In its second season, Netflix’s The Witcher has a new villain, the mysterious Voleth Meir. Unlike the creatures and characters in season one, and throughout the rest of this season, Voleth Meir was not featured in the original Witcher stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, nor did she appear in any of the Witcher video games by CD Projekt Red. However, the ‘Deathless Mother’ does have an origin in Slavic folklore: Baba Yaga, the mother of witches.
The following contains minor spoilers for season 2 of the Witcher.
If the Netflix show is your first introduction to the Witcher franchise, you may not be aware of the story’s Polish pedigree. When you get past the elves, dwarves, and dragons, which have been standard fantasy fare since Tolkein, nearly all of the monsters that Geralt hunts have their origins in the myths and legends of eastern Europe. Some of these, like the striga, are not far from their folklore equivalents: the striga is a type of vampire, closer to what we might call a ghoul, but its bestial nature is more faithful to the actual legends than the suave image of vampires from Bram Stoker to Anne Rice and beyond. Others, like the kikimora, are a bit further from the source: a multi-legged monstrosity in the show and games, this creature is generally a birdlike humanoid in the old stories. Even the term ‘Witcher’ is based on a type of folkloric spellcaster called a ‘vedmak’ in Russian or ‘wiedźmak’ in Polish.
Baba Yaga is primarily associated with Russian folktales, but she does sometimes appear in Polish folktales, including under the monikers Jezibaba or Baba Jęzda. Baba Yaga’s most famous attribute is her house, a hut that stands on chicken legs, which makes a prominent appearance in the Netflix show. In a more subtle allusion to traditional tales, the visions that Francesca, Yennefer, and Fringilla have of figures cloaked in white, red, and black are much like the three riders who serve Baba Yaga and who themselves represent morning, day, and night. Even the way Voleth Meir, despite her obvious villainy, offers aid to these three women owes something to folklore.
Baba Yaga in Folklore
Baba Yaga appears in many fairy tales, but the most famous is probably that of Vasilisa the Beautiful. Vasilisa, sort of a Russian Cinderella, is sent by her stepmother into the woods to perish, but she instead finds the hut of Baba Yaga. Guided by a doll from her dead mother, Vasilisa is able to complete several impossible tasks for the crone, and thus avoid getting eaten. Rather, Baba Yaga gives Vasilisa a skull with burning eyes to light the girl’s way home, where she finds that no fire will light in the house. She offers the fire from the skull, but this consumes the wicked stepmother and her stepsisters, and Vasilisa quickly leaves the scene and eventually ends up marrying a prince.
This is typical of Baba Yaga, she is both the monstrous, devouring ogre and the helpful donor. In some tales she is more one than the other, but in sum this is her character. There’s no character quite like her in other European folk tales, and she has a real staying power in Russian culture. Perhaps her uniqueness is also responsible for her appearances in Western media.
Baba Yaga in RPGs
Baba Yaga has a long history in roleplaying games, dating back to one of the earliest D&D supplements, 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. Well, only her hut would appear in that book as an artifact, but it then became the location for an adventure in Dragon Magazine, then a standalone AD&D module, in which the mother of witches herself would appear. Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut was reworked in Dungeon Magazine for 4th edition, and was also the centerpiece of Pathfinder’s ‘Reign of Winter’ adventure path. Baba Yaga is a major player in Kobold Press’ Midgard campaign setting, and even an elder vampire in Whitewolf’s ‘Vampire: The Masquerade.’ In the D&D adventures, Baba Yaga had an adopted daughter, Natasha, who was eventually identified as the same Tasha who created the Hideous Laughter spell and eventually a Cauldron of Everything in 5th edition.
Though not explicitly so, my latest 5e adventure, The Pub that Crawls, is an obvious homage to Baba Yaga’s hut, so I tried to lean into its associations throughout D&D’s history. In its various incarnations, the dancing hut was a place of weird whimsy, including a room with a decommissioned Soviet tank and one with a giant lizard monster in alternate reality Tokyo, to name a couple of the most memorable. It was a place where the sprawling multiverse of the D&D settings coalesced and branched out, and the Pub that Crawls does a bit of the same thing.
What’s next for Baba Yaga? Will she ever get an official stat block in 5th edition? Will she, er, will Voleth Meir come back for another season? Whatever happens, expect to see echoes of this character in the future, and watch out for huts on chicken legs.