To the early Slavs, forests and swamps were omnipresent. Around farms and villages as well as on the mountains, the woods were inescapable. And in the shadows of those trees, spirits lurked.
One of the most well-known supernatural creatures in the Slavic Mythology is Baba Yaga. It’s not hard to imagine how she looked like as she had the appearance of an old ugly lady with long hair flying on a broom or in a mortar.
She lives in a forest in a hut on chicken legs. This hut is surrounded from all sides by a fence made from human bones and skulls.
Different variations of the name Baba Yaga can be found in all of the Slavic countries.
The first part of her name, Baba, is most likely a babble word. In Russian the word “babushka”, meaning grandmother, derives from it. In the Eastern part of Slovakia the word “baba” is used to call your grandmother, as well. “Baba” is also used in Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian with the same meaning.
The second part of the name, Yaga, can be found in various Slavic languages. In Serbo-Croatian “jeza” means horror or shudder. In Slovenia “jeza” is anger. Or in Polish “jędza” witch, evil woman or fury. There are also some other variations in other languages.
In various legends we can see that she cannot clearly be identified as a positive or a negative being.
On one hand Baba Yaga is a being that has cannibal inclinations and strong magical abilities, some of which are being able to spread diseases and create thunderstorms. Some cultures even portray her as the death itself. The cannibal inclinations mostly include young men or children, who she tries to trick into coming inside her house and then Baba Yaga roasts them in a big furnace.
On the other hand, in many tales she helps the heroes of the tales to achieve their goals. Baba Yaga can do that in many ways. When the hero gets to the house of Baba Yaga she offers him a warm steamy bath, a delicious meal, lets him get a rest he needs and provides them with valuable advice and gifts – for example a flying carpet or the Seven League Boots.
One of the tales where she plays the positive role is a tale about Koshchey in which Baba Yaga helps Ivan, the hero, to beat Koshchey so he can free his dream girl. Yaga gave Ivan a magical horse so he could keep up with the speed of Koshchey’s horse.
A Slavic folktale about Baba Yaga
One morning, a young girl named Natasha was walking through the forest. She came upon Baba Yaga’s strange house and thought she would knock on the door and ask for directions. After she walked inside, however, the door slammed shut behind her and Baba Yaga locked her in!
Baba Yaga told Natasha that she would have to stay there forever to clean her house and do all the chores. Baba Yaga told Natasha that if she were ever lazy or didn’t complete her work in time, she would cook her up for dinner. Natasha was scared, but as soon as Baby Yaga went to bed she planned her escape!
First, she gave a bone to Baba Yaga’s hungry dog. He happily began chomping away and couldn’t be bothered to bark at her as she sneaked out of the hut.
As she shut the door behind her, she heard a loud hiss. She found it came from the skinny cat that lived beneath Baba Yaga’s front porch. Natasha searched in her pocket and found a piece of cheese leftover from her breakfast. She offered the cheese to the cat, who gratefully took it. The cat was so busy eating the cheese that she forgot to scratch at Natasha’s ankles or to meow for Baba Yaga.
Natasha was almost out! She only had to get through Baba Yaga’s garden gate and escape into the forest. The gate was so squeaky that Natasha thought Baba Yaga would be sure to hear her open it, so she searched around Baba Yaga’s fence until she found an old can of oil. She poured the oil over the gate’s hinges, and it swung open silently. Natasha ran through the gate and out of the forest as quickly as her legs could carry her!
Because Natasha was clever and kind, she was able to escape from the witch and arrive safely home.
This was the seventh episode of Slavic Saturday. There are many other creatures I am ready to cover for you, my lovely fans. If you missed our previous episodes then you can find that here. I hope to see you all return next Saturday!