Baba Yaga: The Wicked Witch of Slavic Folklore
As ambiguous as she is hideous, Baba Yaga is 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
Benefactor or Villain?
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.
Vasilisa the Beautiful
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.
Baba Yaga as Mother Earth
Baba Yaga is also cast as a Mother Earth figure, having an influence on the natural world through three of her servants as witnessed by Vasilisa. Twice Vasilisa sees three riders—the first white, the second red, and the third black. Upon asking who they were, Baba Yaga replies that they are Day, the Sun, and Night, respectively, each controlled by her, each a servant of hers. In this instance, the reader can see the span of Baba Yaga's power, further implying that she could have used much gentler means in the dismissal of Vasilisa's family but chose not to.
Baba Yaga and the Peasant Children
Another story of Baba Yaga involves peasant children, again the victims of a cruel stepmother.
In the tale, the children are sent to Baba Yaga to be rid of, but they manage to escape the witch’s hut through the help of all the animals, plants, and objects Baba Yaga neglects. A black cat helps them plan their escape because they feed him when the witch doesn’t; a gate closes Baba Yaga off from them because she never tends it; and even the trees of the forest attempt to stand in her path because of similar mistreatment. Thus, the children return home in one piece, Baba Yaga forfeiting her search when it grows too difficult. Again, this tale ends happily, with the stepmother thrown out and the father protecting his children, and again, Baba Yaga’s role is one of an obstacle. She might otherwise have not bothered the children if they had not bothered her first.
Thus, despite being considered a deity akin to Mother Nature, the natural world turns on her because of their suffering at her hands. Again, this evidences why scholars still find her so difficult to place in any one category and why she ranges many.
It is because of the elusive nature of her character that Baba Yaga remains such an intriguing mythical individual, and continues to be discussed and researched by scholars. She adds a level of mystery and uncertainty to each of the tales she takes part in, as the reader is uncertain until her final action whether her intentions will be villainous or redemptive. Though this dilemma of whether she is good or evil is only one of many considerations, it lays the basis for her analysis throughout Slavic literature.
Illustration of a hag-like, long-nosed Baba Yaga of Slavic legend. 1911. Public Domain
Top image: The Baba Yaga (fotoatelie / Adobe Stock)
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de Blumenthal, Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano. Folk Tales From the Russian (BiblioBazaar, South Carolina, 2009.)
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses (New York: HarperOne, 2009.)
Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. (2004.)
Wheeler, Post. Russian Wonder Tales . (New York: The Century Company, 1912.)
Russian Fairy Tales. trans. Norbert Guterman. (Pantheon Books, FIND, 1973.)
By Ryan Stone