Inspired by Cassie’s post: Russian tales to inspire your Trans-Siberian journey, I took a look at a staple of Russian fairy-tale horror: Baba Yaga, a popular character relatively unknown here in the West.
She’s a witch, essentially, who lives in the woods, serving as a bogey-person and danger metaphor to those children who would wander off carelessly into the trees. Remember, the natural threats lurking outside the door of your ancient Russian homestead have few equals, especially when compared to our medieval English equivalents. Here’s a sample: wolverines, oversized tigers, poisonous spiders and snakes, giant dog-eating catfish, lynx and, on occasion, polar bears. That’s not even including the relatively familiar brown bears, wolves (always over-sold as bad-guys but threatening nonetheless) and wild boars, which are apparently one of the most dangerous animals due to their foul temperament.
That’s just the big stuff. Let’s not forget malarial mosquitoes and the ever-present tick, which having delivered a shot of encephalitis (and others) directly into your system; can really mess you up. So, condense all of these horrors down to a child-manageable bogey-lady, and you have Baba Yaga who will ‘get you’, should you be foolish enough to wander off into the woods.
In appearance, the closest we come to her eccentricity and idiosyncrasy are the characters featured in some of Studio Ghibli’s renowned Japanese animations (see Spirited Away for some fantastical excellence). This depiction is very much removed from the green-faced, pointy-hat wearing witch template, as defined by The Wizard of Oz.
Instead, she is a gangly, enormously long-nosed, skeletal hag with iron teeth who rides through the forest scrunched up in her mortar (the cooking accessory), propelling and directing herself – naturally enough – with the accompanying pestle, and with her lank, witch-hair trailing in the breeze. She does have a birch broom, but uses it to sweep away the indentations left by her unique mode of transport as well as other evidence of her existence. At night, she sleeps sprawled over her ancient brick oven for warmth, as her snores rattle her nose against the ceiling of her forest home. Oh, yes, it goes without saying that she eats children too – of course!
Baba Yaga’s hut is a character in itself, somehow reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle, in Studio Ghibli’s eponymously titled animation (based on books by Diana Wynne Jones). Whereas the castle is a mechanical marvel driven by a furnace-dwelling heart of spirit-fire, Ms Yaga’s hut is a sentient, mischievous beast with window-eyes and is known to spin on chicken legs in order to protect and obscure the dwelling’s entrance. Surrounding the hut is a fence of bones, surmounted with blazing-eyed skulls which glow eerily to illuminate the darkening gloom of the forest.
There’s a whole lot more to Baba Yaga‘s tale, including sisters, cohorts and spirit deed-doers. We’ll take another look next week. In the meantime, view some exemplary Baba Yaga art (and more) from the early 20th century, by Ivan Bilibin.
For modern, cinematic works with a similar off-centre feel, you should consider the aforementioned (child friendly) animation: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. This animated masterpiece is a wonderful creation within an expansive fantastical world.
Alternatively, for the grimmest of the Grimm, you may seek out Pan’s Labyrinth, based upon the nightmares (literally) of director Guillermo del Toro. Pans’s Labrynth is a dark fable of fairy-tale horror (yes, fairies do feature in the tale, along with many other creatures which are far more malevolent) that is most definitely not for children. Witness the Pale Man thing in the banqueting hall… Arrggh! Surely a close relative of Baba Yaga herself!