A hag is an old, ugly woman believed to be a witch or sorceress; also, a supernatural, Demonic being whose powers enable her to live an incredibly long time.
The origin of the term “hag” is found in the ancient Goddess beliefs and myths of the Egyptians, Greeks, Celts and pagan Europeans. The Egyptian heq was a matriarchal ruler in predynastic times, one who commanded the Names of Power. Many Celtic myths feature Gráinne, or “ugliness,” the Old and Undying Hag. In Greek mythology, the hag is personified by Hecate, goddess of witchcraft and Crossroads; in Norse mythology she is the death-goddess Hel. Old Norse hags may have been sacrificial priestesses, as evidenced by the terms hagi, meaning “sacred grove,” haggen, meaning “to chop to pieces,” and haggis, meaning “hag’s dish,” a dish comprised of organ meats that is still popular in Scotland.
In folklore, hags are sometimes benevolent, wise, beautiful and perpetually young. In Irish and Scottish lore, good hags help with spinning. Supernatural hags haunt the Fen country of Great Britain, working in league with bogeys, spirits of the dead and “creeping horrors” to bring harm to human beings and their animals. The Cailleach Bheur of the Highlands is a lean, blue-faced hag, a supernatural remnant of a Celtic goddess of winter who is reborn each Samhain (All Hallow’s Eve, October 31) and turns to stone on Beltane Eve (April 30). The Celts erected sacred standing stones to her. Black Annis, a bluefaced cannibal with iron claws and long teeth, lives in a cave in the Dane Hills. A remnant of the Celtic mother goddess, Anu, Black Annis eats people and animals. Until the 18th century, a ritual was performed in which she was coaxed out of her cave every Easter monday with a dead cat soaked in aniseed.
In the 16th century, the term hag was often substituted for FAIry. Fairies were reputed to teach their supernatural skills to witches, and the two consorted at night at Fairy Rings.
In other lore, succubus hags cause nightmares by sitting on a person’s chest and “riding” them through the night, sometimes killing them from exhaustion (see Nightmare). Hags can be prevented from riding by the placement of a pen-knife on one’s breast or a table fork under one’s head. A sifter placed under the head also prevents riding, for the hag is forced to pass through every hole in it, which takes her all night. Witch-hags are believed to sneak into stables at night and steal horses, riding them all night and returning them sweaty and exhausted. To prevent this, charms and Amulets are hung in stables.
The term hag in relation to witches is still used in Great Britain: hag stones mark magic Circles, and hag tracking is a means of cursing. modern Witches consider the term uncomplimentary, a stereotype of an ugly, disagreeable woman.
- Hufford, David J. The Terror That Comes in the Night. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
- HLeach, Maria, ed., and Jerome Fried, assoc. ed. Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. New York: Harper & row, 1972.