The origin of the term ‘hag’ is from the Old English for witch or haegtes, which in Middle English is hagge, and is akin to the German hexe meaning witch. The hag is also seen as being derived from the Anglo-Saxon maera which has its roots in ancient German superstition. The term is connected etymologically with the Scandinavian word mara. The image of the crone in fairy tale and folklore is also of a malicious and sinister old woman. Etymologically the word crone ,’ known from around 1390, is derived from the Anglo-French carogue meaning an insult. This in originates in the Old North French word carogne or caroigne which means carrion and is applied to a disagreeable old woman or hag. The crone known as Elli personifies old age in Norse mythology and, in a similar vein, the Baba Yaga crone of Slavic folklore is really a guardian of the Otherworld. In Somerset the crone appears as an old hag gathering sticks known as the ‘Woman of the Mist.’, and in Ireland Bronach is a now forgotten crone goddess with links to the rituals of Samhain.
An aspect of the nocturnal activity of the hag is that they are reputed to ‘ride people’ at night. The term ‘hag ridden’ is derived from the belief that the hag visits at night and sits upon the victim’s chest to produce a sensation of distress and discomfort called a nightmare. The term ‘hag’ and Old Hag’ has come to mean, in both British and north American folklore, a nightmare spirit causing in modern terms a sleep paralysis. In Persia the hag called Bakhtak (which means nightmare) also sits on upon a sleeper’s chest making them waken unable to move or breathe.There exist many tales of hags being a type of nursery bogeyman. Reference to hags is used to frighten children into being well behaved and going to sleep on time. Examples from English folklore include the green river hag called Peg Powler, who is known as Jenny Greenteeth in Yorkshire, and in a number of counties there is Nellie Longarms.
In Irish folklore hags are known as cailleaca. In Scotland the Cailleachan are a group of ‘storm hags’ who are believed to personify the destructive elements and forces of nature. Wind storms indicate when the are particularly active during the springtime – a time described locally as the A Chailleach. In the ancient myths of Ireland and Scotland the Cailleach is a goddess as hag figure whose role is involved with the harvest, the weather and creation. She is an example of the numerous sovereignty figures that populate the realms of Irish mythology. The goddess called Bride is the ruler of the Summer and acts in tandem with Cailleach who seasonally is the Winter. For example in Greek myth the Three Fates, especially she called Atropos, are also often depicted as hags.
The hags or cailleaca of Irish folklore are shown as wise, and supernaturally empowered old women from ancient times, who share a commonalty with the ancient fairy queens such as Aime and Cliodna. Examples of Celtic hags and crones include the Hag of Beare, the Hag of the Cats, the Hag of the Mist and the Hag of Hell from Wales, as well as Black Annis from Leicestershire. The Hag of Beare or Cailleac Beara features in both Irish and Scottish folklore and is also known as Dirri and Digdi. She is sometimes referred to as the Old Woman of Dingle because of her association with Dingle in West Kerry. She took part in rural pursuits in the island of Beare where she fostered fifty children.
Hags in Irish folklore lived for a very long time and are often portrayed surrounded by stacks of human bones as in the illustration of Black Annis. The activity of hags was assumed to be prevalent during the bonfire nights of Midsummer and Beltane celebrations. The hag Black Annis, who is also known as Black Agnes, preyed cannibalistically on children and lone travellers. She was a wind hag also known as the Blue Hag or Cat Anna, as well as Ana in Ireland and Ynguna in Denmark. In myth Black Annis lived in a cave in Leicestershire in the Dane Hills and was of a frightening appearance. She was called the Blue Hag because of her blue face complimented with a single eye, iron claws and long white teeth (Briggs, 1976). In Celtic mythology she was supposedly descended from the Irish goddess Dana or Anu. However, as a bogeyman figure, she was possibly based on the medieval anchoress called Agnes Scott or Annis – hence the confusion about identity.
The Hag of the Cats in Ireland was known as cailleac na glat who was allegedly fed by cats and, like many of the hags of Celtic myth, was a builder of mountains and cairns. The Hag of the Mist, as was the Irish banshee, was depicted as an ugly woman who was wont to wail and wave her arms as a portent of death in the household. In Welsh she was called Gwrach-y-Rhibyn or the Hag of the Dribble in English. Again, in common with the banshee her wailing and calling of the victim’s name were a death warning. The Hag of the Mist, as her name implies, lived in fog shrouded places that were associated with water. She was invisible normally but could seen stalking her victims near streams and lonely crossroads. The Hag of Hell, or the Gorddu, also featured in Welsh Folklore, being the daughter of Orwen the White Witch.
Hags in common with crones shared many of their characteristics. Both hags and crones were archetypal figures described as hideous in appearance with dark eyes, filthy unkempt hair and adorned in rags. Both hag and crone, because of their advanced age, as well as nearness to death, were perceived as excluded from the reproductive cycle. This may explain their being a symbol of the end of the cycle, representing the dark of the moon. Nonetheless their age conferred on them the aspect of the wise woman imbued with occult knowledge. The term crone in many instances was a less common synonym in folklore and myth for an aged woman. Neo-paganism in the form of Wicca has popularised the third aspect of the Triple Goddess which, according to Robert Graves, is the stage of the hag and the crone.
Slavic Folklore – Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga – Ivan Bilibin (1902)
Czech Folklore – Jezibaba
Gaelic Mythology – The Cailleach Béara or the Hag of Béara
British Folklore – Black Annis
English Folklore – Jenny Greenteeth
Medieval Literature – Loathly Lady
Italian Folklore – Befana
Greek Mythology – The Three Fates (particularly Atropos)
Greek Mythology – The Graeae
Norse Mythology – Elli
Japanese Folklore – Yama Uba
Shakespeare – Macbeth’s Three Weird Sisters
Hansel and Gretal
Why Are Old Women Often The Face Of Evil In Fairy Tales And Folklore?