Who Is Baba Yaga Exactly?

I find Baba Yaga to be one of the most intriguing supernatural beings in folklore. An enigmatic puzzle to say the least, she has been interpreted to be countless figures including the Moon, Death, a cloud, snake, bird, the winter season, and Earth Goddess, among many other evaluations.

So who is Baba Yaga exactly? Is she good or bad? Is it her alone or are there multiple Baba Yagas? Should she be feared or revered? Is she a feminist icon? An ogress? A swamp witch? Will she eat you or help you?

As is the nature of Baba Yaga, more questions than answers follow in her wake. But in this post I will attempt to break it all down as simply as possible.

THE FIRST WRITTEN HISTORY OF BABA YAGA

Baba Yaga first appears in a 1755 book by Mikhail V. Lomonosov entitled Rossiiskaia Grammatika (‘Russian Grammar’). She’s mentioned alongside other personages, all mainly from Slavic lore. Her second mention is in a section dedicated to corresponding Slavic gods to their speculated Roman equivalents. For example, the Slavic god Perun corresponds to the Roman god Jupiter.

In a third mention (and the one I find most interesting) Baba Yaga is stated with no equivalence. This demonstrates how different she really is – unique to stand alone – which is pretty impressive considering it’s her first appearance in written word.

WHAT DOES BABA YAGA MEAN?

The translation of Baba Yaga depends on who you ask. ‘Baba’ translates to grandmother, old woman, or hag, contingent on the Slavic language that’s cited. The definition of ‘Yaga’ or ‘Iaga’ on the other hand varies widely.

  • Croatian and Serbian = Horror and Shudder
  • Modern Czech = Wicked Wood Nymph
  • Old Czech = Witch
  • Polish = Witch and Fury
  • Sanskrit = Snake or Serpent
  • Slovenian = Anger

As you can see, her name lends to the sense of her ambiguity. From Grandmother Snake to Angry Old Woman, the mystery of Baba Yaga only grows deeper the more you look into who she is.

WHAT DOES BABA YAGA LOOK LIKE?

Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Much like the translation of her name, Baba Yaga’s appearance also varies depending upon who you ask. A few features remain consistent, like the fact that she’s portrayed as an old crone with a large, crooked nose.

OTHER FEATURES OF BABA YAGA:

  • Gnarled, Tree Trunk-Like Arms
  • Iron Teeth
  • Dark Brown Claws
  • Thin Lips
  • Dark Eyes
  • Mangy Hair
  • Dry, Jerky-Like Skin
  • Bony Legs

From these attributes, it’s clear that Baba Yaga has and will always be seen as a deformed and grotesque creature. In many tales, she’s also described as being unkempt and dirty. Living outside of the civilized world and going without hot water and other modern conveniences, it’s easy to see why.

Part of the lore reported about Baba Yaga is her ability to turn into a young woman. This deception is achieved via a secret potion. She utilizes this transformation in order to trick and misguide strangers.

Yet another rumor about Baba Yaga’s appearance is that she only has one leg. Some say that this explains why she’s interpreted to be or be related to snakes and serpents.

IS BABA YAGA ONE PERSON OR THREE?

Again, this is yet another facet to Baba Yaga’s puzzling profile. Some say she is a singular entity, while others argue she is one of three sisters who all share the same name. Not confusing at all, huh? Let’s take a closer look at the three sisters side of things.

Some say the Baba Yaga sisters are tasked with guarding the Fountain of Life and all live together in one hut in the middle of the forest. Others argue that the Baba Yaga are three sisters, all different ages, that live in separate huts with varying degrees of temperament.

There have been notions regarding Baba Yaga to be very much like Hecate in the sense of her command over varying realms and roles like:

  • The omniscient character who can help or hinder people
  • The kind elderly woman who helps heroes on their quests
  • The child-eating witch archetype

Just as Hecate is perceived as a Triple Goddess (mother/maiden/crone) so is Baba Yaga in the form of three sisters.

PIN IT!

WHERE DOES BABA YAGA LIVE?

This portion of Baba Yaga’s story is pretty consistent throughout folklore. She lives deep in the forest and her home is described as a hut that stands atop chicken legs. Some accounts claim that the hut continually spins around. It’s through the use of the chicken legs that the hut can run through the forest to avoid anyone looking for her.

Her hut is spoken of as more animal than structure, with its windows being eyes to keep watch for trespassers. The hut is surrounded by a perimeter fence made up of old human bones. Human skulls top the fence posts as a warning to those who come near.

TRANSPORTATION

The way in which Baba Yaga gets around is also remains constant. She either takes her iron kettle out or rides in a mortar that she steers with the matching pestle. Some accounts claim that she navigates the pestle with one hand while wielding her broom in the other in order to sweep away any trace her vehicle may make.

One offshoot of her travels is said to be the creation of tempests. With squalls and thunderstorms left in her wake, this is illustrative of her connection with the weather, clouds, and the winter season.

FOLKTALES

Some say Baba Yaga appears in hundreds of folktales while others claim it’s more like thousands. It comes as no surprise considering her ability to shapeshift, her many names, and how she’s interpreted as a supernatural being that those numbers could exist.

I would be amiss if I did not bring up probably the most famous of all of of Baba Yaga’s stories: The Tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Much like the fairytale of Cinderella, Vasilisa resides with her wicked stepmother and two stepsisters. All three of them plot against Vasilisa and plan to have her murdered.

Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After a few failed attempts, they send the beautiful Vasilisa directly to the hut of Baba Yaga in hopes that she will eat the young girl. This is all based on the reputation the old witch has of eating humans “as one eats chickens”. This plan backfires on the stepmother and stepsisters, however.

Perhaps Baba Yaga lost her appetite because she doesn’t end up eating Vasilisa. Instead, she tasks the girl with completing several challenges, like separating wheat kernels from grains of rice before the sun rises. When Vasilisa triumphs, Baba Yaga gifts her with a skull lantern from her hut’s perimeter.

Vasilisa makes her way home, skull lantern in hand. When she arrives back to her stepmother and stepsisters, the lantern flames eat them all instantaneously which ends the terrible reign they held over her life. In time – again, much like Cinderella – Vasilisa winds up as the Tsar’s wife.

AN EXAMPLE OF BABA YAGA’S MANY SIDES

This story portrays Baba Yaga in multiple roles:

  • She is regarded as a savage cannibal by the stepmother and stepsisters, thus their action of sending Vasilisa to be devoured by her
  • She does not fulfill the villain role, but instead offers for Vasilisa to prove her worthiness.
  • She becomes Vasilisa’s savior in the end by aiding the girl in the demise of her treacherous family.

The traditional stories of fairy godmothers and the like do not apply to Baba Yaga as her methods and undertakings fall beyond the scope of morality. In addition to this, how she helps other characters typically presents as devious trickery.

BABA YAGA IN POP CULTURE

While she has been around longer than written history, that hasn’t kept Baba from the modern day spotlight. The supernatural being has accumulated a faithful patronage over recent years. Here are some ways and places Baba Yaga has shown up in the media:

  • The Hairpin – a feminist website – started an advice column from the perspective of Baba Yaga (which was eventually published in book format) titled ‘Ask Baba Yaga’
  • Jezebel, a “US-based website featuring news and cultural commentary geared towards women” ran a contest to vote for the Next Top Beauty Creature – after they declared that mermaids were “over” – and Baba Yaga won
  • A contributing writer for Patheos known as the Starlight Witch recollected childhood dreams featuring the crone, endearing her as a “mother figure”
  • An article in Vogue cited Baba Yaga’s broom in an article about fashion designers and besoms or the “household necessity”
  • The Netflix show, ‘The OA’, features Baba Yaga as she materializes via visions
  • My personal favorite is
  • The Hairpin – a feminist website – started an advice column from the perspective of Baba Yaga (which was eventually published in book format) titled ‘Ask Baba Yaga’
  • Jezebel, a “US-based website featuring news and cultural commentary geared towards women” ran a contest to vote for the Next Top Beauty Creature – after they declared that mermaids were “over” – and Baba Yaga won
  • A contributing writer for Patheos known as the Starlight Witch recollected childhood dreams featuring the crone, endearing her as a “mother figure”
  • An article in Vogue cited Baba Yaga’s broom in an article about fashion designers and besoms or the “household necessity”
  • The Netflix show, ‘The OA’, features Baba Yaga as she materializes via visions
  • My personal favorite is the character Yubaba from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece Spirited Away. It’s obvious that Yubaba (a witch who owns a spa) is unarguably based on Baba Yaga. And, as you can see in the image below, she also fits the description with a very large nose.
Yubaba

IN CONCLUSION…

Baba Yaga is a powerful multi-faceted witch archetype and as I said in the introduction, she leaves more questions than answers in her wake. It’s easy to see why people have been and continue to be fascinated by her.

It seems that we can credit Baba Yaga with the stereotypes of witches living in the woods, flying on brooms, and eating children. Unfortunately for the magickal community, we continue to fight these horrid clichés.

What are your thoughts? Are you familiar with Baba Yaga? Let me know in the comments!

Published by Pie

Pie Ankiewicz is the Resident Witch of Printable Witchcraft and sister-site Candle Cross Coven. She is a seasoned Eclectic Witch whose practice spans over three decades. Residing in Massachusetts, Pie designs printable Book of Shadows and grimoire pages, blogs about the Craft, and teaches others how to pursue being a practitioner.

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