Category: cannibalism

#31 Baba Yaga

#31 Baba Yaga

This episode explores the Russian witch, the Baba Yaga, tales in which she appears, possible origins, and regional variations on the character.

We begin by retelling one of the skazi (folk tales) in which she’s particularly well-definined, “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” a version recorded in the mid-1800s by the folklorist Alexander Afanasyev, Russia’s answer to the Brothers Grimm, .

Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899
Vasilisa, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1899

Without spoiling the story, I can say that it bears some parallels to “Cinderella,” with a wicked stepmother and step-sisters grievously imposing on the young Vasilisa and sending her into an encounter with the Baba Yaga.  She is aided in the tale by a magic doll bequeathed her by her dying mother.

Like nearly all Baba Yaga stories, this tale features the witch’s famous house perched atop two immense chicken legs on which it turns to reveal it’s entrance if the proper spell is spoken.  Around the house, in this story as in most others, is a fence made of human bones and topped by skulls.

Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916
Child slaves of the witch and bone fence, illustration, 1916

The witch herself is not much described in the text of “Vasilisa,” but in the folklore of the Eastern Slavs, she is generally imagined as an hunchbacked old crone, usually large, and with a large nose, sometimes said to be of iron, as are her teeth sometimes.  She’s also occasionally described as an ogress because of her nasty habit of eating visitors, especially children, or those who fail her when she puts them to work (what she often does with visitors).

 

Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911
Illustration by Ivan Bilibin, 1911

“Vasilisa” like nearly every other tale featuring the character, describes the witch flying through the skies in mortar, which she steers with the pestle, an instrument sometimes also used as a club or magic wand. Like western witches, she is often depicted with a cat, but the Baba Yaga may also command a pack of dogs, flock of geese or swans, or even be served by pairs of disembodied hands.

“Baba Yaga” is not quite a proper noun, i.e., her “name,” at least not quite.  It’s a class or type of character, and certain stories feature multiple Baba Yagas.  For this reason too, she may be killed off in a particular story — and often is — only to reappear as presumably different witch in another.

Though she’s most often portrayed as malevolent and dangerous, some tales make her more ambivalent, or occasionally even helpful.  We have a look at the best known examples of this, “The Frog Tzarina” (a story offering a sort of reversal on the “Frog Prince” theme) .

"Baba Yaga" book, 1915
“Baba Yaga” book, 1915

Of the tales that feature the Baba Yaga in a more menacing role, one of the better known is called “Princess Marya” or “The Death of Koschei the Deathless,” and it features the witch as a character somewhat peripheral to another important character of Russian folklore, Koschei.  He’s a sorcerer, usually represented as a crowned skeletal figure and known for hiding his soul in the form of a needle within an egg within a duck.  We also hear a bit of another tale featuring a malevolent Baba Yaga, “Little Bear’s-Son,” in which the witch lives in an underworld and battles the titlular character and a trio of giants.

Our quick look at a few examples of the Baba Yaga in music and films includes a piece from Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 suite Pictures at an Exhibition called “The Baba yaga” or “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”  (Here is the Baba Yaga inspired clock design by Victor Hartmann that inspired the piece.) We hear a bit from that and a snippet of “Baba Yaga,” a 1965 garage-rock number by a Minnesota band called The Pagans.  Speaking of music, our show, opened with a clip from a 1997 track “Baba Yaga” by the Australian singer, Judy Small.  Also used in this  episode are two other traditional pieces of music, “Doina Oltului” (instrumental) and “Khorovod,” an example of ancient pagan round dance music of the Slavs.

Probably the greatest modern popularizer of the figure and huge influence upon how the Baba Yaga is imagined in Russia today is work of filmmaker, Alexander Rou featuring the actor Georgy Millyar.  Beginning in 1939, with a version of “The Frog Tsarina,” and running up to 1972, the year before he died, Rou made over a dozen film inspired by Russian fairy tales.The Baba Yaga appearing in many of these was always portrayed by the cross-dressed Millyar, whose comic performances are one of many reasons to seek out Rou’s films on YouTube.

Millyar as the Baba Yaga
Millyar as the Baba Yaga

While the first mention of the Baba Yaga in print only appears in a 1755 book called Russian Grammar, it’s presumed the figure comes from much older mythology. In fact, while the reference in question, though vague, includes her in a list of Slavic deities.  References to the witch’s control over horsemen representing the sun in “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” for instance, have suggested a possible origin in a solar deity. More likely, given her association with bones and her menacing nature, would  be a connection with Marena,  the Eastern Slavic goddess of death and winter.  The witch’s flights in her mortar, always accompanied by terrible winds, have also suggested connections to the aerial phantoms of what’s called The Wild Hunt in Europe.  Similarly her presence in the sky has suggested a connections with the Fiery Serpent, a figure of Eastern Slavic folklore, often represented by aerial phenomena such as lightning or meteors.  All ideas to chew on.  Nothing definitive, though the strongest association would seem to be with Marena.

We close the show with two tales from our own times, in which the Baba Yaga’s namesake or likeness is responsible for some dreadful deeds.

Elevated mortuary huts, a source of the witch's hut?
Elevated mortuary huts, an inspiration for the witch’s hut?

Bone and Sickle is happy to welcome Sarah Chavez as a new voice in the show this week.

#30 Loup-Garou, Werewolves in France

#30 Loup-Garou, Werewolves in France

The werewolf (Fr: loup-garou) epidemic of 16th-century France forms the core of our show, but we also include some medieval French werewolf tales as well as the legend of a figure connected to both werewolves and Bluebeard.

In our last episode on Bluebeard, I promised to recount a legend that may have inspired Charles Perrault’s story. This would be the story of Count Conomor, or “Conomor the Accursed,” a 6th-century ruler of Brittany. Here the role of Bluebeard’s new wife is played by Trephine, the daughter of a rival count.  Through her forbearance, she came to be regarded in local traditions as a saint (therefore the chapel depiction below).  Her adventures include interaction with the helpful ghosts of Conomor’s slain wives, decapitation by Conomor (with miraculous cure) and a magic ring  The curse upon this wicked count continues into the afterlife, during which he is condemned to roam the countryside in the form of a werewolf.

A revived St. Tryphine. Statue in chapel of St Trémeur, near Carhaix, Brittany
The decapitated but ambulatory St. Trephine. Statue in chapel of St Trémeur (her son), near Carhaix, Brittany

Our next segment looks at some medieval werewolf stories, including the 12-century poem by a Marie de France, “Bisclavret,” in which the werewolf plays a surprisingly sympathetic role, the tale of Sir Hugues de Camp-d’Avesnes, condemned to an afterlife as a werewolf for burning a town in the 1131, and that of the knight Raimbaud de Pulet, who in a fit of despondent madness becomes a werewolf.

The French werewolf epidemic, which between 1520 and 1630, resulted in the execution of more than 30,000 individuals was the result of a link forged between the werewolf and a new, more aggressive attitude toward witchcraft arising in ecclesiastic councils taking place in Basel Switzerland in the 1430s.  The first regions in France to begin prosecutions were therefore naturally those adjacent to Switzerland.  Many there were overseen by Henry Bouguet, a judge who tried approximately 600 witchcraft cases in the locality.  Most of the stories recounted in this episode come from his writings on the subject, while others come from the The Werewolf  by highly eccentric English scholar Montague Summers, who was discussed in Episode 1.

Montague Summers and his classic volume on werewolves
Montague Summers and his classic volume on werewolves

The first of Bouget’s cases examined is that of Michel Verdun, who shortly after a wolf attack in which the beast is wounded is discovered treating a matching wound on his arm.  Verdun’s testimony implicated two other men likewise said to transform themselves into wolves, Philibert Montot, and Pierre Bourgot, who provides a lurid testimony including accounts of bloody crimes committed in wolf form, attendance at a witches’ sabbath and being initiated into his wicked ways by a black rider he meets in the forest.

Gevaudan
The Beast of Gevaudan. Outside the witchcraft paradigm discussed in the episode, but a nice image.

The next case discussed (and judged by Bouget) is that of Gilles Garnier, who also spoke of a forest meeting with a diabolical figure who presented him the magic ointment necessary for transformation. Garnier’s case is interesting in that he brought home human flesh from his werewolf attacks for his wife to enjoy.

Another case in this same area mentioned by Boguet is that of the Gandillons, a whole family of alleged werewolves.  It begins with a female werewolf, Perrenette Gandillon, who attacks a brother and sister and is then killed by a mob.  Her sister, Antoinette confesses to also being a werewolf and attending a witches sabbath, as do her father and brother.  Wilkinson reads for us a colorful description of the wolf-like behavior of the male Gandillons in their prison cells.

Outside of Bouget’s jurisdiction, we find the case of the Werewolf of Chalons, a tailor discovered abducting children and butchering them in his shop.  We also hear the story of Jean Grenier from Bordeaux (see the comic below).

The show closes with an account of 20th-century lycanthropy from Grenier’s home town of Bordeaux.  When an unnamed assailant confesses to murdering a stranger invited into his home for a meal in 1989, he is examined by prison psychiatrist Michel Bénézech, who makes the diagnosis of “pathological lycanthropy.”  The quotes we hear from Bénézech are from the BBC show “The Secret Life of Ghosts & Werewolves.”

Story of Jean Grenier from "The Usborne Guide To The Supernatural World" (1979)
Story of Jean Grenier from “The Usborne Guide To The Supernatural World” (1979)