Baba Yaga: Witch or old woman?

WHO IS BABA YAGA?

  • Baba Yaga is a legendary witch, or a hag, who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. The predatory Baba Yaga, who has a special liking for children, is a subcategory of crone. She’s also known as Old Hag Yaga.
  • Yaga May be related to Slavic words for grudge or brawl. Or the Russian word for eating.
  • She’s not always malignant.
  • She is cunning.
  • She’s in control of natural and supernatural magic and above all of food supplies.
  • She dispenses hospitality capriciously.
  • Baba Yaga is unusually specific for a fairy tale character — she is often an individual.
  • She lives in a woodland cottage that runs about on chicken legs.
  • Unusual mode of flight ferries through the air in a pestle and mortar sweeping her tracks with besom as she goes. (The pestle is the rudder.) Sometimes she travels in a flying cauldron. In her wake boil tempests, hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • She fences her domain in the forest with the skulls and bones of her victims whose eyes glow by moonlight. (The skulls are used to decorate the pickets of the fence.)
  • She sets snapping teeth on her door for a lock with hands to bolt it and human limbs to support it.
  • Tiles are made of pancake, the walls of pies.
  • A big oven blazes in the hearth where she sleeps at night.
  • This tale is a close cousin of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Clever children are able to trick her.
  • Witch can have several meanings and exist on several axes. What’s the gender inverse of witch? Sometimes wizard (magic), sometimes ogre (gruesome).
  • She has witchy traits. When we say Baba Yaga is the equivalent of a witch, she’s the kind of witch who corresponds to the female ogre.
  • She can take shape of bird or cat (a sexist trope which predominates throughout all types of modern literature). This shows how very old is the tendency to link femininity to birds and to cats.
  • Sometimes, occasionally though, Baba Yaga is just a regular old woman, like the queen of Snow White.

THE DUALISTIC WOMAN

One of the best-known and strangest characters (from a Western perspective) in Russian [Slavic] folk tales is a witch called Baba Yaga. According to Elizabeth Warner, there are two Baba Yagas, a good one and a bad one. Sometimes within a single narrative, Baba Yaga may display good and evil characteristics. She benignly feeds the hero in “little Ivan The Clever Young Man,” for example, and provides him with a “hot steam-bath,” but threatens to devour Vasilisa the Beautiful. Baba Yaga lives in a dense and dark forest in a cottage built on chicken’s legs that revolves on command. She is an aged, ugly crone and her nose and teeth are long and sharp. Not only is she emaciated like a skeleton, but the fence and gates of her house are built of human bones. According to Warner, “some scholars say” that Baba Yaga’s house guards the frontier between the mortal and spirit worlds.

— Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature

SIMILARITIES TO HANSEL AND GRETEL

Baba Yaga, like Hansel and Gretel’s adversary, has a penchant for human flesh and kidnaps small children. Vasilisa escapes from Baba Yaga’s clutches because she has her “mother’s blessing” to help her, embodied in a doll which advises her and performs the tasks set her by the witch. When Baba Yaga finds out that Vasilisa has been blessed, she sends her home to her stepmother and stepsisters unharmed and with the light they had sent her to fetch. The light given to Vasilisa by the witch is contained in a skull stuck on a pole. The blazing eyes of the skull stare straight at the stepmother and her daughters. “They tried to hide but everywhere they went the eyes followed them. By morning they were shrivelled to a cinder and only Vasilisa was left”. Vasilisa subsequently takes a room with an old woman and waits for her father to return from his business trip. With the doll’s help, she spins a quantity of fine linen thread, weaves a cloth “so delicate it could be drawn through the eye of a needle” and sews twelve shirts for the Tsar. The Tsar is delighted with her work and invites the seamstress to his palace, falls in love with her and asks her to marry him. When Vasilisa’s father returns he is overjoyed to hear of the good fortune that has befallen his daughter. He and the old woman, with whom Vasilisa has been living, come to live in the palace.

The trajectory of the story of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” is similar to that of Hansel and Gretel in a number of ways. Just as they did, Vasilisa must come to terms with the dualistic nature of the mother figure and develop a meaningful relationship with her father/the symbolic order. Her stepmother expels her from the house and sends her into the forest, just as Hansel’s and Gretel’s did, and her stepmother and the witch figure also epitomize the bad breast/mother figure. For Vasilisa the doll embodies the blessing or loving and nurturing aspects of the mother, while the stepmother/witch again represents the evil, cannibalistic characeristics. Vasilisa is not lured into Baba Yaga’s house as Hansel and Gretel are, however. Instead, she recognizes the threat the house and the witch represent but must still approach and comply with Baba Yaga’s commands, fulfilling the onerous tasks she sets. Thus, Vasilisa must face up to the deal with that which she fears just as Maggie Kilgour suggests the infant must do in relation to the breast. The step/mother is again dealt with through matricide but Vasilisa retains the best parts of the mother figure in the body of the doll, which she carries “in her pocket until the day she dies”. Arguably Vasilisa has reconciled with her ambivalent feelings toward her mother who is then reclaimed in the figure of the old woman. Again in this story, economic wealth is associated with the paternal and provides a happy ever after ending.

The empahsis on the devouring aspects of these wicked witches is significant. Baba Yaga’s sharp teeth and the bones and skulls with which her house is constructed are described in oral sadistic terms as CAmpbell suggests. Vasilisa must enter the witche’s domain through gates made of human legs, with human hands for bolts and a mouth with sharp teeth for a lock. Freud discussed the significance of the teeth (in dreams) and proposed that they represented the female genitals, the lower part of the body being transposed to the upper so that “it is ost likely that the mouth refers to the vagina and the rows of teeth which open and close to a phantasy about castrating vaginal teeth”. The gateway to Baba Yaga’s house suggests some transposition of the lower body to the upper and certainly emphasizes the incorporative aspects of the maternal mouths. The devouring vagina mouth with teeth — the vagina dentata — is a symbol for the castrating and incorporating aspects of the cannibalistic female.

— Carolyn Davis, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature

BABA YAGA IN JAPAN

Being a bit of a Japanophile, I can’t help but notice how popular the tale of Baba Yaga is in Japan. Here in the West, I grew up without ever hearing of such a folktale, but in Japan you might see its influence all over the place.

It was Diana Wynne Jones (British) who wrote Howl’s Travelling Castle upon which the anime is based but I can’t help but think of Baba Yaga when I see Hayao Miyazaki’s version of it on the big screen.

Howl's Travelling Castle
Howl’s Travelling Castle as envisioned by Studio Ghibli

Miyazaki includes the character Baba Yaga in Mr Dough And The Egg Princess, which apparently you can only see screening at the Ghibli museum in Japan.

Some people think that Baba Yaga equals the Yubaba in Spirited Away. I can see how they got there — Yubaba does fly away, after turning into a creepy crow. There is a good and an evil version of her. Interestingly, the proto-Slavic word for grandma ‘baba’ may simply be coincidentally phonetically similar to the Japanese ‘Baba’, which also comes from the native Japanese word for grandmother/old woman (obaasan). It’s important to note that Baba is a derogatory term. I believe it’s derogatory in both the Japanese and in the Slavic. But Baba is not a loanword in Japanese. In fact, it’s listed here, in a list of native Japanese words often thought to be from abroad. It may have been this very phonetic correspondence that spurred Hayao Miyazaki’s imagination when it came to the creation of Yubaba. It’s a false cognate, but in Japanese the word baba also refers to an old hag. The worst thing you could call a woman is a kusobaba — a ‘shit crone’.

 

There is no direct equivalent of Baba Yaga in Japanese folklore, but indeed, the Japanese do not need her because they have a lengthy list of weird folkloric creatures of their own. I can only deduce that Baba Yaga fits in well with the weirdness, hence Studio Ghibli’s fascination for her. Japan does have a fire breathing chicken type thing and ghosts that eat corpses. Then there’s the bird-demon created from the spirits of freshly dead corpses.

Here’s a more in depth look at some similarities between Slavic and Japanese folkloric old ‘hags’.

Mythological cannibals don’t seem to be all that common in other cultures. I expected the Wikipedia category to be much bigger in fact. Perhaps Russia and Japan are historically more similar than I’d thought?

Happy dreams.

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