cold or too hot, like the three bears story. Here the great and glorious Goddess Venus or Freya, is in the aspect of an old hag; she has been relegated to the depths of our unconscious, when the patriarchy took over. Freya was a powerful pre-Olympian Goddess. When something is repressed, it erupts in a distorted fashion. However, Petru treats her with great respect, as he sees in her the beautiful Venus /Freya that is really is and was. She gives him a tiny flute: whoever listens to this flute goes to sleep and nothing can wake them. He is instructed to play this flute while he is in the land of the Fairy of the Dawn. Here is the final part of the tale where sound is most important. He has control of the great Beings in that most inner realm, by use of sound. As Petru played his tiny flute everything in the domain of the Fairy of the Dawn was asleep – not only the giants, lions, tigers, and dragons, but the fairies themselves who lay among the flowers. At one stage, Petru needed to stop playing the flute, so that a giant would awaken, long enough to be of help to Petru, in getting across the river, and into the magical castle of the Fairy.

Petru finally enters the castle and finds the Fairy of the Dawn in the forty ninth room (7 x 7) – a powerful magical number, deep in the heart of the castle. In the centre of this most sacred space is the Well, and by the Well slept the fairy of the dawn herself. As Petru looked at her, the magic flute dropped by his side and he held his breath. He had been warned not to look at the Fairy as she was terrible to behold. As Petru gazed at her, a mist came over his senses and the Fairy opened her eyes slowly and looked at him. At this stage he completely lost his mind and his sense of himself, but he did remember his flute, and playing a few notes on it, the Fairy went to sleep again. So it is that when we are deep on our own inner journey, it is vital that we have mastery over our self, and of the sacred inner sound. As we are a drop in the ocean of consciousness it is easy to lose our sense of who we are / our sense of dropness and thus become lost for ever. Working with sound, as in the singing Zikar, Wazifas, and the Chromatic Zikar, we learn mastery, so that we too can discover the sacred ‘water of life’.

But the story does not end there. On his way back through the realms of the goddesses, Petru is warned to trust no one. But he cannot believe that his own brothers could betray him and try to kill him, for this sacred water. They wanted their father’s power for themselves. Just as Petru was about to be pushed into a lake and drown, his horse neighs – Petru knows what this means and saves himself, returns home to his father the Emperor, and cures his blindness, so that He and the whole land is healed and in harmony. So at the very end it is the warning sound of his beautiful brown horse, his beloved guide, which saves him. In the same way, we can take the story of this as journey into our own lives and learn from it. To remember the sound of silence and to listen to the inner voice.


The Witch Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess

The Baba Yaga's House

The Baba Yaga’s House on its chicken leg.

When I was pondering on the witch Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess, I realised that she was really an amazing Teacher and helpful to those who know how to approach her. She would be very ‘tricky’ and even scary to those who would not know how to handle such an encounter.

Great Sufi teachers are humble and usually stay hidden and would disguise themselves in their teaching tales.  Thus in Sufi stories, the Teacher might well be in the guise of a magician or witch. This made a lot of sense and put the Baba Yaga into perspective for me. She is the archetypal witch and teacher. The Prince (our hero) only encounters her late in the tale when he is in the depth of the inner realm – at the edge of the forest and very close to the end of his quest.

In my book, The Witch as Teacher in Fairy Tales, the in-between place, such as the edge of the forest, is much discussed. Such in-between places are where the outer and inner realms meet. In Ireland these were called the Thin Place, but in therapy could be called an edge space.

The hero (Prince Ivan) is on a quest to find his wife (the Frog Princess) after he has burned her frog-skin and she has flown away to the realm of Kashchey the deathless.  After many adventures, he comes to the Baba Yaga’s hut at the edge of the forest. It is turning around on its ‘chicken leg’. This turning around on its own centre is very symbolic. Everything in the universe turns around something else, the electrons around the nucleus of an atom, the planets around their star. There are Sufi practices which have us turning around our own centre – such as the whirling dervishes, or by circumambulating a sacred place. The sacred is dynamic. In ancient times pilgrims, would walk around a great oak tree in a ritualistic way.

There is also no apparent way into the hut even were it to stand still. I think that if a child were to do a stick drawing of a tree trunk it would look much like a chicken leg, so that the hut could be a analogy for a great and sacred oak tree. Prince Ivan has been taught well – he knows the incantation which he must say, to make the witch’s hut turn its back to the forest and its face to him. This is his way of finding his entry into the deep dark forest; the realm of old, mysterious beliefs. He is then able to enter the hut and see the Baba Yaga, who is lying on the top of a stove with her nose pressed up against the ceiling. The stove represents the heart: if you look at a picture or diagram of a Russian stove, you will see that there are channels, vents, and ducts just like a heart. They would take up most of the space within a home. In the small space between the top of the stove and the ceiling is the Baba Yaga. What an amazing image. She asks him why he has come. ‘Are you seeking your fortune or running away from it?’ This is a profound question! But the Prince tells her she is an old scold and asks for food, drink, and a hot bath. This is according to the laws of civility, and she complies. The prince understands the ritual and goes by the book. Perhaps she is testing him. It is only after this that he can tell her that he was seeking his wife. Of course the old witch knows exactly what has happened and tells him how to find the heart of Kashchey the deathless, to kill him. The prince spends the night with the Baba Yaga, I suspect in teaching and meditation, so that he can accomplish his great task and free his beautiful wife, the Princess Vassilisa.

Image result for russian stove plans

The Witch as a Spiritual Teacher in Fairy Tales

The Baba Yaga's House

The Baba Yaga’s house. (Illustration by Hannah Baek Wha)

 Sufi teachers are very humble and retiring and have a tendency to disguise themselves when telling stories. Often they appear as a magician or a witch, and so remain hidden. It is the teaching in the story that is important, not the person of the teacher. I only really grasped this when I was attempting to weave the strands of the five stories, which Nawab had given me, into a narrative which could be understood in our present time and place.

I finally understood that the witch in many fairy tales could be seen as a spiritual teacher. Teaching tales of old were passed on orally – there was a great oral tradition which has survived into the early 20th century in Ireland.

When examining the role of the witch in these tales, especially the Baba Yaga in the Frog Princess, it all came together for me. It was like the pieces of a puzzle had fallen into place. I could understand at last. The fairy in ancient times, was also considered powerful and wise, much like the witch, and like her, could also be very tricky and often scary. It is only recently that fairies are considered as delicate, beautiful, and magical beings. At one stage my book was to be called ‘The Witch and the Fairy as Teacher in Fairy Tales’, but this misunderstanding of the character of the ‘Fairy’ made me change it.

The Baba Yaga is a powerful and wise teacher for those who know who she is and how to deal with her. One of the first things we learn on the spiritual path is how to behave towards our teacher. There is a story told by Kabir Helminsky, of a Sufi Shaikh or teacher who asked one of his students (Mureeds), to take the role of teacher in the group, so that he could demonstrate for them how they should behave towards their Shaikh. One must first learn how to be a student on the path. When I first became a member of a Sufi group, our leader used to tell us stories about our Shaikh who lived in another city. One of the things she used to say was that we should listen for the ‘hint of the Shaikh’. The Shaikh will never tell a student what to do, but if we listen carefully we will know what it is that he or she is suggesting. This happened to me just after I was initiated. My teacher at the time, started to call me Nuria, but I didn’t notice until I was nudged by the leader and told ‘—just called you Nuria, that is your new name’. Therefore it is better to be silent and listen and watch, ,rather than to ask questions.

On finding my Voice


As a young girl, I spent most of my time in the inner realm of my Creative Imagination – it was wonderful and I was never lonely. It was a happy enough childhood although I didn’t really have friends until I was in my teens in High School. That is apart from Tom, the boy next door, who I adored.

At High School I gathered up a few other misfits and these became my ‘gang’. The truth is that I was never comfortable in my body and felt somehow alien. Not surprising as I was brought up and dressed as a Viennese girl, speaking German, living in a Catholic street, and being brought up as a Presbyterian, in sectarian Northern Ireland. My Jewish parents had escaped Vienna in early 1939 and amazingly found a home in N. Ireland. Their life was in Vienna, whereas mine was in Ireland. My first day at school brought this confusion into focus as my teacher did not understand me (I was speaking German) and so I just spoke louder thinking she could not hear me. I suppose I just learned to say nothing, but I understood all. On top of that, at home, I had to finish all my meals and was left sitting at table until my plate was clean. This was torture. My mother, who had starved as a child during the 1st WW, wanted to make sure I never went hungry. I was stuffed like the Christmas goose and became an awkward chubby child!

My playmate and friend (apart from Tom) was Peter – a year younger than me, and born of another refugee family. According to my mother, Peter’s mother, on seeing me as a baby, just had to have a baby of her own, so Peter arrived a year later. Until High School, I had no other friends, no voice, but a fabulous inner life.

Near our small terraced house was a great and magical forest (to my mind), where I spent most of my time. It was called the Plantin’ (probably Plantation).  It was the backdrop to my inner world. I spent my time swinging from my rope amongst the trees having adventures. I could lasso a branch no problem, and still can! I think.

Story telling is much used in Sufism as a teaching tool – so much can be learned from them. When Nawab (our Sufi Teacher) used an old Chinese Han story to illustrate the concept of Service at a Summer School some years ago, I was completely captivated. It encapsulated ancient mystical ideas which were common to Sufism and this blew me away; I saw the truth that the spiritually behind all belief systems or religions was the same. So began my life’s work. I wrote what was really a Jungian interpretation of five Fairy Tales (given to me by Nawab) from a Sufi perspective. While writing a prologue to these tales, I found myself weaving the stories into a story which uses the truths found in the fairy tales, into a story, which is still totally relevant to our modern lives.

Now that my book is in the process of being published, I just wanted to hide away and work on my next one, but Nawab said, ‘your book will stand for what it is, but it is not separate from you.  In the early days, a book (usually) benefits from the parental presence of the author in the public eye.  Seeing an author’s picture and hearing her voice can make it easier for people to pick up a book and look in to it.’ Oh dear! He wanted me to set up a Blog and find my Voice.  This is hard for me but this is a beginning.