There are a lot of tales featuring hags, especially in the old folklore texts I usually consult and share extracts of, but I decided to stick to my modern books which have short explanations of each type of hag featured in the folktales.
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
Irish and Scottish folkloric figure.
Old, blind or one-eyed, humpbacked, with rheumy eyes and hairy chin, the hag of Irish and Scottish legend was not beautiful at first look. But kiss her, and she became a gorgeous maiden in full bloom of youth. This unlikely reversal is found in many stories of the great goddess of sovereignty, of war goddesses like the morrigan and Macha, and the pre-Celtic creator goddess, the Cailleach. In Arthurian legend the hag appears as the Loathly Lady, who spurs on the quest for the Grail, and as Ragnell, who leads her husband to understand what women really want.
*Read more in the book.
Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
Probably derived from the Old English term for “witch”, haegtesse, in folklore a hag is usually an old woman who practices witchcraft. Similar to a crone, a hag is associated with magical or supernatural powers and often portrayed as malevolent, ugly, and wizened, although hags can also be helpful and offer protection, advice, or gifts. In certain tales, if the hero treats a hag with love and respect despite her outwardly ugly appearance, he is rewarded by her revealing herself to be a beautiful young woman.
Supernatural or giant hags such as the Cailleach Bheur, who is a personification of winter, have their roots in belief in nature goddesses.
The Old Hag or Hagge, is a name for a nightmare that dates back to the sixteenth century. The Old Hag was a repulsive succubus who sat on a man’s stomach in his sleep, causing bad dreams.
In St Baldred of the Bass: A Pictish Legend, written in 1824 by J Miller, the Gyre-Carling, the great hag or mother witch of the Scottish peasantry of East Lothain, appears in a poem as Queen of the Fairies.
This “monstrous lady”, also known as Nicnevin, also appears in Alexander Montgomerie’s sixteenth-century poem Flying with Polwart, as a witchlike fairy queen riding through the night with the fairy king and procession of dark fairies and incubi on Samhain.
A poem by Leicestershire poet John Heyrick, who lived in the eighteenth century, describes Black Annis thus:
Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil’d,
To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and feathers livid blue
Glar’d in her visage; while the obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims close embraced.
This flesh-eating, blue-faced hag lived in a cave in the Dane Hills near Leicester. She was supposed to have excavated it with her bare hands, using only her long, claw-like iron nails. She was partial to a diet of children and lambs, and when she had devoured them, their skins were spread over the branches of the giant oak tree at the mouth of the cave.
*Read more in the book.
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane
A good house fairy from the folklore of Italy, Befana was usually described as looking like an old hag, however on Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) she took on the appearance of a kindly old grandmother. She fills children’s shoes with sweets and small presents.
In Alsatian, Austrian, German and Swiss folklore comes the spirit of winter, Berchta.
Depending on the role she was playing in the lore determines her physical description but Berchta could always be identified by her one overly long and flat foot which was deformed by all the hours she spent at the spinning wheel. She has been described as a hag with bright eyes, a hooked nose, long straggly grey hair wearing worn out clothes and carrying a staff.
As a nursery bogie, she was used most often around Christmas time to threaten naughty children into changing their behaviour. As Butrzenbergcht she delivered presents to good children on the Epiphany.
As Stomach-Slasher she made good on her name if not given offerings of dumplings and herrings or pancakes on feast days. If she caught anyone who has not eaten dumplings and fish on her holy day, she will slash open their stomach, remove the offending contents, fill it with straw, and stitch the person sloppily back together with a plowshare for a needle and lengths of chain for thread.
Black Annis is a blue-faced hag well known in the Dane Hills region near Leicester, England. Described as having long claws and yellow fangs, this powerful fairy lives in a cave called by locals Black Annis’ Bower. Legend has it she made the cave herself with her own talon-tipped fingers. Black Annis catches children and lambs who linger in the Dane Hills near twilight, removing the skin from their bodies, devouring their flesh and scattering their bones over the land.
In Ukrainian folklore Dolya is a house fairy living behind the stove; when it is in a good mood, this little fay described as looking like an old woman, brings good fortune and luck to the family. However, if Dolya is annoyed or offended he is then known as Nedolya; its appearance changes to look like a shabbily dressed hag and will bring misfortune to the household. Originally, Dolya may have once been a goddess who was reduced to the status of fairy.
On the Firth of Cromarty in the Highlands of Scotland Gentle Annis the weather spirit and a hag who controls the sounthwesterly gales and winds in the region. The terrain of the Firth is guarded against wind on the north and east by a tall hill but a gap allows sporadic and violent wind bursts to rush through earning the fay a reputation for treachery.
In the fairy tale Heart of Ice by Comte de Caylus, the fairy Gorgonzola appeared as an old hag who had the ability to grow gigantic in size and magically transform her staff into a dragon, her cloak into a golden mantle, and her shoes into rockets. Malicious and vengeful by nature Gorgonzola was known to transform herself into a black cat, sneak into a home, and steal the heart of a person thereby rendering them loveless and unable to love.
The Scottish equivalent of a brownie, the gruagach (“long-haired one”) was a female, solitary fairy who was utterly grotesque in appearance but extremely kind hearted. Female gruagach were associated with water and described as having long blond or golden hair and wearing a green dress; sometimes it was said to be attractive but more often it was described as a hag but always it was dripping wet.
Gwrach Y Rhibyn
A vampiric fairy from Wales, Gwrach Y Rhibyn is described as having two different forms. The first guise is that of a hunchbacked being beneath a green cloak. Under the hood only darkness can be seen. The other description says under the hood of the green cloak is a being so hideous and ugly it causes madness to anyone who looks at it. A constant string of drool, either saliva or blood, hangs from the corners of its mouth. It has one tusklike tooth, a hooked nose with one nostril, webbed (or clawed) feet and hands, ridiculously long thin breasts, a long barbed tongue, long thin gray hair, and skin with greenish or bluish tint to it. It also has a pair of large, leathery bat wings that hang at its side.
Gwrach Y Rhibyn attacks sleeping people, especially the bedridden, children, and the old. It drains blood from them, but not so much the victim dies. Rather, it returns several times, only taking a little more than they can fully recover from, until the person eventually becomes too weak and dies.
She’s also known as the Hag of Warning. Living in secluded forest glades or along waterways, Gwrach Y Rhibyn can tell when someone of pure Welch descent is about to die. It will turn invisible, find the person, and travel alongside them waiting until they reach a crossroads. There, Gwrach Y Rhibyn cries out a warning to the person. Usually, upon being so suddenly surprised, the person who Gwrach Y Rhibyn was trying to warn of imminent death drops over dead or goes insane with the shock of the experience.
The idea of a hag, an elderly, immortal, ugly, witch-like woman dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, as Hecate, as well as in ancient Celtic lore. The tem is used in both fairy lore and in reference to witches, although the latter is considered to be a derogatory term.
In the fairy lore of the British Isles hags are fairy beings; likely one time they were ancient goddesses. In the winter months the hag is depicted as being old and ugly but as the season changes it becomes younger and more attractive as spring nears. Sometimes the hag is said to be cannibalistic. There are many individual beings considered to be a hag throughout Celtic mythology.
Norse hags may have originally been sacrificial priestesses to the death-goddess, Hel.
In Irish and Scottish lore the hag is also an ugly being, bling or one-eyed, hairy chinned, hunch-backed, and decrepitly old but if it is kissed then the hag transforms into a beautiful young woman, a common theme. A good hag will oftentimes assist with spinning while malevolent hags are aligned with dark fay and spirits of the dead seeking to do harm to mankind and livestock.
There are two versions of the tale of the Loathly Lady, who is in truth a fairy queen, and of the young knight she marries.
Generally the story opens with the introduction of a young knight, handsome, pure, and true. The knight is then threatened with death; usually his own but on occasion that of someone close to him. In order to save his life, or that of the other, it is discovered that the knight’s salvation is through an old and ugly hag. Sometimes she only asks for a kiss from the knight but more often she demands they marry. Either way, the knight will agree and be true to his word. Soon after because of his nobility not only is he allowed to live but the old hag transforms into a beautiful young woman.
In the old, Irish versions of the story of the Loathly Lady the old woman is the personification of sovereignty of Ireland and the knight who submits to her becomes the high king. Also in this older version there is a ceremonial drink involved; it is offered to the king and his acceptance of it seals his kingship and the marriage.
The newer versions of the Loathly Lady are usually British. In these tales are basically the same but with the addition of the young knight having to answer the question “What do women most desire?” The answer is learned from the hag, “sovereignty over herself”. Even knowing the correct answer the knight must still marry the hag. At the end of the story the hag ask the young knight which he would prefer, for his wife to be beautiful and unfaithful or ugly but devoted to him (or be beautiful by day but ugly by night). The knight wisely answers he would have her make the decision, demonstrating sovereignty. The knight is rewarded with a beautiful and faithful wife.
In Celtic lore the Muireartach (“eastern sea”) was a bald (or white haired, sources conflict), blue-skinned, one-eyed hag with jagged teeth. Traditionally she is said to be malevolent, but her motivations in the folklore’s story had never been made clear. Wife of the ocean-smith, Muireartach was the embodiment of the storm-raging sea; ultimately slain by the hero, Fionn MacCumhail. She was such a violent opponent the only way to kill her was to drown her in calm waters or bury her in the earth up to her shoulders.
*Read more in the book.
Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane
Variations: Licho, Liho, One-Eyed Likho
The very embodiment of an evil Fate and misfortune in Slavic folklore, the one-eyed likho (“excessive,” “too much”) is said to look like an old hag dressed in black or as a male goblin (a general term for any of the grotesque, small but friendly beings among the fay) when living in the forests. Generally speaking, stories involving Likho run a similar course and teach a moral lesson: in one variant, someone cheats Likho and runs off with the hag in pursuit; while escaping they see some object they think will help so they grab it but the item sticks fast and eventually they end up amputating their own appendage. In another, Likho cheats a person and rides on their back; the victim, trying to drown the hag, wades into the river only to drown themselves.
Variations: Kikimora (Russian), Mara (“demon,” Polish), Zmora
In Slavic folklore the mora (“nightmare”) is a species of vampiric creature similar to the hag, a being causing nightmares and stealing vital life energy from its victims, similar to a vampire. Typically female, if a mora falls in love with her victim she will drink his blood. If the mora is a male they are described as having bushy black eyebrows which meet over the bridge of the nose. Sometimes the folklore will claim the mora is a living human being who has these vampiric abilities and can be either a man or a woman. In this instance, when the person is asleep their soul leaves their body and, assuming any number of forms, travels to the home of its victim where it will attempt to suffocate their sleeping prey while sending them nightmares and drinking their blood.
Onibaba (OH-nee BAH-bah)
Variations: Goblin of Adachigahara, Kurozuka
A YŌKAI from Japanese mythology, the onibaba (“demon HAG”) appears as a disheveled elderly woman with an oversized mouth, a maniacal look in her eye, and wielding a kitchen knife. This singular being lives in caves and mountain passes but leaves its territory in search of its favorite food: the livers of unborn children. According to the folklore Onibaba was once a wealthy woman who gave birth to a little girl. Although the child never wanted for anything by the age of five she still had not uttered a single word. Desperate for any help they took the advice of a fortune-teller who advised feeding the child the liver of an unborn infant. The nanny set out in search of a woman who would willingly give up her child; before she left, the nanny gave her own daughter an o-mamori (an amulet of luck). It was many years later and the old nanny was taking refuge in a cave when she came upon a pregnant woman traveling alone. Without hesitation she set upon the woman and killed her, removing the child, and then the liver. It was only after the gruesome crime was committed that she saw the necklace of her victim, and recognized it as the very one she gave her own daughter. Driven insane, the nanny now attacks anyone she happens upon.
*Read more in the book.
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John & Caitlín Matthews
Like the Gorgons, this monstrous trio are said to be the daughters of the primal beings Phorcys and Ceto in Greek myth. However, while the Gorgons are characterized by their writhing locks, gnashing tusks and the ability to turn people to stone with a single look, the Graeae are feeble hags who were born with long grey hair and have only one eye and one tooth between them. When he set out to destroy the Medusa, the hero Perseus had first to encounter the Graeae, who guarded the way to Medusa’s lair. Perseus intercepted the single eye as it was passed between them, and retained it until they promised to help him accomplish his task. The Greek mythographer Hesiod mentions two names for the Graeae: Pem-phredo and Enyo; later writers added a third, named Deino. Although their role is somewhat different, the Graeae are similar to the Norns, who weave the threads of human fate in northern myth.
The name of a hag-like fairy in the folklore of Wales. Sometimes called the Old Woman of the Mountains, the Gwillion looks like a poor old woman wearing a four-cornered hat, ash-coloured clothes, and a cooking pot on her head. She leaps out in front of unwary travellers crying, ‘Wwb!’ (You can try saying this yourself by standing up suddenly and wobbling your lips in a menacing way while shaking your head sidewise.) Anyone who hears her is likely to end up drowned in one of the bottomless mountain lakes. The Gwillion roams the hills caring for her herds of goats, whose long beards she combs every Wednesday, which is the Sabbath of the Welsh fairies. The Gwillion herself is also sometimes said to take the form of a goat.
*Read more in the book.
The Element Encyclopedia of Witch Craft by Judika Illes
Also known as Angrboda, Aurboda. This mysterious many-named, shape-shifting spirit manifests as a crow, a beautiful, golden goddess and a fierce iron hag. The name “Angerboda” (related to “foreboding”) refers to her manifestation as a hag. It is the form that she prefers. Angerboda is also called “Hag of the Iron Wood” and “Hag of the East Winds.” In folkloric retellings of Norse mythology, Angerboda is often called a “wicked witch.” Iron Wood may refer to oak groves.
Modern culture so intensely prizes physical beauty that it may be surprising that Angerboda chooses to be a hag. However, in this manifestation she is the fierce, fearless ruler of her domain, whereas an early manifestation as a young, golden witch, Gulveig left her vulnerable to attempted murder.
Gulveig means “power of gold.” Gulveig is described as glistening like gold; she initially traveled to the Aesir gods seeking gold. Having been burned in the Aesir’s forge three times, however, Gulveig emerged as Angerboda, the embodiment of the power of iron, the most magically powerful metal of all. (See MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.)
Angerboda rules the Iron Wood. It is her home territory, where she raised her children. She prefers not to leave, perhaps recollecting past negative travel experiences. However intrepid people requiring her services may visit her, although she is fierce and not always welcoming. Angerboda’s children include Hella, Queen of Death, the Midgard Serpent, the Fenris Wolf and the wolves responsible for solar and lunar eclipses. Other sons are identified as werewolves. She is the grandmother of trolls. Angerboda is a weather deity: in her guise as the Hag of the East Winds, her songs drive ships right into storms.
Hag stone is another name for a holed or holey stone. Hag stones are pebbles containing natural perforations. They are considered extremely magical powerful, bestowing protection and fertility and granting wishes. Hag stones cannot be created; boring a hole through a pebble is insufficient, they must be created by nature. Occultists consider hag stones valuable talismans. Usually they are strung on a cord and worn around the neck or hung on a wall or over a bed.
*Read more in the book.
*Baba Yaga, the Cailleach, Jenny Greenteeth, all forms of the Banshee, and the Furies are all considered Hags.
- hag (Wikipedia)
- hag (folklore)
- The Folklore of the Hag and Crone.
- Legendary Grannies: Hags in Celtic Myths
- tag: hag on Irish Folklore
- hag (occult world)
- hag (folklore)
Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel
Hag. Such a loaded word. If someone called you a hag, you’re not going to feel like it’s a compliment, are you? Yet… The origin of the word holds so much power.
In modern usage, hags are these haggard, harsh, most often unhinged, and quite unattractive old women. Yeah, emphasis on old and female. In cultures where value is placed on youth and attractiveness, where women only have worth in their beauty and youth, hags are quite ominous.
Hag is commonly defined by dictionaries as “ugly, frightening spirit”, “old woman”, and “witch” among other unflattering definitions.
That last one I find intriguing. If one word can mean “old woman” and “witch”, does that mean that old women are all witches?
Historically, yes. But, of course, the cuddly, sweet old ladies who knitted sweaters and baked treats weren’t seen as hags. The old women who are seen as wild, volatile, ill-tempered, and just plain nasty are seen as hags. These women also flaunted common rules of politeness and civility. Of course, it’s not just chronologically old women who can be seen as hags. The hallmark of a hag is bearing the unmistakable signs of having been scarred by life. Hags are envisioned as these dried out husks, no longer pliant or fertile – or rather, hard and unyielding instead of soft and wishing to please others. During the witch-hunt era, women who fit the stereotype of hag were quite vulnerable to persecution whether they knew anything about witchcraft or not. The convoluted consensus was that though there weren’t many hags, witches were to be feared as women with power and secret knowledge, and hags were witches, so there: they, too, should die.
Going back even before the witch-hunt era, there are the tales of grand goddesses who have hag-like appearances some of the time. These women are genuinely old. Among the most primordial, ancient spirits, even hags are old. There’s a reason “as old as the hills” is a saying. Most of these hags are mountain trolls and rock goddesses. Hags create and transform the very landscape with their power. The Cailleach in her many forms in Celtic mythology has created mountains, basins and more as she transformed the landscape – and that’s the least of her powers as she is also responsible for Winter. And though there are many legends of hags being grotesque, fierce female spirits with a penchant to kill children, fragmentary myths of these grand old goddesses continue to thrive: hags in Britain, Cailleach and Carlin in Celtic regions, and the Jotuns (Giants) of Norse mythology.
So now we have three possible kinds of hags:
- An old woman.
- A witch.
- A female divinity (I’m including all non-humans here).
Before a youth-centred world, hags were influential, useful, powerful members of society. They were teachers, midwives, diviners and healers. The face of authority and wisdom was an old woman. A lot of folklore shows the hag-spirit to be the embodiment of winter: aging with the season and then being shown as a young woman in spring – the two faces of one being.
If someone calls you a hag, wear the title with pride: it comes with a long history of power and wisdom.
Hags in Modern Culture
Dungeons and Dragons: Forgotten Realms
The schemes of hags were patient, their webs of manipulation wide, and their understanding of mortal vices, as well as how to manipulate them, great. Sometimes they wished to bring devastation to a benevolent community or destroy some being of good and at others their machinations were a net positive for the multiverse, such as the defeat of a fiend or rival hag coven. The end game behind a hag’s actions and requests, even incredibly simple ones, might only come into play decades later under certain specific conditions, but in any case they almost certainly involved directly or indirectly gaining leverage for some undoubtedly nefarious plot. However, even creatures as indisputably vile as hags were known to show affection for certain things other than themselves, some even going so far as to demonstrate motherly devotion towards others, although by no metric was this a common occurrence, nor did it necessitate such hags be generally benevolent or proud of this factHags, Forgotten Realms
Hags are mentioned in the Harry Potter books, of course.
And then there’s this middle-grade book with a cute cover and title.
When there’s a murder in the village and a hag is heard howling at the local inn, secret witch Raven Charming realizes she could have a rival – one who practices the worst kind of magic.
With the help of amateur sleuth, Mortimer Scratch, and Nightshade, a talking cat with a feline sense of detection, she sets out to solve what’s been going on…
Check it out on Goodreads.
The hag that inspired them all…
The film’s version of the Queen character uses her dark magic powers to actually transform herself into an old woman instead of just taking a disguise like in the Grimms’ story; this appearance of hers is commonly referred to as the Wicked Witch or alternatively as the Old Hag or just the Witch in the stepmother’s disguised form.Evil Queen (Disney)
Hags in My Writing
Origin of the Fae: Hags
There are several hags: the Cailleach, Goddess of Winter; River Hags; the Furies; Carlin – the Keeper of the Veil in her hag form; and others who go through various stages including being hags from time-to-time such as the Fates.
Each group has their own distinctive traits and appearance.
Translation of Hag into Afrikaans: Wyf.
Where did you encounter a hag for the first time? What are your thoughts on this creature? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to hags.
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2 thoughts on “Hags #folklore”
What a brilliant, detailed article. You make a good point about how women who didn’t conform to society’s rules or expectations were labelled as hags. Probably because men feared them. It’s sad that it is used as an insult nowadays when, as you say, the term used to reflect great power and wisdom. I enjoy hag-like archetypes in books and TV shows. They often seem unhinged but actually know a lot more about the world than other characters.
Absolutely. Thanks, Tizzy 🙂