Myths and fairy tales are often very powerful teaching aids. They frequently describe a journey of discovery about the nature of the world or the nature of the self, and some are initiatory stories of young people going through rites of passage which take them from childhood to adulthood.
Baba Yaga (properly pronounced Baba Ye-gar, with the emphasis on the second syllable) is a character who appears in hundreds of Russian and Eastern European stories and fairy tales. She is known as 'old bony legs', and is notorious for eating children. She lives in a clearing in the woods1, in a hut that twirls around on bright yellow chicken legs. Its bolts and shutters are made of human bones. There is a fence around it made of human skulls.
Her method of transport is a huge mortar and pestle (she uses the pestle to punt the mortar to make it fly) and she uses a broom to erase the marks of where she has been.
Baba Yaga sleeps on her enormous oven, which is sometimes used to cook children. She uses a large wooden spatula to push them into the oven and then locks the oven door. She eats an enormous amount of food - enough for ten men.
Appearance and Character
Baba Yaga is an old woman. She has a nose that bends down, a chin that curves up, and warts from handling toads. She has long greasy hair and a goatee beard. Her bosom hangs down to her knees. Her nails are brown, ridged and long, so that she cannot make a fist. She has iron teeth. In short, she presents an unpleasant, frightening appearance.
Baba Yaga has a short temper. She is impatient and irritable. She can be deceitful and tricky, although sometimes she is honourable and keeps her word once it is given. In some stories, she has a kind (or at least helpful) side and in at least one, it is shown that she can be lonely and in need of love and company. She sometimes appears with a male character - Kochey Bessmyertney, who is a sort of Grim Reaper-like figure.
She expects respect, and gives grudging respect to people who respect her and are willing to stand up to her and carry out her tasks.
Keeper of Light and Dark
Baba Yaga has three horsemen - a white rider on a white horse, a red rider on a red horse and a black rider on a black horse. She is fond of these horsemen, who represent day, sunrise and night, respectively. She is also a keeper of fire, and the skulls around her home have an eerie fire in each of them. Some of the stories say that the fire is green.
Other Characters in the Stories
The majority of characters in the stories are female. Young women, cruel stepmothers and stepsisters, down-trodden servants and, of course, Baba Yaga's own daughter. The male characters are often the remarried fathers of young heroines whose mothers have died. The new wife often has daughters, who find that they do not want to know about the existing daughter and find her a nuisance. The new women in the family tend to be vain, selfish and lazy characters who are jealous of the daughter and turn her into a servant. Surprisingly, the father either doesn't notice, is mostly absent, or is too afraid of his wife to do anything about it.
By now you may be thinking, 'Ah, this sounds just like Cinderella - and so it does. There are a lot of common elements. Notice, however, that although the stepmother and stepdaughters are not as beautiful as the heroine, they are not described as 'ugly'. It is their behaviour and demeanour that makes them less than beautiful.
However, some stories have a young boy as the hero.
As with many fairy stories or folk tales, there are many different variants of these tales. Some have different names for the heroes and heroines, so it can't be said that these are the definitive versions.
'Vasilisa the Fair'/'Vasilisa the Wise'
This is one of the two best known Baba Yaga stories.
In this story, the heroine's mother dies, but not before she's given her a Russian doll and her blessing. The doll must be fed and will give her good advice and keep her from harm, if she listens to it.
The father remarries and his new wife and two stepdaughters treat Vasilisa as a servant. She is given all the hard work to do around the house. However, whatever the wife and stepdaughters do, Vasilisa is still more beautiful than they are - so they decide on a plan to kill her.
The trio conspire to make the fire go out and to send Vasilisa to the Baba Yaga to beg for a coal.
The doll guides Vasilisa to Baba Yaga's hut. On the way, she sees three horseriders as detailed above. Baba Yaga thinks that anyone who lets the fire go out must be stupid, but lets Vasilisa into the house as she is respectful and brave.
Once inside the house, Vasilisa has to work for two days and accomplish tasks - cooking food, sweeping the yard and washing clothes each day, then two additional and seemingly impossible tasks. These are separating mildewed corn from good corn and then poppy seeds from soot (or dirt). The doll helps in the accomplishment of these tasks. Once the tasks have been completed, on each day, three pairs of hands appear from nowhere and grind the corn into flour and the poppy seeds into oil.
Once the tasks are finished, Vasilisa asks about the riders and are told that they are day, sunrise and night. She doesn't ask about the hands2! True to her word, the Baba Yaga gives her one of the skulls on a stick and when she finds out about the mother's blessing, sends her on her way, roughly.
The doll again guides Vasilisa home. She almost throws away the skull at one point, being frightened of it, but the skull tells her not to be frightened. Once home, she is greeted by the trio, who are very cold. During the night, the light from the skull burns into the women and they are turned into cinders. Burnt to a crisp!
This story starts in exactly the same way as the Vasilisa story3, with the death of the mother, the remarriage of the father and the introduction into the household of a stepmother, who treats the heroine badly and sends her to the Baba Yaga hoping that she will be eaten.
Here the Baba Yaga is the sister of the stepmother and Marusia is sent for a needle and thread to make a blouse. She sets out with a napkin tied up with a ribbon containing a little bread, some oil and a small amount of ham.
On reaching the house, she is greeted by a birch tree which she gives the ribbon, to hold back its branches; a rusty gate, whose hinges she lubricates with the oil; a hungry dog, which she gives bread to; a scrawny cat, which she gives the ham to; and a tired servant girl, who she gives the napkin to so she can tie her hair back.
This unforced kindness is repaid handsomely. The cat warns her that the Baba Yaga is intending to eat her. The cat carries out the task that Marusia is given, that of weaving at the loom (ter clack, ter clack), thus giving her a chance to make her escape. The cat also gives her a mirror and a comb to help her.
While the dog, the servant girl, the gate and the birch tree do not actively help her, they do not hinder her, as they were expected to by a furious Baba Yaga, who berates them soundly on discovering the escape. They in turn point to Marusia's kindness to them and the fact that although they have served Baba Yaga for years, she has not rewarded them with kindness.
Baba Yaga comes after Marusia at high speed in her mortar and pestle. On hearing her, Marusia thows down the mirror. It becomes an enormous lake (or a river, depending on the version). Baba Yaga either drinks it (so that her iron teeth go rusty) or goes back to her house to get three oxen who drink it dry. On hearing the pestle and mortar again, Marusia throws down the comb, which becomes an impenetrable forest, which defeats the Baba Yaga. In some versions, she breaks her iron teeth, which have become rusty.
So Marusia returns home and tells her story to her father, who drives away the stepmother.
'Tishka' (or How Baba Yaga Got Her Iron Teeth)
This story starts entirely differently. An old man and woman have no children. The man brings into the house a log, which miraculously turns into a baby boy after it has been dressed in baby clothes and rocked in a cot. The couple name him Tishka.
The mother warns him about the Baba Yaga, so when she pretends to be his mother and comes to bring him midday food, he is not fooled.
That's not my mother's voice I hear.
I think that Baba Yaga's near!!
Off goes the Baba Yaga to the ironsmith, who makes her an iron tongue. Next time Baba Yaga visits him, Tishka is fooled and captured. Brought back to the hut, the Baba Yaga asks her daughter to cook him, while she goes off doing something else.
Tishka tricks the daughter into sitting on the spatula which is used to insert food into the oven, by getting her to demonstrate how it's done. Then he pushes her into the oven and runs off. Hearing the Baba Yaga's return, he hides in a nearby oak tree.
Returning home, the Baba Yaga eats what's in the oven and is rolling in the grass, boasting how easy it was to fool Tishka. On hearing this, Tishka can't resist telling her how easy it was to fool her daughter, and says he's happy she found her good to eat.
Furious, the Baba Yaga tries to eat through the tree trunk, but it's too sturdy and all her teeth break. Back to the ironsmith she goes, and comes back with iron teeth, with which she starts to chomp through the tree.
Two flocks of geese fly by. The first will not take Tishka. Neither will the second, although he is advised by the leader of the second flock to ask the scraggy gosling at the back. The gosling spreads his wings and takes Tishka home. Once home, he is greeted by his weeping parents. They reward the gosling handsomely, and he becomes a leader of birds.
Other stories tell of different sides of Baba Yaga's character. In one, she adopts a young child in return for shelter, as she wants a grandchild and is lonely. She hears the other grandparents in the village telling stories of how awful and frightening she is and leaves. Later she reveals herself and is reunited with the child who recognises her even in her 'awful' aspect.
Yet another story tells of three siblings who go to visit Baba Yaga. The first tells her he has come because his mother asked him to, and she eats him. The second tells her that he has come of his own accord, and she eats him too.
The third says: 'In large part I'm on my own errand, but in large part I also come because of others. And in large part I have come because you are here, and because of the forest, and something I have forgotten, and in large part I know not why I come.'
Baba Yaga looks at her for a moment, says 'You'll do,' and shows her into the hut.
The Cult of the Baba Yaga
According to one theory about Slavic mythology, the Baba Yaga stories have their origin in the beliefs and myths of the peoples living in northern Russia and Finland, who worshipped goddesses who were represented by statues named Yaga from the Nentsy4 word yaha, meaning sea or lake. Some of the Baba Yaga stories echo this fact, as the Yaga's hut stays on a seaside. The people of north Russia had stone statues called yagas or Golden Babas, which represented a local goddess who would be asked for advice and who was believed to be empowered with deciding about the fate of people.
Often they had their own little 'huts' built on tree stumps and with lots of gifts including comestibles5. The traditional exclamation of Baba Yaga - 'I smell Russian people here!' - also has an explanation. Russians used birch tar for their clothes to make them waterproof, something rather different for the noses of the above-mentioned tribes which lived in forests.
The Russians, normally soldiers who tried to conquer the regions of Nentsy, Finnish-Ugrish, and others, called the statues babas, an expression which is still used for the sort of stone or wooden idols such as those found on Easter Island. The shamans who talked to the goddess brought meals as sacrificial offerings: that's probably the explanation for the necessity to feed Vasilisa's doll in order to 'activate' it.
Baba Yaga - the Archetype
Baba Yaga the Crone is a fearsome, wild creature. She is above all powerful, and to be feared and respected. She is an aspect of the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. Confronting and integrating her lessons make the heroines stronger and wiser. In confronting her, the heroines have to listen to their intuition. She represents life, death and rebirth, and has similarities to Kali and Hecate. She is a wise woman. The word 'witch' originally meant 'wise'.
In the modern age, women are learning how to respect the crone aspect of their lives. This is a balancing aspect for the 'youth cult', in which young is beautiful and desirable and older is seen as being something to be avoided. The crone aspect shows the wisdom and the power of the grandmother. This can only be for the better.