“That’s not my mother’s voice I hear.
I think that Baba Yaga’s near!”
Baba Yaga is a recurrent figure in East European folklore, usually as a single entity though sometimes appearing as one of a trio of sisters, all using the same name. Baba Yaga appears as a filthy, hideous or ferocious-looking woman with the ability to fly around in a large mortar, knees tucked up to her chin, using the accompanying pestle as a blunt weapon or a rudder to guide her strange craft. Some tales omit her ability to fly but see her ‘rowing’ along the forest floor, using the pestle as an oar.
With connections to the elements and nature, she usually makes appearances near her dwelling in birch woods and forests, where she resides in a ramshackle hut which is peculiarly perched atop chicken-like legs. These unusual foundations allow her to move her abode to different locations, the hut spinning as it goes, emitting a strange, unearthly moan. The eye-like windows also serve to give the hut the appearance of a living entity. The hut is protected by a fence made of bones, the skulls atop the posts glowing to illuminate the night – one post remains empty, awaiting another visitor. Some tales see the hut protected by what are essentially ‘familiars’, taking the form of vicious dogs, cats or geese.
There are numerous derivations of Baba Yaga’s name – many cultures use “ba-ba” or “ma-ma” as a sound to refer to a mother figure, or in this case an older woman (for example “Babushka”, meaning “grandmother”, in Russian). However, in countries such as Poland, the similar word, “Babcia”, has connotations of cruelty and ugliness, both phrases lending tonality to Baba Yaga as a character. “Yaga” is more difficult to pin down, though linguists have pointed to similarities with words from various Slavic cultures and beyond; the Russian verb, “yagat”, meaning “to abuse”; Serbia/Croatia – “jaza”, meaning “horror”; Old Czech, “jězě” – “witch”; Polish, “jędza” – “witch or fury”; even the Old English term, “inca” meaning “pain”. You get the gist. In Russia and Finland, stone statues known as Yaga have long existed, pitched atop tree stumps with offerings of gifts from devotees.
The first reference to Baba Yaga dates back to as early as 1755, when a similar name appears in a Russian book describing various Deities and their Roman counterparts; it is interesting that the mention of “Iaga Baba”, is not cross-referenced with any older God, suggesting that the being is very much rooted in European and Slavic lore, with characteristics and behaviour which is unique to the region and the traditions of the local inhabitants.
As previously mentioned, Baba Yaga could often be seen flying in a mortar, though not always equipped with a pestle – occasionally this would be a staff, or, reflecting more familiar witch-like behaviour, a broom. Witches and brooms appear in Western folklore far earlier than references to Baba Yaga, so it is likely this element was developed across land borders. The witch also has other strange traits, such as smelling out visitors to her environs by sticking her enormous, deformed nose, which reaches up to the ceiling of her hut, allowing her to sniff out, “the Russian smell”. Often she is found to be stretched out over the stove in her hut, using her wretched, spindly, elongated limbs to reach for objects in distant corners. Russian legend depicts her with large, iron teeth, huge, hairy chin and warts.
Her appearance is accompanied by a strange wind blowing through the forest, signs of her arrival evidenced by trees and leaves being blown around on a normally calm day. So that she can stay hidden within the forest, she uses her broom to sweep up any traces of her being in a location. In common with a certain vampire myth, visitors to her hut are asked if they came of their own free-will – if they have, she is given carte-blanche to do her evil worst.
As with another famous legend of a wolfy nature, the “pure of heart” are exempt from her cruelty. Her usual habits when receiving ‘willing guests’ are to wash them, feed them and then to sit them on a large spatula-like shovel which she will then push into her stove. Lucky human meals may be offered a chance of escape if they happen to sit on the spatula in such a way that they can’t fit into the oven. Despite Baba Yaga’s appetite of up to ten men a day, she remains skeletal in appearance.
Beyond her hut attendants, the witch controls the elements and has three servants; a red (“My red sun”), black (“My black midnight”) and white (“My bright dawn”) horseman, whom she entrusts to fuel the times of day. She also has a number of ‘soul friends’ or ‘friends of my bosom’; a pair of disembodied hands which acquiesce to her bidding, as well as a herdsman, the sorcerer, Koshchey Bessmertny (or Koshchey the Deathless), something of a Grim Reaper role in the double act.
Although her horrid appearance and habit for eating both adults and children, some famous stories show another side to the character. The tale of ‘Vasilisa the Fair’, sees a young girl bequeathed a Russian doll by her dying mother who tells her that she will be guided with advice throughout her life by the object. Alas, her father remarries and the step mother and her two new step sisters make her life a misery, taunting her and forcing her to do all the chores for the family.
One day, the trio conspire to make the fire go out in the house and the cruel sisters and father send her to Baba Yaga to ask for coal to fuel the furnace, in the assumption she will meet her end. Upon reaching the old crone’s hut, she meets the three horses previously mentioned and she is shown to the witch’s lair. Chastised by the hag for being idiotic for letting the fire go out, she is nevertheless welcomed in as she is unfailingly polite and gracious.
Vasilisa is given two days of chores, after which two seemingly impossible tasks are presented to her: separating mildewed corn from fresh, and poppy seeds from soot. Assisted by the doll, she achieves these, which Baba Yaga grudgingly acknowledges. She is presented by one of the glowing skulls outside the hut and is shooed on her way. Back at the unhappy family home, the doll guides Vasilisa away from danger but the skull waits until the father and two wicked girls are asleep and sets fire to the house, burning them all to death. Vasilisa’s exploits attract the attention of the Tsar and in the end, both are wed.