Should you be flattered or insulted if someone calls you a witch? It all depends on how “witch” is defined. On the other hand, there’s nothing ambiguous about being called an “old hag.” It’s clearly not intended as a compliment. Or is it?
In modern usage, hags are haggard, unattractive, harsh, ragged, often unhinged, and, especially, old. By definition, hags are old and they are female. In cultures that place inestimable value on youth, where female beauty and worth is often predicated on youthfulness, hags are ominous and scarily unattractive.
Dictionary definitions of “hag” include: “female demon,” “ugly, frightening spirit,” “hobgoblin,” and “old woman”—especially an “ugly, slatternly evil-looking old woman.” Last but very much not least, among the dictionary definitions of hag is “witch.”
Whether the word “witch” is solely identified with women depends on interpretation. Some are convinced that “witch” refers exclusively to female practitioners; others perceive “witch” as gender neutral and use it to indicate both men and women.
Hag, on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to the female gender. Men can certainly be old, harsh, ragged, and decrepit but they are never hags. By definition, hags are women. Hag is much harsher than any equivalent term for men, such as old codger.
If the same word applies to old women and witches, does this imply that, by definition, old women are witches? Historically, some have believed so.
Hags are not just any old women or witches but are envisioned as wild, volatile, ill tempered, and nasty. Hags flaunt common rules of politeness or civility, or perhaps don’t consider that those rules apply to them.
Sweet, cuddly, wealthy, charming old ladies are never hags. Old grannies knit sweaters and bake cookies; hags mutter imprecations and deliver curses. It is not chronological age alone that defines the hag: they are aged women, those who bear the unmistakable signs of having been buffeted and scarred by life. Hags are visualized as dried-out husks, no longer juicy, pliant or fertile.
During the witch-hunt era, older women corresponding to this stereotype of the hag, whether or not they possessed any knowledge of magic or Paganism, were incredibly vulnerable to charges of witchcraft. Hags were perceived and feared as witches. So, on the one hand, hags would appear to be marginal people; on the other, witches are feared or revered as people with power and secret knowledge. Hags are witches, therefore hags, too, have their power.
While not all hag-spirits look old, or at least not all the time, they are literally, genuinely old: hags rank among the most primordial, ancient spirits. Clichéd sayings describe extended longevity as being “as old as the hills” or “as old as the rocks.” Significantly, many hags are mountaintrolls and rock-goddesses.
In Northern Europe, hags are not just old women or aged witches, they are also a type of female spirit: fierce, haggard, and often grotesque, legends describe hags as vicious, cannibal child-killers. Beneath this horror story folklore, however, vestigial evidence of powerful, grand, goddesses survives. Obscure, fragmentary myths featuring these hag-spirits offer their evidence: hags create and transform Earth’s very landscape. And of course, why wouldn’t displaced goddesses be hostile?
There are thus three possible kinds of hags:
A type of old woman
A type of witch
A type of female divinity
Although identification of witchcraft with elderly women is fairly universal, the concept of an old crone hag-goddess is a Northern European phenomenon. Hags name the primordial spirits of Northern Europe; when invading Celts and Norse entered the region, these spirits were already in residence. Information regarding these spirits is obscure, vague and riddled with hole. These spirits are prehistoric; their beginnings are not (and perhaps cannot be) described.
The very word that names these spirits—Hag—is intrinsically tied to the very concept of witchcraft:
Both the English word hag (old woman, witch) and the German word hexe (witch) derive from hae meaning “hedgerow.” The German and English words are inherently linked: German-English dictionaries suggest that English definitions of hexe include “witch,” “sybil,” “prophetess,” and “hag.” Once upon a time, however, hag and hexe merely indicated “Lady of the Hedge.”
“Hedge” derives from the Old English haga, meaning a fence or boundary formed from a dense row of bushes or low trees. Hedge, according to the dictionary, also indicates a means of protection or defense (as against financial loss—“hedging your bets”).
What connects a natural phenomenon like hedges to words like “hag” or “hexe”?
Primal hedges weren’t the neatly pruned shrubbery of modern suburbia: today, wilderness is endangered. Once upon a time, long ago, however, it was the other way around. Europe was covered by dense forest from the British Isles to Russia. Settlements were created by clearing away bits of the forest. In order to get to another settlement, one had to travel through the forest. The forest was all encompassing and all surrounding. Where it was cleared, a “hedge” developed. This hedge formed the threshold between wilderness and settlement, wild and tame, spirit and human.
Hedgerows, according to modern dictionary definitions, are rows of trees or shrubbery enclosing or separating fields. Hedgerows create divisions. Where there are divisions, there are thresholds. Where there are thresholds, spirits hover. (See PLACES: Threshold.)
Thresholds divide realms but they also serve as bridges between realms. Among the old Germanic synonyms for witch are “hedge-rider” and “hedge-sitter.” Hagezusse, an Old High German word indicating “wise woman,” is believed to have evolved over time into hexe or witch.
Haegtessa, from which the English “hag” derives, is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Hagezusse
Hagedisse, meaning “witch” or “wise woman,” is the Old Dutch equivalent; hagedisse also indicates a lizard, an animal traditionally associated with shamanism
Linguists consider the archaic Norse word tunritha, “fence rider” or “witch,” to be cognate as well.
These Ladies of the Hedge, eventually known as hexen or hags, are those women who spent their time in the hedge, gaining spiritual knowledge and cultivating shamanic relationships. “Riding” on the hedge indicates that they are able to navigate the spiritual forces of the hedge; hexen or hags mediate between the realms of humans and spirits.
Hedges may be understood as untamed nature; witches may be understood as untamed women.
The ancient Norse word indicating “hedge” was also used to indicate “sacred grove.” “Hags” or “hexen” thus might also be translated as “Women of the Grove”: the Old Testament repeatedly complains of women who journey to sacred groves to engage in Pagan ritual.
Sacred groves are identified with the most ancient of Pagan traditions—veneration of sacred trees. (See BOTANICALS: Trees.) Sacred groves were intrinsic to indigenous Northern spiritual traditions. Many Celtic and Nordic deities preferred natural shrines to architectural ones. Groves served as temples and sacred precincts. When Christian missionaries first arrived in Northern Europe, their first actions typically included cutting down sacred trees and groves.
Tree-centered spirituality is relatively universal; hags, or the women who tend the grove, may be defined as “Priestesses of the Grove.”
Associations of the etymological roots of hag with holiness are widespread and may originally derive from ancient non-Indo-European sources. Some believe the root word derives from or is related to the Egyptian heka, indicating sacred magic power. Other words possibly related to hedge, hag, and hexe include:
Hagne or “holy one” was among the titles of Cretan goddesses
Hagnos, a Greek noun, indicates a hallowed, holy or sacred place or an undefiled person
Hagnidzo, a Greek verb, indicates “to spiritually clean or purify”
Hagia Sophia, “Holy Wisdom,” names the sacred shrine in Istanbul
Hagiology is the study of holiness or sacred subjects
Hagiography technically indicates biographies of saints or blessed people
Hagos, a Greek word deriving from the same roots, has dual meanings: it refers to religious awe or to a holy being but also indicates a curse signifying a “polluted person,” “defiled place” or “abomination.”
Among other archaic Norse words related to hag is haggen, meaning “to chop into pieces.” Etymologists believe this word, related to words with sacred associations, described the treatment of sacrificial victims, whether human, animal or grain. (See ERGOT: Corn Mother.) It is also reminiscent of shamanic descriptions of spiritual initiations—often including metaphoric experiences of being chopped up. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES.) (Haggen also relates to the French hachette, which describes a culinary chopping technique, and the English hash, a dish often made from chopped meat.)
Hags were not conceived as being intrinsically evil, or at least not until advanced age became suspect. During the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Northern Europe, tribal elders were often stubborn hold-outs and leaders of organized resistance: where elder once held positive connotations, it became disparaged and discredited, as in “old-fashioned old-wives’ tales.”
Hags were powerful, influential, useful members of society. Hags were teachers, midwives, mediums, diviners, and healers. In mythology, hag-goddesses are guardians of the cauldron of birth, death, and rebirth and keepers of the Water of Life.
Although in what is now an intensely youthcentered world this can be difficult to envision, the face of authority was once that of an old lady: the face of the sacred was epitomized by fierce, wise old women.
Hag-spirits are sometimes understood as the personification of winter. In a reversal of the normal aging process, as the season turns to spring, hags become youthful and beautiful. This is reflected in folktales where the old hag is revealed really to be a stunningly beautiful woman: the two are different faces of one being.
Women are born, wax fertile, then wane. They die and disappear like the Dark Moon phase of the lunar cycle women were so identified with. But, if one believes in reincarnation, they reappear so that the cycle may continue. Each of the four phases (death was perceived as a life-stage rather than termination) possessed specific powers; the phases exist in continuum, no phase exists without the others.
The hag corresponded to the final stage of female existence. Many serve as psychopomps (those spirits who accompany and guide souls of the dead) or are otherwise associated with death or funeral rites. Once the notion of reincarnation disappears, however, then this sacred cycle no longer exists. If women are only valued for fertility, then there is no place in the pantheon for the sacred crone.
Many goddesses not normally classified as hags sometimes temporarily manifest as one including Cerridwen, Demeter, Hecate, Hera, Isis, Lilith, and Maeve particularly when they are grieving, angry, seek justice or anonymity. Many divine witches possess a hag aspect. Even Oshun, the very personification of beauty, takes on hag-like characteristics in her guise as the swamp-witch, Oshun Ibu Kole.
By the Christian Era, hags were defined as ugly, scary, wicked female demons and monsters. Their tremendous power was retained but it was now perceived as evil not holy. Ambivalence to women’s power, specifically that of older women, is reflected in the demonization and fear of hags.
Not necessarily the most sociable spirits to begin with, hag-goddesses, many of whom were mountain or cave spirits, retreated to remote areas. They did not fade away; instead their behavior became more volatile. Forgotten, disrespected but powerful goddesses evolved into angry, unfriendly goddesses.
Information regarding these spirits is sketchy, vague, obscure, and riddled with holes. Many use different names when manifesting in different forms or when demonstrating different aspects. Many don’t use names but have titles instead; some of these titles are identical or virtually so. It is often impossible to definitively determine whether one is discussing distinct, independent deities or just different facets or legends of the same one.
Hag is the common British term
Cailleach and Carlin (also spelled Carline) refers to the same concept in Celtic regions
The Jotuns or Giants of Norse mythology are also identified with hag-spirits. Various other terms used to express the same concept include troll-hag and ogress.
Renowned sacred hags and terms related to hags are explored on the following pages.
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.
See also Hyrrokkin, Thokk; ANIMALS: Corvids, Wolves and Werewolves; DICTIONARY: Aesir, Trollkvinna; DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda, Hella; FAIRIES: Nature-spirit Fairies: Trolls.
Baba Yaga, the sacred (or demonic, depending upon perception) Russian forest witch might as well be a prototype for the Hag archetype: she is ancient and haggard, thin but voracious, solitary and all knowing. She is fierce, dangerous, unfriendly, and distinctly not interested in pleasing others. Her physical appearance inspires fear and is often described as grotesque. (She has huge iron teeth and sometimes sports protruding boars’ tusks.) Like many other hags, she is allegedly a cannibal.
Her roots, like those of other hags, lie amid Corn Mother traditions. Baba Yaga is a death goddess: she wears a necklace of human skulls and lives in a bone house. Her myths place tremendous emphasis on her oven and cooking pots.
Just as hag indicates both “witch” and “old woman,” so the title Baba indicates “witch,” but is also an affectionate (or pejorative) term for “grandmother.”
Baba Yaga’s kinship with Nordic hags serves as a reminder that Russia derives from the Rus, a tribe of invading Vikings whose traditions became intermingled with those of the people they conquered. More information about this ubiquitous, primordial witch is found in DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Baba Yaga; FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Russian Fairy-Tales. See also DICTIONARY: Baba.
Also known as the Beltane Hag.
Beltane Carline literally means “Beltane Hag” or “Beltane Old Woman” and is the person who, during Beltane rituals, received the blackened bit of Beltane Cake. Carline derives from Old Norse roots and indicates a woman, especially an old one and is a regional synonym for hag.
Beltane is the ancient Celtic festival corresponding to May Eve and Walpurgis Night. See CALENDAR: Beltane for further details.
Special cakes were traditionally part of Beltane rituals in the Scottish Highlands. One single piece, the “black bit,” was blackened with charcoal. Cakes were divided into portions, then randomly distributed or drawn by lot. The cake was distributed and eaten in company so there was no hiding or masking who had received the black bit. It was immediately apparent to all. That person automatically became the Beltane Carline with a role in the rituals that followed.
Anthropologists believe that once upon a time, similar to Shirley Jackson’s classic 1948 short story The Lottery, the Beltane Carline involved genuine human sacrifice determined via lottery. Within historic memory, however, ritual symbolic miming of sacrifice has sufficed. Rituals include the following:
The Beltane Carline runs through the Beltane bonfires three times or jumps over them three times
Sometimes a charade is made of tossing the Beltane Carline into the bonfires, often quite roughly.
Sometimes the charade involves one group of men pretending to throw the Beltane Carline into the bonfires, while another group makes a great show of rescuing her. These attempts at sacrifice versus rescue might go back and forth several times.
Not all sacrificial pantomiming involved bonfires: in some communities, the Beltane Carline was laid flat on the ground. A show was made of drawing and quartering her before the crowd pelted the prone figure with broken eggshells.
Once the charade with the fire is over, the Beltane Carline was expected to play dead. For one full year until the following Beltane, when someone else assumed the role, the entire community treated and spoke of the Beltane Carline as if that person was dead. This was an intensive experience as this ritual typically occurred in small, often isolated, rural communities. For one year, you existed but were dead to the entire community.
In historic times, the part of the Beltane Carline has virtually always been played by a young man. Once upon a time, however, presumably the title Beltane Carline was accurate and so named an old woman. She may have personified the death of the Frost Queen that corresponded with the crowning of the May Queen. Another theory is that the Beltane Carline was a sacrificial offering to the deity known as the Carlin. Whether the sacrificial ritual was or wasn’t always a charade is now unknown.
See also Cailleach Bheur, Carlin; ANIMALS: Chickens; CALENDAR: Beltane, Walpurgis; FOOD AND DRINK: Beltane Cake.
Also known as Black Agnes, Black Anna, Cat Anna, Gentle Annie.
Black Annis, Hag of the Dane Hills near Leicester, England, most frequently manifests as a blue-faced crone with long claws and yellow fangs but also as a cat demon.
Black Annis lives in a cave now known as Black Annis’ Bower that she personally clawed out from the rocks. Some believe her cave marks an Iron Age shrine and that Black Annis, now a dread bogie-woman, was once a venerated goddess. Once upon a time, Black Annis liked to sit and observe her territory from within a giant oak near her cave, vestige of the vast forest that once covered this region. The oak was felled, however, and so she’s now apparently moved permanently into the cave.
Some perceive that hidden behind Black Annis’ mask is either of the ancient Celtic goddesses Anu or Danaan, although others perceive her as a distinct, independent spirit. See FAIRIES: Naturespirit Fairies: Sidhe.
Black Annis allegedly eats children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark, or at least so their mothers have traditionally warned them. She skins then eats her victims, scattering the bones around the hills and hanging the skins from trees to dry. Allegedly, when she is hungry, Black Annis snatches lambs from pastures and climbs through windows to seize babies from inside houses—perhaps she is just blamed for missing children and livestock. Sometimes Black Annis is called Gentle Annie, although this is generally perceived as an attempt at appeasement and supplication.
Also known as Cat Anna, Black Annis has powerful associations with cats, sometimes manifesting as a huge black forest cat. Until the eighteenth century a mock rabbit hunt was held annually, although “mock cat hunt” might be more accurate: a dead cat soaked in aniseed was dragged from Black Annis’ Bower, her cave home, through Leicester’s streets to the town mayor’s door. Among aniseed’s traditional magical uses are propitiation of spirits and protection against malevolent magic. Exactly what connection exists between Cat Anna and aniseed if any beyond the similarities of their names is now unknown.
Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, has a mother who is even fiercer and more powerful than he. She is identified as a ketta or cat spirit. Some perceive a resemblance between her and Cat Anna.
See ANIMALS: Cats; FAIRIES: Fairy Cats.
Caillagh Ny Gueshag/ Caillagh Ny Groamach
Caillagh is the Manx variation of the Gaelic word Cailleach (see next section). Exactly where she originated is unclear but according to legend, Caillagh Ny Gueshag, the “Old Woman of Spells,” was thrown into the Irish Sea for practicing witchcraft. On Imbolc, she was cast ashore on Manx shores and found herself transformed into Caillagh Ny Groamach, the “Old Women of Gloom.”
She is a weather spirit. When she first landed on the Isle of Man, she gathered sticks to build a fire to dry and warm herself. It turned out to be a very wet spring: she didn’t have enough sticks to stay warm for the whole season. (Apparently Caillagh Ny Groamach can only gather sticks on Imbolc.)
Since then, every year she attempts to gather enough sticks for the spring season. In a precursor to Hedgehog Day or Groundhog Day, Caillagh Ny Groamach’s success determines the rest of the season’s weather:
If Imbolc is fair, she’ll gather enough sticks and so won’t care if it rains all spring.
If Imbolc is wet, she can’t go out gathering and thus must ensure a dry season.
See CALENDAR: Imbolc.
Cailleach (pronounced “coy-luk”) is the Gaelic word corresponding to Hag. Cailleach literally means “old woman” but is usually translated into English as “hag,” although in modern Gaelic dictionaries, Cailleach is also defined as “witch.”
The Cailleach, like the hag, is by definition female but has various manifestations:
In Scottish and Irish folklore and mythology, Cailleach is a title for spirits corresponding to the archetype of the sacred hag.
Cailleach may indicate an old woman and/or witch.
Cailleach is also used to indicate a nun. This association is complex: nuns, like most hag-spirits, are celibate. Women whose lives do not revolve around men or children, nuns were perceived as holy or spiritually powerful women. Some believe that attempts were made to transfer the sacred connotations of the Pagan Cailleach to Christian holy women. In many communities, nuns (and priests) were traditionally respected but also feared, believed to possess secret magical knowledge similar to how many envisioned hags. Many Cailleach are described as veiled as, until recently, were nuns; taking vows as a nun was once described as “taking the veil.” Some scholars believe the veil is the essential link between nuns and the Cailleach.
Cailleach names the last sheaf of grain from the harvest. The Corn Mother is often believed incarnate in that last sheaf; many Corn Mothers also correspond to the archetype of the sacred hag. The Corn Mother is a hag at the harvest but emerges as a beautiful, fertile young bride in spring. (See ERGOT: Corn Mother.)
How sacred and influential was the Cailleach? Caledonia, the ancient name for Scotland, may derive from Cailleach. Some historians translate Caledonia as “the Old Woman’s country” or “the Hag’s territory.” In many myths, the Cailleach actually creates and shapes the very landscape. (An alternative theory proposes that Caledonia actually means “Hill of the Hazel Tree.”)
In Scottish mythology, hags are the mothers of giants, corresponding to Norse Jotuns or Troll-Hags. Giants are mountain gods or personified spirits of mountains; mountains are frequently hags’ sacred territory. Scottish hags are also weather witches: thundercloud hags who throw fireballs (lightning) or hailstones when angered.
Cailleach is a title (“Old Woman”), not a name. No complete, coherent mythology of the Cailleach exists; it is next to impossible to determine mine whether the various spirits bearing this title are identical or indistinct—whether there are one, many or several Cailleach. Spirits entitled Cailleach populate Scotland and Ireland. The Manx version is Caillagh.
The Romans encountered the Cailleach in Britain and equated her with Juno.
Folklore sometimes describes the Cailleach. She is identified as a witch and as the primal mother, the Mother of All Existence. She is described as an old hag with bear’s teeth and boar’s tusks.
See also Cailleach Bhéara, Cailleach Bheur, Cailleach Mor, Hag Rune; ANIMALS: Bears, Pigs; CALENDAR: Lupercalia.
Bhéara, also spelled Beara and Beare, is a region along the borders of Ireland’s Counties Cork and Kerry.
There may be one, two or more Cailleach Bhéara. Her primary territory is southwest Ireland, where she is credited with shaping mountains and forming rivers, but she is also known throughout Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. Cairns are piles of stones fallen from her apron. Various specific geographical formations are identified with Cailleach Bhéara:
A cairn on top of a hill close to Slieve Gullion in County Armagh is called Cailleach Bhéara’s Chair. Cailleach Bhéara allegedly now sleeps beneath it.
Cailleach Bhéara is associated with the Beare Peninsula, near Cork, allegedly forming the peninsula herself. She was carrying stones in her apron when her apron strings broke: the stones fell out and formed the land.
In Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula numerous geographical formations are named in her honor.
Cailleach Bhéara is a Corn Mother: she taught people the secrets of harvesting grain. She remains a prolific, rapid harvester of crops and enjoys challenging people to reaping contests they can never win.
She manifests as a rabbit in the grain fields. The person who reaps the last sheaf of grain in her territory is said to “drive out the hare.” Historians often point out that Ireland has no indigenous snakes, and so they could not have been banished by St Patrick. However according to ancient legends, Cailleach Bhéara sometimes manifests as a snake, and so perhaps she was what the saint banished.
According to a fourteenth-century manuscript, Cailleach Bhéara is also known as Búi. As Búi, she is one of the two wives of the Irish solar deity Lugh. Búi means “yellow” and may refer to the sun, or to the smith’s fires.
Cailleach Bhéara’s two sisters are the Cailleach Bolus and the Cailleach Corca Duibhne (see pages 538—9). Together they form a holy trinity or a triad of three queens.
See ANIMALS: Rabbits, Snakes; CALENDAR: Lughnasa; ERGOT: Corn Mother; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers.
Also known as Cally Berry.
Cailleach Bheur, the Blue Hag of Winter, is a weather spirit from the Scottish Highlands, traditionally described as a blue-faced hag wearing a plaid and carrying a heavy mallet. She wears a ripped apron filled with hailstones with which she blights crops. Ocean whirlpools serve as her washtubs and cauldrons.
Unlike some hags, Cailleach Bheur clearly retains her goddess qualities. She is the guardian spirit of cattle, boar, deer, goats, wolves, highland streams, and wells. Wild deer were once considered to be the equivalent of her cattle. They belong to her: she herds and protects them. Hunting them was the equivalent of poaching; in essence the Highlands are the Cailleach Bheur’s personal animal reserve and she is the sacred warden. Her sacred plants include gorse and holly.
Cailleach Bheur is a Frost Queen. From Samhain to Beltane she is the personification of winter. She ushers in winter by striking the ground with her mallet to harden it. When she washes her clothes in her washtubs (ocean whirlpools) Cailleach Bheur raises winter storms.
From Samhain to Beltane, the dark half of the Celtic year, Cailleach Bheur dwells in a cave beneath the mountain Ben Nevis, where she keeps the Summer Maiden captive and has fun tormenting her. On Imbolc, one of Cailleach Bheur’s kind sons (she has two) rescues the Summer Maiden and sets her free. Cailleach Bheur then unleashes the Wolf Storms to prevent and forestall the arrival of summer.
At Beltane, Cailleach Bheur transforms from the Blue Hag into a beautiful woman, a sea snake or a cat. Some years, however, Cailleach Bheur hibernates in the form of a standing stone until the arrival of Samhain when her cycle begins again.
When she’s annoyed, Cailleach Bheur blights the harvest. One touch of her magic staff knocks all the leaves off the trees. In the spring she throws this staff under a holly bush, retrieving it at Samhain.
Cailleach Bheur’s throne is at the summit of the hill named in her honor at Kilberry, Argyll. Noblesse oblige: she grants wishes to those who come to petition her there. Make a wish as you throw a stone as an offering onto the seat. Address her politely but do not call her by her name as it angers her.
There are also legends about what seems to be a different Cailleach Bheur. This one lived on the shores of Loch Ba on the Isle of Mull in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides where, every hundred years or so, she immersed herself in the waters of the lake to renew her immortality. One year she waited until it was too late and died.
Another legend may be a variation of that one or may describe yet another Blue Hag. This Cailleach Bheur had charge of a well of flowing water on the summit of Ben Cruachan in Argyll. Every sundown it was her responsibility to cap the well with a large flat stone and then, in the morning, to roll away the stone, releasing the waters.
Once, absolutely exhausted from driving her deer and goats across the mountains, she fell asleep beside the well without capping it. The water flowed all night, creating Loch Awe but drowning people and animals in the process. When Cailleach Bheur awoke it was too late: she was so ashamed and horrified that she turned into a standing stone.
See ANIMALS: Cats, Goats, Snakes; CALENDAR: Beltane, Imbolc, Samhain.
Cailleach Bolus is one of Cailleach Bhéara’s two sisters. She is associated with ancient standing stones, stone rings, menhirs, and dolmens. She manifests as an aged woman with a swollen belly and sometimes has antlers on her head.
See also Cailleach Bhéara, Cailleach Corca Duibhne; HORNED ONE.
Cailleach Corca Duibhne
Cailleach Corca Duibhne, one of Cailleach Bhéara’s sisters, is the Hag of the Black Cauldron. Like Cailleach Bhéara, her primary territory is southwestern Ireland.
She is also called the Black Veiled One; this allegedly refers to the long black hair that veils her face. According to myth, it was Cailleach Corca Duibhne’s responsibility to tend the primordial Cauldron of Creation, containing the sacred Water of Life. Seven strands of her hair fell into the cauldron where they transformed into seven great snakes or dragons. When Cailleach Corca Duibhne left the cauldron briefly unattended, the snakes slithered out, in the process overturning the pot and allowing some of the Water of Life to spill.
The famished snakes went on a rampage, gnawing away huge portions of Earth. Eventually through spiritual intercession, the snakes were stopped and banished to the center of the Earth but the damage couldn’t be undone. The parts gnawed away had filled with the Water of Life, becoming Earth’s great rivers.
The myth describes the snakes as Cailleach Corca Duibhne’s children: she was granted seven periods of youth and beauty as compensation for their loss, even though their rampage was technically her fault—had she been watching the cauldron, the snakes, her transformed hair, would not have escaped. Like her sister Cailleach Bhéara, Cailleach Corca Duibhne eventually married seven husbands, outliving them all. She fostered fifty children, teaching them the deepest, most primal secrets of the Universe. These children founded Earth’s great nations.
See Cailleach Bhéara; ANIMALS: Snakes; TOOLS: Cauldron.
Her name literally indicates Great Hag but is also translated as “the large, old wife”—as in “old wives’ tales.” Cailleach Mor sends the dread south-westerly gales. She is also the keeper of deer, considered “fairy cattle” in Celtic regions. Some consider Cailleach Mor another name for Cailleach Bhéara (see page 537).
This Scottish folk name for owl literally means “night hag” or “old woman of the night.” Among the most ancient Neolithic statuettes are those depicting sacred owl goddesses. Ancient “Eye Goddesses” are also sometimes identified as owls. (These stark images emphasize large, staring, owl-like eyes and the exclusively female parts of the human anatomy.)
Owls are associated with death and rebirth. Hag-goddesses sometimes serve as psychopomps, those spirits who escort and guide dead souls to their next destination. In this role, hags sometimes manifest as owls.
See ANIMALS: Owls; DICTIONARY: Psychopomp.
According to legend, this Frost Goddess from the Isle of Colonsay in Scotland keeps a young woman prisoner. When the young woman escapes in spring, Cailleach Uragaig transforms into the gray headlands above the sea until Samhain, when she captures that young woman again.
See also Beltane Carline, Cailleach Bheur; CALENDAR:Walpurgis.
This Scottish word literally indicates “old woman” or “hag” but may have once been the name or title for the presiding spirit of Samhain, the Celtic festival corresponding with November Eve or Halloween. Some perceive this as the title for the witch-goddess Nicnevin in her Hag aspect.
The ancient Celtic calendar was divided into two halves, light and dark. Samhain marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, which ended six months later at Beltane. The Carlin, an aged Frost Queen, ruled this part of the year until she was superceded in the spring by the beautiful May Queen or Beltane Bride.
Traditionally, displaying the last reaped sheaf of grain (the Carlin or Cailleach) on Samhain indicated that the appropriate rituals had been followed. Displaying this sheaf kept a household safe from malicious spirits who might be out and about on that night.
See Beltane Carline, Gyre Carlin; CALENDAR: Beltane, Halloween, Samhain, Walpurgis; DIVINE WITCH: Befana, Mana, Nicnevin.
Demeter, Greek goddess of fertility and cultivation, is usually described as a mature, beautiful woman whose golden hair resembles fields of ripe wheat, but when her beloved daughter Persephone was kidnapped, Demeter shed her beauty like a snake sheds its skin, transforming into a hag. In an instant, she aged, becoming gray, wrinkled, and bent over. The light disappeared from her eyes. She was emotionally bereft, burning with grief, rage, and a passionate desire for justice.
As Demeter transformed, she withdrew fertility from Earth: crops failed, people began to starve. In her hag aspect, however, the normally benevolent Demeter doesn’t care: her own grief overwhelms her to the exclusion of anyone else’s. To some extent, Demeter in her grieving stage is the prototype for the Hag.
Like so many other hag-goddesses, Demeter’s sacred animals are pigs and snakes. Like Demeter, many hags are Corn Mothers.
Her saga is often interpreted (as with so many other hags’) as an allegory for the year’s seasons. Demeter’s hag phase corresponds with winter while her transformation back into a bountiful goddess with Persephone’s annual return corresponds to spring. (Sometimes Persephone is understood as corresponding to spring, while Demeter symbolizes winter.) However, this tends to gloss over the emotional and spiritual aspects of her saga: Demeter doesn’t just age and become an average old woman; she transforms into the epitome of a Hag specifically because of her intense grief, rage, and loss.
Demeter’s saga, which ultimately became the central focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries, also recounts her healing process and recovery: Demeter rages and grieves, starving Earth and herself, until an aged (a crone but not a hag) female servant, Baubo, finally draws an involuntary laugh from Demeter.
Baubo accomplishes this, where others failed, through the mysterious act of ana-suromai, the name given the ritual act of exposing the vagina. This act, which also features in Egyptian mythology, is believed to represent the eternal life force, the unbeatable power of the Great Mother. The significance in Demeter’s situation is that the ritual act is performed by an old woman for whom literal fertility is not possible. From the moment of her reviving laugh, according to the saga, Demeter channels her private grief into spiritual leadership.
Further information regarding ana-suromai and Demeter’s saga may be found in Winifred Milius Lubell’s The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy (Vanderbilt University Press, 1994).
See also Beltane Carline, Skadi; ANIMALS: Pigs, Snakes; DIVINE WITCH: Proserpina; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Demeter.
The Devil’s Grandmother
Powerful goddesses frequently had male consorts. Sometimes the consort is a horned male spirit, such as Diana and Virbius. Sometimes the goddess is envisioned as a beautiful, mature woman with a significantly younger male consort whom she initiates and tutors and, sometimes, ultimately kills. The goddess is eternal; her youthful consort can be replaced. Such myths are told of Kybele and Attis, Aphrodite and Adonis, Inanna-Ishtar and Tammuz. The story of Artemis and Actaeon, the hunter who is transformed into a deer and killed by his hunting hounds, may actually incorporate both motifs.
Diana lived with Virbius, a horned stag spirit, in the sacred grove of Nemi, near Rome. He is clearly identified as her consort; he is subordinate to her. This image of the witch-goddess living in the forest with a horned man eventually emerged as the Christian prototype for the witch and devil, respectively—with one extremely significant difference. In the Christian version, the male devil is dominant; the female witches adore him. This is the opposite of the original Pagan perspective. The devil allegedly initiates and tutors women.
The Christian devil was popularly envisioned as a horned spirit, however, people may have remembered that once upon a time, the female half of this dyad was dominant and she did the initiating and tutoring. Throughout Russia, Northern, and Central Europe, the Devil’s Grandmother emerged as a formidable force: she taught him everything he knows. Allegedly she retained some secrets and still knows a trick or two more than he does.
No longer the goddess in the form of a beautiful woman in her prime, the devil’s grandmother corresponds instead to the once sacred image of the Hag. On the one hand, this old legend was intended to further diabolize old women; on the other, it recalls a time when women’s wisdom was respected.
The devil’s grandmother was frequently utilized as a bogie-woman to frighten children (“be good or the devil’s grandmother will get you!”). She is also perceived as scarier and more dangerous than her son; if you can survive an encounter with the devil, you’ll still have his mother to deal with, or so goes the theme of many folktales, similar perhaps to the monster Grendel and his even fiercer mother from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.
However, sometimes the goddess’ essential benevolence shines through. In various somewhat subversive fairy tales, the devil’s grandmother assists the hero to accomplish his goals.
See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs; HORNED ONE: The Devil.
Norse hags are identified with the primordial spirits known as Giants; they are particularly fascinating because these spirits are observed as young, powerful women as well as old, gnarled hags. In all cases, however, they are fierce, powerful, warrior spirits.
Giants (Norse: Jotuns) play a significant but contradictory, confusing, and mysterious role in Norse mythology. The very first being in the cosmos was the giant Ymir, and giants emanated from parts of his body.
The first gods (Odin and his brothers) destroyed Ymir, grinding his corpse up in a mill and fashioning the universe from it. The giants are the enemies of the gods (and vice versa—Thor is always out battling giants) but they are also their parents, teachers, lovers, and spouses. Unlike the Aesir spirits, the Giants are permanent and eternal:
The very first being was a giant
The universe was created from a giant’s body
The spirits destined to survive the Twilight of the Gods (Ragnarok) are sons of giantesses
Norse mythology was not written down until the thirteenth century; its scribes were mainly Christian scholars who identified and empathized with the Aesir gods and so Norse mythology is told from their perspective. The giants were the enemies of the Aesir and they come off badly in myths: other names for giants include trolls and ogres. The stereotypical male giant is huge, ugly, fierce, harsh, and haggard, although many giantesses are very beautiful in a huge, wild, powerful kind of way.
Giants are wild, nocturnal beings, identified with ice, stone, and hailstones. Their home, Jotunheim (literally “Giant Home”), is a mountainous, freezing, harsh realm. Giants hurl boulders and hailstones as weapons. They are master shape-shifters: favored forms include eagles and wolves.
Female giants are also called troll-hags and ogresses, both words eventually synonyms for “witch.” These giantesses correspond to Hags if one understands that the Hag is but one of the faces or manifestations of these potent spirits. Female giants manifest as fierce hags but also as beautiful warriors and nurturing mothers.
The cosmology of Giants is more complete than that of Hags or the Cailleach: some fairly lengthy narratives survive. Giantesses have personalities, lovers, husbands, and children, however they remain mysterious spirits:
Norse spirits tend to use different names to indicate different manifestations: it can be difficult to determine whether a name indicates an independent spirit or whether several different names just indicate different aspects of one spirit.
Various giantesses appear in myths devoted to male heroes: although they are pivotal, significant characters, they are not the primary focus of the myth as conventionally told. Among those giantesses are Grid and Hyrrokkin (see pages 543 and 544).
Angerboda may or may not be a giantess. Her husband Loki, identified as a giant, may or may not also be her brother. Hella, their daughter, is classified as a giant but whether this is based on paternal lineage alone or on both parents is unknown. See page 532, Angerboda.
See ANIMALS: Transformation, Wolves and Werewolves; DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda, Hella.
Also known as Hag Grid. Grid’s name means “Peace.” She is classified as a Hag or Frost Giant, however, unlike most giants she is friendly towards the gods. In her most famous story she rescues the thunder god Thor from certain doom.
Convinced to visit the hostile giant Geirrod without his magic hammer, belt, and iron gauntlets, Thor stops to spend the night at Grid’s hall. She perceives his danger, although he does not. Grid instructs and cautions Thor, insisting he take her own pair of iron gloves and her unbreakable shield and girdle of might. Thor survives the encounter because of her.
Grid is the mother of Odin’s son, Vidar, destined to avenge his father at Ragnarok. She made Vidar special shoes from the scraps of leather cobblers saved as they made all the other shoes on Earth. He wore these shoes at the battle of Ragnarok; allegedly the shoes enabled him to slay and survive the Fenris Wolf. Vidar is among the very few gods destined to survive this final battle and becomes one of the rulers of the new world.
See DIVINE WITCH: Odin.
Gyre Carlin combines two words that may both be translated as Hag:
Gyre derives from the Norse gyger or gjöger, a giantess or troll-woman, also sometimes translated as ogress or Hag
Carlin is the Scottish equivalent of Cailleach or Hag
Folkloric studies usually classify the Gyre Carlin as a Scottish ogress and/or as a witch. She may be identical with the Carlin or an independent spirit. Either or both may be the hag aspect of the Scottish divine witch Nicnevin.
Gyre Carlin is also the name given to cakes created from the last sheaf of harvested grain.
See Beltane Carline, Carlin, Giants; DIVINE WITCH: Nicnevin.
The ninth rune, Hagal or Hagalaz, is sometimes called the Hag Rune or the Mother Rune. On a metaphysical level, Hagalaz is considered the “root rune” that stands as the basis of this magical system.
Three is the sacred number of Norse cosmology: nine, as three times three, is the most intensely powerful number and reappears consistently throughout Nordic magic and spirituality. (The number is also sacred in many other traditions.) Hagalaz corresponds in sound with the letter “H.”
Hagalaz literally means “hailstone.” Water is the feminine element associated with creation; hail is frozen water in its dangerous or warrior aspect. Hagalaz is considered among the most potent binding runes and is invaluable in Vardlokkur, the Norse tradition of protective “warding” magic. Hagalaz radiates feminine energy or polarity.
Hagalaz is associated with three deities:
Heimdall, watchman of the gods and son of the Nine Daughters of the Sea. He guards the Rainbow Bridge that connects and divides the realms of the living and the spirits.
Mordgud, Hella’s servant, the spirit who guards the Ice Bridge that connects and divides the realms of the living and the dead. Mordgud is among those deities associated with November Eve (Halloween, Samhain).
Urd, most powerful of the Norns (Fates). The sacred Well of Urd was named in her honor. She is the Norn who looks backwards and possesses all knowledge of the past.
See DICTIONARY: Rune, Ward, Warlock; DIVINE WITCH: Hella; MAGICAL ARTS: Runes; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning Goddesses: The Norns.
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.
When the Norse god Baldur died, a grand funeral was planned including a traditional boat burial. The boat built for the occasion was the largest ship in existence, so large that no one could launch it, not even Thor. The gods then sent for the giantess Hyrrokkin, who arrived on the shore riding a gigantic wolf and using snakes for her reins.
All it takes is one touch and she sends the vessel into the sea, but in the process the rollers catch fire. It’s an ambiguous story: the gods either become angry with her or wish to sacrifice her. Berserkers, Odin’s shaman warriors, kill her wolf; Thor threatens to kill Hyrrokkin with his hammer but is persuaded not to by the other gods.
Some scholars believe Hyrrokkin is yet another name for Angerboda.
See Angerboda, Giants, Thokk; ANIMALS: Bears, Snakes, Wolves and Werewolves; DICTIONARY: Valkyrie; DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda, Hella.
The Russian forest spirits known as Leshii live in the woods in a society parallel to humans. There are male and female Leshii; they have children. Female Leshii are known as Leshovikha. They are not horned like male Leshii but, like their counterparts, they are master shape-shifters. The most common physical manifestation of the Leshovikha is as an old hag with long pendulous breasts. When they get in her way, she flings them over her shoulders. The Leshovikha also manifests as a beautiful naked woman and as a thin, spectral woman dressed in a white sarafan, the Russian national dress.
Wanderers in the forest sometimes witness the Leshovikha giving birth. When she is finished, it is recommended that the observer cover the baby with an item of one’s own clothing if necessary; however do not offer Christian prayers or make the sign of the cross over the baby as this allegedly enrages its mother. If these actions are performed graciously, the Leshovikha will offer you a gift:
If you tell her that the opportunity to be of service is its own reward, your future will be filled with good fortune.
If you request payment, however, she will give it you; it will materialize in your hands, however once you leave the forest, whatever cash or prize she gave will evaporate into dust and ashes.
See HORNED ONE: Leshii.
This Scottish hag’s name indicates either “gray eyebrows” or “gray horse.” She has dominion over pigs—her sacred animals—and so folklorists believe that she was an ancient sow goddess, perhaps similar to Cerridwen. Mala Liath may or may not be another aspect of Cailleach Bheur (see page 537).
See ANIMALS: Pigs; DIVINE WITCH: Cerridwen.
Muir Larteach, the Sea Hag, lives in an underwater realm. When she rises to the surface, this one-eyed bald hag with the bluish-gray face raises storms.
Muir Larteach is a trickster. She emerges from the water in the guise of a pathetic little old woman and hammers on doors of nearby homes begging for shelter. She looks harmless and so is ushered in. Once inside, however, she swells up like Alice in Wonderland in her growth phase and causes tremendous damage.
On the positive side, Muir Larteach carries a pot of balm that can heal any wound or illness. Moreover, by poking her finger in their mouth, she revives the dead.
This Frost Giantess (Snow Queen) has dominion over winter, hunters, and skiers. She is a death goddess as well; her name indicates “Destruction.” Skadi carries a quiver filled with arrows. She hunts bears and wolves; skiers and hunters who fail to come home are understood to have fallen to Skadi.
Skadi is the daughter of the Frost Giant Thiazzi who stole the apples of immortality from the gods. Eventually Loki the trickster stole the apples back and Thiazzi was killed. Skadi strapped on her snowshoes, armed and girded herself, then marched straight to Asgard seeking revenge. Her appearance terrified the gods including Odin. To placate her, they offered her wergild (reparations payments) for the loss of her father, including vast quantities of gold. She spurned this as she had plenty of her own.
The price she demanded was a husband from among the gods. They agreed but were terrified that she would demand handsome Baldur (indeed Skadi had him in mind). Odin insisted on a kind of beauty contest: Skadi could have any god as her husband but must choose him solely on the basis of his feet. Skadi agreed provided another condition was met: the gods must make her laugh—an impossible task because her heart was filled with rage and grief.
The male gods hid behind a screen with only their bare feet showing: Skadi chose the most beautiful pair of feet, assuming she was selecting Baldur. Instead it was the Vanir Sea god Njord, whose feet were worn smooth by the waves.
Skadi was bitterly disappointed and was even less likely to laugh, but Loki clowned around, playing circus tricks with Thor’s goats, and eventually forced laughter from her.
Njord and Skadi married but it was an unhappy union as the two were unable to live together: Skadi hated sunshine and the seashore, Njord found her ice-palace painfully cold and oppressive. They live apart; Skadi spends her time among her snow-covered mountains.
When the gods ultimately turn on Loki, it is Skadi who personally places a poisonous snake over Loki’s forcibly upturned face so that its venom drips on him, allegedly in revenge for her father’s death.
See ANIMALS: Bears, Snakes, Wolves and Werewolves; DIVINE WITCH: Freya, Herta, Odin.
Sheela na Gig
Sheela na Gig names a specific image or architectural motif. The typical Sheela na Gig displays a wizened old hag: she is deathly skinny and completely naked. (The term names both the motif and the hag it portrays.) She may lack breasts or display scars on her chest. If she has breasts, they sag pendulously with age, clearly empty and dried out. She looks viewers directly in the eye; sometimes she grins but she always holds her enlarged vagina wide open with her hands as if it were a gateway. Some Sheela na Gigs have vaginas so disproportionately large that this gateway metaphor is no exaggeration.
The Sheela na Gig is extremely mysterious: she is most frequently found incorporated into church buildings in Celtic (or formerly Celtic) areas, although this is clearly not a Christian image. Scientific analysis suggests that Sheela na Gig carvings tend to be older than the rest of the church that incorporates them, as if they were brought from elsewhere.
The earliest identified Sheela na Gigs are found in late eleventh-century churches in southern France. She also appears in English and Irish churches dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. The name “Sheela na Gig” is Irish; its meaning is unknown although nineteenth-century folklorists who first began researching the Sheela na Gig motif were told by their sources that it meant an “immodest woman.” Sheela na Gigs seem to have achieved their greatest popularity in Ireland where they also appear on secular buildings such as castles and mills.
The evocative image is extremely powerful; many find it shocking or disturbing.
The Sheela na Gig may be a physical representation of the Cailleach or Sacred Hag
She may be a Death Goddess: her vagina is the gateway to the next realm in the same manner that a mother’s genitalia is the gateway to Life
The Sheela na Gig is clearly not a fertility symbol; the artists who created her could not have made it plainer that she is a woman long past child-bearing
Whatever her initial origins, the Sheela na Gig now represents the magically protective power of the female genitalia and the spiritual protection of the Great Mother. Nineteenth-century folklorists were advised by local people that the Sheela na Gig wards off evil in the same manner that images of female genitalia are used as magically protective devices throughout the world.
See also Demeter; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Evil Eye.
Upon Baldur’s death, emissaries were sent to Hella begging for his release from her realm. She finally agreed, provided that every single living being in the universe mourned for Baldur. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, journeyed through the various realms begging everyone to weep for her beloved son.
Everyone did until finally she reached the cave of the troll-hag Thokk (“Coal”). Thokk, a bitter, gloomy hag sat in the darkness of her cave and point blank refused to weep for Baldur, saying Hella could keep him, thus dooming all efforts at resurrection.
Thokk is generally believed to have been Loki in disguise. (Loki was responsible for Baldur’s death.) Alternatively, some perceive Thokk as among Angerboda’s seemingly endless manifestations. Angerboda was Loki’s first wife and possibly his sister; Hella, Queen of the Dead, is their daughter.
See Angerboda, Hyrrokkin; DIVINE WITCH: Angerboda, Frigga, Hella.
The giants (Jotuns) of Norse mythology survive as the trolls and troll-hags of Norwegian folklore and fairy tales. Another name for them is haugfolk (“people of the mounds,” similar to the sidhe). These spirits inhabit a hidden world, but most often reveal themselves to people in forests or on mountains, their preferred territory. In some regions, trolls own mountains, only permitting people access to them during the brief Northern summer.
Many troll-hags are beautiful although they are simultaneously large, fierce, wild, and potentially dangerous. Many also possess profound magical and botanical knowledge and the word “troll-hag” is also used to indicate “witch.”
In the Norwegian fairy tale, Polar Bear King Valemon, a troll-hag bewitches the king, transforming him into a bear and forcing him to marry her. She is a powerful and independent entity, beholden to no one. In the 1991 Swedish film adaptation of the tale, The Polar Bear King, the troll-hag has become a beautiful but evil conventional fairy-tale witch and is explicitly identified as a liege of Satan.
See Giants, Gyre Carlin; DICTIONARY: Trollkvinna; FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Naturespirit Fairies: Sidhe; Trolls.