Baba Yaga, The Confounding Crone of Slavic Folklore
Baba Yaga is considered one of the most intriguing characters from Slavic mythology. As ambiguous as she is hideous, Baba Yaga has been described by scholars as an anomaly, both a maternal, mother-nature figure and an evil villain who enjoys eating those who fail to complete her tasks. Though the origins of her name are as unclear as her purpose tends to be, it is believed that baba means something akin to “old woman” or “grandmother”, while yaga has conflicting theories of meaning ranging from “snake” to “wicked.” Regardless, even Baba Yaga’s name emphasizes the strangeness of her person, making her an interesting character to decipher.
The most common portrayal of Baba Yaga is as either one old woman or a trio of old sisters, all of whom are depicted as skinny, with iron teeth, and noses so long that they touch the ceiling when they sleep.
Baba Yaga is commonly illustrated as riding around on a mortar rather than a broom, wielding a pestle as both a flying aid and a wand. Tales involving her usually take place at her hut. It is found deep in the woods, standing on magical chicken legs, with a rooster's head on top. Legend says her hut is surrounded by a fence made of human bones.
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Inside her hut, heroes usually encounter her stretching across her cooking stove, the enormous stove itself reaching from one side of the hut to the other, subtly emphasizing her size and magic. The stove is another common detail in tales of the Baba Yaga as the punishment for the failure of certain tasks is a fate of being cooked and eaten. Despite an ambitious appetite, however, Baba Yaga is always portrayed as skinny and bony, with her own epithet of “the bony one”.
Sculpture depicting the gnarly-faced character of Baba Yaga. Public Domain
The characterization of Baba Yaga is where much of the uncertainty surrounding her comes from. She varies between acting as a benefactor and a villain, either helping the hero of the Slavic myth or hindering him or her. Though it appears she never goes after anyone unprovoked—that is to say, without the person at least coming to the door of her hut—she appears to follow little or few morals. Nevertheless, whatever promise she makes to the hero after his completion of her tasks, she keeps.
Most of the prominent stories about Baba Yaga are not about her directly but about heroes who encounter her.
In one story, “Vasilisa the Beautiful”, Vasilisa is a Cinderella type character with a magical doll, whose mother died and father remarried a horrible woman with equally unkind daughters. When Vasilisa's father goes away for a trip, the new stepmother sells their house and moves her and the three girls to a cottage in the woods, giving the daughters impossible tasks to complete by candlelight. It is when Vasilisa ventures out of the house at the demand of her stepsisters to find more light that she encounters Baba Yaga, who presents numerous difficult chores to Vasilisa in exchange for a fire to take back to her household. With the aid of the doll, Vasilisa completes all the tasks and is given a fire in a skull lantern which incinerates her horrible new family upon her return home. Inevitably, Vasilisa's story ends on a happy note, with her wedding the tsar of Russia, but it is Baba Yaga’s role in her tale that is most intriguing.
The heroine Vasilisa outside of the hut of Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin (1902). Public Domain
Baba Yaga acts both an obstacle for Vasilisa as well as a savior, as without the lantern Vasilisa would never have been free of her cruel stepfamily. However, the way in which Baba Yaga frees her is terrible, revealing her as an unmoral, dangerous woman. Unlike the fairy godmother from the original Cinderella story, Baba Yaga appears more like the wicked stepmother who allows her daughter to cut off her foot so it will fit in the glass slipper. Baba Yaga goes to extraordinary lengths to free Vasilisa, instigating three painful deaths—as well as causing Vasilisa much grief before letting her leave the hut—rather than merely helping Vasilisa escape her stepfamily.