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.

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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/

Ivan Bilibin’s Magical Fairy-tale World

BilibinRenowned artist Ivan Bilibin lived in a magical world of fairy tales, filled with Slavic mythological creatures.

The scary face of his old “babushka – witch” in the middle of the dark woods flying in wooden vessel always scared me when I was a child. Vassilisa the Beautiful was one of my favorite fairytales. The book had colorful illustrations. Each of them was unique, and every time I read one I discovered more and more fascinating details and something extraordinary. Even though they come from the same artist, there’s something distinctive in them that will make anyone think that they may have been illustrated by different artists.

Every child in Eastern Europe and Russia has seen these illustrations of Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), but many probably don’t know his name or his bio. If you grew up in Bulgaria and your parents read you fairytales, then Bilibin’s extraordinary illustrations of Baba Yaga, the Firebird, and Ivanushka are probably imprinted in your mind forever.

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Even today, I’m still captivated by the colors, especially the blue is one I’ll always associate with these Russian illustrations. The control of line and form, and supporting border art makes for wonderful full page art. I feel very fortunate in having a set of his illustrated books, post cards printed in Moscow.

Firebird and the Grey WolfI’d like to share some information about him that you might not know.

The artist was born in 1876 in the suburb of St. Petersburg as the son of a military doctor. After graduating in May 1900, he went to study in Munich, where he was trained by a few masters in Russian art. In 1899 he received a commission for designing a magazine for the Russian ‘World of Art’ artists’ association and soon became an active member.

Bilibin discovered his signature style while sojourning in the village of Yogna (400 kilometers from Moscow). There he a series of illustrations for Russian folk fairytales – Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf, which later defined his artistic style forever.

In 1899 he released his illustrations of the Russian fairy tales The Tale of Ivan the Tsar’s Son, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf, Vassilisa the Beautiful, and The Frog Princess. This gained him popularity. But his talent was in high demand beyond the publishing world. He was active in stage design for operas and ballets all over the world. In his career he also painted stage sets, for example for Ruslan and Ludmila or Nikolai Rimsky-Korkasovs The Golden Cockerel.

His life was fraught with challenges and after the October Revolution in 1917, Bilibin left Russia for a while. He moved to Egypt, where he earned his living by making frescos to decorate the homes of wealthy people, and he also studied ancient Egyptian art. The illustrations below demonstrate the influence of this period in his work.

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Finally in 1936, he returned to his home country, where he worked on illustrations for Tolstoy and mythology and history books. He died during the German Siege of Leningrad in 1942, starving within the city when he refused to leave.  

Today, Bilibin is mostly remembered as an illustrator of fairytales, but the artist created sketches for novels, too. Bilibin’s sketch of Peter the Great is for Alexei Tolstoy’s novel by the same name.

peter the great

Bilibin’s vivid imagination and talent are still inspiring artists and writers today.

ronesashop

I’ve used some of his designs and images in the Spirits & Creatures books and also in my Redbubble shop where you can find a variety of unique designs for T-shirts, stickers, and more inspired by his art and mythology and fairytales. It’s a place where you can rediscover the magic of his art and Slavic and Eastern European mythology, get a gift or something to treat yourself.

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Source of Information: https://www.veranijveld.com/authors–illustrators/ivan-bilibin

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