Unpacking Baba Yaga
This week I’d like to take a closer look at the old woman of the woods, Baba Yaga. She has received a bit of attention lately, for instance, over at the Tanis Podcast or deep in the secret catacombs of the Rune Soup Premium Membership forums. I will admit to being largely ignorant of her and her ways, which is kind of unusual and fun.
I had one book on my shelves that mentioned her, and not really a tome I acquired with purpose but one found along with a half dozen other folk tale oriented works at the thrift store probably a year ago. The source for this week’s blog is ‘The Magic Ring: Russian Folk Tales from Alexander Afanasiev’s Collection.’ There are two tales in this collection that specifically mention Baba Yaga, one of the same title and another called ‘Vasillissa the Fair’. A quick skim through the stories and I found a number of them that mention ‘Grandma’ or ‘Old Woman’, which I find are analogues for Baba Yaga in Russian folk tales, but today we will just concentrate on those she is invoked in specifically.
The purpose of this exploration is to learn a bit more about the problem of invoking, evoking, worshiping, or otherwise poking at Baba Yaga in daily magical practice. My thinking here is that the original tales about her might offer some clues as to how to work with her, what offerings she might like, etc. Folk tales will rarely give you a prescription for a ritual, but that can point you in the right direction if you look closely, and often in directions you had no intention of heading down.
In the first tale, ‘Baba Yaga’, we see the theme of a man whom loves his wife and daughter, and then the wife dies. The man then takes a new wife, who hates the daughter. In the first tale, the step-mother is revealed to be Baba Yaga’s sister. This is interesting to me because it sort of expands the Baba Yaga pantheon to a group of related witches. The step-mother abuses the daughter and when the man, a merchant, has to travel on business, she sends the young girl into the forest to get some thread from her new auntie, Baba Yaga.
At this point, several key archetypes are revealed. Baba Yaga is referred to a number of times as the Bony Witch. Reading her framed in this way makes me think of another hot magical trend, the cult of Santa Muerte, whom is also called the Bony Lady. Art and life are both being set aflame by Baba Yaga in the twenty-first century. This makes her an obvious target for a practitioner’s everyday magical practice. The girl, not keen on visiting the Bony Witch, reaches out to her departed mother’s sister, whom gives her some advice. She says that she will encounter
A serving girl
A birch tree
An old gate
and a feral cat
All of which work for the Bony Witch. The girl’s real auntie gives her a handkerchief, a ribbon, some oil, a roll, and some ham, with which to bribe each of the above in that respective order. This is a key to some of the things that Baba Yaga likes to keep around for herself. Birch bark, rusty metal, and perhaps statuettes, effigies, or some other representation of wolves or bobcats, the woodland equivalents to our domestic partners-in-crime.
When the girl arrives she is confronted with Baba Yaga, who is working at a spinning wheel. Thread, yarn, material, woven objects, these are all things that are related to Baba Yaga on a deep level. The Bony Witch puts the girl to toil before leaving for the day in her familiar mortar and pestle. There are two additional elements in this story, however, she does not fly but pushes herself along the ground while frequently turning and wiping away her tracks with a broom.
While the girl is hard at work (a good point to remember if one seeks to ask Baba Yaga for anything, if it seems easy, then it very likely isn’t the Bony Witch you are dealing with and you should take caution), the servant girl and cat approach her, acting on orders from Baba Yaga to boil her alive and to gouge out her eyes. She produces her bribes, the handkerchief and the ham. The servant girl forgets to light the fire and the cat gives her a towel, a comb, points her to her escape route, and takes over her work for her at Baba Yaga’s loom. While escaping the girl encounters the birch tree, the dogs, and the old gate, all magical familiars of Baba Yaga, she bribes them and is given free passage.
Furious, the witch asks her servants why they have betrayed her, the answer comes back that universally, they have all been mistreated and the young girl is the first to give them anything nice. She then gives chase in the same trifold manner described above. The girl throws down the towel, which becomes a river, and the comb, which becomes a thick forest, all the while escaping with Baba Yaga’s magical thread.
The applicable themes in this story seem to point to Baba Yaga as a worker of wonders, a giver of magical gifts, but not with hard work first and to break one’s connection with her, some cunning and bribery is required. These things should be kept in mind when designing a ritual around her. She is not your friend.
The second story, Vasillissa the Fair, begins in much the same way, with the father, the mother, and daughter, but after the mother’s death, the step-mother arrives with two equally evil step-sisters. Sound familiar? Yup, that’s right, Cinderella is originally a Baba Yaga tale. Thanks for the introduction Disney! but your Fairy Godmother doesn’t fool the gnome schooled anymore!
Vasillissa is in possession of a tiny doll that her departed mother gave her, a doll that if she feeds it, performs miracles for her. This is clear indication that an idol is required when working with Baba Yaga, as the doll is the key to Vasillissa’s eventual triumph. The evil step-mother sends V. (sorry, that’s a crazy long Russian name) into the woods to find a light after all of the fires are let to die in the house. The woods are again present in this tale and I am going to go out on a limb (see what I did there) and suggest that a proper Baba Yaga working cannot be done unless you are surround by trees in some sort of forest, the thicker and more remote the better.
More familiars are revealed in V’s story. There are three horseman that she encounters in the forest, a white, red, and black horse with riders wearing the same colors. These are the dawn, sunrise, and the fall of night. One could intuit that these are the optimum times to work with the Bony Witch, as it is revealed that these are her servants and it is on her orders that the day begins and that it ends.
When V. arrives at Baba Yaga’s hut, it is not on chicken legs, which is the popular description, it is a hut surrounded by a fence of human bones, each fence post crowned with a skull furnished with glowing red eyes. The decorative elements and hardware on the hut are also made of human skeletal remains, quite charming.
Again, Baba Yaga lets the young girl in when she asks for a light for her step-mother and sisters, and is put to hard labor right away. In the hut, V encounters the last of Baba Yaga’s familiar’s we will encounter, three bodiless hands, crawling around the floor, doing her bidding.
In V’s story, among other labors, she must feed Baba Yaga her favorite foods, kvass, mead, beer, wine, cabbage soup, bread, and pork. I would say that it is a safe bet that these are excellent offerings if one is asking Baba Yaga for help.
V is able to complete all of the impossible tasks she is set to with the help of her tiny doll. A small offering is all that is needed and the doll is off, doing all of the work with ease. Instead of escaping, eventually Baba Yaga asks’ V how she is able to complete all of her chores, to which the reply is that she is blessed. That is all Baba Yaga needs to hear, for anyone that is blessed is not welcome in her hut. She gives V one of the skulls for the light she requested, and throws her back out into the forest. The skull speaks to her, keeping her company and lighting her way out of the forest and, much to V’s benefit, burns the step-mother and step-sisters to cinders. That would have been a much cooler ending to the Disney cartoon, if you ask me.
In conclusion, the recommendations these tales make to the everyday practitioner are to go to the woods to find the Bony Witch, look for old fences, old gates, or birch trees. Take some buns and some treats for her cats and dogs, and bring along some kvass, mead, beer, cabbage soup, bread, or pork, for the witch herself. Be prepared to invoke a blessing when you are finished, however, and be aware that a relationship with Baba Yaga is going to take a great deal of work.