The feminine archetype consists of two sides. Within there is always light and dark, constructive and destructive, life giving and life taking. It is common to associate the “dark” with something negative or even “evil” however, especially regarding the feminine; the dark side is actually sensuous, instinctive, earthy, and intuitive. It is easy to want to split the dark from the light, allowing the light room to shine. The split feminine archetype is often represented by The Virgin Mary (light) and Baba Yaga (dark). My own personal polarization of the virgin and the witch brought me face to face with Anne Sexton.
Through this poem, I personally found the importance of the dark feminine in my journey towards wholeness. The poem brings forth realization, understanding, and ultimately, a celebration of the dark feminine. This casting out of one aspect of the feminine can be seen anywhere from the witch trials to the idea of the perfect homemaker. Sexton’s poem speaks of the need for integration to reclaim the true self.
Immediately, Sexton introduced the reader to the archetypal image of the witch with the line in stanza one, “I have gone out, a possessed witch,”. Throughout history, the most common embodiment of the dark feminine tends to be that of a witch. The embodiment of this aspect of female is present in the Russian/Slavic myths. Mythology tells gruesome tales of Baba Yaga. She lives deep in the forests of myth and is indeed a feminine spirit, yet she carries a darker side in the sharp points of her gnarly teeth and obvious facial hair. Her presence hovers within the lines of Sexton’s poem offering the awareness that all women carry a hideous, evil, and ultimately powerful feminine spirit within. I believe a woman (or any human) cannot reach a state of wholeness without being conscious of the shadow side, as well as the nurturing side, the pure side. Sexton, in my opinion, is exalting in her own personal awareness of the shadow side, while still consciously trying to integrate the many facets of the true feminine. In line 6, Sexton illustrates this awareness by simply stating, “A woman like that is not a woman, quite” .
The earthy presence of the dark feminine embodies the second stanza. Here is where we meet the Earth Mother, setting up house for the elves and worms. Sexton brings forth the magic nature of woman with the presence of elves and the strong womb imagery. She writes, “I have found the warm caves in the woods, filled them” in lines 8 and 9. The image of a space that is both deep and warm where the feminine goes about her business providing sustenance and shelter. Sexton closes this stanza with,” A woman like that is misunderstood.” The association and expectations between woman and motherhood are strong. This woman represents motherhood, but not in line with societal norms. In the final stanza, Sexton introduces another aspect of the self, of the feminine on a complex level. She is no longer just a witch, reveling in her Baba Yaga side, but also a magical Earth Mother nurturing all things.
With the return of the witch in the final stanza, the image starts to shift. The witch shifts from the persona possessing the night to a woman recalling torture. Sexton brings out images of torture at the stake and rack. Despite presence of death and pain, this stanza starts to read more like proclamation of victory and life. If reading on a deeper level a bold statement begins to manifest. This statement is about wholeness and that in order to be truly alive, space for every part of the inner feminine must exist. If this is not accepted, understood, or allowed, the woman would rather die than live a life denying the absolute truth of her insides. Whether this poem ends with a literal or metaphorical death, Sexton allows the inner feminine to be present, nurtured, and reborn into a whole existence. Sexton seems to understand that the wholeness of one’s self impossible unless acceptance, understanding, and sometimes glorifying the side that seems evil, unpredictable, and undesirable occurs. Sexton presents woman as a survivor, and, “A woman like that is not ashamed to die.”