Many depictions in art of the Russian folk witch Baba Yaga show her with mushrooms, especially the Fly Agaric (the red-capped, white-spotted mushroom also associated in children’s illustrations with fairies and gnomes). As Baba Yaga is Russia’s most famous witch, hunting mushrooms is Russia’s favorite pastime, and both Baba Yaga and mushrooms are found in the forest, it makes sense that the two would become entwined. Also, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a psychoactive mushroom that can cause hallucinations, euphoria, and death.
Baba Yaga appears as an ugly crone with a big nose and iron teeth; she rides around in a flying mortar, wielding the pestle, and lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs. She is one of my favorite witches.
Baba Yaga is not a good witch, although not always the villain either. She often inspires the young women and men who meet her in the forest to help themselves with their wit and wisdom. Or she kills and eats them and uses their bones to decorate her garden.
In Old Russian, baba was the term for a sorceress, fortune teller, and/or midwife. In modern Russian, the word babushka, the word for grandmother and for the kerchiefs they wear on their heads, is derived from it.
Baba Yaga is immortal and embodies the dual nature of life and death, and, like a hunter of mushrooms in the woods, you can search out Baba Yaga and perhaps be granted a boon, if you are clever enough. Or perhaps you’ll die.
With her long scraggly white hair, large nose, and iron teeth, Baba Yaga is so ugly she is almost beautiful, like many types of mushrooms. The past few years have seen an interesting trend of women connecting with Baba Yaga and her fierce countenance. She was even named Jezebel’s Next Top Beauty Creature in 2017.
“Ask Baba Yaga” is an advice column and a book written by Taisia Kitaiskia for Hairpin. In this 2017 article with Broadly, Taisia Kitaiskaia describes her connection with the Russian witch: “That image of an old woman living in the woods, doing whatever she wants all day long, continues to be my dream for myself.”
“Once Upon A Time” is the familiar opening to many English fairy tales. The Russian equivalent is, “One day the wife went out into the forest for mushrooms,” and in that forest live spirits, water fairies, talking animals, and the Baba Yaga. She is dark, dangerous, ugly, intelligent, cannibalistic, powerful, and outside of morality– yet not entirely evil.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of “Women Who Run with The Wolves”, writes that we can meet Baba Yaga in the woods and receive wisdom from her. By connecting with Baba Yaga, we can learn to navigate in the darkness, cultivate shrewd discernment, strengthen our intuition, and honor our wild nature.
Try to connect with Baba Yaga yourself with this Forest Magic:
Go out into the forest for mushrooms… and with a question in your mind. As you walk through the woods, let your mind be open to answers to your question that may come to you from different sources: birds in the skies, squirrels chirruping in the trees, fallen logs, puddles, the shape of the river rocks, or the curve of the path. Let the forest speak to you. Listen. When you emerge from the woods, perhaps you will have an answer to your question.
If you can’t get to the woods, ask a question before you go to sleep and enter the dark forest of your dreams. You may have an answer when you awake.