In fact, the origins of Baba Yaga might go back far further than the 17th Century — there’s a school of scholarly thought that says she’s a Slavic analogue of the Greek deity Persephone, goddess of spring and nature. She’s certainly associated with the woods and forests, and the wildness of nature. “The essence of Baba Yaga exists in many cultures and many stories, and symbolises the unpredictable and untameable nature of the female spirit, of Mother Earth, and the relationship of women to the wild,” says Ryan.
What lifts Baba Yaga above the usual two-dimensional witches of folklore is her duality, sometimes as an almost-heroine, sometimes as a villain, and her rich, earthy evocation of womanhood. “Baba Yaga still remains one of the most ambiguous, cunning, and clever women of folklore,” says Ryan. “[She] commands fear and respect, and simultaneously awe and desire. I admire her carelessness and her independence, even her cruelty, and in a world where women are so often reduced to hazy blurs of inconsequence, she is a figure that reminds us that we are ferocious and untameable, and that such freedoms often come at a cost.”
In fact, she’s something of a proto-feminist icon. “Absolutely she is,” says Yi Izzy Yu, one of the authors who has contributed a story to Into the Forest. One of the ways in which she merits such a description is that she completely upends the nurturing mother stereotype applied to women by eating children rather than pushing them out or breastfeeding them. “She’s powerful despite not being attractive in a conventional sense. She lives by her own magical terms rather than mundane rules,” says Izzy. “And she challenges conceptual categories at every turn. Even her home is both house and chicken, making her, yes, housebound in a sense, but not in any way ‘tied down’. In this [way], I guess, she is an early motorhome gypsy.”
A true outlaw
Izzy likens Baba Yaga to trickster characters from many mythologies, such as Norse god of mischief Loki or Coyote from Native American folklore. “While Baba Yaga often plays a villain, she is also likely to offer assistance. For example, in Vasilisa the Beautiful, she helps free Vasilisa from the clutches of her evil stepfamily,” she says. “And while Baba’s dangerous to deal with, like many of those who operate on the shadowy side of the law in contemporary movies, she can as well prove herself invaluable in dangerous circumstances.
“In this way, Baba Yaga complicates the passive female nurturing role with a type of ‘I’ll do whatever the heck I want’ outlaw power that you ordinarily only see associated with men. You could say then that Baba Yaga crosses the wicked witch trope with the fairy godmother trope to create an ultimately far more unpredictable and powerful role than either of those.”
Izzy was born and grew up in Northern China, and as a great deal of Russian literature was translated into Chinese, Baba Yaga crossed the border and into the Chinese psyche. “My first exposure to Baba Yaga was a Chinese cartoon I saw when I was very young. I remember this cartoon because I told my grandmother that Baba Yaga looked exactly like my Big Uncle. This made her laugh. Big Uncle did not laugh,” says Izzy.