Who is the Russian folktale character Baba Yaga?

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Answered by: Clara, An Expert in the Fairy Tales, Folktales and Legends Category
Baba Yaga is an emblematic Russian folktale character, typical of Slavic folklore in general. Appearing in many stories in the role of Wicked Witch, she is either the main antagonist or the setter of obstacles for the protagonist who is often a young man or woman on a quest of great importance. Often villainous, occasionally ambiguous, and rarely helpful, Baba Yaga only offers aid or information for a price.

There may be one Baba Yaga or a set of three sisters, all of which are known by the same name. Baba Yaga is said to kidnap and eat children similarly to the character of the "Boogyman" found in various cultures and used by parents to discourage their children's bad behavior. Like another cannibalistic figure of folklore, the witch in the Grimm's tale "Hansel and Gretel", Baba Yaga prefers to cook children in an oven before eating them. A phrase commonly used by Baba Yaga in many stories is "Fie, Fie, I smell a Russian smell..." which is used to illustrate her power of detecting people by scent, as would a wild predator.

She travels by flying in a magical mortar, wielding the pestle in one hand and a broom in the other. She uses the pestle to propel her mortar along and the broom to sweep her tracks clear behind her. Baba Yaga's home is another mode of transportation for her; it stands on two chicken legs and leaps through the forest at great speeds. When Baba Yaga summons her hut she calls out " "Little hut, little hut, turn towards me with your door, turn your back to the forest and your face to me!" The hut is a terrifying sight itself, decorated in bones of both creatures and humans.

In many stories, magically lit lanterns made from skulls circle the hut like a fence. Baba Yaga herself is often described as an old woman with a ferocious appearance. A well-known illustration of Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin shows her in her mortar, dressed in ragged traditional Russian clothing, her hair loose and thin, blown back from her face by the wind, her arms and legs are longer than those of standard human anatomy, and her hands are dark and gnarled. Her expression is grim; her gaze stares directly out at the viewer. This illustration is one commonly associated with Baba Yaga and appears on the cover of the book ( trans: Myths of the Russian People by E.E Levkievskaya).

Sometimes the hero or heroine must seek out Baba Yaga, perhaps to rescue a loved one held in her clutches or to attain some magical token or favor. One such example of this is found in the Russian fairytale "Vasilisa the Beautiful", wherein Vasilisa, a merchant's daughter is forced by her stepsisters to go to Baba Yaga and ask for light. There is an excellent description of Baba Yaga in this tale which can be read in its entirety in the book Russian Fairytales collected by Alksandr Afanas'ev.

Baba Yaga may occasionally collaborate with another Russian folktale character Koschey the Deathless, also known as Tsar Koschey or Koschey the Immortal, who is the typical wicked male figure counterpart to Baba Yaga.

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