In Slavic myths, Baba Yaga is the wild woman or dark lady of magic and in Russian folklore there are many stories about her.
These stories may come from people who lived in the forests of northern Russia and Finland many years ago. They had stone statues named Yaga. Russian soldiers who came to the area called them Golden Babas.
Often the statues had their own little huts, built on tree stumps, full of gifts. They were statues of a local goddess that people asked for advice. She also had the power to decide what happened to people, a bit like Baba-Yaga.
The word Baba can mean any woman old enough to marry. In the stories, however, Baba-Yaga is often described as a frightening, wild, old witch with a terrible appetite for eating people. The story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair is one of the well-known tales and has things in common with other folk tales, such as Cinderella.
Why is Baba-Yaga important in the stories?
A Birch Forest
Baba Yaga may stand for a person's fate. When someone enters the hut, they live or die depending on what they say and do. Some also say that Baba Yaga stands for the dark side of wisdom, and the character of Vasilisa stands for the light side.
However she came about, she is more than just an ugly old witch, for she has power; people should fear and respect her.
In many ancient societies, older women were seen as the keepers of wisdom and tradition for the family or tribe. No longer having to care for children, they became mother to the rest of the community. It was believed that these wise women understood the mysteries of birth and death. They were healers and looked after the dying. Sometimes they were thought to have the power of life and death itself. The word witch once meant wise.
Later, from the 12th century, when people began to believe in the use of magic power for evil, people began to fear and hate these wise women with their potions and advice. Many were put to death and the picture of the wise woman or 'witch' changed, to become the frightening, ugly, evil old hag, casting wicked spells, as in the stories today.
Baba Yaga is interesting because, although she is described as a terrifying old witch, she is still wise and powerful; wild, cruel but sometimes also kind. Baba Yaga makes a link between the wise women of early myths and the witches of the folk or fairytales.
What is Baba-Yaga and her home like?
Baba-Yaga arriving home
Like most witches, Baba Yaga can fly but she does not use a broomstick. Instead, she sits in a giant mortar (a bowl for grinding food) with her knees almost touching her chin. She drives very fast across or above the forest floor, and uses the pestle (the grinder) as a rudder held in her right hand. She sweeps away her tracks with a broom made out of silver birch held in her left hand. Wherever she appears, a wild wind begins to blow, the trees groan and leaves whirl through the air.
Her home is a hut deep in a birch forest, in a place that is difficult to find, unless a magic thread, feather or doll shows the way. The hut has a life of its own. It stands on large chicken legs and can move about. Its windows act as eyes and the lock is full of teeth. A post fence surrounds the hut. The posts are made of human bones and topped with skulls whose blazing eye sockets light up the forest. Very often the hut is guarded by hungry dogs, evil geese, swans or a black cat.
The hut can spin around and moves through the forest. It makes blood-curdling screeches. Most of those who go in never leave, as Baba Yaga washes them, feeds them and then sits them on a giant spatula, before putting them in her oven. In many stories, the fate of those entering her hut is in their own hands. A guest may, or may not, fit into the oven, depending on how they sit on the spatula. Although she eats as much as 10 men, Baba Yaga is very skinny and bony, like a skeleton. Her nose is very long and hooked.
Why do people in the stories seek her help?
Baba-Yaga and her home
It may seem strange that anyone would look for Baba Yaga or enter her hut. However, she is wise and is all knowing, all seeing and tells the whole truth to those who are brave enough to ask.
She rules over the elements (fire, air, earth and water). Her faithful servants are the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman. She calls them, 'My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight' because they control daybreak, sunrise, and nightfall. Some of her other servants are her soul friends (three bodiless pairs of hands, which suddenly appear to carry out her wishes) and her herdsman, the sorcerer Koshchey the Deathless.
Often a hero or heroine enters her hut looking for wisdom, knowledge, truth or help, like Vasilisa. Baba Yaga aids the heroes and heroines, by giving advice, finding weapons and making tasks easier. Baba Yaga helps Vasilisa by giving her a light; because she faces her fear and listens to her intuition (the doll), Vasilisa gets a better life.
The doll stands for both Vasilisa's intuition and her mother's blessing. It acts as a life guide as Vasilisa grows from childhood to adulthood. Like many myths and folk tales, the story also has a moral: if you are good and wise, listen to your elders and use your intuition you will be rewarded but if you are cruel and unkind, like the wicked stepmother and her daughters, you may be burnt to a crisp.