Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Baba Yaga

LukeLore Slavic FolkLore Hello everyone, welcome to Lukelore. A quick deep dive into a folklore topic, where I share some of the stories from around the world that have piqued my interest. We appear to have broken time and space this episode, as this would have been a companion piece for a main show episode of stories from Eastern Europe. That episode is on the back burner for now though, but the folklore from Slavic countries was far too tempting for me so I’ve pounced early. The location theme Ghost Story Guys episode will be here at some point, but it’s in a zen “done when it is done” state right now. No bugging Brennan to hurry it up. For now, though, on to the awesome folklore! SECTION BREAK A somewhat globally infamous witch I thought I would start with what seemed like the most commonly known, that being Baba Yaga.

This… Is a big one.

I’ve recently taken a run at Baba Yaga through Wanda Fraser’s Dark Art series, which gets a weekly reveal on Instagram as a shared project with the Ghost Story Guys. Now, I had a passing familiarity with Baba Yaga. Not news, everyone does. Naturally I’m a weirdo who grew up with some books containing fairy tales around Baba Yaga, but the concept of Baba Yaga is pretty well disseminated worldwide. Even with this, I wasn’t quite ready.

Baba Yaga is something else!

A witch with a house that walks around on giant chicken legs, who flies around in her pestle and mortar, with a taste for children who she consumes with her iron teeth. Heck, if absolutely nothing else, total tabula rasa, most people will have heard Baba Yaga described as a Russian Bogeyman thanks to the John Wick movies. Only… There’s more to Baba Yaga.

A lot more.

We’re talking thousands of stories across Slavic countries and beyond. Baba Yaga is basically their own field of folklore!

You’ve got the basic parables: Stay out of the damn wild places, kids, or Baba Yaga will get you. Or a wolf or something. Don’t wander off.

You have the fairy tales with Baba Yaga as an antagonist. This is my first exposure to Baba Yaga, and these stories went global taking the Slavic witch with them to people all over. Morality tales, with a focus on acts of kindness becoming key to survival in a harsh situation.

That’s pretty standard stuff.

That isn’t everything there is to know about Baba Yaga. It isn’t just that there are a lot of stories about her. It’s the variety too. Baba Yaga isn’t always a fairy tale monster. There are plenty of stories where Baba Yaga helps people in need, very much in line with what you could expect about capricious fae creatures that have a duality of nature.

Baba Yaga, even multiple version of Baba Yaga, can enter a story in a role similar to that of the Greek fates. They can even directly intervene with kind acts, like a fairy godmother you can’t leave alone with children in case she eats one, such as one story where a suitor having mythic misadventures loses their engagement ring in the forest. Baba Yaga appeared to return the lost possession to him, in some form of fairy tale cameo as she was just passing through.

I feel the need to point out that despite this Baba Yaga is about as terrifying as any given depiction will show you. They are powerful, and they WILL eat children. They’re also complicated. They’re a force of nature that needs to be respected, with a lot more to them than just the bogeyman side.

Even in the children-are-delicious fairy tales, where a wicked stepmother sends unwanted children to the witch, there seem to be strange hints of complexity. Her powers are awe inspiring, but follow very specific rules that can prevent them. Baba Yaga herself can be strange within her role as a bogeyman, here’s a translated quote from one of the stories:

"All right; I am not opposed to keeping you, children. If you satisfy all my wishes I shall reward you; if not, I shall eat you up." Being devoured is a punishment for failure, not an inescapable fate. They’re a complicated and fascinating folklore figure throughout their entire history. Even the modern depictions tend to be either complex, or else when still simple a cut above a generic evil witch story. Although, at risk of angering Baba Yaga, I would still recommend leaving them as a very last resort for baby sitting. SECTION BREAK Never go down to the water. Another common figure within Slavic folklore that has disseminated into the wider global pop culture consciousness is the Rusalka.

Frequently associated with the water, Rusalka are also depicted as mermaids quite a lot. There’s even a story of a Rusalka that is remarkably similar to The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson (very important note, the Disney movie is very different, try not to picture that). Although looking like, and in one story surrendering their powers to try and be with a mortal like, mermaids there is a different bit of folklore that the origins and powers match up to.

Japanese Onryo.

A Rusalka is a powerful spirit of vengeance in a lot of stories. There’s a bit more to say before I get to this, though.

The assorted Rusalki as you head closer to Europe tend to be beautiful and enchanting creatures, more like the common idea of a siren. As you head up into Russia, though? You get naked twisted abominations that ambush travellers to drag them off and torture them.

Rusalka are Slavic spirits of vengeance, and somewhat terrifying. This is a bit of an oversimplification, these are a significant part of the cultures their stories are told within and have evolved quite a lot over time. Even without accounting for change over time there is a lot of regional variance.

But the more vicious stories certainly stand out as you go digging. The more vicious stories also did one key thing to really surprise me. As a general trend normally the older stories are the nastier ones. You get to the unsanitised original stories then, the good stuff! Old fairy tales and myth are effectively the origins of what is now the horror genre. Then, as time goes on, they get cleaned up a little, the variants go through a survival of the fittest process where the happier endings and stronger moral lessons are selected, modern adaptations tone the madness right down and slap a generic hero’s journey over the top. You go from dancing on hot coals until death to Happily Ever After.

Except that Rusalka did this in reverse.

Older stories, ones favoured by Opera shows, see them as graceful water spirits. Much more benign, more like a nymph or naiad from further over into Europe. But as you hit the 19th century, and a more modern era, the Rusalki take a dark turn. They become bitter, twisted, they become ugly.

They become dangerous.

This says quite a lot about the cultures that these stories are a part of. Whether as a believer of the supernatural, in which case as the times change the Rusalka grew bitter turning against the industrialising humankind, or else as a sceptic looking at sociological change in how the stories shifted with local attitudes. It is here where they seem to line up more with the Japanese Onryo, being made when a young woman is either murdered in the water or else drowns herself, a tragic origin making a powerful vengeful spirit that will lash out at anyone coming close to their place of death.

Even the nice Rusalki, or Veri, are worrying in a remarkably fae way. They are said to emerge from the waters in June and climb up into the trees to celebrate Summer. Anyone foolish enough to join in with their revelry, attracted by their otherworldly singing, is then doomed to dance until they die of exhaustion. Everywhere the Veri and their victims trod along the ground, new growth would spring up as a part of the enchantment.

This, er, “happy” is the wrong word. This more glamourous alternative doom to the more twisted Rusalka as you head East does seem to tie in though. A common purpose across the Rusalki. The more torture happy monstrous Rusalka of Russia are also known for draining the life force out of their victims. While for a different reason, to create new natural growth as opposed to vampiric hunger, all Rusalki are still capable of using up a human victim’s vitality and discarding the corpses after.

So no matter what Rusalka you’ve blundered into, remember the Ghost Story Guys PSA:

Nature! Stay out of out. Especially the trees and water. This is a life saving Public Service Announcement people! SECTION BREAK - Lady Midday When you’re looking at scary stories, it’s difficult to really sell a story set in the day light. But this legend depends upon the sun, and manages to be pretty unnerving anyway. This is the story of the Noon Witch, or Noon Wraith, Południca.

Lady Midday.

When workers were out on the hottest days, there was a worrying chance a spectral woman in white may be stalking the edges of the fields looking for prey. Sometimes they are not seen, only “felt”, other times an unnatural dustcloud will mark out where Południca is roaming. Should she catch an unwary worker who didn’t pay attention to the warning signs and promptly get indoors will be touched by this sun loving spectre, a touch that can bestow many terrible “gifts”. Muscles cramping with crippling pain, collapsing from exhaustion, even being consumed by madness… It’s best not to be touched by the noonwraith at all than risk it. Might be a cramped neck? Might be the total destruction of your sanity. Might not be worth risking it at all. And this one is a far reaching tale! From Poland and the Eastern Slavic countries, all the way West across various Germanic cultures were you’re more likely to find the name Mittagsfrau.

If you’re looking at folklore purely through the lens of parable, Południca appears to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of working under the heat of high noon. The lady in white being an anthropomorphisation of heat stroke that people who toiled under the hot sun in centuries past told stories about to get a better grasp of the physical. If you look at Lady Midday through a more literal interpretation, the dust cloud sweeping down onto the farmlands heralding a merciless wraith, they are instead a terrifying entity that proves not even the bright light of high noon day can be a refuge from the supernatural. Which is… What’s the opposite of comforting?

It may just be that I watched a film about this story recently, but… This weirdly feels like the total opposite of a Japanese Yokai from the other side of the world called Yuki-Onna. Yuki-Onna, or the Snow Woman, would come in the night for travellers who got caught out by the weather and steal their heat to kill them. Both frequently are seen as a woman dressed in white stalking extreme weather for victims. Just a random crossed connection in my head, I’ll get back to Yuki-Onna soon when I circle back around to another Yokai episode. SECTION BREAK – Old world, old vampire stories I couldn’t dabble in Slavic folklore without taking on the blood sucking undead, as the region has some of the oldest vampire stories on record. Especially Poland!

It may even be the origin of the word vampire, in wąpierz. I… I think I pronounced that right. Hang on… Oh no! Google isn’t helping!

Er…

Vopierzzz.

I…

I’m sorry Poland. I’m going to hope that’s close and muddle on. Anyway. Blood sucking undead! That someone could rise from the grave as a wąpierz was taken as a given in some times and places, going back through history. While it could just happen, there were risks of potential reanimation to look out. Physical deformaties such as a curved spine, being born with teeth, or having an animal jump over your fresh grave. Not being baptised is a risk too, but it seems to be a risk of basically anything from my ongoing research, if you weren’t dedicated to God then your corpse seems to have a high risk of being a useful empty vessel after your death.

As a posthumous transformation into a ravenous monster was seen as relatively high risk, the varied regions have assorted methods for dealing with the hungry corpse before it can stalk the loved ones of the deceased. Piling up rocks on top of the grave seems to be a simple yet effective late measure if you aren’t sure about exhuming the potential inhuman monster to check. If you had suspicions ahead of interring the dead, or had no choice but to dig them back up, there are a few measures to get them to stay down at night. Stuffing their mouth with a rock or burying them face down to confuse them when they reawaken can work in a pinch. The better prepared can nail them to the back of the coffin with a stake through the heart or, and this is easily my favourite, rig a sickle trap just above their neck so that if they sit up they decapitate themselves.

The sickle trap really is the best of both world. You don’t desecrate the corpse in case it hasn’t turned, but if it HAS turned you can get it to decapitate itself as it springs to unlife in the night.

This all seems to fit in standard vampire lore, and is probably the genesis of a large chunk of it given that these are the oldest recorded stories of what we would expect from your standard revenant hunter in the night. There’s only one small detail which didn’t become as popular: Instead of sprouting fangs, a wąpierz instead develops a barb under the tongue to pierce their prey and feast upon blood. SECTION BREAK That’s all for this episode. As with every region based LukeLore yet, there’s absolutely loads left to tackle in the Slavic countries! From dark old gods to assorted beasts scattered across the countryside, I’ll almost certainly be back here some day in the near future. If you have any cool leads for me, definitely send them over! I have an ongoing LukeLore planner to refer to with neat links and names to look up.

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Goodbye for now.