Who is Baba Yaga? She is the Goddess, she is the Witch, she is the Wise Woman, she is the Crone, she is aged Artemis.
Baba is Grandmother. In Tibet, fierce demons are Yagas. So she is the Grandmother Demon, Grandmother Dragon, the fearsome, the fierce.
Baba Yaga is the subject of many Russian folk tales or fairy tales. She is very very old.
How do we know? We are told her nose curves down and her chin curves up and they nearly meet. Since the cartilage in our noses, chins and ears continues to grow throughout our lives, only someone a hundred or more would have such a remarkable face. Her fingernails, it is said, are as thick and ridged as roof tiles. My, what a mineral-rich diet she must have! And they are stained brown. Any herbalists here who have noticed such a staining on their hands after a summer of harvesting? I have. In one of the first profiles of me ever published, the interviewer remarks on my brown-stained fingernails.
Baba Yaga lives in a house that nearly defies description, yet any herbalist would feel right at home there, overlooking perhaps that the latches on the cupboards, windows, and doors are human fingers, and that the door knocker is a toothed snout, and that the fence is made of bones and skulls. But that all pales when we step back and see that the whole house stands atop scaly yellow chicken legs. It moves about at its own whim, whirling like an ecstatic dancer around and around in a trance. Baba Yaga is Whirlwind Woman, Woman with Drum of the deep north, Shaman Woman, Deep-Dreaming Woman.
Baba Yaga is the keeper of the eternal fire, the spark of divine consciousness that informs the best of every profession, that lives in the best healers and the most intuitive herbalists. Baba Yaga, like all muses, like all guardians, like treasure-bestriding dragons everywhere, is not averse to sharing but she is demanding.
You must give to her, must do her bidding, before she will do yours and give to you.
With wrinkles enough to hide the world's secrets and a store of tales enough to fast talk my way out of any situation, I am surely the most fearsome thing ever seen, ever imagined: A powerful old woman at home with herself. I am Baba Yaga, and this is one of the stories in my basket.
Baba Yaga's Story of Sassafras
(by way, I believe, of Doug Eliott)
Old woman and old man lived together and each did their chores and they were happy. One cold winter evening, coming in from tending the animals, old man ventured: "Old woman, when I'm out on such a cold night my feet stay warm because you knit me such fine warm socks. I wouldn't want you to think I was complaining, but my hands are cold. Do you think you could knit me some socks for my hands?
Old woman thought for a while, a short while, then she smiled and said: "Old man, I would love to knit some socks for your hands. And she took out her yarn, and she took out her needles, and click clack click clack, she knit socks for old man's hands.
Old man was very happy and his hands were warm. Still, one evening, coming in from tending the animals, old man ventured: "Old woman. I sure am happy. My hands are warm now, as warm as my feet in those fine socks you knit me. But I have to take those hand socks off to do some of the chores, times when I need to use my thumbs, and then my hands are cold. Do you think you could knit me some socks for my hands that had thumbs?
Old woman thought for a while; she thought for a good long while; she thought all that night and all the next day and well into the next night and all through the whole next day too. Late that evening, before the warming fire, after all the chores were done, she smiled and said: "Old man, I would love to knit some socks with thumbs and trigger fingers for your hands."
And she took out her yarn, and she took out her needles, and click clack click clack, she knit new socks - with thumbs - and trigger fingers - for old man. Then she took the old hand socks, the one with a thumb on the left and the one with the thumb on the right, and she tossed them out back, by the edge of the woods.
Neither old woman nor old man was happy with the new hand socks. The trigger fingers weren't next to the thumb, but across from it. They looked at each other and smiled.
Old man went out to do the chores with strange socks on his hands and old woman, she hardly had to think at all, this time. She took out her yarn, and she took out her needles, and click clack click clack, she knit socks with five thumbs for old man's hands.
It took some time, but when she was done with the last one, she gave them to old man with a grin. Then she took the hand socks with a thumb on each side and she tossed them out back, by the edge of the woods. And old man was very, very happy.
In the spring, out back, by the edge of the woods, a tree grew, with hand socks for leaves and the sweet smell of love lived long by two old folks. We call it sassafras.
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