|"Baba Yaga" by Victor Vasnetzov|
Baba Yaga’s name translates essentially to “hungry hag,” and although this would be an apt epithet, there is some debate about the accuracy of the etymology. Baba was the name for any peasant woman of marrying-age and older and eventually developed into a slightly derisive slang. Baba Yaga, while she echoed many similarities of the day to day peasant life, was certainly no ordinary baba. For example, she used her mortar and pestle not only to grind grains and herbs, but to fly. Her broom she did use to sweep…but she used it to sweep up the tracks behind her as she flew, concealing her travels and ultimately, her origins. For this child-eating ogress--in some respects, she bears a striking resemblance to the forest witch who attempted to devour Hansel and Gretel, and it’s my personal theory that she is the inspiration behind said Germanic myth--has no origins. Baba Yaga likely traces back to a primeval goddess, but she has concealed her tracks with the broom so well, none now know for sure whence she comes. Second-most recognizable after her magical mortar and pestle, however, was Baba Yaga’s hut, which stood upon spindly chicken legs and resembled a human face with the door as a mouth and the windows as gaping, soulless eyes. To enter her hut sometimes meant death and sometimes meant the fulfillment of one’s destiny, but it always meant change.
Baba Yaga appears in hundreds of fairy tales, and in each story she wears a slightly different guise. In some, she is friendly, helpful, and even polite to the heroes of the tale. In others, she is a challenge the hero needs to defeat in order to fulfill his destiny. In most, she is the initiator who brings the hero or heroine, as the case may be, into adulthood, or at least to the next stage of life. She prepares them by challenging them with questions and riddles, with setting domestic tasks for them to perform, and sometimes by sending them on wild journeys to go-I-know-not-whither and bring-back-I-know-not-what. Baba Yaga is, therefore, consistently inconsistent. Whether she is a kindly old woman who nourishes her guest, or a furiously hungry crone who cooks and eats children and adds their bones to her fence, she ensures that good and evil alike get what they’ve earned. Most interesting, at least to me, is that no matter how many times a clever child tricks her into her own oven, Baba Yaga always returns to play her initiatory role in another tale.