Recently I have been on a journey to somehow reconcile with my culture. But the fact is that being queer and growing up in Eastern Europe does not aid in creating a wholesome and supportive environment for self-discovery and actualisation. When I moved to the UK and came out to myself and, slowly, others, I carried a lot of anger and bitterness towards my own Slavic origins and my country. Mentions of and references to my country or Eastern Europe made me flinch or scoff angrily. I guess you could say that I'd given up on it all because they gave up on me; I had decided to dismiss my culture as backwards and beyond hope.
It took a while, but I realised that I was just switching from hating one part of myself to another. I can’t deny my background, where I come from, any less than being queer. Struggling with rejection from your own people is something that a lot of queer people from Eastern Europe face. Constantly hearing hatred and vitriol about something that’s as much a part of you as your eye colour not only breeds limitless shame about your identity but can also stoke anger and hatred towards your own culture. Cold dread settles in the pit of my stomach anytime there’s news about human rights issues coming from my own or surrounding countries; a tired, defeated ‘what now’ follows right after.
I don’t have a blueprint for this, I mostly have no idea what I’m doing, but I just felt like I wanted to try and give reconciliation a chance, to learn how to find pride in all aspects of my identity. It didn’t feel right to forsake my origins any more than it does to suppress my queerness. I’d like to share the small steps I’ve been taking so far to figure out a way to reclaim this part of me and my past.
I started out slow, I thought back to growing up, pushing aside all the shame and pain in an effort to remember the things that brought me joy. If you are a book lover like me, it won’t come as a surprise that fairy tales and stories were my happy place. So, I decided to dust off the heroes and villains that filled my childhood.
Baba Yaga was the first one that I wanted to look back on. (And no, I’m not talking about John Wick.) I grew up hearing the story of Baba Yaga, a scary witch living in a house that stood on chicken legs. Baba Yaga was a cautionary tale for kids, meant to scare us off from going outside alone and to instead do as we were told. She was ugly, dirty and so obviously evil. My favourite part of any fairy tale featuring her was her house; her wooden cottage stands upright on its two chicken legs, able to move and walk around as if a separate sentient entity from the witch. There was something enticing about her strangeness, her complete disregard for social norms that always fascinated me as a kid. I didn’t care about the hero or heroine in the story, Baba Yaga was always the most interesting character.
I quickly discovered that the story of Baba Yaga had been twisted throughout the years. Yaga used to be synonymous with mother nature, she symbolised death and rebirth, new beginnings. Unsurprisingly, as Christianity gained greater footing in Eastern Europe, the image of a powerful Pagan female figure couldn’t be tolerated. As a result, she was twisted into a tool used to discourage young women from rebelling and deviating from the norm. After all, what fate could be worse than ending up as an ugly, old witch?
Slavic Female Pagan symbols didn’t receive the best treatment throughout time. A figure closely linked with Baba Yaga is Morena, an Eastern European Pagan goddess that was worshipped as a homemaker, but also the goddess of fertility and mother of all living beings. However, with time, Morena gradually transformed into the evil messenger of wilting, impotent old age and disease.
The tradition, which is still practised till this day in some places, is to make a straw effigy to represent Morena and drown her in the local river (or sometimes burn her and then drown) to ensure that winter ends and the land recovers. There are some texts that suggest the close link between Baba Yaga and Morena, as they are both closely aligned with nature and rebirth. It is worth noting that both Morena and Yaga turned from positive symbols representing rebirth and nature into something to fear and avoid at all costs.
How dangerous are powerful female symbols that they have to be destroyed?
While most people will think of Baba Yaga as the villain of traditional tales, she doesn’t really fit that category. Yaga is as ambiguous of a figure as they come. Whether she ends up hindering or helping the hero is completely unpredictable and up to her whimsy. Traditional fairy tales are set on a very binary idea of good and evil and Baba Yaga doesn’t fit into either. The terrifyingly powerful witch with an ugly nose and a house that moves around on chicken feet prefers to travel flying while sitting in a mortar and using a pestle as a makeshift oar. Being the big bad in the forest, she has to be treated with respect if the hero is to even get a chance at asking for help.
Whenever a hero stumbles upon Yaga’s house in the forest in their quest and needs to ask for the witch's help, he must be polite and act respectfully to her house. The house will not turn on its feet and show Yaga if the hero doesn’t address it politely. As a child, I became fascinated with the image of the house on chicken legs and its history. The idea of having a safe space that harbours your power and requires as much respect as you do was not only magical but strangely soothing. It might be odd, it might be scary to others, but it works for Yaga. After all, she was never really bothered with what others thought.
My reunion with Baba Yaga’s story was my first small step towards reclaiming part of my past. It might seem silly but reading about the history of how she went from being a powerful Pagan symbol of rebirth and nature into a cautionary tale made me feel more comfortable in my struggle with my history and home. Knowing that there is more that lies beneath the surface, it is now my choice to look at the stories and just dismiss Yaga as another bogeyman from my childhood or to take a step back and delve into the rich history and culture behind her. Reading about Yaga’s history encouraged me to sit with this ambiguity, let myself take the time to tease out some nuance and not dismiss my origins as purely bad — after all, they’re still a part of me.
Lenka works in digital communications and helps with running Knight Errant Press. She is very passionate about social justice and doesn't believe in guilty pleasure when it comes to enjoying any form of media. You can come and say hi or tweet her your thoughts about what you just read @lenkamurova
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