Imagine, for a moment, that you’re walking through a forest at dusk.
Pine and larch trees loom above you. There is birdsong and a river somewhere nearby. It is spring, or autumn, always the in-between seasons. And you are tired. It has been a long journey, the gifts you bring are heavy. Soon you must find shelter and sleep.
Then, as you enter a clearing, you see something that shakes you into wakefulness. First there is the fence, made up of twelve posts, long and slender, shining like bones in the last of the evening light. Eleven of these posts are capped with skulls, grim and old – covered in birdshit and cobwebs.
The thing that frightens you most is the twelfth post. It stands empty, ominously waiting.
Beyond the fence, you see the house – a cottage, squat and unremarkable. Its thatch roof could be ten or a hundred years old. There is dirty yellow smoke rising from the chimney.
As you walk through the yard your feet become entangled in chicken wire. Hens cluck around your boots. It takes a long time to reach the door. You feel like you’re walking around the house in circles, being chased by chickens. When you finally find it, it is entirely ordinary, except that it faces away from the path, toward the darkest part of the wood.
Whether or not you knock will depend on you. Inside you may find a hideous old crone – eater of children – racked with lust for unhealthy pleasures. Or you may find an agreeable, no-nonsense woman in her middle years, ready to answer your lost questions. But that too, will depend on you.
This is the story of Baba Yaga. First recorded in the mid 18th century in Russia and the Slavic regions, it surely comes from a much older oral tradition. Being told first one way and then the other. Today it serves as one of the archetypal narratives of our culture, representing as it does the witch or wise-woman trope. It shares DNA with the Norns of Norse mythology, the Greek Hecate, and many others. The legend stands as a lesson in human nature: both a moral tale and an example of how society treats its outcasts, especially women, who seem to possess knowledge which is far beyond the common reach.
In the western world, the suspicion, persecution and eventual murder of witches can be traced back to classical antiquity. The Greeks, Romans and Visigoths all had laws dealing with witchcraft. However, by far the most intense and bloody period in witchcraft history was between the 15th and the 18th century, when something like 50,000 men and women (but most mostly women) were brutally tortured and killed under the crime of witchcraft.
Who would have guessed that the witch trials were yet another triumph for capitalism?
There were many reasons for this persecution, ranging from complex religion to plain old patriarchal mistrust, and even economical gain – worth remembering that whenever a ‘witch’ was killed, all their wealth and land would automatically be taken by the church and the state. Who would have guessed that the witch trials were yet another triumph for capitalism?
But for me, by far the most interesting theory put forward for this mass slaughter of innocent people is that of environmental change.
Scientists today are able to identify a period of abnormally difficult weather conditions in medieval Europe, starting as early as the 1300’s and lasting all the way to the year 1850. This period is known as the Little Ice Age, and was characterised by a massive increase in frosts, floods, hailstorms, and plagues of rodents.
The obvious outcome of this hardship was that people were starving, angry, and desperate. And in desperate times, outcasts and minorities become immediate targets of the suffering masses. History has shown us again and again that when the going gets tough, it’s the weakest who have the toughest time.
Of course, situations like this soon become self-fulfilling knots of cruelty and narrow-mindedness. As the very voices that are being silenced are quite possibly the ones needed to bring some kind of tangible change to the situation.
When your society is sick and starving, it’s a bad move to burn your medicine man.
In my view there can be no more obvious sign of a sick civilisation than the systematic elimination of the wisdom of its elders and its outcasts – figures who offer knowledge of practices outside the common spectrum. One day it would be nice to at least consider the possibility of a collective apology to the memory of these people so cruelly slaughtered by the church and the state under misguided ideologies.
It would be even nicer to believe in a world brave enough to listen to the words of its outsiders. The words of those who keep the mysteries of herb and root bubbling in their cauldrons. Those who are acutely sensual and not submissive to brutish authority. Those who fly through the night on pestle and mortars, sweeping away the dark as they go. Those who dwell in huts endlessly turning on chicken legs in the depths of the forest.
It would be even nicer to believe in a world brave enough to listen to the words of its outsiders.
What Baba Yaga brings to a society is the wisdom of those who live at the fringes of its reach. What Baba Yaga brings us is the opportunity to consider a different way of doing things. What Baba Yaga brings to you is entirely dependent upon the questions that you ask, the desires you have, and the choices you make.
Originally published in the Hourglass Newspaper.