According to Folk Tales from the Russian, published in 1903 by Verra Xenophontovna and Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, there is a story in Russian folklore that illustrates the many facets of Baba Yaga all at once.
It seems, so the tale goes, that once there was a woodcutter who lived near the forest, and he and his wife had twins, a boy and a girl. When they were still small, the woodcutter’s wife died, and although he was very lonely and missed her, he knew his children needed a mother, so he married again.
The stepmother was envious of the woodcutter’s love for his children, and so she treated them badly. If he was away from home, she would lock them outdoors for hours. She refused to feed them, and didn’t care if their clothes fit or if they were cold. Finally she decided to get rid of them altogether, so she could have the woodcutter all to herself. She told them to go see an old woman who lived deep in the woods, in a house that had magical chicken-like feet, and the old woman would give them treats.
The children, however, knew that something was amiss. Their stepmother had never offered them a kindness before. So instead, they went to the home of their dead mother’s mother, and she warned them not to go to the house on chicken feet because it belonged to an old witch named Baba Yaga. She fed them well, and told them to be good to anyone they met, and sent them on their way. But on their way home, they got lost and found themselves at the witch’s house anyway.
The children had a number of adventures, many of which have similarities to other well-known European fairy tales, that you can read about here: Sacred Texts - the Tale of Baba Yaga. By the time they returned home, the woodcutter realized his new wife had no love in her heart, and sent her away so he and his children could live happily and in peace.
Another tale relates the story of the young Vassilissa, whose father is a merchant and whose mother dies early (not an uncommon theme in folktales, to be sure!), leaving her only a tiny doll to remember her by. As Vassilissa grows up and her father takes a new wife, the story expands to include two evil stepsisters, and a series of tasks assigned to the young girls. Naturally, those who are wicked end up getting what is coming to them, at the hands of Baba Yaga.
Other Aspects of Baba Yaga
In addition to her magical moving house on its chicken legs, Baba Yaga is sometimes portrayed as having assistants such as three mysterious riders who help her out. These strange horsemen represent sunrise, noon, and night. In some takes, she is aided by her daughter, Marinka.
In general, no one ever knows whether Baba Yaga will help or hinder those who seek her out. Often, bad people get their just desserts through her actions, but it is not so much that she wishes to rescue the good as it is that evil brings its own consequences, and Baba Yaga is simply there to see these results meted out.
She is often representative of a watcher or guardian of the forest and all it contains, although this may in part be due to her similarities to other Eastern European and Slavic folkloric figures, many of whom are identified by names that translate into "Forest Mother." Such characters appear in Bulgarian, Serbian and Slovenian mythology and legend.
Some Slavic tales feature Baba Yaga as a trio of supernatural sisters - all with the same name - who threatens to eat unwary travelers and small children, although they always seem to manage a timely escape.
In modern Neopaganism, there seems to be some speculation that Baba Yaga was a goddess who was worshiped by ancient Slavic Pagans. However, despite some of her similarities to other European goddesses, such as her appearance in triplicate, there is little academic evidence that Baba Yaga was deified. A more likely scenario is that she was, as originally noted, a folkloric character who has taken on a life of her own in the minds and hearts of modern Pagans.
For some wonderful ideas on how to create a Baba Yaga costume, visit Take Back Halloween: Baba Yaga
For other legendary figures, be sure to read:
- Who is the Green Man?: Legends connected to the archetype of the Green Man are everywhere. In the Arthurian legend, the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a prime example.
- What are the Djinn?: In many Arabic and Persian magical traditions, there are legends and tales of the djinn, a magical creature found in the Quran. Learn about djinn, what they are, and why they're important.
- Who is John Barleycorn?: A traditional English harvest legend is the story of John Barleycorn, whose tale is a metaphor for the cycle of grain, and includes birth, suffering, death and renewal.
- The Holly King and the Oak King: In modern Paganism and Wicca, one of the most popular legends is that of the Oak and Holly Kings. These two archetypes battle as the Wheel of the Year turns.
- Who is the Cailleach Bheur?: Cailleach is known in parts of the Celtic world as the hag, the bringer of storms, the Dark Mother of the winter months.
- The Legend of Krampus: Watch out for the Krampus! His job is to punish those who have been bad, while Santa rewards the people on his "nice" list.