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