Baba Yaga and the Borderlands

This article is adapted from my book Russian Magic (first published as The Soul of Russia). It opens Chapter Five, ‘The Secrets of Life and Death’ celebrating the mystique and myths of the Russian witch and crone, Baba Yaga. Although she’s a popular figure of Russian folk lore, yet she’s a shadowy, complex figure, who may have a role in the old pre-Christian rituals of the land of ‘Rus’.

This is the second of four posts celebrating the years I spent going back and forth to Russia, in search of its ancient culture and mythology. I’m flattered that the young conductor Alexander Prior said of my book: ‘It’s the first time any Westerner has understood the Russian soul.’

Baba Yaga’s Kingdom

‘Beyond the thrice-nine lands, in the thrice-ten kingdom there lives Baba-Yaga, the witch. Her house stands in a forest beyond the Flaming River.’ (from the story of Maria Morevna)

Original etching by B. Zaborofin, 1992, collection of Cherry Gilchrist. Baba Yaga holds a book titled ‘Russian Folk Tales’ and her house is built on chicken legs, according to tradition.

Baba Yaga is an ugly, cantankerous old woman, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s feet in the middle of the forest, and who flies around the skies by means of a pestle and mortar. She captures small children, tricks young maidens, and kills just about anyone who crosses her. This wicked witch of Russian fairy stories is familiar to every person in the land, and her fame, or notoriety, has spread further afield, so that she is also well-known in Europe and America. She is a stock character in folk tales, and also turns up regularly in other contexts: in modern Russian cartoons and children’s books, as a puppet, and in more high-minded art as a character in Modest Mussorgsky’s suite of music, Pictures from an Exhibition.

Baba Yaga is also a useful weapon for Russian parents to frighten small children who are misbehaving. 

‘Sit down, and finish your supper, otherwise Baba Yaga will come for you!’

Olga, otherwise an extremely patient grandmother, had finally had enough of small Dima’s noisy behaviour at the supper table. On hearing the dreaded name, he subsided instantly; a watchful, fearful look in his eyes as he sat back quietly to eat his meal. A few minutes later, though, after the threat of the witch had worn off, he began to jump up and down again.

Olga was quick to react. She got to her feet and peered out of the window.

‘Baba Yaga’s coming down the lane now,’ she said.

Dima was back in his seat before any of us could blink twice, and we finished our evening meal in peace. Baba Yaga is fond of stealing little children in order to cook them up for her own supper.

But although she has a world-wide reputation, and is a star of wonder tales, woodcuts, comics and animated films, Baba Yaga remains enigmatic and ambivalent, ultimately a mysterious figure whose source is unknown. No one is quite sure of her origins, her function, or of whether she is ultimately a force for good or evil. All studies seem to agree, however, that her role is much more than that of a pantomime-style witch. Baba Yaga stands at the boundaries of life and death, at the borders of darkness and rebirth.

A depiction of Baba Yaga by the famous Russian illustrator, Bilibin, dating from 1900. She flies through the air in a mortar, steering it with a pestle. The forest is her natural habitat.

‘Leg of Stone, Toothless Crone’

Baba Yaga is of grotesque appearance, with lank greasy hair, a long nose, and a leg which is either made of stone in polite renderings, or of faeces in more earthy accounts. Her bulk fills up her hut when she is at home, and, when out of it, she flies around in a mortar made of iron, which she steers with a pestle. Sometimes, as in the story mentioned below, she rides instead on a magic horse chosen from her herd of doughty mares. She lives deep in the forest, and has a fondness for killing and perhaps eating visitors, whose skulls she nails to posts impaled in the ground around her hut. This hut also has the property of revolving at the witch’s command, hiding or concealing its entrance according to her word.

In common parlance, the term Baba Yaga is used in Russian for any cantankerous old woman. There is no common agreement as to where the Yaga (or Iaga, Ega, Egibihk and other variations) part of her name comes from. The ‘Baba’ prefix refers to woman or mother, but Yaga may be connected to the word for snake, for pain, or even for pelican, according to various authorities, or, more likely, to none of these.

Her role in traditional stories is to challenge anyone who strays into her domain, whom she may then attack, kill, advise, help or strike a bargain with, or any combination of these functions. She is fond of both drinking and spilling Russian blood, and can smell it approaching from afar. New arrivals are often greeted with the question, ‘Are you here to do something, or are you running away from something?’ – words that suggest a ritual confrontation, a challenge to test the visitor’s determination.

Her attitude towards children and girls is different to the stance she takes with young men. She may capture and consume small children, she may imprison young girls or choose to let them go unharmed, but she always challenges and tests youths and men. This has led to a theory that Baba Yaga is in origin the ancient goddess of the underworld, who conducts young men through initiation ceremonies at their coming of age. They must show bravery and cunning, avoid the traps and snares that she sets, and perform near-impossible tasks in order to win through and be worthy of manhood.

An episode in the story of Maria Morevna, when Ivan, the young hero, agrees to look after Baba Yaga’s horses in return for her sparing his life (attribution at end)

In the story of Maria Morevna, quoted earlier, Prince Ivan encounters Baba Yaga when he is in search of his abducted wife, the warrior queen Maria Morevna. Baba Yaga’s house is surrounded by twelve poles, all but one crowned with a human head, and Ivan recognises that the last one has been saved for his own head to crown. But Baba Yaga promises to spare him, and grant him his freedom, if he will look after her horses for three days. She has many fine mares, and flies around the world each day on one of them; she is ready to offer Ivan one of these magical steeds if he can care for the whole herd.

The task is more difficult than he thinks, since for two days running, the horses gallop off into the forest as soon as he takes them out to pasture, and he falls into a heavy slumber till the end of the day. But he is then helped by creatures who he has been kind to earlier in his travels, and manages to get the herd back to the house with the mares intact. At midnight, knowing that Baba Yaga will never honour her promise, he decides to escape; he steals a colt and rides off towards the flaming river, where his wife waits for him on the other side.

Going to sleep on the job, as with the story of Prince Ivan and the Firebird, is a mistake for young would-be heroes, and in this case it may correspond with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies initiation rites, where keeping a vigil can be a significant phase of the process. All the old habits of eating, sleeping and bathing must be uprooted, and Baba Yaga’s offer of steam baths and food in some stories may be echoes of new and possibly dangerous experiences in this department. There is a strong tradition of women initiating boys into manhood in various societies: for instance in the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, women would present young men with weapons so that they could become warriors or knights. And in mythology, King Arthur himself is said to have received his magical sword Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.

Male initiation is often sexual, too. The horrific appearance of Baba Yaga as an ugly old crone, who may be farting and exposing her foaming genitalia, denotes the reverse of everything lovely and maidenly. This may challenge the young man’s unquestioning attachment to the beauty of the female form, and force him to look with different eyes at an adult woman. The witch is also the opposite of the comforting, familiar mother figure, and this may help to break his dependence upon his mother, in order to claim his manhood, and make a new and truer bond with a woman who can become his wife. In the story of Maria Morevna, although Ivan is married to her already, she is abducted on account of his naivety and carelessness, and it is only by showing genuine bravery and effort that he can finally reclaim her, and make her truly his own. 

If the forest ritual was once a cultural event, marking the passage from youth into manhood, then most likely it would have been enacted by a person, male or female, dressed and masked as Baba Yaga, to give a terrifying appearance. Some weight is lent to this by the fact that fairy stories may contain ‘a’ Baba Yaga, or even several of them, suggesting that there could be local Baba Yagas. There may be three sister Baba Yagas, for instance. This may also relate to the symbolism of the triple goddess, an idea which is widespread through various cultures. The three faces or figures of this goddess are maiden, mother and crone, and there is no doubt that in this schema, Baba Yaga would be a manifestation of the crone figure.

Baba Yaga’s hideous appearance here is given full rein by the artist (From ‘Heroes, Monsters and Other Worlds from Russian Mythology, by Elizabeth Warner, illustrations Alexander Koshkin. Eurobook 1985)

The symbolism of the triple goddess is intimately connected with the phases of the moon, so that the maiden can be seen as the crescent moon, who then grows to fullness as mother, and finally declines into the dark phase as the crone, a phase associated with Hecate in Greek myth, for instance. The crone may be frightening, old, smelly and in some ways evil, but she is also the embodiment of wisdom, and no understanding of woman is complete without her. It has also been suggested that Baba Yaga’s hut, which revolves to conceal or reveal its opening, may itself be associated with cycles of the moon, and of feminine sexuality, so that Baba Yaga’s role as crone could also thus embody knowledge about female sexual cycles, about menstruation and the waxing and waning of fertility and desire, knowledge which young men need to acquire as they are about to enter into relationships with the opposite sex. Such an interpretation also goes a long way to explaining the ambivalence of Baba Yaga, and how she can never be finally upheld as totally good or evil.

A sample sketch of Vasilisa the Fair prepared by artist Natalia Danilin for a proposed Russian Oracle by Cherry Gilchrist

The much-loved tale of Vasilisa the Fair gives us a heroine’s perspective on an encounter with Baba Yaga. Young Vasilisa is sent to the forest by her cruel stepsisters to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s house in the forest. On approaching the hut, she meets three horsemen, one white, one scarlet and one black; they represent Day, Sun and Night, and they are under Baba Yaga’s command, for she, as many stories about her relate, has power over the winds and weather, sun and moon. Baba Yaga sniffs out Vasilisa’s approach, and offers her a light only on condition that the little girl stays and works for her. The tasks seem impossible, but Vasilisa has an ally – a little magic doll that her mother gave to her as she lay dying. The doll helps her to do the housework, and finally Baba Yaga turns Vasilisa out of the house and gives her the light she requested to take home.

In terms of the lunar cycles and the symbolism of the triple goddess, Vasilisa may be seen as the ‘maiden’ phase of the moon, and her mother as the full moon, who then died to be followed by the black lunar crone. Vasilisa wins the light of her crescent moon back by braving Baba Yaga’s darkness, and earning her respect through hard work and integrity.

Russian lacquer miniature illustrations of Vasilisa the Fair, meeting the Knight of the Sunrise. (Left – Kholui School, Right – Palekh School)

Perhaps Baba Yaga once played a part in coming of age ceremonies for young girls too, and perhaps, too, this is an example of one, although I have not come across any direct mention of this.  

Vasilisa the Fair, using one of the lighted skulls from Baba Yaga’s hut to help her see her way in the dark and make her escape

Baba Yaga is a figure who stands at the borders of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is an appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition. She is herself a symbol of death in some old folklore customs; at harvest time, for instance, an effigy of Baba Yaga may be created in straw, and subsequently destroyed. This is said to act as a reminder that the day of reaping and death comes to us all.

In many tales, it is made clear that the witch lives close to the borders of the otherworld. One hero finds her abode right at the end of the earth: ‘A little hut stood there, with no road beyond it, but only darkness so deep that the eye could not pierce it,’ as we are told in the story of The Enchanted Princess’.

Baba Yaga’s territory is already considered to be in the world of ‘the living dead’, known as the ‘thrice-nine land’. This lies far beyond the human realm, and from here one must set out to confront the final boundary to the ‘thrice-ten kingdom’, often understood as the realm of the truly dead. This boundary may be described as the ‘flaming river’ or ‘the blue sea’. In one story, it is charmingly defined as the ‘Currant River’, crossed by the ‘Cranberry Bridge’. Indeed, it is not enough just to reach the boundary, for a means must be found or created to pass over it. In the story of Maria Morevna, Ivan calls up a bridge by waving a magic kerchief, a trick sometimes employed to make it passable. In fairy stories such as this, the hero performs the superhuman feat of going to the‘thrice-ten land’ and  returning, perhaps as young men once did symbolically through their ritual ordeals. Baba Yaga has been the catalyst for this.

A ‘lubok’ or wood-cut print of Baba Yaga, probably in battle with a wizard

She also remains a key archetype in Russian mythology, represented not only in stories but in popular rhymes, and in old folk woodcuts, known as lubok. In one famous and often copied lubok, she is depicted as fighting something described as a ‘crocodile’, but which looks more like a furry figure, or a bearded man with a tail. This has been interpreted as representing a political satire on Catherine the Great (the witch) fighting with Peter the Great (the foreigner, and thus the dangerous crocodile). However, as one study points out, both Baba Yaga and the crocodile are designated as guardians of the underworld in traditional lore; the appearance of the so-called crocodile as half human, half furry animal may in fact be a shaman magician. These wizards were real life characters, but were popularly regarded as a combination of beast and man. According to accounts given by the wizards themselves, battles were also traditionally fought between witches and sorcerers, and it may be an old magical battle that we see here.

Whatever the final definition of Baba Yaga, if such a thing is possible, she remains as a figure who can both attract us to the darkness of her mysteries and repel us with her disgusting appearance and unpleasant ways.

Once, I was dreaming by a camp fire in Russia

References – Image of Ivan and Baba Yaga in ‘Maria Morevna’ from ‘Life in Russia’

Suggested reading on Baba Yaga and Russian myth and fairy tales

Forest of the Vampire (1999) (various authors), (Duncan Baird, Amsterdam).

Haney, Jack V. (1999) An Introduction to the Russian Folk Tale, (M. E. Sharpe Inc, Armonk, New York & England)

Haney, Jack V. (2001) Russian Wondertales (two vols), (M. E. Sharpe, New York).

Hubbs, Joanna (1988) Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture, (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis)

Ivanits, Linda J. (1992) Russian Folk Belief, (M.E. Sharpe Inc., Armonk, New York & England)

Johns, Andreas (1998) Baba Iaga and the Russian Mother in The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 42, No. 1.

Krasunov, V. K. (ed.) (1996) Russian Traditions, (Kitizdat,Nizhni Novgorod)

Phillips, C. and Kerrigan, M. (1999) Forests of the Vampire, (Duncan Baird Publishers, London)

Ryan, W. F. (1999) The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia,(Sutton Publishing Ltd., Stroud)

Related books by Cherry Gilchrist