Becoming Baba Yaga

When I was a child my favorite picture books was Bony-Legs by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Dirk Zimmer. The villain is a witch called Bony-legs who wants to eat the heroine, Sasha. Bony-legs has iron teeth and lives in a house on a pair of chicken legs.  Years later while reading some Russian folktales, I met her once again.  Only she was called Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga is a strangely ambiguous character.  Here in the U.S. we are more familiar with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, where evil character tend to be purely evil.  The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is a cannibal, nothing more.  The evil queen in “Snow White” is envy and vanity incarnate.  From the perspective of that tradition, Baba Yaga would, at first glance, seem pure evil.  She’s old, ugly, her house is bipedal, the fence surrounding the house has skulls on it. And in some stories, that pure evil is exactly what she is.  But in many stories, she is also the benefactor—she gives the hero the necessary information to win the hand of a beautiful Tsarina, or she helps obedient and beautiful Cinderella-type girl escape a bad home and marry royalty. Baba Yaga is one of the few multi-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in folklore (though I admit I still have a long way to go in my studies).  Because of this depth, I’m always on the lookout for more materials on the witch.

Recently I came across the book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic.  I love this book, but Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a deep read and has several layers to explore.  The primary focus is what it means to be an old woman.  The book opens with a sort of lyrical prologue, which states, “You don’t see them at first,” and describes the way we over look elderly women and the details that seem to define them when we finally do take notice: “They roll by you like heaps of dried apples. They mumble into their chins.” This prologue ends with a warning, “You will slide into a world that you had no intention of entering, because your time has not yet come, your hour, for God’s sake, has not come.” Ultimately, we all feel that we grow old too quickly.

The first section of the book presents an author—which I assume is the fictionalized author of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg though some reviewers have referred to this section as being about Ugresic herself—who is not only trying to come to terms with the death of her mother, but also with her mother’s slow decline in her old age.  The second section deals with three old women going to a health spa.  The third section is glossary turned manifesto on the folklore of Baba Yaga, apparently written by Dr. Aba Bagay, a character in the first section of the book.

What struck me as I was reading was I couldn’t think of any other book that focuses on elderly women (okay maybe the Miss Marple mysteries, but as I’ve not read the books I don’t know how much of her of character is explored in them).  I’ve read books about young woman, young men, middle age women (often trying to remain young), middle age men, and old men (often trying to sleep with young women).  Old women have been characters varying from bumbling sweethearts who mean well, to wise grannies dispensing advice, to old crones that everyone wishes would get around to dying already, but never (in my experience) are they the protagonist whose character changes over course of the plot.

Ugresic shows us the weird space that women inhabit once they reach old age.  Since they are no longer beautiful, they are viewed with revulsion. While they may have once cared for children and kept the house running, they are often viewed as a drain on their family’s resources.  While Baba Yaga never appears in the story—in some ways, she shows how the world views elderly women.  All the older women are Baba Yaga.  A figure that we abhor but that we need.  A figure that we will ourselves one day become.

What was the most revealing part was when the three old women at the spa are trying to help a young masseur romance a girl, one decides that “‘The very fact you [the masseur] like women qualifies you to be an ideal man!…very few people actually like us, women.’” When I read this part, I had to put the book down, because it’s true.  A lot of people are attracted to women, but many will complain about not understanding us, not being able to take our mood swings, or not wanting to deal with our frivolous concerns, and myriad of other stereotypes—even other women. This dislike of women is why old age is so terrifying, alienating, and abhorred—when we lose our looks and are no longer able to contribute through money or labor, we’re just some old biddy no one likes dealing with.

However, what the third section, the glossary, makes clear is that the old age for women is more complicated.  Baba Yaga may be reviled, but the hero and heroine must earn her good favor to succeed—she still has important and dangerous wisdom to share.  In that third section, Dr Bagay wonders what would happen if the sword, which is underneath Baba Yaga’s pillow, was brought out.

Ultimately, my interest in Baba Yaga is because she’s reflection of how society views women, especially those who live on its edges.  After all, when I was child reading Bony-Legs, I was interested in the flawed witch rather than Sasha, who was just another too perfect ideal.

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