Following last week’s introduction to Baba Yaga, I’d like to take a more detailed look at the mythology surrounding this interesting and enigmatic figure. There is a suggestion that she has some connection to elemental forces, or perhaps even power over them, through her three servants: the White, Red and Black Horsemen. When quizzed by Vasilisa the Beautiful over who these mysterious and imposing figures are, the witch of the woods answers intriguingly: “My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun and my Dark Midnight”. Another, more bizarre cohort of Baba Yaga is the monstrous, half-human Koshchey the Deathless, seen galloping naked across the Steppe and Caucus mountains upon his enchanted steed.
Again, there is an elemental connection that manifests in Koshchey’s ability to move under a carpet of fog and then transform himself into a whirl-wind to whisk away his victims. Animalistic traits are also factors in this curious character’s makeup: his scaly, shedding skin, arm-located poison glands and reptilian eyes all belie the ragged, rough-bearded and immediately human form.
Crowning all of this, is his dominion over death: he is immortal, after having his life-force removed and hidden away. As may be inferred, his critical weakness is in the discovery and possible destruction of this force, which would similarly destroy him instantly.
More of Baba Yaga’s partners in crime are the three pairs of disembodied spirit-hands – mundane by comparison – that she can summon from thin air to do her bidding. Again, her cryptic description of them as her “soul friends” leaves a lot to our and Vasilisa’s imagination.
The other major companion (or servant) is of course Baba Yaga’s hut itself. Seemingly intelligent on its stalking chicken-feet, it seeks to protect its entrance from the unwanted intrusion of wandering heroes or heroines by its aforementioned spinning, accompanied by disconcerting, blood curdling shrieks. All of this bluster comes to an end when a special, magical incantation is repeated, forcing the dwelling to spin to a halt, its door revealed and open, allowing the hapless wanderer ingress.
In contrast to the darker representations of Baba Yaga, she is sometimes also depicted – paradoxically – as a wise woman helper, in possession of potentially unlimited knowledge, and thoroughly beneficial to anyone who can see beyond her terrible visage. Perhaps it’s just a case of catching her on a good day?
Regardless of the mood in which she is caught, her powers pale in the face of purity and high virtue. Possessors of such qualities are immune to Baba Yaga’s evil ways – assuming that they catch her on a bad day. Another warning for errant children to “be good” perhaps?
The origins of Baba Yaga – or figures ostensibly resembling her – are truly ancient, as her stories trail across Russia and the Slavic roots of Eastern European nations. Alongside these stories are words in various languages that appear to form the ancestry and derivation of her name -words often with negative connotations. Baba in Old Russian may mean fortune teller, sorceress or even midwife, contrasting with the modern babushka meaning Grandmother. The meaning broadens as the name distorts across time and various Slavic dialects – from personal slights, outwards to references in nature. Yaga is more problematic, but has relation to a whole host of short-form Slavic words used to describe evil, anger and even “wicked wood nymph”. That’s jędza, jeza and jezinka respectively.
There’s plenty more, all on a similar theme and with varying shades of darkness – with the Slavic “J” sounding as an English “Y” of course. She seems firmly entrenched in both the language and cultural folklore, and is quite probably here to stay!
(Photo by access.denied)