In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being (or one of a trio of sisters of the same name) who appears as a deformed and/or ferocious-looking woman. Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs (or sometimes a single chicken leg). Baba Yaga may help or hinder those that encounter or seek her out. She sometimes plays a maternal role, and also has associations with forest wildlife. Baba Yaga appears in multiple fairy tales and folk tales, and according to Vladimir Propp's folktale morphology, Baba Yaga commonly appears as either a donor or villain, or may be altogether ambiguous.
Andreas Johns identifies Baba Yaga as "one of the most memorable and distinctive figures in Slavic European folklore," and observes that she is "enigmatic" and often exhibits "striking ambiguity." Johns summarizes Baba Yaga as "a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird, Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother, or archetypal image".
Variations of the name Baba Yaga are found in the languages of the Eastern Slavic peoples. The first element, baba, is transparently a babble word, meaning 'woman', or, specifically, 'old woman'. The same word is still used for both grandmother and old woman in general in Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian. In modern Russian, the word бабушка babushka (meaning 'grandmother') derives from it, as does the word "babcia" (also 'grandmother') in Polish or Ukrainian. Baba may also have a pejorative connotation in modern Ukrainian and Russian, both for women as well as for "an unmanly, timid, or characterless man". In Polish, the term is considered to be pejorative, meaning 'vicious or ugly woman'. In Czech both of those meanings apply. Similarly to other kinship terms in Slavic languages, baba may be employed outside of kinship, potentially as a result of taboo. For example, in variety of Slavic languages and dialects, the word baba may be applied to various animals, natural phenomena, and objects, such as types of mushrooms or a cake or pear. This function extends to various geographic features. In the Polesia region of Ukraine, the plural baby may refer to an autumn funeral feast.
These associations have led to variety of theories on the figure of Baba Yaga, though the presence of the element baba may have simply been taken as its primary meaning of 'grandmother' or 'old woman'. The element may appear as a means of glossing the second element, iaga, with a familiar component. Additionally, baba may have also been applied as a means of distinguishing Baba Yaga from a male counterpart.
While a variety of etymologies have been proposed for the second element of the name, Yaga, it remains far more etymologically problematic and no clear consensus among scholars has resulted. For example, in the 19th century, Alexander Afanasyev proposed the derivation of Proto-Slavic *ǫžь ('serpent') and Sanskrit अहि ahi ('serpent, snake'). This etymology has subsequently been explored by other scholars in the 20th century.
Related terms to the second element of the name, Yaga, appear in various Slavic languages; Serbian and Croatian jeza ('horror, shudder, chill'), Slovenian jeza ('anger'), Old Czech jězě ('witch, legendary evil female being'), modern Czech jezinka ('wicked wood nymph, dryad'), and Polish jędza ('witch, evil woman, fury'). The term appears in Old Church Slavonic as jęza/jędza (meaning 'disease, illness'). In other Indo-European languages the element iaga has been linked to Lithuanian engti ('to oppress, to skin'), ingti ('to became lazy, to became bald, to shed skin') and ingas ('lazy, slow'), Old English inca ('doubt, worry, pain'), and Old Norse ekki ('pain, worry').
The first clear reference to Baba Yaga (Iaga baba) occurs in 1755; Mikhail V. Lomonosov's Rossiiskaia grammatika ('Russian grammar'). In Lomonosov's grammar, Baba Yaga is mentioned twice among other figures largely from Slavic tradition. The second of the two mentions occurs within a list of Slavic gods and beings next to their presumed equivalence in Roman mythology (the Slavic god Perun, for example, appears equated with the Roman god Jupiter). Baba Yaga, however, appears in a third section without an equivalence, attesting to perception of her uniqueness even in this first known attestation.
In the narratives in which Baba Yaga appears, she displays a variety of typical attributes: a turning, chicken-legged hut; and a mortar, pestle, and/or mop or broom. Baba Yaga frequently bears the epithet "bony leg" (Baba Iaga kostianaia noga), and when inside of her dwelling, she may be found stretched out over the stove, reaching from one corner of the hut to another. Baba Yaga may sense and mention the "Russian scent" (russky dukh) of those that visit her. Her nose may stick into the ceiling. Particular emphasis may be placed by some narrators on the repulsiveness of her nose or other body parts.
The Maiden TsarEdit
In some tales a trio of Baba Yagas appear as sisters, all sharing the same name. For example, in a version of "The Maiden Tsar" collected in the 19th century by Alexander Afanasyev, Ivan, a handsome merchant’s son, makes his way to the home of one of three Baba Yagas:
- He journeyed onwards, straight ahead [...] and finally came to a little hut; it stood in the open field, turning on chicken legs. He entered and found Baba Yaga the Bony-legged. "Fie, fie," she said, "the Russian smell was never heard of nor caught sight of here, but it has come by itself. Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion, my good youth?" "Largely of my own free will, and twice as much by compulsion! Do you know, Baba Yaga, where lies the thrice tenth kingdom?" "No, I do not," she said, and told him to go to her second sister; she might know.
Ivan walks for some time before encountering a small hut identical to the first. This Baba Yaga makes the same comments and asks the same question as the first, and Ivan asks the same question. This second Baba Yaga does not know either and directs him to the third, but says that if she gets angry with him "and wants to devour you, take three horns from her and ask her permission to blow them; blow the first one softly, the second one louder, and third still louder." Ivan thanks her and continues on his journey.
After walking for some time, Ivan eventually finds the chicken-legged hut of the youngest of the three sisters turning in an open field. This third and youngest of the Baba Yagas makes the same comment about "the Russian smell" before running to whet her teeth and consume Ivan. Ivan begs her to give him three horns and she does so. The first he blows softly, the second louder, and the third louder yet. This causes birds of all sorts to arrive and swarm the hut. One of the birds is the Firebird, which tells him to hop on its back or Baba Yaga will eat him. He does so and the Baba Yaga rushes him and grabs the Firebird by its tail. The Firebird leaves with Ivan, leaving Baba Yaga behind with a fist full of firebird feathers.
Vasilisa the BeautifulEdit
In the tale of "Vasilisa the Beautiful", Vasilisa is persecuted by her wicked stepmother and stepsisters before being sent to fetch a light from the home of Baba Yaga. Along the way she meets each of the three Horsemen, the White Rider (Dawn), the Red Rider (Noon) and the Black Rider (Dusk). Upon visiting Baba Yaga, the witch gives her several impossible tasks to complete, which she only achieves with the help of her magical wooden doll Vasilisa received from her mother. Baba Yaga is forced to send Vasilisa on her way with a skull-lantern.
The Frog PrincessEdit
After Ivan Tsarevich discovers the curse of the Frog Princess, when Vasilisa removes her frogskin, he steals it away and burns it to free her. Unfortunately, this has an opposite effect and the Frog Princess is whisped away back to the castle of Koschei the Deathless who originally cursed her. In his efforts to save the princess, Ivan finds Baba Yaga's home and learns from her the method to kill the immortal sorcerer, and thus free the Frog Princess.