Welcome to Baba Yaga’s Cottage
Welcome to Baba Yaga’s Cottage — the home of the goddess of death and rebirth. The life-taker, yes, but also the life-giver. Oh? You’ve only heard the stories of her turning princes into stone and eating helpless little children? Well, then you’ve only heard half of the tale, my dear. Only half of the tale, and as the old saying goes, “the most interesting part of the story is the part they never tell you.”
Come closer. Sit down. Here, at the table. Have a little hot borshch to warm your bones.
You are lucky. Very lucky. Not everyone knows the truth about Baba Yaga, and even fewer get to hear it, but you see, I’ve been around. And when you’ve been around as long as I have, you hear a few things, see a few things. And your fihnya detector gets pretty fine-tuned.
Baba Yaga: Ancient and Ageless
What’s the part that never gets told? Well, for instance, the part about her being an old woman. Well, yes, that’s the part that they tell you, and it is true. Well, at least partly true. I mean, she has been around so long that people have forgotten where she comes from and what her name means. Every Slavic and Baltic country claims her as their own, but in reality…who knows? I like to think of her as the people’s witch. She belongs to everyone.
And she does look like an old woman… sometimes. Ach! And when she does, they call her “ugly” and “bony.” Isn’t that the way? Get a grey hair and a wrinkle and they can’t bear to look at you. But did you know that she also has the power to be the most beautiful maiden you’ve ever laid eyes on? I’ve seen her that way too. Yes, I’ve seen her. Weren’t you listening when I said I had seen a few things? I don’t have time to repeat everything twice to you.
The Power to Change
Now the point is that she can be young and beautiful. She also has the power to be middle-aged or a baby. She could be a wolf or a bear or a raven, for that matter. She can turn herself into 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!
Iron teeth sticking out of her mouth, stringy hair that she doesn’t brush or wash or hide under a scarf, a nose down to here, a leg that’s just a bone. She likes looking scary! And let’s be honest— a tactic like that? It weeds out the weaklings. Gives her a little advantage from the get-go, you know what I mean?
And sometimes she isn’t even one old woman. Most of the time she’s just one person, yes, but there have also been times that she can multiply into three sisters. Three witches for the price of one. How’s that for a trinity?
Baba Yaga: The Shaman’s Shaman
How does she do it? You really are wet behind the ears, aren’t you? She’s a sorceress, of course. A molfarka, we sometimes call them, or an udagan, or a szeptucha. Oh, there are a few of them around still and there are a lot of names for them. But she is something extra special. She really outdoes them all. She’s the shaman to the shamans, if you know what I mean.
Powerful? She could call the sister stars down from the skies and ask them to do her bidding. Flying through the air in her mortar and pestle? Pftt! That’s practically a parlor trick for her — no more taxing than flipping a kopiyka and seeing if it lands heads up or tails up. Take it from me, it’s when she flies through the air and you don’t see her that you really need to be paying attention.
Does She Eat Children?
Does she eat children? Well, yes and no. I mean, well… technically, yes. But it’s not what you think it is. I mean, look at that idiot Willy Wonka. He throws the kids into an incinerator and everyone thinks, “He’s cute!” “He’s fun!” But when an old woman does the same thing to a few little brats? She’s a monster.
These storytellers get so obsessed with this idea. She doesn’t fly around the country looking for kids or adventuring princes or lost young girls. You’ve got to remember that they come to her. Why? Who knows? I mean, there are those rare few who come humbly to seek wisdom. Those are not so bad. The rest? Most are just nosy, or foolhardy, or arrogant. Some of them actually have the nerve to come with an attitude. Or are downright rude. Or are just plain old stupid. And when it comes to those types, you can almost say it’s survival of the fittest. And if a little old lady is the fittest, doesn’t that say something about the state of things?
Here, let me give you some more soup. How about a little fresh bread and butter to go with it? I’ve got a loaf here, freshly baked. Oh, and a little dram of horilka to warm you up. There you go.
Oh, I’m getting off track here. The eating of the children. It’s not what you think it is. It isn’t even what I’m saying it is. There is something far deeper and far more magical…
Standing at the Doorway of Baba Yaga’s Cottage
The secret is that Baba Yaga stands at the doorway of her cottage, the gateway between life and death, and all of us must meet her one day. We can either come with humility and openness to her and the world of the spirits or we can come with fear or disgust or arrogance and I can tell you that if you bring one of those last three, things won’t go so well for you. And here’s something else you need to know: the scaredy-cats with the chattering teeth or the stuck up ones with their noses in the air are the ones writing the stories. Think about that for a minute.
They’re the ones who flunk the tests, and they blame her, naturally. The tests? Oh, they’re all over the place. The fence aound her yard that’s made of human bones — yeah, can you get past that one? And Baba Yaga’s cottage — the sentient hut walking around on chicken legs that can turn its back to you so you can’t get in? And her face — can you look a “repulsive” old lady in the eye? They’re all tests. And those are the easy ones! Once you pass those, you might be asked to fetch water in a sieve or sort a mountain of poppy seeds or bathe her children or do some other impossible task.
The Wild Mother with the Obedient Children
Now her children! That’s another thing! Sometimes her daughters live with her, beautiful and obedient daughters, adept apprentices who know magic as well. Maybe not so skilled as their mother, but powerful sorceresses in their own right. Sometimes her children are bears and wolves or grubs and worms. She loves all her children, from the prettiest to the toothiest to the slimiest. Remember, the dimwits who judge by superficial appearances, the ones who say “this is beautiful” and “that is ugly?” Those are the ones who get eaten. But of course, you’re too smart for that, right?
Her children obey her but she… she is unruly. A wild rock ’n’ roll rebel here to break all the rules. She is as untamed and as powerful as mother nature. She might even be mother nature, who’s to say? She definitely acts like nature — capricious and fickle. One minute radiating so much beauty that your eyes can’t drink in enough of her, the next minute as terrifyingly destructive as a tornado. But don’t forget, there are people out there who chase the awesome beauty of a tornado too.
You know how nature can be — cruel one moment and achingly sweet and generous the next. And that’s how it goes with her. 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.
The Guardian of the Waters of Youth, Life, and Death
I mean, yes, she has the power to destroy you, but she’s also the guardian of the Waters of Youth and Life and Death. Kings have given everything they own to get at the Water of Youth.
And the Water of Death? She can use the Water of Death to strike you down instantly. She doesn’t even need to mess about with tricking you into your own demise.
But if someone is killed, she can use the Water of Life to bring them back to the world of the living. Death and rebirth. She can take you in and then lovingly give birth to you again. Okay, it might be more like spitting you out again, but nonetheless. And when you come back the next time around, maybe you’ll be a little smarter. And perhaps it’s not you that dies anyway. It could be that it’s the parts of you that no longer serve you that need to get eaten up and transformed into something better. Reduce, reuse, recycle, right? Put a kopiyka in, get a kopiyka out. The eternal divine slot machine.
The Eternal Divine Slot Machine
Ah, yes, the slot machine. You might just put a coin in a get a coin back, but if you take your chances and play things just so, you could get the jackpot. If you come to Baba Yaga’s cottage with humility but can match wits with her and win, you will walk away with a prize: a powerfully protective skull lantern perhaps? A matchless horse that can leap over the widest river? A magical golden hammer and diamond-headed nails? I mean the gifts she gives are something that even the richest person in the world could never afford. So, when you see the rewards of an encounter with her — the profound wisdom, the priceless magical gifts, and the chance to shed your old life and be reborn — the risk of meeting with her seems like a small price to pay.
Ach! This honey cake! I just can’t seem to get it out of this oven. Could you be a dear and stick your head in there and see if you can get it out for me?