Healer, seer, witch!
Mighty wolf bitch!
Baba Yaga, Bright Dawn!
Baba Yaga, Red Sun!
Baba Yaga, Dark Night!
Baba Yaga, Black Sky Woman,
Keep me safe within your sight.
Keep me on the path of right.
"Now is not the time for fear. Now is the time for courage. Have courage in the face of death. You are never actually far from it."
Thus speaks the Bone Mother of Slavic lore, Baba Yaga. I have been a dedicated public priestess of the Yaga and the energy current She represents since 2007, but She has been a part of my life since I first heard of Her as a child in stories.
In order to really "go deep" with Baba Yaga, it helps to understand the Slavic mindset and the dark humor that are part of our cultural charm :)
Here is a little game I learned as a Polish child. You take a child's hand and draw a circle in the center of the palm during the first part of the recitation, then innumerate the fingers from thumb to pinky, as if counting upon them. On the pinky you lift the whole hand up in a sweeping motion and let go of the pinky with a flourish to finish the game. Meanwhile, you are reciting a little nursery rhyme. The whole thing usually ended with me in fits of giggles. The translation of the game is such:
She puts some porridge in her hand and calls the children to the table. She gives some to this one, and this one and this one and this one, but she doesn't have enough for this one, so he dies and his soul flies up to heaven and eats bread!
The world over, we see folkloric evidence of customs designed to help families cope with their fears of infant and child mortality. We see examples in the naming ceremonies in several cultures where children are called things like "little dog" or "little shit" until they have proven they will survive infancy. We see examples in the the customs designed to keep the faeries from attacking children in their beds, and others of this ilk. From the American mindset, one might read the "game" above and be horrified. Yet I can see this game as a way to destabilize fear of mortality in a culture where poverty, hunger, and untimely death have been a way of life for the underclass and working class for centuries.
The Slavic mindset prizes honor and courage above all, (with Roman or Byzantine Catholic devotion taking an additional priority for many.) To stay honorable and courageous and faithful in times of difficulty demonstrates a mental and emotional discipline that is a part of the nobility of the Slavic people. We see this quiet determination and personal authority in the examples of the Winged Hussars, Marie Curie, and Lech Walesa.
(Note: Please do yourself a favor and click on the Winged Hussars link above. You will find gem-quality sentences like, "These daring, brave, unabashedly-feathered badasses crushed throats up and down Europe for two centuries, annihilating battle-tested armies three times their size with nothing more than a huge-ass lance, an awesome set of ultra-cool wings, and a gym bag full of iron-plated armor ballsacks.")
How does one gain a calm, unflinching strength and sense of personal North in life? By facing fear. It is truly the only way. Even if we are bolstered by all kinds of praise, support, and personal sense of our own power, we cannot avoid experiencing fear. Fear is much more than a conditioned response. It is a hormonal one, a brain-chemical one, unbidden. Everyone experiences it. Only by confronting it can we gain purchase in our personal development of courage. By standing toe-to-toe with our fears, and staying present through and beyond the hormonal response, we learn how strong we actually are.
Thus arrives Baba Yaga.
"Grandmother Bony Legs," is the archetypal witch who lives in the dusky glen and preys upon passersby. She frequently attracts sniveling, fraidy-cat, wanna-be heroes, sending them on wild and woolly journeys to prove their mettle, or challenging them to sample Her sensual pleasures. They often shy away from her gaping maw, milky eyes, and aging, scrawny body that smells of blood and pine. The great irony is that, as the Mother Goddess of Everything, Baba Yaga is AMAZING in the sack, and lusty, and joyful. But because these silly boys don't know any better, they say no. Then they usually die. (STOP. Metaphor check. Baba Yaga says to me: How many times in your life have you denied yourself joy by saying 'no' to something wonderful because of fear? How many times have you regretted not going boldly toward your bliss? Hmph. Well, aren't you a silly little knight! The minute you deny joy, you die within. Why, then, live only on the outside when the inside is dead? That carcass is just taking up space now. Here, [licks her iron chops] let me help you with that.)
Vladimir Propp, Russian folklorist, "links Baba Yaga with the priestly mentors of tribal societies who guided men into adulthood through a process of symbolic death and resurrection." (Russian Myths, Elizabeth Warner) I agree, but would argue that She also presides over the coming-of-age initiations associated with women's Blood Rites such as menstruation and birth. Menstruation involves symbolic confrontation with mortality in light of the visceral presence of life blood. Birth brings the risk of actual death.
These trials of initiation (preparation for war, preparation for birth) represent two shades of a single specific hue. Though divergent in purpose, they are nonetheless commonly known to be experiences that bring one face to face with fear. Similarly, it is held that if one has practiced and prepared to be courageous in the face of fear, one is more likely to survive these trials. Thus, we are rendered stronger each time we suppress a shiver at one of the Yaga's more gruesome tales. It shows mettle to be able to look at Death, humbly but unflinchingly, and with personal authority. That level calm in the face of fear earns you Death's respect. Once you have met this particular opponent, and you fully accept that the date of your duel has already been set, and that Death will win, the two of you can walk in companionable silence and mutual respect. Knowing allies, if you will. Occasionally, Death forgets that today is not the day, and gets hungry, comes at you with iron jaws gnashing. A look, a word, a quick movement, and you reassert yourself among the living. It could be as simple as choosing a different train. Other times, you are brash and devil-may-care, so maybe Death flicks a cigarette butt at you and burns you a little, just so you remember who will prevail. This is what it's like to walk with Baba Yaga. By deepening into a friendship with Her energy over time, you can prepare for a fearless Death. In fact, you can welcome Death, by then, as a friend rather than an adversary.
Have you ever met someone who you were originally repulsed by - maybe for no real reason, but then they grew on you over time? Baba Yaga is kind of like that. Have you ever seen a really gruesome sight? You know you shouldn't look. It will give you nightmares. But you can't help it. You look anyway. Baba Yaga is kind of like that. You know that if you have one more shot of vodka, you will have a terrible day tomorrow. But it's so cold and delicious. You take the shot anyway. Baba Yaga is kind of like that.
In addition to Her fondness for would-be heroes, the Yaga has a special taste for children, stuffing them into her great oven and picking the tender flesh from their broiled bones. (STOP. Metaphor check. Baba Yaga says to me: That whole, 'I eat children,' thing? Actually, I eat ALL OF YOU, young, old, etc. The stories about me eating children actually point to the fact that I am the Great Dark Earth that will one day consume your very bones. From the moment a child is born, his or her days are numbered till we meet in consumptive decay. It's not like I want to eat children more than anyone else, but the metaphor is designed to help people cope with infant mortality and their own mortality. Also, children are frequently featured in my stories because I do the difficult work of disillusioning your inner child. You can't forget me once you've seen me. The moment the child discovers that one day it, too, will die, it begins to die. That is the Wheel of the Mind.)
Dust to dust.
Kenneth Johnson writes, in Slavic Sorcery:
Bone Mother destroys us, then resurrects us, even as the earth from which we have our being is born and resurrected each year. She collects our whitened bones, pours Water of Life and Death upon them, and sings her magic songs. Thus, having died, we return.
(looking up at the sky, whistling, hands behind my back)
But Baba Yaga is not all just sturm unt drang. She also knows the secrets of the forest, which mushrooms to eat, which not to, which mushrooms will help you pray. She knows the plants that heal and the ones that kill. She makes healing waters. She grants wishes. It is said that each wish She grants takes a year off Her life. She then makes a potion from Blue Roses. Lore has it this Blue Roses potion restores life, and serves as an elixir of immortality. In addition to being an Initiator, she is also an Alchemist.
Further symbolism underlying Her alchemical nature includes the mortar and pestle. Baba Yaga rides across the sky in a mortar, steering with the pestle. In Slavic peasant tradition, according to Warner, wedding songs include references to the mortar and pestle insinuating heterosexual intercourse, the source of life. As She rides through the air, she sweeps away Her tracks with a broom behind Her. Thus we see how Death is mounted upon Pleasure, upon that which yields Life, and that any given life is but a single ride through the black night of time. With this perspective, we are invited to stand in awe of the majesty, the vastness of the procession of the Universe and the miracle of our being in it. That perspective renders our individual fears irrelevant. In the grand scope of All Time, how will you spend your small bit? Quaking in a corner or screaming with laughter through the sky? Either way, there will be darkness all around you. That much is a given. From this knowing, Baba Yaga has taught me to chase the comets and fling myself at the New Moon, to love the ride completely, regardless of what is happening to or around me. Finding ways to laugh and rejoice in life when death-like emotions and circumstances have threatened to overwhelm me is the most powerful source of my own courage.
Tantra teaches me this also, but in different ways. That is for other posts.
Baba Yaga also incorporates shamanistic symbols. Her chicken-legged hut is the subject of great curiosity and analysis. I have seen it explained as a typical Siberian reindeer-herder outpost, where a platform is built upon thick tree trunks where tree tops have been removed, with the trunks resembling legs. I have seen it referenced as an allegory for the "zoomorphic tribal initiation huts in which neophytes were symbolically swallowed by the 'monster' in order to be 'regurgitated' later as adults." (Propp) Propp also writes about the idea of chickens being sacrificed at the foundations of houses in Slavic custom as a possible source for the myth. The entrance into the Cave, the night in the haunted house, the portal to the Underworld: Baba Yaga's house is definitely a point of no return. Beyond here there be dragons.
Life is always beckoning you to step through the doorway into the unknown. Having built up your capacity for courage, go ahead and enter Baba Yaga's hut. There can be no wavering in indecision. Either you want to live fully or you want to die. You may not actually know which, sometimes. That is pretty normal. You may want both. Enter the hut of Baba Yaga and find out.
There is so much more to tell! I haven't even covered a fraction of Her myths, symbols, or really any of my personal stories of Her. But we have a long time. I'll come back to all of that. Here is one story, however, that was begging to be told today.