PRM.1890.30.1: Kamene Baba figure beside the Collection Box.
This statue is a most intriguing artefact and the archetype of the Baba Yaga Cult. Towering over the more benevolent mortals in the Collection Box as you enter the Court from the right hand side, is the stone figure of Kamene Baba: Although easily upstaged by her more animated neighbours, she does have an intriguing tale to tell.
The statue is a rough hewn sandstone female figure holding a cup in her hands called Kamene Baba weighing 10 cwt 10 lbs and 21000 mm high. It is from a burial mound at Ekaterinoslav in southern Russia dated from 1000 to 1100 AD. Kammennaia Baba is ascribed to archaeological stone statues discovered near southern Russian burial grounds.
Baba Yaga is a witch or crone archetype whose cult occurs in Slavic mythology. These stories originate in the myths and beliefs of northern Russian and Finnish peoples who worshipped stone goddesses. These groups had stone statues called Yagas or Golden Babas which represented a local goddess who could be asked for advice and empowered with deciding people’s fate. These figures had their own huts on tree stumps where they were offered food gifts. Yaga comes from the Nentsy (a northern Siberian tribe) word yaha, meaning lake or sea. Russian soldiers called these figures babas – also known in Finno-Ugarit.
Linguistics shows the prehistoric features of Baba Yaga. Yaga is also considered to derive from Proto-Slavic (y)ega, meaning disease, fright, wrath. In Old Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish (Jezda), and Slovene, it is cognate with Lithuanian engti – strangle, press, torture. Earlier forms come from Proto-Samoyed nga meaning goddess of death. The Slavic etymon baba means grandmother, woman, or cloud woman (a mythic rain-maker and pelican).
In Russian folklore Baba Yaga is known as an ogress derived from an archaic goddess of death and regeneration, and therefore not a ‘Venus’ but dualistic death-bringer and life-giver for ancient northern Russian peoples. She is preserved in Slavic and Baltic folklore – Ragana in Lithuania and Latvia. Slavic folktales depict her as an evil cannibalistic old crone and as a wise prophetic old woman. Her main image is avian, but she can shape-shift into a frog, toad, turtle, mouse, crab, vixen, bee, mare, or goat, implying an origin in totemic belief and shamanic practice. Baba Yaga never talks and either flies, or stays in her hut supported on birds legs, surrounded by a fence of human bones and skulls.
Her avian nature correlates with the vulture and owl goddess archetype of European prehistory where she represents both death and regeneration. Baba Yaga is a Slavic version of Hindu Kali – Goddess of Death and Dancer on Graves. These statues represent an ancient goddess cult where sacrificial offerings by shamankas and shamans (note the Turko-Siberian origins of her mythology) were brought in order to activate her beneficial features. Kamene Baba rpresents one of the most intriguing archaeological artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
Originally printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, number 51, January 2005.
Postcript. July 6th, 2014.
The Kamene Baba figure in the Pitt Rivers Museum is and example of stelae found from Turko-Mongolia to southern Russia. Closer examination of the figure shows the presence of preserved lichen on her back – indication that in her original placing she faced north.
Many of the stelae in Russia and the Ukraine are called ‘stone babas’ and others are called ‘balbals’ a word derived from the Turkic for ‘ancestor’.
Table showing types of Kipchak idols. Source: public domain.
The Kipchak people were a Turko-Mongolian confederation of tribes who conquered much of the Eurasian steppe-land. They were known to the Russians as the Polovtsy.
Kipchak steppe art in Dnipropetrovsk
These anthropomorphic stone statues, or stelae, were situated on top of or nearby to tumuli called kurgans. They occur in large numbers from southern Russia, the Ukraine, southern Siberia, Mongolia and through central Asia. Some may be memorials to dead elites whereas others are representations of Mother Goddesses, Tabiti among them.
The earliest stelae or ‘babas’ date from the 4th millennium and have their origin in many cultures spanning 3 millennia, many from 600 BC to 300 AD. A number are dated to the 11th century AD.
Female ‘babas’ are often crudely sculpted bare breasted women, sometimes wearing girdles or adorned with necklaces. Many examples have their hands clasped at the navel where they hold a bowl or vessel resembling a votive cup. The early stelae are primitive carvings with few defining features. Strictly speaking they are religious artefacts and were not intended as ‘works of art’ – though later Russian modern artists sought inspiration in them.