Baba Yaga: A Demon or A Goddess?
Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, I loved reading and listening to fairy tales. These stories, filled with Slavic flavor, were opening up a new world for me, a world where one is to learn lessons and always to succeed, a world in which no matter how many hardships and terror a good character goes through, he or she always succeeds, a world in which a goodness always defeats an evil. Being my hide-away from the harshness of reality, that world was very much sought by me at all the times. Yet, this world absolutely needed to have a few definite characteristics to serve its purpose: the fairy tales I loved to read and re-read had to have Baba Yaga as one of its evil characters. The more evil this character was, the scarier her description, the more vicious her behavior, the better I liked the fairy tale. So who was this Baba Yaga character and what was it in this evil creature that drew me to read and re-read multiple fairy tales, in which I was seeking a camouflage from reality?
In search for truth, I first addressed The Encyclopedia Britannica. Here is what I found: “Baba Yaga, also called BABA-JAGA, in Russian folklore, is an ogress who steals, cooks, and eats her victims, usually children”. My immediate reaction was a long guttural scream! An ogress?!!! I can agree to the fact that Baba Yaga is usually depicted as a hideous cruel, brutish old woman, but certainly she is not a giant monster!!! I was also utterly upset to see the misconception that Baba Yaga comes only from Russian folklore. Certainly any Ukrainian or Polish child will be very upset if there were no more fairy tales with Baba Yaga. Being obviously upset with my first choice of the Reference Literature, I then addressed the Soviet equivalent of Encyclopedia Britannica. Here I found a bit more information that was closer to the truth that I have learned over the years and that was instilled in my veins. “Baba Yaga is an old wicked evil woman practicing witchcraft; a popular character in Slavic folk tales.” Though closer to my heart, this definition was still dreadfully uncomfortable. I knew that to find the truth I needed to search deeper inside of me, within but now without, in a patriarchically mended society, be it capitalistic or socialistic. What follows is my own search for truth, for reality, and certainty.
The word “baba” in Russian means a woman older than a girl; usually any married woman was considered to be “baba” notwithstanding her age. In old Russia, girls were given out for marriage by their parents pretty early on. Once a girl’s virginity was lost, she was consigned to be a “baba” for the rest of her life. “Baba” is truly a derogatory word implying the whining, constantly yelling and upset nature of some women. It is a root word for the well-known “babushka”, which simply means “grandmother”. Though “babushka” sounds very warm and comfy, “baba” sounds harsh and abrasive.
Usually, Baba Yaga is a frightening Witch who lives in the middle of a very deep forest, in a place which is often difficult to find unless a magic clew (a ball of yarn or thread) or a magic feather shows the way. The old hag lives in a wooden hut on two chicken legs (sometimes three or four legs are described). Usually the hut is turned with its back towards a traveler, and only magical words can make it turn around on its chicken legs to face the newcomer. Very often, the hut revolves with loud noises and painful screams that make a visitor cringe. This serves to frighten the reader, showing the hut’s old age, and to show that Baba Yaga does not care about her hut’s well being. It is also fascinating that some fairy tales describe the hut as being a unique evil entity: firstly, it has the ability to move on its chicken legs. Secondly, it understands human language and is able to decide whether and when to let a visitor enter its premises. Finally, the hut is often depicted as being able “to see” with its eyes (its windows) and “to speak” with its mouth (its doorway). I also cannot help feeling that the hut is able “to think”, and one can observe these thoughts as wild powerful clouds of steam emerging from the hut’s chimney. What powerful imagery!
Baba Yaga’s hut is often surrounded by fence made of human bones and topped with human skulls with eyes. Instead of wooden poles onto which the gates are hung, human legs are used; instead of bolts, human hands are put in; instead of the keyhole, a mouth with sharp teeth is mounted. Very often Baba Yaga has her hut is protected by hungry dogs or is being watched over by evil geese-swans or is being guarded by a black cat. The gates of Baba Yaga’s villa are also often found to be guardians of Yaga’s hut as they either lock out or lock in the Witch’s prey.
As for Baba Yaga herself, she flies through the air in a mortar using the pestle as either a device to drive her mortar or as a wheel to control her motion; she sweeps away her tracks with a broom. In Russian, “Baba Yaga” is often accompanied by “Kostyanaya Noga”, which means “the bone leg”. Here is a very strong indication of how skinny and even physically weak she is. Yet Baba Yaga is very powerful: a sense of purpose drives her forward to perform “evil” deeds. This witch is often depicted to be an ugly old hag, her back bent down from age so that she often reaches the floor with her head. Her nose is long and bent; don’t be surprised to find out that it often curls up on itself reaching Baba Yaga’s chin. Alternatively, Baba Yaga’s nose is often found to grow so long that it reaches the ceiling of the witch’s hut when she is lying asleep. Multiple ugly warts covering her revolting face certainly do not make Yaga any prettier. The witch’s hair, long and gray from age, has not been washed or trimmed in hundreds of years. Her clothing, dirty and smelly, has turned into rags. She is the epitome of disgust and evil. Baba Yaga either hunts for her prey or awaits it at home, knowing that it will come to her. She often senses her prey by smelling the air around her and pronouncing loudly “Foo, foo! It smells with Russian scent! Who’s here?” Then, the evil Yaga cleans her guests in a hot Russian bath, feeds them with hearty Russian meals, and only then invites them to be eaten by her. Here is another interesting fact: Baba Yaga cooks her meals in her ancient brick oven. She invites her prey to sit down on a giant spatula, which she then artfully places in the fire of her oven, literally letting her guest make his or her own destiny to die (depending on how they sit, they may or may not fit into the oven). There exist a multitude of fairy tales about Baba Yaga, each with somewhat different description of the old hag or how she hunts or eats her prey. The majority of stories keep the old witch and her surroundings as ugly, disgusting and evil, as possible. Note the similarities with the western fable of Hansel and Grettel.
Growing up with the old Baba Yaga in large number of my favorite fairy tales, I looked at this hag as a wicked witch, a carrier of black magic and evil. It took me a very long time to realize that there is much more to Baba Yaga, that she is a Great Goddess, a holder of the Great Power of Death. [1,2,3] I had to grow and mature; I had to read literature about feminism and Goddess religions; I had to connect with my ancient roots and listen to the words of wise ones before I understood the necessity and importance of Baba Yaga in Slavic folklore. Here is how I changed and here is what I now see now in a Great Goddess of the Dead, Baba Yaga, the Bony Leg.
Baba Yaga is a Slavic version of Kali, the Hindu Goddess of Death, the Dancer on Gravestones.  Although, more often than not, we consider Baba Yaga as a symbol of death, she is a representation of the Crone in the Triple Goddess symbolism. She is the Death that leads to Rebirth. It is curious that some Slavic fairy tales show Baba Yaga living in her hut with her two other sisters, also Baba Yagas. In this sense, Baba Yaga becomes full Triple Goddess, representing Virgin, Mother, and the Crone. Baba Yaga is also sometimes described as a guardian of the Water of Life and Death. When one is killed by sword or by fire, when sprinkled with the Water of Death, all wounds heal, and after that, when the corpse is sprinkled with the Water of Life, it is reborn. The symbolism of oven in the Baba Yaga fairy tales is very powerful since from primordial times the oven has been a representation of womb and of baked bread. The womb, of course, is a symbol of life and birth, and the baked bread is a very powerful the image of earth, a place where one’s body is buried to be reborn again. It is interesting that Baba Yaga invites her guests to clean up and eat before eating them, as though preparing them for their final journey, for entering the death, which will result in a new clean rebirth. Baba Yaga also gives her prey a choice when she asks them to sit on her spatula to be placed inside the oven: if one is strong or witty, he or she escapes the fires of the oven, for weak or dim-witted ones, the road to death becomes clear.
Here is another thought. When one is walking by a frightening hut on chicken legs, a modern person would think: “DANGER! DO NOT WALK IN!” However, a fairy tale character always goes into the Yaga’s house. Why do they do it? Do we, with our modern worldview, know something that the fairy tale folk from primordial times does not know? Or maybe we would walk into that hut ourselves? The truth is that the primordial folk enters the Goddess’s habitat searching for wisdom, thirsting for knowledge, being hungry for truth. It is us, modern folk who needs to look now for this truth and knowledge and to seek it from the Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death because with Death always comes Rebirth. With this learned wisdom, one may receive the Water of Life and Death from her by a show of strength or a pure heart. “For like all forces of nature, though often wild and untamed, she can also be kind.” 
So, who is She, Baba Yaga? Demon - not, She is a Goddess!!!
 P. Monaghan, The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 2000.
 D. J. Conway, Magick of the Gods and Goddesses, Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, 1997.
 P. Jones and N. Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Routledge Publications, London/New York, 1995.
 C. McVickar Edwards, The Storyteller’s Goddess. Tales of the Goddess and Her Wisdom From Around the World, Marlowe & Company, New York, 2000.
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- Since Baba Yaga is a creature of so-called lower mythology, we don't call her a goddess, contrary to Artemis, but their functions are similar: they control the forest. The ugly Baba Yaga and the graceful Artemis: more similar than different.