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 is a witch of Russian folklore who appears in both traditional and modern fairytales. Her powers, characteristics, and accomplices make her fearsome and fascinating. Baba Yaga is often seen as evil and scary, but at times, she acts as an aid to the hero or heroine of the story. Whether she’s sweet-tempered or ill-natured, her wisdom is undisputed; she’s as ancient as the dark Russian forest she occupies and pulls her knowledge from the ages. Most famously, Baba Yaga is said to eat little children, a warning against wandering off into the woods.

Visitors to Russia might see Baba Yaga depicted on folk art. She also appears in Russian cartoons. So important to Russian culture is she that famous composers have named some of their works after her, and she’s just as prevalent as two other fairytale characters, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. If you see a strange and scary witch with the following characteristics, you know you’ve just met Baba Yaga.

How Baba Yaga Looks

Baba Yaga exhibits an interesting physical appearance. She doesn’t look like the typical witch that scares children on Halloween in the U.S. Her face isn’t green and she doesn’t wear a pointy hat.

Baba Yaga is instead a haggard old woman, often with a long hooked nose and a jutting jaw that shows her iron teeth to their fullest fearsomeness. Her chosen mode of transport is a mortar, and she sits scrunched up within its bowl so that the stem of the vessel resembles a single stone leg. The pestle she uses as a sort of paddle to push herself in the direction she wants to go. But the weight of the mortar and pestle don’t weigh her down; she can fly too (of course). She’s often depicted whizzing through the forest this way, her legs doubled up or hanging over the side of the mortar, 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 the heavy prints her mortar makes when she’s hopping about in it.

Where Baba Yaga Lives

Baba Yaga lives in a magic house that has a life of its own, and it’s as much a character of Russian folklore as is Baba Yaga herself. The house looks, at first glance, like a normal house. Closer inspection reveals that the house stands on chicken legs that enable it to move about in accordance with Baba Yaga’s wishes.

The hut is either described as being windowless and doorless, or it turns its back to would-be visitors so that the door remains unseen to them. The hut may also spin around in a whirl, making entry impossible. The hut will only reveal its door after a magic spell or rhyme is said.

Baba Yaga’s Helpers

Baba Yaga sometimes appears with various characters that are in her power or are related to her in some manner. For example, she has three horseman in her employ representing dawn, noon, and midnight. They are depicted as a white rider, a red rider, and a black rider. The old crone is sometimes said to have a daughter, and sometimes she has invisible servants to help her around her hut. Animal helpers also appear in stories about 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 in which Baba Yaga appears is “Vasilisa the Beautiful.” Vasilisa is sent by her stepmother to collect a fire from Baba Yaga’s hut—no easy job. Baba Yaga agrees to help if Vasilisa can complete tasks set before her to the witch’s satisfaction. Vasilisa, with the help of a magic doll and the invisible servants, along with the three riders that mark the passage of time, completes the tasks and is given the magic fire.

All ends happily when her skills draw the tsar’s attention, and he marries her.

Other tales are a variation on “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and include a slightly different cast of characters.