Baba Yaga - for the Troubled and the Twisted
A Misunderstood Archetype
Today is an exciting day because I am going to demystify a lesser-known and highly misunderstood archetype of folklores and eventually deconstruct the culture to which she belongs.
I have a strange pull for the Dark mother archetype. She has been constantly eclipsing in and out of my consciousness for a long time now. Unable to move beyond my creative block, I often got engulfed by the long shadows she repeatedly cast on me whenever I felt isolated and lonely. The more I tried to avoid encountering this challenging archetype, the more I got sucked by the magnitude of her dark energy. However, I learned that whenever I eventually surrendered to her pull, the dark mother awakened me to new truths about myself and the immediate world around me. Quietly in my subconscious, I started to frequently but cautiously implore her to show me the way when I felt lost. She remained unmoved by my implorations, like an ancient ruin concealed with thousands of secrets, indifferent to my human trivialities. Such is my relationship with the wise and ancient mother. I am always on the lookout for her. I seek her, I think, as much as she seeks me.
One such personification of the archetype is the Slavic grandmother I will analyze today. I am attempting to uncover her forgotten cultural interpretations and, in the process, allow her to confound me.
The Eastern Slavic folklores are strange stories of entities that are both petrifying and holy at the same time. The narrative is in deep resonance with the existent landscape of Eastern Europe. The biomes of steep ridged, snow-capped mountains and impenetrable forests sliced by wide gargling rivers inspired the lores around both luminous and dark creatures. These treacherous terrains have swallowed many brave explorers and evoked the imagination of the early settlers. They forged stories, some from their imagination and others recorded as accounts narrated by the shocked survivors who ventured to explore the virgin lands. The scariest of them all is the story of a creepy old little hut midst of a Slavic forest. This hut constantly turns on chicken legs with its back to the traveler. It shows its front only when the right spell is uttered. Inside the insidious-looking hut, with glaring yellow eyes in place of the window, resides the eccentric Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is a name that haunts the pages of old Slavic folklore and fairytales. She rises unannounced from the dreaded depths of our fevered childhood nightmares. She is a scary old hag who lives in the forest, asking the passerby to come inside and finish her tricky tasks. She devours them if they fail to accomplish the tasks. She is also the old wise woman, who can answer all our questions.
Many people have narrated her legends. In each story, her appearance varies widely based on the narrator’s perspective. In his iconic compilation ‘The complete folktales of A.N Afanasev’, which is considered to be an equivalent of the Grimm brother's work, Afanasev interpreted four variations of the Baba Yaga legend. These archetypal stories reflected the image of the holy triple goddess (the maiden, the mother, and the crone) symbolism that existed in Eastern Europe paganism. The oversimplified versions mirrored Baba Yaga as an old woman (the crone) with a large nose, warts on her face, sharp pointy teeth like a carnivore, and her iconic crackling laughter. The myths have gone to some ridiculous extent to make her unlikable. She rides on her iconic human-size mortar, using a large pestle to row the wind. She also has a broom, like the west European witch, but she uses it to clear the traces of her journey. Her role in society is that of an outsider and an outcast. However, she is known to have many unpredictable magical abilities. Therefore, people seek her guidance when they land into some kind of serious trouble. She is known to be masterfully tricky. She seems to engage her visitor in a set of dilemmas and then eats them alive if they fail the test. I think this might be her way to reason her partial animalistic brutality and dislike for humans. But she is sometimes helpful if she deems her visitor worthy. Again a sign of a clear conscience emerging out of her wild nature.
In one of Afanasev’s stories, Vasilisa the Beautiful, a cinderella-esque plot of an orphaned girl tortured by her step-mother and the step-sisters, Baba Yaga plays the role of the protective Godmother in a very pragmatic way. Although she remains, throughout the narrative, a tough grandmother who is hard to impress, Baba Yaga teaches the fair maiden Vasilisa the art of spinning a handloom. She ingeniously helps the girl escape her abusers and build a reputation in making garments. Vasilisa was so prolific in her work that she ultimately impressed the Tzar, and married him eventually. It is interesting to note that, even though Vasilisa is known for her beauty, the narrative never relied on her looks to define her character. It was her skill that got her noticed by the Tzar. Baba Yaga is the terrifying grandmother archetype who compels you to work hard and take accountability for your life. Despite her beast-like imagery, her isolated existence in the deep forest is a symbolism of her meditative trance. She is essentially a hermit. She talks to wild mushrooms, wolves, and trees. She can read the direction of the wind and has three phantom riders, the white, red, and black (again strongly implies the presence of the triple goddess archetype). The riders announce to her the arrival of twilight, dawn, and dusk. Every single part of her story implies her deeper interconnection with nature. She seems to have a natural ability to read and understand the signs of nature. She is the epitome of the witch archetype.
In her book, In the Forests of Serre, fantasy author Patricia A. McKillip invokes the devouring mother archetype. She calls her ‘The Mother of All Witches’. She looks at this terrifying forest guardian, from the eyes of her young burly hero ‘Prince Ronan’. When the young prince meets the fabled woman, he failed to recognize any hint of grotesque in her. Mckillip narrates “He only saw a barefoot woman of indeterminate age with an apron full of grain, feeding her chickens in the middle of a blasted waste full of dead trees and ground as hard as the face of the moon.” She also reflects on the level of serenity and security Ronan felt in her presence, “The young prince felt the same stillness gather in his own heart, for with her in front of him, he had nothing else to fear.” He felt a deep stirring for her. She was a mother who is strange and dangerous, and yet formidable. His awakened empathy reflected when the author pondered, “She smiled at him, showing teeth as pointed like an animal’s. Her face, which could be sometimes so lovely it broke the heart, and sometimes so hideous that warriors fainted at the sight of it, looked, at that moment, ancient and clever and only humanly ugly.”
Though the prince was inspired by her presence, he remained aware of her deceiving ways. When Baba Yaga asked him to help her with her chores, he refuses thrice. He dare not enter her hut, he knew too well that she boils her guests alive and eats them. He then immediately regretted refusing the wild goddess, “She raised her lenses then, propped them on her wild hair, and looked at him with naked eyes. At that moment, her face nearly broke his heart. He would have melted off his horse, followed that face on his knees, but now it was too late.” But he thought that he would rather bear her wrath than confront his fears.
The story of Prince Ronan, affirms the bizarre and beautiful existence of the forest deity, half-human and half-wild, roaming in the frightening terrains out of human establishments. And our subconscious fear of her unpredictability. She is beyond the logical structures of the Christian ways of living. She exists outside the clear pasture lands, inside the gestating womb of an eternal forest. The modern interpretation of Baba Yaga from a puritan worldview has defiled and uprooted her indigenous root. All that is evident from her stories suggest that she belongs to an old lost world. Her obvious association with mortar and pestle, hens, livestock, harvest, and flowing water (Yaga meant river for the tribal Nenet people), makes it obvious that she once used to be a motherly entity. Her origin story seems to be deeply buried in a forgotten ancient indigenous worldview. There is no doubt that she is a goddess from the old world. But the question is what got lost in translation and why? How did she become a scary old witch from a nurturing goddess?
The founding fathers of modern lore have misunderstood the dark side of the maternal feminine, which resulted in the distorted western worldview from which Baba Yaga is perceived today. The deep disconnection with nature that we as a civilization now experience is rooted in the creation of folklores that deviate from the essential narrative of indigenous cultures to the patriarchial frameworks of the ‘civilized’ west. But how does Baba Yaga’s lore explains this deviation? Find out in the next chapter of the Baba Yaga series. Until then, remember if you ever feel lost in the depths of your psychological forest, just chant,
“Hut, little hut!
Stand with your rear to the woods and your front to me.”
Baba Yaga will help you, but only if you deserve it.
Stay tuned for the next chapter of the Baba Yaga series.
I recently fell in love with The Ariadne Archive, a newsletter by Freya Rohn, the beautiful consciousness behind this gallery of history pieces, entangled with forgotten women creators. Freya analyses these inspiring stories and cultures while imploring us to look at ours. Freya creates beautiful collections of lyrical proses which reflect the works of many unnamed women. In her own words ‘I try to shine light particularly on women writers across continents and centuries who can help us find a way out of the cage of the canon’. What Freya does is time-intensive and creatively toiling work, and I have immense respect for her labor.
Last but not least, I will again recommend Nicola’s Surrender Now because she embodies the wild woman archetype like no one else. Nicola’s serialized newsletter is a journey full of brokenness, healing, inspiration, frolic, and magnificence. She handles this myriad range of expressions with humor, sensual grace, and unparalleled rawness. Her eloquence and wisdom permeate through the essence of her work encouraging her readers to heal while showing them all the messy bits that made her journey unique and yet relatable. I have developed a deep affinity for Nicola’s author’s voice which has been my constant solace and mentor in my isolation.