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Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga

 Baba Yaga is one of the most unique folklore figures of all time. She is described as a wicked witch and a savior. Looking at her name also is ambiguous. The translation of “Baba Yaga” is not completely known. It is believed that “baba” means something akin to “old woman” or “grandmother”, while yaga has conflicting theories of meaning ranging from “snake” to “wicked.” She is portrayed the same way in every story. She is ferociously independent and prefers her quiet existence deep in the forests with her familiar a snake named Zmei Gorynich. She is described as a thin, tall woman with crazy frizzy hair with an incredibly long nose that is said to reach the ceiling when she lays in bed. Sometimes she is depicted as three, nearly identical sisters. She is seen flying around in a mortar, wielding a pestle, but probably her most recognizable feature is her little rotating cottage a top two giant pair of chicken feet. The cottage and fence are made out of the bones of the humans she had eaten. Some tales add a rooster head on top of the house. 

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

Baba Yaga is an actor in many Slavic tales, also just being Baba Yaga. She is seen as an ambiguous figure in most cases. Even though she is known to help lost children in the forest, taking on an almost maternal role, and other tales suggests she’s eats children. She sometimes helps those that ask for it that she finds deserving, usually giving them chores or difficult tasks to complete before she helps, or she cooks and eats men who fail to complete the tasks she has given them. She is one to always keep her promise however. In some stories she is seen as both villain and hero. In one story, “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” Baba Yaga is basically the fairy godmother to Vasilisa’s Cinderella. Vasilisa’s mother dies and her father remarries a wicked woman with two equal terrible daughters. When the father leaves, the stepmother sells the home and moves the girls to a cottage in the woods where she gives the girls incredible hard tasks to be done by candlelight. One night the stepsisters force Vasilisa out into the forest to find them more fire to work by. This is how she comes across Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga forces her to do numerous difficult chores in exchange for a fire carried inside of a skull lantern. When Vasilisa returns home, the fire incinerates the stepmother and stepsisters. Eventually Vasilisa goes on to marry a Tsar so she ends up pretty good. Though Baba Yaga ends up helping Vasilisa and becoming her savior in the long run, she does it in the cruelest way possible simply because she could. She could have simply given her the fire after her chores were done. It probably would have been far less traumatic for Vasilisa, but where is the fun in that? 

Vasilisa by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

Baba Yaga is sometimes seen as an Earth Goddess, with strong links to the moon, especially the dark moon. Many believe the revolving house is a metaphor for the moon linking her to the lunar cycle. In Bulgaria January 20 is Baba Den, or grandmothers day, in honor of Baba Yaga. She is associated clouds, death, winter, snakes, and birds especially pelicans.


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