The Baba Yaga is the most famous Witch of Slavic folklore and in my opinion gets misinterpreted by many who know so little about who she is and what she symbolizes. The Baba Yaga is actually quite complex and even though most consider her a malevolent and evil Witch of the woods there are others like myself who believe there is a more benevolent side of her and this can be accounted in far older Pagan practices from the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe. Most of what we find describing her as this hideous old child eating hag only dates back to the 18th century but her origins are actually far older. In fact there are some sources that believe there are multiple Baba Yaga’s found throughout Eastern Europe but even beyond that there are folklore tales of other Baba Yaga like Witches in other parts of Europe and even the Middle East. I personally am fascinated with Slavic folklore seeing how I have ancestry from that region and have done some spiritual work with the Baba Yaga so I felt this was an important subject to bring to my readers.
Baba Yaga is a powerful and terrifying witch depicted in Slavic folklore. She lives in a small hut, located deep in the forest. Her property is surrounded by a massive fence, decorated with human bones as if they were ornamental wind chimes. Often, her hut is described as being set upon chicken legs, an unsettling image any way it is illustrated. Her primary mode of transportation is a mortar and pestle set. She sits within the bowl of the mortar and uses the pestle like an oar to move through the sky. This shows attention to the practice of alchemy or herbal work, which is an integral part of witchcraft. It is said she appears as a long, skeletal figure with an enormous hooked nose which reaches the ceiling of her hut when she rests. Her legacy is as erratic as she is, as she is often said to be the guardian of her dark and wild land, a matriarch, and a wise teacher, but also a fickle and treacherous eater of men. The earliest recognizable mention of her is found in a Russian text written by Mikhail V. Lomonosov in which he presents a series of tales from Slavic tradition. Most surviving stories involving Baba Yaga don’t revolve around her, but around heroes or villains who come in contact with her. SOURCE
Etymology of Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga has been associated with ancient mythological characters (she’s like the Boogeyman in Russian mythology). In the Slavic languages, the word “baba” means “old woman” or “grandma” although this word was sometimes used as a term that would describe female demons or specific ailments like measles (also called “baba Sharka”).
In addition, the word “baba” was also used for some astronomical phenomena or concepts of time and seasons, such as “baba Gale” which described the moon, or “baba Marta” which was the other name of the month March. The origins of the word “yaga” are quite unclear although some experts suggest that the word means “evil” or “horror”.
The variation of the full name “Baba Yaga” can be found in the languages of the Eastern Slavs. As a reference to the Russian folklore, the word “baba” in Old Russian means “midwife”, “fortune teller” or “sorceress”. The modern Russian, on the other hand, defines the word “babushka” as “grandmother” or simply “old woman”.
In Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian, “baba” means “grandma”, however, in many modern Slavic languages, the word “baba” is a pejorative synonym of the word “woman” (suggesting a foolish woman). The great number of associations related to the origin of the character of Baba Yaga created many theories that, nonetheless, support the main assumption that “baba” means “old woman” or “grandmother”. Moreover, “baba” was maybe added to distinguish the Baba Yaga from her possible male counterpart in the myth. As it was mentioned before, the second element of the name “Yaga” has a rather problematic etymology. Scholars have never made an adamant consensus over its meaning. “Yaga” appears in various Slavic languages. SOURCE credit Meet the Slavs
Origins of Baba Yaga
Many folklorists study Baba Yaga and argue over where she came from. This character appeared many centuries ago and tracking her true roots is a challenge. I’ve read many different versions, one that stood out to me is the ancient traditions of Finno-Ugric people.
It’s is believed that those people had a tradition that goes back to the paganism era when there were many ethnic religions. There was a group that believed in a ritual that was supposed to help them stay connected with their passed relatives. The ritual involved creating a doll (or baba – which means a women) out of sticks and dressing it in a fur coat called yaga. They would build her a “house” mostly out of wood. Since this house was only a symbolism and didn’t carry any functional purpose – it didn’t have any windows or doors. They also liked to raise it above the ground on sticks so that the animals would not get inside of it. SOURCE
My hands are tree roots,
My breath is the wind
I hide in your shadow till dusk comes again
Always seen, rarely heard and
Never quite understood
I’m the last person you come to when no one else listens
Seek me out by the light of the pink moon-
Whisper to me what you tell no one
I’m only remembered as
An ugly obscurity who keeps your secrets
An enigmatic monsoon-
Neither winter nor spring,
Death nor the moon.Baba Yaga by L SOURCE
Is the Baba Yaga a Benevolent Witch?
There are some lesser known stories of the Baba Yaga actually being more benevolent depending on how you approach her and other stories where she is more of a neutral Witch and reacts depending on the situation to in a way maintain some sort of magical balance.
One of the most interesting details of Baba Yaga is that she is described as being neither malevolent nor “good.” Many folktales throughout the centuries differentiate between witches as being either good or evil, but stories of Baba Yaga illuminate that the true nature of a witch is more ambiguous, or even unpredictable. This Slavic crone is often helpful, willing to impart her wisdom unto those who seek it, but she is also a formidable enemy, should one incur her ire. Many times, she has been credited with the success or the downfall of heroes in Slavic lore. SOURCE
Similar Baba Yaga’s
Babaroga (not to be mistaken with Baba Yaga!) is creature known among Southern Slavs. She is represented as very ugly, hunchbacked old woman with horn on head, who live in dark caves. According to folktales, Babaroga likes to steal naughty children and to bring them to her lair.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia, the Bogeyman is called Babaroga, baba meaning old woman and rogovi meaning horns, literally meaning old woman with horns. The details vary from one household to another. In one version, babaroga takes children, puts them in a sack, and then, when it comes to its cave, eats them. In another version, it takes children and pulls them up through tiny holes in the ceiling.
Iraq’s ancient folklore has the saalua, a half-witch half-demon ghoul that “is used by parents to scare naughty children”. She is briefly mentioned in a tale of the 1001 Nights, and is known in some other Persian Gulf countries as well.
Black Annis was a hag with a blue face and iron claws who lived in a cave in the Dane Hills of Leicestershire. She ventured forth at night in search of children to devour. Grindylow, Jenny Greenteeth and Nelly Longarms were grotesque hags who lived in ponds and rivers and dragged children beneath the water if they got too close. SOURCE
Baba Yaga, Folk Tales From the Russian, by Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, , at sacred-texts.com
Baba Yaga: Russian Folktales’ Classic Witch