December 01, 2019

Baba Yaga: Russian Folktales' Classic Witch


Baba Yaga: Russian Folktales' Classic Witch
Ivan Bilibin's illustration of Russia's famous witch. Public domain

Every fairy tale tradition has a witch. Russia is no different. But in place of dozens of nameless, black-clad, pointy-hatted women standing over glowing green, bubbling cauldrons, Baba Yaga is the character in Russian folklore that keeps characters out of strange woods.

While her description varies from story to story, Baba Yaga is typically described as an old, bony woman in raggedy clothes. She has crooked teeth and a hunched back, and is covered in wrinkles. She travels not by a broom, like Western European witches, but by mortar-and-pestle, pushing herself through the forest and leaving sweeping pestle-marks in her wake.

A visitor to Baba Yaga's hut gets a warm welcome
A visitor to Baba Yaga's hut receives a warm welcome, thanks to the preheated oven. | Ivan Bilibin, Public Domain

Her residence is similarly creepy, standing on chicken-leg stilts and capable of moving around on its own. Often, heroes approaching her hut must ask it to turn and face them (highlighted in this episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000) typically with a fairy-tale, three-parted invocation. The interior is typically musty and filled with animal familiars, as in Baba Yaga and the Brave Youth. Sometimes, she barely fits inside, with her head in one corner and her feet in the other.

There is a theory that descriptions of Baba Yaga's hut originated from ancient constructions of Slavic or Sami storehouses, which were often built on dead tree trunks and guarded by animistic idols to prevent thievery and spoilage. Add some European witch tropes, and you're getting close to Baba Yaga.

Only moderately less creepy than a house on chicken legs. | New World Encyclopedia 

Interestingly, Baba Yaga is not purely evil. While she does have a penchant for death and cannibalism, those heroes that can outwit her earn her respect, and she's happy to help them. Children, it seems, are at the greatest risk, as in the tale of the Magic Swan-GeeseShe's typically fickle and morally ambiguous, likely reflecting animistic attitudes towards nature.

We'll leave you with the creepiest tale of Baba Yaga (and our favorite): Vasilisa the Beautiful, as related by folklorist Alexander Afanasiev. This excerpt and the Wikipedia version don't do it justice, and the text is certainly worth reading.

Young Vasilisa is forced to bring light back to her home, and is told to get some from Baba Yaga by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. She approaches Baba Yaga's hut, which is decorated with human bones and surrounded by bone stakes topped with skulls. After pleasing the witch, Vasilisa is able to bring back a human skull with gleaming eyes and a low, dull voice, which she carries through the forest back to her family. When she returns, the skull tells her to place it on the table, and the light from the skull's eyes burns her stepmother and stepsisters to ashes.

Vasilisa carrying her skull
Glowing, talking skulls are great trick-or-treat handouts. | Ivan Bilibin, public domain

It's a great bedtime story for your kids. And be sure to remind them that, if they don't share their Halloween candy with you this year, Baba Yaga will be on their trail.

See Also

How Well Do You Know Russian Fairy Tale Characters?

How Well Do You Know Russian Fairy Tale Characters?

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