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Who is Baba Yaga?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2016
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In Russian and Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is an iconic figure. Many folktales include a visit to the house of the witch Baba Yaga, located deep within the woods along a perilous path. She is an interesting figure in mythology because she can serve as a wise guide or as a figure of evil, depending the tale being told. In either case, it is generally agreed that approaching Baba Yaga is dangerous, and that only the pure of heart will survive encounters with her.

Baba Yaga herself is usually portrayed as a thin old crone, and many students of folklore link her with ancient goddesses of wisdom and death. In most stories, Baba Yaga has iron teeth which make a fearsome noise when she clashes them together; apparently this happens quite frequently, as quite a lot of things irritate Baba Yaga including rudeness and too many questions. She travels around inside a giant mortar, which she steers with a pestle: in some myths, she is able to fly, while in others, she scoots around on the forest floor, covering up her tracks with a birch broom.

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The house of Baba Yaga is often portrayed as an entity with a mind of its own. Her home walks around the forest on chicken feet, and has a fence and fixtures made of human bone, a reference to Baba Yaga's cannibalistic tendencies. The house usually has its back to visitors, however, until they say the magic rhyme that will cause the house to turn around, lower itself, and open the door. Entering the house can be a risky affair, as the door has teeth, and Baba Yaga might be inside.

Three horsemen serve Baba Yaga: the White Horseman, the Red Horseman, and the Black Horseman. These horsemen are said to represent the elements in some myths, and are also sometimes linked with dawn, midday, and twilight. Baba Yaga also has servants with invisible bodies, and she prefers that people not ask about them. In addition, she appears to have a pet cat, who is usually described as being quite clever; the cat may in fact be Baba Yaga herself, in disguise.

Some myths involve a hero bravely seeking out Baba Yaga for assistance and information. If the hero has pure intentions and is courteous to Baba Yaga, she plays the role of a wise guide. Being rude to her or having ulterior motives may result in becoming a piece of furniture. In other myths, Baba Yaga steals people, especially children, with the intention of eating them; sometimes the house itself, in tandem with Baba Yaga's pets, helps her victims to escape.

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