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BABA YAGA: Exploring the Duality of the Greatest "Wicked" Witch

Continuing from the Witch Wound we explored recently, we can see that in the realm of fairy tales, women of a certain age have often been confined to two roles: the wicked witch or the evil stepmother, and sometimes both. However, in the eerie and magical world of Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga emerges as a multifaceted figure, defying any kind of pigeonholing. Baba Yaga is a central figure in Slavic folklore, living in a house that roams the forest on chicken legs and can even fly around in a giant mortar and pestle. She encapsulates duality, and a captivating blend of elements, representing both the malevolent witch and the maternal instinct. She often appears as a hag or crone and is infamous for feasting upon children.

The etymology of her name remains veiled in mystery, but "baba" is believed to mean "old woman" or "grandmother," while "yaga" could signify anything from "snake" to "wicked." This ambiguity perfectly represents the obscure and complex nature of her character.

Recorded in writing in 1755, Baba Yaga's stories have appeared much earlier in woodcut art and have been retold in various forms throughout history. Modern interpretations, such as "Into the Forest: Tales of the Baba Yaga," have even portrayed her as a possible "proto-feminist icon." Her appearance varies across renditions, but most commonly, she is depicted as a gaunt old woman with iron teeth and an abnormally long nose that touches the ceiling when she sleeps. Rather than a broom, she is often portrayed riding around on a mortar, using a pestle as both a flying aid and a wand. The tales of Baba Yaga unfold within her hut deep in the woods, surrounded by a fence made of human bones, and supported by magical chicken legs. Her hut exemplifies an elemental force, seeking out those in need, and stirring the winds and the air with its presence.

Although she can be fearsome and unpredictable, Baba Yaga never acts without provocation. In the tale of Vasilisa the Beautiful, she tests the protagonist with challenging tasks, and upon successful completion, grants her assistance. However, those who fail her demands may become her next meal.

What sets Baba Yaga apart from conventional villains is her neutrality. She does not adhere to a defined moral compass; rather, her actions define her character. This makes her more intriguing and relatable, as her unpredictability mirrors the complexity of the natural human nature in all of us.

In a world filled with predictable heroes and one-dimensional villains, Baba Yaga's character offers a refreshing twist. She serves as a reminder that freedom often lies beyond the boundaries of societal norms and that there is much to learn from the darkness as well as the light. This enduring and multifaceted figure continues to captivate imaginations and challenges the conventional notions of good and evil in fairy tales.

A Short Story About Baba Yaga:

Once upon a time, in a remote village nestled deep within the ancient forests, there lived a young girl named Vasalisa. One autumn morning, her malevolent step-family send her on a perilous journey to retrieve Light from the mystical hut of Baba Yaga, deep within the heart of the forest. Vasalisa's family hope she won't return, as few have ever survived an encounter with the dark and puzzling Baba Yaga. Vasalisa ventures off into the forest and eventually stumbles upon a peculiar hut, but this was no ordinary dwelling. It rested upon giant chicken legs, and the fence surrounding it was made of human bones. Vasalisa had heard many tales from the elders about such a place, the dwelling of the fearsome and unpredictable "Baba Yaga."

Despite her fear, or perhaps because of it, Vasalisa felt an irresistible urge to explore further. She approached the hut with cautious steps, and the door creaked open, revealing the haggard figure of Baba Yaga. The old witch's teeth glinted in the dim light, and her long, crooked nose reached out like a gnarled branch. Baba Yaga's eyes bore into Vasalisa's soul, and she felt as though the old witch could see the depths of her curiosity. "What brings you to my hut dear?" Baba Yaga rasped, her voice as ancient as the forest itself. Vasalisa, trembling but determined, replied, "I seek wisdom and knowledge, great Baba Yaga, as well as the Skull Lantern. I wish to understand the mysteries of the world." Baba Yaga studied the girl with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. "Very well," she said, "I shall grant your request, but only if you can complete a series of quests for me. If you succeed, you shall gain the knowledge you seek. If you fail, you shall become my dinner." Vasalisa knew her threats of consuming her were no mere jokes; she knew Baba Yaga issued these warnings with utter seriousness. But if Vasalisa succeeded, she would be bestowed with the Skull Lantern, a gift that promised more than just lighting her way home.

Vasalisa agreed to the challenge, as her thirst for wisdom and light outweighed her fear. Baba Yaga set her to tasks that seemed impossible, but Vasalisa navigated the trials with grace. She listened to her intuition, which manifested through a "magical" doll, she resisted the misguided rescue attempts of passing knights, she even cleaned Baba Yaga's hut, prepared a feast, fed both the doll and Baba Yaga herself, and successfully accomplished the insurmountable tasks. Vasalisa faced each challenge with determination, never giving in to despair. As she completed each task, Baba Yaga's demeanor softened, and she began to share her wisdom with the young girl. Upon completing the final task, Baba Yaga smiled and said, "You have shown great courage and determination, and have proven yourself worthy of the knowledge you seek." Vasalisa's heart swelled with gratitude as she received the wisdom and the Skull Lantern she had longed for.

This Skull Lantern, was a special lantern that consumed all that had kept Vaslisa confined and playing small. She learned that the pursuit of conformity and people-pleasing endangers the sanctity of her true self. She understood that concealing her authentic self and suppressing her true needs would not solve her problems, and if anything made more of them. She remembered that she was not only Vasalisa the Beautiful, but also Vasalisa the Wise. She left the hut of Baba Yaga with a newfound understanding of the duality of the world and the importance of balance. She learned the secrets of the forest, the language of the animals, and the magic of the herbs. She discovered that Baba Yaga, for all her fearsome reputation, held the knowledge of both light and dark, and she was a guardian of the balance of the world.

Later, Vasalisa returned to her village, where she became a revered teacher and healer, sharing the knowledge she had gained from the elusive and mysterious Baba Yaga. The young girl who had dared to seek wisdom from the fearsome witch became a beacon of light and balance in her village, proving that even the most mysterious and complex figures may hold the keys to enlightenment.


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