Back in August, I began a devotional relationship with Baba Yaga. As a rule, this is something I don’t recommend to others. Baba Yaga doesn’t like people, and she especially does not like men. If you’re a woman, your chances of surviving an encounter with her are about 1 in 3. As a man, those odds drop to something like 1 in 9.* If you approach Baba Yaga, she will try to kill you and eat you. Seriously, don’t do it. I know Dark Goddess Worship™ is super sexy, but don’t fuck around with Baba Yaga if you have any other choice. I avoided working with her for a very long time, and I only started because she showed up and demanded my worship. (When Baba Yaga says “You will serve me,” the only correct answer is, “Yes, grandmother.”)
In the months since I began this devotional relationship, a lot has happened, most of it of an intimate, not-to-be-shared nature. Working with Baba Yaga has been incredibly challenging. She is a hermit who turns away from society and believes there’s no point in working to make the world a better place. This is greatly at odds with the sort of moral character I try to cultivate in myself, the way I try to care even when it seems like the best thing to do is to give up. Baba Yaga, as far as I can tell, doesn’t care much about justice. Everybody dies in the end, and Baba Yaga lives on; all the things we care about are small and insignificant to her. She simply does not care, and as a person who tries not to live that way, I’ve found worshipping her is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow.
But worshipping Baba Yaga has also been profound. Back in January, I had a dream where I confronted her, asking why she deserved my devotion. She replied:
You ask why you should worship me? Why should I tell you! I do not justify myself to nagging little boys. You do not need to love me or trust me. Tak, you would be a fool to trust me. But you will respect me. I am finality. I am at the end of all things. These other gods, little gods, all make themselves seem so great. ‘I am Alpha and Omega.’ Bah! They are still part of the alphabet. I am silence. I am the thing that is when the alphabet is gone. This, you will learn from me. You will learn the way of silence, real silence. Silence was here before all things and will be here long after them. This is your way, old one.
[When she spoke to me, she left out all the articles, but I’ve added them back in because the paragraph reads like a caricature without them. What I’m trying to convey here is the sense of spiritual wonder, and I don’t want the Boris-and-Natasha speech pattern to obfuscate that.]
There’s a picture in my mind of the heat-death of the universe: Planets and nebulae and galaxies being torn apart as the fabric of reality unravels. And sitting right in the center of it, the last thing before the entire universe blinks out of existence, is Baba Yaga’s hut standing on chicken legs.
She’s such a fascinating, complex, disturbing figure. I still don’t know how my worship of Baba Yaga squares with my Wiccan practice; there’s a tension between her and the Wiccan Goddess, and I’m still exploring what that tension means to me.
But anyway! Enough of that. Time for some folklore. The original intention of this post, before I got sidetracked with personal reflection, was a bit of humor about the various skazki (folk tales) featuring Baba Yaga. One thing I’ve done as part of my devotion to her is to read a great deal of Russian folklore, and some amusing themes jumped out at me. These tales are frightening, unsettling, and all vaguely initiatory, but they’re also hilarious and wacky in incredibly specific ways. So, in case you ever find yourself face-to-face with folklore’s meanest witch, here are ten tips for how to survive.
- Don’t get in the oven. Seriously, you’re in the home of a cannibalistic witch, why would you even consider getting in the oven? If she asks you to do so, play dumb. Tell her you don’t know how, and ask her to show you what to do. Then, push her in and make a run for it.
- Give butter to the cat. Just trust me on this one.
- Steal her comb and her handkerchief. During your inevitable flight from Baba Yaga’s hut, you can make use of magical items you’ve stolen from her. Throw the handkerchief behind you, and it will turn into an ocean she must drain before she can proceed. Throw the comb, and it will turn into a forest she has to chop down. Plus, if you take these things from her, you’ll have done serious damage to her hairdo.
- Make friends with the bees. When you stay with her, Baba Yaga will likely set you a series of chores around the house, ranging from herding horses to sorting grain. These tasks are nigh impossible to accomplish without supernatural assistance, so make sure you’re friendly with a hive of bees, a flock of birds, or a magical doll containing the ghost of your dead mother.
- Make her feel like a bad host. There’s a formula that opens just about every encounter with Baba Yaga. The hero of the tale comes upon a chicken-legged hut in the woods—but it’s facing the wrong way. So he says, “Little hut, little hut, stand with your back to the forest, your front to me!” And then the hut hops up on its legs and turns around so the hero can enter. Subsequently, Baba Yaga comes out, remarks on how the hero smells, and asks him, “Are you doing a deed or fleeing a deed?” Importantly, when she asks you this question, do not give her a straight answer. Instead, chastise her for being a bad hostess; tell her that she should be offering you food and vodka rather than poking her nose into your business. I have no idea why this doesn’t get people immediately killed, but apparently it’s the right way to handle the situation.
- Do some free labor for a local farmer. You’ll need to hide in his fruit trees later. Girls who meet a farmer on their way to Baba Yaga’s hut, but who refuse to do chores for him without compensation, always get caught and eaten by Baba Yaga because they have nowhere to hide.
- Pour tar in her eyes to blind her. I feel like the efficacy of this one is unquestionable, although you have to figure out the logistics. If you’re lucky, she’ll lie down, close her eyes, and ask you to comb through her hair looking for lice.
- Don’t interrupt her spoon-counting routine. Baba Yaga likes to break into people’s houses and count their spoons. When she does this, just leave her in peace. She’s an old lady with a couple of extraordinarily specific eccentricities. Who are you to judge?
- Seduce her granddaughter. A popular alternative to this one is to push the granddaughter into the oven. Rule of thumb: If you have the opportunity to push someone into the oven, you should take it.
- Remind her that men are trash. By far the highest incidence of survival among Baba Yaga encounters is for women who have gone looking for a missing male family member. So when you roll up to Chez Yaga, just explain that you’ve had to go questing because your irresponsible piece-of-crap husband/brother/father/son has either been kidnapped or run away from home. She might even give you a totally useful magic spindle (or better yet, a magic dinner plate!) to help with the search.
And with that, dear reader, you are as prepared as you’ll ever be to meet the fabled Russian witch. I sincerely hope you’ll never have to use this ancient mystical knowledge.
*These are not exact numbers. I have conducted no study. I’m just trying to give you a sense of the proportion here.