|Painting by Ivan Bilibin.|
Nowadays Baba Yaga is usually seen as the old and evil hag who dwells deep in the forest, lives in a hut on a chicken leg, and likes to eat children occasionally. She is a leftover of the pre-Christian world. What she was like before is not easy to tell, as the Slavic folklore was only an oral tradition till the 19th century.
There are many theories about her. Sometimes she is seen as the Great Goddess, or the more terrifying side of the goddess Mokosh. Sometimes she is seen as rival of Mokosh. Another theory sees her as the Slavic Goddess of Death. On the other hand there are academics who are more sceptic when it comes to Baba Yaga's pre-Christian origins.
I personally believe she's really a pagan goddess. And most of all that she was more complex figure before Christianization, because the pre-Christian/pagan understanding of life and death and many other important things is very different from the Christian understanding of these things. This led to flattening of Baba Yaga and turned her into an evil witch, but still some traces of what she used to be remained. For example, she flies around in a mortar, which symbolizes her knowledge of herbs and the fact that she is a healer.
There is also one (more modern) explanation of her connection with death. Usually in the tales a young girl or a boy seek her for a different reason, and the stay with Baba Yaga is complicated, tricky, and often painful, but every-time the young person survives and gets a gift from her. The stay with Baba Yaga is life changing experience where the young person undergoes a symbolic death and becomes an adult.
No matter how is Baba Yaga understood, she is without doubt a fascinating and complex figure who would deserve more attention.
Russian Fairy Tales by Alexander Afanasyev
There are several stories including Baba Yaga in this collection.
Nearly 200 characteristic and colorful traditional folk and fairy tales are brought together in the only comprehensive edition available in English. Of the original 1945 edition, Eudora Welty wrote, "These Russian tales are rambunctious, full-blooded and temperamental. They are tense with action, magical and human, and move in a kind of cyclone of speed....These tales are gorgeous."
Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer, Kinuko Y. Craft (Illustrator)
A retelling of one the most famous Baba Yaga stories with beautiful illustrations.
On the edge of a dark forest, the gentle and beautiful Vasilisa lives with her jealous stepmother and stepsisters. One night the stepmother orders Vasilisa to visit the fearsome witch Baba Yaga, an errand from which the gentle girl has little hope of returning alive. This classic Russian folktale is lavishly illustrated and thrillingly told. Full color.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić
"Baba Yaga is an old hag who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children. She is one of the most pervasive and powerful creatures in all mythology." "But what does she have to do with a writer's journey to Bulgaria in 2007 on behalf of her mother?" "Or with a trio of women who decide in their old age to spend a week together at a hotel spa?" By the end of Dubravka Ugresic's novel, the answers are revealed. Her story is shot through with spellbinding, magic, involving a gambling triumph, sudden death on the golf course, a long-lost grandchild, an invasion of starlings, and wartime flight, the consequences of which are revealed only decades later.
Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale by Andreas Johns
Baba Yaga is a well-known witch from the folklore tradition of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. A fascinating and colorful character, she resembles witches of other traditions but is in many ways unique. Living in the forest in a hut that stands and moves on chicken legs, she travels in a mortar with a pestle and sweeps away her tracks with a broom. In some tales she tries to harm the protagonist, while in others she is helpful. This book investigates the image and ambiguity of Baba Yaga in detail and considers the meanings she has for East Slavic culture. Providing a broad survey of folktales and other sources, it is the most thorough study of Baba Yaga yet published and will be of interest to students of anthropology, comparative literature, folklore, and Slavic and East European studies.