The Devil's Minion or a Mother Mary Type? | Mythology Mondays

Witch is a pretty broad term. It applies to any person (though the term is often pejorative and feminine) who practises or has a working knowledge of  magic(k). Witches in mythology and folklore are often a source of dangerous wisdom, often shown throughout mythology (and literature) as not evil 'per-say' but mysterious and scary and you don’t wanna go there Macbeth.

As Europe and Christianity generally got more and more shitty, the character of the witch was associated more and more often with the Christian devil. The archetype of the hag became more prominent, and the idea of witches and brooms and black cats just, seemed to catch on.

It’s hard to pin-point where the broom thing came from for starters, but at its root was this idea of a witch distorting womanly domesticity and was a direct anxious response to more and more women spreading out from the strictly confined boxes society had set out for them. Witch iconography uses signifiers of the domestic (i.e. the broom) but ‘perverts’ them.

One of the most interesting witchy figureheads comes from Slavic mythology. Her name is probably one you may recognise, but her story? Her character? Little of all that remains untouched by history and religion and general translation.

Baba Yaga is one of THE most famous witches recorded and yet no one really knows for sure all that much actually about her.

Many translations within scholarship have been put forward to account for Baba Yaga's name, her character, her image. A bunch more have attempted to reconstruct Baba Yaga's oral origin and historical development, with structuralist studies tending to touch more upon her character as it works within Jungian archetypes; the crone, the mentor/sage, the great mother etc.

Baba Yaga’s got one of those funny names; in Russian baba meaning ‘Old Woman’ and yaga meaning ‘Hag’, so 'Old Woman Hag'. She is often shown with the powers of shape-changing and prophecy. Baba Yaga has a fair few of other names outside of Russia; In Serbia she is called Baba Roga, in Slovenia; Pehtra Baba, in Czech Republic and Slovakia she is Jezibaba.

Baba is a complex woman, not only known as the personification of death, she is also depicted as playing an important role in relation to fertility and fate. Just as the ancient Slavs faced disease and death without warning or explanation, so to did Baba Yaga fly into fits of rage on the smallest of pretext, to the degree that she would eat people that offended her, or fulfil their duties.

The characterisation of Baba Yaga is where much of the uncertainty surrounding her comes from. She varies between acting as a benefactor and a villain, either helping the hero of the Slavic myth or hindering them.  Though she never seems to go after anyone unprovoked—provoked being as small of a thing as approaching her house—she appears to follow little or few morals. Nevertheless, whatever promise Baba Yaga makes to the hero after their completion of her tasks, she keeps. If they fail, she’s likely to eat them.

Most of us recognise Baba Yaga for her house, a crooked little hut on four or two chicken’s legs which carries her throughout the densest parts of her forests, making her difficult to keep track of. Baba Yaga in art and literature, if often shown to be inside at her spinning wheel (traditionally spinning thread from the guts and innards of the dead). Some tales say that her teeth, nose and breasts are made of iron, and that her hair (like medusa) is made up of withering snakes. 

Baba Yaga’s gift of prophecy often plays a major component in the tales and myths surrounding her. She is known to give gifts of wisdom and foresight but only to those who survive her demanding tasks, and who first actually made the arduous trip to her moving house.

It’s said that the fencing around her house is made up of the bones of those who’ve failed her tasks, failed to ask the right questions or her ruthless tests of motive. Each fence picket is the home of a human skull that are enchanted to spit fire and burn.

Throughout eastern Europe, many tales of Baba Yaga survived the advent of Christianity. In the Christian era some of the myths that recorded Baba Yaga’s more murder and witchy habits where altered to make them seem less gruesome and her, less of a spawn of Satan. In other cases Baba Yaga was demonised, made more ruthless, more deathly, with one particular tale about her origin gaining root (Apparently, the devil rounded up 12 evil women and cooked them in a cauldron, after he spat into the soup, and from it Baba Yaga came, the perfect evil). Strangely some later legends even confused Baba Yaga with Mary; Mother of Jesus, which is really hard to imagine when you think of some of Baba Yaga’s stories.

Ultimately no one knows quiet what to make of Baba Yaga. She is an enigma, wrapped in a shawl, riding around in a chicken-legged house.