I haven’t written about it in a while, but longtime readers of the blog may remember that I have a devotional relationship with Baba Yaga. This is, nominally at least, part of my practice of Slavic polytheism, but in many ways it’s its own sort of thing. I hadn’t really anticipated forming this relationship, and frankly I would discourage others from doing the same,* but it’s been rewarding and challenging in all kinds of unexpected ways.
There is, however, one theological point that I keep circling back to, and that I want to explore today: Baba Yaga is not exactly a deity.
She’s an old spirit from East Slavic folklore, and there’s no doubt that she factors into Slavic mythology more broadly. But there’s really no evidence that she was ever worshipped as a Goddess. This is a tricky point, of course; there’s no first-hand written record of pre-Christian Slavic beliefs, and much of the native religion was suppressed or diluted by Christian missionaries who arrived in the Middle Ages. Certainly we know that some Slavic deities got syncretized with Orthodox saints, and arguments have been made for other folkloric figures being the fragmented survival of pre-Christian Gods. For example, I venerate Yarilo, a seasonal vegetation figure celebrated in springtime festivals and somewhat akin to England’s Jack o’ the Green. There’s some evidence for him being a God, but it’s equally plausible that—just like Jack—he’s nothing more than an excuse to have a party when spring rolls around, and that no one ever really worshipped him. People attempting to reconstruct a Pagan past have a habit of over-interpreting and finding Gods where there aren’t any.
In a similar vein, some people have argued that Baba Yaga as she exists in folklore is the survival of an ancient Pagan Goddess. I’ve seen Pagans variously hypothesize that she’s a Goddess of puberty, of witchcraft, of the moon, or of death. And who knows? They might be right. But there’s really not much in the way of evidence for these claims. Looking at the stories about Baba Yaga, there’s no indication that she was worshipped, or prayed to. She’s not described as much of a Goddess; she’s a cannibalistic hermit witch who lives in the woods.
Again, this is complicated territory. The same thing could be said of the figures in the Mabinogion or the Cattle Raid of Cooley: They’re just legendary figures going on adventures, and there’s no textual description of them being worshipped as Gods. We’ve all sort of decided post hoc (for what I vaguely assume are good archaeological reasons, but for all I know may not be) that these texts tell us about Pagan Welsh and Irish religion. The people who view Baba Yaga as a Goddess have a similar mentality: The major figures in folklore, as it comes to us filtered through the Christian tradition, are likely the toned-down deities of a Pagan past.#
I gotta say, though, I’m not satisfied with this approach. It feels inflationary. I can’t help thinking about the late 19th-century shenanigans of the Folklore Society in the United Kingdom, and how every nursery rhyme, superstition, or holiday was assumed to be of ancient Pagan provenance. Not everything has to be a God, and I don’t see a clear reason (as evidenced in the skazki where Baba Yaga appears) to think of her as a Goddess.
And yet I worship her. I make offerings of vodka and chicken bones, per an agreement (or rather, a command) made years ago. I keep her image in my home. I wear a garish skull ring that draws lots of uncomfortable questions. I am engaged in ongoing acts of devotion to this strange figure from Russian folklore.
So if she’s not a Goddess, what is she? And why do I worship her?
To be honest, I don’t have a great answer to this. I think she’s a spirit of some kind, to be sure, just not necessarily a Goddess.$ In many ways, I think she’s beyond the Gods, older and bigger and greater than all of them. At one point, a couple of years ago, I had a vision& of the heat-death of the universe. I saw galaxies collapsing, stars dying, and matter disintegrating. And the very last thing remaining in the universe, before all of existence blinked out—outliving even the Gods themselves—was Baba Yaga’s hut on its chicken legs. I don’t know exactly what Baba Yaga is, but whatever she is, that is a part of it.
[What follows is my own personal take. It’s not supported by texts of archaeological evidence. It’s what many people call unverified personal gnosis, or what certain polytheist communities have taken to calling doxa. That is to say, it’s a feely feeling I have, which informs my devotional practice, but which should not be taken as authoritative or applying to anyone but myself.]
My current best hypothesis, the thing I sort of tell myself so I can get my brain around what I’m doing, is that Baba Yaga is the embodiment of some cosmic principle to which even the Gods themselves are subject. The best analogy I can find is in Norse mythology: In the Prose Edda, Thor and Loki visit the kingdom of the giant Utgarda-Loki (confusingly named, but not that Loki). Utgarda-Loki sets a series of challenges for Thor, all of which Thor fails—only to discover that the challenges were rigged and no one could have succeeded at them, but that he performed heroically and was far more successful than anyone should have been. In one of these challenges, Thor has to wrestle Utgarda-Loki’s frail, elderly nurse. She defeats him, and he is humiliated to have been bested in combat by a weak old woman, until it is revealed that she’s not just an old woman. Elli is old age itself, which makes all men—even the mightiest of the Gods—feeble, and which none can defeat.
That, to me, is the sort of thing that Baba Yaga is. I don’t know if she’s an exact analogue to Elli (to the best of my knowledge, Elli is nowhere near as cannibalistic), but I see a similar principle in her. She is the embodiment of something powerful and ancient, even beyond the Gods.
Looking at the folklore, Baba Yaga is consistently associated with coming-of-age stories. Most of those stories fall into one of two categories: children maturing into puberty, or young men reaching the age of marriage and finding wives. (This is why some people have asserted, totally stupidly and baselessly, that fairy tales involving Baba Yaga are a mythologized version of an ancient Pagan puberty rite. Allow me to state, again, that this claim is stupid and baseless, because there is no archaeological evidence of any such thing. Fight me.) She is also consistently depicted, in the most exaggerated way possible, as old. Like, super old. How-can-anyone-possibly-be-that-old levels of it. Age is one of her defining features.
But there’s another dimension to her, as well. She’s capricious and menacing. Sometimes she’ll help the intrepid hero of a story, but she’s just as likely to try to kill and eat him. Sometimes she’ll bestow a boon (as in the story of Finist the Bright Falcon); other times, she’ll set an impossible task and overburden the hero in a way that can only be solved through supernatural intervention (as in the story of Vasilisa the Beautiful). The hero of a story never knows how to approach her, because she is unpredictable and unreliable. She’ll say one thing, then change her mind in the next moment. She can be helpful, but she’s just as likely to try to devour you. More often than not, the hero will have to outwit and trick her, because her beneficence cannot be relied upon in its own right.
All of this makes me think about fate. Not fate in a romanticized “I am destined for great things” way, although that’s certainly a part of it (as in the tale of Marya Morevna). Nor is it fate in the Neopagan “The Lady is the spinner of the wheel of destiny” way, although once again, that may be part of it. No, it makes me think of fate in the good, old-fashioned, “Fate will FUCK YOU UP” way.
My friend Carmen once described the Moirai of classical mythology as “old lady gangbangers,” and honestly, that’s the best description of them I’ve ever heard. Fate in the ancient world was a scary thing. Life was unpredictable and often short. Illness presented a serious threat, and an infected cut could spell your death. Fate sometimes brought good things as well, but it could never be relied upon. It was something to be hoped for, respected—and feared. In his charming little book Answer to Job, Carl Jung writes that dispassionate fate was one of the great fears of classical religion.@ Fate was a menacing, fearful figure, precisely because it couldn’t be propitiated and its boons could never be relied on. Fate was to be approached carefully and respectfully, its gifts were to be accepted without asking too many questions, and its malice was always to be anticipated, even if it never came.
This, to me, is the essence of who Baba Yaga is. I see her as the embodiment of two principles that are beyond even the Gods: She is age and she is fate, embodied. Together, these features make her the complicated, morally ambiguous, frightening figure she is.
I see my devotional relationship with Baba Yaga as a matter of humbling myself before these two incredible, powerful forces. When I make offerings to her, or wear my ugly-ass skull ring, I am maintaining a consciousness of the role that she (as fate and as the inexorable passage of time) plays, both in my life and in the world at large. My relationship with her is not one of love or trust, because you can’t trust fate. But it’s one of respect and honor.
As a final note, because I feel this post would be incomplete without it, it’s worth mentioning that ancient Slavs did have a documented conception of fate, and it wasn’t what I’ve outlined above. Fate (dola) was spun out by the Rozhanitsy, and given to each person at their birth. Dola was intimately tied up with personal character; the fate bestowed upon you at birth was less about the external events that would happen to you, and more about the person you would become. This is very different from the perspective on fate that I’ve given here, both in its flavor and in the connection I’ve drawn to Baba Yaga—so I want to emphasize once again that the Baba-Yaga-as-fate thing is purely my invention/interpretation, and is not rooted in historical or archaeological fact. It’s just how I have come to approach and understand her, and how I process the devotional relationship I’ve built with her; I am not claiming that Baba Yaga was perceived as the embodiment of fate or of old age in the ancient Slavic world. If you want to read more about dola and the historically documented Slavic conception of fate, I recommend this excellent blog post.
*Largely on account of Baba Yaga’s reputation for eating people.
#To these people, then, I ask: What of the bylini? Is Sadko an ancient Slavic God of music? Is Ilya Muromets a God of war? Is Nightingale the Robber a thief God? Why do people decide that Baba Yaga must be a Goddess, but ignore all the various figures from Russian epic poetry? To be clear, I don’t think that any of these bylini heroes are deities; I’m just pointing out that it seems arbitrary to pick some folkloric figures and not others, if that’s the standard by which we’re determining who counts as a God.
$Of course, this raises all kinds of complicated questions about the taxonomy of spirits, and what exactly constitutes a deity, but we’re going to skip over all that for the time being.
&Ugh, I hate that word, but unfortunately there’s nothing better. I had a vivid visual experience, which inspired me with a feeling of divine connection and led me to form certain beliefs that continue to inform my religious practice.
@He then goes on to say that this was the great flaw of ancient religion, which Christianity resolved, but we’ll ignore that part here. I’m too lazy to chase a citation. It’s a short book; go read it and then come back here and comment to let me know how I’ve misremembered it.