Baba Yaga: An Overview

For centuries, stories of the famed Baba Yaga have frightened children across the globe. Her origins in Slavic folklore is of a wild, wicked witch who is often accompanied by frightening companions and an even more frightening house. Her name, “Baba” is often ascribed to a mother-figure, although children cower from Baba Yaga. In some countries, like Poland, “Babica” connotes cruelness and ugliness. The origin of the ‘Yaga’ is not entirely clear but, it has been compared to words meaning abuse, horror, witch, and pain. Baba Yaga has been a staple in Slavic folklore so much so that stone statues and altars are often discovered dedicated to her, hoping to keep their children safe.

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Unlike typical depictions of witches, one of the most interesting things about Baba Yaga is how she gets around. Instead of a broom, she moves around in a low-flying mortar. Historically, mortars were used for cooking and other domestic tasks so it is just a slightly weirder broom...if you think about it. She steers this giant mortar, sitting at the top, with a large pestle that can also be used as a weapon. Although in some versions of folklore, she can fly...many acknowledge this stranger form of travel. She also moves thanks to her mobile home. Her home is similar to Slavic stilt homes...except instead of wooden legs, Baba Yaga’s house is supported on chicken legs which dance her and her home through the forest, allowing her access to new victims every night.

However, if you are pure of heart you have no reason to fear Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga seems to prefer to prey on those who have a long list of misdeeds or naughty children. It is said, though, that if she does decide to make you her may at first seem like salvation. Though her appearance may frighten you at first, she will bring you to her home after you have been hopelessly lost in the forest. Then, she will warm you up by he fire and feed you. However, you won’t realize that you’re sitting on a giant shovel...which, at your moment of highest comfort, she’ll jump on to throw you into her stove.

Baba Yaga, depending on the story or origin of the folklore, is usually believed to be different things. In some stories, she is a witch (this is the most typical) and something for children to be afraid of. In some stories, she is a manifestation of winter and represents the harsh reality of what happens to one when they are lost in the woods. In others, she is some sort of hag-like goddess related to weather. Despite the question of “what” Baba Yaga is, her physical description remains fairly consistent. This is surprising for a being whose origin changes from story-to-story. But one thing is for certain, no matter what Baba Yaga you meet in the woods, she’s going to physically frighten and disgust you. 

The header image is by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov - and is in the public domain.