Most of us living outside of Slavic countries probably haven’t heard much Slavic folklore. However, I would wager that the name “Baba Yaga” rings a bell in most people’s minds. While this folktale is believed to have originated in Eastern Europe (and is still well-known in countries like Ukraine, Russia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Poland), the legend of Baba Yaga has also made its way into Western media.
For instance, an Italian slasher-mystery film named Baba Yaga, directed by Corrado Farina, was released in 1973. In 2014, American filmmaker Jessica Oreck released a documentary called The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga. The legendary Slavic witch also appeared as the main antagonist in a DLC for the 2015 video game Rise of the Tomb Raider called Baba Yaga: The Temple of the Witch.
However, for those of us who grew up during the dawn of the Internet Age, we remember Baba Yaga as an NPC from Old School RuneScape. And, if that name still isn’t eliciting any memory, you may remember her as the old witch that lives in a house that stands on chicken legs and is involved in the quests titled “Blood Runs Deep,” “Glorious Memories,” and “Lunar Diplomacy.” She also runs a shop where you can buy runes, battlestaves, and Moonclan manuals.
However, what you may not know is that this NPC from your favorite old-school online RPG is actually based on a centuries-old Slavic legend. This legend has taken many variations in different communities and across time, and defining what exactly Baba Yaga is can often be a difficult task. But, in this article, we’re going to look into the history of this horrifying character, how her story varies temporally and geographically, and how she became one of the most memorable NPCs from Old School RuneScape.
The Origin of Baba Yaga
The exact origin of the Baba Yaga legend is hard to pin down, mostly because this legend is many centuries old. In fact, the first clear reference to this witch in text is in a 1755 book titled Russian Grammar by Mikhail V. Lomonosov. Yes, apparently, the Russians like to include horrifying tales about cannibalistic witches in their grammar textbooks. Have you ever heard anything more Russian?
Baba Yaga is also depicted in several woodblock prints (known as lubki) from Russia in the late 17th century and early 18th century. These are also some of the first recorded depictions of Baba Yaga. One of these prints depicts Baba Yaga riding on a pig into battle against a figure that’s referred to as a “crocodile” (although he looks nothing like a crocodile).
This scene is actually believed to be a political satire. Peter the Great, the first Emperor of Russia who ruled until his death in 1725, was referred to as a “crocodile” by the Old Believers (a sect of Eastern Orthodox Christians persecuted by Pete the Great). So, this woodblock print was probably intended to mock Peter and his wife Catherine (who is being depicted as Baba Yaga in the scene).
The etymology of Baba Yaga’s name is difficult to track down as well. While the word “baba” almost certainly means “grandmother” (considering that’s the word’s meaning in Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Bulgarian), the meaning of the word “yaga” is a bit more problematic.
Some have proposed that the word “yaga” may be related to the word “jeza” from Serbian and Croatian, which translates to “horror,” “shudder,” or “chill.” Others have connected “yaga” with the word “jędza from Polish, which means “witch,” “evil woman,” or “fury.” Still, no one knows exactly where the word originated or what exactly it means.
Versions of Baba Yaga
In most of the versions of the Baba Yaga story, she appears as an old witch who carries a mortar, pestle, and/or mop or broom. She’s often described as having bony legs and iron teeth and possessing magical powers that allow her to hunt down victims, which are usually people wandering in the woods at night. Many stories call particular attention to the repulsiveness of her nose, breasts, and buttocks.
In pretty much every story that mentions Baba Yaga, she lives in a house deep in the woods that stands up on a pair of chicken legs. In many tales, Baba Yaga’s victim will escape her clutches and run out of the house only to find that the house itself is chasing after them.
In a few versions of the story, there are multiple Baba Yagas that are sisters. For example, one version of the story follows a handsome merchant’s son named Ivan, who encounters the home of one Baba Yaga in the woods. The first Baba Yaga doesn’t know the answer to his question and then instructs him to keep walking and visit her sister (who also lives in a house standing on chicken legs and is named Baba Yaga). When he visits the second Baba Yaga, she tells him to visit a third Baba Yaga. Of course, the third Baba Yaga tries to eat him, but he escapes on the wings of a firebird.
In nearly every version of the Baba Yaga story, the witch is trying to eat her victims. She often makes a comment about the “Russian smell” of her victims (implying that she finds the smell delectable and she prefers to eat Russians). The pestle and mortar that she carries with her are also presumably for the purpose of grinding up her victims before eating them.
However, there are certain accounts of Baba Yaga in which she’s benevolent and helpful. And, in other accounts, she’s simply a revered matriarchal ancestor. So, all in all, Baba Yaga is a pretty complicated figure that’s appeared in many different contexts in Slavic folklore.
Baba Yaga in RuneScape
One such account of Baba Yaga being nice (and not viciously cannibalistic) is when she appears as an NPC in Old School RuneScape. She was originally added to the game in 2006 when the developers added in the Lunar Diplomacy quest.
This quest can be found in the Fremennik lands and, specifically, on Lunar Isle, a small island shaped like a crescent moon. When you take on the quest, you’ll be sent on a diplomatic mission between the Fremennik people and the mysterious members of the Moon Clan of Lunar Isle (including Baba Yaga).
One part of this quest requires you to go to the chicken-legged house and talk to Baba Yaga, who gives you a special vial and tells you that you need clean guam, clean marrentill, and ground suqah tooth to complete your potion. Once you complete the potion, you’ll need to give it to the Oneiromancer.
While Baba Yaga appeared first in the Lunar Diplomacy quest, that’s not the only role she played in Old School RuneScape. Baba Yaga is also heavily involved in the Blood Runs Deep quest, which was first released in December of 2009. This quest begins when a stranger washes up on the shores of Lunar Isle, and Baba Yaga requests that you help him. This requires that you and Baba Yaga travel into the sick man’s dream world and battle a slew of monsters.
Finally, Baba Yaga also operates a store at her home on Lunar Isle (called Baba Yaga’s Magic Shop), where you can buy runes, battlestaves, and Mooclan manuals. You can access this store at any time, even if you aren’t engaged in a quest. Baba Yaga can also teach a player the Ourania Teleport spell after they complete the Lunar Diplomacy quest.
So, unlike in traditional folklore, the Baba Yaga of Old School RuneScape isn’t a bloodthirsty witch but rather a benevolent friend. Plus, she can even teach you a pretty handy spell!