Children in schools this week kept asking for Halloween stories. I read them a couple of first drafts from The Ghosts Who Danced, my next anthology for Frances Lincoln. As there were a lot of Polish kids, I also told them some stories about Baba Yaga, who must rank as the number 1 scariest witch in folklore.
Baba Yaga is very popular in Eastern Europe and there are regional variations to her name. She’s called Jezibaba in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Ukranian children know her as Baba Jaha, while in Slovenia she goes by the name of Yaga Baba.
Like most witches in folklore, Baba Yaga lives in the deepest, darkest – and the most dangerous – part of the forest. In Poland, she flies on a broomstick like her Western European counterparts. In all other countries she is said to travel in a giant flying mortar, which she guides with a wooden pestle. She also has a broom, made of birch twigs, which she uses to brush away her footprints if she needs to walk on dusty ground.
In Russian folklore, her teeth are made of iron. Her nose is so long, it scrapes the ceiling when she is lying on her mattress. Baba Yaga does not have a bed. Her mattress is spread out on the oven for warmth.
Her house is the stuff of nightmares. A square log cabin, it can stand up and chase you on enormous chicken legs. The number of legs varies in different stories. In some there is only one, in others two or even four. Some tales state that the house keeps turning round and round at a dizzying speed until a spell is chanted. In some stories, there is no door. Baba Yaga enters via the chimney, parking the mortar on the roof. Sometimes the front door is at the back. To enter, one has to chant:
Turn your front
Turn your front
To the forest
Turn your back
Turn your back
Round to me.
Only, when the house turns, the visitor will find the keyhole is a gaping mouth full of snapping, pointed teeth. The windows are glaring eyes.
Baba Yaga not only has a cat as a familiar, she also owns a dog. In the tale Vasilissa The Beautiful, she enchants a flock of geese who seek food and shelter in her garden. Early tales feature three knights on horseback who do the witch’s bidding. They are the Red Knight, the Black Knight and the White Knight, representing the dawn, the night and the morning. Baba Yaga’s main helpers are three pairs of invisible hands that live in the cottage. She can also seek the help of an infamous magician called Kaschei the Deathless, or call on two sisters who live far away.
But Baba Yaga is not always portrayed as wicked. Sometimes, when she is saddened by the fact that she is alone and childless, she helps lost people with their quests. She rewards those who seek her out for advice by revealing the whereabouts of treasure. And she is powerless against visitors who are brave and honest.
Like all witches, Baba Yaga has a fatal flaw. Every time she is tricked into answering a question, she loses one year of her life. She can only reverse the curse by drinking tea made from the petals of rare blue roses. All you have to do destroy Baba Yaga is to keep firing questions at her before she can make that magical cuppa….
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