Often considered the witch from the Russian Fairy Tales, Baba Yaga can be a formidable character, threatening to eat young children or cut off the head of the hero. But if we look deeper, she is also a great agent of change and purpose, challenging us to be the complex individuals we are meant to be.
“In some ways, she is that fierce part of the Divine Feminine that is willing to destroy what is simple and still thinking in ‘black & white.’ She challenges us to intrigue her, to find the third answer when only two choices are offered, to show that we have learned something when we walked ‘alone’ in the forest.”
In Russian tales, Baba Yaga is portrayed as a hag who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder and sweeping away the tracks behind her with a broom made of silver birch. She lives in a log cabin that either moves around on a pair of dancing chicken legs, is surrounded by a palisade with a skull on each pole, or both. The keyhole to her front door is a mouth filled with sharp teeth; the fence outside is made with human bones with skulls on top, often with one pole lacking its skull, leaving space for the hero or heroes. In another legend, the hut does not reveal the door until it is told a magical phrase: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me”.
In some tales, the hut is connected with three riders: one in white, riding a white horse with white harness, who is Day; a red rider, who is the Sun; and one in black, who is Night. Baba Yaga is served by invisible servants inside the hut. She explains the riders if asked, but may kill a visitor who inquires about the servants.
Baba Yaga is sometimes shown as an antagonist, and sometimes as a source of guidance; there are stories in which she helps people with their quests, and stories in which she kidnaps children and threatens to eat them. Seeking out her aid is usually portrayed as a dangerous act. An emphasis is placed on the need for proper preparation and purity of spirit, as well as basic politeness. It is said she ages one year every time she is asked a question, which may explain her reluctance to help. This effect, however, can be reversed with a special blend of tea made with blue roses.
Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin
In the folk tale “Vasilissa the Beautiful“, recorded by Alexander Afanasyev (Narodnye russkie skazki, vol 4, 1862), the young girl of the title is given three impossible tasks that she solves using a magic doll given to her by her mother. In the Christianised version of the story, Vasilissa is sent to visit Baba Yaga on an errand and is enslaved by her, but the hag’s servants — a cat, a dog, a gate, and a tree — help Vasilissa to escape because she has been kind to them. In the end, Baba Yaga is turned into a crow. Similarly, Prince Ivan in “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” is aided against her by animals whom he has spared.
The Polish folklore version differs in details. For example, the Polish Baba Jaga’s hut has only one chicken leg. Monstrous witches living in gingerbread huts are also commonly named Baba Jaga. Baba Jaga, flying on a broom and wearing black and red striped folk costume of Świętokrzyskie Mountains, is an unofficial symbol of Kielce region (it is connected with legendary witches’ sabbaths on Łysa Góramountain). In some legends Baba Yaga is also awarded the title Костяная Нога (“The Bone Leg”) and considered a guardian between the real world and the land of the dead. This title later became an idiom, often used as taunt.
Baba Yaga is used as a stock character by authors of modern Russian fairy tales, and from the 1990s in Russian fantasy. In particular, Baba Yaga in included in such books as Andrey Belyanin‘s cycle Secret service of Tsar Pea. The childhood and youth of Baba Yaga were described for the first time in the A. Aliverdiev’s tale “Creek” (“Lukomorie”).
Other recorded Russian fairy tales that feature Baba Yaga are “Teryoshechka”, “The Enchanted Princess”, and “The Silver Saucer and the Red Apple”.