Who is Baba Yaga?

By Roberta Attanasio

Somewhere in eastern Europe, where the winters are cold and long, there is a very dark, foreboding forest. If you’re brave or foolish enough to wander through the towering trees, you might encounter Baba Yaga. She is a mythical creature, a wild old woman omnipresent in Slavic folklore, a nature-deity, a quintessential fairytale pagan hero who plays roles of earth mother and death guardian. She’s therefore ambiguous, and can be at the same time awful and full of awe. She is also a transcultural figure, appreciated all around the world—there are restaurants named Baba Yaga across continents, from Houston, Texas, to Tel Aviv, Israel; from Cleveland, Ohio, to Richmond, New Zealand.

Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Baba Yaga is the Russian name of this creature, but she’s called differently by different Slavic cultures. The historian and scholar Alexander Afanasyev—who in the 1800’s published hundreds of Russian folk tales and fairy tales—tells us that Baba Yaga flies through the sky in a fiery mortar, propelling it with a pestle while the winds blow and the trees groan, writhe and crack. She sweeps away the traces of her passage with a broom made of silver birch. Baba Yaga owns fast-moving clouds, heavy thunderstorms, and bolts of lightning, and keeps at her service fire-breathing horses, seven-league boots, and a self-flying carpet. And, of course, she owns a self-playing gusli. The gusli is the oldest and most Russian musical instrument. Long-bearded seniors told their legends accompanied by the calm gusli music—its sound transported people in imaginary forests. Russian fairy tale characters play music on gusli and, with its help, defeat enemies, making them dance until the end.

Where do fairy tales’ heroes go to find Baba Yaga? We all know that, in fairy tales, houses are more than just houses—they are dwellings inhabited by secrets and dreams. Baba Yaga dwelling is a log cabin-style hut perched atop a pair of giant, moving, dancing chicken legs. The hut moves around on these legs, and the Baba Yaga does not hesitate to ask the hut to turn around when she needs it to. Researcher Evgenia Ivanova points out that the Baba Yaga resides in the deep forest which, in Slavic mythology, is the entrance to the underworld. The underworld consists of two layers—the one in the ground, where the ancestors remain, and the other below the ground, where the demon spirits live.

In some fairytales, Baga Yaga, while guarding the entrance to the realm of the ancestors, helps a hero—who stumbles upon the chicken-legged hut—to sneak into the lower layer. Therefore, she performs rituals of passage, consisting mostly of a steam bath and a meal containing mushrooms. These rituals guide seekers on their quests to die under one guise in “ignorance” to then be resurrected under another as an initiate “possessing secret knowledge.” In other words, Baba Yaga is the mediator between two worlds. She is a priestess, a teacher, mentor and the oracle of sacral pagan knowledge of Life and Death.  

Most people have heard of “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” the most famous fairy tale featuring Baba Yaga. The story, which often is also considered the most famous Russian fairy tale, tells of a young girl left with a magical doll by her dying mother, who vows that the doll will look after her in difficult times. Vasilisa’s father remarries a cruel woman with two daughters—Vasilisa’s stepsisters. The woman sends her stepdaughter on an errand to the witch Baba Yaga, expecting her never to return. In this story, Baba Yaga plays the roles of trickster, monster, and savior. With the help of her magical doll, Vasilisa passes Baba Yaga’s tests and earns the twin totems of Ever After: revenge on her tormentors—stepmother and stepsisters—and a rich, handsome prince.

Evgenia Ivanova maintains that Baba Yaga is a cultural hero—a profound archaic, archetypical religious character who has an influence on contemporary religious mythology and is a mediator between the “diurnal” and “nocturnal” worlds. It’s not surprising, then, that Baba Yaga is the protagonist of contemporary fairy tales retellings, as for example the story by Anthea Bell or Stanton Wood’s “Magical Forest of Baba Yaga,” a family show which unfolds in in the urban jungle of Brooklyn where a fast-talking real estate agent is transformed into a bear by the witch Baba Yaga.

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