Not every fairytale has a fairy godmother, altruistic and giving, always on hand to grant a wish and wave a magic wand to set everything right for the downtrodden hero or heroine of the story. Some protagonists of the old folk stories weren’t always lucky as Cinderella and Dorothy, the less fortunate hero and heroines didn’t encounter Glinda the good witch of the North, instead they happened across the terrifying being that is Baba Yaga.
I find Baba Yaga a most intriguing character in Slavic mythology. Always drawn to the more austere and gothic edges of folklore as opposed to the rose tinted happy endings of modern fairy tales, Baba Yaga captivates my attention as there are so many conflicting tales surrounding her, none of which can give any clue of her true desires and intentions. She is a chaotic neutral force that grants help when asked but her methods are never pretty, sometimes leaving the protagonist feeling like they should have never begged her help in the first place.
Unpredictable and volatile, Baba Yaga is sometimes perceived as a mother nature figure but one trope that is always consistent throughout the lore that surrounds her is that she eats those unfortunates who cannot complete her tasks. Depicted as heinously ugly to behold, she is a crone with iron teeth and a long nose who travels through the sky in a mortar and pestle.
Another intriguing feature of hers that appeals to the fifteen year old goth version of me is that of her house. One of the most iconic motifs surrounding the Baba Yaga mythos is that she lives in a hut in the centre of the deep dark woods (like many witches of folklore) but what sets her hut apart from your run-of-the-mill forest witch is that her hut is has it’s own pair of long, giant & gnarled chicken legs. The hut is believed to be alive (As much as a hut can be alive) and possess its own personality. The hut roves about the forest, like an elemental force of its own, perhaps seeking out those in need of Baba Yaga. People can often tell when they are in Baba Yaga’s presence before seeing her for when she is around, the winds turn wild and whistle through the trees which creak and groan as the air turns bitter cold.
Baba Yaga appears throughout history, first referenced in text in a Russian Grammar book in 1755 as a figure lifted from Slavic folklore. It’s likely that her origins derived from many ancient oral tales that later were built upon, frayed and reconstructed into written folk stories.
Although unmoral and dangerous, Baba Yaga never goes after anyone unprovoked and the stories that surround her are generally told from the point of view of the people that encounter her. One such story is the that of Vasilisa, a Cinderella-like character who’s stepmother and sisters severely mistreat her. Her family send her into the forest on an impossible quest for the fire of Baba Yaga (who serves in this tale as a wicked fairy godmother) and Vasilisa finds herself faced with completing a variety of exhausting tasks set by the witch under the threat of her life. Upon completing the tasks, Baba Yaga sends her back to her family with the fire as requested however when Vasilisa brings it home, the fire which is contained inside a magic skull, burns her family to death as punishment for their cruelty. Not exactly the nicest way to treat even those who’ve wronged you but it’s not the way of Baba Yaga to be forgiving or gentle.
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to villainy I feel a little weary and tired of an antagonist that is inherently evil. Their motives are normally along the lines of world domination (here’s looking at you Voldemort) or they’re just terrible people and want to eat small children. I struggle with the concept that people can be all good or all evil which in modern fairy tales often has a clearly defining line. Those who are considered evil and villainous often have a backstory that details a history of suffering or abuse or it’s completely unexplained and they are just outright chaotic bad and only ever do bad things to people.
I find the notion of a neutral villain far more appealing; Baba Yaga is an elemental force that has no definable intentions and does terrible things because she has no moral compass although she is willing to help those who prove themselves. Villainy isn’t perhaps an apt word for a character like Baba Yaga, for she comes from a branch of folktale where there is no defining line of good and bad. The characters of older tales tend to find themselves on a spectrum of good to evil but ultimately it’s their actions that define them.
This approach to character design feels more raw, realistic and relatable. Is it not the most appealing part of a fairy tale to find ourselves in a surreal experience but able to relate to the protagonists? I don’t know about you but these days I’m slightly apathetic towards the myriad of fairy tales featuring melodramatic heroes, peril-prone altruistic and altogether vanilla heroines and villains who are both predictable and shallow in their intentions. Give me a flawed protagonist any day and while you’re at it, an antagonist that has perhaps more than just humble personality traits of narcissism and megalomania, one that surprises, twists and turns the plot. One both unpredictable and wild, unfathomable and enduring; one like Baba Yaga.