An extract from a folk tale about Vasilisa the Beautiful
Baba Yaga remains one of the most recognisable and popular characters of Russian folk tales. However, she gradually made it into fiction stories, cartoons and plays, remaining a part of children’s folklore even in big cities, where folk culture is less prevalent.
Baba Yaga is mostly portrayed as a ferocious-looking witch with a hunch and a bony leg, who knows important secrets, owns magic items (such as a magic thread that shows the way) and has supernatural powers. The image of Baba Yaga demonstrates just how distant she is from the world of the humans; she flies around in a mortar, covering up her traces with a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut standing on chicken legs. She is known for luring in honest young men and little children, who venture too deep into her forest, and threatening to put them on a spade, roast them in the oven and eat them.
She is one of the villains in Russian folklore who is best avoided. However, she might offer help to the main protagonist and give him a useful item or explain how to overcome a certain obstacle. Moreover, the main character often manages to outsmart Baba Yaga. In this case, she probably appears less wise and quick-witted but the encounter with her helps the main character become more mature and prepare for the key event of the story. In a nutshell, Baba Yaga personifies an ambiguous and irrational group of characters in Russian folk tales.
Researchers often refer to Baba Yaga as a guide to the spirit world, and this is where her major difference from witches and other female characters from folk legends lies. Interestingly, there are quite a few folk tales where Baba Yaga washes the main character in her ‘banya’ (Russian sauna) and feeds him at her table, which is a sequence of rituals for transferring from the world of the living to that of the dead. Just like Koschei, she can smell ‘the living’ and anticipate their arrival, as she keeps saying: ‘There’s a Russian scent’.
Stone carving craftsmen portray Baba Yaga in her natural environment — amidst wild and untouched nature — and it is the variety of wood textures that makes the whole composition work. The choice of fossilized wood for the mortar seems more than appropriate. Two wooden branches deserve special attention, however: the texture of an old tree branch with flaky and chipped bark, covered in fungi, is represented particularly well with the help of agate in a flinty cover. The natural lines and cavities are complemented by precise carving technique.
...One day the merchant had to embark on a long journey to attend to his trading matters. The stepmother moved to another house, and next to that house there was a thick forest, and in the forest there was a meadow with a wooden hut, where Baba Yaga lived: she didn’t let anyone near her and ate people as if they were little chicks. After moving to her new house, the merchant’s wife sent Vasilisa, whom she hated with all her heart, to the forest every now and again, but Vasilisa always returned safely: the little doll showed her the way and steered her away from Baba Yaga’s flat.
[...] Suddenly horrible noise came from the forest: the trees rattled, the dry leaves crunched, it was Baba Yaga who emerged out of the forest in her mortar, wielding her pestle and covering her tracks with her broom. As she approached the gates, she stopped, sniffed and screamed: ‘Yuck! I can sense a Russian scent. Who is here?’ Vasilisa approached Baba Yaga full of fear and, having bowed low, said: ‘It’s me, grandmother. My stepsisters sent me here to fetch light.’ ‘Well,’ said Baba Yaga, ‘I know them, you can stay here and work for me, and then I will give you light; should you refuse, I’ll eat you!’
[...] ‘Now I will ask you: how do you manage to get done everything that I ask you to do?’ asked Baba Yaga.
‘My mother’s blessing is helping me,’ said Vasilisa.
‘So I see! Go away, the blessed daughter. I don’t need the blessed here.
She pushed Vasilisa out of the chamber and out of the gates, took one skull with lit eyes from the fence, put it on a stick and gave to Vasilisa, saying:
‘Here’s the light for your stepsisters, take it because this is why they sent you here.’