Interview by Amber C. Snider
Blending Slavic folk magic and the wisdom of Baba Yaga, Madame Pamita’s latest book is a long-awaited homage to the beauty of Ukrainian magical traditions and the legendary crone of the forest.
As a Ukrainian Diaspora witch, Madame Pamita uses the stories of her ancestors and lessons from the ancient “grandmother of all grandmothers” to weave together a magical tale that will certainly become a classic. Mixing Ukrainian folklore, fairy tales, and practical spellwork, Baba Yaga’s Book of Witchcraft takes readers on a journey through the forest where the wisdom of Baba Yaga comes alive. In the book, we discover the meanings behind magical embroidery (aka vyshyvanka), enchanted foods, motankas (or living poppets), hair braiding, crossroads magic, incantations, and more.
Here, Madame Pamita discusses the culturally rich traditions of Slavic magic, the power of the Ukrainian people, and what we can all learn from the mysterious crone figure.
Amber C. Snider: How would you describe Baba Yaga?
Madame Pamita: Who is this legendary witch in legends? She's old, she's a crone, but she's super powerful and bad ass. Baba Yaga is a Pan-Slavic witch. Ethologists and folk ethnographers have discovered the idea of a forest woman or forest grandmother goes back to very, very ancient times when animism was the practice.
Even before the pantheon of Slavic gods, we find these spirits and ideas of working with spirit. It's a very animistic culture, which means that the water has a spirit, the earth has a spirit, the sky has a spirit, the moon has a spirit. Everything has a spirit.
ACS: How has Baba Yaga evolved over time?
MP: Because the forest mother was wild and unpredictable, [Christianity] vilified her and made her to be this scary thing. We see this pan-culturally: when hierarchical religions come in, they demonize the spirits and deities of the Old Religion –– or they turn them into saints. A great example of that is the Goddess Brigid who turned into a saint so that she could be co-opted into [Catholicism].
Sometimes, when working with spirits, they can be kind of unpredictable. They're not always universally benevolent, but they're not demons. They're like nature. What is nature? Nature can be so beautiful, so enriching to our lives. But nature needs to be respected and can be dangerous. If you go out in the cold without proper gear, you could freeze or fall off a cliff –– all kinds of things can happen in nature.
The forest was an area that you needed to be protected in. You would make offerings to the spirits of the forest before you would go in and work there. Baba Yaga had a million names in different regions and she has different names as the Spirit of the Forest.
Baba Yaga is a tough taskmaster. She will give you what seems like impossible tasks – not to frustrate you, not to thwart you, but to challenge you because she knows you can do it.
ACS: When were the stories of Baba Yaga first written down?
MP: In the 1800s Alexander Afanasyev started doing what the Brothers Grimm were doing, which is going around and story catching. He gathered hundreds of stories from this oral tradition, wrote them down, and published them in books. He then recorded [the Russian stories of] Baba Yaga and that spelling became the first widely published version of her name, even though she was Pan-Slavic and was everywhere.
I made Baba Yaga's Book of Witchcraft as a way to convey Ukrainian magical practices via the story of Baba Yaga. The design of my book is really to show you these really unique spiritual practices that go back thousands of years.
ACS: You begin the book with a tale and lesson on magical stitching. What is the magical and cultural significance behind vyshyvanka?
MP: Vyshyvanka are the embroidered blouses and tunics of the Ukrainian people. People look at it and they go, ‘Oh, that's cute. It's Bohemian. It's so decorative and lovely to look at.’ But what they don't realize is that each of those embroidered symbols are actually really powerful talismans that were embroidered into clothing.
When you got dressed in the morning, you were protecting and blessing yourself with simply the clothing that you had made. It was magical clothing. That's the very first chapter and I give examples of different basic symbols and patterns that can be embroidered so that people can replicate it. It's a lot of work to embroider a blouse, but you could certainly embroider or cross stitch a little talisman.
ACS: You start with the story of Vasylyna. How do you weave her story with Baba Yaga’s?
MP: My story of Vasylyna is borrowed from many tales in Ukrainian literature, Russian literature, and Polish literature and folk tales. To tell the story of the magic, I take elements from expanded versions of these stories and mold them into the shape. Since I'm Ukrainian, I changed her name to the Ukrainian version of that same name, and it more or less follows the story of Vasylyna the Brave or Vasylyna the Fair. She’s a young woman that goes to meet Baba Yaga and is initiated by her.
ACS: What does it mean to be initiated by Baba Yaga?
MP: I'm a spiritualist and an animist. Working with spirits, you sort of have to have their agreement to work with them. They will often call you to work with them. Really the best sign is when they call you to work with them and you’re like, ‘Okay, I guess I'm gonna work with you right. Here we go!’ You get an inner call, you'll see images, you'll get synchronicities that tell you.
Many people get called by Baba. She's super popular, but not a lot is written about her outside of fairy tales. I always like to give people a warning: She is a tough taskmaster. She will give you what seems like impossible tasks –– not to frustrate you, not to thwart you, but to challenge you because she knows you can do it.
ACS: There’s so much we can learn from crone figures, especially in these extremely tumultuous times. What can we learn from Baba Yaga right now? What are some of her major lessons?
MP: We can embody her. She's like the ultimate DGAF woman. She doesn't give a fuck, she will do whatever she wants. She's proud of her wrinkles. She doesn't care if you don't think she's ugly. I love the freedom that her energy gives.
I’m a crone as well –– I'm a young crone, but growing into it. There aren't a lot of crone role models out there in society. Baba Yaga is fearless; she’s a super positive, powerful role model. She'll do whatever she has to do and will get it done and doesn't care what you think. Instead of seeing older women depleted, washed up, shriveled up, we can see them as bad ass.
We see it in Ukraine right now. We see Baba Yaga in every Ukrainian village. Those grandmas have seen it all. They have been through so much, they lived through Soviet oppression.
The older ones have lived through the Holodomor, which was Stalin’s genocide of 3 to 6 million Ukrainians by starvation. That’s exactly what they're doing in Eastern Ukraine where they're surrounding the city and cutting out the water and food and humanitarian aid. There are corpses in the street. It's the same strategy that Russia used and these people have lived through it.
A lot of Ukrainian people have relatives in Russia and Russian people have relatives in Ukraine. They're very intertwined with this dictator who's wreaking all this destruction, havoc, death, and trying literally to destroy the culture. Not just destroy military targets, but to target schools and museums and individual civilian homes, just as Stalin did in the 1930s.
We see Baba Yaga in every Ukrainian village. Those grandmas have seen it all...they lived through Soviet oppression.
ACS: Storytelling is such an important part of keeping a culture alive. Can you talk a little bit about how your book pays homage to these sacred Ukrainian traditions?
MP: These really beautiful, unique practices are ancient and are being revived now. We really need to have this information out there. This is the point of [reviving] the culture that is being destroyed right now. It's almost like Voyager that's going out into space with a little bit of our human earth culture. We have to carry this with us.
Culture gets dispersed when people are dispersed. Imagine you have your friends, your community, your family, your local customs, but now you're all spread out all over the whole world. What happens to your community traditions? They're gone. They get absorbed into the new culture where you're living. But we don't want these things to be lost. This is what has happened throughout history.
Look what happened to, for example, the Druids. It was oral tradition and we only have what the Romans describe the Druids doing. That's why this is such an important book. We have to write this stuff down. We have to record it. There are so many diaspora Ukrainians who live in English-speaking countries –– Canada and the U.S, there are millions of us here. I have a feeling Ukraine will prevail in this whole thing because they're so strong and they have that Baba Yaga energy.
ACS: You talk about Baba Yaga showing up in Poland, Czech Republic, Croatia and other countries. Do you also think that she's universal?
MP: Yes. One of the things people sometimes ask me is, “Is this a closed practice?’ In my opinion, as a person that's a spokesperson for this, this is not a close practice. If this is something you want to experience, you feel called to it, come and participate in it. Everyone is welcome.
ACS: Baba Yaga’s fierce, wise crone energy reminds me a bit of Hecate –– in the sense that she'll tell you exactly how it needs to be, even if it feels a little painful or tedious or frustrating. Would you say there is a crossover with other Goddesses or crone figures?
MP: To me, there's a huge correspondence with Hecate and Baba Yaga. It's not surprising either because there was a trade route going from Greece and into the Slavic Lands. But we don't know which came first: the chicken or the egg. Was Hecate influencing Baba Yaga or was Baba Yaga influencing Hecate? Or was it a melding of those things? They can't really look to a ground zero point where they were meeting, but there's definitely this crossover.
There was a lot of cultural exchange and trade going on at that time: coral coming up from the Mediterranean into Ukraine and amber from the Baltic states going down into the Mediterranean and so on. There was trade in jewels and spices and all kinds of things. And of course, cultural exchange.
ACS: You also write about how to work with crossroads in the book, which also shows up in several magical practices...
MP: Crossroad magic shows up in Hoodoo, in Celtic Magic, in a lot of different traditions. There’s an example of Hecate there, too. Traditionally Hecate is the Goddess of the three crossroads and that’s where you do divination and magic.
In the Ukrainian system, different numbers of crossroads have different meanings. A “T” shaped crossroad is a blocked crossroad and you wouldn’t do magic there. An X or plus shaped crossroad would be universally great for everything. If you want to do divination and connect with the spirit world, you go to the Y-shaped crossroad. If you want to do a really powerful working, you go to one with 5 or more roads (the more, the better) and if you take an artifact (like a stone) from a crossroad with 5 or more, you have a really powerful talisman.
One very unique Ukrainian practice is with footpaths and crossroad journeys –– but you wouldn’t do this in a city street. You count the number of crossroads you find on a journey and when you get to a certain number you do that kind of magic at that crossroad.
ACS: How was your writing experience like? Did Baba Yaga challenge you?
MP: There were many times in the writing process that I was crying because I was so overwhelmed and frustrated and feeling so lost. Sometimes I was overwhelmed with the amount of work and research that I had to do and where I was going to find this information. I had to learn how to read Cyrillic (Russian and Ukrainian letters are in Cyrllic) and learn how to translate things, how to dig and find and learn new terminology. It became a very challenging task, but at the end I birthed this book that I'm so proud of. I think so many people are gonna love. It was really worth all of that challenge.
I think of Baba Yaga as like a really tough coach. Coaches push you harder because they know you can do it and they believe in you more than you believe in yourself. That was my experience in even writing this book –– I mean, she made me cry. But she knew that I could do it and this book needed to be out there.
Instead of seeing older women depleted, washed up, shriveled up, we can see them as bad ass.
ACS: You’ve been very vocal about Ukraine in your social media. How can people within the magical community around the world support and stand with Ukraine?
MP: I read this beautiful quote from a professor in Kiev. He talked about how he was so shocked and surprised that his paycheck went through. Kiev is a war zone and he thought about how someone had to go down to the university and enter in that information; someone had to be at the bank working, allowing that to happen, in order to get his paycheck.
We all have a job to do. This is not their war, this is our war. This applies to all wars. It doesn’t mean one war is worse or better or giving attention to one war or one group means you’re neglecting the others. You don’t have to ignore one to help another. I’m passionate about Ukraine because this is my heritage and culture. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s more important than others.
Not just Ukraine but in any situation we have a job to do. Your job may be sharing a link to a fundraiser, donating to that fundraiser, or sharing vetted, accurate information. Your job may be to protest or do a spell or say a prayer.
For me, the natural things are doing magic, raising money, and being vocal. I will nag and nag about this (I’m a mom), so that people see it and hear it. That’s my job. Just because I’m not on the front lines doesn’t mean my job isn’t important. Just like the guy/gal working at the bank who got that professor his paycheck –– they’re doing their job, they’re helping.
Maybe you can’t help financially, but you can share a donation link. You can protest. Do what you can do. Do one thing and if you do that, it’s one more drop in the bucket.
*Interview has been edited for length.
To purchase Baba Yaga's Book of Witchcraft, head over to the Enchantments shop at 165 Avenue B (btwn 10th and 11th street) in New York City for a signed copy or the publisher's website here.