One of the most perplexing and frightening folk tales of all time is the tale of the Baba Yaga, the Eastern European figure who is said to be able to change forms and can be a helper or a villain. When a person encounters the Baba Yaga, she may be a motherly figure to them or she may indifferent to their plight. Her ambiguity is one of her most frightening qualities.
What is the Baba Yaga?
According to Andreas Johns, one of the leading folklorist researchers who investigated the stories behind the Baba Yaga, the Baba Yaga is:
a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird, Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image.Russian Folk-Tales by Andreas Johns
Many people report seeing the Baba Yaga as a deformed old woman, similar to the way a witch has traditionally been depicted in the West but is commonly described as having very slender legs. Often, the woman is described as having the legs of a chicken, not metaphorically, but literally having bird-like legs. She is also described as having a long nose, iron teeth and is nearly always depicted with a mortar and pestle. She is commonly described as living in a hut, deep in the forest. The hut itself is often depicted as rotating on chicken legs itself. Sometimes, the Baba Yaga is depicted as stretching from one end of the hut to the other, being able to deform her body.
Vasilia the Beautiful
One of the most famous Baba Yaga stories is called Vasilia the Beautiful. It is a fairy tale collected by folklorists in the 19th century. It describes a girl named Vasilia who is eight years old when her mother dies. Vasilia’s mother gave her a wooden doll while she was on her death bed with the instructions that if she is ever in need, she can give the doll food and drink and the doll will help her. After he father remarries, Vasilia new stepmother begins to treat her very cruelly. After giving the doll food and drink, the doll performed her daily tasks for her to help ease her suffering. At one point, all of the candles are out in the house and, knowing that Baba Yaga eats children like chickens, the family sends Vasilia to fetch fire from Baba Yaga’s hut.
While on the way to Baba Yaga’s hut, Vasilia sees three men on horses, one white, another red and the last one was all black. Each rider was dressed all in that color riding a horse of that same color. The black rider made her skull lantern glow and scared her badly. It is at this point that she finds the Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga instructs her to perform a series of tasks in exchange for burning coals. As the tasks became more and more difficult, she asked the doll for help again, at which point, the doll helps perform her tasks. One of the tasks was to separate rotten corn from clean corn and Vasilia saw a set of disembodied hands that separated the corn. When Baba Yaga asks how she completed her tasks, the doll began to quiver to indicate she shouldn’t tell Baba Yaga how she was able to complete them. Vasilia replied “by my mother’s blessing”, at which point Baba Yaga threw her out of her hut because she did not want anyone around her with a blessing. Vasilia discovers that the skull lantern is now full of burning coals.
When Vasilia gets home, she discovers there is a curse on the house which prevents them from lighting any fires or candles. Each time they had tried to light one, the fire is immediately extinguished. When Vasilia crosses the threshold of the house, the coals burn her sisters and stepmother to ashes, saving Vasilia from a lifetime of torture.
The Tale of Ivan
In another common story, one of the first collected about hte Baba Yaga, a merchant’s son by the name of Ivan. Ivan comes across the Baba Yaga hut, again rotating on chicken legs, and upon entering, Baba Yaga complains of his “Russian smell”. Baba Yaga asks him if he is there on his own free will or was he coerced into coming. The boy replies that he is there largely on his own free will but he is also there by compulsion. Baba Yaga tells him to find another Baba Yaga. Ivan goes to a second Baba Yaga hut, identical to the first and the second Baba Yaga asks him the same questions and tells him to go to a third Baba Yaga. Upon arriving at the third Baba Yaga’s hut, Baba Yaga again complains of his “Russian smell” and starts to try to eat the boy. The boy stops Baba Yaga and begs her to give him three horns. Baba Yaga blows three horns, each one louder than the last and upon blowing the last horn, birds stat to fly in from all sides of the hut. One of the birds is a firebird which tells Ivan to lay back so Baba Yaga can eat him. As soon as he lies back, Baba Yaga runs at him and grabs the firebird by the tail feathers. This gives Ivan a chance to break free, leaving the Baba Yaga holding the tail feathers of the firebird.
Baba Yaga in the 21st Century
Many people report dreaming of Baba Yaga or having visions about her. She is sometimes seen by people of the region as a maternal figure and sometimes as a terrifying villain. Although Baba Yaga stories rarely pop up outside of Russia or Eastern Europe, the figure of Baba Yaga does surface in pop culture. Most famously, Baba Yaga figures prominently in the Netflix show the OA, being helpful at times and frightening at others. People will undoubtedly continue to have similar dreams and visions as the story of Baba Yaga becomes part of the global culture.