The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods
Baba Yaga, the cannibal “wicked witch” of Russian fairy tales, has become a boogie-woman used to threaten children into obedience: “be good or Baba Yaga will get you…” She epitomizes the scary witch but is also grand, transcending the stereotype. Baba Yaga doesn’t just eat children; she sometimes defends them by dispensing justice to evil stepmothers.
Baba Yaga features in many fairy tales; she has a striking personality and appearance. Once familiar, she’s not easily confused with anyone else. It is generally believed that beneath the fairy-tale witch lurks an ancient Slavic deity, perhaps a Corn Mother banished to the woods post-Christianity.
She is an underworld goddess who controls forces of life and death. Baba Yaga may be petitioned for fertility for those who lack it. 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.
Baba Yaga forces one to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity of the witch. She possesses powers of healing and destruction; she may be unspeakably hostile or amazingly generous. She allegedly knows every botanical healing secret in existence; whether she can be persuaded to reveal these secrets is another story.
She is the Mistress of All Witches, the Primal Mother who rescues, nurtures, and destroys. She is a sacred being but she doesn’t live in the Heavens, underground or in an underwater palace. Baba Yaga lives in a house like a human and demonstrates needs and desires like a human: she eats, sleeps, and drinks—and with gusto!
Baba Yaga lives in the heart of a deep, birch forest in a little hut named Izbushka that usually stands on stilt-like chicken’s feet but occasionally on goat’s legs or even on spindle heels. Baba Yaga’s hut obeys orders. Say “Izbushka, Izbushka! Stand with your back to the forest and your front to me” and it does as directed.
The house is formed from bones, personally collected by Baba Yaga herself. The doorposts are leg bones; a mouth with sharp teeth serves as the lock, the bolt is a hand. The fence is formed from bones crowned with skulls whose empty eye-sockets glow in the dark.
In alternative versions, Baba Yaga is a spinner. Her house stands on a spiraling spindle spinning thread from human bones and entrails. Sometimes three Babas exist, similar to the three Fates.
The house is dominated by an oven that symbolizes birth, fertility, creation, nourishment, and death. It is akin to a cauldron of regeneration, and Baba Yaga stories may be understood as tales of initiation, sometimes (but not always) successful.
She is also called “Baba Yaga Bony Leg” which rhymes in Russian and has a resonance that’s lacking in English translation. Her unusual leg indicates her shamanic connection. In some stories the leg is formed from clay, gold, iron or steel. Sometimes her leg is an iron pestle. (In other versions, she is a woman from the waist up, a snake from the waist down.)
Baba Yaga has iron teeth that protrude like boar’s tusks. Her hands are tipped with bear claws. She wears a necklace of human skulls and likes to smoke a pipe. Euphemisms for her include “Iron Nosed Woman” or “Iron Nosed Witch.” She flies through the air in a mortar, steers with a pestle, sweeping away her traces with a broom. Seated in her iron mortar, holding her iron pestle, she grinds out life and death like a Corn Mother. Stories of her cannibalism may be references to ancient blood sacrifices.
Baba Yaga is the protector of wild animals, who serve her. Her flights are accompanied by crows, ravens, and owls: these birds signal her dominion over day and night. They are not normally compatible: crows and ravens are intensely diurnal while owls are identified with night.
Baba in Old Russian may indicate “witch,” “fortune-teller” or “elderly woman.” It may be used affectionately or pejoratively (see DICTIONARY: Baba). Yaga may derive from Slavic words for “horror,” “shudder,” “illness,” “snake,” “wood nymph” or “witch.” Yaga is also sometimes used as a pejorative to indicate an old, argumentative and/or ugly woman.
Baba Yaga is invoked in this Russian love spell. Murmur the following charm:
In the ancient realm, there is an open field In the open field, there is a wizened oak Around the wizened oak dance thrice-nine maidens From beneath the wizened oak emerges Baba Yaga She lights thrice-nine oak-wood fires Burn for me [Name of spell’s target] as fierce, hot and pure as Baba Yaga’s thrice-nine fires!
According to one interpretation, Baba Yaga is the moon. She cannibalistically eats her own body and then regenerates, waning and waxing as she regulates the fertility of women, animals, and Earth. Her hut turns on its chicken’s feet in rhythm with the moon’s phases. When the Moon is full, her door is open and the hut is accessible to the living. Baba is fat, happy, and pregnant. When only the crescent moon is visible watch out! Baba’s womb and belly are empty and she’s hungry…Baba Yaga also has dominion over the sun.
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 or one mother and two daughters. Sometimes she is married to an eagle who maintains flocks of goats. In other tales she is allied or even married to another beloved villain of Russian folklore—the powerful sorcerer Koschei the Deathless.
Baba Yaga was a popular character in seven-teenth- and early eighteenth-century Russian woodblock prints, where she was often depicted in Finnish national costume. This is believed to be an oblique reference to her shamanic connections and at that time was intended as an insult.
See ANIMALS: Chickens, Corvids, Owls, Pigs, Snakes; BOTANICALS: Birch; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Step of Wu; ERGOT: Corn Mother; TOOLS: Brooms, Mortar and Pestle.