Attitudes to witches

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Wed Feb 25 07:33:53 EST 2004


Charlie:

>Minnow:
>> I think good witches were usually called "wise women"
>> in for instance Perrault and Grimm and Lang.  Either
>> that or both sorts were called "fairy", good or bad:
>> the good ones quite often show up disguised as old
>> women who ask for help, then suddenly turn into a
>> beautiful fairy when the youngest son has been a kind
>> boy and carried their shopping.
>This is a bit of a stretch, but perhaps Baba Yaga might count, at least on
>some occasions? Normally of course she's evil, but I remember reading at
>least a few stories where she helps out the protagonist with gifts, advice,
>or by killing their unpleasant relatives.

I am *not* going to start worrying about the translation of "witch" from
whatever the Russian word is!  Not, not, not.

It is interesting, though, that the witch-craze in Europe doesn't seem to
have infected the Greek Orthodox areas.  Also, Trevor-Roper remarks that
the furthest east it got was Poland: the other Slavonic countries,
according to him, simply weren't involved.  This seems to imply that Russia
wasn't all that witch-crazy.

>But then maybe she's more of a goddess than a witch?

In *Old Peter's Russian Tales* by Arthur Ransome, she is introduced thus:

   "Baba Yaga is a witch," said Old Peter, "a terrble old woman she is,
   but sometimes kind enough.  You know it was she who told Prince Ivan
   how to win one of the daughters of the Tzar of the Sea, and that was
   the best daughter of the bunch, Vasilissa the Very Wise."

Not a very early source, that (1916), but it does bear out what you suggest.

In the *Russian Fairy Tales* collected by Aleksandr Afanas'ev in the 1860s
onwards, and translated by Norbert Guterman (1945), she turns up as a
secondary character in several stories, and whilst her reputation is bad,
and she does occasionally *try* to eat people, she never actually seems to
*do* it; they always escape (apart from her own daughter who has been put
into the oven instead of the heroine, once or twice).  On the other hand,
she will help the good-hearted or the brave: if you approach her boldly and
call her "grandmother" it seems to make her come over all soft-hearted (and
it helps to be a good-looking prince or a good-hearted little girl).  She's
like Mother Goose in at least some of the stories: she actively rewards the
industrious, polite girl who is sent to be her servant, and then punishes
the girl's idle, spoilt sister when she is sent in turn to get the same
rewards but expects to get them for nothing.  Some other things about her
are that there seem to be two of her, or else Baba Yaga is a title not a
name, because on at least three occasions Baba Yaga sends someone on to "my
sister, Baba Yaga" for more help or advice.  She has a family: she has
sisters, one at least of whom is not a witch herself, just a Wicked
Step-Mother; she has daughters too, and they are beautiful as a rule.

Oh, and I don't think she is Russian: the usual thing is that she comes
home after some hero or heroine has got into her house in one way or
another, and complains that "The Russian smell was never here before, and
now I smell it", which looks as if she is something other than Russian,
though she is never given a nationality.

You might be right, she might easily be a left-over memory of some goddess
or other.  She has that feel about her, I think.  Unlike most witches, she
doesn't hate the good just for being good; she's more inclined to test it
and make sure it is the real thing, and then help it along the way a bit.

That actually suggests to me that in Russia "witch" had a different set of
baggage with it: someone unlike other people, but not necessarily evil,
just powerful and a bit arbitrary.

Minnow


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