Top Ten Things to Know About Baba Yaga the Witch
Author of the DREAMING ANASTASIA series, Sourcebooks
(DREAMING ANASTASIA, 2009; HAUNTED, 2011; ANASTASIA FOREVER, 2012)
- She is the most famous witch in Russian fairy tales/folklore. In most (maybe all) Slavic languages, ‘Baba’ means ‘old woman.’ The ‘Yaga’ is also from Slavic roots, but it’s a bit more varied in the stories of its etymology. But the easiest way to think of her name is Grandma Yaga. In the DREAMING series, I have Anastasia refer to her as Auntie Yaga, which I thought an interesting little twist. I imagined the witch as asking her captive Anastasia to call her this, perhaps as a joke, perhaps to give Anastasia the sense that the Baba Yaga is gentle, perhaps even benign, which couldn’t be farther from the truth!
- Many authors have used her in their stories—from picture books like Babushka Baba Yaga by Patricia Polacco to genre fiction by Orson Scott Card and Neil Gaiman. There’s even a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelization with Baba Yaga in it! She’s in movies, cartoons, anime… you name it and the old girl has appeared in it! My books are in very good company.
- Baba Yaga lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs so that it can help her evade her enemies. (This is such a great visual that it’s been taken over in other stories too. If you’ve seen the anime film, Howl’s Moving Castle, Howl’s house also runs around on chicken legs! This is the folklore that image comes from) In some stories, including mine, pikes with the skulls of her enemies surround her house like a fence. Cool, huh? And when she travels, she rides in a huge mortar (that big black that you use to grind spices… those big black bowls they put guacamole in sometimes look like it, too!) and she stirs the air with a huge pestle. (That’s the grinding tool)
- The idea of ‘grinding’ from that pestle in #3 connects to another fact about Baba Yaga: her forest is a place of change and transformation. Once you enter her forest, you will not come out the same… even if you survive. Baba Yaga is all about duality both in appearance and behavior. Like all strong women, she’s complex. She may use her considerable power for good. Or she may grind your bones and stick your head on her fence. She’s mercurial and powerful and she can’t quite be defined. I found this particularly fascinating in terms of women and power, which is definitely a motif that runs throughout the series. Societies tend to marginalize old women, to define them by beauty lost, to de-sexualize them. But Baba Yaga won’t stand for that and I love that about her. I thought about this a lot in building her backstory, which continues in ANASTASIA FOREVER. I wanted to know exactly how she became who she is when Anne meets her. Exactly why she agreed to protect Anastasia for the Brotherhood. And I loved the complexity of what developed from that!
5. Lots of people have written amazing articles about Baba Yaga! A good place to start if you want to read more is here: http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/rrBabaYaga.html
- Physically, Baba Yaga is very tall. She has iron teeth and a huge nose and these enormous removable hands that detach from her body to do her bidding. I use all of these physical factors in my series.
- In many Baba Yaga tales, she has three horsemen who serve and protect her. Each rides a different color horse – one black, one red, and one white, reflecting different times of the day.
- In most of the folktales, Baba Yaga has boundaries that she cannot cross. Although I do have her appearing in Anne’s real world, this is still a factor in the DREAMING series, both literally with a river that runs through her forest as well as metaphorically in terms of Anne. There is only so much Baba Yaga can tell Anne. The rest Anne must figure out on her own terms.
- In her stories, she is never defeated. Ever. She always comes back!
- And here is how I envisioned Anastasia first talking about Baba Yaga, my version of the Vasilisa story that used in DREAMING ANASTASIA:
"In the story, there was a girl. Her name was Vasilisa, and she was very beautiful. Her parents loved her. Her life was good. But things changed. Her mother died. Her father remarried. And the new wife - well, she wasn't so fond of Vasilisa. So she sent her to the hut of the fearsome witch Baba Yaga to fetch some light for their cabin. And that was supposed to be that. For no one returned from Baba Yaga's. But Vasilisa had the doll her dying mother gave her. And the doll- because this was a fairy tale and so dolls could talk - told her what to do. Helped her get that light she came for and escape. And when Vasilisa returned home, that same light burned so brightly that it killed the wicked stepmother who sent Vasilisa to that horrible place. Vasilisa remained unharmed. She married a handsome prince. And lived happily ever after.
When I listened to my mother tell the story, I would pretend I was Vasilisa the Brave. In my imagination, I heeded the advice of the doll. I outwitted the evil Baba Yaga, the fearsome witch who kept her enemies' heads on pikes outside her hut. Who rode the skies in her mortar and howled to the heavens and skittered about on bony legs. Who ate up lost little girls with her iron teeth.
But the story was not as I imagined...."
Thanks Joy for the insight into Baba Yaga!
Make sure you check out the final installment of the
Dreaming Anastasia Series: ANASTASIA FOREVER
You can find Joy Preble: