Baba Yaga - Who Is She?

by jptanabe

The Russian Baba Yaga lives in a cabin built on chicken legs! Is she a scary witch or a wise old grandmother who can give good advice?

Baba Yaga, does that sound familiar? Maybe not. She's an Eastern European, Russian especially, legendary or mythical creature. Baba Yaga is a wild old woman, a hag, a witch, who lives in the forest in a cabin built on chicken legs. She is rather frightening, as are all these strange women who live alone in most cultures, at least until you get to know them and then sometimes they're good sometimes bad! Baba Yaga can indeed be dangerous, enslaving those who cross her path, especially if they make her upset which usually happens by asking the wrong question. Mothers use the threat of Baba Yaga to warn their children to be good. Other times, though, Baba Yaga appears as a source of wisdom and guidance.

Image of Baba Yaga by Viktor Vasnetsov from Wikimedia Commons.

Baba Yaga features notably in the Russian folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful. The famous illustrations of this story by Ivan Bilbin provide the most well known images of the Baba Yaga.

Who is Baba Yaga?

Is she a Witch or just an old Grandmother?

Baba Yaga is a legendary creature. Her name is Slavic and in two parts. The "Baba" part is a pejorative form (not polite or positive) of "babushka" which means grandmother or old lady. The "Yaga" most probably is a diminutive form of a name, perhaps Jadwiga.

So Baba Yaga is some kind of old grandmother.

Baba Yaga by Leslie Xuereb
Baba Yaga by Leslie Xuereb

Baba Yaga is portrayed as one of those old women who live alone because they are strange both physically and in their character and behavior. Baba Yaga is thus ugly, with a big nose. In some stories she has pointed ears like an elf. In any case, her appearance is not quite normal, not exactly the grandmother every child hopes for!

How about her character and behavior? Well, it seems that Baba Yaga is quite strict about what she finds acceptable and unacceptable in others. She can be helpful, guiding lost people to find the right path, giving them what they need for their journey or even what they have been seeking. Sounds good, just the kind of grandmother you might want! But if you upset her, bad news! She has a variety of unpleasant punishments for those who behave inappropriately, ask her the wrong questions, or don't do as she asks. Also, sounds familiar, kind of like a lot of grandmothers really. The punishments though are a bit extreme-sometimes she cooks children in her oven and eats them!

Her behavior is also remarkably odd. She chases people in a huge mortar waving the pestle, and using a broom to sweep up the tracks she leaves behind! She can even fly apparently (or maybe she just does a good job of sweeping up the tracks there's no evidence of her path!). She also has some strange servants, who seem to be invisible and it's very unwise to ask her about them. So Baba Yaga is often called a witch.

All in all, Baba Yaga is 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.

So is Baba Yaga a witch or just a slightly odd old grandmother? Well, if you know your history you'll recall that all sorts of people were called witches, even burned at the stake for their alleged witchcraft. Just because someone is a bit different doesn't make them a witch. And having high standards of appropriate behavior isn't really such a bad thing, which is why mothers often used tales of Baba Yaga to teach their children correct behavior. Maybe today's skeptical minds that reject the reality of such "witches" has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or in this case the Baba Yaga!

Where does she Live?

Baba Yaga lives alone in the forest in a small log cabin, like so many characters in folktales. Her special situation though is that her cabin is built on chicken legs! Well, that's interesting, definitely fanciful, just like her ability to fly through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder!

Yes, a cabin on chicken legs sounds like something made up, a fantasy for a folktale, not possible in the real world, at least to those of us not from the part of the world where Baba Yaga tales are common. You see, there are log cabins that look for all the world like they are built on chicken legs! Look at the picture, this is an example of the type of storage cabin used by the Sami people, also known as Lapps or Laplanders, who live in northern Scandinavia and parts of Russia. So, the cabin on chicken legs actually exists, just not sure if Baba Yaga really lives there!

Sami Storehouse
Sami Storehouse

And of course there are a few extra details that seem a little less likely-the chicken legs move so the cabin "walks"! And the fence around her cabin is made of human bones with the skulls on top, which light up at night. Well, those are the poetic license details I guess, to make the stories more scary in the telling.

Baba Yaga Tales

The iconic Baba Yaga tale is the one with Vasilissa, which is a Russian variant of the Cinderella tale. Vasilissa may be beautiful, brave, or clever, or a combination thereof. Different versions focus on different aspects of her character. She's a Cinderella type though, because after her mother dies (not before giving Vasilissa a special doll though) her father remarries the wicked stepmother whose daughters are the ugly and unpleasant stepsisters. She's mistreated of course. At one point she's sent to Baba Yaga's house to get a light. Before giving it to her, Baba Yaga demands a bunch of impossible tasks be performed perfectly, and the doll helps her to do this. So she gets the light and returns home safely. Then the light destroys her evil step-family and Vasilissa gets to marry a handsome prince, or some such happy ending.

In several Baba Yaga tales she is like the witch in Hansel and Gretel, cooking children and eating them. The hero(ine) of the tale usually tricks her into cooking her own child instead. Sometimes Baba Yaga is destroyed too.

Another version has a Baba Yaga who just wants to fit in with everyone else. She tries to do so by disguising herself to hide her anomalous appearance, but is found out of course. Then she saves a child from great danger and is accepted after all.

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 is 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 see Baba Yaga as a danger and are threatened by her.

Baba Yaga Story Books

A variety of stories involving Baba Yaga, all beautifully illustrated, some in the style of Russian folk art.

Marianna Mayer's interpretation of this Russian folktale is illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft's paintings in a style that resembles Russian folk art. Baba Yaga is well depicted as a hideous crone. "It should be no wonder, then, that Baba Yaga lives alone" as the text reads.

This version of the story focuses on the heroine's bravery rather than her beauty.

This tale written by Margaret Yatsevitch Phinney, and illustrated by Lydian Green, is based on the author's father's version of the traditional folktale of a young girl's journey, capture, and escape from the evil Baba Yaga.

The focus is on the triumph of good over evil.

This tale of Baba Yaga is written by Katya Arnold, who also provided the illustrations. They are gouache paintings inspired by "lubok" pictures, a Russian folk art medium that dates from the seventeenth century.

These vibrantly colored illustrations are a fitting match for this retelling of the Russian folktale.

Patricia Polacco's tale is accompanied by her illustrations drawn in a variety of mediums including charcoal pencil, chalk pastel, and gouache. The Baba Yaga in this story turns out to be like the other "babushkas" (grandmothers) apart from her appearance.

The message being one of tolerance and not judging by external characteristics but rather should be based on their inner character and heart.

More about Baba Yaga

Updated: 03/24/2023, jptanabe
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WriterArtist on 10/16/2015

I have read many Russian folk-lores and stories as kid and Baba Yaga was a popular known figure that time. This article throws light to the character of this witch who is frightening and scary at times. Reading the anecdotes was fun and even now the characters enthralls me.

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