Myth Monday: Baba Yaga, the Monstrous Russian Witch (Slavic Folktale)
By Kara Newcastle
Okay, if you’ve seen the John Wick movies, you probably heard the titular character being referred to as “Baba Yaga” by the terrified Russian mobsters he picks off. One character explains that the Baba Yaga was a boogeyman of Russian folklore.
Nyet, tovarisch … she was so much worse.
Well, of course, as with most legends and myths, it depends on who’s telling the tale. For the most part, Baba Yaga was described as a very old woman, hideously ugly, who lived in the darkest of the woodland and practiced powerful magic. She was a cannibal, preferring the taste of children, though she was not averse to any adults who might wander her way. Baba Yaga was capable of great cruelty and wickedness, but, surprisingly, could also be moved to help people in need.
Baba Yaga’s mythological evolution is interesting. In the mid-1700s, Russian scholar Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov compared the Slavic gods with their Roman counterparts. He suggested that the Slavic gods were really just Russian versions of the Roman gods (not entirely; the Romans always shoehorned their gods into the beliefs of the people they conquered, but that’s another blog.) The only Slavic deity that Lomonosov couldn’t match to a Roman god was Baba Yaga. There was no Roman or Greek equivalent to her. This would mean that A) Baba Yaga was 100% unique as a deity, B) belief in her was so strong that the Slavs refused to accept any outside influence on her myth, and, my personal theory, C) she freaked the Romans out so bad that they just didn’t want to have anything to do with her.
But what is that identity? Unfortunately, almost all we know about Baba Yaga and the other Slavic gods was passed on to us orally, so many of the early stories are probably lost forever. She’s probably an amalgamation of many Dread Goddesses and Mother Goddesses, cobbled together by various Eastern European tribes and clans as they met throughout history.
Because we’ve lost the early myths, we don’t know what Baba Yaga’s real name might have been, or which goddess she might have been most closely associated with. “Baba Yaga” is likely an honorific title given to her and was probably created only centuries ago when Christianity became the dominant religion in Eastern Europe and saying the true name of an evil entity was thought to draw it to you. With the influence of Christianity, the woodland death goddess was suddenly shrunk down into a nasty old lady and frequently recast as the Devil’s grandmother.
The term baba in Slavic cultures usually means “grandmother,” though it does have roots in the words for both “midwife” and “sorceress.” This isn’t surprising; in many cultures, older women worked as midwives, having spent the majority of their adulthood helping other women in their village or tribe give birth. They would have been highly skilled in herbs and medicines, and well-versed in charms for fertility, for helping the mother and baby during labor, and for preparing bodies in the sad event that one or both subjects didn’t survive the process. Having so much knowledge and practice, these older women were probably very successful in delivering healthy babies and helping mothers survive the ordeal, so the older women would have been looked upon as magic workers.
However, the term yaga doesn’t have an exact translation, though it relates back to many Slavic words meaning, “abusive,” “angry,” “horror,” “dirty,” and even “evil woman.” Now that people weren’t worshipping her as a Dread Goddess, but still believed that she was a vile creature that haunted the woods, the Slavs reimagined her as a crotchety, ugly, evil old woman. Essentially, if we were to very loosely translate Baba Yaga’s name to modern English, it would come out as something like, “Grandmother Evil.”
Some tales even depict Baba Yaga as three sisters instead of a singular character, relating back to the myths of a Trifold Goddess (a goddess who is depicted in three forms, often in a girl/mother/crone aspect, such as the Fates in Greek mythology, or as three sisters each with special power, like Macha/Badb/Nemain in Celtic mythology.) Stories featuring the Baba Yaga sisters usually portray them all as being ugly and ferocious, but the eldest and middle sisters are more helpful, while the youngest is much more bloodthirsty.
As I’ve said before, Baba Yaga is incredibly ugly. It doesn’t matter if she’s portrayed as a benefactor or a villain, in every story she is just ugly. I mean, like advanced ugliness. Being so old, Baba Yaga is, of course, wizened, but she is often described as having grotesquely sharpened or even iron teeth, a severely longed or hooked nose, hands gnarled into claws, and might even be hairy to the point of sporting a beard—or having nose hairs so long that she could tie them together under her chin. Storytellers often note that there is something wrong with one or both of Baba Yaga’s legs: Baba Yaga may be completely missing one leg, she may have one normal leg and the other one is a serpent (again, relating back to the earth mother theme: snakes were associated with the earth and with infernal wisdom; they could travel to the Underworld and talk to the dead; due to their ability to shed their skin, were used as symbols for immortality), or might have had both legs except they’re nauseatingly skinny (leading to one of her nicknames, “Old Bony Legs,”) or missing all of their bones. She can be the size of a little old lady, or she can stretch herself the full width of her house. Baba Yaga is also said to be very filthy—remember, one of the root words for yaga is “dirty.”
Baba Yaga lived in possibly the most interesting house in all of mythology: it was a cottage that stood upon a set of giant chicken legs. Not a whole chicken, mind you, just the legs (sometimes a pair, sometimes only one, sometimes four. I never said that mythology was consistent.). If Baba Yaga became tired of the area where she was living, she would order her house to walk off to a new location. Sometimes the legs are constantly moving, turning the house round and round so only those who knew the special spell could get inside. Frequently, the house was said to be devoid of doors and windows, leaving only a chimney for Baba Yaga to come and go (sound familiar?)
If a hut set on a pair of T. Rex-sized bird legs isn’t enough to creep you out, then you should take a look at Baba Yaga’s fence circling her home; the fence is entirely built out of human bones, collected from the people she’s eaten. Every few feet a skull is driven down atop a spike … and there’s always one spike left empty for the next victim’s head.
Given that Baba Yaga has difficulties with her legs and is said not to be able to walk, she usually gets around by either hopping astride a broom or, much more likely, climbing inside a giant stone mortar (for those of you who don’t know what that is, a mortar is a sort of bowl designed to hold herbs or spices that will be ground up. Remember what I said earlier about older midwives knowing about herbs?) and propels it along with her pestle (grinding tool.) To make sure no one knows where she’s been, Baba Yaga sweeps away her tracks with her broom.
Even immortal witches have to eat, and Baba Yaga’s favorite food by far is human children. Every story I’ve read about Baba Yaga shows her threatening to eat the story’s hero for dinner. Like the Basket Woman, Jenny Greenteeth, and other monsters from mythology, Baba Yaga was probably used to scare small children to keep them from wandering off into the forest and becoming hopelessly lost. On the other hand, if we go back even farther, we find that many old religions described death and burial as returning to the Mother Goddess’s womb. Maybe the whole cannibalization thing was just a misremembered metaphor for going back to the goddess. One can only hope.
No discussion of Baba Yaga is complete without mentioning the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Since I don’t want this blog to be like fifty pages long, I’ll give you the shortest version I can:
Vasilisa was a beautiful Russian girl. When she was young, her dying mother gave her a magic doll and told Vasilisa that if she ever found herself in trouble, she should feed the doll and talk to it. After her mother’s death, Vasilisa’s father married a haughty woman with two daughters of her own. The stepmother and stepsisters hated Vasilisa and gave her the most grueling tasks to do. To accomplish them, Vasilisa fed her magic doll, told her what the trouble was, and the doll would come to life and finish all her tasks for her.
Determined to be rid of Vasilisa, the stepmother put out all the fires and candles in the house. She then ordered Vasilisa to go to their neighbor’s house and ask for a lump of live coal so they could relight their home.
Of course, that neighbor was Baba Yaga.
Vasilisa was frightened, but she consulted her doll. The doll assured her all would be fine and guided her to the witch’s chicken-leg hut. The hut was spinning around in place but, coached by the doll, Vasilisa said the magic spell, “Little house—turn your back to the woods and your front to me!” The house paused, righted itself, then sat down, allowing Vasilisa to enter.
At sunset, Vasilisa watched in horror as a monstrous woman dropped down from the chimney into the house. Covered in folded, wrinkly skin, a beak-like nose curving over jagged, bloody iron teeth, boneless legs dragging behind her as she pulled herself across the floor with her clawed fingers, Baba Yaga shrieked at Vasilisa, demanding to know who she was and why was she in Baba Yaga’s home. Vasilisa was terrified, but she did as her doll had taught her, telling the disgusting witch that she was a maid in need of work.
Baba Yaga eyed Vasilisa for a moment, then told Vasilisa that she did in fact have three tasks for the girl, but warned Vasilisa that should she fail in any of them, then Baba Yaga would eat her. Baba Yaga’s chores were impossible for Vasilisa to accomplish, but the brave girl fed her magic doll and the doll finished all the work.
As with basically every stinkin’ myth or folktale out there, there are two different endings to the story. In the first version, Baba Yaga is disappointed that Vasilisa finished the tasks, but agrees to give her a coal to bring home, placing it inside an empty human skull. As Baba Yaga hands Vasilisa the skull, the witch asks the girl how she was able to do all the work. Vasilisa replies, “With my mother’s blessing.” This causes Baba Yaga to freak out and she throws Vasilisa, her doll, and the skull out of her hut. Clearly Christian-influenced.
The second, possibly older version hints that Baba Yaga had suspected that Vasilisa’s stepmother had sent her to the hut in hopes that the witch would eat her. After Vasilisa finishes the tasks, Baba Yaga gifts her with a coal inside a human skull. She asks Vasilisa to make sure that her stepmother and stepsisters see the gift, escorts Vasilisa out of the house, and bothers her no more.
Either way, both versions have Vasilisa returning home with the skull. When she shows the skull to her stepmother and sisters, a brilliant light blasts out of the skull’s eyes sockets and burns the cruel women to ash. Vasilisa then moves to Moscow, where she becomes a famous weaver and marries a prince.
All thanks to a cannibalistic witch!
In recent times, Baba Yaga’s found a lot of new popularity. She pops up again and again as a reoccurring villain in the Hellboy comics, a character in the roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons, was featured in shows like The Witcher, Lost Girl and Supernatural, appears in a number of novels and movies, and, of course, is John Wick’s nickname in the franchise.
I don’t care how many people John Wick has killed with a pencil, he’s got nothin’ on the real Baba Yaga.