Baba Yaga is a very old character in Slavic mythology. Today she is known as an ugly, wicked old sorceress who lives in a hut on chicken legs deep in a forest and threatens to eat travelers and children. The second nickname of Yaga is “bone leg”, and her hut is surrounded by a fence of human bones and skulls.
But Baba Yaga was not always a villain. What was her role before and how did this character appear in the Russian fairy tales is in today’s story.
The predecessor of Baba Yaga
According to one of the theories, the predecessor of Baba Yaga was the Slavic goddess Yaginya – a beautiful, kind and wise woman who showed people the right path. She knew the Vedas (religious texts originating in ancient India), possessed magical powers and had a lot of compassion. According to this theory, the name Yaga/Yaginya is derived from Yoga.
Some legends say that she was the wife of Veles – the God of Magic, wisdom and the Three Worlds.
In pre-Christian Russia, Yaga used to be known as the keeper and guardian of the clan and folk traditions. After Russia was converted to Christianism, the belief in pagan gods began to be considered heresy and most of the gods turned into evil and terrible creatures. Baba Yaga has not avoided this fate either: she became a nasty, angry and ugly old woman, whose appearance and behavior inspired fear to others. However, even after this transformation, Yaga did not lose her guardian mission: in the Russian fairy tales, she often gives magical items to travelers and saves children.
The guide to the afterlife
According to another belief, Yaga was originally a death deity and looked like a woman with a tail of a serpent. She guarded the entrance to the realm of the dead and accompanied the souls there. This description resembles the ancient Greek half-woman and half-snake Echidna. Legend has it that Echidna married Hercules and gave birth to the Scythians who are considered to be the oldest ancestors of the Slavs.
Baba Yaga knows a lot about roots and herbs and can make a variety of mixtures, love-philters, and tinctures. In ancient times, people who knew how to use the gifts of nature and achieve the desired results with the help of herbal remedies were most often feared but at the same time revered. Many healers lived, therefore, very lonely lives and were approached by people in a great need only. Living deep in the forest was also conducive to gathering herbs: no one could interfere with the process of preparing medicines.
In ancient fairy tales it is often mentioned that Baba Yaga roasts babies in a furnace pushing them on a bread peel. But some theories explain such a behavior as a treatment that babies with rickets were receiving back then: they were wrapped in a sheet of dough, laid on a peel, and several times shoved into a warm stove; after that, the child was unwrapped, the dough was thrown out into the courtyard where it was eaten by dogs supposedly along with the disease.
Contradictory image of Baba Yaga
In all Russian fairy tales, Baba Yaga plays a very important role, but in different stories she acts differently. She can be a warrior who fights along bogatyrs (i.e. very strong medieval Russian knights). She can kidnap children and lure adults with a purpose to fry and eat them. But most often she is gift-maker who helps the protagonist that comes to her as the last hope. When the visitor reaches Yaga and asks her for help, she first refuses and tries to scare him off. But soon she changes anger for mercy and prepares the banya for the guest to allows him to wash from the road and treats him with a nice food. Then she usually gives useful pieces of advice or magical items that give the protagonist special powers and make him almost invulnerable which helps him to carry out his plans and achieve the goal. Researchers consider this trait of Baba Yaga the indisputable traces of matriarchy.
Thus, from the wicked old woman, the kidnapper and the hooligan, Yaga returns to her original image – a kind woman who helps and shows the right way to the ones in need.
There are many stories, myths and legends about Baba Yaga, Yaginya and the characters that resemble them. In this article we have covered only a few of them. If you would like to learn more, let us know in the comments!