Its been a while! Sorry, I was busy in the thrice-nine lands. What are the thrice-nine lands? Just look it up yourself. We have bigger fish to fry and rubber to burn to make up for lost time…
If Slavic folklore has a celebrity it would be Baba Yaga. The eccentric and terrifying witch appears with great variation across many stories, but her name instantly conjures up images of an old, huge, ugly hag with a a skeletal leg, a long nose, a small hut resting on chicken legs, and a mortal and pestle used for flying across the air. Generally Baba Yaga is a cannibal. Occasionally she has children. Even when she doesn’t have kids she has a profound and psychopathic maternal instinct: she’ll be more than happy to show hospitality. Sometimes she appears as a group of 3 sisters. Regardless of how she appears, Baba Yaga is the definitive witch of Slavic lore and probably the most well known witch in the world.
This post is just as much an introduction to Baba Yaga as it is a book review of Andreas Johns’ Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. Johns’ book is probably the most definitive and thorough analysis of Baba Yaga that ever was and ever will be, and it greatly expands upon the work of Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp on the subject. You may recall that Propp sought to break down folktales into their constituent parts. He identified certain recurring character types and 31 potential functions, which are essentially just plot developments a story may or may not feature.
The essence of Johns’ book, and the essence of the Baba Yaga character, is a profound ambiguity. It is tempting to simply label the Baba Yaga character as a stock villain; this would be half right. While there are stories where Baba Yaga is just a villain, there are also plenty of stories where she helps the protagonist in a “donor” role. According to Propp’s analysis of folklore, a donor is any character who provides assistance to a hero. Johns’ book is actually organized according to Yaga’s appearances as villain or donor. It is remarkable that a character who kidnaps children and attempts to eat protagonists in one story may be a Yoda-like figure in another, but keep reading because the plot thickens…
While there are some stories where she is a clear-cut villain or donor, there are others where the roles start to blend. The main contribution of Johns to the study of Baba Yaga is his analysis of her as villain AND donor simultaneously. How can a character at once be an antagonist and a helpful figure who assists in resolving the plot? Johns comes to define Baba Yaga as an “unwilling” or “hostile donor.” In these stories she helps the hero against her own volition. Oftentimes what she unwillingly donates is advice or hospitality. A hero might travel to her house on chicken legs while questing. Baba Yaga will attempt to eat him or otherwise inconvenience him. Generally the hero will find a way to outsmart and/or kill her to steal what he needs. Other times he might just interrupt Baba Yaga’s threats, telling her to make him a bed and some grub. Baba Yaga will end up serving the hero a meal and at some point provide some critical advice or help the hero needs.
I can’t do justice to the Baba Yaga figure here, nor can I do justice to Johns’ book, but I can perhaps explain some of the ramifications of how she is portrayed. You may recall from an earlier post that Russian demons generally greatly vary; some will skin you before you can say bathhouse while others will help keep your chickens in order. Usually Russian demons are fickle, like Baba Yaga they are morally ambiguous. Baba Yaga is one of the most complex characters in Slavic lore and shows the widest variation in type and role. She is the poster child for the ambiguity that permeates Slavic lore and makes it so fascinating to study. Russian lore has its fair share of heroes, but there are almost no dyed-in-the-wool villains (with Koschei the Deathless being a rare exception).
Between her wide range of roles and her distinct, but variable, appearance Baba Yaga neatly represents the sum of Slavic lore. Its unusual, different, and difficult to analyze. These features make it all the more memorable; Slavic lore has a unique flavour and texture that mark an excellent change in pace from the more standard Western European tales most of us are accustomed to.
Western folktales tend to be more apparently didactic. While they were generally spooky and weird, many of them have been watered down to make them more child friendly (this isn’t just a modern thing, it has been happening for centuries). Slavic lore preserves its old character, with surrealism and horror elements standing the test of time. I think this says a great deal of Slavic lore. It wasn’t meant just to be education but rather was a key component of storytelling and life in general. It explores more complex and uncertain themes, made evident by the ambiguous and deep characters and situations. I think this reflects the Slavic/Russian worldview. It doesn’t ask as many questions and reveals an acceptance of the difficulties of family life and life in general.
Looking at family life is especially pertinent to Baba Yaga since she is a very motherly figure. Johns suggests that a possible interpretation of Baba Yaga is as a corrupt mother or as a representation of the complex female relationships that existed in Russian villages. The saying it takes a village to raise a child was especially true in Russia, where children were often raised not only by mothers but by extended family, neighbors, and others. Children would have many surrogate mothers who would undoubtedly pull them in different directions. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine some mothers being cruel and abusive while others were more forgiving and generous. Baba Yaga’s ambiguity may be the result of the amalgamation of all of these various maternal influences. Good mothers and bad mothers would blur together in the dreamy landscape of childhood memory. It doesn’t seem hard to argue that generations raised in such self-contradictory systems would naturally develop a culture that cynically takes life in stride. The ramifications this could have in sphere beyond culture, spheres such as politics, may be huge. Of course I’m rapidly stepping into ground that is evaporating beneath my feet, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and conclude this.
One last thing before I go though: we should note the presentation of Baba Yaga in other media. Its only natural that Baba Yaga should make some appearances in or inspire other stories, but it is remarkable that these stories manage to capture her ambiguous nature. Baba Yaga appears in the Hellboy comics as a frequent antagonist. There are times when she works with the hero, but Mike Mignola seems to prefer presenting her as a behind-the-scenes villain. Even this portrayal though is still open to flexible interpretation however; Mignola has Baba Yaga act as a grandmotherly figure to Rasputin who grants him power and aid in a traditional donor fashion. Another homage to Baba Yaga can be found in Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away. This movie features two witch sisters, Yu Baba and Zeniba, who seem to reflect the Baba Yaga mythos (remember occasionally Baba Yaga appears as several sisters). Yu Baba, the witch owner of a massive spirit bathhouse, reflects the evil side of the Baba Yaga character. Rather than threaten the protagonist with murder however Yu Baba is used to represent the exploitative nature of capitalism. Zeniba, by contrast, is a good witch who aids the protagonist and gives her the means to overcome Yu Baba. But the ambiguity of Baba Yaga is not so clearly divided between the two sisters, Yu Baba despite all of her negative traits still have some redeeming qualities, such as when she attempts to feverishly defend her bathhouse from a rogue spirit.
I lied…One more thing to cover.
Click here to go to the amazon page for Andreas Johns’ Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. I highly recommend buying it, although I would advise you to brush up on your Slavic lore first and read some Baba Yaga tales going into it. A little bit of grounding it will definitely enrich the text. This is one time where I can honestly say though that the book is literally the end-all, best material on the topic at hand.