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The International Writers Magazine: Russian Folklore

Baba Yaga
• Norman A Rubin
Once upon a time there was a Maiden named Vasilissa the Beautiful. She is sent by her step-mother to retrieve a flame for the fire from Baba Yaga. But Baba Yaga catches her and forces her to cook meals, scrub the floors, and weave at the loom. 

Baba Yaga




She is subsequently given several challenges to solve first. Vasilissa’s magic doll, which was given to her by her mother just before she died, accomplishes the tasks for her. Baba Yaga is infuriated and releases her from servitude and throws one of the skulls with the glowing eyes at her telling her to take it for the fire Vasilissa‘s stepmother had requested. She returns home to find her stepmother and stepsisters living without fire since they’d sent Vasilissa out to Baba Yaga’s. The skull’s eyes burned so brightly that is burned the stepmother and her daughters to ashes. Vasilissa then went to live in town with an old woman. We see Wassilissa entering the hut of Baba Yaga as a girl and leaving as a young woman, eligible for marriage. There she spun fine linen that the old woman took to the Tsar. He requested the maker of the linen to come to Court and upon seeing Vasilissa the Beautiful he fell in love with her. In the end her beauty, kindness and purity gained her the Tsar’s heart and became his Tsarina.

In Russian or Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is an old witch who features in several popular stories, sometimes as a villain and sometimes as a creepy old trickster who helps the hero. Baba Yaga was a thin old woman whose nickname was to mean bony legs. The witch herself was an ugly, bony hag with a long, curved, warty nose and chin, sharp teeth of iron, and long, lank grey hair that has not been washed in centuries. Her back is so twisted and bent by the years that her head almost touches the floor at times. Her bosom hangs down to her knees. Her nails are brown, ridged and long, so that she cannot make a fist. She is as thin as a skeleton, and wears little more than filthy rags.  Baba Yaga has iron teeth which make a fearsome noise when she clashes them together; apparently this happens quite frequently, as quite a lot of things irritate Baba Yaga including rudeness and too many questions.

She lived deep in the forest in a house which was defended by three mysterious riders and maintained by invisible servants and it's very unwise to ask her about them. Her behavior was also remarkably odd. She chased people in a huge mortar waving the pestle, and using a broom to sweep up the tracks she leaves behind!  She could even fly apparently (or maybe she just does a good job of sweeping up the tracks there's no evidence of her path!).

She was guarded and helped by three sets of three helpers — guardians in the form of a ravenous dog, a malicious cat and a birch tree that could scratch out the eyes of the unwelcome; three strong pairs of ghostly hands, her Soul Friends, that helped around the hut; and three enigmatic Horsemen, one black, one red and one white, who are midnight, day and dawn respectively.

All in all, Baba Yaga was a bit of a dangerous person to encounter. The danger comes from her unpredictable behavior since it's not always clear which questions or actions will make her upset. However, it seems that the good, innocent, and brave usually do OK when they meet her. Sometimes Baba Yaga helps them, and sometimes the brave visitor stands up to Baba Yaga and defeats her, avoiding the threatened punishment and escaping with whatever they sought. This effect, however, can be reversed with a special blend of tea made with blue roses.

A few courageous individuals occasionally seek her out for help or guidance. While she might reluctantly offer advice or aid heroes with their quests, Baba Yaga was only willing to help those who was pure of heart. A few of these brave souls questioned Baba Yaga about her three mysterious servants: the White Horseman, the Red Horseman, and the Black Horseman. This was a serious mistake as Baba Yaga despises inquiries about her servants and will often kill those who ask.

In some tales Baba Yaga helps a lost child, or searcher, particularly if they are pure in heart and sincere in their desire to please Baba Yaga in return for her help. In many ways Baba Yaga was not an evil personage, but rather reflects the nature of her visitors. The good, innocent, and well behaved are helped by Baba Yaga, while the selfish and arrogant could see Baba Yaga as a danger and are threatened by her.

Baba Yaga SA Baba Yaga lives in a magic house that has a life of its own, and it’s as much a character of Russian folklore as is Baba Yaga herself. The house looked, at first glance, like a normal house. Closer inspection reveals that the house stands on chicken legs that enabled it to move about in accordance with Baba Yaga’s wishes. When Baba Yaga leaves her home to obtain the correct spices, ordering her house to wander to a safer location in her absence.

Inside the house, it was said that the crone sat at a spinning wheel, spinning with thread made from the tendons and muscles of human beings. The house was surrounded by a fence made of the bones of Baba Yaga's victims. The gate was a ribcage hung on leg-bone posts, with skeletal hands as hinges, and feet to bolt it shut. The keyhole has sharp teeth to bite the unwary. Baba Yaga scares passersby to death just by appearing to them and then devours them. Her fence was topped with the skulls of her victims whose blazing eye sockets illuminate the darkness.

If you are ever brave, foolish or ignorant enough to go wondering through that dark forest, there was a good chance that you might come across a peculiar house.  This hut was the home of Baba Yaga. I don’t advise that you knock at the door of Baba Yaga’s hut, no matter how much you have lost your way through the forest. For Baba Yaga is a witch.
Moving House

To end the sojourn of the tale --- Baba Yaga is a manipulator who started as an innocent girl, but was driven to cruelty after being married to an abusive husband. She turns to cruelty and torture, and in the end is defeated by the heroes because of the heroine's having conceived a baby-though Baba Yaga has borne children, she is incapable of loving them. Thus, she is defeated by love, although not dead, and like in folklore, she will live again in another story.

1) During the Middle Ages in Europe, the belief in witches was widespread. Witches were said to be worshipers of the Devil. Thousands of women and some men were tortured and executed after being accused of witchcraft. The English who settled in North America brought along a fear of witches. A witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 resulted in the execution of 19 people.

1A) See also Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle

2) Then there's also an incantation to be said to Baba Yaga. When she begins asking questions, you must say: "Hey you old woman, first you satisfy my hunger then you satisfy my thirst then let me wash myself in your banya (sauna) then let me sleep in and then you ask me anything". Usually Baba Yaga does as you pleads with her. -

  1. While she is commonly known as Baba Yaga, she has been known in the past by several other names: Baba Jaga, Jaga, Jaga-Baba, Jaginavna, and Egibinicha. "Baba" means "grandmother" or "wise old woman." Jaga or Yaga is believed to mean "horror", "wrath", "snake", "evil woman", or "witch".  Baba Yaga is Goddess of Wisdom and a Goddess of Death, the Bone Mother, Arch-Crone, Earth Mother. She is a Forest Goddess, that forest being the Otherworld. Thus she is Goddess of the Otherworld (the land of the Living Dead, for she cannot pass over the Rive of Fire into the Underworld, the land of the Truly Dead). She is a Triple Goddess with her sisters, the other Baba Yaga’s.

© Norman A Rubin June 2013
normrub2000 at

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