Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).
Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.
Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.
Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…
Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.
The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).
Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.
In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.
Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.