§De Senectute Feminarum - invecchiare come donne
Transgressive feminine: The case of Baba Yaga
by Anastasia Pestinova

Vasilisa went on through the night and the next day. Next evening she came to the mead where Bába Yaga’s hut stood. The fence round the hut consisted of human bones, and on the stakes skeletons glared out of their empty eyes. And, instead of the doorways and the gate, there were feet, and in the stead of bolts there were hands, and instead of the lock there was a mouth with sharp teeth […] Vasilísa trembled with fear, but remained standing, for she did not know how she could escape. Suddenly a terrible noise was heard in the forest, and the tree-boughs creaked and the dry leaves crackled. And out of the wood Bába Yagá drove in inside the mortar with the pestle, and with the broom swept away every trace of her steps. At the door she stopped, sniffed all the way round, and cried out:
«Fee, Fo, Fi, Fum, I smell the blood of a Russian mum!’ Who is there?»
(Afanasev, 1916, p. 111-112)

Illustration by Luca Falesiedi

Baba Yaga is a compound and eclectic character belonging to Slavic mythology, that at the same time has a number of analogues in Germanic, Scandinavian, Japanese and other cultures. In the slavic version she appears as a crone living on the edge of the forest in a chicken-legged hut and flying on a wooden mortar with a pestle. This image is transmitted in fairy tales of Alexander Pushkin, Vasily Zhukovsky, Nikolai Nekrasov or Alexander Afanasyev. 

Etymologically, –yaga goes back, on the one hand, to the Indo-European root –angh (narrow, tight) and its derivatives, for example, Proto-Slavic –ega (suffocation, nightmare); on the other hand, it goes back to the Indo-European –ə2ei and its pair –ə2i (possessing vitality, young), appearing in such Greek words as iama (medicine) or iaomai (to heal) (Stepanov, 1997, p. 87-89).  

The etymology immediately points us to Yaga’s duality, to the impossibility of placing her in the coordinates of good and evil. Her image breaks down into Yaga-the-kidnapper and Yaga-the-warrior, that kills, tortures and eats people, and into Yaga-the-donor, that helps travellers who have passed her trials to obtain unprecedented strength and to acquire magical gifts (Stepanov, 1997, p. 87; Propp, 1986, p. 53). Or, referring to another classification (Nikiforov, 1984, p. 49), the image of Yaga is stretched between a spinster, a cannibal and a forest mistress, the aspects that connect her to the Greek goddesses of fate Moira (her blindness also points to this correlation) and to the triple chthonic goddess Hecate (Stepanov, 2001, p. 91-92). We will return further to a detailed analysis of her figure and other relevant intersections, for now it can be outlined that Yaga stays beyond the boundaries of good and evil, in the space where these categories, where all oppositions are being formed, taking their shape.

The forest as a liminal space

In the study “Historical Roots of the Wonder Tale” (1986) philologist and structuralist Vladimir Propp comes to the conclusion that each folk tale plot contains in itself the memory-fragments of initiatory rites, a type of rites of passage, and, accordingly, it reflects the representations of death in their becoming. 

The main hero or protagonist, who occupies central position in the plot, as a rule, is faced with a difficult trial, for example: to find a bride, as in the fairy tale “Tsarevna Frog” (in this case the story reflects a classic wedding rite of bride abduction); to get a fire, as in the fairy tale “Vasilisa the Fair”; or to return back a lost brother, as in the plot “The Magic Swan Geese”, slavic version of “Hansel and Gretel”. The journey in search of the lost leads the hero to the “Faraway Tsardom”, which is nothing but an allegory of the beyond and afterlife. His journey, thus, represents a fairy form expressing the transitional or liminal state (līmen from Latin means threshold or transition), characterised by a high level of uncertainty and anxiety caused by the unknown and change.

States of transition/crisis states/liminal states can be both exogenous (natural disasters, wars, loss of loved ones, migration, birth of a child, graduation or a new job) and endogenous (illness, maturation or ageing). These are periods during which traditional social consensus ceases to function and the individual becomes disorientated in the face of changes (Van Gennep, 1960, p. 3-4). The stages of indeterminacy are both fertile and dangerous as are, for example, revolutions – they mark a new beginning and, at the same time, evoke the primordial chaos. Rites of passage have a scope precisely that to accompany the subject in such periods, when the old paradigm looses its relevance and new meanings have not yet been found. In modern society they persist in the form of funeral and graduation ceremonies, birthday celebrations and gap year traditions.

One of the crucial steps in the hero’s journey takes place in a forest where the most mysterious events happen, just because the forest is not a place to linger in. It is not habitable, cosy or inviting, but instead wild and dangerous. One can remember the forest of the “Divine Comedy”, where the hero finds himself lost after halfway through his earthly life, the forest that reminds a labyrinth in which soul is doomed to roam until it understands something about itself. 

Referring to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Propp (1986, p. 58) concludes that the forest is an entrance to the realm of the dead, a kind of purgatory between the upper and lower worlds, the earthly and the beyond. A vivid proof of such statement is the notorious “Suicide Forest” or Aokigahara, located in the Mount Fuji region of Japan. According to Japanese mythology, the forest is populated by yūrei, the ghosts of those people who have been taken away and left there to die – a story reflected in the famous Japanese novel “The Tale of Narayama” and two films with the same title based on it. The plot appears regularly in various European tales as well (e.g. “Tom Thumb” or “Snow White”). 

According to legends, the trees of Aokigahara are permeated with the spirit of death and affect visitors, attracting those who have decided to die. However, it is difficult to state unequivocally what is primary – the space itself or the state it causes. It is possible to talk rather about the area of intersection between them. Thus, french philosopher Gaston Bachelard (2004, p. 185) underlines the oneiric nature of the forest, its limitlessness, otherness and mystery: the forest is a “psychological transcendent” or a state of mind. 

The borderline character of forest space allows us to call it heterotopia in the sense that Michel Foucault (1984, p. 24) gives to this term. It is a space in which the laws of the familiar world cease to operate and are inverted, distorted as in a mirror. He distinguishes between two kinds of heterotopia: firstly, the crisis heterotopia, commonly spread in primitive societies, and operating as a place (or rather, non-place) for people in crisis states:

In the so-called primitive societies, there is a certain form of heterotopia that I would call crisis heterotopias, i.e., there are privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis: adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, the elderly, etc. […] For example, the boarding school, in its nineteenth-century form, or military service for young men, have certainly played such a role, as the first manifestations of sexual virility were in fact supposed to take place “elsewhere” than at home. For girls, there was, until the middle of the twentieth century, a tradition called the “honeymoon trip” which was an ancestral theme. The young woman’s deflowering could take place “nowhere” and, at the moment of its occurrence the train or honeymoon hotel was indeed the place of this nowhere, this heterotopia without geographical markers.

However, over time, crisis heterotopias are displaced by heterotopias of deviation (Foucault, 1984, p. 25), so that the way to treat death, ageing and other crisis states turn out to be linked to capitalist and even neoliberal ideologies of production and efficiency:

But these heterotopias of crisis are disappearing today and are being replaced, I believe, by what we might call heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed. Cases of this are rest homes and psychiatric hospitals, and of course prisons, and one should perhaps add retirement homes that are, as it were, on the borderline between the heterotopia of crisis and the heterotopia of deviation since, after all, old age is a crisis, but is also a deviation since in our society where leisure is the rule, idleness is a sort of deviation.

The growing fear of crises states and the increased level of control caused by it can be traced back to the history of cemeteries. While until the end of the 18th century they were located in the very centre of the city, from the beginning of the 19th century, due to bourgeois appropriation, the remains began to be seen as a danger. The cemeteries had to be moved outside the city, as far away as possible, separating it from the alien, undeveloped space, in order to protect the city walls. The dead became the one to be kept away from the living, not to remind of mortality and finitude of human existence. 

Based on the above, it may become clearer why Baba Yaga lives in the forest. The way the chicken-legged hut is collocated in it, the way it “acts” (it won’t open its doors without special words) and the series of actions, that a visitor is forced to accomplish entering it, permit to drive the conclusion about its straight connection with burial rites (Propp, 1986, p. 61-62). We can say that if the chicken-legged hut is a sort of a coffin-portal and the forest is cemetery than Yaga herself is a guardian between the worlds, a living dead, as is evidenced also by her bone leg. Representing the fear of the death, she is a barrier that protects the boundary between worlds in order to avoid confusion between the living and the dead. But why exactly does the female character play this role of mediator, in other words why the fear has a woman’s face? Being a barrier or even a membrane brings Yaga closer to what is known in philosophy as khôra and, perhaps, it can provide an answer to our question.

The archaeology of Yaga’s image: between a hybrid and false mother

In ancient Greece, khôra had a clear spatial meaning and referred to the agricultural territories collocated outside the city but within the polis walls. Retaining the spatial connotation and acquiring a more metaphysical one, the term migrates to Plato’s dialogue “Timaeus” (48е-49а), where it becomes a name for the mediator between the eidos and its copy – matter or “receptor”, devoid of any attributes. Matter provides the idea with an opportunity to be embodied and, at the same time, introduces the element of uncertainty, otherness and chaos into the perfection and harmony of the idea, which would remain itself and would not develop without this element. Material space is lack of any form of law, nomination or individuality (Derrida, 1995, p. 89):

Khôra reaches us, and as the name. And when a name comes, it immediately says more than the name: the other of the name and quite simply the other, whose irruption the name announces. This announcement does not yet promise, no more than it threatens. It neither promises nor threatens anyone. It still remains alien to the person, only naming imminence, even only an imminence that is alien to the myth, the time, and the history of every possible promise and threat. 

Philosopher Julia Kristeva (1982, p. 14-15) interprets khôra not only in a structuralist but also in a psychoanalytical way. Adhering to the idea that matter is fluid, non-self-identical and non-objectified, she relates it to the mother’s body and the repressed prohibition of incestuous desire. Mother is not only that which nourishes you, but also the power that can destroy. The maternal figure acquires monstrous features and provokes horror when it reminds the subject about the times when its power was totalising and the subject itself dependent. In psychoanalysis it is described by the concept archaic mother and can explain why Vasilisa addresses Yaga by calling her «mother» (Afanasev, 1916, p. 112). 

The return of the repressed in situations of crisis, borderline states like facing death or breaking taboos provokes abjection, a form of regression, reaction of rejection permeated with disgust. Abject is that which is alien and incomprehensible, which transgresses the boundaries of the pre-established narcissistic order and poses a danger to the subject’s self-identity. It is localised in-between subject and object, in the intermediate zone where the repressed parts of the personality fluctuate – in our case, in the Baba Yaga’s forest hut. In this respect, the link between Yaga’s cruelty, bloodthirstiness on the one hand and her deliberately hypertrophied body and reproductive organs on the other (breasts that hang over the threshold, a huge vulva or a nose so long that it “grows into the ceiling” – a feature that emphasises phallicity), is symptomatic and can be seen as one of the manifestations of abjective femminine. 

Khôra in “Timaeus” is also associated with memory processes, with the recall of the repressed images of the past imprinted in it as in the tabula and constituting for the history of the subject. The image of Yaga, as Propp’s analysis makes clear, unfolds in series of layers, all related to each other but pertaining to the different epochs. The transitions between them and, accordingly, the metamorphoses of collective memory are intertwined with the transformations within the tissue of social relations. Reconstructing the archaeology of Yaga’s image, Propp suggests the following sequence: Yaga as the totem animal, Yaga as the matriarchal deity and Yaga as the witch.

One of the first faces of death is animal, – he affirms (1986, p. 70-71); it explains both the zoomorphism of Baba Yaga’s hut and her bone leg. Since the awareness of mortality and of the corpse as a state of the organism comes rather late, the bone leg is a consequence of Yaga’s anthropomorphisation, her transformation from animal to mortal. 

On the next step stays Yaga as a matriarchal deity, a forest mistress and ruler of beasts. At the same time, despite the fact that Yaga’s appearance is emphatically and even grotesquely feminine, she knows no marriage life and has no children. Moreover, if one turns to the curious Hungarian version of Yaga, vasorrú bába, that is translated as iron-nosed midwife, one will encounter an imaginary that is directly opposed to the idea of motherhood. The imaginary that refers to midwives that performed illegal abortions and, consequently, were perceived as malicious creatures that steal or even eat children.

«Baba», in its turn, is a disparaging synonym for woman and indicates the existence of a male character related to Yaga (Stepanov, 2001, p. 87). Propp agrees with such assertion, but with a reservation that the matriarchal content of Yaga’s image precedes the patriarchal one, since patriarchy is historical and matriarchy is prehistorical. The seeming contradiction that Yaga possesses the signs of gender but does not live the life of gender, that she is fertile but not in the reproductive sense, is explained by the changes that have occurred to the position of women in society (Propp, 1989, p. 76): «Yaga represents the stage when fertility was thought through a woman without the participation of men […] But, let us ask ourselves, where is motherhood here? We must recognise here the traces of extremely ancient social relations. The mother is at the same time the ruler. With the fall of matriarchy, the woman is deprived of power, only motherhood remains as one of the social functions. But with the woman – the mother-authority – in the myth the case is different: she loses motherhood, retains only the attributes of motherhood and power over animals, as the whole life of the hunter depends on the animal, she retains power over the life and death of man».

As can be seen, the myth offers an inversion of social relations and preserves the memory of the period when the power of woman was not limited to reproductive function and the ancestry went through the female line. This is also evidenced by the motif that appears in a number of fairy plots in which is frequently mentioned the cognation between Yaga and the hero’s wife. It refers to the times when the marriage rite and initiation were conducted by the wife’s relatives, not the husband’s. 

The further transformation of Yaga from matriarchal goddess and mistress of beasts into a wicked witch was conditioned by several parallel processes: by the passage from the matriarchal to patriarchal order and by profanation of the initiatory contents of myth. 

To shed light on the first transition it is worth addressing the thought of Luce Irigaray, who in number of works (2007; 1989) analyses how the patriarchal order, or, in other words, the father’s order, originates and is maintained through symbolic matricide. More precisely, it originates in the transition from matrilineal to patrilineal social organisation, in the separation of the daughter from the mother and the maternal lineage. This process is reflected in a number of myths: about Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who was given in marriage to Hades by Zeus against her will and forcibly severed from her mother (1989, p. 122); or Orestes, who killed his mother Clytemnestra but was acquitted by the court of Athena, the daughter of Zeus (2007, p. 21-22). The formation of subjectivity with an advent of androcracy goes through the repression of the maternal figure, its removal into the shadows and subsequent demonisation. 

The second reason of such demonisation, correlated with the first, lies is the profanation of the myth, when it looses its initiatory dimension and formerly sacred actions are interpreted in a negative way. If the ritual order assumes that the initiate has to worship a deity in order to unveil the mysteries of his destiny, in the fairy tale we observe the hero that defeats or deceives Yaga, killing her and obtaining the strength through this conquest. The trope, that can explain an increase interest of variety of researches in Baba Yaga’s figure, interpreting it as mother nature and approaching it with ecofeminist or anarcho-feminist lenses (Lozinsky, 2023; Tokareva, 2020). 

The legacy of Yaga today

In the light of the above, how can be understood the mission that fairy tales about Yaga might perform nowadays? One of the contemporary receptions of her image appears in the novel of Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić (2010), which raises a number of issues in humanistic gerontology such as ageing in the key of gender difference, ageism and prejudices about ageing or the influence of the ideology of consumerism on the perception of the bodies. The stories of older women and their ways of self-representation are intertwined and enter into dialogue with Baba Yaga’s myths in such a way that the former are read through the latter (Marija Geiger Zeman and Zdenko Zeman, 2014, p. 229).

It is precisely because of their unrealized and/or problematic motherhood that all three heroines deviate from the traditionally adopted norms of femininity so that, in a way, they enter the territory of the “dissident” Baba Yaga. They all have complex relations with their families, partners and mothers, permeated by guilt, anger and misunderstandings. 

Croatian researchers formulate Baba Yaga’s manifesto (2014, p. 243), in which, referring to the novel, they reveal the revolutionary and emancipatory potential of Yaga’s character. Her “dissidence” lies in the fact that she does not fit into the standards of beauty and does not satisfy the behaviour expectations shaped by capitalist patriarchal society, she can hardly be encoded or defined. The image of the witch is denounced as being constructed by a confusion between aesthetic and moral categories, thus reproducing the stereotype connection between ugliness and malevolence. On the contrary, the negative characters like witches, evil queens or stepmothers have the potentiality to remind about the part of the identity that the symbolic order systematically displaces. Monstrosity is revealed as the other face of the autonomy which in its turn is a non-conformity with recognizable gender standards.

In this way, the reader, like Critias in “Timaeus”, is invited to recall the forgotten memories by deciphering the traces that have been imprinted in collective memory in the form of fairy tales; and Baba Yaga could be the guide in this journey. Her being a psychopomp permits her to transit between two worlds, setting off transmutations and reconciling subject with the repressed parts of the self – the process as horrific as it is transformative.

Reference list

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Anastasia Pestinova holds master degree in philosophical sciences and is graduated within University of Verona. Her interests could be united under the title «non-essentialist metaphysics». The category that encompasses variety of interdisciplinary approaches that question nature and naturalness as a predetermined, revealing the contingency of both scientific and social laws.