References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, A Book of Enchantments and Curses (Magnet Paperback, 1985) by Ruth Manning-Sanders, Magicians and Fairies (Dragon’s World, 1995) by Robert Ingpen and Molly Perham, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes from Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) edited by Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, Russian Fairy Tales (Hamlyn, 1975) translated by Vera Gissing
Let’s talk about witches. Specifically, let us talk about the one who can out-witch them all, Russias’s incomparable Baba Yaga. Also known as Baba Iaga, Baba Jaga, Bonylegs or Bonyshanks, Jezda in Poland and Jazi Baba in the Czech Republic, she appears as a skeletal old woman with stone or iron teeth and lives in the deep forest, in a house that moves around on chicken legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones. Depending on the version you choose, she either travels abroad in a cauldron with a broom to sweep away her tracks or (this is the one I like) in a flying mortar and pestle. According to The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, she guards the Fountain of Life – The Kingfisher Book of Mythology has it that she guards a gate to the spirit world. In Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Enchantments and Curses, she is served by three knights who personify (or may actually be) dawn, the rising sun and dark night. Whatever her true occupation, Baba Yaga is fearsome.
She is also highly unpredictable. In some stories she is a child-eating, curse-wielding hag of the most traditionally evil type. Others show a more complicated character. In Hamlyn’s Russian Fairy Tales she shows up in ‘Ivan and the Princess Blue-Eyes’ with a metal nose and a soft spot for questing princes. She lends Prince Ivan her own cloak and story-telling cat, offers him advice on how best to get his father’s stolen eyes back, provides magical artefacts to help him escape the terrifying Blue-Eyes on his return journey and even delays the princess with a bath to give him more time.
In ‘Vasilissa Most Lovely’, from A Book of Enchantments and Curses, a young girl is sent to Baba Yaga’s cottage by her vicious stepmother and stepsisters on the pretext of fetching a light. Of course they hope she will be eaten, but Vasilissa is protected by a magical doll that completes all the impossible tasks Baba Yaga sets for her. Refusing to eat a blessed child, Baba Yaga sends Vasilissa home with a glowing skull lantern, which promptly eats up the unlucky stepfamily.
Sometimes, Baba Yaga just cruel. In a story from Magicians and Fairies, she gives a prince a ring and promises that the girl who can wear it is the one he must marry – but the only girl it fits is his sister Catherine. Ignoring Catherine’s frantic protests, Prince Danila Govorila sets about preparing for a wedding. Fortunately, other elderly women come to the rescue. They advise Catherine to make four small dolls and place one in each corner of her room. When she is called to the bridal chamber, the dolls start singing and the princess falls through the earth into an underground realm where, you will be astonished to learn, she encounters a certain chicken-legged hut. There she meets a beautiful girl who is embroidering a tablecloth. The girl is Baba Yaga’s daughter, a quiet rebel in the gruesome household. Instead of turning her guest over to her mother, the young witch transforms Catherine into a needle. The next day the two girls work on the tablecloth together and Baba Yaga’s daughter manages to hide her new friend for a second night, but on the third day the witch comes home early and catches them.
Catherine won’t die easily. When Baba Yaga puts her on a shovel and tries to push her into the oven, Catherine twists around at such awkward angles that Baba Yaga loses patience and sits on the shovel to show her how it’s done. The girls promptly pull a Gretel, knocking her all the way in. Then her daughter collects a few necessities and they flee. Of course, the oven doesn’t hold Baba Yaga for long – but by throwing down a magic brush they put a marsh behind them, then a comb becomes a forest, and when they throw down the embroidered tablecloth it becomes a sea of fire. The story insists that Baba Yaga falls and burns there, but personally I don’t believe it. Anyway, Prince Danila Govorila comes to his senses and marries the witch’s daughter, whose name appears to be Vasilissa too; Catherine marries an unidentified ‘good man’ and none of them are ever troubled by Baba Yaga again.
Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies offers a quote from one unnamed folkloric commentator: “Baba Yaga hails from the place where fear and wisdom meet, she straddles the gap between life and death and holds the secrets of both.” Her true intentions are always difficult to quantify, but one thing is certain. She is never a woman to be crossed.
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!