Y is for . . . Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is a Slavic witch. Long famous in Eastern Europe (the first written reference to Baba Yaga appeared in 1755), she has been “discovered” (Columbused) by the Western world recently. And she is a horror, her body often described as distorted, the stories often playing into body horror by playing up a feature (in some stories her nose is so large it reaches to the ceiling of her hut; in others, she has only one long, thin leg).

YBaba Yaga is usually presented as an old woman, a hag who is small in stature with pockmarked skin, long, rotting teeth, and an overlarge nose. She flies in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder and sweeping away her tracks with a broom or mop. Sometimes she is part of a trio of sisters who all share the same name to add to the confusion.

She lives on the edge of the forest in a wooden hut on a large pair of (or sometimes just one) chicken legs. There are no windows. Sometimes there’s a door–if you know the magic words. The house is protected by a fence made from human bones, skulls topping most of them—but there’s clearly room for more.

Baba Yaga has the ability to turn from old woman to young maiden quickly, and she often uses this ability to deceive and misguide strangers in the forest. It is rumored that she eats these strangers, especially the children. Baba Yaga loves the taste of children, evidently.

Despite all of this, Baba Yaga is still a rather ambiguous figure. She can be as helpful as she is harmful, especially if requests are made politely and with a purse spirit. She has been known to offer guidance and help those who are lost, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Seeking her out is dangerous, but when Baba Yaga is helpful, she is very very helpful.

The ambivalence around Baba Yaga is part of what makes her so interesting. She is horrifically ugly, and sh can be incredibly dangerous. But for all her danger, she can be a powerful guide and a much-needed assistant to those who are lost. And, though she’s rumored to eat children (and other wanderers), few seem to meet these fate in the stories told about Baba Yaga.

Bilibin. Baba Yaga
Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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22 Comments

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  1. Love Baba Yaga! She’s a great enigma, that defies being pigeon-holed into one set of monsters. She reminds me a lot of the Wizard archetype, just being a woman instead.

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  2. I think being dangerous and helpful at the same time is a characteristics of most trickster figures. And I wonder whether this describes the main characteristic of nature. Nature isn’t good or bad, she just is, and it’s up to us as humans to see her good part or her bad part, and accept her good part when it comes our way, hoping we’ll never see her bad part.

    And we shouls respect her and know that if she gets angry at us, boy, we are in trouble.

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    1. You know, I hadn’t really thought of Baba Yaga as a trickster figure, but I suppose that in some ways she is. And I like the connection you make to nature—interesting!

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  3. I remember my Polish grandmother used to try to scare me with Baba Yaga. She appears in some form in the myths and stories of Russia, Eastern and Central Europe, although there are several variations. The version I am familiar with, she doesn’t fly but her house on one chicken leg moves. She entices children with candy, fattens them up, and then eats them (similar to the Hansel and Gretel story). I always thought she was a witch, but one of my books says she was not considered human, but rather a demon.

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    1. Interesting!

      I’ve seen a few Baba Yaga tales in which her house moves on one chicken leg, but not very many. Regional differences and such, I suppose, account for some of that.

      I hadn’t heard her called a demon—that makes a certain sort of sense, though.

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  4. Another wonderful post in your series. Scary though she might seem, I rather loved Baba Yaga. I’ve always liked to believe she appears in order to challenge one to learn from experience. That to me feels like the gift of wisdom, acquired through living, as opposed to knowledge.

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  5. I so love Baba Yaga. I first read about her in elementary school and loved telling stories about her and her chicken legged hut to my classmates and scaring the bejeebers out of them 🙂

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  6. Oh, I know all about Baba Yaga, having grown up in Eastern Europe. Some character, I tell ya. And for all we know, she remains enveloped in mystery, which makes her all the more interestingly frightening.

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