Exploring the Nature of Baba Yaga

An accumulative understanding of Baba Yaga and her attributes, based on the analyses of fairy tales featuring her, illustrates her to represent multiple forms and functions. Baba Yaga is thought of as an ambivalent being, neither fully good nor fully evil, she is also recognized as a Goddess of Nature who provides tasks to test the main actor, or hero, as well as assistance, usually in the form of a physical gift or piece of advice, to help the hero reach his goal (Forrester 2010, 427). Death, also being an aspect of nature, is often strongly affiliated with Baba Yaga, as she is seen living in a hut surrounded by human skulls and a fence made of bones, she is can be referred to as a Goddess of death (Von Franz 1974, 197). Very different from these divine qualities that function to help or hold back the hero, Baba Yaga is sometimes depicted as solely malevolent, whose only function is to harm the hero. The two fairy tales, “Vasilisa the Fair” and “Burenushka the Little Red Cow,” provide a stark contrast between the understanding of Baba Yaga as a divine being who acts as tester and donor to the hero and the understanding of her as an ordinary witch, who acts only as the villain of the story.

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In the tale “Vasilisa the Fair,” both Baba Yaga’s affiliation with nature and her function as a tester and donor is emphasized. The Baba Yaga in this tale, lives in a glade in the forest (a threshold), adding a naturalistic backdrop for her illustration as a Goddess of nature. She is also shown to have ownership of three horsemen who are said to be the day, the night, and the sun, all of which are natural parts of the world. Baba Yaga’s claimed ownership of these elements constitute her recognition as a divine being since she holds power over that which affects the earth. (Von Franz 1974, 197). Vasilisa, the heroine, is sent by her stepmother to fetch a light from Baba Yaga and when she arrives, she is immediately set to finish a list of chores, in an impossibly small amount of time, and is threatened to be eaten if she fails. Baba Yaga serves her function here as a tester by assigning horrible and tedious tasks for Vasilisa, in order for her to get what she came for. The idea that Baba Yaga also acts as a donor, is shown when she rewards Vasilisa for completing everything that was asked of her, thus passing her test (Osterman lecture 2/23). Baba Yaga gives her the light that she requests, along with the ability to incinerate her evil stepmother and stepsisters, in the form of a fiery skull (Chandler 2012, 38). On top of depicting her characteristics as a donor, this imagery also supports Baba Yaga’s relationship with death.

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In many fairy tales Baba Yaga is depicted alongside evidence that supports her divine image. However, in the tale “Burenushka the Little Red Cow” Baba Yaga, who is referred to as Yagishna, merely exhibits the characteristics of an ordinary witch and story villain in her interactions with the main actor, or heroine, Maria. Unlike how a Baba Yaga that has the qualities of a tester and donor is illustrated, Yagishna is depicted only as malevolent and does neither of these things for Maria. Much like most, common story villains, Yagishna is merely out to harm Maria and when she fails to do so, she turns her into a goose (Afanas’ev 1976, 146). This ability of Yagishna’s, to change people into things such as animals, is a major characteristic of the ordinary witch and supports her image as such, rather than a Goddess of any kind. In some illustrations of her, Baba Yaga has this ability along with characteristics that paint a more complex picture than that of just a villain, but in this tale, it was the only focus of her power as an otherworldly being and nothing else was mentioned that would be evident in supporting the notions of divinity and fairness (fairness to a certain extent) that Baba Yaga is often related to.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring the Nature of Baba Yaga

  1. I liked the images you used. I thought they added a nice visual touch. The contrast you painted about Baba Yaga being a tester/ donor, but also having the qualities of a villain, really shows the complexity of her character. I agree with you about Baba Yaga being “otherworldly” specifically because of her relationship with death, which also makes her divine.

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  2. I thought you perfectly captured Baba Yaga’s multifaceted persona, and your deep analysis of her varying functions in the fairy tales was very useful. I especially liked that you brought up her being the Goddess of Death, and gave examples of it like the murderous fiery skull and the fence made from human bones. I think ,personally, that there is a lot of deep-rooted fear invested in the creation of her character, seeing as she always lives in the deep woods or open fields where peasants often died. Something I think you might want to consider is that I believe the second Yaga (Yagishna) was intended to represent the original Baba Yaga’s daughter, and perhaps that is where she loses some of her power and depth.

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