Baba Yaga, My Love

May 6, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you just heard a loud, resounding “sweet!” echoing across the mountains and valleys of upstate New York and wondered what just happened—it was me. Sorry if I scared your dog.

But that’s how excited I am to learn that Catherynne M. Valente has sold a companion book to 2011’s Deathless, a dark, sexy take on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, set during the siege of Leningrad (you can read my full review of that here). In 2014, we’ll be treated to Matroyshka, a companion novel, which I can only hope means more dark Russian folklore, more sexy-times with undead men, and more of my favorite fairy tale character OF ALL TIME.

Readers, it’s time to tell you about my love affair with Baba Yaga.

There’s been much talk (and much writing on my end, which I hope to share with you soon) on the subject of the fairy tale figure of the Evil Queen/Stepmother, who is the permeating witch figure in German and English folklore. Thanks to our full helping of Snow White-related entertainment this year, we’re getting to see a lot of her, in all of her complex, mysterious dumbed-down glory. But as fascinating as the wicked stepmother/evil queen trope is in Grimm (if not in Hollywood), even more fascinating, even more dangerous, and even more chock full of contradiction is Baba Yaga the Bony-Legged, of Slavic folklore fame.

She is the witch of all witches, and she appears, by name, in countless tales of Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish origin. Her name, roughly translated, means such delectable things as “Grandmother Lazybones,” “Grandmother Grief,” and “Grandmother Death.”

In Russian folklore (which is where most of my experience with Baba Yaga comes from, particularly the tales collected by Afanasyev), she lives in the woods in a hut that stands—or dances—on chicken legs and is surrounded by a fence made of bones, with fire-lit skulls at each corner. She rides in a mortar, steers with the pestle, and uses a broom to erase her tracks.

And unlike the Eskimo folk woman Sermerssuaq, whose physical appearance remains up for debate, let me tell you: Baba Yaga is ugly as sin.

Take a look:

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

Illustration by Marianna Meyer

Yikes, right? So why am I so obsessed?

At first—and by “at first,” I mean when I was five or something—Baba Yaga scared the pirozhki out of me. It was the hut on chicken legs that did it, really. I’m not sure what book it was that we owned that had such terrifying pictures of Baba Yaga’s hut in it, but I can still see the picture in my mind, and remember how dark and odd and frightening it seemed to me.

illustration by DMantz at Deviant Art

But never one to cast things that frighten me out of sight and mind, I grew up, put on my big girl pants, and took a seminar on Russian Folklore with OSU professor and reknowned Slavic Studies scholar Helena Goscilo, who introduced herself on the first day of class as “your own personal Baba Yaga”). It was in that class that I began to fall in love, not with Helena (who was awesome, but you know what I mean), but with Baba Yaga herself. Despite the lack of dental hygene.

She is terrifying, yes—not only do many illustrations out there make great use of her sagging, swinging lady-bits (shudder), but she also has a reputation, in stories, for eating children, cooking people alive, and using body parts as architectural adornments.

But read the Russian tales, and you’ll begin to notice that Baba Yaga only acts on this reputation in very few stories, and these are usually the more crude, shorter, humorous tales, such as “Baba Yaga and the Brave Youth,” in which we get the bizarre line, “Baba Yaga, don’t touch my spoon!”

In longer works that have become more critically noticed by folklore scholars—”Vasilisa the Brave,” a sort of Russian “Cinderella,” being the most prominent example—Baba Yaga’s reputation for cannibalism is merely a vague threat, adding dimension and gravity to her role as helper and protector—often reluctantly—to the heroine or hero. In these stories, she’s the one you want to have on your side–the payoff for being brave when faced with three days in Baba Yaga’s hut is a flaming skull that sets your mean stepsisters on fire.

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin

Which is awesome, I think we can all agree.

She’s a complicated woman, as capable of helping a young girl or youth overcome adversity and find his or her own power as she is of roasting a human leg and using the bone as a toothpick.

In stories like “The Maiden Tsar,” she’s capable of multiplying herself, too, and the hero meets Baba Yaga doppelgangers littered throughout the proverbial woods. In most of the Russian tales, interestingly enough, she makes a point of separating herself from Russia by saying things like “I smell a Russian smell,” when a human enters her domain by asking the hut on chicken legs to open itself to them; or “I am going to Russia,” when she’s heading out to make room for the other characters to make mischief in her hut. Lines like this seem to imply that though Baba Yaga might be of Russia, she is somehow separate—she’s other. But, as Andreas Johns points out in Baba Yaga: the Ambiguous Witch and Mother of the Russian Folktale, Baba Yaga is “truly national, such as Ivan the Fool or Koschei the Immortal” (both characters, I’ll add, who share the pages of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless).

This notion of Baba Yaga being both intensely tied to Russian folk culture, yet somehow not Russian, was taken to new levels during the Soviet Era, when Baba Yaga’s role as the Arch-witch was shifted, and used to symbolize a bygone, unhealthy, and unproductive era. This anti-religion propaganda poster has a distinctly Yaga-esque flavor to it, especially when compared to the famous Vasnetsov painting of her:

“But I want to leeaarn!”

Illustration by Victor Vasnetsov

Baba Yaga made sense as a negatively symbolic character—she’s ugly. She’s ancient. She represents the old ways, folk logic, and–instead of new life–death. She became a different kind of villain, not just within the confines of her own stories, but as a story—to enjoy stories about Baba Yaga was to be entertained by the past, something that didn’t exactly adhere to party values. Though she didn’t exactly disappear from popular culture, Baba Yaga became a sort of trickster figure—except that she never quite succeeded in her trickery, unlike in the old stories. She became an object of ridicule, less terrifying and more like Elmer Fudd. Which is a sad fate for an ancient hag who once set people’s skulls on fire.

The example par excellence: the 1979 film Baba Yaga Against!, a short cartoon film that shows Baba Yaga vying to replace Misha the Bear as the 1980 Olympic mascot. Not going to happen, Granny. Not in Soviet Russia. In Soviet Russia, the unicycle pedals you.

In case you’re wondering, that’s Koschei the Deathless as her hapless companion–another terrifying and complex figure reduced to a bumbling Boris-and-Natasha-esque villain.

Not even Baba’s sassy boots and adorable pre-lift-off glare can keep me from sighing when I watch this, just a little. It’s hard to see one’s homegirl, one’s patron saint, you might say, acting the fool. Because there’s something about Baba Yaga that keeps me coming back to her in my own writing, that keeps me searching the webs and libraries for illustrations of her and her crazy abode. It’s partly that she continues to terrify me, in a very satisfying way. But that terror comes with a recognition. Maybe it’s because, while Baba Yaga is not exactly a woman, there’s something of the feminine primeval about her, an archetype that lives in the recesses of every woman’s brain. Certain synapses fire, and despite our blanket desires to age gracefully, be well liked, and wear floral patterns, we find ourselves just wanting to say–pardon my Russian–fuck it all. Fuck it all, I’m building a fence made of the skulls of men who have crossed me.

Don’t you be next.

For more Baba Yaga (because who can ever get enough?), head over to my Pinterest page. This is what I do instead of planning my dream wedding.

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§ 5 Responses to Baba Yaga, My Love

  • Amanda says:

    I agree full-heartedly about the primitive draw that some women feel for her! I am currently writing a grad paper about the recent resurgence of folk villains in popular culture (especially tales from their POV), and came upon your post. Thanks for such a great write up of an all-time favorite of mine!

  • marblemuses says:

    That was a really well written post! I’m going to go trawling through the rest of your blog, but before I do so I just wanted to thank you for writing such an intriguing analysis of Baba Yaga. Also I’m now going to check out some more of Afanasyev. I became a fan of Valente when Deathless first came out too and continue to be drawn to her simultaneously light-hearted, childish – but also almost-gothic, complex writing, so I’m glad someone else is able to appreciate her books too!!
    But you might also be interested (on a lesser level, but still fantastic worldbuilding) The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. 🙂
    Thanks again for the Baba Yaga introspective. 🙂

  • Stacey says:

    I love our dear Baba Yaga too! Caroline Pinkola-Estes uses her as and example of inner wisdom in her book “Women Who Run With The Wolves,” if you’re not yet read it. She figures as a main character in “Egg and Spoon” by Gregory MacGuire, as well.

  • dmantz says:

    woot, just stumbled across this page and saw my art on it!

    Cool stuff, thanks!

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