Russian Fairy Tales | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Baba Yaga, The

From these male personifications of evil--from the Snake, Koshchei, and the Water King--we will now turn to their corresponding female forms. By far the most important beings of the latter class are those malevolent enchantresses who form two closely related branches of the same family. Like their sisters all over the world, they are, as a general rule, old, hideous, and hateful. They possess all kinds of supernatural powers, but their wits are often dull. They wage constant war with mankind, but the heroes of storyland find them as easily overcome as the males of their family. In their general character they bear a strong resemblance to the Giantesses, Lamias, female Trolls, Ogresses, Dragonesses, &c., of Europe, but in some of their traits they differ from those well-known beings, and therefore they are worthy of a detailed notice.

               In several of the stories which have already been quoted, a prominent part is played by the Baba Yaga, a female fiend whose name has given rise to much philological discussion of a somewhat unsatisfactory nature. [1] Her appearance is that of a tall, gaunt hag, with dishevelled hair. Sometimes she is seen lying stretched out from one corner to the other of a miserable hut, through the ceiling of which passes her long iron nose; the hut is supported "by fowl's legs," and stands at the edge of a forest towards which its entrance looks. When the proper words are addressed to it, the hut revolves upon its slender supports, so as to turn its back instead of its front to the forest. Sometimes, as in the next story, the Baba Yaga appears as the mistress of a mansion, which stands in a courtyard enclosed by a fence made of dead men's bones. When she goes abroad she rides in a mortar, which she urges on with a pestle, while she sweeps away the traces of her flight with a broom. She is closely connected with the Snake in different forms; in many stories, indeed, the leading part has been ascribed by one narrator to a Snake and by another to a Baba Yaga. She possesses the usual magic apparatus by which enchantresses work their wonders; the Day and the Night (according to the following story) are among her servants, the entire animal world lies at her disposal. On the whole she is the most prominent among the strange figures with which the Skazkas make us acquainted. Of the stories which especially relate to her the following may be taken as a fair specimen.


ONCE upon a time there was an old couple. The husband lost his wife and married again. But he had a daughter by the first marriage, a young girl, and she found no favor in the eyes of her evil stepmother, who used to beat her, and consider how she could get her killed outright. One day the father went away somewhere or other, so the stepmother said to the girl, "Go to your aunt, my sister, and ask her for a needle and thread to make you a shift."

                 Now that aunt was a Baba Yaga. Well, the girl was no fool, so she went to a real aunt of hers first, and says she:

                 "Good morning, auntie!"

                 "Good morning, my dear! what have you come for?"

                 "Mother has sent me to her sister, to ask for a needle and thread to make me a shift."

                 Then her aunt instructed her what to do. "There is a birch-tree there, niece, which would hit you in the eye--you must tie a ribbon round it; there are doors which would creak and bang--you must pour oil on their hinges; there are dogs which would tear you in pieces--you must throw them these rolls; there is a cat which would scratch your eyes out--you must give it a piece of bacon."

                 So the girl went away, and walked and walked, till she came to the place. There stood a hut, and in it sat weaving the Baba Yaga, the Bony-shanks.

                 "Good morning, auntie," says the girl.

                 "Good morning, my dear," replies the Baba Yaga.

                 "Mother has sent me to ask you for a needle and thread to make me a shift."

                 "Very well; sit down and weave a little in the meantime."

                 So the girl sat down behind the loom, and the Baba Yaga went outside, and said to her servant-maid:

                 "Go and heat the bath, and get my niece washed; and mind you look sharp after her. I want to breakfast off her."

                 Well, the girl sat there in such a fright that she was as much dead as alive. Presently she spoke imploringly to the servant-maid, saying:

                 "Kinswoman dear, do please wet the firewood instead of making it burn; and fetch the water for the bath in a sieve." And she made her a present of a handkerchief.

                 The Baba Yaga waited awhile; then she came to the window and asked:

                 "Are you weaving, niece? are you weaving, my dear?"

                 "Oh yes, dear aunt, I'm weaving." So the Baba Yaga went away again, and the girl gave the Cat a piece of bacon, and asked:

                 "Is there no way of escaping from here?"

                 "Here's a comb for you and a towel," said the Cat; "take them, and be off. The Baba Yaga will pursue you, but you must lay your ear on the ground, and when you hear that she is close at hand, first of all throw down the towel. It will become a wide, wide river. And if the Baba Yaga gets across the river, and tries to catch you, then you must lay your ear on the ground again, and when you hear that she is close at hand, throw down the comb. It will become a dense, dense forest; through that she won't be able to force her way anyhow."

                 The girl took the towel and the comb and fled. The dogs would have rent her, but she threw them the rolls, and they let her go by; the doors would have begun to bang, but she poured oil on their hinges, and they let her pass through; the birch-tree would have poked her eyes out, but she tied the ribbon around it, and it let her pass on. And the Cat sat down to the loom, and worked away; muddled everything about, if it didn't do much weaving. Up came the Baba Yaga to the window, and asked:

                 "Are you weaving, niece? are you weaving, my dear?"

                 "I'm weaving, dear aunt, I'm weaving," gruffly replied the Cat.

                 The Baba Yaga rushed into the hut, saw that the girl was gone, and took to beating the Cat, and abusing it for not having scratched the girl's eyes out. "Long as I've served you," said the Cat, "you've never given me so much as a bone; but she gave me bacon." Then the Baba Yaga pounced upon the dogs, on the doors, on the birch-tree, and on the servant-maid, and set to work to abuse them all, and to knock them about. Then the dogs said to her, "Long as we've served you, you've never so much as pitched us a burnt crust; but she gave us rolls to eat." And the doors said, "Long as we've served you, you've never poured even a drop of water on our hinges; but she poured oil on us." The birch-tree said, "Long as I've served you, you've never tied a single thread round me; but she fastened a ribbon around me." And the servant-maid said, "Long as I've served you, you've never given me so much as a rag; but she gave me a handkerchief."

                 The Baba Yaga, bony of limb, quickly jumped into her mortar, sent it flying along with the pestle, sweeping away the while all traces of its flight with a broom, and set off in pursuit of the girl. Then the girl put her ear to the ground, and when she heard that the Baba Yaga was chasing her, and was now close at hand, she flung down the towel. And it became a wide, such a wide river! Up came the Baba Yaga to the river, and gnashed her teeth with spite; then she went home for her oxen, and drove them to the river. The oxen drank up every drop of the river, and then the Baba Yaga began the pursuit anew. But the girl put her ear to the ground again, and when she heard that the Baba Yaga was near, she flung down the comb, and instantly a forest sprang up, such an awfully thick one! The Baba Yaga began gnawing away at it, but however hard she worked, she couldn't gnaw her way through it, so she had to go back again.

                 But by this time the girl's father had returned home, and he asked:

                 "Where's my daughter?"

                 "She's gone to her aunt's," replied her stepmother.

                 Soon afterwards the girl herself came running home.

                 "Where have you been?" asked her father.

                 "Ah, father!" she said, "mother sent me to aunt's to ask for a needle and thread to make me a shift. But aunt's a Baba Yaga, and she wanted to eat me!"

                 "And how did you get away, daughter?"

                 "Why like this," said the girl, and explained the whole matter. As soon as her father had heard all about it, he became wroth with his wife, and shot her. But he and his daughter lived on and flourished, and everything went well with them.

               In one of the numerous variants of this story [3] the heroine is sent by her husband's mother to the Baba Yaga's, and the advice which saves her comes from her husband. The Baba Yaga goes into another room "in order to sharpen her teeth," and while she is engaged in that operation the girl escapes, having previously--by the advice of the Cat, to which she had given a lump of butter--spat under the threshold. The spittle answers for her in her absence, behaving as do, in other folk-tales, drops of blood, or rags dipped in blood, or apples, or eggs, or beans, or stone images, or wooden puppets. [4]

               The magic comb and towel, by the aid of which the girl effects her escape, constantly figure in Skazkas of this class, and always produce the required effect. A brush, also, is frequently introduced, from each bristle of which springs up a wood. In one story, however, the brush gives rise to mountains, and a golik, or bath-room whisk, turns into a forest. The towel is used, also, for the purpose of constructing or annihilating a bridge. Similar instruments are found in the folk-tales of every land, whether they appear as the brush, comb, and mirror of the German water-sprite; [5] or the rod, stone, and pitcher of water of the Norse Troll; [6] or the knife, comb, and handful of salt which, in the Modern Greek story, save Asterinos and Pulja from their fiendish mother; [7] or the twig, the stone, and the bladder of water, found in the ear of the filly, which saves her master from the Gaelic giant; [8] or the brush, comb, and egg, the last of which produces a frozen lake with "mirror-smooth" surface, whereon the pursuing Old Prussian witch slips and breaks her neck; [9] or the wand which causes a river to flow and a mountain to rise between the youth who waves it and the "wicked old Rákshasa" who chases him in the Deccan story; [10] or the handful of earth, cup of water, and dry sticks and match, which impede and finally destroy the Rákshasa in the almost identical episode of Somadeva's tale of "The Prince of Varddhamána." [11]

               In each instance they appear to typify the influence which the supernatural beings to whom they belonged were supposed to exercise over the elements. It has been thought strange that such stress should be laid on the employment of certain toilet-articles, to the use of which the heroes of folk-tales do not appear to have been greatly addicted. But it is evident that like produces like in the transformation in question. In the oldest form of the story, the Sanskrit, a handful of earth turns into a mountain, a cup of water into a river. Now, metaphorically speaking, a brush may be taken as a miniature wood; the common use of the term brushwood is a proof of the general acceptance of the metaphor. A comb does not at first sight appear to resemble a mountain, but its indented outline may have struck the fancy of many primitive peoples as being a likeness to a serrated mountain range. Thence comes it that in German Kamm means not only a comb but also (like the Spanish Sierra) a mountain ridge or crest. [12]

               In one of the numerous stories [13] about the Baba Yaga, four heroes are wandering about the world together; when they come to a dense forest in which a small izba, or hut, is twirling round on "a fowl's leg." Ivan, the youngest of the party, utters the magical formula "Izbushka, Izbushka! stand with back to the forest and front towards us," and "the hut faces towards them, its doors and windows open of their own accord." The heroes enter and find it empty. One of the party then remains indoors, while the rest go out to the chase. The hero who is left alone prepares a meal, and then, "after washing his head, sits down by the window to comb his hair." Suddenly a stone is lifted, and from under it appears a Baba Yaga, driving in her mortar, with a dog yelping at her heels. She enters the hut and, after some short parley, seizes her pestle, and begins beating the hero with it until he falls prostrate. Then she cuts a strip out of his back, eats up the whole of the viands he has prepared for his companions, and disappears. After a time the beaten hero recovers his senses, "ties up his head with a handkerchief," and sits groaning until his comrades return. Then he makes some excuse for not having got any supper ready for them, but says nothing about what has really happened to him.

               On the next day the second hero is treated in the same manner by the Baba Yaga, and on the day after that the third undergoes a similar humiliation. But on the fourth day it falls to the lot of the young Ivan to stay in the hut alone. The Baba Yaga appears as usual, and begins thumping him with her pestle; but he snatches it from her, beats her almost to death with it, cuts three strips out of her back, and then locks her up in a closet. When his comrades return, they are surprised to find him unhurt, and a meal prepared for them, but they ask no questions. After supper they all take a bath, and then Ivan remarks that each of his companions has had a strip cut out of his back. This leads to a full confession, on hearing which Ivan "runs to the closet, takes those strips out of the Baba Yaga, and applies them to their backs," which immediately become cured. He then hangs up the Baba Yaga by a cord tied to one foot, at which cord all the party shoot. At length it is severed, and she drops. As soon as she touches the ground, she runs to the stone from under which she had appeared, lifts it, and disappears. [14]

               The rest of the story is very similar to that of "Norka," which has already been given, only instead of the beast of that name we have the Baba Yaga, whom Ivan finds asleep, with a magic sword at her head. Following the advice of her daughters, three fair maidens whom he meets in her palace, Ivan does not attempt to touch the magic sword while she sleeps. But he awakes her gently, and offers her two golden apples on a silver dish. She lifts her head and opens her mouth, whereupon he seizes the sword and cuts her head off. As is usual in the stories of this class, his comrades, after hoisting the maidens aloft, cut the cord and let him fall back into the abyss. But he escapes, and eventually "he slays all the three heroes, and flings their bodies on the plain for wild beasts to devour." This Skazka is one of the many versions of a widespread tale, which tells how the youngest of a party, usually consisting of three persons, overcomes some supernatural foe, generally a dwarf, who had been more than a match for his companions. The most important of these versions is the Lithuanian story of the carpenter who overcomes a Laume--a being in many respects akin to the Baba Yaga--who has proved too strong for his comrades, Perkun and the Devil. [15]

               The practice of cutting strips from an enemy's back is frequently referred to in the Skazkas--much more frequently than in the German and Norse stories. It is not often that such strips are turned to good account, but in the Skazka with which we have just been dealing, Ivan finding the rope by which he is being lowered into the abyss too short, ties to the end of it the three strips he has cut from the Baba Yaga's back, and so makes it sufficiently long. They are often exacted as the penalty of losing a wager, as well in the Skazkas as elsewhere. [16] In a West-Slavonian story about a wager of this kind, the winner cuts off the loser's nose. [17] In the Gaelic stories it is not an uncommon incident for a man to have "a strip of skin cut off him from his crown to his sole." [18]

               The Baba Yaga generally kills people in order to eat them. Her house is fenced about with the bones of the men whose flesh she has devoured; in one story she offers a human arm, by way of a meal, to a girl who visits her. But she is also represented in one of the stories [19] as petrifying her victims. This trait connects her with Medusa, and the three sister Baba Yagas with the three Gorgones. The Russian Gorgo's method of petrifaction is singular. In the story referred to, Ivan Dévich (Ivan the servant-maid's son) meets a Baba Yaga, who plucks one of her hairs, gives it to him, and says, "Tie three knots and then blow." He does so, and both he and his horse turn into stone. The Baba Yaga places them in her mortar, pounds them to bits, and buries their remains under a stone. A little later comes Ivan Dévich's comrade, Prince Ivan. Him also the Yaga attempts to destroy, but he feigns ignorance, and persuades her to show him how to tie knots and to blow. The result is that she becomes petrified herself. Prince Ivan puts her in her own mortar, and proceeds to pound her therein, until she tells him where the fragments of his comrade are, and what he must do to restore them to life.

               The Baba Yaga usually lives by herself, but sometimes she appears in the character of the house-mother. One of the Skazkas [20] relates how a certain old couple, who had no children, were advised to get a number of eggs from the village--one from each house--and to place them under a sitting hen. From the forty-one eggs thus obtained and treated are born as many boys, all but one of whom develop into strong men, but the forty-first long remains a poor weak creature, a kind of "Hop-o'-my-thumb." They all set forth to seek brides, and eventually marry the forty-one daughters of a Baba Yaga. On the wedding night she intends to kill her sons-in-law; but they, acting on the advice of him who had been the weakling of their party, but who has become a mighty hero, exchange clothes with their brides before "lying down to sleep." Accordingly the Baba Yaga's "trusty servants" cut off the heads of her daughters instead of those of her sons-in-law. Those youths arise, stick the heads of their brides on iron spikes all round the house, and gallop away. When the Baba Yaga awakes in the morning, looks out of the window, and sees her daughters' heads on their spikes, she flies into a passion, calls for "her burning shield," sets off in pursuit of her sons-in-law, and "begins burning up everything on all four sides with her shield." A magic, bridge-creating kerchief, however, enables the fugitives to escape from their irritated mother-in-law.

               In one story [21] the heroine is ordered to swing the cradle in which reposes a Baba Yaga's infant son, whom she is ordered to address in terms of respect when she sings him lullabies; in others she is told to wash a Baba Yaga's many children, whose appearance is usually unprepossessing. One girl, for instance, is ordered by a Baba Yaga to heat the bath, but the fuel given her for the purpose turns out to be dead men's bones. Having got over this difficulty, thanks to the advice of a sparrow which tells her where to look for wood, she is sent to fetch water in a sieve. Again the sparrow comes to her rescue telling her to line the sieve with clay. Then she is told to wait upon the Baba Yaga's children in the bath-room. She enters it, and presently in come "worms, frogs, rats, and all sorts of insects." These, which are the Baba Yaga's children, she soaps over and otherwise treats in the approved Russian-bath style, and afterwards she does as much for their mother. The Baba Yaga is highly pleased, calls for a "samovar" (or urn), and invites her young bath-woman to drink tea with her. And finally she sends her home with a blue coffer, which turns out to be full of money. This present excites the cupidity of her stepmother, who sends her own daughter to the Baba Yaga's, hoping that she will bring back a similar treasure. The Baba Yaga gives the same orders as before to the new-comer, but that conceited young person fails to carry them out. She cannot make the bones burn, nor the sieve hold water, but when the sparrow offers its advice she only boxes its ears. And when the "rats, frogs, and all manner of vermin," enter the bath-room, "she crushed half of them to death," says the story; "the rest ran home, and complained about her to their mother." And so the Baba Yaga, when she dismisses her, gives her a red coffer instead of a blue one. Out of it, when it is opened, issues fire, which consumes both her and her mother. [22]



[1] Afanasief says (P.V.S. iii. 588), "As regards the word yaga (yega, Polish jedzajadza, jedzi-baba, Slovak, jenzi, jenzi, jezi-baba, Bohemian, jezinka, Galician yazya) it answers to the Sanskrit ahi = snake."

               Shchepkin (in his work on "Russian Fable-lore," p. 109) says: "Yaga, instead of yagaya, means properly noisy, scolding, and must be connected with the root yagat' = to brawl, to scold, still preserved in Siberia. The accuracy of this etymology is confirmed by the use, in the speech of the common people, of the designation Yaga Baba for a quarrelsome, scolding old woman."

               Kastorsky, in his "Slavonic Mythology," p. 138, starts a theory of his own. "The name Yaga Baba, I take to be yakaya babanycyakaya baba, and I render it by anus quædam." Bulgarin (Rossiya, ii. 322) refers the name to a Finnish root. According to him, "Jagga-lema, in Esthonian, means to quarrel or brawl, jagga-lemine means quarrelling or brawling." There is some similarity between the Russian form of the word, and the Singalese name for a (male) demon, yaka, which is derived from the Pali yakkho, as is the synonymous term yakseya from the Sanskrit yaksha (see the valuable paper on Demonology in Ceylon by Dandris de Silva Gooneratne Modliar in the "Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society," 1865-6). Some Slavonic philologists derive yaga from a root meaning to eat (in Russian yest'). This corresponds with the derivation of the word yaksha contained in the following legend: "The Vishnu Purāna, i. 5, narrates that they (the Yakshas) were produced by Brahmā as beings emaciate with hunger, of hideous aspect, and with long beards, and that, crying out 'Let us eat,' they were denominated Yakshas (fr. jaksh, to eat)." Monier Williams's "Sanskrit Dictionary," p. 801. In character the Yaga often resembles a Rákshasí.

[2] Afanasief, i. No. 3 b. From the Voroneje Government.

[3] Khudyakof, No. 60.

[4] See Grimm, KM. iii. 97-8. Cf. R. Köhler in "Orient und Occident," ii. 112.

[5] Grimm, No. 79. "Die Wassernixe."

[6] Asbjörnsen and Moe, No. 14. Dasent, p. 362. "The Widow's Son."

[7] Hahn, No. 1.

[8] Campbell's "Tales of the West Highlands," No. 2.

[9] Töppen's "Aberglauben aus Masuren," p. 146.

[10] Miss Frere's "Old Deccan Days," p. 63.

[11] "Kathásaritságara," vii. ch. xxxix. Translated by Wilson, "Essays," ii. 137. Cf. Brockhaus in the previously quoted "Berichte," 1861, p. 225-9. For other forms, see R. Köhler in "Orient and Occident," vol. ii. p. 112.

[12] See, however, Mr. Campbell's remarks on this subject, in "Tales of the West Highlands," i. pp. lxxvii-lxxxi.

[13] Afanasief, viii. No. 6.

[14] See the third tale, of the "Siddhi Kür," Jülg's "Kalm. Märchen," pp. 17-19.

[15] Schleicher's "Litauische Märchen," No. 39. (I have given an analysis of the story in the "Songs of the Russian People," p. 101.) In the variant of the story in No. 38, the comrades are the hero Martin, a smith, and a tailor. Their supernatural foe is a small gnome with a very long beard. He closely resembles the German "Erdmänneken" (Grimm, No. 91), and the "Männchen," in "Der starke Hans" (Grimm, No. 166.)

[16] Hahn, No. 11. Schleicher, No. 20, &c., &c.

[17] Wenzig, No. 2.

[18] "Tales of the West Highlands," ii. p. 15. Mr. Campbell says "I believe such a mode of torture can be traced amongst the Scandinavians, who once owned the Western Islands." But the Gaelic "Binding of the Three Smalls," is unknown to the Skazkas.

[19] Erlenvein, No. 3.

[20] Afanasief, vii. No. 30.

[21] Khudyakof, No. 97.

[22] Khudyakof, No. 14. Erlenvein, No. 9.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Baba Yaga, The
Tale Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Book Title: Russian Fairy Tales
Book Author/Editor: Ralston, William Ralston Shedden
Publisher: Hurst & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Russia
Classification: ATU 480: The Kind and the Unkind Girls

Back to Top