Russia’s Most Famous Witch: Baba Yaga

A witch of many hats and a house on chicken legs.

Hello, friends and foes! On this mythical Monday, we’re diving into the history of the tale of Baba Yaga. We’ve all heard the name somewhere before. Maybe you’ve heard of her as an evil forest witch living in a hut on giant chicken legs. Maybe you’ve heard of her as a maternal, guiding figure in Slavic children’s tales. That’s the thing with Baba Yaga – she’s a witch of many hats and the subject of thousands of stories across eastern Europe, predating the 18th century.

Baba Yaga as depicted by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

While Baba Yaga is not exclusive to Russia, she’s a tremendous part of the country’s mythos and folklore. Russia is the world’s largest country with the longest railway and second-largest art museum. It takes up one tenth of all the land on Earth, which is not relevant in the context of this article but a fun fact nonetheless.

Baba Yaga is hailed as one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in eastern European folklore, particularly Slavic. The term “Slavic” refers to a collection of thirteen countries including Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Bulgaria. The name Baba Yaga has a variety of meanings. “Baba” is generally considered a nonsense word, but is also credited as the antecedent for the modern Russian word for grandmother, “babushka”. “Yaga” is equally as mysterious, though similar words in various Slavic languages mean “horror”, “witch”, “wicked wood nymph”, and “worry”.

In some tales, she is a mighty ogress who steals, cooks, and eats children. In other versions, she is a maternal figure, or in other ways helpful to those who seek her guidance. She and her sisters (all called Baba Yaga) are guardians of the fountains of the waters of life. They live in a forest hut that walks on giant chicken legs. Oftentimes, Baba Yaga can fly through the air in an iron kettle or mortar and pestle. She sometimes accompanies Death on his travels, to consume newly released souls (I want this as a movie, like, yesterday).

Because Baba Yaga is the subject of thousands of Slavic myths, it was hard to choose one most fitting of her character. I settled on Vasilissa the Beautiful because it’s evidently well-known to Russian and Slavic folklore scholars. It is an old oral tale first transcribed by Nikolayevich Afanasyev between 1855 and 1867. I will note that it’s a tale depicting Baba Yaga as a villain, and there are other tales out there that paint her in a much more appealing light.

Vasilissa is a beautiful young maiden who is mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters after her mother’s death (sound familiar?). On her death bed, Vasilissa’s mother gifts her a doll and says in times of great trouble, she should give the doll something to eat and ask it for advice (if this is anything like Gremlins, it won’t end well).

Vasilisa at the Hut of Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin

One night, the last lamp goes out in the house, and Vasilissa’s stepsisters demand she go to the Baba Yaga’s nearby home to ask for a light. Vasilissa ventures through the forest in the dark, holding her doll. She arrives at Baba Yaga’s home and stares up at house on the giant chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human skulls and bones, and her doll tells her not to be afraid.

Baba Yaga invites Vasilissa inside, but tells her she must work to earn a light. She gives Vasilissa impossible tasks to complete, like harvesting wheat from the garden and separating the black grains from the white grains. If Vasilissa does not complete the work, Baba Yaga will eat her. Vasilissa secretly feeds her doll a piece of bread and asks for help. While Baba Yaga is asleep, the doll calls upon the birds of the forest to help complete the work.

When Baba Yaga wakes up and finds the work is done, she gives Vasilissa more work to do. She must clean the entire house and yard until it is spotless. This time, Vasilissa’s doll enlists the help of forest mice to complete the work on time.

Baba Yaga is furious that Vasilissa is completing the impossible tasks, and decides to roast and eat the maiden anyway. She asks Vasilissa how she has managed to finish the work, and Vasilissa responds, “the blessing of my dead mother helps me”. Baba Yaga flies into a rage, realizing she cannot have a blessed person in her home. Vasilissa flees as fast as she can and Baba Yaga throws a skull with flaming eyes after her.

Vasilissa brings the skull back with her to light her stepmother’s home. Once inside the humble cottage, the burning eyes grow larger and hotter until the stepmother and stepsisters catch fire and are burned alive. And, through some more doll-magic after the cool flaming skull part, Vasilissa ends up marrying the Tsar. And she carried the little doll with her for the rest of her life.

If you like the character of Baba Yaga and want to read more tales of her wickedness (or, in some cases, heroism), I suggest taking a look at some of the translated old Russian tales available for free online. If you want some modern takes on the Baba Yaga character and story, here are three books to serve as introductions to Baba Yaga’s many hats.

Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter (2016)

A retelling of Vasilissa’s classic tale (right down to the evil stepmother and stepsisters), Vassa visits Babs Yagg’s store for light bulbs in the middle of the night, knowing she could be beheaded at any moment. With the help of her magical doll, Vassa might break the witch’s curse and free her enchanted Brooklyn neighborhood. Key word: might. This one is a YA tale, modernizing Baba Yaga into present day (but magical) New York City.

Baba Yaga by Katya Arnold (1996)

A simplified Baba Yaga tale for children that uses traditional Russian ‘lubok’ art with brilliant, jewel-toned illustrations of the country’s most well-known witch. While this is widely accepted as a children’s book, it has been reviewed as being somewhat frightening, as Baba Yaga is described as having iron teeth and a metal tongue and an insatiable hunger for small children. It includes folk rhymes and several other memorable Slavic folklore characters.

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (2018)

Marinka’s grandmother is a Yaga, a guide to the dead into the afterlife. Marinka is friends with the Yaga’s house with chicken legs, playing tag and hide-and-seek in the forest, but longs for a human friend. To have a human friend, however, Marinka must break all the rules. Then, when the Yaga disappears, Marinka must go on a harrowing search for her – even if that means going into the afterlife itself.

Well, there you have it. A short and sweet tale of Baba Yaga and a bit about her mysterious history. We won’t ever truly know where her tale originated, or when her character came to be. And that might just be the coolest thing about her. Well, that and the house on chicken legs.

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or, not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

SOURCES:

“Baba Yaga.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., .http://www.britannica.com/topic/Baba-Yaga

Cereno, Benito. “The Legend Of Baba Yaga Explained.” Grunge.com, Grunge, 9 June 2020, http://www.grunge.com/216412/the-legend-of-baba-yaga-explained/.

“Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Sept. 2021, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vasilisa_the_Beautiful.

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

Continue Reading

Japan’s Vengeful Ghosts: “Nihon Sandai Kaidan”

Three classic folktales of spirits seeking revenge on their murderers.

Hello, friends and foes! This article marks the first of a continuing series exploring creepy folklore from all around the world. Through polls on both Twitter and Instagram, I allow YOU to decide what country we will visit every month. This month’s choice was Japan.

Japan is a fascinating place with a rich culture of storytelling through various mediums, including kabuki (stage plays), bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry), and song. Japanese folklore is riddled with bone-chilling tales of monstrous creatures and terrifying ghosts (and I’m not just talking about Sadako, although she does make this list… kind of). I want to explore the Nihon Sandai Kaidan, Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories. They hail from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and feature a type of Japanese ghost called onryou – vengeful female spirits who have returned to the Earthly plane to exact revenge upon their murderers.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi‘s portrait of Oiwa.

Let us begin with the story of Oiwa, also known as Yotsuya Kaidan. First staged in 1825 as a double-feature kabuki, the play was wildly successful, credited with bringing ghost stories into the lives of the common people.

We meet the masterless (read: out of work) samurai Iemon and his devoted and supportive wife, Oiwa. While Oiwa is hard at work to provide for the family, Iemon befriends a wealthy doctor who eventually gives him an offer he can’t refuse. The doctor’s granddaughter becomes smitten with Iemon and demands to marry him. The doctor promises Iemon great wealth if he would marry his granddaughter, and Iemon cannot resist this temptation. There is just one problem – he is still married to Oiwa.

The doctor gives Iemon a poison which he gives to Oiwa discreetly every day. Some versions of the tale say it was a powdered poison, others describe it to be a face cream, deceptively said to prolong Oiwa’s devastating beauty. It does the opposite, of course, and day by day it causes Oiwa’s face to become disfigured and renders her sickly and frail. It is said that upon looking in the mirror and seeing her horrifying disfigurement, Oiwa died in a fit of shock and fright. With her dying breath, she cast a curse upon her husband and vowed to haunt him for the remainder of his days.

Iemon subsequently sees Oiwa’s hideous visage everywhere after her death; in passersby, lanterns, and mirrors. It is not long before Iemon descends into madness at the hand of Oiwa’s curse. As he should.

Oiwa’s tragic tale is often regarded as the most adapted Japanese folktale, having been filmed over 18 times between the years 1912 and 1937 alone. The most notable film adaptation is Shinto Studio’s 1959 version, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost of Yotsuya), directed by Nobuo Nakagawa.

An ukiyo-e print by Hokusai depicting Okiku

Next, let’s examine the tale of Okiku. It might not sound familiar, but it will in a moment. Trust me. Bancho Sarayashiki (The Dish Mansion) first appeared in 1741 as a bunraku (traditional Japanese puppetry performed in a theater). We meet a beautiful servant girl named Okiku who works for a wealthy samurai. The samurai falls in love with Okiku for her beauty but she spurns his many advances. Tired of being rejected, the samurai deceives (read: gaslights) Okiku into thinking she has lost the precious tenth plate of a special collection – a crime punishable by death.

Okiku counts the plates again and again; one through nine, ichi through kyuu; never finding the elusive tenth plate that the samurai has hidden from her. The Samurai offers Okiku leniency for her crime if she agrees to be his lover. Okiku refuses and the samurai flies into a fit of rage, beating Okiku and casting her down a well to her death.

Legend says her ghostly wails carry over the mansion grounds… “ichi… ni… san… shi… go… roku… shichi… hachi… kyuu…” emitting an ear-splitting screech when she reaches the end of her count and the place of the stolen tenth plate. It is said if you hear the counting all the way to kyuu (nine) then you are soon to meet your own grim fate…

The most popular film inspired by Okiku’s tale is The Ring (2002), directed by Gore Verbinski (though this film is a remake of the Japanese original, Ring, from 1998). Though Sadako’s origin varies from Okiku’s, their ghostly appearance, lust for revenge, and tragic manner of death are similar. Sadako and Okiku actually get to meet in the manga Sadako at the End of the World (2020) by Koma Natsumi.

Otsuyu and the Peony Lantern

The third and final tale of the Nihon Sandai Kaidan is the story of Otsuyu, Botan Doro (The Peony Lantern). The story originates from a 17th century Japanese translation of a Chinese book of ghost stories Jiandeng Xinhua (New Tales Under the Lamplight). It begins with a young couple that has fallen madly in love, Saburo and the radiantly beautiful Otsuyu. When Saburo falls ill, he is unable to see Otsuyu for many months. When he finally recovers and attempts to contact his love, Otsuyu’s aunt informs him that she has died. Saburo feverishly prays for Otsuyu, and eventually she appears at his doorstep with her maid, carrying a peony lantern to light their path.

The lovers commune each night in Saburo’s home, making passionate love until dawn. A nosy servant sneaks a peek inside Saburo’s bedchamber and finds him sleeping with the decaying body of a woman. Another rotting skeleton sits in the doorway holding – you guessed it – a peony lantern. With the help of a Buddhist priest, Saburo is taken to the graves of Otsuyu and her maid and is convinced of the haunting truth – it is her spirit coming to sleep with him every night, not her.

Saburo and the priest ward the ghosts away with ofuda (talismans), but they still linger just outside the door, wailing for Saburo with a lover’s longing. Saburo’s health rapidly declines and his servants, fearing that he will die without his beloved, remove the ofuda to allow Otsuyu and her maid to enter the house once more. Saburo is found the next morning, laying with Otsuyu’s skeleton, dead. Legend says his face was frozen in an expression of blissful ecstasy.

I hope you enjoyed this haunted jaunt into the world of Japanese folklore and ghost stories. There are countless urban legends and shadowy creatures lurking the streets of Japan that I hope to cover in a later article. For now, I leave you with Oiwa, Okiku, and Otsuyu, Japan’s three greatest girlbosses ghost stories.

If YOU want a say in what country’s folklore I write about, look for the polls on my Twitter (https://twitter.com/allisonkrebel) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/allisonkrebel/).

Reader beware, you’re in for a scare! Or not. Trick-or-treat, after all.

xo Allison

COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER:

Book cover art is used Pursuant to 17 U.S. Code § 107 under the “fair use” defense.

All other images are certified public domain.

SOURCES:

Matsuura, Theresa. “Japan’s Three Great Ghost Stories.” Sotheby’s, 30 Oct. 2019, https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/japans-three-great-ghost-stories.

“Yotsuya Kaidan”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yotsuya_Kaidan.

“Bancho Sarayashiki”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banch%C5%8D_Sarayashiki#Folk_version.

“Botan Doro”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botan_D%C5%8Dr%C5%8D.

Sacasas, Caitlin. “Japanese Numbers: Counting in Japanese from 1-100+”. Fluent in 3 Months, https://www.fluentin3months.com/japanese-numbers/.

Continue Reading