Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga, by Ivan Bilibin, 1900

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Witches and witchcraft can be found in virtually every culture and time period on earth in one form or another. Depending on where you land they can be either loved or hated, but one thing is for sure, they are always respected for their power.

Growing up in the American Midwest, the "Wicked Witch of the West" from the Wizard of Oz was for a long time the only kind of "witch" I ever imagined, an old hooked nosed woman with green skin and a black dress flying around on a broomstick. Standard halloween fair. Now of course I know a lot more.

Margaret Hamilton as the "Wicked Witch of the West", MGM's Wizard of Oz 1939

Witches come in as many flavors as there are cultures. There is no better example than the witches of the Native Americans. Who at one end of the spectrum can be wholly benign and helpful medicine men who care for and protect a village, or fearsome bloodthirsty skinwalkers at the other end of the spectrum. All Skinwalkers are witches after all, but not all witches are skinwalkers...

In the western world, witches tend to be viewed as more the "Wicked" type. You can see this in our horror films, and of course the long dark history of witch burning and witch trials like the ones at Salem Massachusettes, or Fulda Germany.

Witch Trial in Salem Massachusettes, by George Walker 1892

But there is one witch of the "western world" in particular that manages blur that line, even if only a little, and her name is Baba Yaga. In many ways Baba Yaga is a stereotype, she's an evil, ugly old woman who lives in a hut in the middle of a dark forest. A magic hut even that is propped up on chicken legs and can move around. She even flies, but not on a broomstick. Baba Yaga rides around in a mortar and uses a pestle to steer it. What the hell is that? Well its an little bowl and stick used for grinding up spices, you can still buy them. Anyways, its sort of works, gotta figure hers is big enough to hold a person, maybe that's where she grinds the bones....

Its not totally clear to me, but the name Baba Yaga may roughly translate to something like "Grandmother and Abuser", according to russiapedia, but that works well enough since that is basically how you should start viewing her. She's like a really really mean grandma who is always looking for your faults, or any sight reason to toss you in the oven and eat you.

Image taken from 

 That doesn't sound to line blurring does it? Well its how she goes about it and to whom it tends to happen too. In the stories in the podcast, we see children being sent off to Baba Yaga by ill - meaning step parents. But they are essentially given a chance to prove themselves in tough situations. By being kind regardless of the circumstance they either escape, or are rewarded as the daughter in the second story was. That second story in particular, is important because the step mothers own daughter is sent to Baba Yaga, jealous of the first daughter, but is not virtuous and comes home in pieces in a bucket. In a another story I didn't put in the podcast, she offers a noble man a horse in exchange for service. The recipe is usually the same.

So Baba Yaga can actually be quite tame as long as you leave her alone and stay out of her woods. In that sense she kind of reminds of Krampus or maybe the Boogeyman. A story people tell to children to teach them a lesson about avoiding danger and staying good!

Which explains why in John Wick, the mobsters call him the "Baba Yaga", because they kill this dog, now they get his wrath....

There are of course way more stories involving Baba Yaga, and below I give you some links!