Baba Yaga – the Wild Old Witch in Slavic Folklore

In terms of infamy, there are very few characters in Slavic mythology that could boast of having a more intriguing appeal than Baba Yaga. When translated into English, Baba Yaga’s name means “grandmother” or “elderly woman”. For many centuries, the tales of Baba Yaga have been used to frighten children, more often done by adults as a last resort to get children into behaving properly.

In the folklore, Baba Yaga can either be helpful or maleficent. Thus she is a scary grandmother figure who is also capable of giving out very good advice and gifts when necessary. One thing was always constant though: No one dared mess with the wild old witch known as Baba Yaga.

Although her character can be a real paradox, as there is no single understanding of her, the common denominator is that: Her character is a completely fascinating and even a beloved one. For example, her house in the forest literally stands on two giant chicken legs.

What was so terrifying about Baba Yaga? What’s her origin story? And just how maleficent is this character in Slavic Folklore?

Below World History Edu explores all the tales, myths and popular stories about Baba Yaga, the terrifyingly old woman who is believed to kidnap and then eat her victims.

Baba Yaga – not your typical kind of witch

Baba Yega might have the usual outward appearance of how witches were portrayed in old folklore, i.e. old and disheveled looking woman with long finger nails; however, she a bit different. Instead of flying on a broom, she uses mortar or an iron kettle and pestle to fly.

Upon close inspection of the Slavic folklore about Baba Yaga, one quickly realizes that she is not your typical kind of witch with flying broom/mop and a pointed black hat. Instead Baba Yaga is said to travel on magical mortar and pestle that flies in the air. She uses the pestle as some kind of propellers. It’s also been said that she would cover the trail she left behind while flying.

Origins

Folklorists and scholars have stated that the character Baba Yaga goes all the way as far back as the Medieval era. This explains why it isn’t hard to come by Baba Yaga stories, as there are several thousands of them in Slavic folklore and other neighboring folklore in the region. As a result, she ranks up there as one of the most known characters in Slavic folklore.

It’s been stated that the first known documentation of a Baba Yaga story was in woodblock prints, which date back to the 17th century.

Baba Yaga’s name is mentioned in Russian scientist and poet Mikhail V. Lomonosov’s 1755 grammar book titled Rossiiskaia grammatika. In the book, the character Baba Yaga (Iaga baba) is mentioned twice as the author tries to find the equivalents of Roman gods in Slavic pantheon. Mikhail, perhaps not regarding Baba Yaga as a full-fledged deity, does not give the witch any counterpart in the Roman pantheon.

It is widely held that Vasilii Levshin’s 1780 collection – Russian Fairy Tales – contains the first narrative account of this character from Slavic folklore. In the collection, the author portrays her in the same light as in the oral traditions. She is said to be very deadly old woman with razor-sharp teeth and bear claws.

Baba Yaga remained largely a Russian and Slavic infamous character; however, beginning around the 19th century, the character started to gain some international prominence, as stories of her came to be read in other parts of Europe and beyond. Her spread beyond Russia and Slavic communities was buoyed on by the translations of Aleksandr Afanasyev’s Russian folktales.

Read More: List of Roman gods and goddesses and their Greek equivalents

Meaning of her name

In quite a number of eastern Slavic regions, the word “baba” was used for a married peasant woman of childbearing age or older. In some other case, the word is simply a babble word, mostly used by toddlers.

In Old Russian, however, the word “baba” was used for sorceresses and midwives and fortune-tellers.

It is also likely that the modern Russian word “babushka”, which means “grandmother”, emerged from the word “baba”. In Polish, the word babcia, which means “grandmother”, most likely came from the word “baba”.

In modern usage in Russia and Poland, baba can be seen as a colloquial derogatory term thrown at a difficult old woman. It therefore stands to reason that a witch like Baba Yaga in the folklore gets to be connected with such a derogatory word.

In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a hideous looking ogress with supernatural abilities who lives in a very dense forest. She is either seen as an evil witch who kidnaps and eats her victims, mostly children, or a wise old woman who helps people become better versions of themselves.

In some eastern European languages, baba is the name for “pelican”. This is probably why she was depicted with a long nose, as well as why her hut stands on chicken legs.

Regarding the word Yaga, its roots have been difficult to find. The commonly accepted view is that the word evokes something unpleasant, horrible or horrifying. In Russian language, it may evoke a meaning of “to ride”. In early Latin, yaga was related to the word for snake or serpent.

Association

It is not always the case that Baba Yaga is depicted as a hideous old and evil witch. She sometimes comforts and gives advice to the protagonists of the story. 

Baba Yaga, the old granny witch or evil “baba”, has been associated with an number of evil and good things. For example, she is associated with words for horror, rage, illness or diseases.

As a goddess, she has been associated with some ancient Slavic deities. It is believed that she is actually a goddess as she possesses supernatural powers, magical charms, and the power over life and death.

Can Baba Yaga fly?

In many of the Slavic myths about Baba Yaga, it is known that the wild old witch can indeed fly. As stated above, she uses her big pestle and mortar to fly. Her broom is then used to cover any trail she leaves behind.

The Devil’s grandma

Baba Yaga has sometimes been called the Devil’s grandmother. If this were the case, then the old witch at some point did indeed have children of her own. Her association with the devil features a number of times in the tales. She also sometimes seen as the companion of death on his numerous travels.

Baba Yaga’s house on the edge of the forest

Baba Yaga’s house is generally believed to be situated in a deep, dark forest. The house, which sits atop two giant chicken legs, is said to spin on a constant basis. It only stops to allow someone in when a magical phrase is used. Baba Yaga’s door can only be revealed a magical phrase is said.

Located in the remote part of her forest, Baba Yaga’s wooden hut is believed to be as hideous looking as the old witch herself. However, there have been some portrayals of her residing in a very magnificent mansion. Irrespective of a hut or a mansion, Baba Yaga’s home is often not ordinary so to speak. In the folklore, her home is usually supported by two massive chicken legs. This allows her to uproot the house and move wherever or whenever needed. In some cases, the support beams are goat legs or ram horns.

Placed firmly around Baba Yaga’s house is a fence made from human bones and skulls. The gate of the fence is made from men’s legs, while the bolts are made from human arms. And the lock on the fence gate is made from the teeth of a human jaw. To make matters worse, the house has no windows. Similarly the door is said to only open when a magical phrase has been uttered. The magical phrase goes as “turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” This depiction of Baba Yaga’s home reinforces the notion of her being a cannibal in the folklore.

The skulls on top the fence are placed there to warn off anyone who tries to trespass. Bare in mind, this old witch does not only eat children; she is known in the folklore to eat strangers that get lost in the forest and then wander into her lair.

Powers

Associated with dark forces and eating human flesh, Baba Yaga has massive powers over a number of things, including the weather, time, life, death and life. In many of the folklore stories, Baba Yaga’s presence is foreshadowed with whistling winds and howling trees.

Another very famous possession of Baba Yaga is her enchanted mirrors that are believed to turn into lakes of water. The comb that she uses is also believed to turn into forests. She also could turn her handkerchief or scarf into rivers. An alternative to her flying mortar is the flying carpet that she uses to great and terrifying efficiency. This old witch in Slavic folklore also has fire-breathing horses in the stable of her house.

Baba Yaga, when inside, has the ability to stretch herself from one corner of the hut to the other corner. She’s also been known as the guardian of the fountains of the water of life.

Depictions

Baba Yaga’s clothes are often ragged and dirty. Her teeth is long and is said to be made of iron. Image: Baba Yaga as depicted by Russian illustrator and stage designer Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin, 1900

Baba Yaga is commonly depicted as a tall, scrawny old woman, with some accounts of the myths stating that she has a very bony leg. There have been some that claim that her bony leg is literally a skeleton leg.

Her hair, just like her ragged clothes, is often unkempt; while her nose is said to be large and distorted. In some stories, it is said that when she lies down on the floor of her hut, her nose literally touches the ceiling. Some folklore stories claim that her long nose allows her to identify the people by scent.

Baba Yaga’s set of teeth is long and is believed to be made of iron. This feature of hers allows her to crash the bones of her victims with her bare teeth.

Epithets

Due to her paradoxical nature and sheer number of areas that she has been associated with, Baba Yaga She has gone by a number of epithets, including “bony leg” (Baba Iaga kostianaia noga), “the old woman in the woods”, and “the woman who resides in house fitted on a chicken legs”.

Is Baba Yaga blind?

There have been some stories in the folklore about Baba Yaga that the disheveled old witch is actually blind. Those stories claim that she makes up for her lack of vision with very sharp smell. As stated above, Baba Yaga has the power to identify people by their scent.

The complex nature of Baba Yaga

Scholars like Lithuana’s Marija Gimbutas and Russia’s Vladimir Yakovlevic Propp have pointed to how ambiguous Baba Yaga’s character can be. In some tales, she is completely evil and feasts on flesh and bones of the children she kidnaps; while in others she a some sort of wise and helpful old woman who nudges the protagonist to a fulfilled life. Image: Ivan Bilbin, Baba Yaga, illustration in 1911 from “The tale of the three royal divas and of Ivashka, the priest’s son”

Baba Yaga’s character is quite a complex one, with her being described as a paradox at best. In some stories, she offers help and advice to young people; in other stories, she is said to severely punish bad people. This is why folklorists like Russian scholar Vladimir Yakovlevic Propp described Baba Yaga as one who tests the protagonists in order to bring out the best out of them. Prop also noted that Baba Yaga can be an outright villain. Other authors also confirm the many-faceted nature of Baba Yaga, as she can be in one instance a child-eating monster and in the other instance a helpful, kind old woman who dishes out very good advice and even gifts.

Therefore, Baba Yaga could be a wide range of things in the folklore, ranging from a wise old grandmother to bone breaker, or a helper to an evil witch. In some tales, she is all of those things.

Baba Yaga’s sisters

In some accounts, Baba Yaga is said to have sisters, two sisters usually. In one tale of the Russian ethnographer and folklorist Alexander Afanasyev’s 19th century collection of folk tales, the protagonist Ivan is said to visit one of the three Baba Yagas.

Death’s companion

In some of the tales which were collected in the 19th century by Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, Baba Yaga dies in the end; however, she rises again, leaving many to believe that she might be immortal. Similarly, it’s been said that she is the companion of death on his numerous travels.

More Baba Yaga facts

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga

Perhaps the reason why her house sits on two giant chicken legs has to do with the kind of store houses some Slavic communities used back then. To stop animal foraging, houses were placed on top of tree stumps. It’s likely Baba Yaga’s house image came from this tradition. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for some Slavic communities to place the dead on wooden platforms raise up on poles. This allowed the corpses to dry out so that the bones could be preserved. Those imagery probably had an influence on the depiction of Baba Yaga’s house.

The use of mortar and pestle in the olden days was associated with with women, as those items were important in making of food, grain, and medicine. It therefore stands to reason that the go-to choice of transportation for a witch like Baba Yaga became those items.

During the hay days of the Soviet Union, Baba Yaga stories were used as a form of socialist propaganda, as traits such as problem solving, hard work, and courage featured prominently in the themes of Baba Yaga stories.

In old Slavic communities, it is likely that the tales of Baba Yaga featured often whenever folktales (Skazka) are  told during feasts, dinners, or weddings.

She is one of the most known figures in eastern European folklore. She is certainly one of the most famous witches in the Slavic folktales and beyond. She is known to make appearances in several tens of thousands of folktales from Eastern European, including Belarus, Latvia, Russia, and among others.

Russian polymath Mikhail V. Lomonosov did not state what the Slavic character/goddess Baba Yaga’s equivalent in Roman mythology would. It can be inferred from her traits and character that the Greek goddess Hecate would most likely be Baba Yaga’s equivalent. Like Baba Yaga, Hecate is associated with a wide range of things, including witchcraft, sorcery, magic, night, knowledge of herbs, necromancy, and among others.

Between the the late 17th and early 18th century in Russia, Baba Yaga and her tales featured on a number of lubki, a popular print that comes in simple graphics with their narrative derived from popular tales and religious stories and literature. In one lubok, Baba Yaga is shown dancing with a bald man playing the bagpipe. Some authors have stated that the authors of the lubok were trying to depict Peter the Great of Russia and his wife Catherine I.

In modern times, Baba Yaga stories have appeared in quite a number of popular culture, including films, video games, television shows, and among others. For example, she features in the Hellboy comics.

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