Category Archives: Witch

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga

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.

Description

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.

Hungarian Folklore

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.

Polish Folklore

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.

Russian Folklore

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.

Slavic Folklore

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.

Feminist Icon

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.

Triple Goddess

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.

Prince Danila-Govorila

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.

More Stories

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.

Siberian Paganism

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.

Grýla

Grýla

Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”

Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.

The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Descriptions

This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.

The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.

Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.

Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.

Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla  and Leppalúði having nineteen children.

Family

Spouses

Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.

 Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.

 Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.

Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.

Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.

The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.

Children

Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.

JólasveinarnirThe Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.

JólakötturinnThe Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!

Dark Winter Spirits

This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.

Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.

The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.

Christmas Associations

Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.

It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”

In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.

A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.

The Onion

A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.

Sigmund

Sigmund

Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and -mundr (Old Norse) “Protector”

Pronunciation: Zeek-muwnt (German), Seeg-mund (Swedish), Sig-mənd (English)

Also known as: Siegmund

Alternate Spellings: Sigmundr (Old Norse), Sigimund, Sigismund (Ancient Germanic), Sigmundr (Ancient Scandinavian), Zikmund (Czech), Siegmund, Sigismund (German), Zsigmond, Zsiga (Hungarian), Sigismondo (Italian), Zygmunt (Polish), Žigmund (Slovak), Žiga (Slovene), Segismundo (Spanish), Sigge (Swedish)

The hero Sigmund is best known from his exploits in the Völsunga saga. Sigmund’s fame comes from being the one who could pull the sword, Gram from a tree and being the father of another hero, Sigurd.

Parentage and Family

Parents

Father – Völsung, for whom the Völsunga saga is named.

Mother – Ljod, also spelled Hljod, Sigmund’s mother in the Völsunga.

Consort –

Borghild – His first wife.

Sieglind – His wife in the Nibelungenlied.

Sisibe – His wife in the Thiðrekssaga.

Sibling –

 BrotherIt’s mentioned that Sigmund has nine brothers, though none of them are ever given any names.

Sister – Signý, his twin

Children –

Helgi – Son by way of Borghild.

Sigurd – Son by way of Hljod. A famous dragon-slayer of many Norse, Scandinavian and German sagas.

Sinfjötli – Son by way of incest with his sister Signý.

Hamund and Helgi – Sons by way of Borghild.

Ancient Runes

The oldest source for Sigmund’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. based on events from the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.

 Völsunga Saga

This is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that follows several generations of Völsung’s lineage. While this saga is best known for the story of Sigurd and Brunhildr and the destruction of the Burgundians, this is the main source for the story regarding Sigmund.

Backing up a little bit, the saga begins with Völsung, known of his great strength and size, who is the king of Hunland. Völsung marries Hljod with whom he fathers ten sons and a daughter, Signý, the twin to Sigmund.

So great is Signý’s beauty, that King Siggeir of Gautland (Västergötland) sends a missive to King Völsung requesting his daughter Signý’s hand in marriage. Now, Siggeir had a reputation for being fierce in battle and Völsung and his sons knew that they couldn’t hope to fend off Siggeir and his men once they saw them. Add to this, Signý doesn’t want to marry Siggeir.

Against her better judgment, Signý marries Siggeir. A wedding feast, one that would last for several days commenced shortly after. At a time when both Völsung and Sigmund are in attendance, the god Odin came, disguised as a beggar and thrust the sword Gram into the a large oak tree known as Barnstock. Völsung’s hall was built around this large oak. The beggar (Odin) announces that the man who is able to pull the sword free may have it as a gift. Of all the men present, only Sigmund succeeded in pulling the sword free.

Signý’s new husband, Siggeir became very envious and greedy for Sigmund’s sword. When Sigmund refused an offer to buy the sword, Siggeir than invites Völsung, Sigmund and his nine other brothers to come visit him and Signý a few months later in Gautland.

When Völsung and the rest of his clan arrived, they are attacked by Siggeir’s men. In the fight that followed, Völsung is killed and his sons captured. Signý pleaded with Siggeir to spare her brothers, to have them placed in stocks instead of killing them outright. Siggeir agreed to Signý’s pleas only because it went along with his ideas of torturing the brothers before killing them.

It turns out that Siggeir has a mother who can shape-shift into a wolf. He lets dear old mother kill one of the Völsung brothers each night. Signý, much as she tries, is unable to save her brothers. One by one they are killed by this she-wolf until finally only Sigmund remains.

With only last chance to save any of her brothers, Signý gets a servant to smear some honey on Sigmund’s face. When Siggeir’s shape-shifted mother arrives that night, the she-wolf licks the honey off Sigmund’s face, causing her tongue to stick to the roof of her mouth. The opportunity allowed Sigmund to bite off the she-wolf’s tongue. The resulting blood loss killed the wolf. Shortly after, he freed himself and Sigmund took off to hide in the forest.

Hidden safely in the woods, Sigmund has everything he needs and what he doesn’t have, Signý would bring to him. Seeking revenge for the death of their father herself, Signý would send her sons out to the forest to be tested by their uncle. As each one failed the test, Sigmund would kill them until he finally had enough of it and refused to kill any more children. A distraught Signý came to Sigmund disguised as a völva (a type of Scandinavian Witch or Shaman). Disguised, Signý gave birth to Sinfjötli, whom, a child of incest is able to pass Sigmund’s test.

Living the life of outlaws, both Sigmund and Sinfjötli lived in the forest. During their time, the two came across some men sleeping in some wolf skins. The two kill the men and on donning the wolf skins for themselves, discover that the skins are cursed. With their new-found abilities or curse, Sigmund and Sinfjötli are able to avenge Völsung when they kill Siggeir by way of setting his place on fire. The only person to escape the blaze was Signý, whom if Sigmund hadn’t known the truth about his nephew/son Sinfjötli, she now came clean to tell him she had tricked Sigmund into sleeping with her. After revealing the truth, Signý walked back into the raging fire to die with Siggeir.

Returning To Hunland

The story doesn’t end there as both Sigmund and Sinfjötli continue their exploits of banditry when they return to Hunland. Sigmund’s plan is to reclaim his lands from the king who took over after Völsung’s death. After reclaiming his rightful throne, Sigmund marries Borghild and they have two sons, Hamund and Helgi.

It’s known that Helgi, at the age of fifteen would go on to fight many battles and win his own kingdom. He earned the name Helgi Hundingsbani when he killed Hunding and his sons after two battles. Helgi wasn’t done yet and would continue on to defeat Hodbrodd and Grannar in order to win the hand of Sigrun, the daughter of King Hogni in marriage. This is a story for another post.

Borghild became jealous of her stepson Sinfjötli’s abilities and when he killed her brother, she plotted Sinfjötli’s demise. Both Sinfjötli and her brother  had been competing for the hand of the same woman. Killing Sinfjötli wouldn’t be easy for Borghild as he was immune to all poison. That didn’t stop Borghild from trying. She offered Sinfjötli two cups of poisoned wine that he drank without problem. However, with the third cup, that did Sinfjötli in. For her efforts, Borghild was banished from Hunland.

The narrative continues that Sigmund carried Sinfjötli’s body into the forest where he meets a ferryman at a fjord. The ferryman had only enough room on his boat for one passenger at a time and offered to take Sinfjötli’s body across first and come back for Sigmund. When the boat reached the middle of the fjord, it vanished along with the ferryman and Sinfjötli’s body. This ferryman would be none other than Odin in disguise, come to personally take his descendant to Valhalla despite not meeting the prerequisite to die in battle.

Marrying Hjördís & Sigmund’s Doom

Sigmund goes on to marry again, this time to Hjördís, daughter of King Eylimi. Hjördís had another suitor who sought her hand in marriage, King Lyngi along with other suitors. The would be suitors competed for Hjördís’s hand in marriage and Sigmund won, despite being much older than other kings. Lyngi refused to give up and concede to Sigmund.

After enjoying a brief period of peace, Sigmund’s kingdom is attacked by King Lyngi as he was jealous and wanted revenge on Hjördís for marrying Sigmund.

It is during this battle, Sigmund fought alongside his father-in-law, King Eylimi who is killed. It is this day, that the Norns have decreed will be when Sigmund dies. The god Odin returns in this battle, disguised as a beggar and when he comes face to face with Sigmund, the sword Gram is shattered by his spear Gungnir.

The sword shattered, Sigmund easily falls at the hands of others in battle. As he lays dying, Sigmund tells Hjördís that she is pregnant, and their son will one day receive the broken remains of his sword. That their son will be named Sigurd who would go on to avenge his father’s death and slay the dragon Fafnir.

As to Lyngi, he was thwarted in trying to win Hjördís for she had fled and was found by King Alf who married and took her and her unborn son in.

Other Germanic Sagas

In many of the sagas about the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), Sigmund or Siegmund is often cited as being Sigurd’s father. None of these other sagas have the same level of detail regarding Sigmund that is found within the Völsunga.

Nibelungenlied – In this saga, his wife was Sieglind

Thiðrekssaga – In this saga, Sigmund is the son of Sifjan, the king of Tarlungland. He has a son with Sisibe, the daughter of King Nidung of Spain.

Beowulf

This is an Old English poem. In the story Beowulf, the story of Sigemund is told to the title character and involves the slaying of a dragon, not unlike that of Sigurd slaying a dragon. The child conceived by Signý and Sigemund the Wælsing is known as Fitela, not Sinfjötli.

The Sword In The Tree – Arthurian Legend!?!

The Branstock tree was a massive oak tree that Völsung built his hall around.

For those familiar with Arthurian legend, Sigmund’s pulling the sword Gram from the Branstock tree sounds very familiar to the story of Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone.

In addition, it’s been noted that the characters of Sinfjötli and Mordred are both nephew and son to the respective figures of Sigmund and Arthur.

Gram – A Gift From Odin

In the Völsunga saga, the name of Sigmund’s sword is Gram. Other Norse sagas will give the name of Balmung for Sigmund’s sword. Gram’s name means: “wrath.”

Being an enchanted sword gifted by the god Odin, Gram holds the magical ability of giving its wielder the power to win all their battles.

As for who forged Gram, the myths and legends say that Volund, or Wayland the Smith is who crafted this blade. In the Nibelungenlied, Gram is known by the name of Balmung and Mimung in Germanic myths. In Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the sword is known as Nothung.

It was said that Volund (or Wayland the Smith) made the sword, and the magic sword was later called Gram (Balmung or Mimung in German myth).

Tolkien Middle Earth Connection – I mentioned in my post for Sigurd that the shattering of Gram served as the inspiration for Aragorn’s shattered sword that he reforges.

Odin’s Role In The Völsunga

It should be noted that Odin is the great grandfather of Völsung who founds the clan of the same name. Effectively making Völsung at least a demigod of sorts and later descendants being more extraordinary in their deeds and destiny.

So, it makes sense at the first, that Odin would appear, favoring the Völsung’s when he impales the sword Gram into the Branstock tree, saying that whoever can pull this sword can have it and it’s Sigmund who succeeds.

However later, Sigmund appears to fall out of favor with Odin when the god shatters Gram and leaves Sigmund to fall at the hands of his enemies.

God of Prophesy

Surely a god of prophesy would know what events would transpire. Which could mean that’s exactly what Odin wanted to have happen. Or he’s trying to change the fates of his kinsmen even though the Norns have told Odin that no, you can’t change fate, no you won’t get your descendant at all. That as punishment, Sigmund won’t die in battle at all.

Even a god can try?

If a person’s fate is truly set and there’s no avoiding destiny or changing one’s stars, even a god of prophesy would know you can’t change the future. Unless predicting the future is nothing more than being able to see what the most likely outcomes and probabilities are. That if you don’t change the variables, X event is the most likely event and course of action to happen.

Battle God

Of course, the other thing to remember, is that Odin is also a god of battle and as such, like many other war gods, he thrives on the conflicts and strife that happen. Even if only for the sake of it.

With the whole impending doom of the gods and Ragnarok among the Norse, Odin is going to try and bolster his forces by recruiting from the various fields of battle, the fallen and slain warriors. Isn’t that what the Valkyries are for? Well sure, so unless there’s a constant steady source of conflicts and battles, the Valkyries aren’t likely to be doing much recruiting. One can see Odin going about instigating some of these conflicts, so he can try to recruit promising warriors for his Einherjar, ya’ know, the slain warriors of Valhalla. And let’s not forget that Freya is going to get half of those warriors for her hall of Folkvangr.

Sigmund! I don’t choose you!

Sigmund also has a date with destiny, for the Norns have decreed that he would die on that day. There is however a hitch to this, so long as Sigmund has the sword Gram, there’s no way he’s going to loose or die. So there’s Odin off to the field of battle to make sure that Sigmund can meet destiny by making sure he doesn’t have the sword.

Now it could be that he has angered Odin when Sigmund tries to interfere with protecting his father-in-law, King Eylimi during the battle against King Lyngi. Odin attacks Sigmund, shattering the sword Gram and leaves him to die.

It might be too how dare a descendant of his defy the mighty Odin and shatter the sword, hoping somehow that Sigmund will die in battle to join his forces in Valhalla. Odin’s efforts to sow contention earlier at a wedding only resulted in nine other of his grandsons getting killed by a wolf while tied up. That’s not exactly the heat of battle there and the loss of nine potential warriors to join him.

So, Odin cuts his losses with Sigmund and gifts a final prophesy to his grandson about the birth of Sigurd and that Gram will be reforged and passed on to another hero.

Medieval Sagas

Lastly, the Völsunga saga was written in the 13th century C.E. several centuries from when the events are to have initially occurred. That’s more than enough time for the skalds to have embellished the stories. To add Odin to the events in an effort to make sense of narrative as well as give a more mythic quality to the tales to explain why events turn out the way they did.

Spartoi

Spartoi

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.

Hellanicus’s Version

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.

Aunty Greenleaf

Aunty Greenleaf & The White Deer

The story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one that I found while looking up another article on an American Folklore site. The imagery that came to mind while reading the story caught my imagination and I set it to the side while I worked on other projects for Brickthology before coming back to it.

Now, sometime later as I began working on this post, I find that the story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one of several stories from S.E. Schlosser’s “Spooky New York” which is a collection of ghost stories and folklore from around New York State.

Further, is that many of the sites that mention and reference this story, merely reprint it. Only one additional mention is of Aunty Greenleaf appearing as a character in Fables’ “The Wolf Among Us” game. It does leave me to question the validity of Aunty Greenleaf as an actual folkloric figure or if she can be considered a newer folkloric and literary character who first makes her appearance in 1995.

Even if Aunty Greenleaf doesn’t appear before Schlosser’s “Spooky New York,” this is how new mythological characters find their place. Enough people who want to view the story of Aunty Greenleaf as a literary source and new piece of folklore will certainly succeed.

Basic Story

The story of Aunty Greenleaf goes as follows: she is your typical elderly woman who lived alone in a small house outside the town of Brookhaven. She was known as a witch who people avoided except for when they needed her knowledge of herbs and healing. Like many suspected and accused witches, the townspeople accused Aunty Greenleaf of being in league with the devil.

Typical accusations against Aunty Greenleaf included claims that she had hexed a farmer’s pigs so that they all died after he had spoken ill of her. Another accusation involved a prominent townswoman who claimed to have dreamt of Aunty Greenleaf and the next morning, her daughter fell deathly ill. Another wild claim placed Aunty Greenleaf and her fellow witches crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an egg shell for a Sabbath in England before returning at sunrise.

This is typical of people during Colonial times in the Americas or even in Europe. Superstitions and fear when anything bad happens or a streak of misfortunes and it’s easier to blame the town outcast or someone who doesn’t quite fit in.

Aunty Greenleaf’s story picks up and get more interesting one year during early fall when people started talking about a large, white deer that has been seen in the surrounding forest of Brookhaven. Several large hunting parties were organized by the townsfolk to hunt down this white deer. It soon became clear that this white deer was impervious to bullets and people started to believe this deer to be supernatural in nature.

It wasn’t long after, that the women of Brookhaven also began having problems with churning their butter and a number of livestock sickened and died. It wasn’t too difficult for the people to blame the presence of the white deer. Added to this, those people affected had had run-ins with Aunty Greenleaf at one point or another during the past month.

Finally, a hunting party was put together in earnest and the people of Brookhaven really began hunting the white deer. They had gone all day and most of the night hunting the deer before it was finally spotted. It was the largest and fastest that anyone has seen. The hunting party was hard pressed to keep up. Several people fired at the deer, but it kept on running and the hunting party soon return empty-handed.

One farmer became rather obsessed with hunting the white deer, every chance he had when he wasn’t busy with his farm. It was this farmer who decided there must be some connection between the white deer and witchcraft. The farmer took some silver and melted it down to make bullets.

Ah! But aren’t silver bullets only for werewolves? Yes and no. Silver is a sacred metal, connected to the moon and there is folklore silver to harming other supernatural creatures such as vampires and witches who turn into rabbits.

Anyhow, rifle in hand, the farmer went hunting the white deer. This time he succeeded in hitting the deer with one of his shots. The farmer managed to track the deer close to Aunty Greenleaf’s house before it vanished in the growing darkness of night.

The next day, the farmer learned that Aunty Greenleaf was ill. From the moment she took to her bed, the local farm animals stopped dying and the families who were having trouble with their churning were back to normal. Less than a week later, Aunty Greenleaf died and the doctor who cared for her told the minister he found three silver bullets in her spine.

After the death of Aunty Greenleaf, the phantom white deer was never heard of or seen again in Brookhaven.

La Befana

La Befana

Also known as: Befana, Befanta

Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.

Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.

For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.

La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.

Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.

Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.

Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.

La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.

The Basic Story And Legend

There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.

First Story

On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.

Second Story

The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.

When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.

The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.

Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.

Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.

Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.

Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.

Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.

Third Story

In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.

With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.

So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.

With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.

Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.

Fourth Story

In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.

Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.

Epiphany – Little Christmas

January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.

As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.

The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.

Ancient History

The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.

La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.

Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.

Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”

In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.

Ancestor Worship

In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.

Neolithic Connection?

The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).

Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua

La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.

On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.

The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.

According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.

There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.

Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana

Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.

Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.

Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.

Befana Poems And Songs

There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.

The following is one version:

“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”

The English translation is as follows:

The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!

A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:

“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”

The English translation is as follows:

“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”