One of the most fascinating female characters of myth is the Slavic Witch, Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is both wise woman and villain. She is a maternal figure but also a wielder of dark magic. She has been known to both help and hinder heroes on their quests but she does not attack unprovoked and she always keeps her promises.
Her appearance is that of a crone. She is sometimes known as the ‘bony one’ or ‘bony legs’ for her gaunt appearance, despite her often-described appetite. She has terrifying iron teeth and is depicted as deformed or stooped with a huge hooked nose.
‘Baba’ means ’grandmother’ or ‘old woman’ in most Slavic cultures but ‘Yaga’ is less simple to translate. The most common suggested derivation is from a Proto-Slavic word for ‘snake’.
Baba Yaga is said to have power over the elements and is almost a force of nature unto herself. Her servants are the White Horseman, the Red Horseman and the Black Horseman who control daybreak, sunrise and nightfall. Baba Yaga is sometimes shown to be youngest of 3 sisters, all unhelpfully called Baba Yaga in the tale.
She can be seen flying around in a mortar bowl, rather than a traditional witch’s broom, although she is said to use a silver-birch broom to sweep up traces of her presence when she leaves.
Her hut is situated in the forests of northern Russia or Finland. It has almost a life of its own and walks around on tottering chicken-legs (in some tales it is described as a gingerbread house). Once the hero enters it, their fate will be sealed by their own actions.
The most well-known story of Baba Yaga is that of Vasilisa the Beautiful.
Vasilisa’s is a Cinderella story; a young girl loses her mother at a young age and then suffers under the cruelty of a new stepmother. Before her death, Vasilisa’s mother gives her a small wooden doll. She is instructed to make sure to give it a little food and drink and it will assist her when she needs help.
Her stepmother is cruel to her and sets her many tasks to complete. One of the tasks is to fetch a light from Baba Yaga’s hut, despite the knowledge that Baba Yaga might devour the young girl.
After a terrifying journey through the woods, Vasilisa finds Baba Yaga’s hut. Baba Yaga is not initially antagonistic. However, she sets Vasilisa a series of near impossible domestic tasks in exchange for the light and leaves her to complete them.
Vasilisa’s wooden doll (the doll she has been diligently keeping fed as her mother wished) speaks comfortingly to the girl and helps her with the tasks.
Returning, Baba Yaga is surprised to find no issue with Vasilisa’s work and asks how she completed the tasks.
Vasilisa says “By my Mother’s Love.”
Seemingly, Baba Yaga does not have power over the pure of heart and at the mention of love, Baba Yaga angrily sends the girl home with the light she was seeking.
Vasilisa takes a glowing skull from Baba Yaga’s hut and when she presents it to her step-mother, it engulfs her in flame and kills her. Vasilisa buries the skull so no one else can be harmed by it and then, freed of her stepmother, leaves to make her own way in the world.
The story is the usual heroine’s journey from childhood, under the abusive thumb of her stepmother, to womanhood, freed by the power won from Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga does not help Vasilisa precisely but she offers a deal and sticks to it, giving Vasilisa the power she needs to be freed.
Baba Yaga is a confusing figure. Unlike most fairy-tale characters, whose aims and motivations are clear, she is both benefactor and antagonist.
Personally, though, I do not consider her to be such an anomaly.
Traditionally, older women with out young children to look after become the accepted wise women of groups. Women also traditionally looked after the dying and lay out the dead, as well as being associated with mourning.
The power associated with this knowledge and the links with death are partly what lead to the spreading fear of women and witchcraft historically.
Baba Yaga is this but a whole lot more.
She is a goddess of wisdom and death – the arch-crone.
She’s my favourite.