What Baba Yaga Knows

(If you haven’t heard of Baba Yaga, here’s a short crash course. My favorite Baba Yaga incarnations in novels have been Patricia McKillip’s In The Forests of Serre, and Orson Scott Card’s Enchanted.)

There’s a possibility I’ll get to write a sequel to the sleeping beauty retelling, and for months now I’ve tried to think of a way to include a Baba Yaga-like character. I don’t think I’ll get to use Yaga directly, but thinking about her and her history and motivations led me to a realization:

The character of Baba Yaga could be used to show that the simple life is better than a lavish lifestyle gained with power and money.

Consider: Baba Yaga is very, very powerful. She’s the Witch of the Woods. She’s the supreme sorceress. And she lives in a dirty old hut, never bothering anyone unless they interfere with what she’s doing or touch her stuff.

Let’s say a prince is riding through the woods, and happens to damage something of Baba Yaga’s. Let’s call it a chicken, as in In the Forests of Serre. Baba Yaga appears and says she’s going to curse the prince for accidentally stepping on her favorite hen.

The prince begs for his life. “Please, Baba Yaga, if you spare me I’ll give you all the gold in my kingdom!”

“What would I do with gold?” Baba Yaga cackles. “Can you eat it? Can you plant it? Can it keep you warm? Can it replace my favorite hen? A curse on your gold!”

“Then I’ll give you all the slaves in my castle!” The prince pleads desperately.

“More idiot humans to get in the way and step on my hens? No thank you!” Baba Yaga, unconcerned, lights her pipe.

“Then I’ll give you all my magicians and wizards with all their power, yours to command, if you’ll only spare my life!”

“I have enough magic,” Baba Yaga grumbles. “What would I do with more? Curse you ten times as hard, ha!”

There is nothing the prince values that Baba Yaga wants. Neither wealth nor power. If the prince is smart, he’ll realize this, and give her a new copper-bottomed pot, or offer to chop her a stack of wood, or clean out her gutters, or something practical.

Because  Baba Yaga is nothing if not practical.

And that makes me think… what’s the current American dream? To become a fabulously rich and gorgeous celebrity, right? As a society we’re materialistic. Youth-obsessed. Fame-obsessed. But why? Isn’t it better just to have a warm house, good food to eat, and the company of your favorite hen? If Baba Yaga used her power to become queen of the kingdom, she wouldn’t get to do what she really wanted: garden, cook, and tend her chickens.

I might be reaching, but Baba Yaga makes me think about all the celebrities who say becoming famous was a mistake. Who long for the days when they have privacy even just leaving their house. Who regret the years of clawing up the ladder, constantly comparing themselves to others and pretending to be something they’re not in the hopes that one day they magically will be… more.

And isn’t that one of the tenets of a lot of religions? Be happy with what you have, don’t covet, and don’t place value on material things. Why do those tenets exist? Is it because those things are hard to do and therefore a punishment, or because keeping your eyes on your own work and being grateful for what you have truly make you happier with life?

Consider it this way, does it feel better to laze around all day watching tv and eating chocolate, or to work hard at your dream and be exhausted -but satisfied- by evening? Okay, the lazing and eating of chocolate feels pretty darn good some days, but most days I’ll take the satisfied exhaustion. If I don’t work I feel extremely dissatisfied. I feel like I’m wasting my life. I want to go out and accomplish things so I don’t look back and think ‘what did I do with all that time?’ It’s a huge motivator for staying off the internet, too ;-)

You know that famous saying from the Bible: It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Money and power distract us from what’s really important. They make us jealous and greedy and feel devalued. And Baba Yaga knows better.

I’ll be honest; some days I wish I was a rockstar, or at least a really famous writer :-) But that won’t make the writing any easier, or my relationships any better. And so -lol, this could only come from a writer, I swear- when I feel down for not being a supermodel millionaire, I think of Baba Yaga, who could have the world if she chose, but prefers to live in her hut, cooking and gardening.

Because that’s true happiness.


What do you think, am I totally off base here? What’s your favorite representation of Baba Yaga?

7 thoughts on “What Baba Yaga Knows

  1. Brenda Agaro says:

    Oh, wow. I heard of Baba Yaga, but definitely not the way you describe her. If only more people would see it that way. Sadly, I’ve seen one too many people being obsessed with money and recognition that they forget what’s really important in their lives.

    I love this post. Inspiring. :-)

    • Savannah Foley says:

      I’m trying to maintain perspective about the whole publishing thing and the inherent competitiveness in the business. I realized today my goal shouldn’t be to be a rich and famous author, it should be to sell enough that I can do what I love full time and still be able to support my family. :-)

  2. Glaiza says:

    I’ve never thought of Baba Yaga the way you’ve described her but I like it. I tend to lose perspective so this is a brilliant post. Oh and representations of Baba Yaga – I remember reading a children’s novel called The Ghost Drum by Susan Price where Baba Yaga play’s a role in helping a young prince (yep, a prince) locked in tower by his father the Czar (based on Russian folklore). Interesting magic in that book.

    I think another practical expression of Baba Yaga is represented by the curse Sophie is under in Howl’s Moving Castle (which incidentally has mechanical chicken legs.) I just started reading it and it’s a lovely, warm tale which I wish I had read when I was younger. I also recommend Miyazaki’s film adaptation which is absolutely beautiful.

    • Savannah J. Foley says:

      I read Howl’s Moving Castle when I was younger and have seen the movie. I didn’t think to associate the witch there with Baba Yaga, though I do see the connection, especially after reading Orson Scott Card’s version, where Yaga magics herself into appearing young and beautiful.

  3. linda says:

    Interesting take on Baba Yaga. I waffle between the extremes myself — some days I think I’d be happy as long as I have a roof over my head, food to eat, health and friends and the luxury to pursue my interests. Other days I wish desperately to be fabulously wealthy, or at least more ambitious. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what I want, I guess.

    • Savannah J. Foley says:

      The thing I keep asking myself when I lose perspective is… what would you DO with all that money? All I really want to do is finish putting myself and Chris through school, finish fixing up the house, and install a fence so we can get a dog. After that I’d like to travel more, but then what? Then nothing. We’d go back to our normal lives and I’d still have to write every day. So I’ll get to all our goals eventually, and there’s not really that big a difference in my life until then. :-)

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