Baba Yaga – The Fascination of Folklore

A Russian person, seeing this 18th century Norwegian house, would recall Baba Yaga, who lived in a house on chicken legs. Baba Yaga was an ogress with raggedy clothing, crooked teeth, a hunched back, and a long nose that touched the ceiling when she lay on her bed. Her house on legs could turn itself in any direction she wanted, and move anywhere around the forest it was situated in. More distant travel was no problem. She could ride across the sky in a mortar. With one hand she wielded the pestle, either as a paddle to power it, or a rudder to guide it. In her other hand she brandished a broom, to wipe away all traces of her tracks.

Regrettably, she was in the habit of abducting, cooking and eating children, employing a flock of black geese for reconnaissance. Sometimes she accompanied Death on his travels, scooping up the fresh carcasses. You may conclude she was a totally wicked monster, but not so! She was ambivalent, more like the archetypal Trickster than the Evil Witch. If it pleased her, she would sing while sprinkling corpses with the Water of Life to revivify them, and help people in trouble or danger.

A similar Trickster is the Norse God Loki, who repeatedly deceives, frustrates and antagonises the Gods of Asgard, and yet is the supplier of their prized possessions, like the Hammer of Thor, and the eight-legged horse of Odin. His usefulness safeguarded him from being dealt with until he overstepped himself, but that’s another story.

The fascinating richness of such folktales is seen in the many different ways they can be interpreted. Baba Yaga can be seen as a typical creation of male misogyny – an unglamorous, unpredictable, untrustworthy, man-eating femme fatale. Or she can be an embodiment of female empowerment and independence, who refuses to be bound by social norms and conventions, but lives by her own rules. 

Life, like Baba Yaga, is ‘ambivalent’. It’s experienced as a duality of beneficence and harmfulness. This duality demands that if the Sky Father is regarded as totally ‘good’, he must be counter-balanced by the Devil from Hell to explain what’s not ‘good’. The Earth Mother turns that duality into unity. With one hand, she gives birth to, and nourishes her offspring, but with the other hand, she requires that they die, so their bodies can be taken back into herself to enable fresh life to appear. She feels no need to apologise for that.   

The analytical psychologist, Carl Jung, sees the Trickster as one facet of another psychological archetype, the Shadow. This is the dark and sinister aspect of the individual (or ‘the mob’), that’s usually, but not invariably, suppressed or rejected. The Hitlers of this world can become terrifyingly possessed by it. The Shadow appears in dreams, visions, myths and such folktales as Baba Yaga, which give representation to what we most fear, or find most unpalatable, in our own psychological makeup. This is why they can be so horrifying, and yet so fascinating.

The ambivalence of Baga Yaga, however, offers us the possibility of what Jung called ‘self-actualisation’. Our need is not to suppress or deny, our ‘shadow’ side, but face up to, and bring into the light of awareness, our propensity for selfishness and greed, envy and jealousy, hatred and violence. Only then can these be brought under conscious control and be neutralised. Only then can our better aspects of considerateness and generosity, selflessness and fairness, and kindness and supportiveness, be more able to become the principal motivating and controlling aspects of our personal characteristics and our relationships with others. 

And, finally, a treat. One of the lesser-known lights of 19th century Russian music is Anatoly Liadov, who was as immensely lazy as he was musically talented. One of the small number of delightful, picturesque pieces he composed was ‘Baba Yaga’, and here it is. To borrow from the American composer John Adams, for 4 minutes have “a short ride on a fast pestle” and, if you enjoy it, as a counterpart, look on youtube for Liadov’s “The Enchanted Lake” which is so dreamily beautiful …..

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