Baba Yaga, also known as Baba Iaga, is one of the most famous witches in Slavic folklore. She is a popular figure in children’s fairy tales, and was one of the common stories of the Russian oral tradition. Her origin is part of her mystery. The first written reference to her was in 1755 in Mikhail W. Lomonosov’s Russian Grammar, where she is listed amongst ancient figures from Slavic tradition. The indication is that the legend began in pre-Christian, pagan times where people were very superstitious and believed that their fates were not of their own making but at the mercy of other-worldly deities.
Origin of Her Name
“Baba Yaga” has a variety of meanings. Baba has been translated as old woman, hag, or grandmother, depending on which Slavic language is being referenced. Yaga or Iaga has no definitive scholarly consensus. The word means horror and shudder in Serbian and Croatian, anger in Slovenian, witch in old Czech, wicked wood nymph in Modern Czech, witch and fury in Polish, and serpent or snake in Sanskrit.
What Does She Look Like?
The Russian witch is described as a deformed, scraggly old woman with bony legs, a very long crooked nose, piercing cold eyes, and iron teeth. Her demeanor is powerful and unpredictable. Her intention is to instill fear and guarded respect in anyone who encounters her. Every body part of the Baba witch is grotesque.
House of Baba Yaga
The Russian Baba witch lives deep in the forest in a hut that rests on giant chicken legs that can move around the forest to make it harder for anyone to find her. The windows serve as eyes to watch over her domain and the fence post around the hut is built out of human bones and is topped with human skulls. When her house moves it spins while emitting a screeching noise, until it comes to settle down with groans and creaks. And it prefers to turn its back toward all visitors.
Folklore of the Slavic Witch
Various versions of the Baba Yaga witch story state that she is either a single witch or a trio of witches who all have the same name. Most tales say that she rides around the forest in a giant mortar. She also uses her mortar and pestle to grind up the bones of the people she eats. When flying, she uses the huge pestle like a rudder. She holds it in her right hand while she holds a broom in her left hand to wipe away her trail. A few tales have her using the traditional witches’ broom for transportation. The baba witch can remove her hands from her body so she can have them do her bidding.
She has the power to help or hurt anyone who crosses her path. Those who seek her wisdom, truth, and knowledge must first complete several tasks. If the tasks are completed, she will give her help. If the tasks are not fulfilled, and the seeker has not found a way to escape, she will cook and eat them.
Similarities to the Famous German Fairytale
One tale closely resembles the story of Hansel and Gretel. Two children enter Baba Yaga’s hut and she gives them impossible tasks to complete. They are able to escape being put in the oven and eaten with the help of some talking forest creatures, a tree, and a gate. Another story tells of a young girl, Vasilisa the Beautiful, who seeks Baba Yaga’s help to find some firelight. After completing several tough chores, Baba gives her a fire in a skull lantern and lets Vasilisa return home.
Baba Yaga is a mysterious and rather confusing character. She possesses many contradictory qualities, and although she is quite ruthless and vile, she is also beneficent and kind. Baba is omniscient – she knows all things – and will reveal anything if the person is worthy. The kindhearted, noble, virtuous and herioc people that come in contact with her receive gifts from her. She also controls all the elements of nature like Mother Earth, and she can be quite motherly at times.
The Baba Yaga story and poems are in many children’s books today, and there are many variations of the famous witch. The moral of the Baba witch story seems to be that anyone who possesses a loving and honorable heart can overcome even the worst evil. Surely, any story that can teach that to our children should endure.
Witches in Slavic Mythology
Folk Tales from the Russian, 1903
The Confounding Crone of Slavic Folklore
The Mythical Witch of Slavic Folklore