Baba Yaga: Deity of Death or Regenerator of Life?

Back in March, we gave a brief overview of the infamous Baba Yaga, which you can read here to refresh your memory. But, this famous witch is more than a mere child-eating demon. If Hansel and Gretel had happened upon Baba Yaga in the forest, the witch might have taught them a thing or two about Slavic customs. She is a “baba,” after all, a wise, skillful old woman, who often performed the role of a midwife. Saving lives, not consuming them, she’d tell her honored guests.

First, she would let them know that by venturing into the forest, they had entered the in-between realm, the land of unconsciousness, the other side of life. It’s here that she guards the entrance to the “other world,” the world of the dead. It was once her role, long ago, to escort souls to the world beyond.

Baba Yaga and boy
Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And next, if they questioned her about her penchant for sticking children into the oven, she’d tell them it was an age-honored tradition in parts of Russian and elsewhere to perform a ritual on premature babies to make the infant strong and resilient. Just like you make dough rise by putting it into a warm oven, so you do the same with a baby born early.

“How so?” her guests would ask.

“Why,” she’d reply, “aren’t you a wonder. What do they teach children these days? All the smartest people know that you have to cover the baby with dough and place him on a bread shovel, which you place into the warm oven—warm, mind you, not scorching hot. We only want to plump up the little one so he completes his growth cycle. The oven is much like it’s mother’s womb and ensures the child becomes fully developed.”

“But how do you know when he’s done?” children ask with a tremor in their voices.

“Surely, you know when bread is done. By practice, you can tell. Same goes for the little one.”

The witch, with a gleam in her eye, goes on to tell them that the same can be done with older children who have become ill. The oven heat will burn away the disease and it escapes through the chimney. Then, lo and behold, the child becomes healthier. These ancient rites and traditions have served our ancestors well, she tells them, and it’s such a shame they are now forgotten.

“How are you feeling, dear children?” She approaches and touches their heated cheeks.

“Fine, just fine,” they say as they take cautious steps back to the doorway.

The woman they see before them may be ugly as sin. She may even have a snake’s tail. Once, long, long ago, before she had any resemblance to a person, she had the appearance of a frog. Her arms were twisted with claws at their tips. She was bent over and had long, dirty hair.

Baba Yaga in Her Mortar
Ivan Bilibin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It is this Baba Yaga who is said to transform you through your death. Yes, you heard me right, your death. She not only burns away impurities such as diseases. She can also end your existence—but for the better. That part of you that dies is that which holds you back from becoming who you should be, the better you. Fear not, she has the power of death, but the power of life, as she is the keeper of both the Water of Life and the Water of Death.

***

We could talk about Baba Yaga for 1001 nights. There is so much information about her. But we hope this is enough to pique your interest in this ambiguous witch. We are currently researching more about Baba Yaga and will publish the fourth book in our “Spirits & Creatures” series hopefully by the end of 2022 or early 2023.

Sources:

“Baba Yaga’s Cottage: Meeting the Goddess of Death and Rebirth”: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/babayagascottage/2020/03/baba-yagas-cottage-meeting-goddess-death-rebirth/

“Baba Yaga – The Ugly Evil Witch of Slavic Folklore”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSCkdWREr7k

“Баба- Яга: в сказках и в жизни” (Baba Yaga: in fairy tales and in life): https://www.b17.ru/article/6550/

Baba Yaga, Demon or Goddess?

In Bulgaria, March is a time for supernatural creatures to return to the human world from their winter residence in Dragon Village (Zmeykovo). Baba Yaga is one of the most well-known of these figures in Slavic folklore. “Baba” is a word that means “old woman” or “grandmother,” while “Yaga” comes from a word that possibly means “ill-tempered” or “quarrelsome,” as well as being derived from numerous other words, such as “illness,” “horror,” and “torment,” to name a few.

And she was indeed an ill-tempered old woman, and ugly, ugly, ugly. She has a crooked nose and iron teeth. The witch is skinny, with bones poking out.

If you haven’t heard about her, she’s a witch with a proclivity for eating children who wander onto her property. She lived in a hut that stands stilt-like on one or two chicken feet, and a fence of the bones of her victims surrounds her property. The witch doesn’t fly on a broom. Instead, you’ll see her in her mortar, using a pestle to guide her through the air.

Her hut, too, is a wonder to behold. It hops about, spinning, screeching, and moaning. When Baba Yaga wants it to stand still, she recites a special incantation.

Baba Yaga and Chicken Hut

While doing research on dragons, I discovered Baba Yaga has been compared to Hala, called a storm demon in some locations. Wherever she travels, she stirs up the wind.

But, Baba Yaga was also once a goddess of birth and death, the guardian of the fountains of life and death. Like nature, she is wild and untamable. She is the image of the matron of the family, one who no longer has to care for her own children. These women were knowledgeable in folk healing, and were thought to possess the power of life and death.

Baba Yaga can determine a person’s fate and represents the darker side of this wisdom. If her guest performs special tasks, without complaining, the witch will give the person magical gifts to help them as they tackle other adventures. If they complain, or ask too many questions, their fate is to end up in the witch’s oven. Even though she is known for her wisdom, she ages one year for each question she’s asked, so, yes, that can certainly put a damper on her willingness to help.

As time went on, she eventually became the hideous creature whose main desire was to devour children, rather than help bring them into this world.

Baba Yaga is one of our favorite characters in our Dragon Village middle-grade fantasy series. We’ve also collected so much more information about this fascinating personality that we’ll share in a future book about Folklore Witches in our Spirits & Creatures series. For now, though, we’ll leave you with some artists renditions of this famous witch: https://www.picuki.com/profile/bulgarianfolktales.

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