Baba Yaga

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Baba Jaga, by Viktor Vasnetsov.

Baba Yaga, known by various other names, is a haggish or witchlikecharacter in Slavic folklore. She flies around on a giant pestle,kidnaps (and presumably eats) small children, and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs. In most Slavic folk tales, she is portrayed as an antagonist; however, some characters in other mythological folk stories have been known to seek her out for her wisdom, and she has been known on rare occasions to offer guidance to lost souls. According to Propp, she often fulfills the function of donor; that is, her role is in supplying the hero (sometimes unwillingly) with something necessary for the further quest.



[edit]Etymology and origin

The name of Baba-Yaga is composed of two elements. Baba means “old woman” or “grandmother” used in most Slavic languages; it derives from babytalk and often has come to have pejorative connotations in modern Slavic languages.[1] The second element, yaga, is from Proto-Slavic (j)ęga, “Jędza”[Polish], which is probably related to Lithuanian ingis (“lazybones” or “sluggard”), Old Norse ekki(“pain”), and Old English inca (“question, scruple, doubt; grievance, quarrel”).[2] It has also been suggested[by whom?] that Yaga may be a diminutive of the feminine names Agnieszka or Jadwiga.[citation needed]

An early recorded reference to yaga-baba is in Of the Russe Common Wealth by Giles Fletcher, the Elder, in the section “AboutPermyaksSamoyeds and Lopars“,[3] indicating a possible Uralic influence.[4]

The name differs within the various Slavic languages. It is spelled Baba Jaga in CzechSlovak and Polish (though Czech and Slovak also use Ježibaba). In Slovene, the words are reversed, producing Jaga Baba. In RussianBulgarianUkrainian and Belarusian, it isБаба Яга transliterated as Baba Yaga (also Baba Yaha, in Ukrainian and Baba Yaha or Baba Jaha in Belarusian). In South Slaviclanguages and traditions, there is a similar old witch, written Baba Roga in CroatianSerbian and Bosnian, and Баба Рога in Serbianand Macedonian. In Romanian, which is not Slavic but one of the Romance languages, the name is Baba Cloanţa (roughly translated as “old hag with broken teeth”).


Vasilisa the Beautiful at the Hut of Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin

In Russian tales, Baba Yaga is portrayed as a hag who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder and sweeping away the tracks behind her with a broom made ofsilver birch. She lives in a log cabin that either moves around on a pair of dancing chickenlegs, is surrounded by a palisade with a skull on each pole, or both. The keyhole to her front door is a mouth filled with sharp teeth; the fence outside is made with human bones with skulls on top, often with one pole lacking its skull, leaving space for the hero or heroes. In another legend, the hut does not reveal the door until it is told a magical phrase: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me”.

In some tales, the hut is connected with three riders: one in white, riding a white horse with white harness, who is Day; a red rider, who is the Sun; and one in black, who is Night. Baba Yaga is served by invisible servants inside the hut. She explains the riders if asked, but may kill a visitor who inquires about the servants.

Baba Yaga is sometimes shown as an antagonist, and sometimes as a source of guidance; there are stories in which she helps people with their quests, and stories in which she kidnaps children and threatens to eat them. Seeking out her aid is usually portrayed as a dangerous act. An emphasis is placed on the need for proper preparation and purity of spirit, as well as basic politeness. It is said she ages one year every time she is asked a question, which may explain her reluctance to help. This effect, however, can be reversed with a special blend of tea made with blue roses.

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

In the folk tale “Vasilissa the Beautiful“, recorded by Alexander Afanasyev (Narodnye russkie skazki, vol 4, 1862), the young girl of the title is given three impossible tasks that she solves using a magic doll given to her by her mother. In the Christianised version of the story, Vasilissa is sent to visit Baba Yaga on an errand and is enslaved by her, but the hag’s servants — a cat, a dog, a gate, and a tree — help Vasilissa to escape because she has been kind to them. In the end, Baba Yaga is turned into a crow. Similarly, Prince Ivan in “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” is aided against her by animals whom he has spared.

The Polish folklore version differs in details. For example, the Polish Baba Jaga’s hut has only one chicken leg. Monstrous witches living in gingerbread huts are also commonly named Baba Jaga.[citation needed] Baba Jaga, flying on a broom and wearing black and red striped folk costume of Świętokrzyskie Mountains, is an unofficial symbol of Kielce region (it is connected with legendary witches’ sabbaths on Łysa Góra mountain). In some legends Baba Yaga is also awarded the title Костяная Нога (“The Bone Leg”) and considered a guardian between the real world and the land of the dead. This title later became an idiom, often used as taunt.[citation needed]

Baba Yaga is used as a stock character by authors of modern Russian fairy tales, and from the 1990s in Russian fantasy. In particular, Baba Yaga in included in such books as Andrey Belyanin‘s cycle Secret service of Tsar Pea. The childhood and youth of Baba Yaga were described for the first time in the A. Aliverdiev’s tale “Creek” (“Lukomorie“).

In some fairy tales, such as “The Feather of Finist the Falcon“, the hero meets with three Baba Yagas. Such figures are usually benevolent, giving the hero advice, magical presents, or both.[5]

Other recorded Russian fairy tales that feature Baba Yaga are “Teryoshechka“, “The Enchanted Princess”, and “The Silver Saucer and the Red Apple”.[6]

[edit]Cabin on chicken legs

Nicholas Roerich, “Izba smerti” (“Hut of Death”, sketch, 1905), an artistic expression of burial traditions of the ancient Slavs

According to Russian folklore, Baba Yaga dwells, in the words of the preface to Alexander Pushkin‘s fantasy poem Ruslan and Lyudmila, in a “cabin on chicken legs… with no windows and no doors”. Baba Yaga herself usually uses the chimney to fly in and out on her mortar. The door sometimes appears at the other side of the hut; to see it, a hero should say “Hut, O hut, turn your back to the woods, your front to me” and thus force the cabin to turn around and discover the door.

Sami storehouse, Stockholm, Sweden

This may be an interpretation[citation needed] of an ordinary construction popular amonghunternomadic peoples of Siberia of Uralic andTungusic families, invented to preserve supplies against animals during long periods of absence. A doorless and windowless log cabin is built upon supports made from the stumps of two or three closely grown trees cut at the height of eight to ten feet. The stumps, with their spreading roots, would give an impression of “chicken legs”.

A similar but smaller construction was used by Siberian pagans to hold figurines of their gods. Recalling the late matriarchy among Siberian peoples, a common picture of a bone-carved doll in rags in a small cabin on top of a tree stump fits a common description of Baba Yaga, who barely fits her cabin: her legs lie in one corner, her head in another one, and her nose is grown into the ceiling.[citation needed]

There are indications that ancient Slavs had a funeral tradition of cremation in huts of this type. In 1948, Russian archaeologists Yefimenko and Tretyakov discovered similar small huts with traces of corpse cremation and circular fences around them; this may be a connection to the Baba Yaga myth.[7][8]

Modern fantasy writers, such as Tad Williams and Elaine Cunningham, use the character of the cabin on chicken legs in their works, as do Fritz Leiber in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Mike Mignola in his portrayal of Baba Yaga in his Hellboy comics. The castle inHayao Miyazaki‘s film version of Diana Wynne Jones‘ novel Howl’s Moving Castle also moves on mechanical chicken legs.


Baba Yaga is a major character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s children story Joseph & Koza, where she is described as having a face like a pitch, a red turned-up nose with broad nostrils, eyes burning like live coals, thistles instead of hair and a beard. Singer also mentions that the Mazovians believed in “many lesser babas” and “little imps called dziads.”[9] In his novel The King of the Fields, Baba Yaga was a goddess to whom the prehistoric Poles made sacrifices.[10]

Baba Jaga, a.k.a. ciocia Agnieszka (aunt Agnes) appears as a minor antagonist in Andrzej Pilipiuk‘s short story collection Wieszać każdy może. Main protagonist, Jakub Wędrowycz, mentions fighting her as a child and gets rid of her permanently when she tries to eat his great-grandson Piotruś.

[edit]Popular culture

Baba Yaga is a major character in Orson Scott Card‘s novel, Enchantment. In this novel, Card portrays Baba Yaga as the antagonist and weaves the folklore and possible origins of the folklore into his novel. In Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm series, Baba Yaga is a supporting character in the fictional town of Ferryport Landing. In the Primeval novel Extinction Event, Baba Yaga is interpreted to be a Tyrannosaurus that travelled to the present through an anomaly. In the Fables, Baba Yaga is a spy for the Adversary. Baba Yaga’s hut is parodied in Dan Abnett’s Warhammer 40,000 novel, Ravenor Rogue, as the “Wych House of Utochre”. The Wych House takes the form of a 300-meter wide metal construct with clawed feet and short legs that it can use to run. The whole House hangs upside down under a frozen ocean, attached to the pack ice above by its feet. One character remarks that the house reminds him of an ancient legend from his home world, the myth of Baba Yaga. He is corrected and told that this is actually an ancient earth legend. Baba Yaga appears in Sarah Zettel‘s ‘A Novel of Isavalta’ series as well as an illustrious but powerful political player, who has her own political agenda and tries to achieve her goals by intimidation and manipulation of other characters, often aided by magic weavings. Naomi Kritzer’s short story, ‘Comrade Grandmother’, shows Baba Yaga in WW2, more than capable of turning back the invading German Army, if a young Russian factory worker, Nadezhda, will meet her price, her lover’s life.

Baba Yaga appears in the Marvel Comics book Uncanny X-Men as a nemesis for the good witch Illyana Rasputin.[11] Baba Yaga makes an appearance in Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series in issue #38 (“The Convergence”). She also appears in a Hellboy short story titled The Baba Yaga, which can be found within the graphic novel Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others. She serves as the main antagonist in Hellboy: Darkness Calls, in which she tries to take revenge on Hellboy for the events that occurred in The Chained Coffin. Baba Yaga is also a recurring character in the DC Vertigo series Fables.

Baba Yaga is cited in Clanbook: Nosferatu, a source book for the tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade as a vampire of the Nosferatu clan. The Nosferatu are hideous and deformed as opposed to most vampires in the World of Darknesssetting. In this setting Baba Yaga lived in Russia for hundreds of years until recently having been destroyed.

A variation of Baba Yaga appears in British Television Show Mighty Boosh as Babu Yaga, The Hitcher, a recurring character.[12]

[edit]Film and animation

Baba Yaga from Bartok the Magnificent.

Baba Yaga is a favorite subject of Russian films and cartoons. The film Vasilisa the Beautiful by Aleksandr Rou, featuring Baba Yaga, was the first feature with fantasy elements in the Soviet Union.[13]Georgy Milliar, a male actor, portrayed Baba Yaga in numerous movies from the 1930s to 1960s, including Vasilissa the BeautifulMorozkoNew Adventures of Puss-in-Boots and others.

The animated film Bartok the Magnificent features Baba Yaga as a main character but not as an antagonist.

The John Duigan film Lawn Dogs uses the story of Baba Yaga as a plot device. The character Devon tells the story to herself, and to Trent as he escapes from the town at the end of the film. She gives him a towel and a comb, both of which he uses to evade capture by the townspeople.

The character of Baba Yaga appears in the film Jack Frost, which was featured in an episode ofMystery Science Theater 3000.

Baba Yaga also appears in the film Shrek Forever After, having been employed by Rumpelstiltskin to fight against Shrek, voiced by the film’s director Mike Mitchell and in Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli‘s 2010 short film Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess.[14]


Victor Hartmann’s The hut on hen’s legs–clock in the Russian Style

Modest Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite for piano composed in 1874, features “The Hut on Bird’s Legs (Baba Yaga)” as its penultimate movement. This suite was inspired by an exhibition of paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann held in his memory, a year after his death. this specific movement, was inspired by the painting “The hut on hen’s legs–clock in the Russian Style”. Mussorgsky’s suite has since been set in whole or in part for a variety of instruments. The most famous version for orchestra was made in 1922 by Ravel. The progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer adapted Mussorgsky’s suite for an album in 1971 that included the original Baba Yaga movement along with an original track entitled “The Curse of Baba Yaga”.

Baba Yaga (opus 56), a symphonic poem by Anatoly Lyadov, was composed between 1890 and 1904. The music depicts the witch summoning her mortar, pestle and broomstick, then flying through the forest.

Tchaikovsky wrote a piece called “The Witch – Baba Yaga” (op 39).

[edit]Video games

Baba Yaga is also a character in the Sierra games, Quest for Glory and Quest for Glory 4. She serves as the primary antagonist in the first game, having cursed the Baron of Spielburg and caused all the troubles that the player must resolve. Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut appears in both games.[15] in the fourth, the player must coax it into sitting with an offer of corn.[16]

In the online game RuneScape, Baba Yaga is featured in quests and as an integral part of the Lunar Isle, where she runs a magic store in her chicken-legged house.[17]

Baba Yaga’s chicken house from the gameRuneScape.

[edit]Name in other languages

Baba Yaga is an archetypal character in the culture of many eastern European countries, and is known by different names across the region, including “Baba Roga” in SlavicSerbianCroatian and Bosnian; “Baba Cloanța” in Romanian; “Ježibaba” in Slovak as well as Czech; “vasorrú (literally “iron-nosed”) bába” inHungarian; “Баба (literally “Grandma”) Яга” in Bulgarian; and “Bobbe Yakhne” in Yiddish. In other languages she is known as: (play /ˈbɑːbə jəˈɡɑː/BosnianBaba JagaBelarusian: Баба-Ягіня, Baba-JahiniaBulgarian:Баба Яга, Baba-Yaga ; CroatianBaba JagaCzechJežibabaLatvianBaba JagaMacedonian: Баба Јага, Baba YagaPolishBaba JagaRussian: Баба-Яга, Baba-YagaSerbian: Баба Јага, Baba Jaga;SloveneJaga babaUkrainian: Баба-яга, Baba-yaha).

[edit]See also



  1. ^ Max Vasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo yazyka, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 99.
  2. ^ Max Vasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo yazyka, Vol. IV (Moscow: Progress, 1973), p. 542.
  3. ^ A chapter from Fletcher’s book (Russian)
  4. ^ “”Baba Yaga was a Good Old Northener, by Aleksandr Tutov, Energiya, no.3, 2004
  5. ^ W. R. S. Ralston Songs of the Russian People Section III.–Storyland Beings.
  6. ^ Bonnie Marshall (2004) “The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales”,ISBN 1563089998Preface, p. 19.
  7. ^ Рыбаков Б.А., Язычество Древней Руси (Moscow: Nauka, 1987).
  8. ^ Ефименко П. П., Третьяков П. Н. Курганный могильник у с. Боршева. МИА, № 8. М.; Л., 1948, рис. 37-42.
  9. ^ Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stories for Children, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991, p. 146-151.
  10. ^ Isaac Bashevis Singer, A King of the Fields, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 4, 16, 60.
  11. ^ ’’Uncanny X-Men’’ #231
  12. ^ [1]
  13. ^ James Graham, “Baba Yaga in Film
  14. ^ “The start of a new Ghibli Museum short film and exhibition”. The official site of Ghibli Museum, Mitaka. Tokuma Memorial Cultural Foundation for Animation. 2010. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  15. ^ ““, Hero’s Quest 1: So You Want to be a Hero walkthrough – solution, By Chris van syl
  16. ^ ““, Quest for Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness Walkthrough, By Diana Griffiths
  17. ^ ““, RuneScape Knowledge Base, By Jagex ltd

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