Brief History: Let’s dive into some Russian folklore. Do you love Baba Yaga? Of course you do! Okay, calm down John Wick fans. And if you don’t love Baba Yaga then you shall. This one was collected by Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev (say that 3 times fast). For those of you unfamiliar, Baba Yaga was the most wicked and feared of witches in Russian folklore. This particular tale is of a dying queen tricked by a witch into ordering her son to marry only the girl whose finger fits a ring given to the family. After the mom dies, Prince Daniel searches for the wearer of the ring, but the only person it fits is. . . his sister. You have permission to be grossed out. Daniel, pretty hung up on tradition, forces his sister to be his wife. Two beggars comes across the sister clearly upset and tell her to make four dolls, put them in the bridal suite, and stall as much as she can on the wedding night. She does this and while her brother (gross) thinks she’s getting ready for bed (again gross) the dolls start to sing and chant (now gross and creepy). The chanting opens a hole in the earth that swallows the princess and takes her to a hut on chicken feet deep in the woods. Meanwhile, Prince Daniel the Nutter realizes he’s been tricked and beheads then burns the four singing dolls. In the hut, the daughter of Baba Yaga, who is beautiful, kind, and appreciates that the stranger offers to help her in her knitting, turns the princess into a needle in order to hide her before her cannibalistic mom comes home. This trick works a couple of times, but Baba Yaga catches the princess in her home because she can smell “Russian bones”. She makes her daughter prep their giant oven in order to make a princess casserole, but the two younger women trick the witch into the oven instead. This gives them just enough time for a head start through the woods before Baba Yaga hunts them. They throw a brush and comb at her which become thick lines of shrubs and trees to slow her down. Finally, they throw the cloth they’d been working on at the witch. It becomes a river on fire to burn her up (yeah, not sure how that works). The pair end up back in the princess’s home and Baba Yaga’s daughter tricks Prince Daniel into letting himself get stabbed. The princess mourns her brother, which then cures his stab wound and apparently his case of the crazies as well. He marries Baba Yaga’s daughter (the ring of course fit her too, probably because that had been Baba Yaga’s original plan) and find a non-related husband for his sister.
Analysis: Singing dolls? I would have probably beheaded and burned those creepy Chucky wanna-be’s as soon as they opened their mouths. But it’s safe to establish that the brother was crazy so maybe he thought the singing was in his head at first? The theme of insanity and incest in fairy tales really isn’t uncommon, probably because so many royals were marrying first cousins and their DNA was paying the price. A common theme in Baba Yaga tales (besides the cannibalism which I can address in a different story) is betrayal by those closest to her who she has abused and to use magic against her. In this story it’s her own daughter who never appears in any other tales that I know of (if anyone has another story featuring Baba Yaga’s daughter I’d love to hear about it and please comment below). There’s clearly an element of child abuse here. The daughter does not appear to be cannibal and lives in constant fear of her own mother. It comes to the point where she would rather help to murder her mother in order to save the princess she just met then to continue living in this environment. For those of you who currently obsessed with Hulu’s The Act or the case of Gypsy Blanchard, you know this is not that far-fetched. The last analysis I want to point out that it’s common in Baba Yaga stories that she’s outsmarted by other women or girls. As I keep trying to point out, more fairy tales have heroines than heroes.
Blame it on the Victorians: Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev was one of the most prominent folklorists of the mid-19th century with one of the largest collections of fairy tales at the time. So why, non-Russian reader, have you never heard of him? Probably because he was Russian. His own government shunned him for writing socialist articles, but as an amateur anthropologist this guy was pretty impressive. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who molded certain tales into their own preferences, Afanasyev recorded each version of the same tale he heard for comparison, taking into account the language he heard them in, the depictions of Pagan versus Christian religions, and where the story came from. His works were translated by a British man in the 1800s named Leonard Arthur Magnus (who seems to be the primary translator to this day - no one else has taken a stab at translating this stuff? Come on.). Still, the stories he collected really didn’t gain popularity in the rest of western culture until ballets like the Firebird were produced. Why is this? Again, I’m not really sure. Based on what I know of the English at this time, I’m going to say it was because Victorians didn’t want to try to pronounce his name. Of course, I could be wrong.
Last Thoughts: I actually find the cannibalism less gross than the crazy brother trying to marry his sister. Hm, incest and an abusive mother. I wonder if V.C. Andrews ever read this story?