Enchanted Book Reviews: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden Part II- The Sacred in the Mundane

Enchanted Book Reviews

Greeting beloveds,

Today we return to The Bear and the Nightingale to move further into the mystical components of this book. To read my first part of the review that covers the synopsis of the book click here. I would also like to post a SPOILERS ALERT here because I will be digging deep into the topics of this work and that means using specific details that are vital to the story line.

To begin I want to delve into the mundane acts that are made sacred through the intention behind them. In Arden’s book, we first see this theme when Vasya as a young child, steals a honey cake from Dunya and runs off into the winter forest. She first meets up with her brother and then further into the depths of the woods. We then find her perched on a tree branch offering a bit of her cake to an unseen being stating “I know you sleep when winter comes but couldn’t you wake up? See I have cakes?”. This unbeknownst to us is our first glimpse into Vasya’s world filled with spirits and guardians. The cake is offered to woo something to wake from its slumber to come and see Vasya as she sits by herself.

Vasya, we find, is a peculiar girl according to most in the book. Born of her mother who is supposed to have been the daughter of a witch. Vasyas’ spirit came into this world while her mother’s departed. Vasya as the scrawny awkward girl reminds us of the strangeness associated with otherworldly topics and subjects. We accept them in our lives although we may not fully understand them. Vasya performs in a similar way. Unlike others during this time, Vasya maintains her curiosity and open mindedness to magic and mystery. Maintaining the old ways are not a chore or duty but a form of enchantment and entertainment. More importantly they represent her unseen connection to her mother and those who came before her. Vasya is unique in another way as she can see these spirits and speaks with them whereas for the majority of others they know them only through faith in the stories they have been told of the spirits existence. Eventually we begin to find out more about these guardians of the world around her. From house, water, forest, and stable spirits we see that the world around us is teeming with power and life

It is not until we meet the domovoi that we begin to see the purpose behind feeding the spirits that watch over us. The domovoi is described as “small and squat and brown with a long beard and brilliant eyes,” (86, Arden). The domovoi in Vasyas’ home cleans up soot from the large kitchen stove, clears plates, and mends clothing left out for him. In return, the household members would leave him bread and milk to eat. Once Vasya’s stepmother Anna arrives though clothing is no longer left to be mended and bread and milk are hidden in corners as offerings. For Anna is like Vasya and can see the spirits who watch over their land. Unlike Vasya though, Anna believes that these spirits are demons. She finds solace only in the church where the spirits do not come. As she has been taught to be frightened of these beings she does not see how they assist her family and land to function. She does not see their worth but believes they are evil. Anna represents the power of fear. The domovoi specifically does no harm to her or anyone. He simply assists in caring and protecting the hearth (home). That is his job and he wants nothing for it other than to be fed as a member of the household. Yet, Anna cannot see the purpose of the domovoi because she is blinded by her fear of that which she does not understand. We find though that Anna also is unable to understand herself as she thinks she is cursed to have to see these spirits. She does not see the value in herself and her gifts just as she refuses to see them in the spirits around her. This not only leaves Anna open to corruption but as she does not honor the spirits leaves her home and land unprotected as well.

It is only after an encounter with the frightened and angry Anna that Vasya first realizes how unique she is. Vasya comes to realize that although she and Anna can plainly see the spirits around them that everyone else cannot. Instead of being frightened though Anna simply accepts this as how the world is. She sees that the spirits are harmless and in the case of the domovoi and others, helpful. Anna and Vasya represent the dualism of fear and ignorance versus acceptance and knowledge or wisdom. Vasya is in tune with the world around her. She works with the spirits as she knows that without them her world would not function as it should. This is not because she is young and naïve but because she knows that there is real evil out in the world and it is not the spirits that she interacts with. In fact, she is aware that the spirits such as the domovoi protects her, her loved ones, and family from real evil.

We see then the everyday rituals that Vasya does such as putting out food for the house spirits which maintains the connection between the mundane world and the spiritual world. Not only in leaving out offerings for the spirits but in speaking and engaging them. Vasya treats these spirits as members of the family. She includes them in most of her actions from taking care of the home, the farm animals, learning to ride the horses, fishing, and caring for the land. They are a part of her world and her interactions with them are as normal as breathing. In our current society, maintaining spiritual rituals can be seen as strange, fanatic, or looked down upon. Especially when one practices a form of spirituality outside of Christianity, one’s rituals and practices may be seen as foolish, bizarre, or at the extreme end evil. Yet, as Vasya shows us these ways of interacting with the energetic spirit world can be quite simplistic. Setting out food, lighting candles, incense, prayer, meditation, and libations connect us to the energies around us. The molecules break down combining with our bodies and the energy around us. Yet maintaining these practices is an energy consuming task. It is what we pay for the protection and care that we receive from the guardians who watch over the world around us. It is an energetic exchange. As with all exchanges when one part is not maintained the other diminishes as well.

We see then the transition of the burden of these rituals from community to individual practice when belief systems change. In this case, the village would partake in maintaining the old ways with their offerings and festivals. Yet, as Christianity became the prominent belief system these ways were seen as pagan and put to a stop. As others could not see the spirits it was easier to make this transition than for Vasya who had grown up around them and knew of the guardians purpose. Again, Vasya did not fear these spirits. She was not swayed by the church that did not teach love and acceptance but fear. As the spirits began to starve the village began to decline. Crops not growing as they should, homes burning in fires, children becoming lost in the forest, cold harsh winters. The Church, lead not by the Christian God who loves but by the Russian God of fear who was well known among the old ways, used this as evidence that the old ways must be abandoned as God was punishing them. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The God of Fear was getting exactly what he wanted. Vasya, grown up now, had to carry all the burden of feeding the house spirits because no one else was willing to believe anymore in the old ways that were very real. Right now, the divine feminine, empaths, and caregivers of our society are carrying the burden of balancing the energetic exchange. These beings and energies that had very real consequences when not balanced.

This is symbolic of the imbalance that we are facing in our world today. The mundane aspects of our life are no longer viewed as sacred. We consume without thought of the energy that has been used to create these products, food, and social experiences. One must balance the energy that they receive by feeding those who give to them. This includes the workers who grow, build, and create the materials we consume. So yes, be willing to give an offering of sincere thanks, monetary tips, or other forms of recognition to those in customer service. Energetically feed your caregivers so that they are able to continue to care for you and you must demand the same in exchange from them. It must be an exchange and it must be balanced. When it is not then we experience the negative fallout. Unpleasant social interactions, chronic negative experiences, and scarcity mindset are the consequences of not caring for those that care for us. Of rejecting the sacred that exists in the land, the food, the water, and each other. The further the scales become unbalanced the higher the energetic cost that must be paid.

In the case of this book, the payment was a life. A blood sacrifice became the cost of the offering. Think of how much easier it was simply to give milk and honey or other forms of nourishment to the guardians of the land. It took so little to maintain a balanced relationship between the characters of this book and the world around them but fear and ignorance took them outside of their equilibrium. We saw this when due to the lack of offerings the decline in the crops made it We are now in our world in a space where milk and honey are not enough to balance the energies of our land. Blood is being spilled to the spirits of fear, ignorance, hatred, and destruction. When one does not one to recognize that our world is more complicated than good and bad this hinders us from developing the discernment needed to make wise decisions. To know what will protect and secure our world. We must begin to acknowledge the world around us as a spiritual place. As an energetic place.

If we begin to acknowledge the sacred in everything then we will begin to recognize the importance of life and the need for balance. If we do not equal out this balance then we will see more blood spilled. May we return to the time of offerings, ritual, and practice. May the milk and honey flow so the balance may be restored.

-Rose

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