If you take a walk deep in to the forest of Russia you may find yourself at a strange dwelling. Before you stands a fence made of human bones. On the larger posts, regularly spaced along the bleached white barricade, sit skulls, their eyes flickering with a sickly flame. Within this gruesome enclosure a hut, with windows like eyes and a door like a wide open mouth, spins round and round on giant chicken legs. This is the home of The Baba Yaga, the most famous witch on the planet.
The skinny, bony legged Baba Yaga has a long, hooked nose and iron teeth. Her method of travel is rather unusual: she uses a pestle and mortar, pushing the latter along with the former and swinging a broom behind her to sweep away the traces of her passing. As the pestle hits the ground it strikes sparks and makes a sound like thunder. Sometimes this peculiarly culinary form of transport, rather like having a car designed as a massive Moulinex, can even take flight.
Her name translates with difficulty, Yaga being such an old word that it’s meaning is lost in time. Through various related languages we come to Horror, Witch or Wicked Spirit. The first part, Baba, is easier meaning an elderly female relative. So how about Grandmother Evil?
Despite all the build up The Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, as likely to hand out good advice and put everything right as she is to fire up the stove and chase children through the land licking her dry old lips in anticipation of a feast. She is probably best known as the antagonist to Vassilissa, who is variously The Beautiful or The Wise. Vassilissa is persecuted by her stepmother and step sisters who eventually put out the fire and send her to The Baba Yaga to get a light… and hopefully to get eaten. Although fearing for her life Vassilissa does various domestic chores for the Baba Yaga who, pleased with her work, sends her home with one of the flame-eyed skulls for a light. When Vassilissa arrives home the Baba Yaga’s gift incinerates her duplicitous step family.
There are similarities here with the Grimm’s tale of Mutter Holle, in which the industrious step daughter goes down a well to retrieve her lost spindle. She finds herself working for Mutter Holle, or Mother Hell, a similarly scary, hook nosed, big toothed, bony old crone. The girl is made to shake the duvet until the feathers fly which makes it snow in the world above. When she decides to return home she is showered with gold. Sometimes The Baba Yaga is attended by three horsemen: one in red armour who rides by at dawn; one in white armour who rides by at midday and one in black armour who rides by at dusk. The symbolism will not escape you I am sure, placing Baba Yaga in charge of the daily cycle of the sun. These remnants of global powers in the natural realm give our woodland dwelling witch a somewhat different background.
In some tales there are three sisters, all called Baba Yaga. Now we have a final clue to her true nature. The Baba Yagas were once a triplicate nature goddess, mysterious, terrifying and deadly but also bountiful if approached without fear. Maybe the name translates better as Grandmother Death, not a witch at all but the ultimate power in the world… and one day we must all pass through the fence of fear and pay her a visit.