The Fearsome Witch, Baba Yaga, of Slavic Folklore

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BY HANNAH HORN

In the depths of Slavic folklore, the origin and purpose of the wicked Baba Yaga is unclear. The uncertainty provides emphasis on Baba Yaga’s strange character, some even say that instead of it being an elderly skinny woman, it could commonly be a trio of three hideous decrepit sisters with the same name. Theories made of translations believe that baba could mean ‘old woman’ or ‘grandmother,’ while yaga ranges from meaning ‘snake’ to ‘wicked.’ She also notably had a massive nose that may stick to the ceiling to smell the desired “Russian scent” of her visitors, who are usually children. She ordinarily rides around on a mortar (that she drives with a pestle) or even an iron kettle, wielding around a wand and a flying aid.

The old woman lives in an otherworldly hut founded deep in the woods, where it is said to perch on magical chicken legs with a colossal rooster’s head on top. Some have even said that she enclosed her hut with a horrendous fence of human bones and skulls. She appears to have few morals, though she luckily will not go after someone unprovoked unless the person came near the door of her hut (where the majority of her tales take place). Inside her distressing Russian hut resides an enormous cooking stove, reaching from one side to the other to emphasize her magic and small bony size. The witch’s stove is a common ingredient in her lore, one of her customary punishments remains to be the fate of being cooked and eaten. Despite her unappealing appetite, she remains looking frail which makes it creepier.

The Baba Yaga differs between a villainous obstacle and a savior, for she was recognized as either helping the ‘hero’ in the myth or hindering them. Whoever approaches her hut and plays with her magic will be given a tough list of specific tasks to be completed. She is known to always keep that promise, although despite the kindness, the Baba Yaga frees those from her hut with terrible repercussions for their wishes such as instigating painful deaths and encouraging much more grief. Whispers question if her actions are due to the fact that she wouldn’t bother anyone if they weren’t bothering her first. Scholars find her character very hard to classify and group since she is also avowed to have a deity akin to mother nature for forest wildlife, though the natural world fears her for their turmoil at her hands. Some claim that she enjoys ‘accompanying Death’ on his travels to devour new souls. Therefore, the Baba Yaga is a very mysterious and dark woman, allowing the wariness of her actions to always remain a surprise.

The Baba Yaga’s first clear citational source occurred in 1755, in Mikhail V. Lomonosov’s “Russian Grammar,” where she is mentioned twice with other Slavic traditional figures. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the witch is also credited in a variety of ‘lubki’ which are interpretable wood print blocks that many studied. Some scholars note that the underlying concept of the Baba Yaga was shaped by East Slavic contact with Finno-Ugric and Siberian people. Therefore, there are multitudes of beings that are closely corresponding to the Baba Yaga, such as the Jezibaba or Jezda, Gorska Maika, Mama Padurii, Alpine Perchta, Akka and so many more from surrounding areas. There are many affiliated variations of her tale as well. The ambiguous hag-like woman in Slavic literature will always remain a memorable dilemma of good or evil for its readers.

HEADER IMAGE: Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

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