Saturday, February 6, 2010

Baba Yaga

The first folktale that I have chosen to bring to you is the story of Baba Yaga. In Slavic languages, "Baba" means "grandmother" and is often used to refer to elderly women. "Yaga," however, is a bit harder to put an exact translation on and is considered to be derived from any of several languages and can mean anything from "lazybones" to "pain."

Regardless, Baba Yaga is considered to be an elderly witch who most often causes more trouble than she provides aid. According to Katya Arnold, illustrator and re-teller of the Baba Yaga tale, "Baba Yage is one of the most important figures in Russian folklore. She appears, in one form or another, in hundreds of folktlaes. Sometimes she is the fearsome witch, as in this story, but sometimes she is kind and even helpful. She is so familiar to Russian children that she's almost a member of the family - like an elderly aunt who is either mean or nice, depending on her mood" (Arnold).

The picture to the right is an illustration of Baba Yaga drawn by Russian artist Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin that is in the public domain in Russia. It depicts her riding a mortar with the companion pestle as her rudder or oar to steer her through the air. Other versions of the story have her riding a broom that sweeps away evidence of her trail across the sky.

This particular retelling traces the story of Tishka, a young boy who is tricked by Baba Yaga into coming home with her. Traditionally, Baba Yaga lives in a hut perched upon chicken legs. In Tishka's story, Baba Yaga plans on eating him, but leaves her daughter in charge of cooking him. Tishka refuses to get into the oven, and asks the daughter to show him how to climb on the spatula. When she shows him, Tishka pushes her into the oven and cooks her as he runs away. Baba Yaga returns and unknowingly eats her own daughter. Tishka has hidden himself in a tree outside the hut, but is in major trouble when Baba Yaga comes outside with an ax, furious with Tishka for tricking her. Tishka is ultimately saved by an ugly gosling by promising the goose all the food he can eat when he returns Tishka safely home. The story ends with the goose becoming the most admired gosling around, and Tishka and his family living happily ever after.

The tale of Baba Yaga shows that good deeds never go unnoticed, and that wit, no matter what a person's age, is something to be admired. Tishka used his cleverness to escape, but he had a little luck to help him secure his ultimate freedom. The gosling was an unlikely hero since he was the scrawniest goose in the land, but he paused in his flight to save the young boy and was rewarded for his kindness. This story shows that Russians value kindness and cleverness, two qualities that would be instilled from childhood through stories like Baba Yaga.

Arnold, Katya. Baba Yaga: A Russian Folktale Retold and Illustrated. New York: North-South Books, 1993. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Its a great story & universal theme, like Hindu karma for example. Interesting- in historical Jewish-American tradition, grandmothers have been known as "bubby" - which I'm guessing dates to the Russian origins of many American Jews, re: "Baba."