Baba Yaga and the Pelican

January 25, 2013

Dalmatian Penguin. Photo by Sengkang.
Dalmatian Pelican. Photo by Sengkang.

When I was a little girl I liked to hang out at the boat dock where my retired grandfather earned a few extra dollars cleaning “grouper” caught by tourists on deep-sea outings. As my grandfather pushed aside the entrails of the fish, I would gather and carry them over to the water, where I admonished the pelicans to be polite and share. They were a noisy and ruthless bunch, jostling and dunking one another in a desperate attempt to gobble the biggest portions. I had favorite foods myself, but I did not approve of this behavior, and I threw my offerings in different places so that everyone could have their fair share of fish guts. The birds accepted some of my rules of engagement, such as not moving onto the dock or the ground. They swam around in an agitated fashion, trying to gauge my movements and intent, then swooped en masse as the goodies sailed into the water.

A pelican’s life is brutal from the beginning. Typically three newly hatched siblings compete aggressively for food, nagging their parents incessantly. When the chicks are developed enough to move around in the nest, the two largest chicks push the smallest onto the ground, where it soon dies. The two remaining chicks engage in mortal combat while the parents are foraging for food, and eventually there is only one surviving chick.

The aggressive pelican in many ways fits the Baba Yaga of Russian fairy tales, who eats little children and decorates her picket fence with the skulls of men. Quoting from Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother in Witch Of the Russian Folktale by Andreas Johns

Michael Shapiro (1983) finds that Baba Yaga is derived from two prehistoric theriomorphic prototypes – the snake and the pelican. The Slavic word baba, like other Slavic kinship terms, has been applied to species of plants and animals. Baba has come to be the indigenous term for the pelican in some Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Upper Sorbian dialects…

The pelican depends mostly on fresh fish kills for her diet, but she is also a scavenger who has undoubtedly dogged humans since we began fishing. An animal which develops a symbiotic relationship with humans often becomes a divinity. Baba Yaga is depicted today as an old woman, and she parallels the grandmother owl and raven goddesses of northern Europe, who are scavengers or predators like the pelican. Baba Yaga is usually described as having a very long nose, and sometimes a pronounced chin as well, which also evokes the pelican. The pouch of the pelican can be compared to the skin hanging from the jowls of an old woman, and the large body of the pelican is like the sturdy stout figure many women develop as they age.

Marija Gimbutas has documented in detail the fondness of Neolithic European cultures for water bird goddesses. While in most cases it is impossible to know what type of water bird is being depicted, it would make sense for the pelican to be represented. Outside of warm climates the pelican is a migratory bird, it typically lives in flocks, and (at least in Europe) it is mostly white. I won’t go into the reasons for this now, but migration, communal living, and the colors black, white or red usually have special religious or magical significance. The Dalmatian Pelican is usually silent in adulthood except when breeding, a detail I find fascinating because Baba Yaga is known for her long silences. Johns sees the erratic head feathers that distinguish this species as related to the messy hair attributed to Baba Yaga. Another interesting detail is that Baba Yaga never walks anywhere except in her house or yard. She flies in a mortar, using the pestle to steer, and she either uses a broom to sweep away her sky tracks, or she ditches the mortar and pestle and uses the broom to fly instead. Baba Yaga’s penchant for flying has led many to surmise that she must have once been a bird goddess.

One problem with associating Baba Yaga with the aggressive pelican is that she is a rather ambiguous figure in Russian literature. Usually she is a dangerous witch, ugly in every sense of the word, but sometimes she is a wise old woman who helps the protagonist – and sometimes she is both. This contradiction becomes even more pronounced when we move into the Balkan region. Radomir Ristic says

The Balkan Baba is quite different from Russian Baba Yaga because she is much less negative and evil, and quite possibly [the] only way that the two are related is the fact that both of them are old women. However, if we know that people and Witches have different opinions of Forest Mother, we can assume that their opinions of Baba also differ. She is still the “ancestor” who helps her generations, and if she picks someone to be her pupil, they are not in danger because that person has passed all manner of tests that they are not even aware of. She only punishes selfish and evil people who want magical knowledge solely for selfish goals or material profit.

Johns does not see the pelican as a negative association for Baba Yaga. “If we associate the snake with Yaga’s wicked aspect, the pelican can be associated with her good aspect (which in turn connects her with the bird and Great Goddesses). As the benevolent Baba Yaga is forced into the background, now appearing only as a relic, the pelican disappears.” The pelican has a mythical association with sacrifice and selfless motherhood, an association predating Christianity which nevertheless became a popular allegory of Christ’s martyrdom. The story goes that a mother pelican unable to provide for her chicks during a famine pierced her own chest so the chicks could drink her blood. This may be linking the blood of the womb with the pelican as mother goddess. At any rate pelican mothers and fathers do work tirelessly to feed their insatiable brood, and they defend their young forcefully against predators.

I see the pelican as embodying both the benevolent and the cruel sides of Baba Yaga. This bird arouses conflicting feelings and cannot be easily categorized. The pelican holds the key to many of life’s more complex mysteries.

Baba Yaga by Vicktor M. Vasnetsov, 1917. Note the owl and the snakes.
Baba Yaga by Vicktor M. Vasnetsov, 1917. Note the owl and the snakes.


Attenborough, David. The Life of Birds. Documentary film. London: BBC, 1998.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Johns, Andreas. Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale. New York: Peter Lang, 2010.

Ristic, Radomir. Balkan Traditional Witchcraft. Trans. Michael C. Carter, Jr. Los Angeles: Pendraig, 2009.

Saunders, William. The Symbolism of the Pelican. Arlington Catholic Herald, 2003.

The following film clips, entitled “Pelican Attack” were put together by an individual named Siegetuka who is exploring the aggressive side of the pelican. I have to say that most of the pelicans seem to be provoked by the people and animals attacked. Note the superb hunting skills around 2:40 and the (nesting?) pelican fighting off an attacker at 2:50. You might want to stop at the pigeon meal, as it only gets worse.

Las Brujas

January 18, 2013

Most people who meet my casual acquaintance struggle with where to place me. Many file me with “must be Native American.” A few ask point blank if my parents were hippies. When I lived in southern Arizona, I was surprised (and a bit disturbed, because I wasn’t used to it) to discover that many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had me pegged right away. Some (actually the majority) carefully avoided me. Others cajoled me into telling their fortunes or even asked for charms. My landlady had trouble getting repairs done because the Mexican construction workers she employed refused to enter my house. A friend of mine, also a brujo, had an even more disconcerting experience: some Spanish-speaking landscapers he hired reported him to the sheriff.

In Brujas, Bultos, y Brasas: Tales of Witchcraft and the Supernatural in the Pecos Valley Nasario Garcia interviews los viejitos, the old folks, in rural New Mexico about the witches. The book reminds me of ghost story compilations from the Ozarks or Appalachia. Witches and supernatural occurrences are portrayed in wholly malevolent ways. The line between witches and healers is firmly drawn, something which contradicts my own observations in southern Arizona and in another part of New Mexico. The familiar story of folk healers defaming rival healers with accusations of witchcraft sounds like it might be part of the subtext in these reminiscences, although this is reading between the lines. Another possible parallel with other folklore of European derivation is the description of ghosts or witches as points of light – brasas or embers. In some cultures the fairies are described as sparks of light.

The viejitos often talk about El Mal Ojo, the evil eye. According to Viviana Tapia, “You treated it by spitting wild pie plant with cachana, a root used to ward off evil. You had to spit it – spit in the face of the afflicted so that the evil eye could be lifted, so that it would go away. It’s cachana, that’s what the medicine is called. The same persons who would spit it are the ones who would chew it (the root). And it had to be a Juan or a Juana in order to cure the victim, got it? Any other way was not possible.”

Another common theme in the interviews is La Llorona, The Wailing Woman, for those who like to collect these stories. I won’t go into this legend here today, but if there’s some interest I’ll do a post on it later.

Most of the people interviewed do not appear to know anything special about witchcraft (although you never know), but there is one woman I would like to have talked to. The interviews happened about twenty years ago, so it is unlikely that any of the storytellers are still alive. I appreciated having both the Spanish and the translation. Academic researchers have a hard time understanding magical concepts, and what they interpret is highly suspect. Although my Spanish is not the best, I think the translation is dependable.

I wonder if some day a folklorist in the Sonoran Desert will be collecting stories about La Bruja Gringa. I did NOT put El Ojo on anybody, just so you know. I will haunt you with a thousand brasas if you say I did.

The Alder Tree

January 11, 2013

The Black Alder is renowned for thriving in marginal environments. Photo by Johan Fredriksson.
The Black Alder is renowned for thriving in marginal environments. Photo by Johan Fredriksson.

What can no house ever contain?
Answer: The piles upon which it is built.

This riddle refers to the alder wood base that ancient houses were built upon, before the concrete cinder blocks or stone-and-mortar that are used today. Alder was the preferred wood because it is resistant to water decay.

Alder is considered a core magical tree. It corresponds to the letter Fearn of the Irish Ogham alphabet and to the rune Isa. It is sacred to the Greek goddesses Circe and Calypso.

In Finnish the word for alder is derived from a word meaning “blood,” which refers to the red sap the tree oozes when cut. Red pigment from the bark was once used as a dye and a face paint. There is an old superstition against cutting down the alder tree, ostensibly because it “bleeds.” This seems to me a strange rationale, since a pig or any other edible animal also bleeds when killed. However, there are ecological reasons for leaving a stand of alder trees unmolested in certain cases, since the alder is an important pioneer species, fixing nitrogen to the soil in marginal growing areas.

In some stories the Black Alder is substituted for the Black Poplar. For example, in the myth of the Greek sun god Phaeton, the god’s sisters turn to poplars at his death in one version and to alders in another. Substitutions such as this can give a clue as to the magical properties of the tree. Both the Black Alder and the Black Poplar grow in wet soil or along riverbanks. They are also pioneer species, meaning they are early volunteers on cleared land or nutrient poor soils. The riverbank association would link the alder with death, while the pioneer aspect evokes the concept of resurrection. (For a discussion of the relationship of rivers with death see Hecate and the Waterway.)

The death aspect is unmistakable with the lovely goddess Calypso, who has a thicket of alder, poplar and cypress growing at the entrance to her island cavern. Calypso amuses herself pulling drowning sailors from the sea and taking them to her love cave. In the mythology of Greece, Scandinavia, Britain, and Ireland, islands are otherworld places where the dead are received or where magical events occur. The Greek goddess Circe, who transforms men into animals, has a ring of alder trees surrounding her island.

Bran the Blessed, who carries an alder branch, is certainly associated with death and resurrection. The giant king gives his Irish in-laws a magic cauldron as a peace offering, a cauldron which brings to life any dead thing that is put inside it. Bran repents of his gift when he goes to war against the Irish, because they revive their dead warriors with the cauldron. When Bran later dies, he tells his comrades to cut off his head. This in itself is not unusual, as the Celts often brought home the heads of their fallen heroes when for some reason they could not bring the whole body. But the disembodied head of Bran is rather remarkable. For the next 87 years it recites poetry, performs divination, and tells stories from the past, serving as a bridge between the otherworld and the land of the living.

The fairies bring another link between the alder and magic by virtue of their own otherworld connection. Green is the color usually worn by fairies, and they are said to dye their clothing from the immature alder catkins, which produce a green pigment. Of course, the red pigment from the bark would link the alder tree to the blood of the womb, often represented by the cauldron, a symbol of death and rebirth.


Basic Runes

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1960.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948.

Hybrid Poplar

Lefevre, Francois, Agnès Légionnet, Sven de Vries Jozef Turok. Strategies for the conservation of a pioneer tree species, Populus nigra L., in Europe, 1998.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Walker, Barbara. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988.

Woodland Trust. Common Alder.

A Look Ahead

January 4, 2013

Eve. Lucien Levy-Durmer, 1896
Eve. Lucien Levy-Durmer, 1896

This week marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I started with the goal of producing one post each Friday, and I more than realized this objective with sixty-eight posts for 2012, only a few of them past my self-imposed deadline. My visitors have increased steadily over the year, and I know that it’s not charitable friends and acquaintances building up my traffic because they tell me they hardly ever go to the site. The old adage that one can never be a hero in one’s own country comes to mind here, not that I’m a hero for having a blog. Yet I cannot say that Gertrude Stein’s observation that “I write for myself and strangers” applies to me, since through comments about my posts on blogs and social media I feel like I know you.

When my blog was a month or two old I ran across an enterprise called “The Pagan Blog Project.” Started by Rowan Pendragon, it was a challenge to pagans to write a year-long blog for 2012 related to their practice, with one entry per week made every Friday. I had enrolled in the project before I heard about it! Strictly speaking, participants are supposed to spend two weeks on topics related to a different letter in the alphabet, starting with “A” and moving in chronological order to “Z.” I have enjoyed seeing what bloggers do with the letters “Q,” “X,” and “Z,” but I have usually bowed to other pressures when selecting topics. My first obligation is to my readers, and I choose my topics based on your questions and requests. I also try to be somewhat timely in my posts, moving with the seasons and responding to current events. I recognize that I have a handful of readers in the Southern Hemisphere, and I will try to keep that in mind when choosing topics for the coming year.

Aside from this blog, I have many other projects on the burner for 2013. I will continue to contribute to the Return to Mago blog. I have also agreed to serve on the advisory board of the Mago Circle. Mago is the Great Goddess recognized by peoples of East Asia, particularly Korea, since matriarchal times, and the Mago Circle is a cross-cultural spiritual group.

Late spring 2013 will see the publication of my first book, Invoking Animal Magic, published by Moon Books. The book will discuss my research and experience with animal deities and will include a fair amount of mythology. I will be sharing more about the book in the weeks ahead.

Later this year I hope to begin offering webinars on various topics related to nature and Goddess worship. The webinars will be offered as one-time sessions rather than a series of classes and will be accessible through your computer or phone. A syllabus and other details will be forthcoming.

This blog is meant as a resource for those who worship the Goddess in her many forms. It has a particular focus on the natural elements that form the basis of Pagan beliefs and practices. If you have comments/questions/requests of a general nature please share them. I am vigilant about monitoring for spam and I use spam filters, so if your comment or site registration is deleted it was probably inadvertent.

Through Another Doorway

January 1, 2013

Janus is the Roman god of the new year, with two faces looking toward the past and the future. In his right hand he holds a key and in his left a staff. He is a god of peace whose worship was more central in matrifocal times. The month of January is named for him. Janus is a winter god, the counterpart of the summer goddess Juno. From the Pagan Book of Days:

Janus is the male equivalent of one of the versions of the goddess Juno-Janus, who in her two-faced aspects of Antevorta and Postvorta looks simultaneously forward and backward as does Janus. January marks the beginning of the new year yet contains elements of that which went before. Its quality is thus one of new possibilities but constrained by that which took place in the old year before it.


Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World. New York: Facts on File, 1993.

Pennick, Nigel. The Pagan Book of Days: A Guide to the Festivals, Traditions, and Sacred Days of the Year. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1992.