June 25, 2018

Babbling about Babas, Baubo, and Babies

Warning: Long, rambling, poorly-edited glimpse into the opium den that is my mind follows...

I was pondering Baba Yaga, and went down a veritable rabbit hole of thought...

Suddenly, it all makes sense…

Start with the words. Words, especially names, are magic...Baba Yaga:

"Baba": grandmother. "In Slavic languages, the term baba may be employed outside of kinship, potentially as a result of taboo." Baba may refer to a cloud woman who produces rain, according to one source. And there is definitely a possible link to words for breast, grandmother, baby, doll, father, and brother in an array of Indo-European languages and contexts. It seems likely to me that there is a concept here of relationship, of kinship, and of nurturance that allows life to continue. There is still a taboo for many people about breast-feeding someone else's baby, now that wet-nurses are a thing of the past. But when wet nursing did still exist, there was a paradigm of tenderness and life-long connection with the nurse and her nursling... To nurse a child is to make them some degree of kin, even if they didn't begin that way. So in terms of a deity or a deified tribal ancestor, this clan mother or mother of all was very sensibly depicted with breasts. I've always suspected that "Mama" or "Amma" is baby-speak for breasts/milk, and that "Nanna", "Bubbe", "Nanny" all mean something like "mother-once-removed" or "mother's mother". In pre-modern days, milk was life. Mum is the one who nursed you; Granny is the one who nursed your mother. The Baba as ancestor or Goddess is the one who nursed your family progenitor or who nurtures/births all life.

Yaga "remains far more etymologically problematic"... Afanasyev proposed a derivation from Sanskrit "ahi": snake, via Proto-Slavic "oz". Alternates to "yaga" appear in various Slavic languages: Serbo-Croation has "jeza": horror, shiver; Czech offers "jeze": witch, female legendary being, and "jezinka": wood nymph, assumed to be ill-disposed to people. Polish has "jedza": witch, evil woman, a fury. There is Proto-Slavic "ega": fright, disease, wrath.  Proto-Samoyed has "nga": deity of death. Old Indian (?) has "yaga": sacrifice, related to "agni": fire. And/or it may be related to "agony": pain so great as to be accompanied by struggle, throes, extreme suffering, violent striving for an end; from Greek "agon": contest or struggle. This root and meaning traveled down through Old English "inca": pain, worry, and Old Norse "ekki": pain, worry as well. Agony is the word most used to describe pain that ends in death, specifically. Indo-European roots with "agh" seem all to have connotations of fear, horror, pain, grief. Very appropriate for a witchy lady, who may have something to do with death. In some extensions, it has a meaning of setting into (orderly) motion, to drive (as in livestock). Finally, there is a Finno-Ugric word "akka": spirit... Anciently there was a mother goddess Mader-Akka, meaning both Earth Mother-Spirit AND Grandmother Spirit. (Madder-akka in some Sami groups also means midwife.) She was the mother of all life and associated with the sun and the reindeer. She makes the body of a child in its mother's womb. She had three daughters: Sarakka, goddess of fertility, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth; Juksakka, "the spirit with the arrow", protector of children; and Uksakka, who shaped the foetus and determined its sex. There was also Jabme-Akka, lady of the underworld/the dead, who soothed dead infants and kept/consumed the older dead.

Then there is also: Proto-Indo-European "kagh": to catch or seize; also wickerwork fence. This PIE root comes down to us through Old Norse "hagi" and Old English "haga": enclosure or hedge, and gives us "haw": fruit of the hawthorn bush/tree, as well as "hedge" and perhaps "hag" and "haggard". (Hawthorns are one of the commonest hedging plants.) Used as a surname, it means one who dwells by the hawthorn or hedge/enclosure. The hawthorn is a very fey or witchy tree in folklore; its blossoms are the oddly-scented, sensual white flowers sacred to the May Goddess, which are ritually gathered at Beltane, but "mustn't be brought into the house". Oddly, the smell of woodland hawthorn blossom is similar to the smell of decaying flesh, which might explain that. It might also explain its connection with the Fay/Fey...Its thorns are used in witchcraft and folk practice for protection, and its wood was thought either to attract or to repel the faery folk, depending on tradition. A hill with hawthorns on it was considered to belong to the Fay, as were isolated hawthorns, and left alone by sensible people. Its reddish berries are still used to make cardiac tonics. Greeks and Romans used hawthorn in marriage and birth rites. Some prehistoric burials near cave dwellings had hawthorn bound to the bodies of the dead. Arabs as well as ancient Germanic tribes used the wood for funeral pyres. Hawthorn hedges around a house were thought to keep away evil spirits; it's possible that anciently they were used to hedge funerary sites to keep the spirits of the dead from roaming. Baba Yaga perhaps is the one who snares/snags/catches us into life, or into death? Or who watches as we prick ourselves on the thorny bits of life? Or whose spiky charms defend us from evil? Who lives by the holy well under the hawthorn "clootie" tree where we hang our cloth prayers?

I think we are definitely onto something here when we look at all these intertwined meanings, all these "agh/aga" sounds and their linguistically encoded meanings. And when I turned to the etymologies of the word witch, I felt even more that we are heading down a right path... Witch is thought to come from IE  "weik" which has a number of (all pertinent) extensions: please bear with me as I work through them...

1) "weik": clan, the extended family. Also, therefore, "wik" through Sanskrit "vik/vis": dwelling. settlement. Greek "oikos": house. Latin "vicus": neighbourhood, surrounding (home) area, and "villa": house. I'm going to mention that settlements used to be hedged to keep free-ranging cattle out of kitchen gardens and grain fields, and that cattle themselves were fenced at times in a ring of thorn bushes to protect them from predators. Perhaps this sense of home and dwelling and village started with protective enclosures made of spiky plants or (later) stakes. The safe space in which one lived with kin-folk. Outside lay the otherness of life: un-related people, hunting animals, spirits, the dark forests, chaos...

2) "weik": an array of meanings to do with magic, spellcraft. Old English "wicca/e": wizard/witch, and "wiccian": to cast spells. Possibly also a meaning of sacrifice (which is associated with ancient magical practice, as well as with offerings to ancestral or local land spirits) through a "wik" - "vic" root we see in "victim".

3) "weik": likeness, to be like. As seen in Greek "eikon": icon, image. Which, long ago, would have been seen in still water only, or in magical drawn/carved/painted images at the dawn of artistic craft... Probably also a link here to icons in the sense of sacred images, ancestor portraits, magical pictures or figurines to bring life---or immortal memory at least---to the dead, or divine spirits to pray to. And likeness in the sense of alike, akin: suffixed Greek "aikes": unseemly (because not like one's self/family/clan/ways, or counter to right action toward the gods?)

4) "weik": to bend, capable of being bent, to wind or twine, to turn, change. Swedish "vicker": willow, English wicker, wicket, vetch, possibly weak (meaning soft, bendable) and week (time turning, a repeated moving through days). That which may be twined or woven together, as in the wickerwork fences and house foundations once common.

5) "weik": to prevail, conquer. Latin "victus": to conquer, to win in a contest/fight. Modern English words abound: victory, conviction, evict, vanquish, etc.

There are several possibly related streams of thought here: great pain or struggle, even illness/death, and some kind of magic, a hope for victory in time of trial, for protection, and a sense of kinship. The Baba may be the grandmother of the charnel ground, lady of the dead and dying. Or she may be the over-seer of birthing pains, which may end (for both mother and child) in either new life or death. Either way, she is the lady of the liminal, of those in extremis, in pain and suffering, struggling either to live or to bring life into the world. Grandmother Death, or Grandmother Life. The Bone Mother whose image was placed in some graves in a prayer for maternal care in the after-life, or for rebirth.

I'm going to say that calling Baba Yaga "Grandmother Witch" might be accurate enough...

A word about dolls:

As mentioned above, one of the meanings of "boba", "bubbe" "puppe", and variants is doll, as well as all the other words denoting some form/degree of kinship. Why doll? What does a doll have to do with being related to someone? It has to do with former practices of ancestor worship... A doll isn't only the toy which children use to play at parenting. A doll, or poppet, is a stand-in, an image of someone else used in magic-working, and also an idol to be a focal point for reverence. People used to make images of their ancestors and keep them near, in a house shrine or free-standing shrine structure (on "chicken feet", in some cases; see below), for devotion and offerings. The Biblical teraphim are thought to have been something of the sort, perhaps in the form of preserved skulls, or else of clay or wood figurines. Ancestral spirits were prayed to and given offerings just as other spirits were. Eventually, ancestor spirit figures become tribal deities. In ancient days, though, their idols (images) tended to be small enough to carry around and house in moderately sized shrines. Doll-sized, and tended carefully. It may be that the intent was not only to placate spirits of the dead, or to secure their favour, but also to offer them a chance of rebirth within their blood kindred by keeping their doll-images close, as later seems to have been the practice with deceased infants' burials. And it's perhaps no accident that the matryoshka, the "little mother dolls", were a Slavic creation. There were ancient woodland shrines described as having multiple nested figures of deities (sadly destroyed or lost in the forced conversions period)...clearly some echo remained of a holy ancestor/deity with her descendants contained within her. (Even medieval christians had their 'Vierge Ouvrante', an image of the virgin Mary with the Christ-child contained within.) A matryoshka is a perfect visual illustration of the concept of generations through time, all contained in one form.

So if you've ever wondered (as I did) why a magical doll bequeathed by her dead mother was able to protect and advise Vasalisa when she was in Baba Yaga's house, ancestral magic is the answer. The doll represented and literally incorporated her mother's love, as well as representing the fertility magic by which the mother's line would live on through Vasalisa's children in future. She treats it exactly as ancestor dolls were treated: she keeps it close, wrapped in sacred linen, and offers it food and drink before telling it her problems, asking for help...And if you were puzzled (as I was) about why Baba Yaga is so offended by Vasalisa's answer to her query, "How were you able to do all the tasks I set you?"---the response being "By my mother's love"--- well, I can only assume that Baba Yaga in the Russian tales has been split from the unity of her origins: she is still the wise one, and the one who consumes what must die, but no longer the creatrix. Her rebirthing, mothering role is gone. By the time the story was written down, Slavic ideas about mothers and mother-goddesses had moved away from animism and deities who were creators/preservers/destroyers all in one, much as the Hindu goddess Kali was split into multiple forms or even into different goddesses altogether. Or else, her role is specifically that of a death goddess, like Jabme-Akka in Sami belief, or Erishkegal in Sumeria. (Erishkegal, who required her sister Inanna to give up all her power in order to reach her, then allowed Inanna to be killed and hung on a hook in the underworld...not a warm reception for the irresistible lady of life and increase...Maybe Baba Yaga felt the same?) By the way, if you are also curious (as I was) about what Vasalisa's doll may have looked like, look up "motanka"; a traditional Ukrainian magical doll with protective and fertility-boosting powers, whose face is rendered as a solar cross...

In South Slavic cultures, her name may be Baba Roga, which carries an implication that she has horns. In both Slavic and Eurasian cultures, horned head-dresses are worn by women old enough to be married (i.e., old enough to reproduce---fertile, nubile, having experienced menarche), or by women who are married and (thus presumably) mothers...Some of these head-dresses have two horns, referencing or even constructed over actual horns like those of a deer; others are pointed caps, reminiscent of the classic pointy witch's hat.

A bride was originally simply a young woman who had experienced her first menstrual cycle, coming of age by entering her fertile years, and thus capable of bearing new life, and marriageable, or a legitimate (of age) sexual partner. She was the container of fertile magic, needing only a "key" to unlock the riches. She might or might not be sexually inexperienced; it was more that she could, but hadn't yet, borne a child. In some European societies, a married woman was called a bride until she bore a child. (And if many years passed without a successful pregnancy, she might be required to change an element of her dress to reflect her barren state, such as pinning her keys to the hem of her dress rather than wearing them at her waist.) Only later did being a bride acquire other layers of meaning that meant being linked to a specific (male) partner and a connotation of required or expected virginity. Once it did, the trappings that marked the fertile woman were transferred to married women, and a separate, visually distinct tier of head-dresses and attire arose to distinguish the potentially fertile but virginal "marriageable" girl from the married woman. And if she should die before marriage or bearing a child, she took all that unused fertile magic to the grave with her. She might become one of the Vily (the Willies), water-loving nymphs with a dark streak, who had to be propitiated so they would give their fertility to the fields every Spring...

Moon = Horns = Fertility:

The woman with the moon (and also the sun, and stars; it might be more accurate to call her a celestial woman?) has a long history...Perhaps going back to the Paleolithic: the "Venus of Laussel", who holds the crescent-shaped animal horn (perhaps a calendar/tally, medicinal drinking horn, or original cornucopia? ), and the excavated incised bone and stone 'calendars' or tally sticks that may track the lunar cycles of a pregnancy or breast-feeding amenorrhea. Later there are legions of horned goddesses, both sun and moon goddesses: Tanit; Innanna and Ishtar, associated with both the crescent moon and the evening star; Anahita; Hathor; Allat, the now-lost consort of Allah; the horned reindeer mother goddesses of the far North, especially Mader-Akka (related to the "agh/agha" root words above?); the virgin goddesses (virgo/virgos: unmarried or un-partnered young woman, not necessarily pre-sexual) who have all the potential power of fertility that hasn't yet been unleashed/unlocked, like Diana and Artemis; the Virgin Mary with her lily that both means 'purity' and is a phallic symbol, and the moon at her feet... The woman of remote pre-history may have counted the days of the moon to anticipate her bleeding cycle; may have counted each lunation once she missed her monthly bleeding time to anticipate her birth time... She was waxing and waning like the moon. Each month, her womb gradually grew, then shed its lining. If pregnant, her belly gradually grew round and full like the moon...

Grandmother = Ancestress = Goddess:

There are Baba stones, and Bulbul stones (ancestor stones) in Eurasia, northeastern Europe---well, in in other places too. Some are tributes to tribal ancestors. Some mark burial sites. Some invoke ancient goddesses of human fertility and animal abundance. The beloved dead become ancestors, ancestors become deities.

There were birthing huts and saunas, both often built at forest edges. Sometimes the sauna was used as the place for giving birth. They looked rather like Baba Yaga’s forest hut/house, and shared the liminal location. The classic midwife is the elder woman, often titled "Granny". Her years of experience make her the safest birth attendant, assisted by other mothers.

One of the odder features of Baba Yaga’s hut is that it rests upon chicken feet. It's always surrounded by a fence of human bones, as well. A chicken-footed house seems an utter fabrication, but such structures did exist in a way... Ancestral worship shrines, crematory structures or funerary huts, storehouses (all on “chicken’ feet: tree stumps with visible roots) existed through the North lands. In photographs, the supporting trunk(s) look very like bird feet! And the human bones about her house make a bit more sense in these contexts, too. Traveling around in a mortar and pestle, sweeping out her tracks with a broom? I can't explain that, other than to observe that the mortar and pestle have been seen as a sexual reference in other cultural contexts, and the broom/besom is a gloss for both female pubic hair and a disrespectful way of referring to a woman---often an elderly one---herself. To "jump the broom" in African-American culture meant getting married, and it has the same meaning in modern Pagan ritual as well. Baba Yaga may have some sexual knowledge, it would seem... (edit) In the Finnish epic "Kalevala", a Baba Yaga-like 'witch' called Louhi has a magical mill (grinder, constructed much like the original mortar and pestle except that the vertical bit is now the turning stick for the grinding stones rather than a pestle worked in the bowl)) called the 'sampo', which produces three kinds of riches, and was a bride-gift/dowry payment for one of her daughters. And I recently found a reference to a Northern (Slavic? Finno-Ugric?) custom that requires the footprints of a funeral party to be swept away after they go by... Maybe Baba Yaga observes this custom to prevent the dead from returning to their old homes and making mischief there. And she had the knowledge of sexuality and fertility, symbolised by the grinding mill or mortar and pestle. Or she was the pestle herself, which ground up the dead in the mortar-cauldron where they would be both reduced to earth and prepared for rebirth...

In stories, people go to Baba Yaga for help, but it’s always dangerous, and they may die. They must perform seemingly impossible trials/tasks. They suffer torment (mental worry/anguish about the ‘impossible” or unbearable tasks given them, as well as the physical exertion/pain of doing the tasks); if they succeed, they leave unharmed and with magical gifts/knowledge/riches.

In Europe, as elsewhere in the world, life was uncertain. There were rich years and lean years for hunting and for herds and crops. There was, as there still is, always the possibility of accidents and illnesses. Death heppened rather more frequently, and both births and deaths were familiar events. Both were attended by "Granny" figures---midwives, herbwives, shamans, maybe one's literal grandmother who had a good repertoire of herbal medicines and charms (and years of experience)... Death and birth were both heavily associated with taboos and rituals and special observances. But probably the central focus of propitiatory rites and folkloric effort was ensuring fertility. Our ancestors saw a real, tangible link between their own fertile potential and that of the land. Human procreation and nature spirits could influence each other for a greater overall fecundity. Offerings must be made. The brides and the lads must go to the fields... "Oh, do not tell the priest, for he would think it sin---But we have been in the wood all night, a-conjuring Summer in", as Kipling put it. Before the advent of the priests, however, there was no sense of sin; rather a sense of grave necessity. And perhaps, too, some real joy, and not a little erotic excitement... The earliest religious liturgies were enactments of the themes of fertility and (cyclical) resurrection; later these themes were encoded in the Morris dances, mummer plays and Carnival skits which always include some combination of these elements: a bride and groom, often some sexual punning or vulgar gesturing, a baby appearing, a contest/fight, a death, and a resurrection effected by either a baby-nurse or a' doctor' figure, and often a fool figure is involved as well. These plays were entertaining, but there was also a sense that they must be performed for the year to turn as it should. In their origins, they were likely quite serious.

Even the possibility of conception had magic, and could be harnessed into the service of the cycles of life and death and rebirth. Some ancients buried dead children beneath the sleeping platforms of the house, to facilitate their reincarnation. Or else beneath the doorway, the threshold. They were being kept close, to give them a second chance at life by making it easy for their spirits to reincarnate with their parents. Brides were carried over the threshold (literally, the piece of wood or stone that keeps that which is threshed---grain---inside its granary building) by their bridegrooms, as they sometimes spent their first married night together giving their fertile power to each other and to the grain/seed-corn stored there. Or they were carried over the threshold of the house to avoid the "bad luck" of tripping, but the bad luck may originally have been impregnation by who knows what spirits of the dead lingering at the liminal place of the entry... Many folk traditions, with Easter and May Day customs most notable among them, have to do with linking the fertility of humans to the fertility of the land and water they depend upon. But because childbearing was dangerous, a great deal of effort, thought, and ritual went into encouraging the young girls, the brides-to-be, the maidens, to take up their duty with magical safeguards. Life went hand-in-hand with death; none knew certainly what her fate might be. When labour began, a woman would face that fear with only the midwife and perhaps some other women by her side...and no one knew at its commencement whether all that fine embroidered linen they spent so much time making would swaddle or shroud. That older, experienced birth attendant was the first face a newborn would see. Or hers might be the last an exhausted, bleeding mother might see as she slipped away into death. Either way, Baba Yaga was there...

Baba has a cousin, Baubo:

The story is that an old woman gives a lesson in immortality to a mother/goddess (Demeter) whose daughter is lost, reminding her of her duty to keep the cycles of nature and new life going despite her grief... She does a salacious dance, displays her genitals, the gate of new life in her younger days. (Like the "sexy" or "obscene" dance done to entice the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu out of her cave and back to her duty in the world...) The cycle of life, death, life...of light and dark and light... The seed that grows in the dark, erupts into the light, matures, is cut with a crescent-shaped sickle and eaten, its seeds planted to start the cycle again. The Eleusinian Mysteries state: "I have taken (it?) from the box, and placed (it) into the basket"... Did they speak of seeds poured from a dark storage box into a sowing basket? Grain taken from a storage chest and placed in a winnowing or carrying basket? Grain-based sourdough leaven scooped from a box/jar and worked with flour into a loaf, placed in a basket to rise? A phallic image, placed inside a woven womb-basket? Or a baby, grown inside the closed space of the womb, birthed into the light ('to give to the light" or "bring into the light" being common terms for birthing to this day in Indo-European languages), and then placed into a bassinet basket?

But although the story of Iambe/Baubo is about an elderly woman, the Baubo figurines for fertility do not depict an elderly woman; they are either a jocular-looking face shown on the belly of a (headless or garment-draped head) female body, or they are women shown in birthing posture. Baubo, by the way, is thought to mean both old woman, and belly, although the belly can mean the abdomen or, a bit euphemistically, the genitals. "Babo" is still, in Thrace and parts of Greece, the title of a Carnival play character, an elderly women who carries a baby in a winnowing basket. It can also mean specifically, "wet-nurse", so perhaps not such an old woman; and in some sources, at least, it is specified to mean midwife. One wonders if it is related to "bubo": a swelling, from Greek "boubon": groin, swelling. Pregnant bellies swell, obviously, and so do penises. Hmmm. And of course people with certain illnesses (notably Bubonic plague) have pathological swellings that go by that name. Babo and Bobo, as well as meaning old woman, can mean fool in several languages, perhaps reflecting the loss of sense that attends dementia. And the fool, belled like a leper or a pet dog, is the only member of the court who may speak truths to the King or Queen, who may mock the throne and call it to account. And "bau-bau" (like English "bow-wow") is an onomatopoeia word for dog. i can't help but mention here that the Fool card in Tarot shows the fool accompanied by or chivvied by a dog, and that it is the zero card in Tarot, betokening rebirth, starting the cycle over... Hekate, that ageless, witchy goddess of liminal spaces and of both the dead and childbirth, was shown with a dog, commonly.  Dogs are in many cultures seen as unclean because they gnaw the bones of dead things and pick over the slain on battlefields. They are also seen as helpers who defend and guide the herds of sheep, guard the house, and assist in the hunt. Yet again, death and life and rebirth, age and youth, decay and nurture, all wound together...

Laughing Baubo, displaying genitals to grieving Demeter, reminds her of sacred life-giving function. Reminds her of the very nature of life: that it is inseparable from death. That it is a cycle, a wheel that must never cease to turn, and it requires her participation---anad her daughter's.

Baubo has sisters: Gorgons and Medusae are also sometimes shown in birthing posture or displaying genitals.

Gorgon/Medusa has a wide grimace displaying clenched teeth or teeth with the tongue lolling out. This gesture in some places is apotropaic, repelling evil. In remote areas, some people stuck out the tongue at strangers, who were suspected of carrying evil into a village potentially. Children stick out their tongues to be rude, to express contempt---or more accurately, a lack of fear. It is also a tantric facial gesture, meant to remind one of the yoni with a lingam entering it. Ithyphallic statues and 'herms' (phallus pillars) were placed along roads to keep evil away in ancient Greece, and in other places too, including Asia. It might be as simple as the equation of a large (erect) phallus with lack of fear; when a man is really frightened, his genitals are not in standing mode. And an erection in the presence of erotic impulse/stimulus is equated with the life force, with the sexuality that brings new life. They have serpents for hair or a crown of snakes, or they have locks of hair curling like serpents around their head, standing out like sun rays.

Perhaps...just perhaps...Baubo was not laughing, originally. Perhaps she was mimicking labour, culminating in reaching down toward the crowning head of a baby, that moment of intense pain when the labouring mother's face is a mask of agony. Perhaps the Gorgon's origin lies in this same moment. A man may not look upon a birthing woman, her hair loosed (there must be no knots in a birth room) and sweat-soaked like so many serpents. Count Raimiond in the French tales may not view his fay wife Melusine in her bath (sauna?), and in older versions, in her childbed. It's taboo. Men may not see women at this moment of greatest power and greatest vulnerability...


The apotropaic function of the Gorgon face, or a  Baubo figure with a face on the belly...perhaps it keeps away harm because it invokes the holy, raw power of the life force.

Baubo has a cousin, too. Meet the Sheila-na-Gig:

All over Northern Europe, carved in stone or wood, are a peculiar form of the so-called "heraldic woman"... Oddly charming female figures, often with big eyes, who hold open or gesture to their vulvas. They appear commonly on church lintels and misericord carvings, usually positioned above the doorway. Sometimes they are seen on field stones, standing or hidden away. Some are worn smooth with reverent, ritual touch. With their large round eyes and spread, arm-straddled legs, they look a bit like frogs at times. Others have faces and forms more like elderly women; they are very reminiscent of the crone Baubo, brazenly revealing genitals that no longer are fertile. There is some ancient point to this, one that we find elusive. Baubo's actions with Demeter are one clue. Another is in the so-called "Loathely Ladies" tales, in which a woman who is very pointedly unattractive, sexually unappealing due to advanced age or disfigurement, is the necessary mate or bride of a powerful man. These ladies are linked to---confer---power and sovereignty upon the men. The men must demonstrate trust, wisdom, even compassion, by allowing this marriage to happen. Or, in Gawain's case, by allowing the marriage to take place AND allowing the lady herself to choose whether she is fair by night, for him alone, or fair by day, which would be her own preference no doubt. They must yield to eros even when eros wears an ugly face. (In some ancient customs, still remembered if not practiced in remote Slavic villages in the 1970s, a man had to have sex with an elderly woman as part of rituals to banish winter/usher in spring...) Inevitably, when they do, the charm is broken and the ladies transformed/revealed to be beautiful, youthful, full of power and life. The Sheila-na-gig, in whatever distorted form she appears, alludes to the unpredictable form of the powers of fertility. When you deal with this Power, you are dealing with life and death both, and there are no guarantees of the outcome. You will be transformed, beyond a doubt; what form, and how permanent, you cannot know. She alludes to the ancient mystery of rebirth: life carrying on through the generations, sexuality leading to the magic of birth, the channel for the life force itself.

Frogs = Water = Fertility

The form of a squatting, birthing woman got conflated with the a visually similar image of frog. Frogs sing before rain comes, bringing needed moisture for grass, crops, livestock, people. Frogs became fertility symbols. Dried frogs or toads were given as votive offerings to the Mary statues in Christian churches, and used as charms in folk magic for attaining pregnancy and ensuring safe birth, as well as curing illnesses. The Frog Princess in Russian tales finds the prince's 'arrow', and displays her magic to become the ideal bride. The Frog appears in other fairy tales with its connection to wells/pools that confer pregnancy or betrothal on queens and princesses. Frog amulets were made in ancient Egypt for birthing women, called the 'Heket' or Hathor in frog form. Frogs emerged when the Nile flooded annually, renewing the agricultrual cycle. Wet, fertile soil. The moisture of semen, of the woman's body receiving it. The waters that flow at birth. The life-sustaining milk that flows for the baby. The little frog or fish, about to come to light. Heket, the deity who attended Isis in her labour, breathing life into Osiris-Horus at his birth, whose amulets later carried the message, "i am the resurrection"... Heket, titled "she who hastens the birth", as frogs call before rain. The little amuletic frogs, carved sitting in a lotus flower. "The jewel is in the lotus." The great Tantric mantra ("Om Mani Padme Hum") invoking the image of the seeded womb to allay all fear.  The ancient, widespread invocation of reincarnation, later picked up even by Christianity: "And though a man shall die, yet shall he live again." Child-bearing as resurrection, as part of the cycles of living and dying. Childbirth as magic.

From Heket in Egypt to Greek Hekate...and they may indeed be related. Hekate, the dark-moon goddess of liminal areas (crossroads, burial grounds, entry-ways, gates, forest edges... Hekate, who carried a torch, knew the underworld, protected against evil, knew the ways of herbs to blight and to heal. Triple-faced, triple-aged, crone, mother, and virgin. Sometimes she carried snakes and daggers, as did Indian Kali, and the key was another of her attributes. Called upon to protect the woman in childbirth, and the neonate. Red fish (mullets) were sacrificed to her. Yew, with its poisonous berries, was sacred to Hekate; yew (toxon), bringer of death through toxicity or through its use as bow-making wood. The arrows of Hekate could be literal arrows, or poisons...Midwives have often been herbal adepts who can heal and bring children to birth, but also give brews to induce abortion. Hesiod calls her a good goddess, praises her highly, describes her as a nurse of the young. Later, in Hellenistiic  times, Hekate was conflated with both Erishkegal, Sumerian goddess of the underworld and the dead, and dark counterpart to Innana; and with Egyptian Isis, resurrector of Osiris and mother of the divine child Horus.

Siren Songs and Serpents:

A birthing woman’s legs grasped by her arms become stylised, serpentine, morphing into a bifurcated tail/mermaid form. The mermaid, especially the mermaid with two tails: Melusina/Melusine, La Sirena, Oshun, the Vily in their pools and rivers...all watery ladies, all concerned with 'foisson', with fertility. Mermaids and Vila are enthralling, but bring death to their suitors. The life force is La Belle Dame Sans Merci... But the mermaid with two tails which she holds apart with her hands: she is the one who visually represents her kindred in the form of the birthing woman. Her twin tails are like the paired snakes shown with other female deities. The birth-giving or menstruating Kali, the Nagas and their human priestesses and votaries, perhaps Tiamat, and certainly Isis, who had at times a serpent form, in addition to her horned crown and Gorgon-like wings...There are simply too many snake ladies to mention. The association of snakes both with fertility and with the ancestors is widespread, ancient, and enduring. Both snakes and the ancestral dead have been associated with offerings of blood, milk, or water. (Moisture = Life.) Snakes move fluidly, water-like across the earth. They vanish into holes, where they sleep for a time, emerging in Spring or sowing time. They lay eggs. They shed their skins, seemingly renewing themselves. They frighten and fascinate in equal measure. Some bring hallucination and/or death through their bite. In an old Irish ritual saying associated with Imbolc and Brigid/Bride, it says: "Today is the day of Bride./ The queen (envisioned as a crowned serpent) shall come from the hill (or mound)./ I will not touch the queen./ Nor shall the queen touch me." Thus in snake-less Ireland, the memory of the goddess of life and death, who could appear as a bride or a crone or as a serpent, remained. Climbing the phallic winged thyrsus staff, two mating serpents become the caduceus, emblem of healing. Kundalini, the primal female energy, is depicted as two snakes coiling at the base of the spine and rising up to bring enlightenment, or to express life force through sexual energy. Like alternating currents, ever-attracting opposites, that magnetically generate life-death-life...attraction and repulsion wrapped up in one form. Compelling, yet scary, like sexuality and its consequential pregnancy.

Veil weights and other amulets/jewellery from Eurasia to Africa show stylised forms of this birth-giving woman with the baby’s head emerging. European embroideries, usually in red, show her with flowers, fish, sheaves of grain, birds, snakes, lions, horses, moons and suns. Everywhere you look at folk art, you find this birthing woman. Often heavily geometric or schematised, but once you learn to see her she is ubiquitous. You'd think you were seeing her where she isn't, until you learn that this type of image, and the items you see it on, are always associated with plenty, with protection, with fertility...

Fish = Fertile

The Vesica Piscis... the horned womb; the intersecting curves that make the yoni shape; the vessel which contains the little fish; the foetus swimming in the watery womb-world; the womb as alchemical vessel; the sea-water smell of a post-coital body; the "Friday" goddesses to whom fish (and spinning,) were sacred, and whose day was favourable for sexual relations and marriages; pre-Classical Artemis with her net-patterned dress or apron sporting a fish; Aphrodite gliding over the waves in her scallop-shell ("kteis": vulva; also comb/fingers/fringe/boat/scallop or cowrie shell/curved base that receives a column); the purported aphrodisiac powers of eating shellfish; Jesus ("I am the resurrection and the life") with his Greek "fish" monogram and the fish-shaped graphic that came to represent him; all the Watery Ones with fish in their laps...

Lozenges = fertility/life force/protection.

It both provides protection AND invokes needed protection for birth and daily life. The lozenge is everywhere you look, very notably on aprons and belts that swath the reproductive areas of women. Old European images show birthing women also, with associated symbols, especially lozenges. The lozenge is ubiquitous in European textiles and other folk arts; indeed, around the world, and always with the meanings of fertility and protection. Often divided into four parts with a cross, and a dot inside each space, it is also called the "sown field" motif.

And on a side note: the evil eye = ill chance. That which blights and kills, and is especially to be feared by brides and new mothers... It's kept away with circular “eye” images, which are always watchful. The thing itself protects against that which is feared. Birth-giving images protect during birth and also offer general life protection. Eye figures protect against evil eye/bad luck.

What if the apotropaic eye representations, especially in the common circular form, related also to the omphalos, belly stones/images: round pregnant belly with protruding belly button, considered sacred and apotropaic? A circle with a dot, which was used as visual shorthand/symbol of the pregnant womb, becoming a schematic for an eye? Protective, as usual, because it referenced the mana of fertility?

It's not quite as far-fetched as it may sound. When you look at Baubo figurines with faces on her belly, pudenda, or torso…breasts as eyes, navel as nose, vulva as mouth: the visual mapping of fertility-related parts of female form as a graphic image for the whole. The face (protective, life-giving, sometimes distorted in laughter/grimacing/rictus) read as potent, magical… A woman has a face on her head, a graphic “face” on her torso, and in giving birth, a face appears between her thighs, while her own face resembles that of a Gorgon... Parts stand for a whole, images shift and constellate, meanings accrue. Who knows?

We must also remember the magical effect of the unclothed female body on males who view it... One of the reasons that belly dance is considered both profane and holy has to do with this ancient magic. Women dancing, especially skilfully shaking and moving their hips and bellies and breasts and hair, tend to arouse male watchers. The magical effect of this "action at a distance" and its propensity to make men eager to have sex originally would have been invoked deliberately, delightfully, to bring fertility to both humans and the land. These ancient traditions of dance, even possibly the origins of the "strip-tease" or burlesque show, began as invocations of sexuality and participation in the life force, not as commodification of women's bodies for the cheap entertainment of random men. Peel away the layers of intervening confusion and appropriation and shaming, and the co-opting of such dances by men and market forces, and you have something mysterious and sacred and powerful.

The womb and the tomb. The dark lady of death and the birth lady who "brings to light". A swallowing up and a giving forth. The agony and the ecstasy. The razor edge of childbirth, which only women can truly know. The oscillation between light and dark as the central observable characteristic of life...encoded in a thousand mysteries, religions, folk practices, and the foundations of science which lie in calendrical cogitation. It's possible that our early monkey minds were shaped by the cycles of dark and light evinced by day and night, waxing and waning moon, and, as we moved farther from the equatorial lands, the seasonal day/night variations... Mapping these fluctuations, allied with an unconscious awareness of the change from an oestrous cycle to a menstrual cycle, and a cell memory of lineal bottlenecks caused by birth difficulties due to pelvic change for upright gait, may have formed our brains as much as any other evolutionary forces. We became human in the crucible of alternating light and dark, death and birth twining together in our bodies and our nascent mythologies. The cognitive functions of all humanity may have their origin, in part at least, in the blood mysteries of human females. And Baba Yaga remembers it. She has in her keeping "her dawn, her noon, and her night", who ride forth daily on their white, sorrel, and black horses, turning the wheel of time. She says, "too much knowing will make you old." To "know" someone in the Biblical sense may result in new life or in death. She knows exactly what prayers for protection accompanied the images of birthing women.

So few people in the modern world even recognise these images of a woman giving birth or in labour, or (in the case of some Paleolithic "Venus" figurines) of a woman who has just recently given birth. They look at these figures without understanding---even women do this! So often the descriptions attached to scholarly presentations of them are utterly inane, simply through ignorance. We don't see birth, we don't attend other women giving birth, many of our own births occur in medical settings and blurred by drugs. Relatively few mothers give birth in calm, dim, home-like settings. They don't move freely in labour, rocking, dancing, moaning, squatting or kneeling or supported by attendants on each side, unfettered by monitors and IV lines. So these images of squatting, big-bellied females go unrecognised. Images of women with large but slack-looking bellies and enlarged breasts pendulous with milk aren't seen as possibly depicting postpartum women. Images of women gesturing at their genitals and breasts are sexualised, viewed as soliciting the male gaze, rather than indicating the sources of life and sustenance. Invoking the life force by revealing the pudenda (horrible word with equally horrible etymology, unless 'shameful' is a later glossing for an original meaning of 'taboo') is seen as an obscenity, perhaps comical, but not in any way holy or magical. As for men, they have traditionally been excluded from attending birth; so many earlier male writers and archeologists may well not have recognised birthing women images when they saw them. Even modern men, if they haven't been present during a partner's labour, or studied obstetrics, will likely lack the familiarity with birth to see what these images depict. The whole dialogue, including terminology, is predicated on an ignorant-of-birthing male viewpoint, and this situation hasn't changed significantly even today, outside of specialist disciplines. When images are correctly identified as birth-giving, the discussion tends still to have a faintly patronising tone, as if fertility is somehow only of interest to women, or as if it is not related to survival as a whole. That which isn't known will not be seen, even if it's right before the eyes. Even if seen, its significance may not be fully appreciated. The birthing woman as sacred image, as protection charm, and her symbols are thus hidden in plain sight, and if you haven't read Gimbutas' work and various other literature which gets shelved in the "specialty" sections like women's studies in libraries and bookshops, you might not recognise them.

But still, they are there. Baba Yaga knows all about it. Don't believe? Shh...she may turn you into a toad...


  1. Thank you so much for this. There's so much to take in! One of the three stories I am studying as part of Witchlines will be a Baba Yaga tale, so this information is very much appreciated. :)

    1. thanks for reading! it is very much a piece in progress, written as stream of consciousness and not really crafted. i'm unable to copy/cut/paste on my computer at this time, so editing is rather hard. :)

  2. I love this so much. So much. I'm going to re-read and re-read again. Such riches! And I had goose-bumps at certain points.

    I'm feeling beset by "impossible tasks" at the moment - ones that feel imbued with baba yaga energy, or imperatives. And there is no guarantee that we come out in one piece. It's the lack of assurance that makes it real. She's the final frontier of our innermost darkness and fear...in a way. Perhaps.

    LIke I said: I will return, because there is so much goodness to explore here. Your knowledge is quite beyond the beyond, magical you. xxx

    1. you're very kind, m'dear! it's very faulty (and possibly erroneous/mad in spots), but i really was having this burst of thought about baba yaga and baubo and the way death and life used to be so close together. i think we lost sight of how anciently (and maybe still) these were two sides of the same coin. and how we were more embedded in the land. and i thought most scholarship tends to split things up; they write about death goddess or mother goddess or what-not, with no concept that they can be the same personage.

      ugh, impossible tasks... it's like we give birth repeatedly even if we have only one child--or none---because we have to keep giving birth to our lives... i also feel that i am trapped in some fairy tale, with an undefined impossible task! and i seem to have misplaced my magical doll...

  3. So much wonderfulness here, I will bookmark it and come back to read again and again. I love what you wrote about frogs, I hae a tattoo of a rainfrog, they are very special to me and not many in our culture know that frog sings the rain. Thank you for all you shared here.

    1. thank you so much! it just keeps growing, as i keep rating/researching...

      frogs are intimately linked with rain in traditional cultures around the world. our ancestors paid close attention to their environment, and listened to all the songs. water is life, and frogs remind us of that, i think.

  4. Thank you for sharing your research and thoughts--so much goodness here! I'm printing it out to read more carefully later. ♥

    1. thank you for reading and commenting! it's very much a work in progress; do share any thoughts you may have later.


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