Fairytale Basics: Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is one of my favorite “villains” from fairytales.  I put villains in quotations because she is not always seen as an evil character.  I read Baba Yaga by Ernest Small to my 3rd grade classes, and before starting the book, I usually start by explaining that while she eats naughty children, she can also be helpful and answer questions, though she is loathe to do so.

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Baba Yaga can answer almost any question, but she does not want to, because each answer ages her by one year.  I found an interesting quote in a Baba Yaga story as well:

You may ask me if you want, but remember that not every question has a good answer.  The more one knows, the sooner one grows old.

The Ernest Small version of the story the story of Marusia, a Russian girl who loses her mother’s money and finds herself in the path of Baba Yaga’s wandering hut, Izbushka. Marusia is then forced to work for Baba Yaga as a house servant.  Marusia learns many secrets about Baba Yaga and the book even has a second story nestled within it: the hedgehog son of a Tsar who can help Baba Yaga extend her life by 200 years in return for being changed into a boy.

I have also read Vasilisa the Brave, which is a similar story to Marusia’s.  Vasilisa is similar to Cinderella, with a wicked stepmother and two stepsisters who mistreat her.  Vasilisa is sent into the forest to the home of Baba Yaga to ask for a light, with the expectation that the witch will kill her. Vasilisa does have a trick up her sleeve.  When her mother died she left a doll to Vasilisa that can help her.  With the doll’s help, Vasilisa survives her time with Baba Yaga and is sent home with a skull torch, since she was supposed to fetch a light from Baba Yaga.

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The light from the skull’s eyes burns Vasilisa’s stepmother and stepsisters to ashes.  Vasilisa’s luck turns around and she ends up marrying the Tsar, again, very like Cinderella.

I did some reading online, and while it looks like Baba Yaga first appears in Eastern European writing in the 17th century, it seems to me that she has influenced characters in later stories from Western Europe. She is one of the only witches from fairytales that is shown flying and with a broom.  She doesn’t ride the broom, but uses it to sweep away her tracks as she flies in her mortar. Is she the reason that the archetypal witch rides a flying broom?

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She also reminds me of the witch who lives in the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. Many of my students have noticed the similarities, so I must not be too far off base.

There are a lot of great stories about Baba Yaga out there, and I’d like to own more.  One of my favorites is written by Patricia Polacco:

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I really like the sweetness of the idea of Baba Yaga wanting grandchildren to love.  It’s just so wonderful.

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