A toad-like creature with gnarled arms like tree trunks clutches a massive pestle and a spindly broom in dark brown claws. Protruding from the top of a wooden mortar, the old crone squats, her thin lips as downcast as her dark eyes. Wild strings of mangy hair fly out behind her. Around her, toadstools rise up, red and plump in contrast to her jerky-dry skin. The forward tilt of her unorthodox vehicle and her hurried expression indicate she's in pursuit; in this specific image, she's in pursuit of a woman named Vasilisa the Beautiful.
According to folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural crone who lives deep in the Russian forest, in a house perched on chicken feet and surrounded by pine trees and glowing skulls. Tales of her exploits vary, but typically she either aids young visitors who stumble upon her hut in their journeys, or she cuts things short by attempting to eat them. Across folklore and within single tales, Baba Yaga shifts between a maternal helper and a cannibalistic villain. She's well-known as a frightening witch, but Baba Yaga is also an ancient and complex manifestation of origin myths and shifting cultural anxieties.
In the tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, arguably the most famous story in which Baba Yaga appears, Baba Yaga takes on several, seemingly conflicting roles. Beautiful Vasilisa lives with her wicked stepmother and two homely stepsisters, who all conspire to have her killed. After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally send Vasilisa directly to Baba Yaga's hut, knowing that the crone eats humans "as one eats chickens." But instead of devouring the girl, Baba Yaga forces her to do a series of seemingly impossible menial tasks, such as separating grains of rice from wheat kernels before dawn. When Vasilisa succeeds at this, she's granted one of the skull lanterns that rings Baba's house; upon returning home, the lantern immediately engulfs her horrible family in flames, freeing her from their tyranny. Eventually, beautiful Vasilisa ends up marrying the Tsar.
Here, Baba acts as trickster, villain, and savior, ultimately helping Vasilisa to rid her of her stepfamily, albeit through shockingly violent and roundabout means. Unlike the traditional godmother figure, Baba is outside the bounds of morality, and her aid often comes in menacing forms.
Baba's ambiguousness, according to the folklorist Joanna Hubbs, is directly connected to her femininity, and her feminity to the natural world. As Andreas Johns, the author of a number of seminial books about the crone, including Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folklore, writes, "Hubbs…discusses Baba Yaga as an aspect of a great mother goddess, whose dual nature as genetrix and cannibal witch reflects a 'fundamental paradox of nature.'" In some ways, she's an "earth mother" figure; in others, she's closely associted with death.
The tale of Prince Danila-Govorila encapsulates this duality well. In this one, a princess named Katerina befriends Baba's daughter, whom she finds in Baba's hut after fleeing incestuous advances by her brother. The two eventually escape the evil crone, who repeatedly tries to slam Katerina in her scorching oven. As Katerina and her new companion flee, they toss behind them a comb, a brush, and a hand towel in an attempt to slow Baba down. The comb transforms into a mountain range, the brush into a dense forest, and the towel into a vast lake.
This "chase scene," as Sergey Levchin calls it in his introduction to Russian Folktales from the Collection of A. Afanasyev, is a motif that recurs in tales about Baba. It's one that the renowned and controversial folklorist Vladimir Propp saw, according to Levchin, as an "echo of the ancient myth of the giver of fire (a proto-Prometheus), whose flight from the abode of the gods"—or from her chicken-footed hut, in this case—"becomes the act of creation of our own world—raising up mountains and forests, laying down rivers and seas." By attempting to devour her human prey, Baba Yaga engenders the creation of a new world for them.
In the myriad folkloric representations of her, Baba Yaga's generally unsettling physical attributes remain constant—she's usually said to have a long nose and iron teeth, and she's constantly flying about in her mortar and pestle—yet different contexts exacerbate or highlight certain qualities and phenomena associated with her. In some accounts, she is a manifestation of winter or storms; in others, she's a goddess akin to Persephone.
According to Johns, Baba's complexities and contradictions make her unique among folk figures. "Most folktale characters in European traditions… behave in a predictably unambigious way in relation to the hero or the heroine: They either help or hinder," he writes. "Two very important tale roles are those of the villain, who harms or seeks to harm the protagonist, and the donor, who is helpful and gives the hero or heroine a magic agent." Baba Yaga, confoundingly, takes on both roles—sometimes within the same story.
The inconsistencies in Baba Yaga's story are so striking because she exists within a genre that typically fights against paradoxes in its form and content. It's rare to see such a mercurial character—one that does not easily lend herself to easy moral lessons—in any folkloric tradition.
"That image of an old woman living in the woods, doing whatever she wants all day long, continues to be my dream for myself."
As Levchin acknowledges, Baba Yaga generates more questions than answers. "Why does she want to shove her guest into a blazing stove? Is she a demon of the underworld, tasked with roasting the souls of sinners? [Or] are we hearing a distant echo of a more ancient motif of initiation by fire?"
As mythological characters go, Baba Yaga is relatively obscure outside of Russia, but she tends to attract ardent admiration from those who discover her. In recent years, she has accrued a devoted following among witches and mortals alike: Writing for Patheos, someone known as the Starlight Witch recalled dreaming about the elusive Slavic crone throughout her childhood and coming to think of her as a mother figure; on the Facebook group Wiccan Unite, there are several threads devoted to her power and enduring legacy; in Netflix's The OA, she appears to the main character in visions. Baba's iconic broom, which she uses to dust away the tracks of her flying mortar, was recently invoked in a Vogue article, and beginning in 2013, the feminist website The Hairpin ran an entire advice column (which later became a book) from Baba's perspective, aptly titled "Ask Baba Yaga." Even more recently, she was voted Jezebel's Next Top Beauty Creature.
Many of Baba Yaga's fans playfully call her a feminist icon. Taisia Kitaiskaia, the mind behind Ask Baba Yaga, tells Broadly that she sees Baba Yaga as an aspirational figure. "That image of an old woman living in the woods, doing whatever she wants all day long, continues to be my dream for myself," she says.
From ancient Russia to her online fans today, it's Baba Yaga's ability to live physically and morally outside of the bounds of society, and within the bounds of paradox, that makes her such a compelling and powerful figure. According to Johns, feminist analysis of folklore often positions these tales as products of a patriarchal society, reflections of the male point of view. In some ways, Baba's paradoxical nature both refutes and confirms this reading. She's mercurial and dangerous, which could be seen as a a reflection of men's fear of the sexual power of women. But she's also a reflection of the awe-inspiring power of Mother Nature, a complicated figure who's celebrated for her refusal to be tamed.
Like other witches, deistic Baba is agent of transformation, who, according to Kitaiskaia, exists "kind of outside of the things which constrain human society, like time and morality." She may well be so compelling for women today because of her rejection of social standards, and the power that comes from that. She's an outlier with power that isn't derived from her beauty, or her relationships with others. Instead, it comes from within her—earth, hut, and firey stove.