Trying a Little Too Hard to Rehabilitate Baba Yaga

So, I’ve been reading a compendium of various tales and discussions about Baba Yaga and figures like her in Slavic mythology and folklore. Some of it is very interesting, and cautious about reading too much into things. Other parts . . . When the quote begins with a paean to Marija Gimbutas, you know where it’s going to go. Baba Yaga is the misunderstood mother goddess, the Matriarch, the creatrix, the mother-of-creatures, and so on. She was vilified by the mean, nasty, unwashed* Christian priests and turned into an evil monster, but the real Baba Yaga is the Great Goddess who terrified the would-be patriarchs and so—

Sigh. It gets boring and predictable after a while. “If it was before Christianity, it must have been good! Otherwise the churchians wouldn’t say that it’s bad and try to chase people away from it, and women ran the place and everyone lived in harmony with nature and was kind and vegan and loved trees and—” Everything was better either before Christianity, or before the Proto-Indo-European speakers arrived with horses and patriarchy. Which one you choose depends on your starting point and which sort of paganism you assume predominated in the place and time under discussion. I’m still waiting to hear someone talk about how China was so wonderful before the terrible Confucians arrived. (No one seems to beat up on the Xia and Shang Dynasties, even though they were patriarchies that encouraged large scale human sacrifice. And horse sacrifice, once they had horses.) The “prehistory was better” wail has a long history with a lot of predictable variations. Like the Slavic neo-pagan who wants to rehabilitate Chernobog. I stopped reading at that point, because I did not care to know how he thought modern neo-pagans should venerate that particular deity in their family religious observances.

Anyone who has read more than one Baba Yaga story knows that she’s both good and bad. She punishes the arrogant, rewards the faithful (Vasilia the Wise), tests the noble, and can be a force of evil. It depends on the story. That means that she’s old, very old, very complicated, and there are probably a number of other stories and traditions that get lumped in under the name of Baba Yaga. The little house on chicken feet might have one foot, or four feet. It may whirl around constantly, it might peck and scratch around the yard like a “normal” chicken, or it might even be up in a tree (only a few stories). The fence may be a standard fence, it might be made of bones topped by human skulls that glow at night. Baba Yaga might travel in a wooden or iron mortar, driven with the pestle, while sweeping away her tracks with a broom. Or she might ride on the mortar (think something more like an American-style upright churn than the short, squat mortar and pestle mostly used today) like riding a horse.

Oh, and her cat is really a folk-memory of the lions who accompany the Great Goddess. Really.

Sure, she might be a “demoted”deity. Or she might be one of the many characters in human archetypes who shifts her nature depending on the person seeking her power or her possessions. Coyote, Anansi, Frau Pechta, some of the unofficial saint stories, the good ruler in some folk-tales, they can all be good or evil, or be seen as good or evil.

Although I think the “Baba Yaga is a folk memory of aliens” and “Baba Yaga and a male partner were Vedic yogis who brought wisdom to the pre-Slavic peoples of Russia” may be my favorites.

*OK, in some cases the unwashed part wasn’t wrong. Some Russian Orthodox clergy gave up bathing, or stopped bathing in winter and then took a rinse before Easter.


14 thoughts on “Trying a Little Too Hard to Rehabilitate Baba Yaga

    • Everybody had bathhouses/saunas right outside the hut.

      The idea with monks was that baths were pleasant (and possibly sexy or associated with pagans), so you did not bathe. It was mortification. Often there was clerical cleanliness of a less nice sort than hot water.

      • Apparently, some took the avoidance of pleasure, and of steam, a little bit farther than spiritual purification warranted, according to others. How much of that was personal differences and how much was actual concern about false modesty I’m not sure. And that’s assuming that the translation is correct.

  1. Boring and predictable, but extremely irritating, and more than a bit horrifying.
    (Seriously. What kind of overconfident poseur do you have to be?)
    Even on their own stated terms, its wishcasting at best, with a huge helping of “playing with fire”.

    It is very important to be polite to Baba Yaga. But I don’t think Eddie Haskell would fare very well. Fearsome faerie are like that.

    I don’t know much about Slavic mythology, but even I know that Mother Damp Earth holds the center of the belief system, and invalidates the “great goddess” rehabilitation of Baba Yaga. (I don’t “get” why the wiccans in particular haven’t glommed onto Mother Damp Earth. A chthonic female deity that’s the beginning and end of all life seems like it would be catnip to them.)

  2. As annoying as it is, sometimes the real reason that a story does something is– it makes a better story.

    Which is 100% what the house on chicken legs being up in a tree does!

  3. I’ve tried a couple short stories involving the spirit. It is important to present a small gift or service out of kindness and good manners. Eddie Haskell, hmm, he’d be sized up as a medium skull, good for … er, ahem. Evil and stupid people get what’s coming to them, while the polite and wise ones are spared; perhaps she provides a small reward. Sometimes asking politely to be allowed out of her woods may be sufficient.

    It took a particular frame of mind to think out and write the stories, and then time to reset out of the dark shadows. Definitely not “good and nice” like the neo-pagans blather about everything pre-Christian. She would remind them as bladders void, “Da, Earth must be fed … but first, I hunger.”

    • Yes. I got that far in his book, closed the covers, and returned it to the person I had borrowed it from. Baba Yaga is both good and bad in stories. Chernobog is never good. Ever. That tells me more than enough.

      • At best, he’s the personification of Winter. Darkness. And hunger.
        The Wendigo writ large.

  4. I’m starting to resemble my great-grandmother when I hear stuff like this. She would shake her head, and mutter “children…”.

    • “Genius has its limits, but stupidity is not thus handicapped.” — I suspect that this is because stupidity is a force driving toward chaos, and chaos is a primal force, and the ultimate blind amorality.

  5. Sigh… like anyone TODAY would know what they were thinking 500 or more years ago… Revisionist history yet again…

  6. Idly wondering in passing about “Baba Yaga might travel in a wooden or iron mortar, driven with the pestle, while sweeping away her tracks with a broom.”

    Just wondering how she does that with only two hands? Stops steering for a moment to sweep?

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