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Alternate Spelling: Баба Яга (Russian)
Other names: Baba Cloanta (“Old Hag with Broken Teeth,” Romanian), Baba Jaga (Czech, Slovak, Polish), Baba Jaha, Baba-Jahinia, Baba Roga, Baba Ruta, Baba Yaha, Baba Yaga Kostianaya Noga (“bone legs”), Babcia (“grandmother” Polish), Babushka (Russian), Baka (Croatian), Boba (Lithuanian), Jezi-Baba, Yaga-Baba, Bobbe Yakhne (Yiddish), Ježibaba (Czech & Slovak), Vasorrú (“iron-nosed”)
Etymology: Baba means an elderly woman or grandmother, Yaga is uncertain, but may likely come the words: “jeza” meaning: horror, shudder or chill, “jezinka” for an evil wood nymph or dryad, “jeze” meaning: witch, “jedza” another word meaning: witch, fury or evil woman and lastly, “jeza” meaning: anger or disease and illness.
At its heart, the stories of Baba Yaga are used in Russian and Slavic folklore as a legendary bogeyman type monster to scare little children into behaving. Depending on your source, there is either just the one, terrifying Baba Yaga or there are several.
What’s In A Name?
In the Slavic languages, Baba Yaga’s name is understood to be composed of two parts. The first part of her name, Baba is generally understood to mean an elderly woman or grandmother. The second part of her name, Yaga is thought to be from a Proto-Slavic word “eg” and likely related to a Lithuanian word of “ingis” meaning: lazybones or sluggard. Other suggested words are the Old Norse word of “ekki” meaning pain and the Old English word of “inca” for doubt, scruple, grievance, and quarrel. Yaga might also derive from the feminine name of “Jadwiga.”
A Sergei V. Rjabchikov suggests that Yaga derives from the word Aga meaning: “Fiery” or “cauldron” saying that it refers to a solar deity of the Scythians and Sarmatians. Mainly as the suggestion connects Aga as a cognate to the Sanskrit word “agni” meaning: “fire” which is also the name of a fire god. Other cognate words that get linked are the Russian word “ogon” for fire and the Ossetic word “ag” for cauldron. Another scholar, Alexander Afanasyey proposes the ides of a proto-Slavic word “ož” and the Sanskrit word ahi for serpent may be a source for where the word Yaga comes from.
The earliest references to Baba Yaga, or “Yaga-Baba” is found in the “Of the Russe Common Wealth” by Giles Fletcher, the Elder. As “Yaga-Baba” she is found in the section for Permyaks, Samoyeds and Lopars where a Finno-Ugric influence is suggested.
Depending on the region and local dialect, Baba Yaga is known by slightly different names. In the Czech, Slovak and Polish regions, she’s called Baba Jaga, though Jezibaba is also used. In the Slovene language, the name is reversed to Jaga Baba. Where the term Jaga is concerned, there are numerous variations from different Slavic languages that connect it to the word jeza meaning: “horror,” “shudder,” and “chill.” There is the Slovian word jeza for “anger” and then the Old Czech word of jeze for “witch” or any legendary evil female being. The modern Czech word of jezinka refers to any evil nymph or dryad.
In Belarussia, Bulgarian, Russia and Ukraine, the names Baba Yaga and Baba Jaga are both used. Belarusia and Ukraine both have variant spellings of Baba Yaha and Baba Jaha. In the South Slavic languages of Bosnia Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, she is known as Baba Roga. Finally, the Romanians, even though they’re not Slavic, know of her as Baba Cloanta, which roughly translates to “the Old Hag with Broken Teeth.”
Suffice to say, Baba is well known, revered, respected and feared. So much so, that some will say that Baba is the Devil’s own Grandmother. In Russian, Baba can sometimes get used as pejorative for women and men who are seen as unmanly, too timid and lack character. In the Polish language, the term Baba is also a pejorative as it can refer to a particularly nasty or ugly woman.
The descriptions of Baba Yaga vary from region to region. Most are very similar in that she is a small, ugly old woman who’s very fierce or an ogress. Consistent details include mentioning her long nose and long teeth, long bony legs. Whichever details let a person know how hideous to look upon that Baba Yaga is and there’s no mistaking her for anyone else. She is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a hut in the forest. Where most witches of folklore are said to ride brooms, Baba Yaga is known for flying around in a mortar & pestle, using a broom made of silver birch to sweep away any traces of her passage. Much like the Wild Hunt, a host of spirits followed after Baba, these are most likely the spirits of her victims.
Aging: Baba Yaga is said to age one year for every question that she is asked, which, given that, could explain why she is often reluctant to help any who cross paths with her. With a tea made from a special blend of blue roses, Baba Yaga is able to undo the effects of this aging.
Chicken Hut: Baba’s Chicken Hut is notable as it walks and moves around chicken legs. The hut will move when Baba recites a specific rhyme. The keyhole to the door is a mouth full of sharp teeth. Sometimes this door will open with the following phrase: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” When the house has roosted for the day, a fence with the skulls of Baba’s victims surrounds the hut.
Mortar & Pestle: Where most witches use a broom to fly around on, Baba rides around in a giant mortar & pestle, the same mortar & pestle that she can use to grind the bones of her victims then and there.
Servants: Baba will often be served by invisible servants inside her hut. If any ask about the servants, Baba is known to kill them.
Three Riders: Usually found in the Russian folklore, Baba can be associated with three riders, each of whom rides a different colored horse. White is the Day; Red is the Sun and Black is the Night. If any ask about who the riders are, Baba will explain who they are.
In the folklore and tales from Hungary, Baba Yaga began as a fairy, a good fairy. With the procession of time, she becomes a witch, one who drives a hard bargain and threatens to eat those who fail to uphold their ends of agreements.
Many Polish stories featuring witches often name them Baba Jaga. Much like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretal, these Baba Jaga sometimes live in Gingerbread huts. When Baba Jaga’s hut isn’t described as being made of Gingerbread, it will be described as having only one chicken leg it moves around on.
Baba Jaga also flies around on a mop instead of a broom or in a flying mortar and pestle. She is further described wearing a black and red striped cloth that hails from Swietokrzyskie Mountains. For those wanting a bit of further trivia, this cloth is a symbol of the Kielce region and has a connection with a legendary witches sabbath on the Lysa Gora mountain.
This is the folklore that I at least was familiar with and knew Baba Yaga to hail from. It is these tales that the fearsome Baba Yaga flies through the air in flying mortar and pestle. The stories where the protagonists will discover Baba’s House that walks or dances on giant chicken legs. A house surrounded by a fence made of human bones with skulls on the posts. The keyhole of the front door is a mouth full of teeth.
In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is often the antagonist of many tales. Often, she is sought by other characters who come seeking her for wisdom. Rarer is when Baba will offer guidance to wayward travelers and souls.
Dark Nature Spirit
There have been numerous, various folklore and tales about Baba Yaga over the years. Her tales often show her as a dangerous antagonist while other times she is just a tad more benevolent where she will help out others on their quests while devouring others instead. Given the location of where Baba Yaga is likely encountered most, it is out in the dark forests where she would easily represent the more wild, unknown and unpredictable force of nature.
In some stories, like Vasilissa the Beautiful, the heroine likely crosses over into the Otherworld when she is tasked by her stepsisters to go and get more light from Baba Yaga. Later traditions say that when meeting with Baba Yaga, one needs to prepare themselves spiritually and have a proper purity of spirit in order to survive an encounter with her.
Faerie – The Hungarian connection of Baba Yaga as a fairy really seems to fit given that the fae operates by rules. Baba Yaga strikes a bargain with Vasilissa the Beautiful who comes to get some fire from her in exchange for some labor. The old crone can’t hurt or eat Vasilissa so long as she full-fills her tasks and gets everything done. In the end, because Vasilissa has the aid and blessing of her mother, Baba Yaga sends the girl away. Just as many fae are known to have a trickster side to them, Baba Yaga displays hers, however dark with the skull she gives Vasilissa that burns up her stepfamily in flames. One can also argue that’s Baba Yaga acting as a bit of a dark fairy godmother to Vasilissa to aid her like that. But a bargain’s a bargain and many fairy gifts do often come with a price that’s up to the recipient to decide if that was a curse or blessing.
Good Witch Or Bad Witch? – Whether Baba Yaga will be helpful or try to eat someone really depends on the story told of her and what era of folklore for ancient or more modern. The ancient stories really home in on her dangerous nature and that she does eat people. More modern stories that feature Baba Yaga will still show her dangerous side, but as someone who’s mellowed with time, she seems to take on a more helpful nature.
More Than One? – As a supernatural being, some stories will mention a trio of sisters or witches who are all Baba Yaga, much like the idea of three fates? The good news is, that when Baba is encountered as three individuals, they’re much more likely to be benign and helpful.
Family – Some folktales will mention Baba Yaga having a daughter, sometimes she is given the name, Marinka.
Similar Folkloric Figures
There’s a number of other figures from myth and folklore of Europe that may have some cultural influence from the Eastern Slavic people’s beliefs or just the fact that similar ideas and concepts will pop up no matter what.
Baba Korizma – Serbian
Baba Pehtra – Slovenian
Baba Roga – From Croatia and Bosnia, she is used to scare children into behaving. The name Roga suggests that she has horns.
Babice – Serbian
Chlungeri – Switzerland
Gorska Maika – The Forest Mother of Bulgaria.
Gvozdenzuba – Meaning “Iron Tooth,” Serbian
Holda – Or Holle from Germany
Jezibaba –Western Slavic, she is very similar in function to Baba Yaga, though her appearance and specific stories differ from the Eastern Slavic stories.
Mama Padurii – Forest Mother, Romanian
Perchta – Alpine region
Sumska Majka – The Forest Mother, Serbian
Ancient Slavic Earth Goddess
That’s very likely possibility given the strong connections of her as a fairy in Hungarian folklore and her connection as a dark, wild and unpredictable force of nature. She could be connected to an ancient matriarchal religion. Some sources have said that the Baba part of her name connects her as being female and that there could very well be a male counterpart to her.
There are also scholars who suggest that Baba Yaga is influenced by the Eastern Slavic people’s contact with the Finno-Ugric and Siberian people. The Finnish stories have an ogress by the name of Syöjätär who is the source of diseases and in stories, she often takes the role of a wicked mother. Contrasting with Syöjätär is Akka, a female fertility spirit or deity found in Estonian, Finnish and Sami mythology and shamanism.
The first distinct references to Baba Yaga or Iaga Baba appear in 1755 with Mikhail V. Lomonosov’s Rossiiskaia Grammatika (Russian Grammar). In this book, Baba Yaga is mentioned a couple times alongside other Slavic figures and traditions. The second mention has her in a list of Slavic deities and their assigned, roman syno-deities.
It’s no wonder, after looking into the folklore and mythology behind Baba Yaga, that in many Wiccan and Modern Pagan practices and even those who aren’t would seek to reclaim and take Baba Yaga back as a feminist icon. When incoming Christianity couldn’t tame Baba Yaga, they vilified her.
After all, centuries of persecution by Christian beliefs and she has endured in the imaginations and of those who examine her stories; see the quintessential, untamed wild old woman who does as she pleases with no one to tell her otherwise. Baba Yaga is a fierce, dark force of magic, who when approached with caution, can help or destroy.
In New Age and Wiccan practices, Baba Yaga fits very easily with the role of the Crone.
Baba Yaga In Folklore
There are a lot of stories in Slavic and Russian folklore that feature Baba Yaga, so much so, she is considered a stock character by authors of modern Russian fairy tales. There are whole articles and commentary that go into exploring Baba Yaga’s role and place in folklore as sometimes, she’s not always an antagonist or even protagonist, she’s a feature or obstacle that the heroes must overcome and get past on their journey. Is she a threat? Does she really prove helpful as a dark and dangerous fairy godmother or guide?
She does seem to come off as a trickster figure, one who can often be bested and outwitted by use of trickery and using her own sense of propriety and rules for manners and etiquette to escape her.
With her continued use in more modern, contemporary literature and media, Baba Yaga’s nature at times, depending on the needs of the narrative and author, her demeanor can soften, though she’ll remind people she can still be very dangerous.
Vasilissa The Beautiful
This is perhaps the most well-known story with Baba Yaga that was recorded by Alexander Afanasyeye in 1862. It begins as any story does, with a merchant who had married for twelve years before he and his wife were able to conceive and have a baby, a little girl whom he called Vasilissa the Beautiful.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and the mother became ill when Vasilissa was eight years old. Before she died, Vasilissa’s mother called her daughter to her bedside where she presented her Vasilissa with a small wooden doll. The mother explained that she was dying and that she was leaving her this little doll. She was not to show anyone this doll and to always be sure to carry it with her everywhere she went. If ever she had any sorrow or threat to her, Vasilissa was to go to a corner and take the doll from her pocket, giving it an offering of food or drink. Once it had drunk or eaten, Vasilissa would then able to tell the doll her troubles and it would aid her or give advice on what to do. With that, the mother kissed Vasilissa on the head and died soon after.
That first day, Vasilissa grieved for her mother’s loss. So much so, that when night finally came, she couldn’t sleep. As she lay there in her bed, Vasilissa remembered the tiny doll and pulled it out from her pocket. Then she found a small piece of bread and something to drink, these Vasillisa placed before the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead, and I am lonely for her.”
The doll came to life, its eyes glowing as it ate a bit of bread and took a sip of drink. When the doll had finished, it told Vasilissa not to cry, that grief can be at its strongest during the night. That she should lay down and try to sleep for in the morning things would be better. Vasilissa did as the doll advised her and went to sleep and found that in the morning, her grief as not as deep and sorrowful as before.
After a period of mourning, Vasilissa’s father decided that it was right to marry again. Being a merchant, it wasn’t difficult for him to find and attract a suitable wife given his status with having a fine house, horses and his charity for giving to the poor. The merchant found a widow close to his own age with two daughters and thought that she would make for a good foster mother to his own little Vasilissa.
Such was not the case, as many of these stories show, the widow was a cruel and cold-hearted woman who only wanted the merchant’s wealth. Nor, did the widow harbor any love for Vasilissa.
Take a page right out of Cinderella, the widow and her two daughters envied and hated Vasilissa for her good looks and gave her all manner of tasks and errands to run in an effort to try and were Vasilissa out. Despite this, Vasilissa persisted, never complaining of what happened to her.
The key to Vasilissa’s success and enduring where others might have failed, is that she still had the little doll. Every night, while everyone else slept, Vasilissa would bring out the doll, while locking her door, she would feed the little doll. After the doll had eaten and drunk a little, Vasilissa would tell the doll of her troubles and the work her stepmother would task her to do.
After the doll came to life and listened to the girl’s plea, it would comfort Vasilissa and send her off to sleep. While she slept, the doll would perform all of the tasks set before Vasilissa and get all of her work and chores are done for the next day. This wouldn’t leave much left come the next morning for Vasilissa to do besides rest and play.
Time passed and Vasilissa grew up, becoming a beautiful young woman of marrying age. All the young, would-be suitors in the village came knocking, seeking out Vasilissa’s hand in marriage. None of the young men ever had an eye for the stepmother’s two daughters. This angered the stepmother to the point of being enraged. The stepmother would tell every young man who arrived at their door that the youngest would never be wed before the older ones. When the young man left, the stepmother would then beat and berate Vasilissa.
More time passed and Vasilissa’s father, the merchant left for a business trip. Barely was the father gone when no sooner did the stepmother have the house sold and packed everything up so they could move to the far side of the village near the dark forest. While the stepsisters worked indoors, the stepmother would task Vasilissa with more errands that would take her out into the dark woods.
The plot thickens!
The stepmother it seems was well aware that out in this dark forest, in a small clearing, Baba Yaga’s hut could be found. The stepmother had high hopes that Vasilissa would encounter the old witch that was known to eat people. She hoped that with each errand, it would be Vasilissa’s last as she would get eaten. Such was not to be, for the little doll of Vasilissa’s would guide her to where the berries and flowers grew and kept her well away from Baba Yaga’s hut.
One night, the stepmother brought all three girls together and tasked each of them with a job. To one of her daughters, they were to knit a piece of lace. The second daughter was to knit a pair of hose. As for Vasilissa, she was to spin a basket of flax. The tasks given out; the stepmother proceeded to put out all of the fires except for one candle before then heading off to sleep.
The girls worked for hours. The older of the girls eventually got up and went to straighten the wick on the lone candle. Instead of straightening the wick, the girl “accidentally” put the candle out. Now the girls panicked, for what would they do without any light to work by? The only house close enough to get a light from was that of Baba Yaga’s. The two daughters of the stepmother bade that Vasilissa be the one to go out and get the much-needed fire as she knew the nearby forest better. Nor, would the girls allow Vasilissa to return to the house without any light or flame.
Out a distraught Vasilissa went and sat on the front steps of the house. She pulled the small doll from her pocket and some food from the other. As she gave the food to the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little and listen to my sorrow. I must go out to the hut of Baba Yaga in the dark forest to get some fire and I fear that she will eat. Tell me! What shall I do?”
The doll came to life, eyes glowing as it ate. When it had finished, the doll replied that Vasilissa should not fear, to go to where she had been sent and that while he was with her, no harm would come to her from the witch. Hearing those words, Vasilissa placed the doll back in her pocket and headed out into the forest.
After a time, walking through the dark forest, Vasilissa soon heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground and shortly after, a white horse and rider dressed all in white passed by her. Soon as rider and horse were gone, it became twilight.
Vasilissa continued further on and again, she heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground as presently, another horse and rider passed by her. This horse and rider were blood-red and once they had gone, the sun arose.
On, Vasilissa continued her journey within the Dark Forest and it became very clear that she was now lost and there was no longer a path to follow. Nor, was there any food for Vasilissa to take out and bring the little doll to life to ask for help or advice.
Finally, as the evening came, Vasilissa found herself standing before a green lawn where a peculiar hut stood on chicken legs. Around the hut, a wall made of human bones with skull atop each post. It was a very unsettling sight for Vasilissa to take in.
While standing there, Vasilissa once more heard the sound of horse hooves and sure enough, a third horse and rider thundered into view. This time horse and rider were all in black. As horse and rider pounded the ground up to the gate to the hut, they disappeared, and night fell upon the forest as everything became dark.
The only place not dark within the forest was the lawn as all the eyes of the skulls on the wall lit up, illuminating the place. Vasilissa didn’t have long to stare for a loud noise boomed from the forest as trees groaned and shift. The source of the noise was Baba Yaga flying in riding in a large mortar with a pestle steering it. As Baba Yaga moved through the forest, behind her, she swept her trail clear with a broom.
Up to the gate, Baba Yaga flew and stopped, reciting the following: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.”
With those words, the hut turned on its chicken legs, facing towards Baba Yaga and stood waiting. Before going in, Baba Yaga sniffed the air and cried out that she smelled someone present and asked he was there.
In fear, Vasilissa stepped out, bowing low before Baba Yaga. “It is only me, Vasilissa, grandmother.” And explained how the daughters of her stepmother bid her come to borrow some fire as it had gone out at home.
Baba Yaga knew of whom Vasilissa spoke off and bargained that if she gave her some fire, that she was to stay a while and work for it. If Vasilissa didn’t, then Baba Yaga would eat her. The bargain struck, Baba Yaga with Vasilissa following behind, entered the hut.
Once they were inside, Baba Yaga sat down on her stove and stretched out her skinny, bony legs as she spoke: “Go and fetch the table and place everything in the oven on it. I’m hungry!”
Hearing this, Vasilissa hurried and pulled out from the oven, enough cooked meat for three big men. Then Vasilissa brought out from the cellar, honey and red wine. All of this Baba Yaga ate and drank with gusto, leaving only a small bit of cabbage soup, a crust of bread and a bit of pork for Vasilissa to eat.
Her hunger satiated, Baba Yaga grew tired and went to lay down on the stove. Before falling asleep, she instructed Vasilissa that on the morrow, when she left, that Vasilissa was to clean the yard, sweep the floors and cook her supper. Vasilissa was then to take a quarter measure of wheat from Baba’s storehouse and pick out all of the black grains and wild peas. Failure to accomplish all of this would see Vasilissa eaten by Baba.
Now Baba Yaga turned over, facing towards the wall and promptly fell asleep as evidenced by the snores. Scared, Vasilissa went to a corner and took out her tiny doll from her pocket. She fed it a bit of bread and a little bit of cabbage soup that she had saved. Then, bursting into tears, Vasilissa told the doll to eat a little and drink a little and then told it how she was in the house of Baba Yaga, that the old witch had given her a difficult task and if she did not complete it all, that Baba Yaga would eat her. What was she to do?
The little doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate the bread and drank the soup before it responded, telling Vasilissa not to be afraid. To say her prayers and go to sleep, that things would look clearer in the morning. Trusting her little doll, Vasilissa did as she was told and went to sleep.
The next morning, Vasilissa awoke early while it was yet dark. Peering out the window, she the skulls on the wall glowing still. As she continued to watch, Vasilissa saw a man dressed all in white ride away on a white horse ran past and as they pounded by, it became light. The glowing eyes of the skulls went out with the light. Baba Yaga went out to the yard and whistled for her giant iron mortar and pestle that came. Climbing in, Baba Yaga flew away. Shortly after she left, a man dressed all in red riding an equally red horse appeared, signaling fully the arrival of dawn.
Alone now, Vasilissa looked about the hut as she took in everything that had to be cleaned and all that she was tasked to do. As she turned attention back to the yard, Vasilissa was astonished to find the yard already clean along with the floors of the house when she looked back inside. Looking around, Vasilissa spotted her little doll sitting in the storehouse as it picked the last of the black grains and wild peas out from a quarter measure of wheat.
Vasilissa took up the little doll in arms to thank it. That now all she had to do was cook Baba Yaga’s supper. The little doll bid her to that task which Vasilissa did after the doll went back to her pocket. Laying out the table for supper and getting the meal ready, Vasilissa needed only to rest and wait the rest of the day.
As she waited, Vasilissa heard the sound of horse’s hooves and soon saw a rider all in black on a black horse ride up the gate and disappear. Once the black rider vanished, it became night and the eyes of the skulls began to glow. Not long after that, the forest began to shake and branches tremble as Baba Yaga flew back to hut.
On entering her hut, Baba Yaga looked around, sniffing the air. Baba Yaga then asked the girl if she had done all that was asked of her or was Baba Yaga going to get to eat her? Vasilissa replied for her to look.
Baba Yaga looked around the hut and yard. Try as she might, Baba Yaga was unable to find anything amiss which angered the old witch. Still, the tasks were done, and Baba Yaga clapped her hands together, calling for her faithful servants to take her wheat. Instantly, three pairs of hands appeared and hauled away the measure of wheat.
Then Baba Yaga sat down at the table as Vasilissa placed before her all the food that she had cooked along with kvass, honey and red wine. Baba Yaga ate with much gusto, enough for four men. Finished, Baba Yaga stretched out her bony legs on the stove and told Vasilissa that tomorrow, she was to the same as she had done today and in addition, that she was to take a half-measure of poppy seeds from the storehouse and clean them, one by one. It seems that someone mixed earth with the seeds to cause old Baba Yaga some mischief. With that, Baba Yaga turned over towards the wall and began to snore.
Just as she had the night before, Vasilissa crept to a corner to pull out her little doll. She once more placed a small bit of food before the doll to ask its advice. Like always, the doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate. Finished, the doll replied for Vasilissa not to worry, to say her prayers as she had before and to sleep. Vasilissa did as she was bid and went to sleep.
The next morning, Vasilissa awoke to the sound of Baba Yaga’s whistling. Vasilissa got up and ran to the window, just in time to see the old witch take off in her giant mortar and pestle. Just as she had seen the day before, the man in red appeared on his horse, riding away to signal the dawn. Like the previous morning too, as Vasilissa looked around, she saw that all of the tasks had been accomplished by her doll and all that remained was to cook the supper.
Vasilissa had everything for dinner prepared and ready on the table when the man in black on his horse return to signal nighttime and Baba Yaga’s arrival. Baba Yaga came into her hut, peering around, seeing for herself that all the tasks and supper were accomplished. Angry, Baba Yaga clapped her hands, calling for her servants to come take the poppy seeds. Again, three pairs of hands appeared to take the measure of poppy seeds away.
Baba Yaga sat down at the table devouring the meal with the zeal and gusto of five men. Vasilissa stood nearby, quietly waiting as the old witch ate. The quietness annoyed Baba Yaga who snapped at the girl, asking why she stood there as if she were dumb.
Vasilissa replied that she didn’t dare speak, but if she was allowed, could she ask grandmother some questions.
Baba Yaga allowed it, cautioning Vasilissa to remember that not every question had good answers and that knowing too much could lead a person to prematurely growing old.
Vasilissa then inquired, asking about the white rider. Baba Yaga said that was her servant, Bright Day. Then Vasilissa asked about the red rider to which Baba Yaga responded that was her servant, the Red Sun. Lastly, Vasilissa asked about the black rider and Baba Yaga replied that was her servant, the Dark Night. That none of her servants couldn’t harm Vasilissa.
Going silent, Vasilissa sat there and Baba Yaga wanted the girl to ask more questions. Why not ask more? What about the three pairs of hands? Vasilissa answered that three questions were enough and that she did not want to grow old too soon if she knew too much.
Old Baba Yaga laughed and said that well for her if she had asked about the hands, they would have appeared and seized Vasilissa to carry away to become Baba Yaga’s next meal. Now that Vasilissa had asked her questions, Baba Yaga wanted to ask questions of her own.
Namely, how was it that Vasilissa had been able to accomplish all the tasks in the short time allotted. Frightened, Vasilissa nearly brought out her doll, but thought better of it in time, replying instead that she had the blessing of her dead mother helped her.
Enraged, Baba Yaga told Vasilissa to get out of her house, she would have no one in her house who bore a blessing to cross her threshold. As Vasilissa got up to leave, running from the house, Baba Yaga grabbed a skull from a post on her wall and threw it at the girl. Saying that she was to take the skull, that’s what the stepmother’s daughters had sent her for.
Grabbing up the skull, Vasilissa placed it on the end of a stick and carried it with her out of the forest, running as fast as she could. She ran until morning when the glow of the skull dimmed just as Vasilissa exited the edge of the forest before her stepmother’s house.
Surely, by now, Vasilissa thought, the sisters would have found another light. Vasilissa thought to throw the skull into the hedge, but it spoke saying not to throw it away, to take it to her stepmother. Vasilissa picked up the skull again and carried it with her to the house.
In all the time that Vasilissa had been gone, the stepmother and daughters had had no fire or light for all of the house. Whenever they would strike flint and steel, the tinder wouldn’t catch and any fire brought in from a neighbor’s would immediately out as soon as it crossed the threshold of the house. Such was the state of three to have no light or warmth for themselves or to cook food. This made it the first time that the presence of Vasilissa was ever welcomed for when she carried the skull across the threshold, it’s light did not go out.
The stepmother insisted on placing the skull in the best room on a candlestick. As the stepmother and her daughters admired it, the eyes of the skull began to glow red like coals. Whenever the three would look or go, the eyes of the skull would follow, growing larger and brighter until the eyes burned bright as a furnace, growing hotter and hotter so that the stepmother and her daughters burned to ashes. Only Vasilissa was spared this fate.
What every poor abused stepchild wants, freedom from the wicked stepparent and siblings.
The next morning, Vasilissa dug a hole and buried the skull and locked the door to the house. She then set out of the village where she went to live with an old woman who was childless. There, Vasilissa lived, waiting for her father’s return from his journey.
After a few days of nothing to do, Vasilissa asked the old woman for some flax to spin, that she could at least do. The old woman went out and got Vasilissa some flax of the best kind and Vasilissa sat down to spin. So fine was the thread, even and fine as hair, eventually there was enough to work with to weave. However, so fine was the thread that there was frame that could weave the thread.
As she had done before when needing help, Vasilissa took out her little doll and giving it food and drink, told it of her need for a frame to weave her thread on. As always, the little doll came to life, eating and drink and when it had finished, it instructed Vasilissa to bring it an old frame, an old basket and some hairs from a horse’s mane and that it would make the frame needed. Vasilissa did as she was instructed, getting all the items and bringing them back.
The next morning, Vasilissa found a frame suited for the needs of weaving her thread on. It would take Vasilissa several months work weaving, throughout the winter, until she had at last a piece of linen as fine that it could be passed like the thread it was made of through the eye of a needle. Spring came and Vasilissa bleached the linen, making it as white as snow. Vasilissa then bid the old woman take the linen to market and sell it for the money made would pay for her food and lodging. The old woman returned from the market, saying that no one would buy the linen and that no one would wear it except for the Tsar himself. That tomorrow, she would carry it to the Palace.
The next day came and the old woman carried it to the Palace, and she spent her time walking up and down the walkways of the Palace. Servants would come up and ask her what brought her to the Palace and the old woman would say nothing. Presently enough, the Tsar opened his window and called down to the old woman what she wanted.
The old woman replied that she had a marvelous piece of linen and that she would show it to no one but him. The Tsar bid the servants bring the old woman in who showed off the linen to him. The Tsar was so taken with the finery and beauty of the cloth that he asked the old woman what she wanted for it. The old woman replied that there was no price for it, it had been brought as a gift. So pleased was the Tsar that he couldn’t thank her enough and sent the old woman away with many gifts.
Numerous seamstresses were brought in to make shirts for the Tsar out of the marvelous cloth, but they found that when it was cut up, that none of them had skill to sew it. The Tsar found himself calling the old woman back, saying that if she knew how to spin such linen, surely, she would know how to sew shirts from it.
At this, the old woman confessed that it wasn’t her who wove the cloth, but her adopted daughter who had done so. The Tsar bid the old woman to bring the cloth back to her daughter to sew into shirts. Bringing the cloth home, Vasilissa replied that it was just as well that she be the one to sew the shirts as she made the cloth.
Vasilissa took the cloth and went to her room where she returned later with a dozen shirts for the Tsar. The old woman brought all of these back to the Tsar who was so delighted with the craftsmanship that he sent a servant to fetch Vasilissa and bring her back to the Palace.
For the Tsar, it was love at first sight when he saw Vasilissa enter his Palace. So beautiful was Vasilissa that the Tsar asked her to marry him. The two wed and shortly after, Vasilissa’s father returned from his journey and he and the old woman went to live with Vasilissa in the Palace. As for the little doll, Vasilissa kept it with her always in her pocket all her life.
Christianized Version –
There is a Christianized version of this story where, when Vasilissa is sent off to Baba Yaga and ends up being captured by the old witch, it is Baba Yaga’s servants, a cat, a dog, a gate and a tree that all help Vasilissa escape her fate as she had shown them each kindness. At the end of this story, Baba Yaga turns into a crow.
Baba Yaga And The Peasant Children
This is a story I came across that is very similar to the Christianized version of Vasilissa’s story above. It also, after I finished reading it, that it sounds a lot like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel. You go over to Poland and these Gingerbread dwelling witches are all over the place.
The story starts off with two children who have a cruel stepmother. One day, the stepmother decides she no longer wants the children and contrives a way to send them off into the forest to get lost and eaten by the infamous Baba Yaga.
The children do find their way into Baba Yaga’s clutches and while there, they are able to escape her cannibalistic nature first from a black cat who helps them as they had fed it when Baba Yaga wouldn’t. Secondly, the children are aided by the gate slamming shut on Baba to slow her down because the children had mended the gate when Baba Yaga had neglected it. Finally, the very trees of the forest aid the children in evading Baba Yaga due to how she had mistreated them. The children are able to get home safely where their father kicks out the stepmother and welcomes his children home.
This is another story involving Baba Yaga that I came across and it reads in many ways, like a modern horror story. In it, there is an old woman who’s a princess and she had two children, a son and daughter. Entering the story is an old witch, Baba Yaga who doesn’t want the woman or her children to be happy. She turns into a fox and appears before the woman, presenting her with a ring and tells her that the ring is for her son, that he will be rich and generous, and he can only marry the woman whose finger will also fit the ring.
The old woman or princess believes the fox has given her a blessed gift and bestows it on her son. Time goes by and the son grows up and he beings to look for the woman whose finger will fit the ring. He finds many women whom he likes and fancies, but none of them are able to wear the ring. At long last, the son, Danila laments to his sister Katerina how he is unable to find a wife as no one is able to wear the ring.
Katerina asks to see the ring and Danila pulls it out. As it’s a ring, Katerina does the most natural thing and tries it on. To both siblings’ astonishment, the ring fits and Danila declares that Katerina is meant to be his wife. This can’t be so Katerina cries out, that’s incest and against God’s will. But Danila is so elated he runs off dancing and singing.
Katerina goes outside to cry her misfortune and as she does so, some elderly woman pass by and ask her what the matter is. They listen to her story and tell Katerina not to worry. Make four dolls and places them in the corners of her room. When Danila calls her to marriage, she should go and when it’s time to go to the bedroom, take her time. That Katerina should put her faith and trust in God to work things out.
Katerina does as she’s advised with making the dolls and placing them. Soon after, she and her brother are married. That night, when Danila called her to bed, Katerina took her time with getting ready and heading to bed.
This is where it gets to sounding like a horror story, as Danila is calling for Katerina, the dolls come to life, calling out how Prince Danila is marrying his sister and taking her to bed, for the earth to open up and Katerina to fall inside.
The more Danila calls, the more the dolls cry out, the more the earth opens up beneath Katrina and she sinks down within it. Eventually Danila can’t hear Katerina responding and he rushes into the room where she was supposed to be getting ready for bed. Only he finds the dolls calling out for the earth to open up and sister fall inside and there’s no sign of his sister. Danila flies into a rage and chops off the heads of all the dolls.
Meanwhile, Katerina finds herself beneath the earth and eventually she comes across a small hut that stands on chicken legs. A voice calls out from within for the hut to: “stand as before, rear to the forest and face before me.” The chicken hut turns, and Katerina is greeted to the sight of a beautiful maiden sitting alone inside.
The maiden invites Katerina inside to visit for a while. The maiden warns Katerina that her mother is a witch and when she shows up, she needs to hide. However much this frightened Katerina and with nowhere else to go, she went inside to visit and talk with the maiden as she knitted and made a wedding towel.
I can see where this is going…
The maiden knows when her mother will return, and she turns Katerina into a needle that she hides in her broom. No sooner done, then in comes the old witch who declares that it smells of a Russian having been in the hut.
The maiden says that some passersby had come through, looking for water. When the old witch asks why the maiden didn’t hold them, the maiden says that they were too old and tough for the old witch’s teeth.
The old witch instructs the maiden to call people into the yard and to keep them there next time. Now she was going to head off and get some booty. The old witch leaves and the two girls resume their talking and laughing.
The old witch returns again, Katerina is turned into a needle once more before she enters the house and the maiden tells a story to her mother how she couldn’t detain and keep the people there.
Third times the charm and the old witch isn’t fooled, she takes off again, but doesn’t go far for just when the girls are back to their antics of laughing and talking, where Katerina will hide this time and what story to use, the old witch enters the hut, revealing herself to be Baba Yaga to the frightened Katerina.
Delighted that her daughter has finally caught dinner, Baba Yaga tries unsuccessfully to get Katerina to sit on a paddle to be placed in the oven. Katerina makes it difficult as she keeps moving her legs to keep from getting pushed in. Baba Yaga is angered and when she tries to push Katerina in, the maiden takes her opportunity and instead, shoves her mother into the oven.
As the two girls ran, Baba Yaga got free of the oven and chased after them. First, the maiden threw down her brush that turned into a marsh that Baba Yaga had difficulty crawling through. On the girls ran with Baba Yaga still giving chase. Now the maiden tossed down her comb and a dark, thick forest sprang up that slowed down the old witch, causing Baba Yaga to lose sight of the two for a time.
Eventually, she was nearly caught up with the girls and the maiden now threw down her towel which turned into a vast fiery lake. Baba Yaga tried to fly up over this fiery lake, no matter how high Baba Yaga flew, the heat of the lake got to her and she plunged to a fiery death.
The two girls made it back to the world above but didn’t have any idea of where they were at. As they sat to rest, catching their breath, a man came up to the two. Both Katerina and the maiden were very alike in appearance and the man knew that they both matched the description of the missing Prince’s sister and wife, Katerina.
Finding themselves getting brought before Prince Danila so he could figure out which was his sister, Katerina refused to speak a word. As they couldn’t get either girl to speak, the man who was a servant of Danila’s came up with a plan to have the Prince hide a bladder full of blood under an arm, he, the servant would come up and stab him and that would get the sister to speak and thus reveal herself.
The plan is put into motion, the Prince with blood bladder under his clothing comes back out. The servant goes to stab the Prince. The Prince falls down as if dead, Katerina cries out in fright and goes up to hold the body of her brother, only to find, surprise! He’s not dead. Danila hugs his sister and marries her off to a good man and he decides to marry the maiden as the ring he has fits her finger too.
And I find that ending very wow? All that work and Katerina and the maiden are both married off like property, the Prince is reward for…pretending to die and takes the friend who shows up seemingly out of nowhere.
However that’s not the scope of retelling these stories, just that they’re ones that feature Baba Yaga that I came across and showcase her as a very scary, unpredictable being, whom with a bit of luck, cunning, one’s own magic or minding manners when dealing with someone very old, they can survive an encounter with Baba Yaga.
I could go on for quite a while trying to give quick run-through of all the different folktales involving Baba Yaga, there are just that many. It would be my luck to still miss one or two. She even continues into the present day with continued use in literature and media.
At the very least, I can try to mention some of these other stories. There is: “The Feather of Finist the Falcon,” this is one story where the hero meets up with three Baba Yagas. There is also “Teryoshechka”, “The Enchanted Princess,” “The Silver Saucer and the Red Apple,” “The Maiden Tsar,” “The Tale of the Three Royal Divas”, “Ivashka, The Priest’s Son,” “Baba Yaga and Zamoryshek,” “By Command of the Prince Daniel,” “Marya Moryevna,” “Realms of Copper, Silver and Gold,” “The Sea Tsar and Vasilisa the Wise,” and “Legless Knight and Blind Knight.”
Reality Behind The Myth
The description of Baba Yaga’s hut that stands on chicken legs, with no windows or doors, likely has a place in the local cultures of the Siberian region. Similarly built cabins and huts have been observed with the early hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia (namely the Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families. To keep wild animals from getting into food supplies while they have gone, they built cabins with no doors or windows up on supports from trees. From a distance, these supports with the tree roots still attached would look like chicken legs. The only access to these huts would be by way of a trap door.
Smaller, similar constructs were used in the old Siberian pagan religion to hold figurines of their deities. The idea has put forth of a late matriarchy where a bone-carved doll dressed in rags is placed in a small cabin that the doll can barely fit in.
The last idea is a funeral tradition used for cremating the dead in huts built on poles. Russian archaeologists, Yefimenko and Tretyakov found small huts containing the cremated remains of corpses and circular fences places around them in 1948.
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Also Called: Gataro (“River Boy”), Kawako (“River Child”), Kawataro (“River Boy” or “River Tiger”), Komahiki (“Horse Puller”), Suiko (“Water Tiger”)
There are some eighty names for kappa depending on the region they’re found in. Next to the oni and tengu, kappa are some of the best known yokai found in Japan.
Some of these other names are: Dangame (“Soft-Shelled Turtle”), Enko (“monkey”), Gawappa, Kawappa, Kawaso (“otter”), Kogo, Mizuchi, Mizushi, and Suitengu.
Etymology – “River-Child” from the words kawa for “river” and wappo, an inflection of waraba meaning “child.”
In the Shinto Religion of Japan, Kappa are mischievous water spirits or yokai who will pull young children and the unwary into the river and ponds where they live and drown them. Kappa are also known for attacking travelers and animals. Even today, many towns and villages keep signs out warning of the dangers of kappa near a river.
Some of the less deadly pranks that kappa will pull are passing gas loudly and looking up women’s kimonos. They will also steal crops, flat out kidnap children and rape women.
The kappa are curious about human culture, they are not mindlessly aggressive and many can be appealed or reasoned with as they do speak Japanese. Wisemen were known to befriend kappa and learn the art of setting bones from them. It’s thought that somehow, kappa were once wise monkeys.
Kappa will also sometimes challenge people to different tests of skill such as shogi or sumo wrestling. People have been known to befriend kappa by giving gifts and offerings, often of food and especially cucumbers.
The kappa are a major folkloric figure that people have reported seeing for centuries. They have remained a staple of literature and even the tourist industry in some towns will tell visitors to be wary of kappa and to be careful.
In Shinto, the Kappa are viewed as one of many types of Suijin or water people or even water deities. Many of these water deities or spirits are often depicted as snakes, dragons, eels, fish, turtles and kappa. It is believed that belief in kappa can be traced back to China, though much of the kappa lore is native to Japan.
With the arrival of Chinese and Koreans during the 2nd century C.E. along with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, the imagery of kappa would be begin to take on these attributes.
While the name for the most powerful Suijin in Japan is Mizu no Kamisama or Goddess or God of Water, the kappa are more accurately referred to as Kawa no Kami or River Deity reflecting a less powerful status.
The offering of cucumbers to kappa may have come from a tradition of giving the year’s first crop of cucumbers and eggplants to the local river to either appease local water deities or hungry ghosts.
Festivals – There are still some festivals held in places, twice a year during the equinoxes to placate the kappa and ensure a good harvest. These festivals also mark the time of the year when the kappa travel down from the mountains to the rivers and back up.
Kappa Odori Dance – This is a sacred Shinto dance used to pray for abundant crops. Young boys dress up as kappa and jump and bounce around in time to the humorous music as it’s played.
Jozankei Hot Springs – A local spa near the Toyohiragawa River to the southwest of Sapporo. Named after the monk who found the place, the kappa are local guardian spirits. Some 23 kappa statues stand around the area. The Kappa Pool becomes very lively in early August during the Kappa Festival. A local legend holds that the story of the Kappa Buchi occurred here.
Ainu Folklore – The Ainu are Japan’s earliest inhabitants who live mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The connection here is very tentative as some believe that the kappa come from Ainu folklore. There’s just not enough known of their mythology to really make a concrete connection. What does get cited is that near the main city Sapporo on Hokkaido is an area known as Jozankei where the legends for the “Great Kappa King” and the “Kappa Buchi Legend” can be found, though these stories are not likely to be of Ainu origin and mythology.
Nihon Shoki – Chronicles of Japan – One of Japan’s earliest and official records, it was compiled sometime around 720 C.E. It is the first text to refer to kappa where it is called Kawa no Kami or River Deity in this text.
Wakan Sansaizue – Kappa don’t really take on popularity until around Japan’s medieval era, during the Edo period. The Wakan Sansaizue is a 105-volume encyclopedia dating to about 1713 C.E. and is the first to depict a kappa.
Gazu Hyakkiyagyō – Or the “Night Procession of One Hundred Demons” is a four volume text that next shows and depicts kappa within it.
From here, the popularity of kappa in continues in the Edo Period, appearing in a serial called Kasshiyawa where the kappa called Kawataro. Another document is the Mimibukuro, a 10-volume text written by Negishi Yasumori.
Portuguese Monks – When Portuguese monks arrived in Japan during the 16th century, their appearance of cloaks that hung down in back like a kappa’s shell and their shaven heads resulting in a bald head crowned with hair known as a Capa for the Portuguese word for this hair style would easily become absorbed into Japan’s Kappa lore…. After all a homophone of words Kappa and Capa sound very alike.
Drowned Monkeys – Some legends will hold that the first kappa come from monkeys. Yanagida Kunio records a story where he notes that some regions of Japan referred to kappa as enko or monkeys.
There is a famous Buddhist story from China in which a group of monkeys tried to capture the moon’s reflection. For their trouble and efforts, the monkeys were drowned.
The Monkey King Versus The Water Demon – There are a number of tales for the Indian collection of Buddha stories called Jataka. Dating from the 3rd century B.C.E. India and Sri Lanka, the story in question features the monkey kingdom under attack from a monkey-eating water demon. The wise monkey king outwitted the demon with bamboo.
So, what’s the connection? In Sanskrit, the word Kapi translates to monkey. It’s possible that Kappa is a distorted form of Kapi. It would explain some of the descriptions of kappa being monkey-like is a carry over of this distortion. Further, there is a kapi jembawan, a monkey sage in Indonesian folklore based on the Dwarka kingdom where Lord Krishna ruled. The famous Hindi poet, Tulsidas who wrote the Ramayana some 500 years ago, uses the word kapi in place of the Vanara or monkey folk in the South who help Rama defeat Ravana.
If we’re looking at linguist connections, that could all hold up.
Kappa look like child-sized humanoid turtles or more often monkeys with scaly limbs and thick tortoise shells. Some kappa are depicted with ape-like faces while others are more beaked. Skin coloration ranges from green to yellow and even blue.
The most distinguishing feature of kappa are the bowl or saucer-shaped depressions on the top of their heads called a sara (meaning “dish,” “bowl,” or “plate.”) When leaving the water, kappa makes sure that the sara is kept filled with water. The sara is surrounded with scraggly hair in a bobbed hair style known as okappa-atama. Should the kappa loose this water, it loses its strength and powers, possibly even dying in this weakened state if water isn’t refilled. Some kappa are reputed to have taken to wearing a metal plate or cap to cover their sara so the water doesn’t pour or dry out, thus weakening them.
Depending on the story, the arms of a kappa are said to be connected to each such, that the kappa can slide their arm from one side to the other. I can see that trick, the kappa is wearing a shell, pull one arm in and stuff it out the other arm hole, much like a person does when wearing a t-shirt. I’m sure it’s a simple enough illusion and magic trick to pull off.
Aquatic creatures who live in ponds and rivers, Kappa also possess webbed hands and feet. People have commented that Kappa smell like fish. Some of the legends involving kappa have them spending spring and summer down in the water during autumn and winter, heading up to the Yama-no-Kami (“Mountain Deities”) mountains. While kappa can be found throughout much of Japan, they’re often found in the Saga Prefecture.
Hyosube – This is the name for the kappa’s hairy cousin. The two are identical otherwise in terms of physical attributes and what they do. The biggest distinction of the two aside from hair, is that kappa are more prone to staying outside. The Hyosube are more likely to sneak into people’s homes to cause mischief, namely to take a bath. Being so hairsute, the hyosube are known to shed hair which is deadly to those who encounter it in Japanese folklore.
Shibaten – Also called Shibatengu, is a more turtle-like kappa where the kappa can be more ape or monkey like in appearance.
The kappa feed on a diet of blood and cucumbers.
Blood – Young children are told to be wary when playing near the water’s edge of ponds and rivers. Children are a kappa’s favored meal though they’re not above eating an adult.
Eww… so what makes humans so appealing to a kappa is a shirikodama that they will suck out of a person’s anus. Alrighty then.
And the shirikodama? Depending on the source and legend, that’s a mystical ball containing a person’s life force or soul that’s found near the anus, entrails, in the blood or liver.
Cucumbers – The only thing that kappa love more than small children. Its customary for some Japanese parents to write the names of their children or themselves on a cucumber and toss it into a pond or river where the kappa are believed to dwell.
Other Food Offerings – Cucumbers aren’t the only food item a kappa will accept. Offerings of eggplant, soba noodles, natto (fermented soybeans) and kabocha (winter squash) are accepted by kappa.
Being an aquatic yokai, it goes without saying that kappa are master swimmers with a vast knowledge of water and it’s importance.
Strength – Much of a kappa’s strength is tied to the waters of the pond or river it calls home. The water that a kappa keeps in the depression on its head is a source of its strength and even life.
Flatulence – I’m not sure that I would call this a power. Suffice to say that a kappa can use a particularly noxious gas attack in self-defense much like skunks do. A kappa is known to release this gas not just as a prank but to get someone like fishermen to let it go.
Flight – So those cucumbers offered to the kappa, not only do they eat the cucumbers, the kappa uses them to fly around on like dragonflies. Okay….
So how does one manage to thwart and defeat a Kappa you might ask?
Arms – If we go off the idea that the arms of a kappa are connected to each other, they can be easily pulled off. If a person manages to get a kappa’s arm, they will perform a task in order to get it back. Assuming the arm can be reattached.
Challenges – Kappa aren’t mindlessly aggressive, and a person can reason with them. If they don’t have an offering of cucumbers to give, a person can try challenging the kappa. Most challenges usually take the form of feats of strength with wrestling matches.
One challenge found in a folktale sees a Farmer’s daughter get promised to a kappa in marriage in exchange for the yokai to irrigate his land. The daughter challenged the kappa to submerge several gourds in water. When the kappa failed at this task, the daughter was freed from the marital arrangement.
Fire – Being water creatures, it stands to reason that Kappa are held to be afraid of fire and loud noises. Some villages in Japan will have fireworks festivals each year to try and scare away spirits.
Land – Kappa can’t survive for long on the land and must always keep their heads wet, especially the sara filled with water.
Etiquette – That in mind, the kappa are overly found of etiquette, so if you bow deeply to them in greeting, they will bow as well, spilling the water from their sara. With this water spilled, the kappa loses its strength and any powers, becoming weakened and possibly die if this water isn’t refilled. It must be water from their home river or pond that is poured back in. If a human is the one who refills this water, it is believed that the kappa would the human in question for the rest of eternity.
Cucumbers – Offering the Kappa a nice tasty cucumber is sure to do the trick and placate them instead of trying to haul you into the river to drown.
Instead of offering the cucumber, a person would the vegetable themselves as a means of protection before swimming. Though some will say this is sure to guarantee an attack.
Miscellaneous – There’s a variety of other items that supposedly drive away kappa. These items include ginger, iron and sesame.
A Friend For Life
Those who have successfully befriended a kappa find that they truly have a friend for life. Kappa are known to help farmers in any number of ways such as irrigating fields. The kappa are very knowledgeable in the way of medicine and have been known to teach the art of bone setting to humans.
There are shrines to kappa that have been established, especially of a particularly helpful kappa. You could trick a kappa into service via the bowing and refilling the bowl on their head with water. He’s not likely to be so nice about the help he gives then.
The kappa, like the European Fae won’t break an oath as their sense of etiquette and decorum is such, they just won’t. So yeah, a human can trick a kappa into service and get one to swear an oath to them, the kappa’s sense of honor says they will follow it through to the end.
There are a few expressions associated with kappa.
Kappa Maki – A cucumber sushi roll named for kappa.
“Kappa-no-kawa-nagare” – This phrase translates to “A kappa drowning in a river” is used to mean that even an expert can make mistakes.
“Kappa no He” – Much ado about nothing, the literal translation is water-imp fart. This is my new favorite.
Okappa – the bobbed hairstyles that look like those kappa sport.
This is a martial arts style invented by Kappa who will sometimes teach it to humans. The name of koppojutsu translates as “attacks against bones.” It is a hard-martial art compared to another, koshijutsu that is a soft-martial art that targets an opponent’s muscles.
The Kappa Pool is a legend found in the Jozankei region of Japan.
A young man was out fishing in a deep pool and he ended up falling in. He never surfaced. Some months later, as his father slept, the son came to him in a dream and told his father that he was living happily with the Kappa, that he even had a kappa wife and child. Shortly after, the pool came to be known as the Kappa Buchi.
The Kappa bridge found in Tokyo used to be farmland that was surrounded by canals prone to flooding. During the late Edo period, a raincoat dealer, Kappaya Kihachi spent his entire fortune on building a better drainage system. The work proved more difficult than expect and taking longer to complete.
Falling into despair and about to give up, the man was visited by a kappa whose life he had saved many years before. The kappa had arrived to help and in no time at all, the new drainage system was completed. Further, the story goes that those who saw the kappa were blessed with good fortune. Shortly after, the Kappa Temple was built to honor and enshrine the kappa as a local deity.
Saiyuki – Journey West
When the Chinese epic of Journey to the West arrived in Japan, the character of Sha Wujing’s name is changed to Sangojo or Sagojo. Where Sha Wujing or Sandy is often depicted as a Water Buffalo or some kind of water demon, in Japan, he is frequently identified as a kappa.
Horses & Livestock & Monkeys!
Continuing a connection of Kappa to the Journey West story, in which kappa come from drown monkeys. In Chinese lore, monkeys are shown riding horses and in Journey West, the Jade Emperor appoints Monkey or Son Goku to a position of a Stable Hand or Protector of Horses.
This connection could explain a few different folktales and stories of kappa harassing people’s horse and cattle. There is a story recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in Kawachimura where a horse-stealing kappa was captured and forced to sign an agreement never to harm any people or steal from them again. The kappa even went so far as to swear he would get his fellow kappa to swear to the oath of leaving humans alone.
Of course, it could be too much of a stretch and horses were just one of many animals and objects that kappa would try to steal from humans.
Possible Reality Behind The Myths
Drowning – It’s likely stories of kappa developed as a means to scare and warn children from wandering too close to the water’s edge at any pond or river.
Kappa are even blamed for drowning deaths and signs are still posted near bodies of water that warn of kappa dangers.
Giant Salamanders – It makes sense, that inspiration for the kappa could come from the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki. It is a large, aggressive salamander that grow up to five feet in length that will grab its prey with powerful jaws.
Miscarriages & Leech Babies – Touching back on that idea of kappa rapping women. There is an 18th century Ukiyo-e picture by Utamaro showing a kappa rapping an ama diver while underwater. That’s a bit unpleasant. More relevant might be a belief found in Kunio Yanagita’s Tono Monogatari, in which women who were raped by kappa and became pregnant often had repulsive babies born. These babies, called Leech Babies, would be buried shortly after.
Sometimes these stillborn babies would be tossed into a river and children would be warned to stay away from the water’s edge to avoid seeing these dead babies. Sadly, sometimes a poor family might have tossed an unwanted baby into the river if they couldn’t afford to care for it.
It’s possible a woman might say she had been raped by a kappa in order to try and explain why a baby was born deformed and likely stillborn. It would provide a way of saving face to explain a stillborn and deformities. That’s my take after reading in Celtic folklore and comparing it the myths regarding Changelings and parents who have a child that dies of SIDs, you just say the fairies came and took your baby and that the one isn’t real. Because somewhere, your real baby is still alive.
Similar Folkloric Figures
There are a few other, similar figures found in other cultures from around the world that have been used to scare young children from straying too close to the water’s edge.
Kelpie – A fearsome water horse in Scottish folklore known to drown those who try to ride it.
Näkki – A water monster from Finnish folklore.
Neck – Also called Nix or Nixie, a similar shapeshifting creature to the Näkki, only from Germanic and Scandinavian folklore.
Shui Gui – Water Ghost or Water Monkey is a similar creature found in Chinese folklore.
Siyokoy – Found in the Philippin islands and known for kidnapping children. Their description is very similar to those of kappa.
Vodyanoy – A frog-like water spirit found in Slavic folklore.
Vodnik – A green humanoid spirit or creature found in western Slavic folklore, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
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Etymology – Sown-Ones or Sown Men. From the Greek word: σπείρω, speírō, meaning: “to sow.”
Also known as: Σπαρτοί (Spartos), Σπαρτος (Spartoi), Spartus, Spartes, Sparti, Serpent’s Race, Ophion’s Race, Gegenees (Earth-Born), Gigantes, Terrigenae (Earth-Born)
In Greek mythology, the Spartoi are the earth-born warriors of the war god, Ares. When the teeth of the slain dragon Dracon were planted in a field sacred to Ares, a warrior springs up from the ground fully grown, armed, and ready for battle from each tooth. As such, the Spartoi are seen as the sons of Ares.
Spartoi Of Thebes
The famous hero Cadmus is perhaps the most well-known for having planted and created such an army in his founding of Thebes.
As the story goes, Cadmus was the son of King Agenor and Queen Telephassa in Tyre. After his sister Europa had been kidnapped by the god Zeus, Agenor sent Cadmus and his other brothers to search for her. Eventually, all the brothers gave up their search and began to find other places to settle since they couldn’t return home to Tyre.
Cadmus had been told by an oracle at Delphi, to found a city where ever a cow would stop and lay down. After a good long while, the cow finally lay down and Cadmus sent his men off to the nearby spring of Ismene to fetch water as part of sacrificing the cow to Athena. As it would be, this particular spring was guarded by a dragon or serpent, Drakon that killed many of Cadmus’ men before he finally slew it with his sword.
Now a couple of different things happened. First, Athena appeared to Cadmus and gave him half of the dragon’s teeth, instructing him to plant them. As Cadmus did so on the Aonian plain, from each tooth sprang up a fully armed warrior. Fearing for his life, Cadmus threw a stone in amongst the warriors and they began to fight each other. Each thinking the stone had been thrown by another warrior. These warriors fought until there were only five of them left standing. Sometimes, depending on who’s telling the story, Athena instructed Cadmus to leave only five living Spartoi. These five remaining warriors’ names were: Chthonius, Echion, Hyperenor, Pelorus, and Udeus. At Cadmus’ instructions, they helped him to found and build the city of Thebes.
Secondly, with the dragon being sacred to Ares, Cadmus was forced to be a servant to the god for an “everlasting year,” such a time period was the equivalent of eight years as repayment for killing it. At the end of that time, Cadmus was married to Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Cadmus and Harmonia had four daughters, Agave, Autonoe, Ino and Semele.
In his writings, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth, only five warriors sprang up from the ground. There was no fighting it out among them. In addition, Hellanicus has Zeus step in to save Cadmus from the Ares’ wrath as the war god wanted to kill the mortal. And the Spartoi, Echion marries Cadmus’ daughter Agave and their son, Pentheus succeeds Cadmus to become king.
Royal Family Of Thebes
The five surviving Spartoi from the dragon’s teeth that Cadmus sowed, go on to become the ancestors and founding families of Thebes. Additionally, whenever the Theban seer summons the ghosts of heroes past, it is the Spartoi who appear.
The descendants of the Spartoi all bear distinctive birth marks that identified them as such. Some thought is that these birth marks looked like serpents or dragons. Another source sites that this birth mark appeared as a spear.
Khthonios – (Χθονιος, Chthonius) “Of the Earth.” He has two known sons, Nykteus and Lykos. His granddaughter Nykteis marries Polydorus from Ekhiôn’s line and uniting these two families to the royal ruling line of Cadmus for Thebes.
Ekhiôn – (Εχιων, Echion – Latin) “Of the Viper,” He marries Agave, Cadmus’ daughter and their son Pentheus goes on to become king after Cadmus. He also believed to have dedicated a temple to Cybele in Boeotia.
Further descendants of Ekhiôn after Pentheus’ reign are: Polydorus who married Nykteis, a daughter of Nykteus, the son of Khthonios. They in turn had Labdakos who died soon after Pentheus’ death but not before leaving behind a year-old son Laios. At this time, Thebes was ruled by a regent, Lykos until Laios came of age.
Hyperênôr – (Ὑπερηνωρ, Hyperenor) “Overbearing”
Pelôros – (Πελωρος, Pelorus, Pelor) “Huge” or “Gigantic”
Oudaios – (Ουδαιος, Udaeus – Latin) “Of the Earth.” From his linage, there is a soothsayer, Teiresias, son of Everes and the nymph Khariklo.
Seven Against Thebes
In Aeschylus’ tragedy from 5th century B.C.E., the whole dilemma comes about because Oedipus marries his mother Jocasta without knowing it. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children of which, the incest and inbreeding caused huge problems for the people of Thebes as they saw their crops begin to fail. In response, Oedipus blinded himself out of shame and cursed his two sons: Eteocles and Polynices to figure out who would succeed as ruler of Thebes through war.
All started out well as at first, Eteocles and Polynices decided they would avoid any bloodshed over their kingdom by alternating who ruled each year. Eventually, Eteocles refused to step down as king and his brother Polynices raised an army to confront his brother, leading to the story of the Seven Against Thebes.
Much of Aeschylus’ tragedy is mainly dialogue that delves into depth many of the characters of his story until it resolves at the end with a messenger coming and saying that the army has left and both Eteocles and Polynices are now dead.
There are a number of scenes in which descendants of the Spartoi are made mention of. One scene has a Tydeus, son of Astakos and ultimately descended from the Spartoi is set to guard a gate. Another scene has a Megareus, also descended from the Spartoi sent out to confront Eteoklos after he taunts Ares, the god of War as being unable to throw him from the battlements.
When the Thebans consulted their prophets, Teiresias told them that they would win the battle if Kreon’s son, Menoikeus and the father of Jocasta, a descendant of the Spartoi, offered up his life to Ares at the spring of Dirke or the Dragon’s hole. Menoikeus did so, pulling out a sword that was already stabbed into him and killing himself. Another variation to this story has Menoikeus throwing himself from a wall to ensure the Thebans victory after hearing Teiresias’ prophesy how if any of the descendants of the Spartoi should die, Thebes would be saved.
The Haunted Fields Of Thebes
Continuing Teiresias’ part in the story of the Seven Against Thebes, the Roman tragedy of Oedipus has the seer performing Necromancy and summoning the ghosts of the Spartoi, the Theban ancestors aid their living kinsmen against their attackers.
In Statius’ poem Thebaid the summoned ghosts of Spartoi are a bit vampiric as they are made mention of draining the blood of the living. That could just be the poetic phrasing on his account for the nature of war. Statius also continues to mention in his poem how the fields surrounding Thebes, particularly the plain sacred to Ares were haunted and the ghosts of Spartoi would appear to frighten off Farmers from tilling the land.
Other Descendants Of The Spartoi
There is a grave marker for the historical Theban Epaminondas with a shield of a dragon or serpent on it. The relief symbol indicates that Epaminondas was descended from the Spartoi.
The Roman mythographer, Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, when writing about Antigona (Antigone) and her son Haemon. When Haemon came of age, he went to Thebes for their annual Games and Kreon, his grandfather recognized him due to his birthmark that all those of Spartoi linage have.
In Plato’s Sophist, he comments that the Spartoi were so earthy and unable to grasp any philosophical concepts. Saying that anything they couldn’t hold in their hands, had no existence.
Spartoi Of Colchis
As to the other half of the dragon’s teeth that Athena hung onto, she gave those to King Aeetes of Colchis near the Black Sea. When Jason and his Argonauts came to Colchis seeking out the Golden Fleece, King Aeetes set Jason what he thought would be an impossible task in order to earn it. He was to sow the dragon’s teeth and slay all the arising Spartoi from them before the end of the day.
Jason was instructed by King Aeetes to sow the teeth of a Drakon in a field sacred to the god Ares. In this case, the task wasn’t as simple as that of plowing the field, Jason was to use a pair of metallic bulls who breathed fire constructed by the god Hephaestus to plow and sow the dragon’s teeth. Making the task more daunting is that the bulls had never been tamed or yoked for doing farm labor before. So much of Jason’s time, with the aid of his fellow Argonauts, was spent in taming these fearsome, wild bulls.
As the field was plowed, Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth and as it happened before with Cadmus, an army of Spartoi rose up from the earth, fully armed and ready for battle. Just as Cadmus had done before with his task, Jason also threw a stone into the middle of the newly sprung up Spartoi. As with the previous group of Spartoi, this new group also fought each other over who threw the stone. In some instances of this story’s retelling, Jason has the help of a witch, Medeia, who uses salves, herbs and charms to protect him from the spears and weapons of the Spartoi. As this new sprung group of Spartoi rose up and fought each other, the hero Jason slew and attacked many of them in order to fulfill his task from King Aeetes and win from him the Golden Fleece.
To Sow Dragon’s Teeth
This phrase has come to be a poetic way saying that someone is fomenting chaos, contention and stirring up strife or war. More specifically, the phrase refers to a fight or problem that is to have already been taken care of and laid to rest yet pops back up anew. The original example being Cadmus’ slaying the dragon and then sowing its teeth to create an army ready to fight. In other words, the problems of the past keep getting brought up and no one is willing to move on.
Poetically, the term Dragon’s Teeth refers to subjects or people of civil strife, for whatever cause and reason cause people to have to rise up and take arms.
Other phrases or words from the story of the Theban Spartoi is the word Cadmeian (or Kadmeian). It is used to mean any victory in war often has more losses instead of gains.
Marvel Comics And Guardians Of The Galaxy
For those who’ve enjoyed the movie and read the comics, the Spartoi are an alien and cousin race to the Shi’ar with whom they have had unsteady alliances with in the past. The Spartoi come from a planet known as Spartax and have built an empire that spans hundreds of worlds. Compared to humans, the Spartoi are very long lived. J’son or Jason of Sparta and a prince is the father of Peter Quill or Star Lord in the comics. The basic concept of the Spartoi in Marvel Comics was very closely tied to Greek mythology.
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