Baba Yaga: The Russian Fairytale Witch

She Lives in a House on Chicken Legs!

Baba Yaga, 1889. Artist: Karasin, Nikolai Nikolayevich (1842-1908)
Heritage Images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Baba Yaga—a witch in Russian folklore—appears in both traditional and modern fairytales. Her powers, characteristics, and accomplices make her fearsome, yet fascinating at the same time. Baba Yaga is often portrayed as evil and scary, but some stories reverse her role to that of a heroine. And her wisdom stands undisputed, as this witch pulls her knowledge from her ancient existence. Baba Yaga's most infamous trait is that she eats little children for dinner. This tale is used by parents as a warning against wandering off into the woods alone.

Visitors to Russia might see Baba Yaga depicted in folk art. She also appears in Russian cartoons. In fact, she is so important to Russian culture that famous composers have named their works after her. If you see renditions throughout your travels of a strange and scary witch, you know you’ve come across Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga's Appearance

Baba Yaga exhibits a distinctive physical appearance that differs from the traditional American rendition of a witch with a green face and a pointy hat. Instead, Baba Yaga is a haggard old woman with a long hooked nose and a jutting jaw that shows off her iron teeth. Her chosen mode of transport is a mortar in which she sits scrunched in its bowl carrying a pestle in one hand and a broom in the other. The pestle is used as a type of paddle to push herself in the direction she wants to fly. She’s often depicted whizzing through the forest in this way, her legs hanging over the side of the mortar and her witch hair flying in the wind.

One attribute that Baba Yaga shares with American witches is a broom. Her broom is—in characteristic Russian fashion—made of birch. She uses the broom to sweep away any trace of her presence as she zooms off to her next locale.

Baba Yaga's Home

Baba Yaga lives in a magic house with a life of its own. The house, at first glance, looks relatively normal. But a close inspection reveals what lies beneath it—chicken legs that enable the house to move about in accordance with Baba Yaga’s wishes. The hut is described in stories as being windowless and doorless or possessing an attribute where it turns its back to would-be visitors so that the door remains unseen. The hut can spin around in a whirl, making entry impossible and its opening is only revealed once a magic spell or rhyme is recited.

Baba Yaga’s Helpers

Baba Yaga sometimes appears with various characters that are under her power. For example, she has three horsemen in her posse representing dawn (the white rider), midday (the red rider), and midnight (the black rider). The old crone also has a daughter, in certain tales, and sometimes invisible servants help her with tasks around her hut. Animal helpers also appear in stories alongside this Russian witch.

Baba Yaga in Russian Fairy Tales

Baba Yaga appears in several tales told with variations, depending upon the source. The most famous story is “Vasilisa the Beautiful” where Vasilisa is sent by her stepmother to collect fire from Baba Yaga’s hut (not an easy job). Baba Yaga agrees to help if Vasilisa can complete a set of tasks to the witch’s satisfaction. Vasilisa—along with the help of a magic doll, the invisible servants, and the three riders that mark the passage of time—completes the tasks and is given the magic fire. All ends well when her skills draw the Tsar’s attention and he marries her.

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