(Because this is a long story, our discussion was broken into two
parts. The story was shared in the October 29, 2023 blog post. This posting furthers the
Just like every other story, this one has many interpretations. Most commentators see this as an initiation tale – a hero’s journey in which a young man's actions determine if he is worthy of his magical bride. Fedot is young and skillful as an archer. But he hasn’t been tested in the ways of life. We don’t know if he can distinguish right from wrong. Is he marriage material? Will he make a worthy husband?
One day Fedot unexpectedly comes upon a magical bird. Is this his destiny? He shoots the bird and breaks her wing. Before he can wring her neck, she begins to speak and convinces him to save her life. As we later determine, she is magical and can shapeshift at will. The unusual and detailed instructions given to Fedot are not necessary. So why does she appear so vulnerable here? She’s determining his nature. The stage is set for the archer’s adventure. In the hero’s journey cycle, Fedot now finds himself at the threshold.
The two marry, and the story moves to their future. The bird maiden does not want a hunter as a husband. The archer’s wife wants to make a rug that will provide the couple with enough money, so he no longer needs to be in the king’s service. He sells the rug without haggling. He is told not to offer a price. He is an honest seller who doesn’t know the value of the rug. The steward sets a price, half of the rug's value. But that’s not enough, the greedy steward wants more. He seeks her out, tells the king and then both the steward and the king fall under her spell. The only male in the story who isn’t dumbstruck by her beauty is Fedot. Perhaps this also speaks to his character, for Fedot finds virtue beyond superficial beauty.
The king in his lustful and envious state wishes Fedot harm. He gives the task to the steward who doesn’t know what to do until he runs into Baba Yaga. Is that a fortuitous event or was Baba Yaga waiting for him? It may appear to be a random turn of events but what if Baba Yaga is the bird maiden’s mother or aunt? If so, she knowingly comes up with the impossible task that will determine his worth. It’s what crones do, after all.
In folktales, Baba Yaga speaks cryptically. Her words both test the protagonist while also sharing information that will prove valuable later in the story. It’s sometimes a test, sometimes a prophecy, and sometimes a warning. She starts Fedot’s adventure by saying he needs to “go I know not where and fetch I know not what.” It will be a difficult adventure, but if Fedot succeeds, he will be rewarded. Fedot doesn’t know this, He’s just wanting to save his life and get back to his wife.
This is how most hero’s journeys begin. It’s how most lives play out. We start in the ordinary world. But somehow, we are pushed into more than a poorly defined task. We are entering the road of obstacles and challenges. It might be a health challenge, a relationship trial, or losing a job. There are many times we feel a bit lost. What do we do? Where do we look for a solution? We often feel as if we are going I know not where to get I know not what!
Baba Yaga’s advice is taken. Fedot’s wife sends him off with some of the king’s gold, her handkerchief, and a ball. It’s going to be an 18-year journey. The bird maiden doesn’t tell him to go to her homeland. But she tells him to throw a magical ball before him and follow wherever it goes. She tells him to use only her handkerchief to dry his face. Fedot’s course is set, and he arrives at the magical palace, the home of his bird maiden wife.
There he finds three lovely damsels. They begin to ask him questions which he refuses to answer. Instead, he tells them to offer him something to eat, and drink and give him time to rest. Only then will he speak to them. This part of the story seems a bit out of character, for Fedot has not been assertive before. But his behavior fits with the pattern of Baba Yaga stories in which there is a male hero. In many stories, the protagonist is sent to find Baba Yaga. Her standard question is, “Are you here of your own free will or by compulsion, my good youth?” It’s the first test of the soon-to-be hero. If he replies he is sent, his interaction with Baba Yaga goes quite poorly; but if he shows agency, he will succeed. Here he is more confrontational. The young beauties respond as Baba Yaga often does when the hero does the unexpected. When he tells them what to do, they comply.
The next day, the beauties offer him a basin to wash his face. He dries his face on his wife's handkerchief. They recognize it as being associated with their family – just as seeing a family crest. The beauties call for their mother and the old woman identifies the handkerchief as belonging to her daughter. But who is this old woman? She has no name. Many Baba Yaga stories have two old women characters. One is Baba Yaga who appears in her more ferocious aspects and the other is a grandmotherly figure who acts kind and helpful. But are they both Baba Yaga? Remember, Baba Yaga is not a singular figure. We discover in other stories that she has sisters and children too. In this tale, the bird maiden’s mother could be the first Baba Yaga, her sister (that is the second Baba Yaga) or some random magical old woman. The latter is unlikely. It’s more probable that she is one of the Baba Yagas. In this instance, Baba Yaga #2 becomes Fedot’s donor – the one who gives him just the magical object needed.
Russian folklorist and scholar, Vladimir Propp, writes in his book “Morphology of the Folktale”:
“Baba Yaga guards the boundary of the other world and the entrance to it. She lets only the worthy pass through. The hero is never disturbed by her welcome. This is the benevolent type of Yaga, the gift-giver and advisor. She shows the hero the path. From now on, he knows where to go. She gives the hero magical objects or a magical helper, and the action moves to a new stage. Yaga belongs to the broad category of the folktale donor. Meeting with a donor is a canonical form of development of the action. He/she is always met by chance, and the hero earns or somehow otherwise obtains a magical object. Possession of the magical object defines success and the story’s outcome.”
And that is exactly what we see in this story. Fedot’s mother-in-law (and the entire family) is magical. After he tells her his story, she asks her magical servants for their help and advice. Scholar, Joanna Hubbs contends that Baba Yaga represents a powerful female deity. Maria-Louise von Franz agrees, believing that Baba Yaga represents an aspect of the Great Mother. It’s easy to make that comparison in this story. Fedot’s mother-in-law goes with him to the center of the earth. It’s a place of transition to the other world. She is the one who can request help from all the universe. She is the one to whom the old lame croaking frog speaks. He is the only one who has the answer to “Go, I know not where, and fetch I know not what.”
But the frog is old and lame, how can he guide the archer? It’s the wisdom of the wise crone that appears now. Fedot’s mother-in-law knows to put the frog's feet in milk. It may seem to be an odd act, except that it was an ancient Russian way of keeping milk from going sour. (BTW, science is showing that might be true!)
Obviously, Fedot’s mother-in-law is a Baba Yaga, too! She gives him the help he needs just when he needs it most. And so even though the story continues for the hero, his success is assured as soon as she finds the frog. Fedot meets an invisible servant (Shmat-Razum) who agrees to come with him because he treats the genie with kindness and respect.
Instead of going straight home, they return first to his mother-in-law’s house. The story says that Fedot “made his new servant regale the old woman and her daughters right royally.” The genie “feasted them so bountifully that the old woman very nearly danced for joy and ordered the frog three jars of fresh milk every nine days for his faithful services. The archer then took leave of his mother-in-law and wended his way homeward.”
And as Fedot takes his leave, we do too, for this is the end of the story of Baba Yaga and his Yaga-in-law. Throughout the tale, we see her hand in crafting the events that followed. And yet, throughout, we see Fedot showing kindness and respect again and again.
Folklorist Jack Zipes writes in his book The Irresistible Fairy Tale, “At times, she can also be generous with her advice, yet her counsel and help do not come cheaply, for a Baba Yaga is always testing the people who come to her by chance or choice. Demands that young men or women deserve her help. But what Baba Yaga also defends in the nineteenth-century tales are qualities that the protagonists need in order to adapt and survive, such as perseverance, kindness, obedience, integrity, and courage.”
Fedot proved his worth as husband to the bird maiden, son-in-law to Baba Yaga, and ruler of the land. Zipes argues that “Baba Yaga is not portrayed as malignant in any of these tales. Of course, she is dangerous and wary of anyone who enters her terrain. She has enormous powers and is inscrutable. Without her assistance, the protagonist, female, or male, cannot overcome evil.”
Perhaps we need a little more Baba Yaga in the world today to overcome the evil that we face. If you have questions about how to do that, it’s best not to ask. For as Baba Yaga says in her folktale “Vasilissa the Beautiful.”
“Well,” said the old witch, “only remember that every question does not lead to good. If thou knowest overmuch, thou will grow old too soon. What wilt thou ask?”
Nothing, my dear Yaga, nothing at all.
"Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What." Adapted from Bain, R. Nisbet, Russian Fairy Tales: From the Skazki of Polevoi. 3rd ed. London: A. H. Bullen, 1901.
Image: Russian Wonder Tales, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin (1902) .