“Hollow’s Last Hope” is an adventure for 1st level characters that was released by Paizo Publishing for the 2007 celebration of Free RPG Day. In this adventure, the PCs must search for medicinal ingredients in order to save the villagers of Falcon’s Hollow, who are suffering from a fatal disease, called blackscour. While the adventure takes them to many locations, this article’s analysis will focus on the mythological effect of the encounter between the PCs and the cauldron at Ulizmila’s hut. Warning: The following article contains spoilers.
Ulizmila, Baba-Yaga, and the Goddess of Fire
“Ulizmila,” the module explains, “is a wise woman, practitioner of the old ways… a monstrous hag and great, great grandaughter of Baba Yaga herself.” It is this statement that gives us a clue as to Ulizmila’s mythological origins. Baba Yaga- Ulizmila’s great, great grandmother- is actually a figure from mythology; an old woman who frequently appears in Russian folklore. Like Ulizmila, Baba Yaga is sometimes helpful and sometimes malevolent. In the story, “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” for example, Vasilisa is sent by her cruel stepsisters and stepmother to fetch a light from Baba Yaga, in the hopes that the old woman will eat the young girl. After performing several tasks for the old woman, Vasilisa is eventually released by Baba Yaga, who gives her a skull, with burning eyes, mounted on top of a post. “Here’s the fire for your stepmother’s daughters,”Baba Yaga says to Vasilisa, “Take it to them. That’s what they sent you here for, and I hope they enjoy every bit of it!” When Vasilisa returns, she finds that her stepmother and stepsisters have been living for several days in darkness, unable to bring any light into the house. Upon seeing Vasilisa, the stepmother grabs the morbid torch from her, which then chases both her, and her two wicked daughters, about the house, eventually burning them to ash.1 With this story in mind, we can begin to see the parallels between Ulizmila and Baba Yaga. Both women give gifts that come at a terrible price. With Ulizmila, it is the gift of healing to Laurel’s grandmother, at the cost of her eyesight. With Baba Yaga, it is the gift of fire at the cost of Vasilisa’s stepmother’s and stepsister’s lives. These similarities between Ulizmila and Baba Yaga, combined with their shared lineage, suggest that the two women are, in fact, the same woman, or at least the same mythological archetype.
Remaining on the subject of Baba Yaga for the moment, the literal translation of ‘Baba Yaga’ is ‘Grandmother Yaga,’ and traditionally, it has been believed that ‘Yaga’ derives from the Proto-Slavic ‘yega,’ which means ‘disease,’ ‘fright,’ or ‘wrath.’2 However, it is possible that her name may derive from another etymological source whose source is more firmly rooted in mythology. Tabiti- whose name literally translated means ‘Heating’- is the goddess of the sun and of the element of fire in Scythian mythology. She is a goddess who has gone by many names. In Indo-Aryan mythology, Tabiti is known as Agni, the god of fire, which is etymologically similar to one of Tabiti’s other Scythian names, Aga- which means ‘Fiery Cauldron.’ In Russian, the word ‘ogon’is derived from the name Agni, a word which also means ‘cauldron.’ Therefore, it seems possible that the name Yaga may actually be an etymological variation on the name Aga, and that Baba Yaga may actually be the goddess Tabiti in disguise.
In order to verify this etymological association between Baba Yaga and the goddess, Tabiti, we must again turn to mythology to see if the two have any shared, mythological traits. Unfortunately, this is difficult, since the Scythians left behind no written accounts of their beliefs. Nevertheless, they did leave behind artistic depictions of the goddess as is evidenced from the figure below.
According to Sergei Rjabchikov, this artistic representation depicts “a fiery horse, a hut standing on four chicken legs (as in Russian fairy tales) and a woman with the fiery hair. A child is seen in this fairytale hut.3 These data correspond to the Russian fairy-tales about Baba Yaga.” In other words, the images associated with Tatibi are also associated with Baba Yaga. In fact, if we turn to the story, “Vasilissa the Beautiful,” we see evidence of this. The character of Vasilissa corresponds to the image of the child in the fairytale hut, while Baba Yaga’s three riders- who, incidentally, control the movements of the sun- correspond to the image of Tatibi’s fiery horse. Rjabchikov also mentions the association of Tabiti with the Roman goddess of the hearth, Hestia, in the History of Herodotus (Book IV), and the parallel association with Baba Yaga, who is often depicted as sleeping on or near the hearth.4 Finally, there is the fiery skull that Baba Yaga gives to Vasilissa, which further connects her to the goddess of fire. These corresponding themes, combined with the etymological associations between Tatibi and Baba Yaga, suggest strongly that the two characters are, in fact, the same, and that Baba Yaga is actually the goddess Tatibi in disguise.
Having already made the connection between Ulizmila and Baba Yaga, it is easy to see how Ulizmila is also the goddess in disguise. In fact, Ulizmila’s hut is guarded by an animated cauldron, a symbol that etymologically and mythologically completes the ties between her and the goddess Tatibi. The question then, is, what is to be understood from these connections?
In a previous entry, I discussed the mythology of the castrating womb, a symbol, which is more commonly known as the ‘vagina dentata.’ This symbol is representative not only of the patriarchal fear of feminine power, but also of the sexual act. As Barbara Walker states, “Ancient writings describe the male sexual function not as ‘taking’ or ‘posessing’ the female, but rather ‘being taken’ or putting forth.’ Ejaculation was viewed as a loss of a man’s vital force, which was eaten by a woman.”5 With this in mind, we begin to see that the encounter at Ulizmila’s hut is more than just an encounter with a metal construct. Rather, it is a mythological actually a patriarchal reenactment of the sexual act. Here, the PCs are enacting the role of the male entering the female, represented, in this case, by Ulizmila’s hut. The medicine that the PCs have been sent for- a symbol of healing, life, and restoration, traits which are normally associated with the feminine divine- takes the form of a root known as rat’s tail, which might symbolically represent the ‘vital force’of the castrated male. There is also the cauldron, a manifestation of the vagina dentata (complete with stat block), which must be physically attacked and destroyed (by phallic imagery of swords, spears, and clubs no less), before the consummation of the encounter can be said to be official. It should also be noted that the element, fire, is an element that consumes everything it touches, much like the vagina dentata, and is an element that is equally associated with the cauldron, Ulizmila, Baba Yaga, Hestia, and Tatibi. With these images in mind, it is difficult to deny the sexual imagery inherent in this particular scene, and the fear that patriarchal culture has of these female powers.
Now some might claim that the act of destroying the vagina dentata is an act that allows the girl to finally become a woman through the consummation of the sexual act. For example, there is a Native American myth of how Coyote uses a stone to grind down the teeth of First Woman’s vagina, an act that First Woman considers pleasing, for she is now capable of joining with Coyote. In the case of the encounter at Ulizmila’s hut, however, there is no sense that the act is anything other than destructive. When the cauldron is destroyed, and the rat’s tail is retrieved, the hut has no further value, either to the PCs or anyone else. As such, the act of destroying the vagina dentata seems more like an act of rape than an act of mutual consent and is therefore completely unlike the mutual consummation of the sexual act enacted by Coyote and First Woman.
An Exchange of Vital Energies
In spite of the module’s shortcomings, there is something positive that can be said about the author’s treatment of female imagery in this scene. Like the fire of the goddess, Ulizmila is written as both a destructive and creative force, one that is helpful yet harmful, a source of both life and death. She is willing to share her power with those who are respectful, even though that power may come at a price. On the other hand, the full fury of her fiery wrath is unleashed against those who attempt to violate her feminine space. In these regards, the author’s treatment of goddess imagery is superb. In fact, with a few minor adjustments, this encounter could be rewritten in a way that is highly respectful of the female goddess. Consider, for example, the following:
When Laurel first tells the PCs of Ulizmila and the rat’s tail, she says to them “I don’t know what [Ulizmila] might want for it, but I doubt it’d come cheap. My grandmother traded her sight to the old crone for a few pages of what she knew.” Later, the module describes Ulizmila as “a harsh but wise sage, willing to share her wisdom for strange and often morbid prices.” These comments are clues that the PCs must be willing to sacrifice something of value in exchange for Ulizmila’s services.
When the PCs go to Ulizmila’s hut, they find an amulet of a shrunken head hanging in the doorway. This amulet is the soulspeaker, a new magic item mentioned in the adventure module. As the PCs approach, the eyes of the stitched head stretch open, and in a raspy voice, it says to them, “A pound of flesh from your inner thigh, is all that I ask in exchange for entrance. Throw the flesh into my cauldron, and you may take one item from my stores.” If the PCs agree to the terms of the deal, and cut away a pound of flesh from their thigh, throwing it into the pot as the head asks, they may enter the hut and search for the rat’s tail. This sacrifice results in a permanent, -1 penalty to the PC’s Constitution. This penalty can only be removed by the effects of a regenerate spell.
The cauldron, meanwhile, has been ordered to attack anyone who does not cut away their flesh, and throw it into the cauldron, before entering.
1. The Anotated Baba Yaga
2. The Encyclopedia of Religion
3. Rjabchikov, Sergei V. “Remarks on the Scythian, Sarmatian and Meotian Beliefs”
4. Rjabchikov, Sergei V. “The Scythian and Sarmatian Sources of the Russian Mythology and Fairy-Tales”
5. Walker, Barbara. “Vagina Dentata- from The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets” (Note: Images contained on this site may not be suitable for children or work.)