Of myths real and imaginary

Posted August 31, 2016 By mashaholl

How can a myth be imaginary? More properly, I should say “how can a myth be imagined” — as in made up, invented, wished for. Because that’s my issue with much of the scholarship I have read these recent days.

It’s exciting and fascinating to postulate a theory and to attempt to prove it, but if you are going to apply the scientific method to the analysis of texts and narratives, then you should also be ready to apply the same rigor in expression and to accept that your theory may be completely disproven.

Baba Yaga by Nicolai Kochergin

Baba Yaga by Nicolai Kochergin

But characters from folklore seem to be exempt from this rigor. Characters from folklore seem to be a priori the vestigial remains of some long-forgotten religion, belief, or ritual.

To wit an article by Andreas Johns, published in the venerable Slavic and East European Journal.

I came across it looking for a solid survey of Baba Yaga in Russian folk tales. The article is an excerpt from a book, Baba Yaga, the Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale.

The title alone states everything I deny about Baba Yaga: she is not a witch, she is not a Mother, and she most definitely not ambiguous.

I must concede that studying folktales is difficult: what we study is really an oral narrative frozen in space and time, not the real, living tale, which changes continuously, under the influence of the narrator’s audience, age, life experience, and every other circumstance.

cover of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling

Still, it is not impossible to isolate the rationalizations of later storytellers and compare them to older narratives with less anachronistic details, or with less intrusive explanations.

Folk tales tell stories, as Kipling said, that are “just so.”

Literature, on the other hand, is not “just so.” Literature has taught us to expect motivations and character arcs, troubled pasts and rational explanations for the actions or for the existence of people, creatures, or places.

Writers know that creating a story-world is an arduous task, and that breaking it apart is much easier than holding it together. And that remaining consistency in the portrayal of characters is also difficult, especially since in written books, in literary fiction, we expect each story to be unique — or at least to have the illusion of being unique and different.

As hard a lesson it is to learn, it is an even harder lesson to un-learn. Because folk tales are just-so, but written fiction is all too often must-be-so, with rules as written and as plainly stated as the printed word of the story itself.nikolai bogdanov-belsky novaia skazka

Thus with our bias for written fiction, we have trouble accepting that folklore elements (characters, scenes, settings, descriptions) are “just so”.

They are.

Like dreams and symbols, they are not why or where from, and they must be looked at from a wider angle than the signifiers we find in authored texts. Like rocks, these elements seem unalterable, but like the weather, they are forever shifting.

To go back to my original subject, I do not see a mythical meaning or ontological significance to Baba Yaga.

If you ask who, or what she is, what she looks like, where she comes from, storytellers will tell you a story. Your question may then become the problem, rather than help resolve it: Baba Yaga is Baba Yaga. She lives in tales. She has magic-tale functions. So if you ask more details about her, you will be served more magic-tale details.

But since you’re pushing the boundaries of the magic-tale realm, the Singer of Tales will reach into a different realm to find answers, and cross-pollinate — or is that cross-pollute? — the original image to satisfy his audience, namely you, the modern scholar.

First, listen well. Second, learn from those who learned to listen well. Third, be sure your questions should be asked to begin with.

And most importantly, remember that there is no why to Baba Yaga’s actions.

Without her, without what she does (and doesn’t do), there would be no Russian magic tale.

Beyond that, she would be brought out of the folk tale, and out of the realm of her real existence. She would cease to be the Baba Yaga of Russian folk tales.

There is no why to anything in folk tales: they are Just So.