Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Baba Yaga: Not For the Faint of Heart Class Notes

Iagaia, Iga, Egabova, Egi-boba, Aga Gnishna, Baushka, Iagabakha, Izhuzhbaba, Jedibaba, Baba Jaga, Баба-Ягіня, Баба Яга, Ježibaba, Баба Јага: No matter what you call her, wherever in the world you may be, the Baba Yaga is seen all over Eastern Europe.

Who is Baba Yaga?

(She) has a clay face, sharpened gilded teeth, and lives in the forest with her daughter Marinushka, in a marsh, in a hut on chicken legs, or a hu on chicken feet, or in a little house on a spindle heel. She lies on a high bed with her nose in the ceiling, and she doesn't see the Russian scent and she doesn't hear people. She rides on a stick or in a mortar, driving it with a pestle, and she sweeps the road ahead with a broom; or she rides in a mortar, leaning on a pestle, beating with a broom. She is ugly and huge, her face is completely furry, sometimes mangy, her eyes are as big as eggs and her disshevelled, matted hair always hangs loose, like a scarecrow. Her clothes are white or made of a torn white striped material or her clothing is 'like the bark of a spruce tree.' She has a black cloth wound over her head, or wears a pointed povoinik. She spins on a beam. Human fingers float in her food. She gives children porridge with dried-up snot.”

-Information gathered in little bits all over the eastern part of the Vladmir province by G. K. Zavoiko.

Earliest interpretations describe Baba Yaga as a Slavic pagan goddess or at least as a mythical being closely related to the Slavic deities.

-Identified as the embodiment of a storm cloud, associated with death and winter. Mortar and mobile hut are metaphors of the cloud. Staff/crutch is like the club of Perun, a slavic thunder god, metaphor for lightening. The legs of her hut represent lightening, the legs making her “cloud” turn and run fast. Some equate her iron teeth with lightening.

-Baba Yaga is equated with Holda (a Germanic figure), having many of the same characteristics. Holda causes snow and rain, keeps the souls of unborn children and receives the souls of the dead unbaptized children, associated with cloth and spinning, rewards good spinners and punishes bad ones.

-Mice, the messengers of death. In Slavic and German belief, children give their teeth to a mouse and ask for an iron one in return.

-Crow, frightens children and burns the fingers of bad spinners.

-Baba Yaga is the death of human beings and nature, holder of the keys to heaven, sends souls to earth and takes them back, oversees women's domestic work (spinning and weaving), guardian of mortality in this life.

-Associated with fertility of the earth, marriage, and birth. Giver of life and death. “Yaga became winter and devouring death, casting her summer image (friendly and fertilizing) from herself and gave it to her daughters”

-Moon goddess: like the crescent moon, Yaga stretches to fill her whole hut which is constantly turning.

Many try to describe Baba Yaga as a witch, but descriptions of witches, although similar, have many factors that plainly disapprove the theory. For example, witches are described to steal milk from their neighbors' cows. There is not a single recorded story of Baba Yaga preforming such an action. Baba Yaga has been associated with many other figures in folk belief as well, such as the forest spirit (living in the forest, protecting lakes from children who might steal the fish), Noon woman (female spirit who appeared at noon in wheat fields to guard the harvest and does not like children), or even an Iron Woman (woman with iron breasts who would eat children that stole vegetables in her iron mortar). In the Pskov region of Russia, it was not strange to hear Baba Yaga in beliefs that surround the harvest. These female beings are seen as mistresses of the fields and are driven into unharvested parts of the field or into the forest during harvest. At the end of the harvest, songs and chants were used to”chase away the old woman” or urge her to “marry our old man” in obscene songs.

What types of Baba Yaga stories are there?

Often portrayed as an antagonist, she sometimes is also sought out for her wisdom or, on rare occasions, offers guidance to lost souls

Baba Yaga as a donor. She gives the hero, usually reluctantly, something they need to continue their quest. In these stories, the hero is usually sent on a journey that usually results in marriage and they either seek out or accidentally come across a Baba Yaga who will help them along their way with a magic horse or some other helpful item. Since the forest was symbolically the land of the dead, returning from the forest was a form of rebirth or possibly even seen as a trial into adulthood. Usually all these donor tales are centered around male heroes and end with the hero getting married.

Baba Yaga as a tester. Giving tests to the hero, usually a child, so that when they return having completed these difficult tasks and tell their father what happened, he usually ends up upset at his new wife that caused this to happen and tosses her in the river or beats her or leaves her.

Baba Yaga as an ambiguous figure. Sometimes she appears as both a donor and a villain in the same tale. Sometimes she is sister with herself where one is a donor and the other is a villain.

Baba Yaga as the evil witch. In these tales, Baba Yaga is a villain and all the typical donor conversations are reversed. Baba Yaga tries to offer the hero various things, but knowing it is just a trick, the hero constantly refuses them and the Yaga tries to kill the hero.

Baba Yaga and children:

Here we see a few different types of story. There are those of a boy and her oven where she tries to cook a child. Usually in this setting the child is warned of the Baba Yaga and is left alone and then the witch abducts the child in order to cook him in the oven. This always happens in threes where the first to attempts fail but the third succeeds. These stories coincide with the slavic tradition of baking away a child's illness. The hearth, being thought of as the womb and seen as the womanly duty to keep constantly lit and warm. If a child was ill after being born, they considered it was because the child didn't have enough time in the womb so they would place the child in the cooling evening oven to 'bake away the illness'.

Another story subtype is Baba Yaga and the kind and unkind girls. In these stories, usually a wicked stepmother will send her kind step-daughter to Baba Yaga in hopes that she will be eaten. When she returns, well rewarded for her kindness, she sends her own unkind daughter to the Baba Yaga thinking her daughter 3 times better than her stepdaughter will return with three times the wealth. Instead the girl is eaten and returned as a bag of bones.

What typical things will you find in different Baba Yaga stories?

She rode up to the gate, stopped, and sniffing the air around her, cried: “Fie fie! I smell a Russian smell! Who is here?”

-from Vasilisa the Brave

-Baba Yaga always 'smells' a Russian hero. Some scholars think that this is proof she is blind, symbolizing death. Think of blindman's bluff where the blind would hunt out and capture the other children. The term heard in many stories is “Fi fi, I smell a Russian child.' This smell of the living can oft times be offensive or even frightening to the dead. Just as the living can not see the dead, there is the possibility that the dead can not see the living.

-Words spoken to make Izbushka turn around: Since the forest was symbolically the land of the dead, returning from the forest was a form of rebirth or possibly even seen as a trial into adulthood. Baba Yaga is seen as the guardian of the gate, her home facing death and away from life. Hence the hero, not being able to just walk from the land of the living to the land of the dead, had to make the hut turn with a magic phrase that was usually: “Izbushka, Isbushka. Turn your back to the forest and your face to me so I may enter.”

-If a hero refuses to say where he is going or what he is doing until Baba Yaga feeds him, she complies. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is said that the deceased would have their mouth opened and food placed within to allow passage to the other world. Seen here, with Baba Yaga feeding the hero, the hero needs to prepare before stepping foot on the other side.

-The description of Baba Yaga within her home. She is always described to fill the little hut completely, almost like a dead person inside a coffin.

-Guardian/mistress of the animals/forest. Not only does she call the animals and trees to her aid, but she will also request the animals to follow the hero and help them on their quest.

-Threats of eating children. In many stories, Baba Yaga threatens to eat children that do not follow her tasks or are unkind. There are two very different stories in this manner. One where the child uses their kindness to a dog, tree, cat, or other creature under Baba Yaga's watch to escape the old woman. Another where two daughters, one good and one bad, visit Baba Yaga at different times and the good one is rewarded and the bad one is eaten.

How old are Baba Yaga stories?

Before throwing light upon the question of the tale's origin, one must first answer the question as to what the tale itself represents.

-V. Propp in Morphology of the Folktale

This is difficult to determine and we will need to discuss more of where Baba Yaga came from both through pictures and thoughts and words before being able to fully understand how old her stories are. The Baba Yaga is a folk tale that certainly came from the Eastern Slavs who viewed the character as a spirit in their practice. Unfortunately there are norecordings of secular folktales from the Kievan time period as most writing at that time focused on ecclesiastical writings. Literary documents do mention that storytellers and tales existed, but that were condemned by officials of the church. In the twelth century, for example, St. Kirill of Turov spoke of punishments in the world beyond for anyone who told a story or played a gusli. But, just as bath water continued to be saved from ceremonial baths against the churches wishes, certainly people still continued to tell stories and sing songs. Although the church spoke out against people doing many of these things, there were no true punishments today, just in the life after. Many of these traditions were staples to people, especially those in the smaller cities and towns were the churches were not as prevalent.

Still, written records in Russia only refered to having oral traditions and no stories were written down until the sixteenth century when an Italian historian recorded a folktale during a diplomatic mission from a Russian member. It wasn't until around the eighteenth century that true collection of folktales began, and by then the tales were being edited with the authors own ideas for the stories.

What historical references do we see in typical Baba Yaga stories?


In China during the Tang Dynasty, cannibalism was reported by rebel forces who were said to raid neighboring areas for victims to eat. Even in Mongol, under the rule of Genghis Khan, hard times created stories of 'eating anything that moved'. With the constant Mongol raids into Russian, it is not hard to imagine people making stories that warned of a cannibalistic old woman in the forest, far from the city, that would harm curious and wandering children.

There were reports of cannibalism recorded during the Crusades as Crusaders fed on bodies of their dead opponents. Even the inhabitants of Hungary were reported to be cannibals as they had only converted to Christianity from paganism in the 10th century. Even during the great famine, in 1315-1217, there were many reports of cannibalism among starving populations.

A popular statue called Menschenfresserin (cannibal) by Leonhard Kern in 1650 depicts a woman eating a leg while a child sits beside her.

Taking a look into other folktales in history, one of the most prominent is Hansel and Gretel with a witch that planned to bake them in her oven.

-Death houses

It is thought that Baba Yaga stories came about in the same manner as the scare tactics in other cultures where a child would be informed that their dead grandmother lived under their bed and if they did anything wrong, grandmother would rise and eat them or their souls.

In 1905, an excavation found burial mounds dating to the 11th-12 centuries. Within these mounds they found a fence that surrounded three-walled boxes set on stumps of oak to keep them sturdy. Sound familiar? These mounds were always kept far from the cities as people thought death might be infectious and the openings to the boxes were faced away from the city and towards the forest. The boxes were small, just enough to fit a person inside. In Slavic tradition, the bodies were to be cremated as that would help the soul rise towards the heavens. When Christianity took over, the condemned the idea of cremation and spoke that only burying a body was correct. This upset the Slavs as they felt it placed the person closer to hell. It is theorized that they asked for a fire to help warm the frozen ground and would then burn the bodies and place the bones of the bodies in these three walled coffins ontop of the tree stumps so that the body was still raised higher towards the heavens. Most all the bones found in the boxes in the burial mounds in 1905 were clearly cremated and then the bones laid to rest. It was also certain that the fires had to be elsewhere as there was no pile of ash or charcoal anywhere in the mound.


Kievan Russia by George Vernadsky

This book discusses a lot of the changes from Slavic pagan traditions as Russia evolved into Christianity.

Slavic Folklore: A Handbook by Natalie Kononenko

A great book that discusses many traditions and beliefs of the Slavic people. Good for learning more about the various figures in Slavic belief from Perun to Baba Yaga.

Russian Fairy Tales collected by Aleksandr Afanas'ev

One of the best and oldest collections of Russian folktales that has been recorded. Many wonderful and fantastic stories of Baba Yaga in all her forms.

Morphology of the Folktale by V. Propp

Perhaps the best book to go to for any resource as to how folktales were and are created and how they can be taken apart to find historical references. Very useful to be able to see the commonalities between folktales from all over the world.

Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale by Andreas Johns

The be all end all book packed full of psychological, mythological, and folk belief basis for the creation and continued life of Baba Yaga in tales.


This is the article on the death houses that I found.