Take a moment to think of a fairy tale. You may be conjuring images of prince charming, frog kisses, a castle, a villain or a strong man saving the princess. And they all lived happily ever after.
Russian fairy tales, on the other hand, do not include a princess charming or a beautiful maiden; they include evil old witches who eat children. Many of our childhood are, in fact, veiling a truly dark and sinister story, such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Russian tales of Baba Yaga.
And now we open our books to these dark fairy tales to learn that kindness and good intentions always win out in the end.
Baba Yaga is no ordinary witch; she does not fly around on a broomstick or wear a black hat. Though many versions of her legends differ, it is said by all that she is the ugliest creature to behold, skinny as a rail with a nose so long it reaches the roof as she sleeps. She lives in a small wooden hut surrounded by a fence made of human bones. She flies on a large mortar and uses a silver broom to sweep away all traces that she was ever there.
Baba Yaga’s claim to fame is eating children. She is said to kidnap them from their homes and devour them in the darkness of the surrounding woods. Within the tale, a small boy and girl are sent into the woods by their evil stepmother who hopes that Baba Yaga will eat or work them to death. Instead, the children first stop at their loving grandmother’s house who gives them the advice to be kind to everyone who asks for help and supplies them with the materials needed for their treacherous journey.
As our little heroes arrive on the scene of Baba Yaga’s house, the witch demands that they satisfy her wishes or she will eat them. The children are forced to weave thread and fill a bottomless bathtub, and in the process they befriend woodland creatures. Upon showing the animals kindness the animals assist the children in escaping Baba Yaga and returning home. The children explain the story to their father, and he kicks the stepmother out of the house and attentively cares for his children for the rest of time.
Though the story is wrapped up so neatly, we have to remember that this story was told to children to enforce the morals of sharing, kindness and obedience. With one threat of my parents sending me into the woods to meet Baba Yaga, I know I would have been quickly motivated to finish all of my household chores.
During this time of fable and fantasy, Baba Yaga wasn’t the only character threatening the lives of small children. This was also achieved by the clever and dark imaginations of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. These men are responsible for the preservation of folktales common in Germany during the 17th century.
We all know the basic story of Little Red Riding Hood. She goes to see her grandmother who ends up being switched out by a wolf. She discovers the wolf’s disguise, offers him some delicious cake, frees her grandmother and all live a long and full life together.
That was the Disney version. For the Brothers Grimm the tale is much different.
Though the beginning is the same, the wolf in the original version devours the grandmother and later eats little Red. Both women are only saved with the Huntsman comes into Grandmother’s house, cuts open the wolf’s stomach and later, after saving Red and her grandmother, takes the wolf’s skin home as a souvenir. As the granddaughter and grandmother sit down to enjoy the meal Red’s mother has prepared for them, they notice another wolf waiting on the roof, hoping to take a little nibble off of our heroine as she walks home.
The grandmother proceeds to trick the wolf and in the end he drowns in her trough outside the window. There was a little more dying and devouring of people than I remember from my childhood version.
Now this Halloween, my note of caution – besides playing it smart and being safe – is to stay away from dark isolated forests and avoid houses with human bones in the front yard. Whether you’re a six-year-old or nineteen-year-old sitting in your apartment reading the original Grimm’s books, it is a comfort to know that no matter what your age, the enjoyment of the myths and fairytales of the past still live on and will continue to be shared with future generations.