Sally Pomme Clayton on Babayaga and the Russian Forest

On 24 November 2016, we were delighted to welcome performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton at the Centre for Myth Studies for an exploration of the landscape of Russian fairytales and the figure of Babayaga.

Professor Roderick Main (Director of the Centre for Myth Studies) introducing Sally Pomme Clayton

Her captivating performance of  ‘Babayaga’s daughter’—her version of a dark Russian fairytale—was followed by a lively and engaging discussion of motifs and images linked to the Russian fairytale forest.


A key moment of Sally Pomme Clayton’s performance

We are very pleased to publish Sally Pomme’s guest blog post about her performance and interaction with our Myth Reading Group on the day of the event. See a full version of Sally Pomme’s blog post and further information about her performances and activities on her website.

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Guest blog post by Sally Pomme Clayton

Babayaga and the Russian Forest: the landscape of Russian fairytales

I was invited to The University of Essex’s Centre for Myth Studies to share ideas about Babayaga with their Myth Reading Group. The group is open to students, staff, and local people. There was a wide range of people attending, of all ages and backgrounds, some had travelled from villages around the campus, all drawn together because of a deep interest in myth. The group is unique and fulfils an important role in the local community. It offers a rare opportunity for those who are not studying to engage with academic thinking. I wanted to write about our fascinating discussion.

I told the story of ‘Baba Yaga’s daughter‘, which is very much my version of two Russian fairytales – ‘Prince Danila Govorila’ and ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’. The group had already read the fairytales in Alexsander Afanas’ev’s collection of Russian Fairytales. But I had made many changes, small and large, to create my own version – as storytellers do!


Sally Pomme Clayton telling ‘Babayaga’s Daughter’ for the Centre for Myth Studies Reading Group, Essex University

It is a dark tale of incest, a journey to the underworld to meet Baba Yaga, and an unexpected transformation.The story was a starting point for the group to discuss the reoccurring motifs and images in the story and explore their meanings in relation to the Russian fairytale forest.


Baba yaga’s hut on a Russian lacquer box

I showed some illustrations of Russian fairytales showing the forest as an enchanted landscape, both scary and mysteriously inviting. Dr Leon Burnett (founding director of the Centre for Myth Studies), spoke about the stories of spirits known as – Leshi – wood demons – who inhabit the dark trees, and how these tales represent a fear of the forest. Linda-Jo Bartholomew developed this theme by bringing in the work of writer Boris Pasternak and his descriptions of the forest. We discussed the izba – a wooden hut in the forest owned by many Russians. The izba is a place of escape and relaxation, linking families to the old ways of forest living, foraging for mushrooms and berries, chopping wood for the fire. “Even today no Russian living at the forest’s edge will take the forest for granted. After a violent storm the most familiar paths can become obliterated and the whole landscape can change. Becoming disorientated and loosing one’s way were, and remain, pitfalls faced by all those whose business takes them through the forest. Of all the spaces outside the assimilated territory of the izba (hut), the forest most clearly represents the world of ‘the other’, a territory ruled by the forest demon and entered at one’s peril.” Russian Myths. Elizabeth Warner. (38:2002)


‘Russian Fairytales’ Ivan Bilibin 1931

Babayaga’s hut is an izba. But has a personality of its own! It stands on an extra-large chicken’s foot (sometimes one, sometimes two). It hops about and spins around, or stands still with its back to the visitor. The hut is surrounded by a fence made of human bones topped with skulls. Lights shine from the sockets illuminating the darkness. The fence has a gate made of a bony rib cage, a skeleton hand for a latch, and a lock made of clacking teeth. The hut leaps about emitting blood-curdling screeches and will only come to a halt, when the right words are spoken. When it stops, it turns to face the visitor and the door bursts open with a crash. “Babayaga herself lives on the frontier between the worlds of the living and the dead. She is the ‘Customs officer’ and her hut is the ‘customs house’.” Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Dubravka Ugresic (2007). Nelia asked what the chicken’s foot symbolised. Baba Yaga is linked to birds, and perhaps she is a manifestation of an ancient bird goddess, related to Lillith, Ishtar and others with bird feet? She has a huge nose that rattles against the ceiling of the hut when she snores. She has long claw like nails, huge sagging breasts that she flips over her shoulders, sometimes she has bony legs, sometimes she has one wooden leg, sometimes her legs are made of iron. Leon described her as an ambiguous figure, both scary and helpful. He spoke about the word ‘yaga’ having its roots in the Russian word meaning to scold. Nelia said Baba Yaga is more than an ordinary witch, she does not wear a hat, and never rides a broomstick. Leon connected some of the motifs in the story with ‘Hansel and Gretel’ – a brother and sister, and a witch being pushed into an oven. Nelia went on to express what many of us felt, that Baba Yaga was different from the European witch. She is both funny and scary, an ugly old woman and yet a grandmother, powerful yet wise. Nelia wondered if her power was linked to the untamed nature of the forest itself. Baba Yaga is a terrifying old crone, helps or hinders, initiates or intervenes. To the heroine with a pure heart she will give advice and even magical gifts. She can call up birds, winds, snow, horses, and snakes to help her. She sometimes dies at the end of the story, but always comes back, again and again. “Babayaga  is a figure who stands at the border of life and death, and as both boys and girls have to die to their childhood in order to enter the adult world, she is the appropriate figure to meet them on the threshold of that transition.” Russian Magic. Cherry Gilchrist. (102:2009)


‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’ 1916

Baba Yaga flies through the sky sitting in a mortar. A pestle in one hand, a broom in the other, she rows with the pestle, and sweeps away the traces of where she has been with the broom, so no one will catch her. Professor Roderick Main (director of the Centre for Myth Studies) linked the pestle to the tools of the alchemist which pulverizes matter.. “Babayaga has this instrument of contrition, the pestle and mortar, therefore, she symbolizes that life power which, with its ultimate truth, will bring the human being to his own ultimate truth.” The feminine in fairytales. Marie Louise Von Franz. (156:1972). The group avoided making crude interpretations about the mortar being a female vessel, and the pestle being male! But I like Dubravka Ugresic’s subversive approach. “Babayaga rides in her own symbolic womb which is so hypertrophied that it can even hold her standing up and paddles through the air with a pestle-penis. Liberated from human laws.” Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Dubravka Ugresic. (2007)

Baba Yaga is powerful, she rules the elements. John Driver asked about the meaning of her three helpers – three horsemen, white, red and black, who are: dawn, sunset and night. The horsemen rule time and the turning of the days and nights, but Baba Yaga rules over them. Roderick spoke about how these three colours are an important part of alchemical transformation and wondered about the roots of the story. Leon spoke about how time, day and night, sun and moon, are often linked to incest in mythology. I was deeply struck by this connection, and mentioned an Inuit incest myth where an incestual relationship between a brother and sister turns them into the sun and moon. We discussed how  the sun and moon, day and night can never meet but exist in opposite parts of the sky/time. Dr Pietra Palazzolo (convener of the Myth Reading Group) spoke about the relationship between the two (identical) girls in the story and the doubling and mirroring that takes place. In some stories, Baba Yaga has two older sisters, also called Baba Yaga, just to confuse you! Perhaps then she is a triple goddess! She often has daughters – 1 or 41. They can be human or wild mares!  “She is a collective work and a collective mirror.” Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Dubravka Ugresic.


Illustration by Albina Makunaite 1980

As the group had read the texts of the stories, they were very interested to discuss the changes I had made to my version, especially the ending. Molly Coker liked the choices I had made. She felt that I had left the story more open and that the characters were more free. Others were unsure and felt perhaps the brother/prince was more lost in my ending. Leon felt that ambiguity is part of the story and that my choices had meant some ambiguity had been lost. Leon spoke about situating the fairytale within myth, and that my choices had made it more mythically acceptable to contemporary audiences. But myth is wild and chaotic and unacceptable and maybe these elements need to be there.


The Centre for Myth Studies Reading Group discussing Babayaga

Roderick went back to wondering about the roots of the story. Pyotr Simononov suggests in Essential Russian Mythology (1997) that Russian fairytales (skazki) have their roots in the shamanic myths of the nomadic tribes of hunters who roamed the Siberian tundra. Baba Yaga could also be linked to pagan gods of old Russia, in particular Mokosh – Moist Mother Earth. Mokosh is the only female god in this ancient pantheon. She was the protectress of women, and linked to fertility and rites of purification at death and birth. “Moist Mother Earth, as cradle and coffin of Russia’s heroes, constitutes the fertile and powerful landscape in which symbolic acts of life and death are played out in dramatic ritual.” Essential Russian Mythology. Pyotr Simononov (6:1997). Mokosh became Saint Paraskeva in Orthodox Christianity. And maybe she was split in two, the deathly part becoming Baba Yaga? Baba Yaga: Mother Earth; Goddess of Death; Goddess of Birds? Baba Yaga to be avoided at all costs, living alone, in the forest of the imagination. I give the last words to the uplifting, scathingy, witty Dubravka Ugresic, whose voice sounds very like Baba Yaga to me! “Babayaga is a unique oral-textual patchwork of folklore and mythico-ritual traditions (shamanism, totemism, animism, matriarchy) and her status, function and authority change from tale to tale.” Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. Dubravka Ugresic.


Baba Yaga and the hero – Ivan Bilibin 1911


Baba Yaga laid an egg. Dubravka Ugresic. Canongate. 2007.

Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic myth and legend. Mike Dixon-      Kennedy. ABC-CLIO. 1998.

Baba Yaga, ambiguous mother and witch of Russian folktale. Andreas Johns. International Folkloristics. 2004.

The feminine in fairytales. Marie Louise Von Franz. Shamballa. 1972

The Mother: archetypal image in fairy tales. Sibylle Birkhauser-Oeri. Inner City Books. 1988.

Essential  Russian mythology. Pyotr Simononov. Thorsons. 1997.

Russian myths. Elizabeth Warner. The British Museum Press. 2002.

Russian  Magic. Cherry Gilchrist. Quest Books. 2009.

Sally Pomme Clayton is a pioneering storyteller and writer. She co-founded The Company of Storytellers with Ben Haggarty and Hugh Lupton (1985). Together they created ground-breaking storytelling performances, spearheading storytelling for adult audiences across the UK. Recent performances have been at Beyond the Border Storytelling festival, The Wellcome Collection, The Athens Storytelling Festival, The Royal Opera House, Northern Stage, Soho Theatre, Lancaster Lit Fest, and with The British Council in Jordan. She was Artist in Residence at The Swedenborg Society making daring performance ‘Night Visit’ combining narrative with digital images and sound. She has created storytelling performances with The London Gypsy Orchestra, Joglaresa, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Royal Shakespeare Company. She was commissioned by The British Museum to create and perform six stories for ‘A History of the world in 100 objects’ (2010). She has published several children’s books, her most recent is Greek Myths: stories of sun, stone and sea (Frances Lincoln, 2014). She lectured on World oral traditions at Middlesex University from 1992-2008, and at Rose Bruford College 2009-2015.

“Some people are born to entertain. It’s a special kind of magic. Sally Pomme Clayton has that magic in plenty – she is a dream-weaver, a spell-binder.” The Londonist

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Sophia Centre Conference in Bath

Readers may be interested in the following call for papers.

The Annual Sophia Centre Conference  will be held on 1-2 July 2017 at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, Bath– The Talking Sky: Myths and Meaning in the Celestial Spheres.

The deadline for abstracts has been extended to 7 February 2017.

The conference offers a great opportunity for scholars who are interested in the links between myth (theory, role, and function) and the sky, stars, and celestial bodies

The Sophia Centre is a research and teaching centre in the School of Archeology, History and Anthropology at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The centre’s wide-ranging research projects provide a fruitful platform for scholars interested in the link between myth, literature, cultural astronomy, and cosmology.

The Sophia Centre’s recent publication, Heavenly Discourses (Sophia Centre Press, 2016), features chapters by two members of the Centre for Myth Studies Executive Committee and co-editors, together with Dr Pietra Palazzolo, of Translating Myth: Dr Leon Burnett (founding Director of our centre), and Dr Ben Pestell (former Convener of the Myth Reading Group).

See Part Two of Heavenly Discourses: Discourses in words: ‘The Stars’ Earthly Mirror: Heavenly Inversions in the Oresteia of Aeschylus’ (Ben Pestell) and ‘Septentrion: Ursa Major in the Fin de Siècle’ (Leon Burnett).


Follow the links for more details.

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Call for Proposals: Journeys

Centre for Myth Studies

Myth Reading Group

Call for Proposals: Journeys



Jason returns with the Golden Fleece, detail of Apulian red-figure calyx krater (ca. 340-330 BC), Louvre Museum [image on the public domain]

The Myth Reading Group returns this term with the theme of “Journeys”. We are looking for proposals that focus on journeys within myth and in mythical tales as well as in relation to the way texts travel across cultures and historical periods. For example, you could focus on the journeys of a mythical object, as in the case of the Golden Fleece in the image above, or on the way the hero’s journey has been rendered in different texts, cultures, and periods.

We hope the versatility of the theme will inspire a lively discussion of mythical journeys from varying perspectives. As the theme of journeys overlaps with that of afterlives, explored last year, please see our earlier call for proposals and our Spring and Summer 2016 programmes to find inspiration.

Please contact us with your suggestions for works to read in the Spring term. If you wish to introduce a topic, or have suggestions for texts to be discussed, please email us at

The Myth Reading Group is open to anyone with an interest in myth. We meet every Thursday in term time, between 12:00 and 1:30 p.m. (Room NTC.2.06) at the University of Essex Colchester Campus. Our sessions include a short presentation, up to 30 minutes, followed by discussion.

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If you wish to subscribe with a non-Essex email address, please send your request to


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Thursday 15 December. John Ruskin: Aspects of Mythscape

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 15 December

12.00-1.30pm in Room NTC.2.06

This week Robert W. Allen concludes our discussion of Mythscapes with a session on John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River

Title pages of The King of the Golden River

The King of the Golden River is Ruskin’s only work of prose fiction. In his autobiography, Praeterita, Ruskin describes it as an ‘imitation of Grimm and Dickens, mixed with a little true Alpine feeling of my own’ (Praeterita, ii ch.iv. para 64). This fairy story was written at the behest of his future wife Effie Gray when she was twelve years old in 1841, and first published in 1851.

In the session, we will also consider a number of texts and illustrative materials where Christian and Classical mythology are interwoven, including Ruskin’s analysis of J.M.W.Turner’s painting ‘The Garden of the Hesperides’ in Volume 5 of Modern Painters and of the myths associated with Athena in The Queen of the Air (1869).

Please read Chapters I, III, and V of The King of the Golden River (essential readings), and extracts from Modern Painters and The Queen of the Air (additional readings).


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Thursday 8 December: Mythscapes of a mind-doctor

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 8 December

12.00-1.30pm in Room NTC.2.06

This week Professor Roderick Main, Director of the Centre for Myth Studies, continues our discussion of Mythscapes with a session on landscapes of the mind in C. G. Jung’s The Red Book


Illustration from C. G. Jung, The Red Book: Liber Novus, ed. S. Shamdasani (New York: Norton, 2009), Liber Secundus, p. 22, Cap. v, Dies ii

In his recently published Red Book — Liber Novus  (2009) C. G. Jung recorded and described, as well as in some cases pictorially illustrated, a series of fantasies that he would later dub his ‘confrontation with the unconscious’.   Jung generated and explored these fantasies by means of the technique he would call active imagination.  For Jung the imagination could be mythopoeic, and his fantasies are replete with the figures and landscapes of myth.  In this session we look at a selection of episodes  in which the inner landscape plays an important role in the fantasy.

G. Jung, The Red Book: Liber Novus, ed. S. Shamdasani, trans. M. Kyburz, J. Peck and S. Shamdasani (New York: Norton, 2009)


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Thursday 1 December. Latin American mythscapes: Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 1 December

12.00-1.30pm in Room NTC.2.06

This week Eirini Apanomeritaki continues our discussion of Mythscapes with a session on Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo


First edition book cover of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967)

Gabriel García Márquez’s acclaimed magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude ([1967], 1970) provided a creation myth for Latin America; events from twentieth century Colombia and the country’s colonial past are juxtaposed with extraordinary incidents in a repetitive cycle. Featuring scenes inspired from the discovery of the New World, the Genesis and the Apocalypse, but also from classical creation myths, the imaginary Macondo becomes a mythical location where seven generations of the Buendía family are born, rule, and die. The remote village of Macondo grows, is exploited by a banana plantation company, is hit by a plague and a flood, and eventually vanishes amidst a hurricane.

In the session, we will consider extracts from One Hundred Years of Solitude relating to Macondo’s foundation and disappearance (essential reading: pp. 2-4, 7-12, and 298-302) and to the insomnia plague (additional reading: pp. 33-36).

References: Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude [1967], trans. Gregory Rabasa [1970] (London: Penguin, 2000)


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Conference report: Myth and Emotions

Complutense University, Madrid is a focal point for the study of myth. The driving force behind many of the myth-related activities there is José Manuel Losada Goya, a prolific and energetic scholar of French literature and mythology, who edits Amaltea, a trilingual online journal of myth criticism. Since 2011, Prof. Losada and Dr Antonella Lipscomb have organised conferences devoted to aspects of myth in the period after 1900. In October of this year, a delegation from the Centre for Myth Studies attended the most recent event, an international conference on the topic of ‘Myth and Emotions’ (see also the conference Facebook page).

Essex was represented by Leon Burnett (founding director of the Centre for Myth Studies at Essex), Pietra Palazzolo (convener of the Myth Reading Group), Ben Pestell (co-editor, with Pietra and Leon, of Translating Myth), and Saul Andreetti (Essex alumnus, translator and scholar based in Bologna). Leon’s paper delved deeper into his current work on Ariadne on Naxos, and he also chaired a session with Pietra, Ben, and Saul who discussed mythical affect in, respectively, Alice Oswald, J. G. Ballard, and Michael Ende.

Among the attendees was Christina Dokou of the University of Athens (who, incidentally, is also a contributor to Translating Myth). Christina was accompanied by some of her MA students whose conference presentations belied their student-status in their sophistication and acuity. We are delighted that two of the students have accepted our request to produce informal reports of their first major conference experience for the Centre for Myth Studies blog.


Makroui Arapian writes:

The Fourth International Conference of Myth Criticism centered on the question of ‘Myth and Emotions’. It was held at Complutense University of Madrid from 24 to 28 October 2016. The conference examined the emotional component of myth and its effect on our contemporary society: an aspect which is often ignored in myth criticism and studies of mythology. The excellent organization and kind hospitality were evident even from the very first day of the conference. The conference was very effectively scheduled for both the speakers and the audience since there were three sessions consisting of three presentations in each day. The papers covered a wide range of topics and various mythanalytic approaches. Moreover, the daily plenary presentations were extremely interesting and inspiring.

The Q&A sessions which followed each presentation were among the most interesting and beneficial aspects of the conference. The discussions between the speakers and the audience were really enlightening and gave new perspectives to our field. Furthermore, the breaks between the sessions gave us a great opportunity to have various conversations with each other and exchange views on the papers which were previously presented.

In my view, one of the most interesting and thought-provoking papers of the conference was delivered by Rebeca Gualberto Valverde with the title ‘Ellen Thatcher, “The Lily Maid of Astolat”: myths of romantic dissatisfaction in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer’. I was pleased by the clarity of her prose and her strong argumentation. I was impressed by her association of the capitalistic and indifferent urban life of New York with the chivalrous Camelot of the Arthurian legends. She argued that these extremely different cities, Manhattan and Camelot, represent the city which is doomed to fail, a contemporary Babylon, which is quite close to what T. S. Eliot describes in ‘The Waste Land’. What is more, Rebeca Gualberto Valverde drew an excellent parallel between Ellen Thatcher, the heroine of the novel, and The Lady of Shalott as she is presented in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem. She underscored the fact that both women were objectified by a male figure and they were tragically led to their death for their love while singing their own lament song.

It was an interesting and inspiring experience for all of us who attended and participated in the conference. Similar conferences should take place in the future since it is a wonderful opportunity for various scholars from all over the world to meet, exchange ideas and contribute to the literary community.

Sofia Stamatelou writes:

There is only one way for me to describe the ‘Myth and Emotions’ International Conference of Myth Criticism that took place in Madrid in October 2016; it was the experience of a lifetime! As a postgraduate student, this was the first time I have ever participated in a conference of such importance and I was super-excited to meet people, attend their talks, ask questions and learn more about myth! The plenary lectures of Peter Arnds and Edith Hall were outstanding. The former gave a very interesting talk on myth in relation to emotion and trauma. His analysis of the myth of Lycaon from Greek and Germanic myth to narratives dealing with Nazi Germany was extremely revealing to me. His delivery and his erudition made the lecture even more enjoyable and provided us with an in-depth examination of lycanthropy.

Edith Hall talked very passionately about Demeter, Medea and Iphigenia as instances of female strength in the patriarchal society of Ancient Greece. Her investigation was centered on the question of whether Ancient Greek women and girls reacted differently to these female myths of empowerment from men. Her comments on the myth of Iphigenia, and its importance in female religious rituals and festivals as underscoring Iphigenia’s priestess role – and the great response it received from the women of that time – was simply captivating. Finally, this experience is even more rewarding since I was given the opportunity to meet lovely people and spend time exploring the city of Madrid, tasting delicious food and enjoying local life with them.

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