Baba Yaga

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BABA YAGA , known in Russian folklore as a witch and an ogress, is the ancient goddess of death and regeneration of Slavic mythology, with roots in the pre-Indo-European matrilinear pantheon. In Slavic folk tales (mainly Russian), Baba Yaga lives in nocturnal darkness, deep in the woods, far from the world of men. She is variously depicted as an evil old hag who eats humans, especially children, and as a wise, prophetic old woman. In appearance, she is tall, bony-legged, and pestle-headed, with a long nose and disheveled hair. At times she appears as a young woman, at other times as two sisters, one young and one old. Her primary theriomorphic image is that of a bird or a snake, but she can turn instantly into a frog, a toad, a turtle, a mouse, a crab, a vixen, a bee, a mare, a goat, or an inanimate object.

Baba Yaga never walks; she either flies in a fiery mortar or lies in her hut on top of the oven, on a bench, on the floor, or stretched from one end of the hut to the other. The fence around her hut is made of human bones and is topped with human skulls, with eyes intact. The gate is fastened with human legs and arms instead of bolts, and a mouth with sharp teeth serves as a lock. The hut, which is supported on bird's legs and which can turn around on its axis like a spindle, is, in fact, Baba Yaga herself.

Linguistic analysis of Baba Yaga's compound name reveals prehistoric characteristics. Yaga, from Proto-Slavic * (y )ega, means "disease," "fright," and "wrath" in Old Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovene, respectively, and is related to the Lithuanian verb engti ("strangle, press, torture"). The early form may be related to Proto-Samoyed *nga, meaning "god," or "god or goddess of death." The Slavic etymon baba means "grandmother," "woman," "cloud woman" (a mythic being who produces rain), and "pelican." The last points to Baba Yaga's avian nature, comparable to that of the archetypal vulture and owl goddess of European prehistory, who represents death and regeneration. In Russian tales, Baba Yaga eats humans by pecking like a bird.

In East Slavic areas, Baba Yaga has a male counterpart, Koshchei Bessmertnyi, "Koshchei the Immortal." His name, from kost' ("bone"), bears the notion of a dying and rising god, that is, a deity who cyclically dies and is reborn. In tales in which Koshchei appears, Baba Yaga is either his mother or his aunt. Another male equivalent of Baba Yaga is Morozko ("frost"). Baba Yaga is also the "mother of winds," analogous to the German Frau Holle. Other relatives in current folklore are the Lithuanian goddess Ragana and the Basque vulture goddess, the "Lady of Amboto."


Shapiro, Michael. "Baba-Jaga: A Search for Mythopoeic Origins and Affinities." International Journal of Slavic Linguistics and Poetics 27 (1983).

Toporov, V. N. "Khettskaia SALSU: GI i slavianskaia Baba-Iaga." Kratkie soobshcheniia Instituta slavianovedeniia (Moscow) 38 (1963): 2837.

New Sources

Hubbs, Joanna. Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington, Ind., 1988.

Marija Gimbutas (1987)

Revised Bibliography