Baba Yaga in Slavic Folklore — The Wild Witch of the Woods

Baba Yaga in Slavic Folklore - The Wild Witch of the Woods

Who is Baba Yaga?

Baba Yaga, sometimes Jezi Baba, is the hideous man-eating female demon of Slavonic tradition. According to some versions of her myth, her mouth is said to stretch from earth to the gates of hell. She lived in a strange house that had legs like a chicken at each corner and stood inside a fence made of human bones. When she wished to travel, it was believed she flew in an iron kettle, or pestle and mortar.

The Prologue to Baba Yaga

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure for a big surprise.
If you go down to the woods today, you’d better go in disguise.
For every bear that is there will gather there for certain,
Because today is the day that teddy bears have their picnic…

Except there are no teddy bears in this forest, and the early picnic is you and your children.

Deep inside the centre of this forest, you’ll find a clearing, a small patch of land separate from the rest marked by a picket fence made of human bones. There you will find the hag’s hut, where there is a phrase, you need to enter; “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.”

If your children are indeed alive then I wish you the best of luck, for this is her forest. If you are too late, then it doesn’t matter because very few ever return and those who do never go back and never speak of what they saw—at least, most of them.

Some foolishly believe that they can help others before she comes back to finish what she started; whereas the rest believe what they saw wasn’t real.

The boogeyman is just a story told to scare children and she is no different—Baba Yaga is just the name. Or is it?

Most of us remember those stories we were told as children that attempted to scare us into behaving ourselves. Whether it was the boogeyman, a Christmas demon, or a cannibalistic witch in the woods, they all had the same intention.

Today, we are indeed diving back into the wonderfully weird world of Slavic folklore with the tale of Baba Yaga.

Meaning of Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is a name that appears all across the Slovak territories of Europe, but the origin and meaning of this name, much like Slavic folklore in general, is a bit all over the place.

As someone who doesn’t speak any of these Slavic languages, Babushka is the first word that comes to mind, but that may also just be because it’s the only word I remember that isn’t a curse word.

The word Baba itself seems to be rooted in several Slavic languages, and today it’s commonly used to refer to an elderly woman or one’s grandmother, just like a babushka. In other forms of Russian, it was used to refer to a midwife and even a fortune-teller, so it’s hard to take any real definitive meaning other than a woman.

The second part of the name Yaga is even more ambiguous than the first; meaning, anything from anger and horror to witch, evil, and serpent. This led many to believe that Baba could have simply helped to distinguish or identify a female character. So, I guess an evil or scary elderly woman is as bad as close as we can get to a direct translation.

The Origin of Baba Yaga

The Origin of Baba Yaga - Evil and Nice

With Baba Yaga, we have a very interesting and unique character because her story is not the classic one-dimensional boogeyman or boogeywoman’s story that you may have come to expect. It’s almost like telling your children that if they misbehave Baba Yaga, the evil old hag, will come and eat them, but if they’re good she’s a sweet old grandmother figure who will help them.

The characters in these stories may almost be opposites to each other, but it shows that there is more to Baba Yaga than just an evil side.

Despite how different these two approaches are, the goal of these stories is ultimately the same—to make children behave, whether that’s through the fear of consequence or an alluring incentive.

Example of what is said to kids about Baba Yaga: ‘Listen here little Timmy, you better eat those Brussels sprouts or that creepy old woman across the street is going to eat your heart and grind your bones into dust to snort later. Do you want that to happen? No? Then eat your vegetables… but if you’re a good little Timmy who eats all of his Brussels sprouts, then baba Yaga will help you when you’re in need!’

Two different approaches but the goals are the same; to stop little Timmy from being a turd.

I know some of you may not like the idea of death threats, bribery and scaring kids into behaving themselves, and you’re probably right, it’s not exactly the healthiest practice. But I’m sure nowadays taking your child’s phone away and telling them “no more fortnight Timmy” is the equivalent to the modern-day boogeyman, but that’s nowhere near as fun or interesting.

So, who was Baba Yaga? And what was her story?

Baba Yaga in Rossiiskaia Grammatika

The first recorded mention of the name Baba Yaga was by the Russian author Mikhail Lomonosov in his work ‘Rossiiskaia Grammatika’, which pretty much just means Russian grammar.

Here, Mikhail mentions her names twice, with one of these being in a section where the Slavic deities are compared to the Roman deities and their inspiration was presumed to have come from.

But Baba Yaga appears by herself, reinforcing the notion that she was a unique Slavic creation void of any Greek and Roman influence.

As the years went by, stories of an old bony hag who lived in the woods began to spread. Her house stood on two chicken legs, and she rode around through the forest in a giant pestle and mortar—and therefore I enjoy Slavic folklore because it’s so unapologetically weird that is hard to not be amused by it.

When you think of witches, the most generic image that comes to mind probably involves a pointed hat, a black cat, and a broomstick to ride around on, but not the Slavs. Instead, Baba Yaga climbs inside of her giant mortar and uses her equally as big pestle to steer, which when you think about it, is quite efficient because when you’re kidnapping children and grinding their bones to dust, you’re going to want to have your pestle and mortar at hand when you finally catch one of the little gremlins.

She does still carry around a broom, but this is the sweep away any trash you may have left so disgruntled villagers can’t find her.

The Depiction of Baba Yaga

The Depiction of Baba Yaga

In the different stories and narratives that she appears in, Baba Yaga does have several depictions with some quite interesting symbolism behind them. She may have a frail shape, but her teeth are sharp enough to pierce through bones and sometimes even depicted as being metal.

Her legs are often extremely skinny, which lends to one of her nicknames ‘bony legs’. This is often thought to imply some kind of demonic influence or power, because of a poem by Nikolay Alexandrovich Nekrasov in 1840. The poem was titled ‘Baba Yaga the bony leg.’

In this poem, he says the devil cooks 12 evil women into one to be just as evil as himself, and the result is Baba Yaga, who goes out into the world to do evil and returns to hell for her reward.

Nekrasov’s description is as follows:

She has fangs and nostril hairs so long they hang down to her breasts.
She has huge ears, horns on her forehead and holes instead of eyes.
Wearing a toad skin cap and a snakeskin coat.

Nekrasov sees her as more of a demon than a sweet old lady.

The House of Baba Yaga

The House of Baba Yaga

An interesting piece of symbolism comes from her house or hut, which stands on two chicken feet and is able just to get up and walk away at any time.

Strangers also can’t just walk into that house without saying the phrase, ‘turn your back to the forest, your front to me.’ Whether this cause the door to appear or simply unlocks the front door is down to your imagination, but the first certainly has a more magical feel.

This phrase was also thought to stop the house when it’s moving through the forest. When it comes to Baba Yaga’s house, the obvious question is why does it have chicken feet?

I remember when I first heard the story, I just brushed it off as well everyone loves chicken. But when you look at it from a more symbolic point of view, it makes a tad more sense.

Baba Yaga is often shown as either a grandmother or croon figure, and then there’s her more sinister side, which is ugly, dangerous and wild. Regardless of which, you’d expect both those figures to be somewhat resourceful—A grandmother using whatever she can find to feed her family, and the same can be said for someone isolated living in the woods; there’s no choice but to be self-sufficient.

So, how does all of this tie into chicken feet? Well, the feet would have been seen as an undesirable part of the chicken, as when it came to royalty, heroes, and the wealthy, they would have had their choice cut—the wings, the breasts or the thigh. But the less desirable parts of the chicken such as the feet would have been either thrown out or given to the peasants.

So, Baba Yaga building her house out of unwanted scraps is a testament to her resourcefulness, and maybe it’s meant to show regardless of how something may appear—everything has its use.

There are some, however, who believe these chicken feet were just stilts, and this belief stems from the indigenous people of Siberia who would store their food in small huts supported on stilts to keep their supplies away from animals. The roots of these trees may at times resemble chicken feet.

How Baba Yaga Travel — Pestle and Mortar

There’s also some symbolism behind her pestle and mortar, which at first glance may just seem like a weird choice to travel around in.

For those who don’t know, a pestle and mortar are often used to grind all sorts of things, but mostly herbs and spices, so it would have been used by physicians and others attempting to make medicine. But it also would have been used by those practising witchcraft. So, the pestle and mortar can be seen as symbolizing her two personas.

The Story of Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga

The Story of Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga

One of the most famous stories she appears in is the fairy tale ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ which was part of a collection of tales collected by Alexander Afanasiev.

As you may have guessed, the story centres around a young girl named Vasilisa. When she was eight years old, her mother passed away and left her a small wooden doll. She told Vasilisa that if she was ever in need of help, all she had to do was feed the doll and it would aid her.

The Evil Stepmother of Vasilisa

When her mother died, she gave the doll some food and it came to her and comforted her. Eventually, her father moved on and married once again, but this stepmother was a wicked and cruel woman who worked Vasilisa to the bone. But with a wooden doll by her side, she was able to perform each task that was asked of her.

As the name of the story tells us, Vasilisa was extremely beautiful, and she was often visited by young men who expressed their interest. Her stepmother rejected all proposals from these suitors because her daughters were older, and thus, they should be married first. But none of the suitors would choose them over Vasilisa, and so, she was stuck at home slaving away.

Her father, being a merchant had to embark on a rather long journey, and her stepmother took advantage of this, by selling their home and moving them into a dark and gloomy forest.

Vasilisa sent to Retrieve Lights from Baba Yaga

On one particular evening, each girl was told to put out all of the fires in the house except for one candle. However, one of the older daughters put out this candle by mistake and Vasilisa was held responsible.

Her stepmother then sent her to retrieve the lights they had lost from Baba Yaga’s hut. The young girl was unsure as to whether this was a wise idea, because she had heard tales of Baba Yaga before, and these only filled her with dread.

So, she took out her wooden doll and fed it some crumbs. It calmed her nerves and then advised her to go see Baba Yaga.

Early the next morning, she began her journey. As she ventured further into the forest, she came across a man dressed in all white riding a white horse who paid her no attention. Not long after, another man rode by this time dressed in red with a red horse.

She then came across a fence made of human bones that surrounded a house that stood on two chicken legs. As she stood there contemplating whether she should go inside, a third rider came by. This time dressed in black and with him came nightfall.

The skulls that made up the fence began to glow, but Vasilisa determined to retrieve the light remained by the fence until Baba Yaga came flying by in her pestle and mortar, only to find a young girl waiting for her.

She agreed to give Vasilisa the fire that she came for, but only if she completed a series of tasks first. This also came with the caveat that if she failed, then she would kill the child, but to her credit, she accepted this offer.

The Tasks Given to Vasilisa

However, these tasks were no different to what she was doing for her stepmother and consisted of cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry, but when those chores were done, she would have to separate poppy seeds from the soil and the good corn from the rotten corn.

The sheer amount of work that needed to be done was too much for Vasilisa who was exhausted. She began to lose all hope until her doll came to her aid once again, completing the work while she slept.

The Story of Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga

At the crack of dawn, the white horsemen rode by, followed by the red in the afternoon, and the black horsemen in the evening. With this last horseman, Baba Yaga returned home. She inspected the work done by Vasilisa and had no complaints. With her, she had three pairs of severed hands that inspected the corn for her. She then explained that the white Rider was day, the red was the Sun, and the black Rider was the night.

Knowing that a task she set the girl was almost impossible, she inquired as to how she was successful. Vasilisa replied ‘with her mother’s blessing’. This enraged Baba Yaga, and she told the girl that she would have no one of a blessing of any kind in her house.

She gave her a skull lantern full of burning coal from her fence and sent her on her way home.

The Death of Vasilisa’s Evil Stepmother and Stepsisters

When Vasilisa returned home, she found out that her stepmother and stepsisters were unable to light any of the candles or fires in their home. They tried bringing lamps and torches from outside but the second they stepped inside they were snuffed out.

The coals that she bought with her in the skull, however, burn bright. So, bright that they engulfed her stepmother and stepsisters, burning them to ashes. She then buried the skull underneath her house so it could cause no more harm.

Happy Ending for Vasilisa

Vasilisa then moved to the capital and became a cloth maker, where her exceptional skills meant she would work for the royal family and eventually marry a prince.

Take Off from the Story

This story is interesting because it fits the description of Baba Yaga we mentioned earlier. She isn’t entirely evil as she’s willing to help Vasilisa, but she must earn it, and then we see the slightly darker side when she tells the girl that if she cannot perform these tasks then she’ll kill her.

The reason she had such an aggressive reaction to Vasilisa mentioning her mother’s blessing may have something to do with the stories of Baba Yaga being the devil’s grandmother. So naturally, she would have an aversion to the idea of blessings and all sorts of things that would ward off evil.

We also see the introduction of the horseman in this story. The three horsemen in this story may bring somewhat of confusion as it may be easily confused with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but they don’t seem to have much relation.

The three horsemen are instead symbolic of the day, the Sun, and the night. It’s common for Baba Yaga to be described as having control over the elements within the forest, and the horsemen are a pretty good example of that.

What also stood out were the parallels between this story and other popular fairy tales such as Cinderella. You have the underappreciated main character, the wicked stepmother making her do chores, and the ugly stepsisters.

The Maiden Tsar

Another story that instead highlights the idea of Baba Yaga as this triple Crone figure that we see in games such as The Witcher 3 is the Maiden of Tsar, which follows a merchant son named Ivan as he visits the home of all three Baba Yagas.

When he arrives at the first house, he is greeted by a very old woman. He asks her if she knows where the thrice tenth Kingdom is; to which she responds that she does not, but her sister may be able to help.

Ivan continues to the forest until he comes across a hut identical to the first. But inside is a much younger looking woman, and he asks her the same question. She also tells Ivan that she doesn’t know and maybe her other sister may know.

She also warns Ivan that this sister may try to eat him. If this should happen, she tells Ivan to ask her sister for three horns and her permission to blow them. The first must be blown softly, the second louder, and the third even louder.

After some time, Ivan comes across the same hut once again and inside is the youngest of all three sisters. As the other sister predicted, she plans to kill Ivan and eat him. He pleads with her to give him the three horns and seeing no harm in doing so, she does.

He blows on the first softly, then louder with the second, and as loud as he possibly could with the third. Blowing these horns caused the house to be swarmed by hundreds of birds. Among these birds is a giant Firebird which tells Ivan to jump on its back so they can escape before he’s eaten, and they do so and that is the end of the story.

Baba Yaga in Pop Culture

Baba Yaga in Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine: Wicked Witch Boss Fight

In Witcher 3, you have a quest line that centres around the ladies of the wood or the three crones which appears to be a reference to the stories of Baba Yaga as three sisters.

When we first see them in a tapestry, they appear as young and beautiful, but later in person, they are all decrepit and quite repulsive. On their person, we see severed hands and toy dolls, referring back to the story of Vasilisa, but we also see other body parts of children as well as talk of eating young boys and girls.

There’s even a rider dressed in a black suit of armour that does their bidding. None of this is a surprise because CD Projekt RED are very good when it comes to integrating traditional folklore into the Witcher, and the scenes with these three crones are a testament to this.

I think the most recent depiction we see of Baba Yaga in the mainstream is the Hell Boy movie, where we can say she isn’t the most pleasant-looking individual is the understatement of the year. Without spoiling too much, she’s a one-eyed hag with wooden legs and a taste for human children.

In Conclusion

Baba Yaga is a figure shrouded in mystery. We don’t know how old she is or where she came from. It’s this ambiguity that makes her a great character, and she has featured in numerous animations and movies where she appears as both the villain and as a more helpful individual.

Though, some question if she was ever meant to be seen this way, implying she only helps when it’s in her interest. There are even some questions over her status as a witch because although she has been labelled as such and may even behave and possess some of the qualities you’d expect, there are many factors that do not fit the stereotypical image.

We also have no definitive answer as to where these stories originated from. Many of the written mentions and stories came from Russian scholars, but there are references to a figure named Jezi Baba from the Western Slavs, and Baba Korizma or Baba Roga from the southern Slavic region.

So, it’s safe to say that she appeared everywhere amongst the Slavic people in various forms and by a host of different names.

Anyway, which interpretation do you prefer? An evil witch who devours children; A kind old lady who helps those in need; Or a self-serving elderly woman who is neither good nor bad but merely driven by self-interest; or maybe you prefer the three sisters that appear in The Witcher and the story of Ivan.

Whichever one, kindly share this article… ‘Coz if you don’t, you could end up like our little Timmy!’


FAQ

Who was Baba Yaga?

Baba Yaga, sometimes Jezi Baba, is the hideous man-eating female demon of Slavonic tradition. According to some versions of her myth, her mouth is said to stretch from earth to the gates of hell. She lived in a strange house that had legs like a chicken at each corner and stood inside a fence made of human bones. When she wished to travel, it was believed she flew in an iron kettle, or pestle and mortar.

Where does Baba Yaga lives?

Baba Yaga lived in the woods. Her house stood on two chicken legs, and she rode around through the forest in a giant pestle and mortar.

What does Baba Yaga do?

According to Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga lures in the woods, looking for naughty children that misbehave to eat. Her story is essentially told to keep children in check.

How can I defeat Baba Yaga?

According to the story of Vasilisa, to defeat Baba Yaga, you must be able to complete the tasks given to you by Baba Yaga. In this way, she is said to abide by your initial request. However, according to the story of Ivan, you must blow 3 horns collected from Baba Yaga; one is blown softly, the second a bit louder, and the last, the loudest.

Art Sources: Elli Lebedeva, Elizaveta Alexandre-Soboleva, Uliana Ghostysheva, KYRIAKOS NTATIDIS, Aleksei Vinogradov.

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