As some of you know, I have written a series (a novella and two novels so far) about an updated version of the Baba Yaga tales. The novella came out recently, and the first book will be released on September 2nd. But not everyone is familiar with Baba Yaga, so I thought I would introduce her to you. Here—let me fill up the samovar with tea, and we call gather around the hearth fire while I tell you a story…
Most people are familiar with the standard fairy tales (many of which were written down by the Brothers Grimm, and then prettied up into the versions we know today…the earlier stories were, well, grim). You know Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, of course. But when I set out to write an updated fairy tale, I wanted to use a story that hadn’t been done quite so many times. There are some fabulous modern rewrites of all those classics, as well as things like Beauty and the Beast, but I wanted something completely different. I wanted, as it turned out, Baba Yaga.
When I was growing up, I loved fairy tales, and read as many as I could get my hands on, including a fabulous series of old tales compiled by editor Andrew Lang into The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Yellow Fairy Book, and so on. I’m guessing that it was there that I first encountered the Russian witch known as Baba Yaga. (I am of Russian Jewish descent; I don’t recall this being a story told at home, although my mother says that my grandfather would have known it, and loved Russian culture, so it is also possible I heard it from him.)
Unlike many of the more conventional fairy tale heroines, the Baba Yaga wasn’t pretty. Nor, for that matter, was she weak, or sitting around waiting to be rescued by a prince. If anything, she rescued them. Or, you know, ate them. Baba Yaga wasn’t a princess, you see—she was a witch. Ah, now you’re beginning to see why I decided to write about her.
The Baba Yaga tales all agreed on a few things: She was a powerful witch, and not to be trifled with. She usually appeared in the guise of the “old crone” type of witch, and sometimes traveled with a dragon named Chudo-Yudo. She lived deep in the woods in a hut on long spindly chicken legs, which could move through the forest, or turn its back to any passing journeyer. Unlike most witches, she didn’t fly through the air on a broom; instead, she rode in a mortar steered by a pestle, and used her broom to sweep away her tracks behind her. She was sometimes cruel, but could also grant help or wisdom to a worthy seeker. She was often associated with the three riders: White Horseman, the Red Horseman, and the Black Horseman. She calls them, “My Bright Dawn, my Red Sun, and my Dark Midnight.”
Then we get to the really fun stuff.
You see, there are deeper layers to the Baba Yaga than you might find in your average fairy tale. There are those who consider her to be much more than simply a witch. According to Judika Illes, who wrote about Baba Yaga in her books, Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses (HarperCollins 2009) and The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft (HarperElement 2005), the Baba Yaga started out as a goddess of birth and death, and only over time did she devolve into the witch whose name was used to threaten children who didn’t eat all their dinner.
It was in part what Illes wrote which inspired my modern version of an immensely powerful, neither moral nor immoral witch who was not exactly good nor essentially evil, but in fact, had the potential to give great gifts to those she finds worthy, or kick a little ass for those she does not.
“She is an underworld goddess who controls the forces of life and death…She performs miracle cures. On the other hand, according to fairy tales, personal encounters with Baba Yaga are often fatal; whether this was meant literally or shamanically is unknown. Either way, she is potentially very dangerous.”And this:“In some legends, she is completely solitary, but in others, she is a midwife spirit who is the mother of three sons or three dragons. Sometimes there is one Baba, sometimes there are three: three sisters…”
In The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John and Caitlin Matthews [yes, I have a lot of pagan/witchy/mythical reference books—and your point?], I found some more intriguing information about Baba Yaga:
“Although Baba Yaga has become the archetypal bogey-woman with which to frighten children, she is actually a primal goddess whose knowledge of the world is unequalled. Baba Yaga can also appear as a peasant woman of kindly disposition…she is helpful to women and a guardian of good order and behavior, punishing those who outrage it.”And what became some of the major components of the story:“Baba Yaga confers upon Koshei, the dragon in human shape, his immortality. She also controls the fire-breathing dragon Chudo-Yudo, who guards the Water of Life and Death. Baba Yaga’s house sits between the world of everyday and the Otherworld, where it acts as a guardian to the land of the dead.”
Yes, there are three Babas in my tales, each with her own Chudo-Yudo. Koshei shows up (looking, in my mind, a lot like Rufus Sewell, but hey, you can imagine him any way you want to). The riders are in there too, although they have traded in their horses for motorcycles, just as my modern Baba’s wooden house on chicken legs is now an Airstream trailer, and her mortar and pestle have been transformed into a classic BMW motorcycle. After all, even the most powerful of witches needs to keep up with the times.
My Baba Yaga may not be a goddess, but she is mightily magical, with strong connections to the elements. You definitely don’t want to get on her bad side. She might just let Chudo-Yudo eat you.
There is something to be said for taking ancient mythology and fashioning it into something modern that is easier for us to connect with—after all, isn’t that what many of us do with our spiritual paths, too?
For more information on the legends of Baba Yaga, you can look here:
For an interesting take on using Baba Yaga in a modern witchcraft practice, check out this great blog post by Gail Wood: http://rowdygoddess.com/2014/02/25/celebrating-the-hag-baba-yaga-the-hag-of-winter/ (and yes, she mentions my book—how cool is that?).
And if you are so inclined, you can find up what Baba Yaga has been up to lately, at least in one writer’s imagination. I hope you’ll be pleased when you finally meet her.