The Hut on Chicken Feet
In the slumbering forest, in the deepest darkness, a hut stands on two chicken feet. In the hut, on the stove, Baba Yaga reclines on the ninth brick. Her legs are bony, her nose has grown all the way to the roof, and she’s sharpening her own teeth. She looks like an old woman, but there something odd about her. Who is she? Is she even an old woman at all?
Baba Yaga is an ambivalent character, and that makes her very interesting. She’s definitely scary—her face covered in warts, her crooked nose reaching all the way down to her hairy chin. She has hands like hooks, a hump on her back. Still, you can’t exactly call her a villain. Yes, she constantly threatens to eat Ivan the Prince, or Mashenka, or Vasilissa the Beautiful, but she ever actually eats anyone. Really, her purpose in the stories is to be a magical helper to the hero, even if her help is not always what’s expected.
In Russian fairy tales, the hero never comes to the hut on chicken feet before encountering and speaking to forest beasts (hedgehog, rabbit, bear, pike, etc.). After he encounters Baba Yaga, he always has to face some kind of test by encountering the real villains of the stories—Koshchei the Deathless, Zmei Gorynich (the dragon), Likho of the One Eye (evil fate), Kikimora, Leshy (a forest demon). These and other demonic creatures don’t belong to the real world. They represent the world of the dead in the fairy tales. Baba Yaga belongs to that magic world, but only partly. One of her legs is bony, the other, fat.
The Border Guard of the Dead-Lands
Baba Yaga is the customs officer of the land of the dead. Her hut is a kind of passport control. In that hut, the hero goes through all the necessary rites to begin his journey into the supernatural world. He washes in the sauna, which symbolizes the washing of a dead body before burial. He eats and drinks in excess, which is a hint at the traditional feast (pominki) held after a funeral. He always sleeps in the strange hut, because night is the witching hour, the time of passage from one state to another. And sleep is a kind of small death.
To acquire superhuman strength, the hero must pass into the unreal world, where he will be tested. After all, his own strength is not enough to overcome the obstacles that life has thrown in his path.
The Ancient Wild Mother
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst and philosopher, has an interesting theory about the origins of Baba Yaga. In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, she writes that Baba Yaga is a kind of prototype of primal womanhood, a being of enormous wild power. “Baba Yaga,” she writes, “is the very essence of an instinctive and complete soul. She knows everything that was before. She is a keeper of heavenly and earthly secrets. She inspires fear because she simultaneously personifies a destructive power and the power of creation and life.”
Interestingly, it’s only the male hero who has to overcome a test in Baba Yaga’s house to prepare himself for the encounter with the unreal world. Heroines don’t. All they have to do is perform some menial “feminine” chores, and they automatically receive power and wisdom from their “wild mother.”
However, not all heroines survive the encounter. Neither do heroes.
Goddess of War?
In some mythologies, Baba Yaga is even a goddess of war. Some believe she may have actually been part of the Russian pantheon, having as much power as Perun, the Russian Thor. She may have had her own places of worship. In some myths, she is described as a mistress of the beasts and birds, the hostess of the world of the dead. Sometimes she’s a thief of life, but sometimes a giver of life, a helper of heroes.
It’s this unpredictability that makes her a so fascinating. No wonder so many novelists keep resurrecting her in new and unexpected ways.
In Naomi Novik’s recent novel Uprooted, Baba Yaga only appears as an idea, an ancestor of the magic that the heroine masters. Still, her mischievous wildness is palpable, making her a character in the story, even if she never actually appears.
One of the more unsettling versions of Baba Yaga in recent literature is in Catherynne Valente’s Deathless. In it, she’s a foul-mouthed Stalinist secret policewoman who regularly jumps on the shoulders of the heroine, pushing her down painfully, like the demons in some of Gogol’s short stories.
Not the most pleasant of versions, certainly.
In my own first novel, the Hag is an unequivocally evil version of Baba Yaga. At least one reader chided me for making her so one-sided. I think she’s right, too. The Hag will be back in the second novel. And she’s eager to redeem herself in the eyes of the hero. Or is she?
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