Monthly Archives: January 2013
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.SourcesAttenborough, 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.
Ballad of AccountingWritten by Ewan MacCollPerformed by The Delgados
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.
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.
SourcesJordan, 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.