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.