- A scary grandmother figure doling out advice and punishment feels like a familiar monster to a lot of us, which could be why today's monster originally from Russian and East Slavic folklore feels so ubiquitous.
She's been the subject of operas, comic book storylines, children's books and cartoons, and her own films.
Not to mention hundreds of years of folklore history.
May I present Baba Yaga.
Today, she is most commonly depicted as an ugly evil witch, but that wasn't always her story.
Baba Yaga was once more goddess than witch who reigned over time, life, death, and the elements.
She was associated with strong winds and dark forests.
Connected to the earth, the heavens and the underworld.
She straddles the boundary between life and death.
So which witch is it?
Elemental goddess, dark sorceress, terrifying granny?
Let's find out.
I'm Dr. Emily Zarka and this is Monstrum.
associated with powerful magic and accused of cannibalism, she has immense powers over animals, the elements, and even time.
Not all stories explicitly depict Baba Yaga as an ugly witch, but most Russians would.
She is portrayed as a tall, gaunt old woman.
Many tales reference her bony leg, which might be severe thinness or it might be a literal skeleton leg.
She has disheveled hair and a sometimes iron nose that is so long she can lie down on the floor of her hut and it could touch the ceiling.
That large nose allows her to identify her visitors by scent, leading some folklores to argue that she's actually blind.
The powerful Yaga always live somewhere remote, usually in a deep forest.
Her home, while occasionally a grand mansion, is most often a hut supported by chicken legs, goat legs, ram horns or spindles.
And is surrounded by a fence made from human bones with a lock on her gate made from the sharp teeth of a human jaw.
So you can see why people think she might be a cannibal.
The hut is constantly spinning and will only stop with the chant, "Little house, little house.
"Turn your back to the forest, "your front to me."
Baba Yaga's possessions are just as mystical and complex.
No flying broom for this witch, the Baba Yaga travels on a magical flying mortar using a pestle to urge it on, sweeping away the path of her flight with a broom.
She owns enchanted mirrors that turn into lakes.
Combs that can transform into forest.
Handkerchiefs that become rivers, a flying carpet, and fire-breathing horses.
Based on the etymology of her name, Baba Yaga probably dates back to at least the medieval period.
And there are literally thousands of Baba Yaga stories in Russian and Slavic folklore.
The first documented evidence of Baba Yaga emerges in woodblock prints from the late 17th century and early 18th century indicating she was a known figure in their early oral traditions.
The first written mention of the Baba Yaga is in the 1755 notes of a Russian grammar book penned by poet and scientist, Mikhail V. Lomonosov.
He referred to "Iaga Baba" twice, including in a list comparing Roman gods with their Slavic and Russian correspondents, although she is given no counterpart.
The first narrative account of the Baba Yaga is in Vasily Levshin's 1780 collection, "Russian Fairy Tales," in which she is depicted as terrifying and dangerous.
With teeth like tusks and hands like bear claws.
Until the 19th century, Baba Yaga was a largely Eastern European monster, but she gained international recognition when translations of Alexander Afanasyev's 1855 to 1863 serial publications of 600 transcribed Russian folktales appeared in the 1870s.
His collection was styled like that of the famed Brothers Grimm, though the inclusion of his sources and the places where he heard the stories lends greater scholarly legitimacy to his work.
Later, a Russian illustrator used this collection to create some of the most famous renderings of Russian folk characters, including this one of the Baba Yaga in 1899.
She can be altruistic, giving the protagonist of the story gifts or advice.
And even in the scariest stories when she's a child kidnapper, a warrior witch or a cruel trickster, the protagonist always escapes.
And despite her iron teeth and associations with cannibalism, no one in Baba Yaga stories is ever eaten.
Many Baba Yaga stories feature a young protagonist just entering into adulthood or marriage.
In one such story, a father gives his daughter to Baba Yaga as a servant.
The daughter completes her assigned chores perfectly with the help of little mice.
Impressed by her work, Baba Yaga rewards the girl with beautiful clothing.
When the father checks to see if his daughter is alive, he is surprised to find her very rich.
He takes her home, but her stepmother, of course there's an evil stepmother, is jealous.
So she sends her own daughter to Baba Yaga.
But this girl chases the mice with a rolling pin and doesn't do any of the work required of her, so Baba Yaga breaks her into pieces and puts her bones in a box.
Not exactly evil, not quite benevolent there, Baba Yaga.
Then there's one of the most beloved of Russian folktales.
"Vasilissa the Beautiful."
On her death bed, a merchant's wife gives a doll to their only daughter, Vasilissa, telling her that she must always keep the doll with her.
If anything bad should happen to the girl, she is to give the doll food and ask its advice, and the doll will help her.
Eventually Vasilissa's father remarries a widowed woman with daughters of her own.
And just like in the story of Cinderella, Vasilissa's new stepmother and sisters are far from kind, jealous of her goodness and her beauty.
They do all they can to diminish her allure with hard physical work.
To their dismay, Vasilissa grows healthier and more lovely while the evil grow uglier from their spike.
But how does the girl flourish despite their cruel actions?
Every night, Vasilissa secretly feeds the doll and asks its advice.
The doll comforts her and speaks wise words.
And the next day, it does all of the girl's work for her.
When it is time for Vasilissa to marry, all the bachelors pine for her hand.
And the jealous stepmother grows even more enraged.
She moves them all to a new home near the dense forest where Baba Yaga lives.
One night, Vasilissa and her stepsisters are working by candlelight when a stepsister purposely snuffs out the light and then instructs Vasilissa to go to Baba Yaga's hut for a new flame.
Scared of being eaten by Baba Yaga, Vasilissa consults her doll.
The doll's eyes glow and it says that as long as it is with her, she will be safe.
So Vasilissa sets off for Baba Yaga's hut.
Once in the woods, she is approached in turns by three horsemen.
First, a man dressed in white atop a white steed and accompanied by daybreak.
Next, a man in red riding a red horse behind whom the sun rises.
At that moment, a man clad in black with an ebony stallion seeming to beckon the oncoming night sky disappears at Baba Yaga's gate made of men's legs.
The bolts are arms and the lock is a mouth with sharp teeth.
The eyes and the skulls begin to shine, lighting the clearing as if it were day.
She has arrived at Baba Yaga's hut.
Suddenly there was a horrible roar and the terrifying woman bursts out of the forest.
Bravely, Vasilissa bows deeply, asking for light as her stepsisters had instructed.
The Baba Yaga says she will give Vasilissa her light if she first does some work for her or she will eat her.
She gives Vasilissa a series of challenges.
Prepare a feast for 12, clean the courtyard and house, prepare wheat, wash linen and sweep.
Vasilissa feeds her doll and it does everything, but prepare the feast.
Baba Yaga is surprised that someone can do the tasks and do them well.
Satisfied that the girl has fulfilled her side of the bargain, she sends the girl home with one of the skulls with blazing eyes.
Vasilissa returns to her stepmother and stepsisters bearing the skull like a candle.
And they gratefully receive her, having been without fire for days.
But flames shoot from the skull's eyes and burn them to cinders.
All except Vasilissa, of course, who ends up weaving linens so fine she catches the eye of the Tsar, eventually becoming his bride.
So Baba Yaga does have a heart, but you have to earn it.
The story demonstrates Baba Yaga's power over morning, day and night.
The three horsemen Vasilissa had seen and whom the Baba Yaga commands.
It also gives us an idea of what purpose the Baba Yaga tales might serve.
You could argue that the experience teaches the female audience how to be a wife.
To cook, clean, and sew at another person's command.
Not all of the Baba Yaga stories end in marriage, but they all show an encounter with the old woman as an initiation from childhood into adult life.
Her tests and tasks for the protagonists assess their cleverness and worthiness as adults.
She plays a cultural role as domestic instructor, demonstrating to young women and men what moving to a new household is like, and what tasks they need to master to become eligible husbands and wives.
Here's where we can further examine the origins of the name Baba Yaga.
Her name might even hint at her possible origins as a deity.
While there are variations, the word "Baba" originally referred to a married peasant woman of childbearing age or older.
And in old Russian, it was used for midwives, sorceress and fortune tellers.
In modern usage, Baba is a derogatory term designating a difficult old woman, which could be connected to the image of the Baba Yaga.
in a few indigenous Eastern European languages, "Baba" is also the name for pelican.
Maybe that explains the Baba Yaga's long beak-like nose and her hut's chicken legs.
"Yaga" is harder to pin down and there isn't a scholarly consensus on the word's etymology.
Some say it meant horrible or horrifying at one point, while others connect it to the Russian verb meaning "to ride."
Or we may find its origins in the early Latin for "snake."
But "Yaga" is most commonly interpreted as Baba witch, old granny witch, or evil Baba.
If we look at the variants of her name that use "Iaga," there are more theories including association with words for disease, illness, horror, or rage.
That said, many names for ancient Slavic deities have been lost over time.
And this may be the case for Baba Yaga.
Perhaps the moniker is a substitute for her original name that was once so sacred or feared, likely both, that it could not be said out loud and is now lost to history.
Attempts to explain Baba Yaga in the 18th century actually make this association with ancient Slavic deities as well, including early indications that she was a pagan goddess.
After all, she is associated with supernatural powers and magical gifts, and has power over life and death.
Godlike traits, no?
Except for that whole chicken footed hut deal.
But there might be a more rational explanation for the appearance of Baba Yaga's house.
Nomadic hunters in Siberia built store houses on top of tree stumps to deter animal foraging.
Structures like the Swedish Sami Storehouse and British Staddle Stones are similar in form and function.
And may explain why Baba Yaga's hut was on chicken legs.
And, as I always want to know, what was the most common burial practice in neolithic Central Europe?
Bodies were placed on wooden platforms raised up on poles so the corpses could dry out and the bones preserved, which calls to mind depictions of Baba Yaga's hut as well.
That certainly associates her with death, as do all those bones surrounding her home and well, the threatening to eat people.
The mortar and pestle that Baba Yaga uses to get around, they were essential tools for the everyday tasks women were in charge of in Slavic culture.
Like preparing food and grain, and making medicine.
A lot of folklores argue that they have a sexual symbolism as well.
But I'll let you Google that.
In modern depictions, Baba Yaga began to serve as a tool for socialist propaganda.
The heroes and heroines in these Baba Yaga tales carry over from the folklore because of problem solving, hard work and courage they exhibit.
these were also traits the former Soviet Union desired its citizens to have.
And Baba Yaga was a popular character on film and television.
But Baba Yaga found global recognition after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
And since then, the Baba Yaga appeared in the Hellboy comics and movies.
Television shows like Lost Girl, the Magicians, Supernatural, and Arthur.
She's even in Fortnite.
Mother, bone breaker, helper, goddess, witch.
Baba Yaga is all of these things.
Telling stories was an essential part of life for the East Slavic and Russian peoples whose folklore was popular in all social classes.
It was customary to tell skazka, folktales, at feasts and weddings as well as share them during times of work or rest at home.
And Baba Yaga was, and still is, one of the most popular characters.
As grandmotherly adviser or cannibalistic witch, pagan earth goddess Baba Yaga is a paradox, which might be why she's so fascinating and even beloved.
I'm going to quote Andreas Johns who wrote this incredibly thorough book on Baba Yaga.
"It is clear that there could be "no single correct interpretation "or understanding of Baba Yaga."
And there's actually a great freedom in that.
Both for us as we conjure whichever version of Baba Yaga that suits us best, and for the legendary woman and her own powerful potential.
So the trick is to keep me slightly over-caffeinated.
I cannot get over the fact that in the John Wick movies, he's called Baba Yaga, which they translate to "Boogeyman."
No offense to Keanu Reeves, but it (beep) me off.
I would love to be a consultant for John Wick 4, I think they're on now.