The name differs within the various Slavic languages. "Baba Yaga" is spelled "Baba Jaga" in Polish and as "Ježibaba" in Czech, and Slovak. In Slovene, the words are reversed, producing Jaga Baba. The Russian is Бáба-Ягá; Bulgarian uses Баба Яга and Ukrainian, Баба Яґа; all of the last three are transliterated as Baba Yaga.
In South Slavic languages and traditions, there is a similar old witch: Baba Roga Croatian and Bosnian, cyrillic equivalent Баба Рога Macedonian and Serbian). The word Roga implies that she has horns.
The name of Baba Yaga is composed of two elements. Baba (originally a child's word) means an older or married woman of lower social class or simply grandmother in most Slavic languages. Yaga is a diminutive form of the Slavic name Jadwiga: (Jaga/Jagusia/Jadzia, etc.), although some etymologists conjecture other roots for the word. For example, Vasmer mentions the Proto-Slavic ęgа.
In Russian tales, Baba Yaga is portrayed as a hag who flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder and sweeping away the tracks behind her with a broom made out of silver birch. She lives in a log cabin that moves around on a pair of dancing chicken legs. The keyhole to her front door is a mouth filled with sharp teeth; the fence outside is made with human bones with skulls on top — often with one pole lacking its skull, so there is space for the hero's. In another legend, the house does not reveal the door until it is told a magical phrase: Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.
In some tales, her house is connected with three riders: one in white, riding a white horse with white harness, who is Day; a red rider, who is the Sun; and one in black, who is Night. She is served by invisible servants inside the house. She will explain about the riders if asked, but may kill a visitor who inquires about the servants. Baba Yaga is sometimes shown as an antagonist, and sometimes as a source of guidance; there are stories where she helps people with their quests, and stories in which she kidnaps children and threatens to eat them. Seeking out her aid is usually portrayed as a dangerous act. An emphasis is placed on the need for proper preparation and purity of spirit, as well as basic politeness.Baba Yaga in Polish folklore differs in details. For example, the Polish Baba Jaga's house has only one chicken leg. Bad witches living in gingerbread houses are also commonly named Baba Jaga.
In the folk tale Vasilissa the Beautiful, the young girl of the title is sent to visit Baba Yaga on an errand and is enslaved by her, but the hag's servants — a cat, a dog, a gate and a tree — help Vasilissa to escape because she has been kind to them. In the end, Baba Yaga is turned into a crow. Similarly, Prince Ivan in The Death of Koschei the Deathless is aided against her by animals whom he has spared.
In another version of the Vasilissa story recorded by Alexander Afanasyev (Narodnye russkie skazki, vol 4, 1862), Vasilissa is given three impossible tasks that she solves using a magic doll given to her by her mother.
In some fairy tales, such as The Feather of Finist the Falcon, the hero meets not with one but three Baba Yagas. Such figures are usually benevolent, giving the hero advice or magical presents, or both.
A cabin on chicken legs with no windows and no doors in which Baba Yaga dwells sounds like pure fantasy. In fact, this is an interpretation of an ordinary construction popular among hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia of Uralic (Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families, invented to preserve supplies against animals during long periods of absence. A doorless and windowless log cabin is built upon supports made from the stumps of two or three closely grown trees cut at the height of eight to ten feet. The stumps, with their spreading roots, give a good impression of "chicken legs". The only access into the cabin is via a trapdoor in the middle of the floor. Bears are strong, smart and stubborn enough to break into any door, but they cannot use a ladder or climb a rope to reach the trapdoor.
A similar but smaller construction was used by Siberian pagans to hold figurines of their gods. Recalling the late matriarchy among Siberian peoples, a common picture of a bone-carved doll in rags in a small cabin on top of a tree stump fits a common description of Baba Yaga, who barely fits her cabin: legs in one corner, head in another one, her nose grown into the ceiling.
There are indications that ancient Slavs had a funeral tradition of cremation in huts of this type. In 1948 Russian archaeologists Yefimenko and Tretyakov discovered small huts of the described type with traces of corpse cremation and circular fences around them; yet another possible connection to the Baba Yaga myth.