There is truly no other hag goddess I find more fascinating than Baba Yaga. The first time I read her name, I was drawn to it. Like a moth to the flame. And perhaps you are too, since you’ve found yourself here of all places. In this article, we will travel into the darkest of Slavic forests in search of Baba Yaga’s hut. And we will, respectfully, introduce ourselves and our intent to learn more about her origins and true nature. Then most of us will turn around and leave quietly. A few brave, pure souls will choose to stay and be initiated into Baba Yaga’s ways of magic.
Baba Yaga is of Slavic origin and is a widely known folkloric character in Eastern European and Russian fairy tales. Though, to many, she’s more than just a character. She’s a divine ancestor, a powerful spirit, an ancient earth goddess. First, let’s look at her name – Baba Yaga. How do we pronounce it? Watch the video below:
The first part Baba translates to old woman or grandmother. Depending on the region and people, this can be a term of endearment or even an insult. It essentially points to the fact that the woman is in her elderly years and may even be ugly or misshapen, to some. To others, it gives the woman a certain power and wisdom. And now to Yaga. This part of her name is a little harder to translate and understand. There have been literally dozens of translations looking at various languages in Eastern Europe and Russia. Some include terror, horror, serpent, chill, witch and even dryad or wood nymph.
Baba Yaga isn’t just one thing. She’s many: a monster, witch, hag, villain, divine grandmother, earth goddess, forest spirit, shapeshifter, light bringer, and to some she’s even considered a hero. According to Judika Illes, while Baba is of Slavic prominence, she may have once been the Scythian goddess of the hearth Tabiti. Though, in my humble opinion, we can relate Baba to a multitude of other hearth deities if we wanted to. Including Hestia of Greek origin and Holda and Berchta of Germanic. To modern witches and Slavic pagans, Baba Yaga is a witch goddess who lives deep in a birch forest. She’s the keeper of herbal and healing wisdom and grants her knowledge to those who are worthy and of whom seek initiation.
Where is Baba Yaga’s house and what does it look like? The tales say Baba Yaga’s house is deep in a birch forest. And that it sits atop a pair of giant chicken legs. Because it has legs, it can move. In other tales, her cabin sits atop the legs of a goat or spindle wheels. I find the spindle wheels most fascinating, as this would tie Baba Yaga to spinning. And spinning? It’s a duty frequently associated with goddesses of fate including The Norns, Fates, Freya and Berchta. So this points to the idea Baba Yaga may have once been thought to spin the wheel of men’s destinies. A power that makes a deity the strongest of all. In addition, while researching Baba Yaga for this post, I asked her to show me something she wants her followers and devotees to see. She showed me a door deep in the forest. One that only she has the key to.
Around Baba Yaga’s house, there’s a fence with skulls that sit on top. These skulls glow at certain times. And in her cabin, there’s a large oven akin to a cauldron. Baba Yaga is said to stretch out on top of this oven to warm herself, and in some tales, she’s so large that she can reach both corners of her home as she stretches out atop it. The cauldron in her home screams of Baba’s domain over magic, regeneration, ancestral wisdom and initiation into the magical arts. During the day, a white horse and a red horse may be seen outside her hut. And at night, a black horse. It may also be surrounded by other wildlife including birds, squirrels, snakes, etc.
“Tell us about Baba Yaga,” begged Maroosia. “Yes,” said Vanya, “please, grandfather, and about the little hut on hen’s legs.” “Baba Yaga is a witch,” said old Peter; “a terrible old woman she is, but sometimes kind enough. You know it was she who told Prince Ivan how to win one of the daughters of the Tzar of the Sea, and that was the best daughter of the bunch, Vasilissa the Very Wise. But then Baba Yaga is usually bad, as in the case of Vasilissa the Very Beautiful, who was only saved from her iron teeth by the cleverness of her Magic Doll.”Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (1916)
One of the more famous of the Baba Yaga stories features the main character not as the old woman herself but a young maiden named Vasalisa. In the tale of Baba Yaga and Vasalisa the Wise, Baba takes on her typical personality as the fearsome witch in the wood. The young maiden, Vasalisa, is sent away by her evil stepmother and stepsisters. They selfishly and sadistically hope that Vasalisa will die in the cold, dark forest. But instead, Vasalisa comes to the hut of Baba Yaga, and the old woman offers her life as well as shelter and food in return for Vasalisa’s hard work around the house. And any other duties the old woman might require.
For three whole days, Vasalisa toils over the chores (without complaint) and cooks the old woman her meals. With the help of a poppet she holds in her pocket that is a vessel for her dead mother’s soul. And each day Vasalisa is met with 3 horses on the old woman’s property whom she also saw while traveling in the forest before coming to the hut. There’s a white and red horse that appear during the day, and a black horse that appears at night. Baba also threatens to put Vasalisa in her cauldron if she doesn’t complete her chores each day. On the third day, Vasalisa is brave enough to ask Baba Yaga a question. Vasalisa asks about the three horses, to which the old woman replies:
“The white horse is my bright day;
the red horse is my red, round sun;
And the black horse is my black, dark night.”
What’s interesting to note here is the way in which Baba Yaga explains each horse with the possessive “my”. I believe this is alluding to a few things: one, that Baba Yaga is a primordial earth goddess. And possibly an ancient Creatrix of the world and celestial bodies. And two, that she could be existing in a place all her own, in a place like the Celts called the “Otherworld”. This second theory connects her inextricably to the Germanic goddess Holda. Just read the fairy tale Mother Holle, and note the similarities between the two old women and the otherworldly place in which they reside.
At the end of the three days, Vasalisa is granted her desire to return home. Baba Yaga gifts her a skull that lights up to light her way home. When Vasalisa returns home with the skull, she sets it in her stepmother’s hearth. Immediately, the stepmother and stepsisters are so taken with the skull that they can’t break eye contact. In turn, this turns them to ash and Vasalisa is free from their evil ways. She takes the skull and returns to Baba Yaga in the woods. Upon which Baba Yaga invites her to learn her ways. At least, this is a common modern interpretation of the tale.
The number three emerges as a popular theme in many Baba Yaga tales and for good reason. In the occult, three is a sacred number and has been for thousands of years. The Celts particularly favored the number three and felt it symbolized land, sea and sky, as well as life, death, and rebirth. Among other divine triplicities and triple goddesses like Brigid and The Morrigan. Which brings us to the idea that Baba Yaga was a triple goddess. In “The Maiden Tsar” tale, the story speaks of the “three Babas” as sisters.
In Vasalisa the Wise, as mentioned above, Baba Yaga has three horses as allies and three mystical hands are also featured. These three hands gather poppy seeds that Vasalisa worked hard to clean. “Three hands, friends of my heart take away poppy seeds and press them for oil.” I see the three hands as helpers or familiars of Baba Yaga. Either way, there’s that number three repetitively coming up in relation to the Old Woman in the Wood. Not to mention the three days Vasalisa spends working under the watchful eye of Baba. And the stepmother and two stepsisters as Vasalisa’s three adversaries.
How does Baba Yaga actually look when she manifests? I’m sure for each person there will be variation, but the tales say Baba is an old woman with iron teeth like boar tusks. She has bear claws and wears a necklace of skulls, smokes a pipe, and sometimes has a golden or iron foot. In other belief, she’s a snake from the waist down. This is an obvious nod to her shapeshifting, shamanic abilities similar to Berchta who manifests with a goose or swan foot. Some say she wears an apron and holds a key to life’s mysteries. She flies about in a mortar, holding a pestle. Sometimes she holds a broom with which to sweep away any signs she’s been about.
When she’s first documented in 1755 (that we know of), the writer says Baba has bony legs, iron teeth, and refers to misshapen or repulsive features. Including the old woman’s nose, breasts, buttocks and vulva. Baba appears in a list along with other Slavic deities, with all of the others compared to Roman deities. But not Babushka…she’s on her own. Which shows her sovereignty and power.
Another prominent feature of Baba’s is her iron nose. Again, another feature shared with Holda and Berchta of Germanic origin. But to further elaborate on her iron nose, it’s said lin a few tales that she can smell the presence of humans. I have truly wondered about this feature and the only theories I’ve come up with are a. the iron nose is a nod to clairsalient (psychic smelling) abilities OR showing the spirit’s unfailing primal instinct.
|Mortar and pestle||Life, death, rebirth||Snake||Kvass|
“Be prepared. Baba Yaga is not an easy teacher. And she is definitely no pushover. She will challenge you, she will test you, and she will push you farther than you ever believed you could go. But, like a tough coach or a domineering drill sergeant, perhaps it’s because she believes in you more than you may believe in yourself. To work with her takes courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, and even a little bit of moxie, but if you’re ready for the challenge, you’ll reap incredible rewards—climbing higher, going farther, and doing more than you ever thought possible.” ~ Madame Pamita, author of Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft.
You’ll know if Baba Yaga is calling you to her house and to her craft. But if you’re unsure, here’s a few signs she might send you:
Your practice and how Baba works with you and teaches you will be personal and unique. But here are some ways to get the cauldron bubbling, so to speak:
The first thing we always recommend when getting to know a deity is to read as much as you can about them. If you’re not a reader, watch documentaries. Listen to audiobooks and podcasts. Whatever you can find about Baba Yaga will be helpful in getting to know her from a respectful, cultural perspective. She is featured in many fairy tales, movies, poems, and even in children’s books. Some books written from a modern witchcraft perspective include Madame Pamita’s Book of Witchcraft, Baba Yaga by Natalia Clarke, and a fun read called Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Trouble by Taisia Kitaiskaia.
Every deity and spirit appreciates their own space. Baba is no different. Include objects that make her feel at home: a cauldron, broom, or mortar and pestle for example. If you have a mantle or space near a wood stove, this is the perfect spot for her as she’s highly linked to the hearth in Russian lore. Provide offerings for her like candleflame, bones, fresh water, herbs, and occasionally a lavish traditional Russian meal. Acts of service may also be dedicated to her.
Baba will take you on a road to initiation deep in her forest. This process will be different for every devotee. You may be required to perform acts of service in her name, perhaps by aiding in preservation of the earth, forest, or wildlife. Perhaps through herbal studies. And she may even quiz you with riddles. Be open to learning, being patient, and working hard. Ask Baba Yaga how you can learn from her.
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