Baba Yaga the Russian Witch
This is the Russian Folk Tale of the witch, Baba Yaga. It is an Early Reader version. It is brought to you by Stories to Grow by.
Once upon a time an old man lived in a hut with his little girl, Natasha. So happy they were! At tea time, they would play peek-a-boo behind the samovar (a very tall teapot used in Russia). They would drink tea with honey bread and strawberry jam.
Everything was fine! The only sad times were when the old man remembered how much he missed having a wife by his side, and a mother for Natasha.
One day the man met a woman he liked a lot, and before long they were married. At first, Natasha was glad to have a stepmother to look after her.
But not for long. The stepmother started all kinds of strict new rules. Natasha wasn’t allowed to play games like peek-a-boo anymore with her father. She wasn’t allowed to have other girls over for tea. Her stepmother said that little girls shouldn't have tea at all, much less eat bread and jam. All Natasha got for dinner was one small crust of bread, and she must leave the hut to eat it.
Poor Natasha! She would run into the backyard and to the shed to hide. She would wet the small crust with her tears and eat it, all alone.
Then the stepmother would yell that she must come back in the house, right away! The dishes from dinner needed washing, and the floor must be swept clean till it shone.
Yet something else was worse than all of this. Each night, the stepmother sat with Natasha’s father and told him that everything that went wrong in the house was his daughter’s fault. Sadly, the old man believed his new wife.
One day, the stepmother decided she could not stand the sight of Natasha one more day. How could she get rid of the girl once and for all? The stepmother remembered her sister, the terrible witch Baba Yaga, who lived in the forest. "I know how to get rid of the brat, for good" the stepmother said to herself with a smile.
The very next morning, the old man left to visit some friends in the next village. As soon as he was out of sight, the wicked stepmother spun around to Natasha.
“Listen to me,” she hissed. "Today you will go to visit my sister, your dear little auntie, who lives in the forest. You will ask her for a needle and thread. We need it to mend this shirt."
“But," said Natasha, holding up a needle and thread for her stepmother to see, "we already have a needle and thread.” She knew about her aunt who lived in the forest - she was was none other than the terrible witch, Baba Yaga! The one who chased little children by riding through the air on her giant broom. And when she caught them would eat them with her iron teeth.
"Who asked YOU?!" snapped the stepmother, knocking the needle and thread out of the girl’s hand.
Shaking with fear, Natasha said, "Well, how do I find my auntie?"
“That’s better!” said the stepmother with a crooked smile. She twisted the little girl's nose, pinching it hard.
"That is your nose!" she said. "Can you feel it?"
"Yes," whispered the poor girl.
"You must go along the road into the forest till you come to a fallen tree, then turn left" said the stepmother. "Follow your nose. It will take to your auntie. Now off with you, you lazy girl!"
The stepmother shoved a small sack in the girl's hand that had a few morsels of stale bread and cheese and some scraps of meat. And pushed Natasha out of the hut.
Natasha looked back. Her stepmother stood in front of the door with her arms crossed, glaring. There was nothing she could do but to go on her way.
The girl walked along the road to the forest, then to the fallen tree, then she turned left. Her nose started to throb harder, so she knew she was going the right way.
Then all of a sudden, in front of her behind an old gate, stood the hut of Baba Yaga. There could be no mistake.
Only the hut of Baba Yaga, the witch, stood high up on giant chicken’s legs, and could walk around the yard by itself! When it turned to face you, the front windows looked like two eyes and the door looked like a mouth.
The two gate doors in the fence were open. When Natasha pushed them a bit to go through, they made a terrible squeaking sound. On the ground she noticed a rusty oil can.
The girl picked it up. "How lucky," she said, “there’s some oil left.” She poured the few drops left on the hinges of the gate. Both gate doors swung open without a peep.
As Natasha walked closer, Baba Yaga's house turned around on its chicken’s legs. And it faced her.
Frightened as she was, the sound of crying made Natasha turn around. A servant of Baba Yaga's was standing in the yard, crying and wiping her tears on her sleeve.
"How lucky," said Natasha, "that I have a handkerchief." She untied her handkerchief, shook it clean, and carefully put the scraps of food in her pockets. She gave the cloth to Baba Yaga's servant, who wiped her tears with it, and smiled.
In front of the door to the hut was a huge, thin dog chewing on an old bone. "How lucky," said the little girl, "that I have some bread and meat." Reaching into her pocket for her scraps of bread and meat, Natasha said to the dog, "I'm afraid it's rather stale, but it's better than nothing." At once, the dog gobbled it up and licked his lips.
Natasha finally reached the door to the hut. Trembling, she knocked.
"Come in," squeaked the wicked voice of Baba Yaga. The little girl stepped in. There sat Baba Yaga the witch, weaving at a loom. She had scraggly white hair, a very long nose, and when she smiled, showed a mouth full of iron teeth. The witch was skinny and bony.
"Good day to you, auntie," said Natasha, trying to sound not afraid.
"Good day to you, niece," said Baba Yaga.
"My stepmother has sent me to you to ask for a needle and thread to mend a shirt."
"Has she now?" smiled Baba Yaga, flashing her iron teeth. For she knew how much her sister hated Natasha, her stepdaughter.
"You sit down here at my loom, and continue to weave,” said Baba Yaga. “I will go and fetch you that needle and thread." So the little girl sat down at the loom and began to weave.
Baba Yaga whispered to her servant girl, "Listen to me! Go to the bathhouse. Start up the fire for the bathwater. It must be very hot.”
“Yes,” said the servant girl, and she left to do her task. "A delicious meal I will make of the child!" laughed Baba Yaga.
The servant came into the room where Natasha was weaving, to fetch the jug to take water to the bathhouse. Natasha said to her, "I beg you please, be slow in making the fire and heating up the water. I need time to think of a plan!" The servant girl said nothing. But she took a very long time in getting the bathwater ready.
Baba Yaga came to the window and said in her sweetest voice, "Are you still weaving, little niece? Are you weaving, my pretty?"
"Yes, I am weaving, auntie," said Natasha. She thought, “I’ve got to get out of here, somehow!”
In a corner of the hut, Natasha noticed a thin black cat watching a mouse-hole.
"What are you doing?" she said to the black cat.
"Watching for a mouse," said the thin black cat. "I haven't had any dinner in three days."
"How lucky," said Natasha, "I have some cheese left." And she gave the cheese in her pocket to the thin black cat, who gobbled it up. The cat said, "Little girl, do you want to get out of here?"
"Of course I do!" said Natasha, "I fear that Baba Yaga will try to eat me with her iron teeth!"
"That is exactly what she will do," said the black cat. "But I know how to help you."
Whispered the cat, "Do you see that comb on the stool? Do you see the towel?" Natasha nodded. "You must take both of those," said the cat. "Then run for it while Baba Yaga is still in the bath-house. She will chase after you. When she does, you must throw the towel behind you. It will turn into a big, wide river and it will take her time to cross that river. When she crosses over, throw the comb behind you. It will sprout up into such a thick forest that she will never be able get through."
"But if I leave the loom now to pick up the towel and the comb,” said Natasha, “she will hear that I have stopped weaving. And then she will be able to catch me before I even have a chance to escape."
"Don't worry," said the thin black cat. "I'll take care of that." Then he took Natasha's place at the loom.
Clickety-clack, clickety-clack; the loom never stopped for a moment.
Natasha looked to see that Baba Yaga was still in the bath-house. She grabbed the towel and the comb, and quickly ran out of the hut.
The big dog jumped up to tear her to pieces, but then he saw it was the same girl as before. "Why, this is the girl who gave me that bread and meat," said the dog. "Good luck, child." And he laid back down, letting her go.
When Natasha came to the gate doors, they opened quietly without making any noise, because of the oil she had poured into its hinges.
Then -- how she did run!
Meanwhile, the thin black cat sat at the loom. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, went the loom.
Baba Yaga came to the window.
"Are you weaving, little niece?" she asked in a high-pitched voice. "Are you weaving, my pretty?"
"I am weaving, auntie," said the thin black cat, while the loom went clickety-clack, clickety-clack.
"That is not the voice of my dinner!" said Baba Yaga. She ran into the hut. At the loom was no little girl, but only the thin black cat!
"Grrr!" said Baba Yaga. She jumped at the cat. "Why didn't you scratch out the little girl's eyes?"
The thin black cat replied, "In all the years that I have served you, you have given me only water and made me hunt for my dinner. That girl gave me real cheese."
“GRRR!” Baba Yaga grabbed the cat and shook it hard.
Turning to the servant girl and gripping her tightly, she yelled, "Why did you take so long to prepare the bath?"
"Ah!" cried the servant, "in all the years that I have served you, you have never even given me a rag, but that girl gave me a pretty handkerchief."
Baba Yaga cursed her and dashed into the yard.
Seeing the gate doors wide open, she shrieked, "Gates! Why didn't your doors squeak when she opened you?"
"Ah!" said the gates, "in all the years that we have served you, you never so much as sprinkled a drop of oil on us. We could hardly stand the sound of our own creaking. But the girl oiled us and we can now swing back and forth without a sound."
Baba Yaga slammed the gates closed. Spinning around, she pointed her long skinny finger at the dog. "You!" she hollered, "why didn't you tear her to pieces when she ran out of the house?"
"Ah!" said the dog, "in all the years that I have served you, you never threw me anything but an old bone. But the girl gave me real meat and bread."
Baba Yaga rushed about the yard, cursing and hitting, all the while screaming at the top of her voice.
Then she jumped onto her broom and flew up into the air. Soon, she was closing in on the little girl.
"You will never escape me!" Baba Yaga laughed a terrible laugh. She steering straight downward toward the girl.
Natasha was running faster than she had ever run before. She could hear Baba Yaga getting closer and closer.
Then she remembered the thin black cat's words. She threw the towel behind her on the ground. It grew bigger and bigger, and became wetter and wetter. Soon a deep, wide river stood between the little girl and Baba Yaga!
Natasha kept running. Oh, how she ran! When Baba Yaga reached the edge of the river, she screamed louder than ever, for she knew she could not fly over an enchanted river. In a rage, she flew back to her hut. There she gathered all her cows and drove them to the river.
"Drink, drink!" she screamed at them. The cows drank up all the river to the very last drop. Baba Yaga hopped back onto her broom, and flew over the dried-up river to catch Natasha.
Natasha had run on quite a distance ahead. In fact, she thought she might, at last, be free of the terrible Baba Yaga. But her heart froze in terror when she saw the dark figure in the sky speeding behind her again!
"This is the end for me!" she cried.
Then she remembered what the cat had said about the comb. She threw the comb behind her, and the comb grew bigger and bigger, its teeth sprouting up into a thick forest.
It was so thick that not even Baba Yaga could force her way through it. Baba Yaga, screaming with rage and disappointment, finally turned around and flew away back to her hut.
The tired girl arrived back home, at last.
“I am home, but I cannot go inside,” she said to herself, thinking of her stepmother. “What will I do?” She waited outside in the shed for her father to come home. When she saw her father pass by, she ran out to him.
"Natasha! Where have you been?" cried her father. "And why is your face so red?"
The stepmother came out to see what the fuss was all about. She turned yellow when she saw the girl, and her eyes glowed green, showing her true self.
But this time, Natasha was not afraid. She told her father everything that had happened. When the old man learned that his wife had sent his own daughter to be eaten by the witch Baba Yaga, he was so angry that he drove the stepmother out of the hut, never to return.
From then on, the father took good care of his daughter and he never let a stranger come between them. Once again, the table was piled high with honey bread, strawberry jam and tea. Father and daughter played their games of peek-a-boo until it was time to go to bed. And so the two of them lived happily ever after.
Question 1: Why did the gates, the servant girl, the big dog and the thin black cat help Natasha escape?
Question 2: Natasha gave small gifts (a soiled kerchief, a few drops of oil, a few morsels of meat and cheese). Why did such small gifts mean so much?
"Baba Yaga" is adapted from "Baba Yaga and the Little Girl with the Kind Heart" from Old Peter's Russian Tales (Jonathan Cape Ltd: London, 1916), pp. 90-105. Adapted by Elaine Lindy. ©1998. All rights reserved.
In Russian folk lore, stories abound of the witch Baba Yaga. Once in a while, Baba Yaga is portrayed as kindly, but the norm is that Baba Yaga is the essence of wickedness. She has iron teeth for eating children when she can get them (Russian parents tell their children that Baba Yaga eats only children who misbehave). Her mode of transportation, the giant mortar that she beats with a pestle to go faster, is a classic element in Baba Yaga stories. Another motif is her hut, which as described in the Baba Yaga story presented here, stands on hen's legs and can move about at whim.
Though Baba Yaga is uniquely Russian, elements of the Baba Yaga stories can be recognized in folklore from other parts of the world. A Spanish story "Don Octavio" tells of a boy who, when chased by a human flesh-eating giant, throws a comb onto the ground and the comb becomes a mountain, and then the boy drops a pin to the ground and the pin becomes a dense underbrush of thorns. There is also a story from the Philippines called "Pedro and the Witch," wherein a boy named Pedro escapes from the witch Boroka by dropping a kerchief and the kerchief becomes a large fire, and then the boy drops a white handkerchief and the white handkerchief becomes a wide sea.