Here is my Parabola (29: 3) article analyzing the Russian tale, “Go I Know not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What”. It is copyright Parabola magazine and Madronna Holden:
In a traditional Russian folktale, a simple hunter is ordered by an imperious czar to find a place called, “I know not where” and bring back a thing called, “I know not what”. [i] The czar wants the other man dead because he covets his wife—and thus he orders him to undertake this impossible journey. But the strangeness of the hunter’s quest underscores a profound truth in each of our lives. No matter how much control we think we have, we must sometime track the trackless to find “we know not what”. Uncertainty is the certain fact of our lives: even as, in the end, the mystery of death will culminate our life’s journey.
As the czar’s orders indicate, there is no guarantee of fairness—there may even be considerable cruelty—in the circumstances that impel us to track the trackless in our lives. Andrew, the hunter in the Russian tale, has done nothing more to incur the czar’s murderous wrath than to take a wife. She is an extraordinary wife, to be sure. She first appeared on Andrew’s path as a dove while he was out hunting for the czar. Andrew had had bad luck that day, so he might well have ignored the fact that the dove spoke to him in a human voice. He might simply have shot her, filled his stomach, and carried on with his everyday life. But instead Andrew was moved by this wonder. He listened to the dove’s plea and responded. And the moment that he did so, he changed from an ordinary hunter into a seeker.
Like Andrew, we each come to a crossroads in our lives when we must decide what to do with our power. We may overcome those vulnerable before us, even if they speak to us in the language of life shared by all creation. Or we may let wonder lead us into true listening and partnership with mystery. Like Andrew, we become seekers into the depths of things when we listen in a deep way to the voices life sets before us. For his part, Andrew has begun a course of events that will impel him to seek that ineffable land that holds both the threat of death and secret of life.
When Andrew heeds the dove, she turns into a human woman, Maria. Andrew marries her—signifying his alliance with a new order of things. For one thing, his wife does her work at night, while Andrew sleeps. Maria thus works in conjunction with Andrew’s unconscious; she represents the Jungian anima, in which resides our soul. That anima also, as Jung stressed, teaches us the importance of relationship, and so it is that Andrew’s anima is expressed in a marriage: a marriage that encompasses the human, but also transcends it, incorporating intimacy with the larger world as well.
The first time Maria tells Andrew to go to sleep she weaves a carpet in which is depicted the entire kingdom—and each of the living things that inhabit it. This marvelous weaving links Maria with the Three Weavers of Fate in Eastern European tradition—and her weaving tells us a good deal about the working of fate in our lives. First of all, Andrew must obtain the thread for Maria to work, and he must bring her not just any thread but thread of the best quality: silk thread. In order for Andrew to purchase such thread he has to beg and borrow one hundred rubles, a ruble at a time.
As in Andrew’s case, the gifts fate lays on our paths only enrich us if we do our part. Such gifts not only ask everything we have, but more: they ask whatever we can beg and borrow as well. The thread we bring fate to weave for us must be of the best quality if we want fate’s own best work in turn. Further, there is no time when we may rest on our laurels because we have brought enough thread: the more fate weaves for us, the more it challenges us to supply yet more thread. So it is when Maria weaves her magical carpet. The carpet fetches an unbelievable price, but it also creates a challenge for Andrew that will ask more of him than he thinks he can possibly give. But life always has larger designs for us than we imagine for ourselves.
When the czar sees Maria’s carpet, he realizes that with it, he would hold the whole of his kingdom in his hand. In this instant he becomes obsessed with obtaining its weaver for his wife—and thus designs his plots to get Andrew out of the way. The czar literally wants to seize fate—Andrew’s fate, that is. But fate cannot be seized; only married. And each of our fates is specific to us. Marrying the weaver, Maria, is Andrew’s prerogative, since she appeared on Andrew’s path. Importantly, it was also Andrew who heeded her words. Such wondrous moments as this, when something wild and loose speaks to us in a human voice, can be neither seized nor commanded to appear. They only come as spontaneous gifts of life. It was a matter of great luck for Andrew that that the dove spoke to him in a human voice. There is the power of the mysterious in this. Yet the czar has power of another type that cannot be denied: the power to command Andrew’s death. And he commands Andrew, on pain of that death, to find the land entitled “I know not where” and bring back “I know not what.”
In point of fact, rationality is helpless before the command to seek “I know not what”—as it is against all the gravest spiritual aches in our life.
The coincidence between the vulnerable sleeping Andrew and the mysterious power of Maria’s work reflects the psychological insight that our vulnerability (our grief, suffering, helplessness, desperation) has considerable currency in leading us to our spiritual power. What seeking “I know not what” demands of Andrew are, first of all, his vulnerability and his trust. Here there is the sense that something from the world of spirit is on Andrew’s side—and on our own—even if social circumstance and worldly wealth are not. In many folktales, there are three, four or five brothers or sisters who repeat the same quest. The disinherited, the foolish, or the poverty stricken sibling— the one least favored by social status and convention—always receives the gift of fate. Notably, the latter is also best able to listen to the magical voices of life that share their world—for the others are too ego-centered or too vested in the status quo to heed such voices as that of Andrew’s dove.
Andrew sleeps, and his wife calls on all her own powers and alliances with the mysterious to seek the “I know not what” on his behalf. But even a woman who can exquisitely weave an entire kingdom cannot find Andrew’s “I know not what” for him. Only Andrew himself can make this journey. Fate may open a path and even impel us onto it. But then it is up to each of us to find our way. What Maria can give Andrew are two essential gifts for his journey: a ball yarn to follow as it unravels, holding him true to his course, and an embroidered towel with which to wipe himself, announcing her alliance with him to all those he meets.
Now Andrew begins walking. Seekers after miracles who assume mystery and drama always lives together may try to pass by this part of the journey. But it cannot be skipped. It is the way. Andrew trudges on, day after day. He follows the unraveling thread through twenty-seven kingdoms. This is the dailiness of the work required by all seekers after the realm of the mysterious: the road to the extraordinary that is excruciatingly ordinary. Day after day, like Andrew, we travel on, led by the sense that there is something profound and mysterious at the end of journey—perhaps, if we persevere, we will at last come to the place that reveals the miraculous “I know not what” that underlies and sustains our ordinary world.
We must note that though Andrew’s goal is mysterious; it is not random. “I know not where” is a specific destination and “I know not what” a specific something that dwells there. Indeed, the mysteriousness of a journey must be countered with the focus of the seeker. Andrew stays his course by following the single thread through kingdom after kingdom. The necessity of commitment, as well alertness and authentic presence on the part of the seeker cannot be too strongly emphasized. Anywhere along our path we are liable to come upon “the storytelling cat”, who is definitely not on our side—and which the czar earlier sent Andrew to find. The storytelling cat kills all who approach it by putting them to sleep. With a sly jab of folk humor at inauthentic religious authority, the storytelling cat tells his stories of certain deacons and bishops. An encounter with this cat reveals that there are good stories and ones that lead us astray, meaningful stories and ones intended to lull us to our death. There is the good sleep in which we dream and thus wake to the fuller aspects of our lives, and the sleep that numbs us and makes us sleepwalkers on our course. Andrew saves his own life in the face of the storytelling cat only by remaining awake in the face of the overwhelming narcotic it exerts. But he must wear three layers of iron helmets to protect himself from the cat’s power over the mind of the seeker.
“A story is quickly told,” says the storyteller, “but it takes much longer to live it.” Thus Andrew trudges on. However, there is a limit to each of our journeys, even the one that feels like we must plod through twenty-seven kingdoms to get there. Andrew’s ball grows smaller and smaller until its last bit of thread unravels at a hut in the wildest part of the wild world. Here lives Baba Yaga, her house turning on its chicken leg, its entrance lined with skulls. She is the only one who can give Andrew the necessary directions to the land of the ineffable. But she severely tests all those who enter her domain: those skulls are her mementoes of those who fail her tests. And once Andrew has reached her House of Life and Death, there is no turning back.
“I shall roast you in the oven and eat you, and go for a ride on your bones”, are the words with which Baba Yaga greets Andrew.
Baba Yaga’s oven is the “double womb” of the earth, which, in Eastern European tradition, both births us and takes us back to her at death. By this tradition, our death and bodily disintegration may be dreadful to contemplate—but in the cycle of things, this is also the crucible of our birth. Thus Baba Yaga expresses a potential beneficence to the seeker that lies nowhere else. She challenges us to experience the magic of transformation at the heart of life. Life itself may be defined, according to an ancient Hindu tradition, as the impossible becoming possible. Life, after all, emerges impossibly from death. In meeting Baba Yaga, the seeker must align with this mystery at the center of creation. It goes without saying this is no mean accomplishment. In Baba Yaga’s hut, the weapons of the czar’s soldiers are of no avail, and the Old Woman only laughs at the idea of social status. What can a soldier or a wealthy man do when commanded to herd Baba Yaga’s mares, which turn into fish in the ocean or birds of the air as they are approached?
As those flying after Grandmother Yaga’s ever-transforming mares know well enough, we cannot manage the mysterious by attempting to stable it. What the seeker needs in this case is an ally that speaks the language of mystery Baba Yaga herself speaks—something that will let Baba Yaga know that it is worth her while to foster this life rather than eat it quickly and be done with it. In Andrew’s case, Baba Yaga sees the towel with which he wipes himself, and recognizes her daughter’s weaving upon it. She then begins to fuss over Andrew as a solicitous mother-in-law. This transformation indicates the humorous serendipity that may emerge in our gravest journeys. It also indicates that what we fear most may actually be on our side once we develop a familial relationship with it. Grandmother Yaga who only a moment before threatened to ride on Andrew’s bones now rushes about preparing a feast for him, asking after the happiness of his married life.
Andrew explains his dilemma and asks Grandmother Yaga for directions to the “I know not where”. However, there are things even grandmothers do not know: thus she advises Andrew to go to sleep once more while she consults a frog who has seen three hundred years of life. The frog has indeed heard of this land called “I know not where” and the “I know not what” that lives there. The old frog, archetypal symbol of mythic transformation, must be fed fresh milk in order to be rejuvenated so that it can take Andrew across the river of fire that now lies across the seeker’s path.
We all know this river of fire that must be gone over. There is no help for it. Even though we wear out our shoes in twenty-seven kingdoms following the thread of our quest to its very end—we must still leap that river of burning grief or pain or injustice that threatens to brand us for life if it does not pull us down into its flames and consume us outright. But if we can prove ourselves on the side of life, there is some ancient thing that will help us go over. We should not look for this thing to be glamorous; it will be some swamp-bound mud-living thing. But we will know it, as Grandmother Yaga did, because it has survived and seen much living. And it will get us through if we revive it, in turn, with good milk and faith.
After he crosses the river of fire on the back of the old frog, Andrew at last enters the land known as “I don’t know where” and walks up to the door of the house where lives the “I don’t know what”. He requests the latter to feed him—and also invites it to eat with him. With this last courtesy he gains his prize at last.
But now Andrew must take his prize home, where he must yet face the czar’s soldiers. Imagine the battlefield: here stands the czar with his countless legions ready to attack. And here stands Andrew, casting a single shadow, with only the invisible “I don’t know what” at his side. But what is an ordinary army to a man who has bested the storytelling cat, feasted with Grandmother Yaga in her House of Life and Death, and leapt over a river of fire on the back of a three hundred year old frog? Andrew speaks to that invisible thing that now stands at his side, and each of the czar’s soldiers is met with another stronger soldier created by mystery; each of their weapons is met with a better weapon forged from the realm of the invisible. Now the czar learns the hard way that what determines the outcome of our lives is not physical power but spiritual alliance. This is not his story any more—nor this kingdom. Now both belong to Andrew, who becomes ruler where he once was servant.
We are told Andrew and Maria live a long life together. Though we are not told they live an uneventful one. After all, the storytelling cat is still on the scene.
Andrew’s story shows us that the greatest attainment of the spiritual seeker is the power of transformation that lies at the heart of mystery. It is with this power we may leap the river of fire in each of our lives. With this power we may relate to the Old Woman who keeps the House of Life and Death as our own true Grandmother. With this power we may author our own stories and rule the kingdoms of our own hearts in the face of the most imperious czars of necessity. With this power, in sum, we may transform all that comes to us into a means for expanding our spirits. Indeed, what we attain with the mysterious “I don’t know what” is a power greater even than the power to control our fate—it is the power to fully live our lives.
[i] An excellent version of this tale is found in H. C. Stevens, Russian Folktales (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1967), pp. 60-77.