Baba Yaga

babayaga
Ivan Bilibin 1899

Baba Yaga is the ubiquitous Slavic folktale witch of the forest. She is most often described as living in a hut that stands on chicken legs, or sometimes a single chicken leg, and the hut often revolves. She is often said to travel through the forest in a mortar and pestle, sweeping the way with her broom. She is unusual, as far as the general idea of fairy tale witches go, in that she can be both helpful or harmful, or sometimes both. She will just as soon feed a traveler and give them directions as she will cook and eat a child (especially if they are bad and unkind). Andreas Johns describes her as “ambiguous” in his book “Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch in Russian Folktale” (2004 Peter Lang Publishing) and points out that in the older tales about her, she is more often shown as helpful, as opposed to the later stories that almost always show her as harmful.

 

ivan bilibin vasilisa
Ivan Bilibin 1899

Baba Yaga has many animal associations, including owls and snakes, and is considered a “mistress of the forest”. She can appear in a triple aspect, i.e. with sisters, and she can also have daughters. She is associated with death, and the fence in front of her hut is often made of human bones. She gives a glowing human skull to a heroine (Vasilisa the Beautiful) to light her way through the forest. This connection to death also makes her an agent of transformation and passage—and Johns’ book discusses her in the context of a possible initiation facilitator.

She is altogether a fascinating and compelling character and she has transcended her cultural boundaries. People of all kinds of backgrounds know of her and are compelled to make art about her—myself included.

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