Folktale Friday: Beating Baba Yaga

Originating in Russian and Slavic folktales, or Skazkas, Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic forest dwelling witch who doesn’t suffer fools; she eats them instead.

Baba Yaga FAQS

How do I know I’m looking at Baba Yaga ?

Described as a tall, gaunt hag with dishevelled hair, what differentiates Baba Yaga from a celebrity without makeup is that she lives in a cabin in the woods which stands on the “legs of a fowl”.

Photo by Monika Kubala on Unsplash

Although in other translations, her shack is described as standing on stilts that only resemble chicken legs. Whatever the case, if you see a home surrounded by a fence of human bones, you’ve found her.

She may live faraway from civilisation, but Baba Yaga is no shut-in, and can frequently be found flying around the forest, not on a broomstick, but in a mortar which she –

urges on with a pestle, while she sweeps away the traces of her flight with a broom

W. R. S. Ralston, Russian Fairy Tales
Photo by Nada on Pexels.com

Often depicted as a hermit, Baba Yaga has sisters, who typically assist her in procuring her favourite white meat.

She’s also a pet lover, keeping a menagerie of rats, toads and other creepy crawlies that she refers to as her “children.”

What’s the threat level of Baba Yaga?

Well, she’s a cannibal who kills and eats children and anyone else who crosses her path so: HIGH.

Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash

Furthermore, what she lacks in physical strength she makes up for in trickery and cunning, with many of her victims being lured to their deaths via impossible challenges and hollow promises. Meanwhile, other victims are turned to stone and pounded to bits in her mortar.

Is there any way to beat Baba Yaga?

Yes. Although the methods vary depending on which tale you read.

If we stick to two specific stories, Baba Yaga and Vassilisa the Fair the best way to thwart the witch is to:

Photo by Vie Studio on Pexels.com

In Baba Yaga, a young girl is sent to the witch’s home at the behest of her hateful stepmother (who also happens to be Baba Yaga’s sister). Before she leaves she drops in on a trusted aunt who gives her a list of kind acts to perform on her journey. (Or a collection of small, seemingly inconsequential items, depending on the version you read).

When the little girl finally reaches the house on chicken legs, Baba Yaga demands she perform a series of impossible tasks, like making a fire from human bones. Luckily, those she has shown kindness to help her complete the tasks and aid her escape through the gifts of a magical comb and towel:

“…When you hear that (Baba Yaga) is close at hand…throw down the towel. It will become a wide, wide river. And if the Baba Yaga gets across the river, and tries to catch you, then you must lay your ear on the ground again, and when you hear that she is close at hand, throw down the comb. It will become a dense, dense forest; through that she won’t be able to force her way (through).”

Baba Yaga,
W.R.S Ralston, Russian Fairy Tales, 1872

In Vassilisa the Fair, the titular Vassilisa avoids being eaten by Baba Yaga by taking good care of a small doll gifted to her by her mother before her death. The doll, a magic talisman, provides warnings and advice that help the young girl avoid the witch’s oven.

However, in this tale, rather than running away Vassilisa is freed by Baba Yaga when she discovers the young girl was “blessed” by her mother.

Get along out of my house, you bless’d daughter. I don’t want bless’d people.

Baba Yaga in Vassilisa the Fair

So if you want to avoid being killed and eaten, it pays to listen to your elders, to be kind and caring, and, if possible, be:

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

If all that seems too much like hard work, you can always trick the witch like Russian folk hero, Prince Ivan.

The story goes that one day the Prince observed a friend conversing with the hag. During their discussion, Baba Yaga plucked a hair from her head and gave it to him with the instructions –

Tie three knots and then blow

He did (though I’m not sure why) and was instantly turned to stone, before being pounded into a fine powder in Baba Yaga’s mortar and pestle. When Prince Ivan found himself face to face with the witchy woman rather follow her instructions and suffer a similar fate, he feigned ignorance.

Frustrated by his stupidity, Baba Yaga showed the prince how to tie the knots and in doing so turned HERSELF into stone.

“Dagnabbit!” – Baba Yaga (probably)
Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash

So what have we learnt?

Before Hansel and Gretel, the Wicked Witch of the West or the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, there was Baba Yaga, the original child-killing sorceress.

A European Boogey woman who loved kids, especially when served with a side of chips, Baba Yaga is both the origin of every “evil witch” story you’ve ever heard and a villain whose crimes are so abhorrent she makes the Blair Witch look like a kindly kindergarten teacher.

Albeit one who was really into handprint art.
Photo by thom masat on Unsplash

And yet, as fearsome and formidable as she is, Baba Yaga can be beaten, if not through trickery, then through caring about and showing kindness to others. Traits, the stories suggest, that children can develop, if they have at least one trustworthy adult in their life.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

RESOURCE and FURTHER READING:

Russian Fairy Tales, A Choice Collection of Muscovite Folk-lore
Author: W. R. S. Ralston
Published: 1872
Accessed through Project Gutenberg
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22373/22373-h/22373-h.htm

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