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The "old woman" of autumn was called Baba by the Slavic inhabitants of eastern Europe, Boba by the Lithuanians. This seasonal divinity lived in the last sheaf of grain harvested in a year, and the woman who bound it would bear a child that year. Baba passed into Russian folk legend as the awesome Baba Yaga, a witchlike woman who rowed through the air in a mortar, using a pestle for her oar, sweeping the traces of her flight from the air with a broom.
A prototype of the fairytale witch, Baba Yaga lived deep in the forest and scared passersby to death just by appearing to them. She then devoured her victims, which is why her picket fence was topped with skulls. Behind this fierce legend looms the figure of the ancient birth-and-death goddess, one whose autumn death in the cornfield led to a new birth in spring.
Text from Patricia Monaghan's The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines Published by Llewellyn, copyright 1997. Used by permission of the author.
When the first young seeker comes quaking up to the door of her hut, Baba Yaga demands, “Are you on your own errand or are you sent by another?” The young man, encouraged in his quest by his family, answers, “I am sent by my father.” Baba Yaga promptly throws him into the pot and cooks him. The next to attempt this quest, a young woman, sees the smoldering fire and hears the cackle of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga again demands, “Are you on your own errand or are you sent by another?” This young woman has been pulled to the woods alone to seek what she can find there. “I am on my own errand,” she replies. Baba Yaga throws her in the pot and cooks her too.
Later a third visitor, again a young woman, deeply confused by the world, comes to Baba Yaga’s house far into the forest. She sees the smoke and knows it is dangerous. Baba Yaga confronts her, “Are you on your own errand, or are you sent by another?” This young woman answers truthfully. “In large part I’m on my own errand, but in large part I also come because of others. And in large part I have come because you are here, and because of the forest, and something 1 have forgotten, and in large part I know not why I come.” Baba Yaga regards her for a moment and says, “ You’ll do,” and shows her into the hut.
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