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.

The Strange House in the Woods

April 20, 2012

Sami storehouse. Photo by m.prinke.

In last week’s bird quiz, the pelican was mentioned as Baba Yaga’s bird. Baba Yaga is the harvest goddess of many Eastern European countries, who appears as a witch in Russian fairy tales. Another of her bird characteristics is her little house, which stands on chicken legs in a clearing in the woods. This hut has the curious ability to walk around on its legs. Sometimes it spins in a furious circle. In folk tales when the heroine reaches Baba Yaga’s hut, she addresses the building politely and says, “Stand with your back to the forest and your front to me.” Obediently, the hut waddles around and allows the door to face her, so that she can enter. It is speculated that Baba Yaga’s house may be built off the ground on tree stumps, similar to the storage building traditionally used by some Sami people.


Afanas’ev, Aleksandr. Russian Fairy Tales. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Random House, 1973.

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

Bird Companions of the Goddess: A quiz

April 12, 2012

Photo by Courtney Johns

How much do you know about the winged companions of the Goddess? If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you’ll recognize many of these. Match the bird in the left column with the European or Middle Eastern goddess (or god) she is frequently associated with.









Baba Yaga









Answers are here.

Feel free to add other goddess and god associations for these birds in the comments.

The Witch’s Broom, part III

March 30, 2012

Witches flying on broom and staff. From manuscript border of Martin Le Franc's 1440 Defender of Ladies.

The stereotypic witch is the deluded worshipper of Satan, working her evil in remote congregations she accesses by flying on her broomstick. She has a huge larger-than-life nose with larger-than-life warts, and one of her greatest sins is the fashion mistake of that ridiculous cone hat. She is a misguided dupe who will, of course, meet with a sorry end as the forces of good prevail.

Curiously enough, there are parts of this stereotype with a basis in reality. The most interesting of these is the flight on the broom.

Broom flight came relatively late in the Christian understanding of witchcraft. Medieval writings such as the 906 Canon Episcopi talk about the idea of pagans shapeshifting into animals in order to go places and do things, though the texts make clear that the error is not in doing these things but in believing that they happen. A clerical reference to witches on broomsticks appears in 1440 in Martin Le Franc’s Defender of the Ladies. In this essay Le Franc takes exception to the belief that women are more likely than men to do the Devil’s bidding, arguing that this belief is based on fanstastic assumptions like broom travel. He discusses the confession of a sixteen year old girl at a trial and concludes that “There are no broomsticks or rods by which anyone could fly. But when the devil can fool the mind, they think they fly….” Again, the error is not in the act of flying, but in believing that flight is possible. Since theology around Satan and witchcraft solidified by the thirteenth century, and witch flight continued to be suspect within this paradigm, it is likely that the idea of witches flying on brooms arose not out of Christian cosmology but pagan belief. Eventually broomstick flying did become stock in the witch hunter’s lore, though witch prosecutors like Matthew Hopkins lamented that the belief cheapened the discipline. The need for prosecutors at actual trials to establish a modus operandi may explain why the scenario of the witch flying on her broomstick was accepted outside of more erudite theological circles. The scenario explained how the witches (many of whom were elderly) were getting to their sabbats in the wilderness undetected, and it allowed the testimony of victims and witnesses, who often insisted on dragging in broom flight, to be admitted in full.
Aphrodite riding a swan or goose, carrying staff or distaff. By Achilles the Painter, 450 bce. University of Haifa Library.

So how did people get the idea that witches were flying on brooms (or staves or animals)? The simple answer, which we’ll get to eventually, is that they really were flying. Another point to consider is the relationship between the priestess and her goddess. While the monotheistic religions (and many pagan religions as well) place a wide distance between the greatest priest/priestess and the deity, in many pagan religions a priestess can become endowed over time with the qualities of her deity. Christian theologians may have furthered this conflation between goddess and priestess by their emphatic portrayal of goddesses (whom they categorically referred to as “demons”) as the mundane part of their divine/worldly dichotomy. Sometimes in Christianized folklore the goddess even becomes a witch.

We know from myth and art that goddesses are always flying around, often with staves, distaffs or brooms, or on the backs of animals. The germanic giantess Hyrrokkin rides on the back of a wolf, and witnesses in a witch trial from Switzerland testified that the accused was seen flying on a wolf. More often the goddess is shown carrying a staff or a distaff as she flies, with or without animal support. While today the broom is the stock image, medieval and Renaissance witches were often portrayed flying on staves or distaffs. The Russian Baba Yaga, who has counterparts throughout Eastern Europe, definitely has a flying broom association. Baba Yaga is described as a witch, but her awesome powers are goddess-like. She rides through the sky at night in a mortar, using the pestle as an oar to steer. With her broom she sweeps the tracks away as she rides. Baba Yaga is an ancient crone with a huge nose almost touching her chin. She or harvest crone goddesses like her probably influenced the broomstick witch stereotype.

Flying witch with distaff on indeterminate animal doing weather magic. From Albrecht Durer's early 16th century engraving Witch Riding. Thought to be inspired by a cameo of Aphrodite Pandemos.


Guerber, H.A. The Norsemen. London: Senate, 1994.

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

Kors, Alan Charles and Edward Peters, eds. Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Still to come: What if they really were flying?