Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books

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Russian Fairy Tales

Baba Yaga


Baba Yaga is an old witch in Russian Lore who flies around on a giant mortar and pestle, kidnapping and devouring children. She lives in a hut which stands on a pair of giant chicken legs. Although Russian superstition tends to paint her as an evil demonic figure there has been some speculation that she was originally a good character. I would argue that it seems more likely that she is an internally dualistic figure, being both good and evil depending on the situation. On the one had she is often the villain, an ugly old children devouring hag. On the other hand she is the one who provides aid acting as the donor to the hero so that they may retrieve a lost lover. This is a concept which we see repeatedly with fairy like creatures (those creatures which control human fate), that they are good or bad depending on the situation and their mood.
 It has been proposed that Baba Yaga is a remnant of a wind spirit, that she storms through the forest causing the trees to buckle. Such a role would put her in line with the Russian Frost and or with the Wind of European Fairy Tales. Both these characters attack the weak but leave those acting strong and brave alone. Thus if one approaches them boldly just as the Prince in the “Frog Princess” approached Baba Yaga boldly calling her “Grandmother” Baba Yaga will treat them well. The term Grandmother is significant because the wind will at times act as a Grandparent towards those seeking love or those who are hard working or possibly pure of heart. Of course while there is some belief that nature will choose its victims there is also some understanding that it can strike anyone at any time. This then is likely the root of Baba Yaga’s dualistic nature, for on the one hand the wind may blow in warm weather during the winter or cool breezes in the summer heat, wind brings the rain which waters the crops. However wind also brings storms, blizzards, floods, etc. Thus if we are to believe that Baba Yaga is related to the Wind or to nature in some way we must understand that as with all natural phenomenon she is both good and bad.

The Baba within Baba Yaga’s name means “Old Woman” or “Grandmother” in Russian, Bulgarian, Polish and Japanese. Thus the term “Baba” is often used in these regions for witch like figures. 

In Russian tales Baba Yaga is a monstrous hag who lives in a log cabin of birch which is surrounded by a palisade with a skull on each pole and a fence made of human bones. Its door often remains hidden until one says to it: “Turn your back to the forest, and turn your front to me.” Once this phrase is uttered the door appears with a keyhole filled with sharp teeth. The phrase used to make Baba Yaga’s door appear is interesting and leads one to wonder what it’s meaning and origins are. If we are to accept Baba Yaga as a nature spirit of some form then we can see this term as a request for her to turn away from her duties, away from the forest for a moment, or perhaps as a request for entrance into the secret natural world of which she is a part. Certainly her hut is connected with nature spirits as in some tales it has three riders around it; one white who is the day, another Red who is the sun, and one in black who is the Night. Clearly then she travels and lives with nature spirits, it’s interesting to note, however, that she isn’t traveling with heat and cold as the wind does. Rather Baba Yaga travels with the day, the sun, and the night. Leaving one to wonder where the moon is and if perhaps the assertion that she is the wind is wrong. Perhaps Baba Yaga is instead the moon? Certainly one can say that the moon would be both loved and feared, good and evil. Still unlike the other riders when Baba Yaga leaves her home in the dark forests she doesn’t leave on a horse like the other riders, rather she flies through the air in a giant mortar using a bestle as a rudder while sweeping away her trail with a broom of silver birch. Silver birch was used in Finland to relax the muscles in a sauna. 
Purity is important to Baba Yaga, as is politeness. Thus to approach her one must be pure and polite. Baba Yaga will help those who are pure and polite by answering their questions, though  she is loath to do so for she ages with each question she’s asked. However as with many immortal figures in Indo-European mythology she can reverse the effects of aging with a magical plant; in this case a tea made from blue roses.

Bába Yaga 3. She is a supernatural being, who is generally represented under the form of a hideous old woman, very tall in stature, very bony of limb, with an excessively long nose, and with dishevelled hair. Her nose is sometimes described as being of iron, as also are her long pendant breasts and her strong sharp teeth. As she lies in her but she often " stretches across from one corner to the other, and her nose goes right through the ceiling." Her usual habitation is a cottage [izba, dim. izbushka] which stands "on fowls' legs," that is, on slender supports. The door looks towards the forest, but when the hut is adjured, in the right words it turns round, so that its back is towards the forest and its front towards the person addressing it. Sometimes, however, the Baba Yaga lives in a larger building, round which stands a fence made of the bones of the people she has eaten, and tipped with their skulls. The uprights of the gates are human legs, the bolts are human arms, and" instead of a lock there is a mouth with sharp teeth."

When the Baba Yaga goes abroad, she rides in an iron mortar. This she propels with the pestle, a sort
of club, and as she goes she sweeps away the traces of her passage with a broom. According to some stories the Sun, the Day, and the Night are her servants, trunkless bands wait upon her, the elements fulfil her behests. She possesses a magic cudgel, a single wave of which suffices to turn any living creature into stone, and she can always avail herself of "fire-breathing horses," of "courier, [i. e., seven-leagued] boots," of "self-playing gusli," of a "self-cutting sword," and a "self-flying carpet." With all these means and appliances she is able to secure many, victims, whom she cooks and eats, often stealing children for her table, often supplying it also with belated travellers.

The White-Russians declare that the Baba Yaga flies through the sky in a fiery mortar, which she urges on with a burning broom, and that, during the time of her flight, the winds howl, the earth groans, and the trees writhe and crack. At such times she greatly resembles the Fiery Snake, which plays a leading part in the Slavonic stories, and, indeed, the Baba-yaga and the Snake often appear to be identical personages, different versions of the same narrative employing sometimes the one name and sometimes the other for the same mythical being.

In the Ukraine the flying witch is usually called a snake; in a Slovak tale the Sons of a Baba Yaga are described as "baneful snakes." One of the tastes which characterize the snake of fable is sometimes attributed to the Baba Yaga also. She is supposed "to love to suck the white breasts of
beautiful women." Like the Snake, also, she keeps guard over and knows the use of the founts of "Living Water"--that water which cures wounds and restores the dead to life.

Sometimes three Baba Yagas are mentioned in a story. In that case they are usually three sisters who, in spite of their name, are not of an unkindly nature, and who assist the "fairy prince" or other hero of the tale, giving him good advice, and bestowing upon him magic presents. These seem to be connected with the "Prophetesses," or "Wise Women," who were looked upon with so much honour in the old days of heathenism, and who became degraded into vulgar witches under the influence of Christianity. But, as a general rule, the Baba Yaga is described as a being utterly malevolent, and always hungering after human flesh. According to some traditions she even feeds on the souls of the dead. The White-Russians, for instance, affirm that "Death gives the dead to the Baba Yaga, with whom she often goes prowling about. And that the Baba Yaga and her subordinate witches feed on the souls of people, and by that means become as light as spirits 4."
In some places, when the wind bows down the ears of corn the peasants say that the Baba Yaga is running after children, with the intention of blinding
them or pounding them in an iron churn. Cornfields are specially haunted by the Baba Yaga, in remembrance of whom, perhaps, the last sheaf in harvest-time is dressed up in woman's clothes, and called the Jitnaya Baba--"the Corn-woman,"-answering to the German Kornpuppe, the Grosse Mutter or Die Alte of the harvest-home. Russian critics are inclined to identify the Baba Yaga with Holda or Bertha--or, at least, with the unfavourable representations of those once kindly deities. The "wild," "iron" and "long-nosed" Bertha [Frau Precht mit der langen Nase] seems, indeed, to have many points in common with the Baba Yaga, especially as the latter is frequently represented as spinning. The Servian Baba Yaga, known as the "Iron Tooth," carries about live coals in a pitcher, and burns the distaffs of lazy spinners. To the mythologists the Baba Yaga appears to be an impersonification of the spirit of the storm. When she tears her way through the forest, making the trees writhe and howl as she passes, and sweeping away the traces of her progress with a broom, she is looked upon as the whirlwind. When as "a black cloud" she chases fugitive heroes, she seems to be the thunder-cloud which threatens to blot out the light of day.

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Fairies, Fairy Tales, Fairy Books