THE BABA YAGA
A Russian Fairy Tale Story
Once upon a time there was an old couple. The husband lost
his wife and married again. But he had a daughter by the first
marriage, a young girl, and she found no favor in the eyes of
her evil stepmother, who used to beat her, and consider how she
could get her killed outright. One day the father went away
somewhere or other, so the stepmother said to the girl, "Go to
your aunt, my sister, and ask her for a needle and thread to make
you a shift."
Now that aunt was a Baba Yaga. Well, the girl was no fool,
so she went to a real aunt of hers first, and says she:
"Good morning, auntie!"
"Good morning, my dear! what have you come for?"
"Mother has sent me to her sister, to ask for a needle and
thread to make me a shift."
Then her aunt instructed her what to do. "There is a birch-tree
there, niece, which would hit you in the eye--you must tie
a ribbon round it; there are doors which would creak and bang--you
must pour oil on their hinges; there are dogs which would
tear you in pieces--you must throw them these rolls; there is a
cat which would scratch your eyes out--you must give it a piece
So the girl went away, and walked and walked, till she came
to the place. There stood a hut, and in it sat weaving the Baba
Yaga, the Bony-shanks.
"Good morning, auntie," says the girl.
"Good morning, my dear," replies the Baba Yaga.
"Mother has sent me to ask you for a needle and thread to
make me a shift."
"Very well; sit down and weave a little in the meantime."
So the girl sat down behind the loom, and the Baba Yaga
went outside, and said to her servant-maid:
"Go and heat the bath, and get my niece washed; and mind
you look sharp after her. I want to breakfast off her."
Well, the girl sat there in such a fright that she was as much
dead as alive. Presently she spoke imploringly to the servant-maid,
"Kinswoman dear, do please wet the firewood instead of
making it burn; and fetch the water for the bath in a sieve."
And she made her a present of a handkerchief.
The Baba Yaga waited awhile; then she came to the window
"Are you weaving, niece? are you weaving, my dear?"
"Oh yes, dear aunt, I'm weaving." So the Baba Yaga went
away again, and the girl gave the Cat a piece of bacon, and
"Is there no way of escaping from here?"
"Here's a comb for you and a towel," said the Cat; "take
them, and be off. The Baba Yaga will pursue you, but you must
lay your ear on the ground, and when you hear that she is close
at hand, first of all throw down the towel. It will become a wide,
wide river. And if the Baba Yaga gets across the river, and
tries to catch you, then you must lay your ear on the ground
again, and when you hear that she is close at hand, throw down
the comb. It will become a dense, dense forest; through that
she won't be able to force her way anyhow."
The girl took the towel and the comb and fled. The dogs
would have rent her, but she threw them the rolls, and they let
her go by; the doors would have begun to bang, but she poured
oil on their hinges, and they let her pass through; the birch-tree
would have poked her eyes out, but she tied the ribbon around
it, and it let her pass on. And the Cat sat down to the loom,
and worked away; muddled everything about, if it didn't do
much weaving. Up came the Baba Yaga to the window, and
"Are you weaving, niece? are you weaving, my dear?"
"I'm weaving, dear aunt, I'm weaving," gruffly replied the
The Baba Yaga rushed into the hut, saw that the girl was
gone, and took to beating the Cat, and abusing it for not having
scratched the girl's eyes out. "Long as I've served you," said
the Cat, "you've never given me so much as a bone; but she
gave me bacon." Then the Baba Yaga pounced upon the dogs,
on the doors, on the birch-tree, and on the servant-maid, and set
to work to abuse them all, and to knock them about. Then the
dogs said to her, "Long as we've served you, you've never so
much as pitched us a burnt crust; but she gave us rolls to eat."
And the doors said, "Long as we've served you, you've never
poured even a drop of water on our hinges; but she poured oil
on us." The birch-tree said, "Long as I've served you, you've
never tied a single thread round me; but she fastened a ribbon
around me." And the servant-maid said, "Long as I've served
you, you've never given me so much as a rag; but she gave me
The Baba Yaga, bony of limb, quickly jumped into her
mortar, sent it flying along with the pestle, sweeping away the
while all traces of its flight with a broom, and set off in pursuit
of the girl. Then the girl put her ear to the ground, and when
she heard that the Baba Yaga was chasing her, and was now
close at hand, she flung down the towel. And it became a wide,
such a wide river! Up came the Baba Yaga to the river, and
gnashed her teeth with spite; then she went home for her oxen,
and drove them to the river. The oxen drank up every drop of
the river, and then the Baba Yaga began the pursuit anew.
But the girl put her ear to the ground again, and when she heard
that the Baba Yaga was near, she flung down the comb, and
instantly a forest sprang up, such an awfully thick one! The
Baba Yaga began gnawing away at it, but however hard she
worked, she couldn't gnaw her way through it, so she had to go
But by this time the girl's father had returned home, and he
"Where's my daughter?"
"She's gone to her aunt's," replied her stepmother.
Soon afterwards the girl herself came running home.
"Where have you been?" asked her father.
"Ah, father!" she said, "mother sent me to aunt's to ask
for a needle and thread to make me a shift. But aunt's a Baba
Yaga, and she wanted to eat me!"
"And how did you get away, daughter?"
"Why like this," said the girl, and explained the whole
matter. As soon as her father had heard all about it, he became
wroth with his wife, and shot her. But he and his daughter
lived on and flourished, and everything went well with them.
In one of the numerous variants of this story the heroine is sent
by her husband's mother to the Baba Yaga's, and the advice which saves
her comes from her husband. The Baba Yaga goes into another room "in
order to sharpen her teeth," and while she is engaged in that
operation the girl escapes, having previously--by the advice of the
Cat, to which she had given a lump of butter--spat under the
threshold. The spittle answers for her in her absence, behaving as do,
in other folk-tales, drops of blood, or rags dipped in blood, or
apples, or eggs, or beans, or stone images, or wooden puppets.
The magic comb and towel, by the aid of which the girl effects her
escape, constantly figure in Skazkas of this class, and always produce
the required effect. A brush, also, is frequently introduced, from
each bristle of which springs up a wood. In one story, however, the
brush gives rise to mountains, and a _golik_, or bath-room whisk,
turns into a forest. The towel is used, also, for the purpose of
constructing or annihilating a bridge. Similar instruments are found
in the folk-tales of every land, whether they appear as the brush,
comb, and mirror of the German water-sprite; or the rod, stone,
and pitcher of water of the Norse Troll; or the knife, comb, and
handful of salt which, in the Modern Greek story, save Asterinos and
Pulja from their fiendish mother; or the twig, the stone, and the
bladder of water, found in the ear of the filly, which saves her
master from the Gaelic giant; or the brush, comb, and egg, the
last of which produces a frozen lake with "mirror-smooth" surface,
whereon the pursuing Old Prussian witch slips and breaks her
neck; or the wand which causes a river to flow and a mountain to
rise between the youth who waves it and the "wicked old Rakshasa" who
chases him in the Deccan story; or the handful of earth, cup of
water, and dry sticks and match, which impede and finally destroy the
Rakshasa in the almost identical episode of Somadeva's tale of "The
Prince of Varddhamana."
In each instance they appear to typify the influence which the
supernatural beings to whom they belonged were supposed to exercise
over the elements. It has been thought strange that such stress should
be laid on the employment of certain toilet-articles, to the use of
which the heroes of folk-tales do not appear to have been greatly
addicted. But it is evident that like produces like in the
transformation in question. In the oldest form of the story, the
Sanskrit, a handful of earth turns into a mountain, a cup of water
into a river. Now, metaphorically speaking, a brush may be taken as a
miniature wood; the common use of the term brushwood is a proof of the
general acceptance of the metaphor. A comb does not at first sight
appear to resemble a mountain, but its indented outline may have
struck the fancy of many primitive peoples as being a likeness to a
serrated mountain range. Thence comes it that in German _Kamm_ means
not only a comb but also (like the Spanish _Sierra_) a mountain ridge
In one of the numerous stories about the Baba Yaga, four heroes
are wandering about the world together; when they come to a dense
forest in which a small izba, or hut, is twirling round on "a fowl's
leg." Ivan, the youngest of the party, utters the magical formula
"Izbushka, Izbushka! stand with back to the forest and front towards
us," and "the hut faces towards them, its doors and windows open of
their own accord." The heroes enter and find it empty. One of the
party then remains indoors, while the rest go out to the chase. The
hero who is left alone prepares a meal, and then, "after washing his
head, sits down by the window to comb his hair." Suddenly a stone is
lifted, and from under it appears a Baba Yaga, driving in her mortar,
with a dog yelping at her heels. She enters the hut and, after some
short parley, seizes her pestle, and begins beating the hero with it
until he falls prostrate. Then she cuts a strip out of his back, eats
up the whole of the viands he has prepared for his companions, and
disappears. After a time the beaten hero recovers his senses, "ties up
his head with a handkerchief," and sits groaning until his comrades
return. Then he makes some excuse for not having got any supper ready
for them, but says nothing about what has really happened to him.
On the next day the second hero is treated in the same manner by the
Baba Yaga, and on the day after that the third undergoes a similar
humiliation. But on the fourth day it falls to the lot of the young
Ivan to stay in the hut alone. The Baba Yaga appears as usual, and
begins thumping him with her pestle; but he snatches it from her,
beats her almost to death with it, cuts three strips out of her back,
and then locks her up in a closet. When his comrades return, they are
surprised to find him unhurt, and a meal prepared for them, but they
ask no questions. After supper they all take a bath, and then Ivan
remarks that each of his companions has had a strip cut out of his
back. This leads to a full confession, on hearing which Ivan "runs to
the closet, takes those strips out of the Baba Yaga, and applies them
to their backs," which immediately become cured. He then hangs up the
Baba Yaga by a cord tied to one foot, at which cord all the party
shoot. At length it is severed, and she drops. As soon as she touches
the ground, she runs to the stone from under which she had appeared,
lifts it, and disappears.
The rest of the story is very similar to that of "Norka," which has
already been given, only instead of the beast of that name we have the
Baba Yaga, whom Ivan finds asleep, with a magic sword at her head.
Following the advice of her daughters, three fair maidens whom he
meets in her palace, Ivan does not attempt to touch the magic sword
while she sleeps. But he awakes her gently, and offers her two golden
apples on a silver dish. She lifts her head and opens her mouth,
whereupon he seizes the sword and cuts her head off. As is usual in
the stories of this class, his comrades, after hoisting the maidens
aloft, cut the cord and let him fall back into the abyss. But he
escapes, and eventually "he slays all the three heroes, and flings
their bodies on the plain for wild beasts to devour." This Skazka is
one of the many versions of a widespread tale, which tells how the
youngest of a party, usually consisting of three persons, overcomes
some supernatural foe, generally a dwarf, who had been more than a
match for his companions. The most important of these versions is the
Lithuanian story of the carpenter who overcomes a Laume--a being in
many respects akin to the Baba Yaga--who has proved too strong for his
comrades, Perkun and the Devil.
The practice of cutting strips from an enemy's back is frequently
referred to in the Skazkas--much more frequently than in the German
and Norse stories. It is not often that such strips are turned to good
account, but in the Skazka with which we have just been dealing, Ivan
finding the rope by which he is being lowered into the abyss too
short, ties to the end of it the three strips he has cut from the Baba
Yaga's back, and so makes it sufficiently long. They are often exacted
as the penalty of losing a wager, as well in the Skazkas as
elsewhere. In a West-Slavonian story about a wager of this kind,
the winner cuts off the loser's nose. In the Gaelic stories it is
not an uncommon incident for a man to have "a strip of skin cut off
him from his crown to his sole."
The Baba Yaga generally kills people in order to eat them. Her house
is fenced about with the bones of the men whose flesh she has
devoured; in one story she offers a human arm, by way of a meal, to a
girl who visits her. But she is also represented in one of the
stories as petrifying her victims. This trait connects her with
Medusa, and the three sister Baba Yagas with the three Gorgones. The
Russian Gorgo's method of petrifaction is singular. In the story
referred to, Ivan Devich (Ivan the servant-maid's son) meets a Baba
Yaga, who plucks one of her hairs, gives it to him, and says, "Tie
three knots and then blow." He does so, and both he and his horse turn
into stone. The Baba Yaga places them in her mortar, pounds them to
bits, and buries their remains under a stone. A little later comes
Ivan Devich's comrade, Prince Ivan. Him also the Yaga attempts to
destroy, but he feigns ignorance, and persuades her to show him how to
tie knots and to blow. The result is that she becomes petrified
herself. Prince Ivan puts her in her own mortar, and proceeds to pound
her therein, until she tells him where the fragments of his comrade
are, and what he must do to restore them to life.
The Baba Yaga usually lives by herself, but sometimes she appears in
the character of the house-mother. One of the Skazkas relates how
a certain old couple, who had no children, were advised to get a
number of eggs from the village--one from each house--and to place
them under a sitting hen. From the forty-one eggs thus obtained and
treated are born as many boys, all but one of whom develop into strong
men, but the forty-first long remains a poor weak creature, a kind of
"Hop-o'-my-thumb." They all set forth to seek brides, and eventually
marry the forty-one daughters of a Baba Yaga. On the wedding night she
intends to kill her sons-in-law; but they, acting on the advice of him
who had been the weakling of their party, but who has become a mighty
hero, exchange clothes with their brides before "lying down to sleep."
Accordingly the Baba Yaga's "trusty servants" cut off the heads of her
daughters instead of those of her sons-in-law. Those youths arise,
stick the heads of their brides on iron spikes all round the house,
and gallop away. When the Baba Yaga awakes in the morning, looks out
of the window, and sees her daughters' heads on their spikes, she
flies into a passion, calls for "her burning shield," sets off in
pursuit of her sons-in-law, and "begins burning up everything on all
four sides with her shield." A magic, bridge-creating kerchief,
however, enables the fugitives to escape from their irritated
In one story the heroine is ordered to swing the cradle in which
reposes a Baba Yaga's infant son, whom she is ordered to address in
terms of respect when she sings him lullabies; in others she is told
to wash a Baba Yaga's many children, whose appearance is usually
unprepossessing. One girl, for instance, is ordered by a Baba Yaga to
heat the bath, but the fuel given her for the purpose turns out to be
dead men's bones. Having got over this difficulty, thanks to the
advice of a sparrow which tells her where to look for wood, she is
sent to fetch water in a sieve. Again the sparrow comes to her rescue
telling her to line the sieve with clay. Then she is told to wait upon
the Baba Yaga's children in the bath-room. She enters it, and
presently in come "worms, frogs, rats, and all sorts of insects."
These, which are the Baba Yaga's children, she soaps over and
otherwise treats in the approved Russian-bath style, and afterwards
she does as much for their mother. The Baba Yaga is highly pleased,
calls for a "samovar" (or urn), and invites her young bath-woman to
drink tea with her. And finally she sends her home with a blue coffer,
which turns out to be full of money. This present excites the cupidity
of her stepmother, who sends her own daughter to the Baba Yaga's,
hoping that she will bring back a similar treasure. The Baba Yaga
gives the same orders as before to the new-comer, but that conceited
young person fails to carry them out. She cannot make the bones burn,
nor the sieve hold water, but when the sparrow offers its advice she
only boxes its ears. And when the "rats, frogs, and all manner of
vermin," enter the bath-room, "she crushed half of them to death,"
says the story; "the rest ran home, and complained about her to their
mother." And so the Baba Yaga, when she dismisses her, gives her a red
coffer instead of a blue one. Out of it, when it is opened, issues
fire, which cosumes both her and her mother.
Similar to this story in many of its features as well as in its
catastrophe is one of the most spirited and dramatic of all the
Skazkas, that of--