In keeping with the theme of the post immediately before this one something else that occurred to me this morning. My wife was talking about how bitterly cold it has been around here lately (in the past week and how cold it will be in the upcoming week, especially for South Carolina) when I blurted out, “yeah, it’s colder than a Siberian witches’ tit.”
Then I thought about why he used to say that. My father used to say this all of the time when it was really, really cold, it was his go-to phrase to express “absolute coldness.”
Now I have studied folklore since I was a teenager, and one bit of folklore that has fascinated me since I was a kid were the tales of Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is not Russian, she’s actually Slavic (probably) in origin (at least as Baba Yaga), and her tales are spread throughout the Slavic lands but over time they became increasingly associated with Russia (as either her true origin point), the place where she fed upon (she was a cannibal, especially of children) many of her victims (as in some incarnations she was the Forest Crone and Witch), or as being associated with her more evil deeds.
But I think that behind her may lay far older tales out of the East, and specifically the Frozen North and East, that is to say the huge and yet alien landscape of complete and unbroken frozenness and fear, in other words, Siberia.
My father was not a student of folklore but at that time, in the South, it was very common to be brought up with at least a passing knowledge of folklore, much of which got mixed around together with the various people groups inhabiting/settling the South (Irish, Scots-Irish, German, Black, Indian, etc, etc.).
I was, as a young child, cared for by an old Appalachian mountain woman who taught me folk-medicine and had an especially rich store of folk tales she would tell me as a kid. Later on, as I got older and started studying folklore I realized just how broad her range of folktales were, moving way beyond what you would normally associate with as being Appalachian in origin or from the people groups that tended to make up the Appalachian peoples. She had apparently absorbed a lotta tales from a lot of different sources and changed them around in retelling.
My suspicion is that as these various groups intermingled one tale or story influenced another and Siberia became not only the vaguely distant/rumored origin of alien frozen wastes and the metaphor for the land of extreme cold and desolation, but also the homeland associated with the most fearsome and cold of all witches, namely, Baba Yaga.
Over time though, in the retellings, her name was lost, or became unimportant and all that was left was the prototypical “frozen, cold, deathly and deadly super-witch, the Siberian Witch” – whose teats froze little children – so that she could abduct them and cook them later for eating – rather than sustained them with life.
Hence to eat from the Siberian Witches tit was a trap, just as Baba Yaga was a baiting pedophile witch (in the sense that she stole children and ate them), and if you did so it really meant Death.
So, colder than a Siberian Witches tit didn’t just mean the bitterly cold and alien and bleak landscape of Siberia, it meant the cold and bleak Siberian landscape was the home of the Siberian Witch, the Baba Yaga (or whoever Baba Yaga was first derived from), and that this witch, this Baba Yaga was really the absolute coldness of Death.
So although her name disappeared from the saying, her origins never disappeared, and so the saying didn’t just imply, “Boy it’s really cold” it actually and really is a metaphor meaning exactly this; “It’s colder than a Siberian witches’ tit,” or put another way, “It’s as cold as, or maybe even colder than, Death.”
And you know, now that I’ve thought on these things awhile this morning I believe I’ll incorporate some of these elements of Baba Yaga into the song I’m writing about her for my new album Locus Eater.