Beyond the Mother Metaphor: Baba Yaga's Ecofeminist Manifesto
Stories have always shaped our understanding of the world around us. They establish cultural contexts, set norms and legitimate hegemonies. Myths and fairy tales have endured over great periods of time, and they inform how we perceive and treat our surroundings; this includes our attitude towards other people, animals, plants, resources and landscapes.
It is for no lesser reason than this that folk tales are of increasing interest for scholars of ecofeminism, which link the domination of nature with the exploitation and oppression of women. Not only do sagas draw analogies between notions of the feminine and the natural, they also capture the overlap thereof in fantastical feminized figures such as the "witch of the woods". A crucial aspect of critical analysis is in this context the feminized embodiment of nature and its symbolic implications, as in the prevalent portrayal of the planet as "Mother Earth".
The mother - and to make this very clear, I hereby refer to the symbolic figure rather than an actual individual who has given birth to another individual - feeds us, nurtures and raises us, comforts and shelters us, and provides us with everything we need. The problem with this metaphor is obvious: While this all sounds quite conducive for us as the beneficiaries, the role of the mother leaves very little room for the nurturer´s own individual needs. The mother is everything but preoccupied with herself - she exists and acts first and foremost for us, and not for her own sake. Her role is to feed, to care, to nourish - to serve, if you will.
However, there are other examples offering an alternative perspective on nature through fantastical feminized figuration in the story world. One most intriguing example is the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, an old and bony witch who lives in a hut on chicken legs. Baba Yaga, often interpreted as a personification of nature and a mediator between life and death, is an ambiguous and most complex individual: In quite an unpredictable manner, she varies between acting as a benefactor and a villain, either helping or hindering those who encounter her deep down in the woods. Travelers crossing her way are made to do household chores and other work for her, and those who fail to complete her tasks meet the fate of being cooked and eaten by her. Her hut is said to be surrounded by human bones, and she terrifies children and adults equally.
On the other hand, Baba Yaga welcomes travelers with food and drink, and to those who perform the given tasks to her satisfaction, and who show humble and respectful behavior, she can become a great helper, sharing her wisdom and giving precious advice. Though Baba Yaga does not go after anyone unprovoked, her demeanor displays little consistency, which makes her a scary, multifaceted and fascinating mythological creature. She is headstrong and powerful, and knowing that your encounter with her could go either way, the message is unmistakable: Don´t mess with Baba Yaga.
My visual poem "Baba Yaga´s Ecofeminist Manifesto" explores this ecofeminist appeal of Baba Yaga. It addresses analogies between the imaginings of womanhood and nature and examines oversimplified notions thereof. The figure of Baba Yaga acts as an incubator to rethink both femininity and nature beyond the model the of selfless, ever caring and exploitable entities, which are dominant in a patriarchal, imperial, capitalist society. Leaning towards the fantastical and fictional in this way shapes an alternative symbolic language that proclaims future-oriented visions of womanhood and the earth, which are urgently needed in times of ongoing exploitation of both women and the planet.