When I was young my Dad read me Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales. The stories were strange, sometimes brutal and always enticing. That was where I first met Baba Yaga. She was thrilling: a macabre, cannibalistic witch, with her glowing skulls, hut on hen’s legs and iron teeth.
Revisiting the stories as an adult, it is clear why Baba Yaga retains her grasp on our collective imagination; she is just the sort of strong, complex female character that we don’t see enough of in fiction, even today. She is not only a powerful woman, but an independent woman: in her forest she is her true self, answering to no one, free of any social, religious or moral constraint. She is a law unto herself. She is also terrifying. She eats children.
When I sat down to write my own interpretation of a Baba Yaga story, I started by making lists about iron teeth: the pros and cons of iron teeth, unexpected uses for iron teeth, ways human teeth can get lost.
What would it feel like to have a mouth full of metal?
We don’t know that Baba Yaga lost her teeth through trauma — perhaps she was born with metal fangs — but the mutilation of women and girls is a recurring theme in folklore. Some get their hands cut off, some get their eyes pecked out, their toes or heels sliced, and Hans Christian Andersen’s Karen begs the executioner to cut off her feet, to free her from the red shoes. Though some find healing through redemption or courage, the loss of body parts for these women is a loss of power, of autonomy, of status. Baba Yaga, however, is no victim — her iron teeth are a source of power.
Baba Yaga’s nearest relative in western fairy tales is Hansel and Gretel’s witch, who also lives in a strange house in the woods, and also likes to eat children; but Baba Yaga is not a simple villain, the antagonist who is deservedly punished with a roasting in her own oven. Children may escape Baba Yaga, but they almost never defeat her. She lives on, in her hut in the woods. Through the changing of the seasons and the turning of the centuries, she lives on.