A key figure from Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga certainly fulfills the requirements of the wicked witch – she lives in a house that walks through the forest on chicken legs, and sometimes flies around in a giant mortar and pestle. She usually appears as a hag or crone, and she is known, in a most witch-like fashion, to feast upon children. However, she is also a far more complex character than this synopsis suggests. Cunning, clever, helpful as much as a hindrance, she could indeed be the most feminist character in folklore.
So enduring is the legend of Baba Yaga that a new anthology of short stories, entitled Into the Forest (Black Spot Books), has just been released, featuring 23 interpretations of the character, all by leading women horror writers.
Baba Yaga appears in many Slavic, and especially Russian, folk tales, with the earliest recorded written mention of her in 1755. Before that, she had appeared in woodcut art at least from the 17th Century, and then made regular appearances in books of Russian fairy tales and folklore.
Into the Forest is edited by Lindy Ryan, a writer and full-time professor of data science and visual analytics at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Professor Ryan is also the founder of Into the Forest’s publisher Black Spot Books, a small press dedicated to female horror writers. So how did an American end up fascinated by this Slavic myth?
“My Russian stepmother emigrated to the United States shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union,” says Ryan, “and along with my stepsister and step-babushka, she brought with her borscht, matryoshka dolls, and Baba Yaga. While most girls my age were growing up with nicely sanitised Disney version princesses, I preferred the stories by Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen – and, of course, in the books of Slavic fairy tales and folklore that talked of Baba Yaga.”
In fact, the origins of Baba Yaga might go back far further than the 17th Century — there’s a school of scholarly thought that says she’s a Slavic analogue of the Greek deity Persephone, goddess of spring and nature. She’s certainly associated with the woods and forests, and the wildness of nature. “The essence of Baba Yaga exists in many cultures and many stories, and symbolises the unpredictable and untameable nature of the female spirit, of Mother Earth, and the relationship of women to the wild,” says Ryan.
What lifts Baba Yaga above the usual two-dimensional witches of folklore is her duality. She is sometimes an almost-heroine, sometimes as a villain, and an earthy evocation of womanhood. “Baba Yaga still remains one of the most ambiguous, cunning, and clever women of folklore,” says Ryan. “She commands fear and respect, and simultaneously awe and desire. I admire her carelessness and her independence, even her cruelty, and in a world where women are so often reduced to hazy blurs of inconsequence. She is a figure that reminds us that we women are ferocious and untameable, and that such characteristics often come at a cost.” In fact, she’s something of a proto-feminist icon.
“Absolutely she is,” says Yi Izzy Yu, one of the authors who has contributed a story to Into the Forest. One of the ways in which she merits such a description is that she completely upends the nurturing mother stereotype applied to women by eating children rather than breastfeeding them. “She’s powerful despite not being attractive in a conventional sense. She lives by her own magical terms rather than mundane rules,” says Izzy. “And she challenges conceptual categories at every turn. Even her home is both house and chicken, making her, yes, housebound in a sense, but not in any way ‘tied down’. In this way, I guess, she is an early motorhome gypsy.”
Izzy likens Baba Yaga to trickster characters from many mythologies, such as Norse god of mischief Loki or Coyote from Native American folklore. “While Baba Yaga often plays a villain, she is just as likely to offer assistance. For example, in Vasilisa the Beautiful, she helps free Vasilisa from the clutches of her evil stepfamily,” she says. “And while Baba is dangerous to deal with, like many of those who operate on the shadowy side of the law in contemporary movies, she can as well prove herself invaluable in dangerous circumstances.”
“Baba Yaga complicates the passive female nurturing role with a type of, “I’ll do whatever the heck I want” outlaw power that you ordinarily only see associated with men. You could say then that Baba Yaga crosses the wicked witch trope with the fairy godmother trope to create a far more unpredictable and powerful role than either of those.”
Does the legend of Baba Yaga have any lessons for us today? Izzy thinks so. “She’s a shamanic trickster, a category and boundary-crosser, a reminder that freedom lies a little beyond the border of social norms, and that we can learn as much from the dark as the light. Ultimately, I think she reminds us that we are both hero and villain, that a chicken can also be a house, and that we can embrace both the desires of the flesh and the secrets of the spirit.”
Professor Ryan agrees, and has a salutary warning for those who would dismiss the power of Baba Yaga, and in doing so, women everywhere. “I think we’d do best to remember that Baba Yaga may hide herself in the woods, but she is watching and she is remembering.”