Who is Baba Yaga?

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Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Who is Baba Yaga?

Maybe you’re a lucky one who has heard of Baba Yaga. If you haven’t heard of her in one of the countless legends and fables, then perhaps you are familiar with her through the book I’ve written: Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft. But do you really know who this mysterious spirit is and why you should get to know her?

Baba Yaga is the most famous witch of Slavic folklore. She appears in hundreds, if not thousands, of folk tales in the oral tradition. And in the mid-1800s, Russian ethnographer, Alexander Afanasyev, began collecting these folk tales and published them.

We see her as a character in so many tales in Eastern Europe, always as a powerful, old crone who lives deep in the forest in a hut that stands atop two chicken legs. In some stories, she appears as a vicious ogre, in others, she’s a magical helper who offers enchanted tools or information.Sometimes she’s a wise elder who tests the hero or heroine and rewards them with a horse that can jump over rivers  that will lead them to their goal. Other times, she appears like the witch in the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” trying to trick children into going in the oven so she can eat them. But is she just a fairy tale villain or is she something more?

Baba Yaga by Lubok

Baba Yaga is Pan-Slavic 

These folklores were eventually translated into other languages and the Russian name for this witch, Baba Yaga, became the most famous one. However, she appears in the stories of all Slavic countries, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, of course, Belarus, Ukraine, Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia.

For example, in Poland, she’s Baba Jedza, in Belarus, she’s Baba Yaha, in Czech and Slovak, she’s Ježibaba, in Serbo-Croatian, she’s Baba Roga. Other names  we see her with like Igaja, Iga, Yaga, Yagaba, Yagabova, Egabova, Egibizda, Yagiboba, Yaginishna, the list goes on and on. In these different stories, however; she has some attributes that turn up again and again, and we see them in stories going across all of these countries.

Baba Yaga by Bilibin

Baba Yaga’s Attributes

One of the common things that we see as her attribute is her special house. Baba Yaga lives in a very special hut. This house is a tiny little hut, and it’s deep, deep in the forest. And this hut is not a normal hut. Instead, it spins around. In some stories, it spins around on a spindle, but in other stories, it spins around on chicken legs, giant chicken legs that are supporting this little hut, scratching at the ground. Sometimes it’s one chicken leg that it stands on, and it hops around. Other times, it’s two, just like a chicken, other times it’s four. Sometimes it’s a chicken leg with a spindle. So, we see this commonality of there being this house that turns around and around, whether it turns around on a spindle, or a variety of chicken legs, it turns around and around on the spindle.

Another thing is how her hut is protected, sometimes her hut is surrounded by a fence of bones, human bones with skulls at the top of them that are lanterns. This scary fence surrounds her home. Other  times there’s a gate with a bony hand or a lock made out of bones that prevent, idle wanderers from wandering into her space. 

Another attribute that we see across the stories is that her hut is small and that she fills it up.Her hut is so tiny and she’s so big that she can be found stretched out over the stove, reaching from one corner of the hut to the other, her nose touching the ceiling. She’s cramped in this little tiny hut. And that’s another attribute that we see across stories in different countries. 

Another attribute of Baba Yaga that we see in the stories is her mortar and pestle.

A mortar and pestle are the things that we use to grind herbs, seeds, and things like that. And a mortar and pestle is what she travels around in. She has got a big mortar and a big pestle, and she either scoots over the ground or flies through the air in this giant mortar and pushes herself along with the pestle. As she then she uses a broom or a mop to sweep away her tracks so that she can’t be found.

Lastly, another attribute of Baba Yaga is that she is always old, ugly and wrinkled. In some she might have a bony leg or she might have iron teeth that are scary and sharp, that she sharpens before her victim comes into her space. But she’s always seen as an old woman. They sometimes describe her with snot coming out of her nose and lice in her hair. 

 

Baba Yaga by Koka

Aspects of her Stories 

This is how it usually goes with her in the stories that we find her in. Often in the tales, the hero or the heroine would go into the deepest part of the forest, where they would come upon this small one-room hut, standing on chicken legs. And those chicken legs are scratching on the ground.

The house would turn its back to the hero or the heroine. Even if they try walking around the house, it would keep its back and the door, obviously, turned away from the hero or heroine until she says, the hero or heroine says, “Hut, hut, turn your back to the forest and your front to me.” And those magic words would turn the hut around so that the heroine could enter the hut where she would encounter Baba Yaga.When the hero or heroine comes in, Baba Yaga might smell them and exclaim, “Foo, foo, I smell a Russian spirit,” or, “Foo, foo, I smell a Russian person.” It’s similar to, “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,” from “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Another aspect that happens often in her stories is when someone comes into her house, she will ask them if they come of their own free will or if they come on someone else’s errand. This is a trick question meant to trick them to see if they really are coming because they want to be there with her or because somebody sent them on a mission, possibly to destroy her.

At that point, she might try and trick the hero or the heroine. She might try and eat them or she might give them a series of challenges before giving them a reward. And then in every story, it varies at that point, whether it’s if she’s trying to eat them, she’s gonna chase them, she’s gonna give them a special magical item. 

Baba Yaga Fairytales

Variations and History of Baba Yaga

Some of the tales of Baba Yaga actually feature three Baba Yagas, and they’re often depicted as sisters in a version of the fairytale, “The Maiden Tsar,” the hero, Yvonne, makes his way to the home of one of three Baba Yagas to find the directions to the magical thrice-tenth kingdom. Now, as he goes to the first Baba Yaga, she directs him to her sister, when he goes to that Baba Yaga, she directs her to their other sister.And finally, he arrives at the house of the third and the youngest Baba Yaga. So, sometimes she’s a single witch. Sometimes she’s sister witches, usually three. Now, as all of this I’ve been telling you, she may just seem like a fairytale-supporting actor in the stories, but there is much evidence that her importance and her stories actually go back to the oldest times. And they are a way of keeping the story of the spirit who is actually a spirit that people interacted with alive.

In ancient times, Baba Yaga was actually the forest woman, mother, or sometimes the forest grandmother. She lived alone in the forest as she does in the stories, but she was associated with snakes, serpents, and dragons. She was also associated with birds and all of the creatures of the forest. In ancient times, people who lived near forests and worked in them or had to travel through them and worked in nature would appeal to her for safety and bounty. Nature being unpredictable. They would ensure that they were gonna be safe and they were going to have a fruitful hunt, or a fruitful mushroom picking. Like nature, Baba Yaga can be approached with respect and reverence, and you can receive gifts. But if you approach her with arrogance, you’ll probably get a lesson of some kind. It’s just like nature herself, right? If you don’t respect nature, nature might teach you a lesson. And the same goes for Baba Yaga as well. Now, we’re talking about ancient, ancient times. 

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

Christianity Influences  

As time progressed, Christianity arrived on the scene in 988 AC  and then the old Slavic spirits and the deities were flipped on their heads. There were some that were turned into saints. So, Parascheva Pianica is a spirit that was then turned into a saint. She became St. Parascheva.  Others that weren’t turned into saints, well, they were turned into demons, and certainly, Baba Yaga, an unpredictable spirit like Baba Yaga wouldn’t be turned into a saint. And so, she was turned into an evil ogre and evil witch in the stories.

Now, we can look at the stories of Baba Yaga and see which stories are older and which ones are less touched by that Christian propaganda by looking at how she is portrayed. In the older stories, she’s tough. There’s no doubt about that, but she tests her hero or heroine with some difficult tasks, and then rewards them with a magical item or important information.

Children at Baba Yaga's Hut

Test and Challenges 

Now, this is an important concept to understand because it’s remarkably similar to initiation ceremonies. If you know what an initiation is, an initiation means being introduced as a member of a community. You are being initiated into a community when you’re being initiated. For example, in Western Europe, in centuries past, if you were a stoneworker or a mason, you would join a guild. To join the guild, you would go through a series of tests and trials to leave your old life behind and begin your new life as a mason.

This is where Freemasonry, the sort of social group came from was they were actually a guild of masons and stoneworkers that then became a sort of a club. Now if you were to say become , a warrior in ancient times, a monk, a witch, or a wise woman, and you were going to join a group of some kind, you would experience some kind of initiation where you would leave your old life behind and enter into your new identity.There would be a series of tests to commemorate this. You would also ensure that you are ready to be a member of the community, and it would test your commitment to the group. Now, Baba Yaga is the forest mother who performs the initiations into the world of spirit. That world of spirit is the world of the other worlds. It’s also the world of nature and connecting deeply with nature.

In her stories, a great feature of many of our stories is her peach. The peach is the big woodstove that dominated the homes of most Slavic people. You have to understand that most Slavic countries have cold weather. And so, the big fire in the home was very important. It was not only to cook your food, it was there to wash your clothes. It And to heat your home which is a major part of the story. In the oldest times, the peach, the fire, the oven, the big wood stove was the place where Honored our ancestors, the fire in the stove was representational of the ancestors’ spirits. When you think about this witch who’s going to push you into the oven is actually someone who is initiating someone into the world of spirit. She was the gatekeeper of the spirit realm and the one who could initiate someone into communion with the spirits in the spirit realm.

 

Baba Yaga's Hut

How to connect with Baba Yaga

If you’d like to connect to the mother of the forest, the one who can initiate you into the world of magic and spirits, here are some of the ways that you can connect to her. First, before you get started, you need to know that she is an initiator. That means she will test you, not to keep you out or to close the door to you. Those tests are not for that. Of course, you will close your own door if you’re not ready, but she will give you hard challenges that will test your will and determination to get to know her. She gives you these tests not to punish you or not to confuse you, but so that you will evolve and expand beyond what you think you’re capable of doing, but she knows you’re capable of doing it.

For example, when I was creating my book, “Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft,” it was really challenging and really difficult. I had to learn to read Cyrillic, I had to learn Ukrainian, I had to research and find things when there was no information about these things. I’d find a little thread and I’d have to go so deeply, look so hard for things. Sometimes when I was writing that book, I would actually be in tears because I’d be so frustrated, or come to a dead-end, or really feel like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so much work.” However,  I persisted and kept through and did it and I was so, so proud of my accomplishment once it was finished. That is the kind of challenge that she will give you, something that you are capable of doing, but will be super challenging.

I always kind of think of her as being kind of like a sports coach, who tells you, “Come on, champ, you can do it, get in the ring and fight and win this, you know, give him a knockout or something.” I feel like Baba Yaga is a lot like that, she really gives you these challenges, but she knows you’re capable of doing them. So you’ll have to be prepared for that if you’re going to work with her. You got to be prepared to be tested, that is for sure. If you’re ready to be tested, again and again, and yet again, then here are the ways that you can meet with her.

Baba Yaga and her Mortar and Pestle

How to meet Baba Yaga  

The first one, go out in the forest. Go out into a forest near you and spend time in nature. Leave an offering for her. For example, could be like leaving some bread and salt. Bread and salt in Ukrainian culture is seen as a sign of hospitality and respect. So make some bread that you’ve baked yourself and sprinkle a little salt on the top of it, and leave that offering for her in the forest. You can leave some eggs, you can leave raw eggs, or you can leave some hard-boiled eggs for her. Eggs that have been dyed with natural dyes can even be an extra special offering for her. In my book, I teach you how to dye eggs with natural foods and colors. 

Whatever offering you leave, make sure it’s something that will be consumed by the forest. You don’t want to leave plastic, or trash, or something that isn’t going to be consumed by the forest, the animals, the living things in the forest, or the plants. You can also spend some time in the forest doing something to improve it in some way. For example, you could pick up trash, feed the birds or the animals, or simply listen to the sounds of the wind and the animals, and sit there quietly. And you might get some messages from her.

A little more daring, a little more challenging way to connect with her would be to meet her at the crossroads at midnight. So, a crossroads is two roads that intersect, like an intersection, you want to hang out at a dirt crossroads, so that could be a dirt road or dirt path, and go there at midnight, and see what or who you encounter. Remember, she’s a shapeshifter so she might show up as a person, but she might show up as an animal, or you might get a sense of a spirit. Once you encounter that animal, that person, or that spirit, you may ask it a question. And if you do, you’ll get an honest answer from them. After the encounter, turn your back to the crossroads and throw some coins over your shoulder without looking back and say, “It is paid.” You need to make a payment for that encounter, and that is the traditional way to do it. Don’t look back, throw it off your shoulder, and walk back home.

Baba Yaga

Alter of Baba Yaga 

Another way you can work with her or connect with her is to create an altar to her. So, you might want to put on the altar some of her attributes. For example, you want some kind of image of her, it could be a doll,statue, a painting, or drawing. Either one that you find, purchase, or one that you make yourself. You could also put some bones on the altar, bones are very much an attribute of Baba Yaga with her bony leg, and her fence of bones around her hut.You might want to have a mortar and pestle on your altar representing her mode of locomotion, that mortar and pestle that flies to the sky or over the earth. You could make a little besam, a little small broom out of twigs, and put that on the altar for her as well.

You could also put a candle on the altar. The candle is a great way to connect to spirits in any spirit altar, but especially connects to her because of her element of ancestral work and working with fire, the fire of her peach, or her woodstove. So, having a candle that is on the altar for her could be another great way to connect to her. You might want to decorate your altar with spruce, or aspen, or juniper branches to represent her forest. Maybe put images or figurines of snakes, wolves, birds, cats, or forest creatures on your altar. Don’t forget  Baba Yaga has a great appetite, and so you would definitely want to leave offerings of food on the altar for her. Those could be things like bread, porridge, things like that are great offerings to leave for the spirits. 

Baba Yaga by Lubok

How to Honor Baba Yaga

Another way to honor her and connect to her is to do some spinning, weaving, or knitting. Baba Yaga is a spinning and weaving goddess, or spinning and weaving spirit. And so spinning and weaving are very closely associated with her, and one of her attributes. So, learn how to spin, and spin some magical yarn, and make magical items. You can dedicate your weaving or spinning practice to her. You can create something and leave it for her as an offering on your altar, or you could take a piece of your natural yarn. You want to leave something natural out in nature. Spin with those natural fibers and then tie a piece of that natural yarn to a tree out in the forest, that would be a beautiful way to make an offering to her and to connect to her.

Another beautiful way to connect to her is to honor older women. As we know from fairy tales, spirits are shapeshifters, and she might show up to you as an old woman that you encounter. So, honor your elders, speak of the beauty of age, honor those folds and wrinkles in people’s faces, and don’t speak badly of people as they are aging.

 

Lastly, a great way to connect with her and a great way to honor her is to read her stories. There are some great books that I can recommend that would really deepen your practice and deepen your connection to her. The first one, I think is a fantastic book about Baba Yaga is a book called “Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales” by Sibelan Forrester and Jack Zipes. This is a beautiful book that not only goes into some of the history about Baba Yaga, but shares some of the well-known stories and then some of the lesser-known stories that she’s featured in. It’s got beautiful illustrations throughout from different historical books and stories, and things like that. And so is a gorgeous book all around, and it will give you a great, really thorough introduction to Baba Yaga, and a great enjoyable read.

Another book that I can recommend is a more modern take on Baba Yaga, “Finding Baba Yaga,” a short novel in verse by Jane Yolen is a great book about connecting to Baba Yaga, and it’s a more modern take on her, and is a lovely book. Another fun modern book is “Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles” by Taisia Kitaiskaia and Zura Johnson. And it’s like if Baba Yaga were Dear Abby. It’s a great take, a super inventive, super creative take on her, very modern but very fun, and definitely gives you a flavor for her.  “Ask Baba Yaga” is a great book for a more modern and fun take on her. If you want to see some of the old Alexander Afanasyev with beautiful illustrations by Ivan Bilibin, then you want to check out “Vasilisa The Beautiful and Baba Yaga” by Alexander Afanasyev. And that is those original stories that were written in the 1840s, 1850s, documenting the oral tradition so you get a sort of a snapshot of that older storytelling, and the stories that were recorded by Afanasyev.

Lastly, if you’re really into Baba Yaga, and you want to delve in very deeply in a very scholarly way, there’s a book called “Baba Yaga, The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale” by Andreas Johns. It’s a very scholarly book, it goes into all of the stories, and goes into very deep documentation on the stories. It’s definitely not a light reading book, but if you want to delve deeply into her stories and understanding her cross-culturally, that is a fantastic book. 

Lastly, my book, “Baba Yaga’s Book of Magic” is definitely enjoyable read and deals with the spiritual practices, and how they connect to nature and how they connect to Baba Yaga. And so it’s a wonderful introduction to Baba Yaga, and also a great way for you to connect to Slavic spiritual practices.

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