Fact vs fiction: the Baba Yaga

I, like the protagonist of The Witcher, am driven by a complex set of values and beliefs. Some part of me is writing about the franchise (yet again) for purely selfish reasons. I just found out that Henry Cavill has been cast as Geralt in Netflix’s upcoming The Witcher series, and this article is an attempt to quell my resentment and focus on all of the juicy lore that made me love the franchise in the first place. However, another part of me is writing for purely selfless reasons. Doing this research allowed me to confront the tragedy that is deducing The Witcher creatures to nameless foes devoid of identity. Like all of us are comprised by a series of narratives and experiences, every monster has a story, and, being the kind-hearted individual that I am, I feel obliged to tell them.

The set of creatures I am going to address in this installment inspired a particularly epic song from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt soundtrack: “Ladies of the Wood.” The three ladies, adorned with rotting flesh, gnarled hands and fabulous burlap outfits, appear to be inspired by the Slavic legend of Baba Yaga. While legends surrounding this figure vary, I will be outlining the themes that are consistent with this creepy crone and then exploring some of the possible explanations for her ambiguity.

Baba Yaga sports a nose so long that it grazes the ceiling of her hut as she sleeps. Her iron teeth can chomp through flesh and bone, and her cold eyes can petrify you with one glance. She also refrains from stereotypical witch attire, forgoing the pointed hat and traveling in a mortar instead of on a broom. She lives in secrecy, brushing away any tracks that might lead you to her forest hut with a broom made of silver birch. Ever the architect, Baba Yaga’s cabin comes with some unique features: chicken legs that allow it to move of its own volition, windows that double as eyes and a fence made of bones and topped with glowing skulls. But perhaps most surprising about the woman is her figure. Despite eating as much as 12 men, she manages to stay as slim as a skeleton. Though there are many things I do not envy about this witch, I can say that her fast metabolism has me feeling a little green.   

Most legends of Baba Yaga paint her as a cannibal. However, the method by which she picks her prey is seemingly ambiguous. Some tales report children as the crone’s favorite meal, while others insist that any stranger walking the forest is subject to capture. Though many of her victims are unfortunate wanderers, some intentionally seek her for her gifts as a wise and all-knowing matron. But in order to acquire wisdom from the crone, a series of tests have to be completed. You either leave smarter or not at all, as those who fail become Sunday brunch. Every so often, a hero clever or pure of heart completes Baba Yaga’s tests, as is demonstrated in the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa.”

The popular legend follows a girl named Vasilisa as she struggles with life after her mother’s death. When Vasilisa’s father decides to remarry, she ends up with a stepmother and two stepsisters who rival each other in their wickedness. Vasilisa’s stepmother treats her like a servant, forcing her to complete painstaking manual labor. The only thing that keeps Vasilisa from giving up is a magical doll that her mother gifted her while on her deathbed. The doll comes in handy, completing Vasilisa’s arduous assignments and giving her advice during trying times.

With the help of her magic doll, Vasilisa conquers every task that her stepmother throws her way. But, the villain devises one final effort to get rid of the girl. While Vasilisa’s father is away on business, her stepmother moves the family to the edge of Baba Yaga’s woods and formulates a plan to send Vasilisa to the crone’s doorstep. One night, she instructs Vasilisa and her daughters to complete some needlework, leaving only a single candle to illuminate the darkness. When one of the stepdaughters intentionally extinguishes it, they send Vasilisa to fetch a light from the only nearby resident: Baba Yaga.

Vasilisa ventures to Baba Yaga’s hut, where she is informed that the only way to procure the light is through the completion of several tests. The tests were designed to be impossible, with one forcing her to sort all the wheat from the crone’s storehouse and pick the bad grains out. With the help of her doll, the heroine completes all the trials. Upon discovering that Vasilisa is blessed by her mother, the witch orders her to leave, allowing her to take a glowing skull to light up the dark. It seems that the witch is capable of good after all, for as soon as Vasilisa returns home with the skull, her stepmother and stepsisters are reduced to ash.

So, what explains Baba Yaga’s fickle moods? Why do some tales cite her as a cannibal, while others praise her for her wisdom and power? The answer may lie in the evolution of religion. The legend likely began in the pre-Christian era, though Baba Yaga was first documented in 1755 in Mikhail W. Lomonosov’s Russian Grammar. Her roots in pagan lore suggest that she may not have been such a monster after all, rather a deity that determined people’s fates. Tales that warn of her abductions were likely reminders that death can happen at any moment and, according to pagan beliefs, that fate is unavoidable. Her seemingly wild yet domestic disposition may also shed light on how ancients viewed the natural world: both dangerous and life-giving. The rise of Christianity also helps explain the discrepancies amongst tales, as witches quickly changed from wise, influential women to outcasts and heretics. Because the Middle Ages brought the Christianization of Europe, Baba Yaga’s reputation likely suffered over time, leaving readers today with images of a woman as ugly as she is cruel.

The Witcher 3 seamlessly blends a legend of Slavic origin with modern game play. The crones’ appearance in the game serves as a reminder of the ancient world’s lasting influence and adds a fun, albeit creepy, series of adventures. While I can’t promise that the Netflix series will be up to par with the books and games, I can promise that The Witcher franchise is a worthy endeavor. And perhaps, if we pray long enough and hard enough to the crones, the show will be just as good (I’m looking at you, Cavill).

Celine Butler is a second-year student majoring in psychology with a minors in French. ✉ CB869017@wcupa.edu.

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