Searching for a powerful role model of old age? Then look no further than Baba Yaga, a magical spirit who has been preserved in ancient Slavic folktales and who can show you how to be wrinkled and badass at the same time.
By Madame Pamita illustration by Dilek Baykara
If you find yourself in the deepest and wildest Eastern European spruce forest, you might see a tiny light on a mountainside, far away from civilization. If you hike toward this light, you’ll see that it emanates from a little cabin, but not an ordinary one. This little one-room wooden hut is perched high atop a pair of giant chicken legs that walk and turn and scratch at the ground below. Cute, right? But the claws on those chicken feet are sharp, and surrounding the hut is a fence made of human bones topped with skull lanterns lit eerily from within. If you dare to step through this gruesome gate and say the magic words to get the chicken-legged house to let you in, you can peek inside and meet a very old Slavic woman with disheveled hair, a shriveled leg, and a piercing gaze. That woman is no ordinary old lady—she is the legendary witch, Baba Yaga.
We all know that witches are on-trend at the moment, but Baba Yaga is not a cute witchling with black lipstick and a TikTok account. Rather, she’s the queen of all sorcerers with the powers of creation and annihilation at her fingertips. Why mess around with a potion when you can summon the sister stars down from the skies to do your bidding? Instead of flying around on a broom like a basic witch, Baba Yaga speeds through the skies or across the forest floor in a giant mortar, pushing herself along with her oversize pestle. Yes, she’s a little extra, but she can afford to be. She’s a powerful witch with a fearsome reputation—not only for flaying arrogant young men alive or making clueless children into tasty snacks, but also for bestowing priceless magical items onto clever and deserving heroines and heroes, such as a ball of yarn that magically leads you to a destiny, a horse that can jump over rivers, or the fire from one of her lanterns that can destroy your foes.
To Slavic people in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and beyond, Baba Yaga is as well-known as Santa Claus is to Americans. She appears in many fables and legends, not as the main character of a story, but most definitely as the antagonist or sometimes as the gatekeeper who tests and then rewards the heroine or hero. If you were lucky enough to grow up in a Slavic home, you most certainly were warned not to go out into dangerous places or, like a bogeyman, Baba Yaga would snatch you up and take you back to her house to eat you.
She’s more than a storybook figure though—she is a legendary spirit from the most ancient times. Some cultures even call her a goddess. Stories about her were passed down from parent to child in the oral tradition over centuries, though she was most famously introduced to the world in the widely translated stories of the Russian ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev. Like the Brothers Grimm, he collected over 600 folktales of the common people and published them in the mid-1800s, exposing them to a wider audience. As he was the first to record these stories, it spread the popular notion that Baba Yaga was purely a Russian figure, but versions of Baba Yaga exist in every Slavic country and culture under various names such as Iagaia, Egibishna, Aga Gnishna, and dozens more. She has been around so long that people have forgotten where she comes from, and even what her name means. The fact that she has dozens of names, is transnational and multicultural, and is featured in hundreds of stories indicates that she has existed for centuries, long before people committed her tales to paper. Every Slavic and Baltic country claims her as their own, but in reality, who knows? She is truly the people’s witch. She belongs to everyone.
If we dig even deeper, we discover that she is not simply a fairy-tale ogre, but a powerful wielder of magic—an ancient and respected crone goddess who embodies the wisdom and the authority that can blossom in old age. If you’ve ever dabbled in witchcraft, you’ve likely heard of the triple goddess—the concept that there are three goddesses in one who represent the symbolic stages in a woman’s life: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. The maiden embodies youth, freedom, curiosity, and play. The mother personifies adulthood, empowerment, and creativity. The crone? Well, she is the wise elder, the teacher, the initiator, and “the one who knows.” In times past, you would earn increasing respect as you aged, but the progression from eager naive youngster to all-knowing and powerful wise woman has been turned on its head by the patriarchy. Today, our culture sees elders as sexless, doddering old fuddy-duddies, if we even see them at all. Where are our crone superheroines?
Baba Yaga is here for it. She is unapologetically old—no Botox or facelift for her. She gives three spits on the ground in response to your patriarchal standards of beauty. Go ahead and call her “ugly,” “old,” and “bony”—she truly does not give a fuck.
Baba Yaga is here for it. She is unapologetically old. No Botox or facelift for her. She gives three spits on the ground in regards to your patriarchal standards
As a powerful witch, she has the ability to shapeshift, meaning she could be young and beautiful, if she wanted to. She could also appear to be middle-aged or a baby. She could turn herself into a wolf or a bear or a raven, for that matter. She can become anything, but most of the time, she chooses to be an old woman. You know why? Because she doesn’t care what you think, that’s why! With iron teeth sticking out of her mouth, lice-infested hair that she doesn’t brush or wash or hide under a scarf, a nose down to here, and a leg that’s just a bone, she likes looking scary! And let’s be honest— a tactic like that? It definitely gives her an advantage from the get-go when encountering the odd curiosity seeker or arrogant young man.
In many stories, Baba Yaga is depicted as a child-eating ogre, much like the witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Does she eat children? Well, yes and no. I mean, technically yes, but it’s not what you think. If we look back to the oldest truth of who she is, we discover that she is the gatekeeper between the land of the living and the land of the spirits, and all of us must meet her one day. And when we do, we can either arrive with humility and openness to the world of the spirits, or we can come with fear, disgust, or arrogance. And if you know what happens in her stories to the young heroes who come into her house and disrespect her, well, far be it for her to turn down a meal when mansplainer is on the menu. In the tale Little Bear’s Son, for example, when the hero cooks for her and serves her smaller and smaller helpings, hoping that she won’t notice, she cuts a strip of flesh from his back, throws him under a bench, eats the entire meal, and then flies off in her flying mortar. Needless to say, the only tip he got was never to mess with a crone.
But she’s not just a chef serving up a hot dish of you-had-it-coming. If we look back even further, we see her in her truer guise as the Forest Mother, the guardian of the woods. This is where her dicey nature comes in. For our ancestors, the wild was truly ambiguous. Nature provided food, materials, and beauty, but it could also bedevil you, devour you, and destroy you. Baba Yaga is just like that—cruel one moment, and achingly sweet and generous the next. Like nature, she gives and she takes; you just want to make sure you wait as long as possible to get taken. To touch that kind of awesome glory, you have to risk the chance of utter annihilation. Stroll around like a gawking tourist or an arrogant know-it-all and you’re likely to get served, if not by a witch, then most certainly by the weather, a wild beast, or your own lack of orienteering skills. But if you bring an offering and approach her with humility, she may give you a boon.
In the tale Marya Morevna, for example, the protagonist respectfully submits to Baba Yaga’s tests and receives a flying horse from her that allows him to defeat his enemy and rescue his warrior princess wife. In The Frog Princess, Prince Ivan must rescue his wife who was charmed into the form of a frog and spirited away when he misguidedly burned the frog skin that she had shed. He searches for her and, when he politely asks Baba Yaga where he can find her, she offers up the information. And in Vasilisa the Fair, the heroine completes the impossible tasks that Baba Yaga has given her and is rewarded with one of the fiery skulls from Baba Yaga’s fence so that she can fulfill her quest.
Baba Yaga has no truck with your notions about the sanctity of marriage. Well, yes, she has children but no husband, lover, or significant other in sight. In some stories, such as King Ivan and Bely, the Warrior of the Plains, she has daughters who live with her—beautiful and adept apprentices who know magic as well. Maybe they’re not as skilled as their mother, but they are powerful sorceresses in their own right. In other tales, her children are bears and wolves or grubs and worms. And while we might judge an eagle as magnificent and a cockroach as disgusting, she doesn’t make these judgmental distinctions. Whether her children are maggots or humans, she loves them all, from the prettiest to the toothiest to the slimiest. As the Mother of the Forest, all her creatures are loved and protected as beings of nature.
Baba Yaga has no truck with your notions about the sanctity of marriage. Well, yes, she has children but no husband, lover, or significant other in sight.
Nature is the entry point to her even more-hidden domain of the lower world. In ancient Slavic beliefs, there were three planes of existence—the middle world, where we experience life as we know it; the upper world, which the deities call home; and the lower world, a mystical realm of earthly delights, where plant spirits, power animals, and mythical beings reside. Baba Yaga makes her domain in the lower world, where she communes with these magical creatures. If we think of the lower world as the spirit world, then her ease in traversing between the middle world and the lower world further underlines her role as the mediator between the living and the dead.
Baba Yaga is the initiator into these mysteries of the world of the spirits. In times past, one had to face initiations to move through the stages of life. If you were moving from childhood to adulthood, for example, or becoming a member of a guild, or had been called upon to be a leader in the community, you would face some tests given to you by the elders to see if you were truly prepared for this new role. These elders were guides and mentors, and the tests would not just be meaningless exercises like frat boy initiations—meant to demoralize or humiliate the initiate—but were important trials to prove the initiate was worthy of taking on their new status, simultaneously challenging them in ways designed to demonstrate to themselves that they were capable of more than they thought they were.
In these increasing stair steps of initiation, you could have an adult initiate a young person and offer their wisdom and experience, but who could initiate the wise ones? Who was the mentor who could guide them into the spirit realm? Baba Yaga, of course. She would teach, train, and test you to make sure you were prepared for entering the world of the spirits yourself, and ready to receive the gifts that she had to offer.
Baba Yaga illustration from Vasilisa the Beautiful created by Ivan Bilibin, 1900 (public domain)
One of those gifts might be the Waters of Life and Death, of which Baba Yaga was the guardian. If someone died, a sprinkle of the Water of Life could bring them back to the world of the living. However, if their body had been destroyed—burned, dismembered, eaten by animals—what could you sprinkle that water on? No one wants a headless person walking around. That’s what the Water of Death was for. With a sprinkle of the Water of Death, you could bring a body back together and then sprinkle it with the Water of Life to bring the spirit back to the body. Baba Yaga’s realm is not just death, but death and rebirth. She can take you in and then lovingly give birth to you again. OK, it might be more like spitting you out again, but still. And when you come back the next time around, maybe you’ll be a little smarter, initiated into a higher consciousness.
So, are you ready to meet Baba Yaga? Spend time in nature at night, or you might want to hang around one of her favorite spots, the crossroads where two footpaths intersect. Be daring and go there at midnight when it feels a little risky. Bring an offering to her and leave it there. It can be something that you’ve created: a ball of handspun yarn, or herbs that you’ve grown, dried, and ground up with a mortar and pestle. With these gifts, you might convince her that you are ready to learn from her. And while you might not be ready for entering the spirit realm yet, she can help you recycle the parts of yourself that no longer serve you and that need to get eaten up and transformed into something better. If you begin to connect with Baba Yaga, she will give you challenges that feel impossible. She does this not to hurt you, but because she knows that you can do more than you realize. Once you complete the tasks, you will understand your own power—and that’s what she is all about.
This article originally appeared in BUST’s Spring 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!