I’ve always found Baba Yaga to be a figure of particular interest. If you think about it, she’s sort of like the witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel, except without the candy house. In fact, she’s so brazen in her villainy that she doesn’t just subsist on a diet of children, she flaunts their bones all over her yard.
Her house is not designed to lure, but children come to her anyway, often due to circumstances beyond their control, (cast out by selfish stepparents seems to be a popular one throughout European folklore). The children find themselves in situations where they have to work for her in order to gain their freedom, and tasks run the gamut from the tedious to the impossible.
Typically, Baba Yaga is pitted against a young girl—often the iconic figure of Vasilisa the Beautiful, who, despite her appellation, is portrayed as resourceful, sensible, and generally fearless.
Here is my favorite illustration of Vasilisa the Beautiful, as depicted by Ivan Bilibin.
In this picture, we see her using one of Baba Yaga’s burning skulls as a lamp, and in the background is the Baba’s cottage, which stands on a single chicken’s foot, behind a fence of bones. The grisly details are really what sets Baba Yaga apart from other European witches. To me, the particulars of these stories just “have that Slavic sensibility,” whatever that may be (although skull-lanterns that burst into flame at dusk definitely suit my preconception).
Last month, I wrote my weekly fiction about Vasilisa and her wise doll, and the way in which Baba Yaga is occasionally depicted as a figure of knowledge and wisdom, imparting great truths. These stories are a notable minority, however. Usually, she just wants to chew on your bones.