One of the most well known figures from Russian folklore is that of Baba Yaga. Baba Yagas name can be roughly translated as Granny Yaga; or Old Hag. In Russian Myths Baba Yaga brings many of the dominant themes of Russian fairy tales together: she travels on the wind, occupies the domain of the leshii, the forest spirits, and is associated with death. Also known as “Baba Yaga Kostinaya Noga,” or “Baba Yaga Bony Leg” she possesses gnashing steel teeth, and penetrating eyes, and, in short, is quite enough to intimidate even the most courageous (or foolish, depending on the tale) hero or heroine. Like the witches of other cultures, her preferred method of transportation in the folktale is an implement commonly used for household labor, though unlike the witches of the West, rather than traveling upon a broom, she chooses to ride in a mortar, rowing with a pestle, and using a broom to sweep away the tracks or any trace of herself that she may leave. Her home is a mobile hut perched upon chicken legs, which folklorist Vladimir Propp had once said might be related to the zoomorphic izbushkii, or initiation huts, where neophytes were symbolically “consumed” by the monster, only to emerge later as adults.
In his book An Introduction to the Russian Folktale, Jack Haney points out that Baba Yaga’s hut “has much in common with the village bathhouse â€¦ the place where many ritual ceremonies occurred, including the initiatory rituals.” This corresponds to the role that her hut plays in the fairy tales of Russia but the nature of the initiation differs from story to story, dependent upon the circumstances of the character, Baba Yaga’s presence customarily serves as a signifier of change. Baba Yaga’s domain is the forest, widely acknowledged as a traditional symbol of change and a place of peril, where she acts as either a challenger or a helper to anyone who ventures into her space. In Western tales, these two roles are typically split into different characters stereotyped as either “witch” or “fairy godmother.” Baba Yaga, however, is a complex individual: depending on the circumstances of the specific story, she may choose to use her powers for good or ill.
One of the aspects of Baba Yaga that makes her fairly threatening even when she plays the helper role is that, like the witch of “Hansel and Gretel,” her culinary habits leave something to be desired. She is a cannibal: children who fail to observe proper etiquette in her home find themselves serving as examples to the audience, and served to the witch as meals and then made into fences used to warn others of the dangers within. Theorists connect these tales to a Russian ritual of healing referred to as perepekanie (rebaking) in which newly born or ill children were placed in a warm oven with the incantation: “Just as the dough rises, so let the body of this child rise, too”. Jack Haney notes that this “rite finds its analogue in those tales in which a witch, the Baba Yaga, captures a small boy, Ivanushka, and prepares to eat himâ€¦ She tells him to lie down on the oven panel. He lies down; hands and feet straight up, and therefore does not fit into the oven. He asks her to show him how to lie on the oven panel correctly. She lies down, and he pops her into the oven and roasts her.”
It’s interesting Haney’s use of “the” in reference to Baba Yaga indicates her authoritative positioning in the chain of command in Russian myths. Unlike other villains, who may be defeated once, never to be heard from again, Baba Yaga is not permanently conquerable, for Baba Yaga is far more than just another witch. In such stories, typically, the heroes fall into Baba Yaga’s hands by breaking some rule of the forest, or abusing her hospitality, and are assisted or advised by woodland creatures whom they have met and befriended along the way. Vladimir Propp compared Baba Yaga’s role as mistress of the forest and its creatures to a parallel figure from the Indic Rig Veda: it is likely that Baba Yaga is a combination of numerous archetypes, incorporating elements of rulers of the forest and underworld mistresses in a single entity. Scholars of Slavic mythology have also linked her to the ancient Indo-European goddess of death. The forest of Baba Yaga symbolizes more than the forest; it is also the otherworld, the “land of the living dead,” also known as “the thrice-nine kingdom.”
The land of “the truly dead,” also known as the “thrice-ten kingdom,” is separate from her realm. Frequently, the boundary between the two lands is symbolized by a river of fire which she cannot cross – though the hero or heroine often must – and in those cases, Baba Yaga crosses the same bridge as the hero or heroine, only to have it break: she hurtles, not to her death, because she appears in other stories, but certainly out of the current story. When she does return, she is unchanged, indicating one of the fundamental beliefs of the Russian fairy tale: that while humanity may enact changes for the better, there will always be forces working against them.
Baba Yaga utilizes the same basic beliefs of her personality made obvious in many traditional Russian stories: her hunger, her cunning, and her wickedness. When confronted with Tim’s assurance that his protector will find them, Baba Yaga’s reply is simply that “Baba Yaga’s little house is in the heart of the wild forest. And it will not be found in the same place two days running â€¦” Her emphasis upon “heart” serves to emphasize the ravenous nature of the running monologue concerning what it is that she’s found – “What’s Baba Yaga found for herself? Is it a stew? Is it a roast? Is it blood pudding? Oh yes. All of them. Juicy and meaty and tender and sweet.” When she speaks, in the traditional manner, of her anticipated feast, saying “Ohh. Such feasting I will make. The grease will run down my chin, and I will crack your bones with my iron teeth to suck the marrow from within â€¦,” the combined effect of text and illustration flawlessly demonstrates the unique appeal of the genre, culminating in a presentation of Baba Yaga that manages to convey her threat as few other works have done.
Interestingly enough, the heroic character in the myth does not himself defeat Baba Yaga, pointing either to a remnant of the Comics Code or, more likely, to an ongoing immaturity in the character, requiring a longer story arc to resolve the situation properly. The method that he does choose to force her to surrender her claim has interesting repercussions, however: his Rose threatens Baba Yaga with the vocalization of her true name, a technique successful in other cultures, but not one used with any regularity in Russian lore. It implies a cross-cultural set of rules at play within this Otherworldly melting pot which is well worth considering. That assumption is supported by the precise wording of the threat: Rose asks Baba Yaga, “Do you wish me to shout it now, so that all of the animals of the forest, all of the birds of the air, every passing nixie and boggart will know it?” Despite the fact that the nixes and boggarts come from entirely different mythic systems, it is apparent that Baba Yaga does not: she surrenders her claim.
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