The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

GUEST POST: Claire Atwater on The Bone Mother illustrations

Illustration of Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

Happy 2012 everyone! To start the year off with some beautiful images, today’s post comes from a dear friend of mine, historian and writer Claire Atwater. In addition to her awe-inspiring knowledge of obscure history, historical fiction and film, Claire also has one of the most vivid and beautiful imaginations of anyone I’ve ever met, and it is a treat to hear more about one of her sources of inspiration: a stunning set of early 20th century illustrations from Russian folklore, by Ivan Bilibin.  Read on for more about her take on his amazing work…

Illustration of pike by Ivan Bilibin.

Pike, by Ivan Bilibin.

Since childhood I have had a recurring dream where an impossibly old woman with wild pale blue eyes, iron teeth and strong, spindly fingers is braiding my hair. She is always whispering into my ear and I can never quite make out the words. Though always similar in content, this dream has varied in tone from terrifying and sinister to deeply comforting.

I am certain that the woman in my dream is Baba Yaga, the fabled crone who turns up repeatedly in Russian Folklore. A sort of demented fairy godmother, Baba Yaga flies through the air in a mortar using a pestle to steer. Her cottage rests on live chicken legs and goes whirling and screeching through the air until Baba Yaga is summoned by someone very brave or very foolish. She is the Bone Mother, nature spirit, equal parts witch and wise woman.

Illustration of frog princess by Ivan Bilibin.

Frog Princess, by Ivan Bilibin.

Why has my subconscious adopted a feral hag as mentor and spiritual guide? Because of the artwork of Ivan Bilibin. Bilibin, a late 19th/early 20th century illustrator and stage designer drew inspiration from early Russian architecture and Japanese prints to create delicately wrought and unusual works of illustrative art. My mother had
procured a collection of beautiful Russian folklore, set to Biliban’s work and as a child I was utterly captivated by the strangeness of the foreign folk stories and the striking portraits that accompanied them.

In many instances the illustrations in the books we read as children are the first works of art we learn to appreciate. On the pages of these fables, aesthetics are ingrained and will go on to influence our artistic sensibilities in ways we may or may not be cognizant of. Through folklore and fairy tales we receive some of our first tuition in national identity, history, social anthropology, and are inspired through words and imagery, to broaden our scope for imagination.

Illustration of Koschey the deathless by Ivan Bilibin.

Koschey the Deathless, by Ivan Bilibin.

Illustration of Firebird, by Ivan Bilibin.

Firebird, by Ivan Bilibin.

Illustration of Baba Yaga Red Horseman, by Ivan Bilibin.

Baba Yaga’s Red Horseman, by Ivan Bilibin.

// More about Baba Yaga and other Russian folk characters can be found here, on Old Russia; for more on Ivan Bilibin, browse Artcyclopedia here; and click here for the website of the International Folklore Society.

// Thank you so much to Claire for the fantastic post and wonderful illustrations!


  1. Trish

    For my fellow MSTies, I get an extra chuckle from this. She was in – although not named – the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode “Jack Frost”. She was a bit more of comic relief in it, having a fight with the “hero” (a self centered jerk who gets turns into a bear) over which way her chicken legged home should face.

  2. Catherine S.

    Thank you so much for reminding me of Bilibin’s work. A friend gave me a present of some of the folktales in russian many years ago but I lost the books and am so glad to see these again.

  3. Pingback: Russian Fairy Tales: “The Feather of Finist the Falcon” Part Two « The World of Fantasy Fiction by Ledia R

  4. Pingback: Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin – Russian Illustrator «

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