Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Baba Yaga: Her Past, Present, and Future

Written by Olga Bukhina

Baba Yaga, a famous witch, is probably the personage of Russian folklore which is the most familiar to Americans. I recently encountered a fresh college graduate who, when reminiscing about Baga Yaga during the party conversation, said: “Oh, yes, she is the one who lives in the little house with the chicken legs. I know her from the cartoons. She was an enemy of Hellboy.” Definitely, it is a not so traditional take on this familiar Russian fairy-tale character.

There is now a new way to learn more about the real Russian Baba Yaga, and not from old cartoons or Americanized versions of Russian fairy tales. A new book, Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales, edited by Sibelan Forrester, Helena Goscilo, and Martin Skoro (University Press of Mississippi) will give the reader a definitive portrait of this important folklore persona.

Traditionally, Baba Yaga is a wicked witch, who lives in the wild woods and is always ready to eat little children. At the same time, she is often a valuable helper of the main character of the story who requests her advice and directions. (Of course, the hero needs to be nice and polite to the old lady.) This collection of almost thirty traditional Russian tales contains many stories which show both side of Baba Yaga. In Ivanushka, for example, Baba Yaga is an enemy who stole the child, but in Sun and Star, she helps Prince Ivan to find his lost sisters. In others, like in The Stepdaughter and the Stepmother’s Daughter, Baba Yaga rewards the hard-working girl and punishes the lazy one.

Sibelan Forrester, a professor at Swarthmore College, who translated all stories, selected an array of fairy tales from two sources, Afanasiev’s Russian Folk Tales and Khudiakov’s Great Russian Tales. Some of them are the different versions of the same story. Forrester also provided translator’s notes and the introduction which are very helpful in understanding her choices in translating and transliterating the names of the characters. The introduction explains various objects surrounding Baba Yaga, such as her isba, the little hut with the chicken legs, her mortar and pestle, and her stove. Forrester talks about the deeper meaning of Baba Yaga and her role in folklore and in popular culture. She argues that “Baba Yaga appears as an initiatrix, a vestigial goddess, a forest power, and a mistress of birds or animals” (p. XXXIX), and that Baba Yaga is deeply connected to the theme of death and especially children’s and infants’ mortality.

Jack Zipes’ preface puts a story of Baba Yaga into the general context of Russian folklore. He sees Baba Yaga as a powerful image, a “unique Russian folk character” which “has now become an international legendary figure and will probably never die” (p. VIII). Baba Yaga “is the ultimate tester and judge, the desacralized omnipotent goddess, who defends deep-rooted Russian pagan values and wisdom and demands that young women and men demonstrate that they deserve her help” (p. XI).

A very special part of this book is its illustrations. Martin Skoro, an artist, and Helena Goscilo, a professor of the Ohio State University, selected the fantastic gallery of rich and diverse images of Baba Yaga, from the classical Russian illustrations of Bilibin, Benois, and Vasnetsov, to lubok and Palekh boxes, to the various contemporary Russian and non-Russian artists (Hellboy is also not forgotten). The illustrations are as a significant part of the book as the texts themselves. The book also includes a bibliography and a filmography which provides further understanding of Baba Yaga.

It is very clear that the editors and others, who were involved in the making of this book, “love Baba Yaga and want to present her in all richness and complexity” (p. XIII). The wonderful translations of the tales will be a joy to read for these who are interested in Russian culture and folklore. These tales will open a whole world of magic to thoughtful readers who will dare to begin their quests together with the characters of the tales and will start with the magic formula: “Little house, little house! Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” The readers will soon discover that the wild (and sometimes wicked) Witch of the East is clearly not dead!

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