Some time ago, I came across an author who is a curious fixture in the horror genre. I find horror a fascinating subject because most really scary stories stem from a curious bit of truth which might have served its purpose in some fashion or another. This particular author brought to my attention a lesser well known story of a very curious witch that originated in Russian folklore. So fascinating this is to me that I have invited my mystery horror novelist to contribute a specific piece on this fearsome witch since I doubt I would hardly do it the justice it well deserves.
And so, for the first installment of what I hope will be many curious contributions from many different writers here is the curiously frightening story of Baba Yaga aka “Bony-Legs” written by Nicholas Gentry inspired by his recent posting in his column Medusa’s Lair .
Stories about witches have been passed down from generation to generation. We’re all familiar with the evil witch from The Wizard of Oz, the old hag from the story, Hansel and Gretel, and of course, the evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While these characters are terrifying in their own unique ways, none of them are as evil as Baba Yaga.
Originating from Russia, Baba Yaga is the story of an old witch with sharp, jagged teeth who wanders the woods at night in search of lost travelers and small children to eat. In many variations, Baba Yaga prefers to eat children because they’re easier to catch. As the story travels from person to person—like any story does—the details change, but one aspect remains the same: The witch lives in a hut that stands on chicken feet. While the legend of Baba Yaga (“The Bony-Legged One” in Russian) is well-known, parents also find the character handy in order to stop their children from misbehaving, or wandering away from home.
Joanna Cole, a beloved children’s author, wrote a story in 1983 called Bony-Legs. Based on the tale of Baba Yaga, the story introduced the witch to its young audience without being too graphic or scary; most of the information found is inappropriate for children, and is even capable of making adults cringe. Bony-Legs gave parents a mild, entertaining story without causing them to worry about nightmares. The scariest part of the book is the creepy, yet silly illustration of the villain. Even as a children’s book, the character is described as a witch who “likes to eat little children.” The action is attempted but never depicted; this is a children’s book, of course. The author took a scary story, and made it family-friendly, which is not an easy task. The little girl, Sasha, must find a way to escape Bony-Legs before it’s too late. In Joanna Cole’s story, the girl befriends a talking cat and dog, and even a talking gate who help her get away because of her kindness. In some versions, Baba Yaga does have a talking animal that assists the child in distress, which tames the story for young readers.
While Baba Yaga is generally known as a flesh-eating witch, some variations do exist that depict her as a kind-hearted, lonely woman. In this case Baba Yaga is no longer the villain, but a hero of sorts. Whether providing help to lost or injured travelers, or returning a child home to their family, Baba Yaga’s ghastly image is replaced by something much softer. Many prefer the original stories because not only are they frightening, they also represent specific life lessons. Don’t talk to strangers. Stay close to home. However, there are those who appreciate the nurturing, motherly Baba Yaga as well because she offers warmth and protection to those in need.
No matter what Baba Yaga’s legend continues to circulate. If you’re in the woods at night, scared and alone, be careful to avoid the small hut that stands on chicken feet. You never know when Baba Yaga is on the prowl.