Villains of Russian Folktales: Baba Yaga & Koschei the Immortal

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Russian
Age: 33
Occupation: TA/Graduate Student
Residence: Pasadena, California (from Russia)
Date of Performance/Collection: April 23, 2013
Primary Language: Russian
Other Language(s): English, French, Czech

“This old woman, whose name is Baba Yaga, she’s a witch. And she’s kinda bad…but sometimes she can help him [the main character], so again it’s kinda ambiguous. She’s not necessarily a completely bad witch. I mean she may try to eat him, but then the main character, he’s kinda cunning, so he tells her let’s say that oh you want to eat me in the stove, but I’m not really sure how to get myself into the stove, you know. How to sit on the thing so you can push me, can you show me how to do it? And she goes like ohhh, you young generation, nobody teaches you anything nowadays! You don’t even know how to get on the stove! Ok, here’s how you do it. And then he just shoves her right in. So then she starts screaming and he says ok I’m gonna take you out but you gotta help me do something. Because she has magic powers, so she can either help him or destroy him, and usually the thing about this main character is that he’s really cunning. He may not be hardworking, he may be really lazy, but he’s got the…the wits are with him. So there is this Baba Yaga, which is you know, the bad mother archetype. Or good. And she’s ugly facially, she lives in this um…oh god um…it’s a little house on chicken legs. And so it’s in the middle of the forest, and so you come up to this and you’re supposed to say this special phrase which is uh… ‘The house, the house. Turn to me with your front and uh…turn to the forest with your back.’ And then the chicken legs start movin and then the house turns and the door opens, and then Baba Yaga…this figure comes out or something. She loves eating small children, so there’s some stories like that, you know where the children need to be saved. Or sisters trying to save their brothers, you know. So she’s one of these characters who can help or stall the character, the main character.

“So then there is a special man called uh, Koschei the Immortal. So he’s not a man, he’s kind of this entity. But he usually, he always wants to marry some princess. And so he steals her. And uh…so the hero tries to free her, but in order to do this he needs to kill this Koschei. But basically, the way he’s portrayed this Koschei, he’s really skinny. He looks like a skeleton, but he has these powers. And it’s really hard to kill him. And his death is hidden uh…so in order to find a way to kill him you gotta…his death is hidden at the uh…in a big um…oh my god what is it? So um, his death is at the end of the needle, the needle is packed in an egg, the egg is inside a um, I think some bird, a bird is inside a rabbit, a rabbit is inside…it’s like a Russian Matryoshka! You know, those wood dolls? So yeah, same thing, parallel. So the uh rabbit is inside a box and the box is either hanging somewhere on some magic tree or it’s underneath the tree. So…and the hero has to find it and he opens the box and the rabbit runs, so he has to catch the rabbit. And the bird flies, so then he has to shoot the bird, then he has to catch the egg falling out of the bird. Uh, crack the egg, take out this needle and break it. Then when he does, the Immortal dies, so that’s the idea. And uh, this Koschei the Immortal, he’s a very popular villain in Russian fairy tales. Koschei never helps. See, Baba Yaga, sometimes she helps, sometimes she may show you the way to the magic tree with Koschei’s death in it. But uh Koschei never helps, he’s always negative.”

According to my informant, these characters come from tales her grandparents told her before she could read. She adds that these tales don’t technically have an author, and were typically passed down from generation to generation. One thing I found especially compelling was the ambiguity of the Baba Yaga character. As my informant pointed out, Baba Yaga can either fall into the evil mother or good mother archetype, depending on her mood and on the story. Thus, she has to be a complex character for her actions to make sense, from eating small children to helping out a hero. The imagery of her house on chicken legs was also great, and I was amazed that my informant remembered the saying to summon Baba Yaga after all these years. As for Koschei the Immortal, the ritualization of his death is very interesting. Usually, there are certain rites surrounding death, but these tend to have to do with burial or respecting the dead. Here, however, the ritual is how to properly kill Koschei. Judging from what my informant told me, the villains of these Russian märchen often engage in very gruesome acts, and yet these are children’s tales. This type of attitude points out the often problematic way of thinking of childhood as a wholly pure and innocent period of life. Childhood as we tend to envision it today is more of an artificial construct than a natural phenomenon, and that is something the villains in these folktales seem to understand.

Annotation:

Mayer, Marianna. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.