“There on the stove, on the ninth brick, lay a bony-legged baba yaga. Her nose had grown into the ceiling and the snot from it was hanging across the threshold. She had slung her tits up over a hook and was sharpening her teeth”
Baba Yaga is one of the scariest creatures you’ll encounter in a Russian folktale. She is still used today as an effective method to persuade Russian children to go to bed.
Baba Yaga has long grey hair, which she wears loose without a headscarf, which was considered rather indecent in old Russia. She wears a dress without a girdle*, another sign of her unchristian ways. Sometimes she only has one tooth, a fang, and sometimes her teeth are made of iron. She is often found sharpening her tooth/teeth, presumably preparing to eat little children or the hero of the tale. Although she does not usually end up eating the hero, there is strong evidence that she does eat humans, such as the fence surrounding her house being made of bones. And speaking of bones, one of her legs is ‘bony’, dead. She is also very large, she barely fits inside her hut.
The Hut on Chicken Legs
“Foo Foo! I smell the blood of a Russian! Who is it?”
She lives in a hut on chicken legs in the forest. When the hero reaches the hut, it is usually facing the other way, and he or she has to order it to turn: “Little hut, little hut, turn your face towards me and your back to the forest”. All the heroes seem to know this. “It [the hut] was surrounded by a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth”. No doubt this fence was meant to warn off and keep out unwanted visitors, although again the hero knows how to get through anyway. Baba Yaga is then often found lying inside the hut, a terrifying sight. She does not notice the hero entering, until she smells their “Russian soul”, her sense of smell being better than her eyesight.
On the edge of the forest
Baba Yaga’s hut is always on the border of another world, in the forest, by the sea, or in an empty field. This location is significant, it indicates a connection with the world of the dead. Baba Yaga, or the ‘bone-legged one’, could have one leg in the world of the dead. In fairytales the forest is always a place of transition; the hero, if he manages to come out alive, comes out transformed.
Mortar and pestle
Baba Yaga has several well known attributes: a mortar, a pestle, a broom and a stove. She pursues her victims in her mortar: “Then the forest was filled with a terrible noise. The trees creaked and cracked, the dead leaves crackled and crunched – and there was the baba yaga. She was riding on her mortar, spurring it on with her pestle and sweeping away her tracks with a broom”.
Baba Yaga’s role in the fairy tale
Baba Yaga can have a wide range of roles in the folktale: the giver, the kidnapper, the warrior, the helper and much more. The hero, as in most fairytales, is in a transitional stage and needs her help. In order to get it, he or she has to know how to behave (politely) with Baba Yaga and sometimes trick her a bit. Baba Yaga’s first instinct is usually to eat the hero, but if the hero passes all the tests that she sets for him or her, she reluctantly helps the hero and passes on some useful knowledge or wealth. The hero escapes or is released as a new person.
In a broader sense she is seen as a witch, as someone between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and as a goddess of the forest. Her attributes, the stove and mortar and pestle are strongly associated with the cult of the hearth (going back to the Roman goddess Vesta and her Greek equivalent Hestia).
Baba Yaga’s name
The first part of her name means ‘married peasant woman’, but there is no conclusive answer to the meaning of the second part. Possibly ‘yaga’ used to mean ‘terrible’ in Russian, but it’s also possible that it is related to the Russian verb ‘yekhat’’ meaning ‘to ride’ or to the German word ‘Jaeger’, meaning ‘hunter’. The name is not always capitalised, and there can be more than one baba yaga in a tale. Just imagine several baba yagas raging through the forest in their mortars.
Good or bad?
At first sight Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who chases little children in her flying mortar. But if you know how to handle her, she can turn into a helpful and generous person. Very much like the forest which can be a dangerous place for those who do not know how to deal with it, but for those who know it’s a source of wealth. And so Baba Yaga is neither good nor bad, but always terrifying.
*The girdle, ‘poyas, пояс’ protects against evil spirits, some readers may remember that Pushkin’s Tatyana took hers off before going to bed, in order to conjure a prophetic dream.
All quotes are from the wonderful Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics)
Baba Yaga illustration by Ivan Bilibin.
Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021