Russian Folklore: Baba Yaga as a Symbol of Mother Nature

Baba Yaga
Statuette of the evil witch. In Russian folk tales - Baba Yaga.

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Russian folklore plays an important role in contemporary Russian culture. Children learn folktales from a very early age and are taught folk sayings and proverbs, songs, and myths. While the most well-known manifestations of Russian folklore are folktales, there are many others, including Russian myths (bylina), the short funny songs called the chastushka, and various riddles, fantastical stories (nebylitsa), sayings, lullabies, and many more.

Key Takeaways: Russian Folklore

  • Russian folklore comes from the Slavic pagan tradition.
  • Main themes of Russian folklore include the journey of the hero, the triumph of kindness and humble attitude over the clergy's arrogance, and the dual nature of Baba Yaga, who initially symbolized Mother Nature but was depicted by Christians as a scary creature.
  • Main characters of Russian folktales are Baba Yaga, Ivan The Fool or Ivan The Tsarevich, the Bogatyrs, and the Hero, as well as various animals.

Origins of Russian Folklore

Russian folklore has its roots in the Slavic pagan traditions. Long before Russia adopted Christianity in the 10th century, folk tales, songs and rituals existed as an established art form. Once Christianity became the official religion in Russia, the clergy did all it could to suppress folklore, worried that it was too pagan at its core.

As the members of the clergy were often the only people who knew how to read and write, there was no official collection of folklore until the 19th century. Until then, only haphazard collections were made in the 17th and 18th centuries by foreign enthusiasts interested in Russian culture. In the 19th century, an explosion of interest in folklore resulted in several collections. However, the oral lore underwent significant editorial changes as it was being written down, and often reflects ideas that were prevalent in the 19th century.

Themes and Characters of Russian Folklore

The Hero

The most common theme of Russian folktales is that of a hero who most often came from the peasant social class. This reflects the fact that folklore originated among the peasants and described themes and characters that were important to the common people. The hero was usually humble and clever and was rewarded for his kindness, while his opponents, usually of higher social standing, were often portrayed as greedy, stupid, and cruel. However, whenever the Tsar appeared in a tale, he was most of the time presented as a fair and just father figure who recognized the true value of the hero and rewarded him accordingly. This is an important point in Russian folklore, as it has remained a big part of the Russian psyche in the modern times. Failings of various officials are often blamed on their greed and stupidity, while the current ruler is considered to be unaware of what is going on.

Russian fairy tales
Open book illustration russian fairy tale. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Ivan the Fool

Ivan is most of the time the third son of a peasant. He is considered to be lazy and foolish and spends all his time lying on the house stove until something forces him to go on a journey and fulfill the role of the hero. Although others think of Ivan as unintelligent, he is also very kind, humble, and lucky. As he goes through the forest, he usually meets characters whom he helps, unlike his two older brothers who have been on the same journey and failed. As a reward, the characters that he helps end up helping him, as they turn out to be powerful creatures such as Baba Yaga, Koschei the Immortal or the Vodyanoy. Ivan can also appear as Tsarevich Ivan, also the third son, who is often lost as a baby and doesn't know about his royal blood, as he is brought up as a peasant. Alternatively, Ivan Tsarevich is sometimes seen as the third son of the tsar, treated badly by his elder brothers. Whatever Ivan's background, it always involves the role of the underdog who proves everyone wrong with his wit, enterprising qualities, and kindness.

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga is the most popular and complex character in Russian folktales and traces its origins to the ancient Slavic goddess who was the link between life and death, or our world and the underworld. There are many versions of the origins of her name, including one that links Yaga to the verb "yagatj" meaning "to be cross, to tell someone off," and others that connect the name Yaga to several languages with meanings such as "snake-like," "ancestral," and "forest-dweller." Whatever the origin of the name, it has come to be associated with a crone-like character who sometimes catches and sacrifices children and is unpredictable in her behavior.

However, this association is far from the original meaning bestowed on Baba Yaga, which was of nature, motherhood, and the underworld. In fact, Baba Yaga was the most beloved character in Russian folklore and represented the matriarchal society where it originated. Her unpredictable nature was a reflection of the people's relationship with the Earth when the weather could affect crops and harvest. Her blood-thirstiness comes from the sacrificial rituals of the ancient Slavs, and the nastiness attributed to Baba Yaga is due to the way the clergy liked to portray her in order to suppress pagan Slavic values that remained popular with the common people despite Christianity being an official religion.

You will come across Baba Yaga in most Russian folktales. She lives in a forest—a symbol of the crossing from life to death in Slavic lore—in a hut that rests on two chicken legs. Yaga likes to catch travelers and make them do "the kitchen work," but she also welcomes travelers with food and drink, and if they answer her riddles correctly or display humble behavior, Yaga can become their biggest helper.

The Bogatyrs

Bogatyrs
Bogatyrs (1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov. Bogatyrs (left to right): Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, Alyosha Popovich. Oil on canvas. Viktor Vasnetsov / Public Domain

The Bogatyrs are similar to the Western knights and are the main characters in Russian byliny (былины)—myth-like stories of battles and challenges. Stories about the bogatyrs can be divided into two periods: pre- and post-Christianity. Pre-Christianity bogatyrs were mythological knight-like strongmen such as Svyatogor—a giant whose weight is so great that even his mother, the Earth, cannot bear it. Mikula Selyaninovich is a super strong peasant who cannot be beaten, and Volga Svyatoslavich is a bogatyr who can take any form and understand animals.

Post-Christianity bogatyrs include Ilya Muromets, who spent the first 33 years of his life paralyzed, Alyosha Popovich, and Dobrynya Nikitich.

Popular Russian Folktales

Tsarevich Ivan and the Grey Wolf

This is a magical folktale—one of the most popular folktale types—and tells the story of the youngest son of a tsar. When the Firebird begins to steal golden apples from the Tsar's garden, the Tsar's three sons set off to catch it. Ivan befriends a talking wolf who helps him find the Firebird and free Elena the Beautiful in the process.

The Hen Ryaba

Perhaps the most well-known Russian folk tale, it is read to Russian children as a bedtime story from a very early age. In the story, an old man and an old woman have a hen called Ryaba, who one day produces a golden egg. The man and the woman try to break it but it doesn't break. Exhausted, they put the egg on the table and sit outside for a rest. A mouse runs past the egg and with its tale manages to drop it on the floor, where the egg breaks. Tears follow, with various inhabitants of the village crying, including the trees, cats, and dogs. The tale is considered to be a folk representation of the Christian version of world creation: the old couple represents Adam and Eve, the mouse—the Underworld, and the golden egg—the Garden of Eden.

Tsarevna the Frog

Ivan the Tsar's son and the Frog
Illustration to the fairy-tale "The Frog Princess." 1930. Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin / Public Domain

This famous folktale tells the story of Tsarevich Ivan, whose father the Tsar orders him to marry a frog. What Ivan doesn't realize is that the frog is actually Vasilisa the Wise, the beautiful daughter of Koschei the Immortal. Her father, jealous of her intelligence, turned her into a frog for three years. Ivan finds this out when his wife temporarily turns into her real image, and he secretly burns her frog skin, hoping that she will forever remain her human self. This forces Vasilisa to return to her father's home. Ivan sets off to find her, making animal friends on his way. Baba Yaga tells him that in order to kill Koschei and save his wife, he needs to find the needle that represents Koschei's death. The needle is inside an egg, which is inside a rabbit, which is in a box on top of a giant oak tree. Ivan's new friends help him get the needle, and he saves Vasilisa.

The Geese-Swans

This is a tale about a boy who gets taken by the geese. His sister goes to look for him and saves him, with the help of various objects such as a stove, an apple tree, and a river.