Words and Witchery: Some References for Slavic Mythology

A tall man in a Mother Christmas t-shirt stands beside a short woman in a Ukrainian embroidered blouse.
Stephen and Valya at Chicon8

Over Labor Day weekend, Stephen and I took the younger two teenagers to their second World Science Fiction Convention: Chicon 8 (San Jose was their first Worldcon in 2019).

Both of us were on panels (usually at the same time), and I was delighted to be on the Slavic Mythology panel with moderator Dr. Jeana Jorgensen, Alex Gurevich, and Alma Alexander. (Unfortunately Alex Shvartsman did not make it to the panel.)

We had a really wonderful and engaged audience, and at the end of our discussion, someone asked for additional references about Slavic Mythology. I agreed to post a list of resources published in English on my blog.

4 masked panelists seated at a table talking with a curtain behind them.
Slavic Mythology panel at Chicon 8.

I’ve done my best to collect them here. I will try to remember to update the post as I acquire new books, or as new media come to my attention.

A small disclaimer: Many books have been published recently about Slavic magic and Baba Yaga. I have not included anything as a nonfiction reference here that I have not personally read and reviewed. Some of the fiction and films, on the other hand, come from other panelists and audience members. I cannot speak to the accuracy of their portrayal or sources.

Nonfiction:

  • Slavic Folklore: A Handbook by Natalie Kononenko
  • Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend
    by Mike Dixon-Kennedy
  • The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia by W. F. Ryan
  • Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture by Joanna Hubbs
  • Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale by Andreas Johns
  • Fairy Tales of the Russians and Other Slavs: Sixty-Eight Stories Edited by Ace G. and Olga A. Pilkington
  • Witchcraft in Russia and Ukraine, 1000–1900: A Sourcebook (NIU Series in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies) by Valerie A. Kivelson and Christine D. Worobec
  • Ukrainian Minstrels: Why the Blind Should Sing: And the Blind Shall Sing (Folklores and Folk Cultures of Eastern Europe)
    by Natalie O. Kononenko
  • The Paths of Folklore: Essays in Honor of Natalie Kononenko
    by Svitlana Kukharenko, Peter Holloway
  • The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe: 7000 to 3500 BC myths, legends and cult images by Marija Alseikaitė Gimbutas
  • The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe by Stephen Wilson
  • Baba’s Kitchen Medicines: Folk Remedies of Ukrainian Settlers in Western Canada by Michael Mucz
  • Essential Russian Mythology by Pyotr Simonov

Folklorica: An open-access peer-reviewed journal produced by the Slavic, East European & Eurasian Folklore Association. The Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Folklore Association (SEEFA) is devoted to an exchange of knowledge among scholars interested in Slavic, East European and Eurasian folklore.

Fiction that draws from Slavic mythology:

  • Night Witches by L.J. Adlington
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
  • Shadow and Bone series and Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo
  • Rusalka, Chernevog, and Yvgenie by C.J. Cherryh
  • The Age of Witches by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • “Viy” by Nikolai Gogol (Mykola Hohol)
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (translated but difficult to find)
  • The Silence of Trees by Valya Dudycz Lupescu
  • Sticks & Bones: Home Is Where the Hearth Is (comic) by Valya Dudycz Lupescu & Madeline Carol Matz
  • Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia
  • Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
  • The Forest Song by Lesya Ukrainka (play, translated by Percival Cundy)
  • Mesopotamia by Serhiy Zhadan

Television & Film

  • American Gods (Starz)
  • Shadow and Bone (Netflix)
  • Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965 – Ukrainian: Тіні забутих предків, directed by Sergei Parajanov)
  • The Witcher (Netflix)

Articles:

A stack of books topped by a Baba Yaga figurine.

Baba Yaga’s Thanksgiving Tips for Big Hips and a Healthy Appetite

Something I wrote that seemed timely to share during this holiday season. A little wisdom from the Bone Goddess:

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Baba Yaga’s Thanksgiving Tips for Big Hips and a Healthy Appetite

Well-known for her iconic hut perched atop chicken feet and her flying mortar and pestle, Baba Yaga is the quintessential Slavic witch of the woods. Familiar throughout Eastern Europe as the frightening witch who entraps children and young women, she is older and more complex than a mere cannibal bone collector. Baba Yaga is also the wise woman and earth-mother who protects the forest, the animals, and the wisdom of ancient traditions in danger of being forgotten in a modern world. She is the opposite of what is glorified in our society: Baba Yaga is old, powerful, alone, and perpetually hungry, and her wisdom comes from that ineffable appetite.

It’s time to celebrate the harvest, when your ancestors would stack their tables full of food to celebrate the fruits of the growing season and fatten up for winter. As you face the feast ahead, I offer one simple piece of advice:

Reclaim your hunger.

Hunger is powerful. That’s why people are afraid of it. Hunger reminds us that we are alive and fragile. It casts a light on our mortality. If we eat, we have a chance at life. If we do not, we will eventually die. It may take the average person between 30-40 days to die without food, but die they will.

Hunger teaches us things. When we listen to our bodies, we learn important lessons: our bodies will signal when we are full; they will usually give us clues when we are lacking something. When we pay attention to hunger, we start to discover what we need to change about ourselves and the world around us. Hunger is transformative.

Hunger is holy; it is the emptiness waiting to be filled. Hunger is what tempted people to venture into my deep, dark woods. Hunger is what brought them to my door, and hunger is why I let them in.   So why have people stopped knocking on my door? They have learned to ignore their hunger.

And women have it worst of all when it comes to appetites. Taught to go without, so much language around nutrition and diet is full of words like “combat hunger” “fight cravings.” When did the table become a battleground and food the enemy?

Warm bread slathered in fresh melting butter, soup filled with hunks of potato, juicy meat falling off bones, salt to enhance flavor and combat boredom, honey to sweeten a hard life. The smell of savory stews makes our mouths water. The color of cooked beets is red like flushed cheeks, they feel smooth on the tongue, their taste is sweet, they stain the fingers. Eating is sensual. It fills our mouths with flavors and textures. Why did we stop delighting in this thing we must do every day?

When people could take food for granted, they stopped listening to hunger. They found other reasons to eat or not eat. Restraint replaced relish, and hunger became…monstrous.

Somewhere between vanity and morality, young women became removed from their appetites. Old women became frightening or invisible. And an old woman with unapologetic appetites was the worst of all.

Today, we are rarely shown old women in print or online. (Yes, I do have internet in my hut. If I can make my house turn around to face the stars, it’s not hard to boost a signal and tap into the global network.) But if we see an old woman with food of any sort, she is usually cooking or baking in her spotless kitchen. Or she may be serving a meal, her apron clean and her tray in hand. Do we see her eating? Do we see any women eating with gusto like famished farmers after a day of hard labor? Not usually. Not unless their perfectly lipsticked lips are wrapped around some kind of suggestive sexual substitute.

Food can be sexy, but women do not always eat to tease or please their lovers. Sometimes women savor their meals because there is pleasure in eating, and hunger is the foreplay of the feast. (Because the exquisite wanting makes it so much more delicious.)

Of course, finding our way back to our appetites will take more than fairy tale trails of breadcrumbs, unless maybe they are tossed with bacon fat and onions, seasoned with salt and pepper, and served alongside some succulent spiced meat and cheesy potatoes.

This holiday season, love the food you eat, and eat the food you love. Fill your plate with savory delights and you’ll be on your way to becoming a person of good taste. After that, I invite you to come to my hut, just look for the chicken feet. They’re hard to miss.

Hut of Baba Yaga by Gil Rimmer

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