The Evil of the Hag

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Hags. My first Hag was either the Russian witch Baba Yaga, or the Annis Hag from 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons. Baba Yaga is the most interesting. I can’t recall much about the Annis Hag. The had a middling number of hit dice and a relatively uninspiring special attack.

Baba Yaga is weirdly great. Like many authentic myths there are aspects of the Baba Yaga myth that function by the rules of dream logic: in some versions of the story she flies around in a giant mortar (mixing bowl for crushed herbs or compounds), using the pestle as a rudder. Her house moves around on chicken legs (unless you’re in Poland, where it only has one and presumably hops.) One young girl is enslaved by her ala-Cinderella and only escapes by the kindness of a magical talking gate. Other times there are three Baba Yagas and they aid questing heroes, giving them the thing they need to complete their quests.

Her role in mythology is generally of antagonist, a complication along the way, aiding the hero by inadvertently giving him something he needs, or giving him the chance to prove his mettle. Again, in Poland, Baba Yaga is the original witch in the Gingerbread House, luring handsome blonde twins to their cannibalistic doom. She kills the unkillable and knows the unknowable. Baba Yaga, it’s safe to say, kicks ass.

Britain has it’s own great hag. The D&D Annis Hag might not have been my favourite monster (I preferred Rust Monsters, which I always found adorable) the mythological Hag Black Annis not only scares the pants off me, but she also gets about a bit. In Cornwall she causes storms, wrecking boats and killing mariners. In Leicstershire she eats babies on the Dane Hills before popping over to Yorkshire.

Nor is Black Annis the only Hag (although she might be the one getting most use out of her Freedom Pass.) Scotland has Gentle Annie, who controls storms scouring the Scottish Lowlands, while the Highlands have Cailleach Bhuer, a blue skinned hag who can freeze the ground by hitting it with her staff.

Why Hags? One suggestion is the obvious correlation between old women, especially vulnerable or mentally ill ones, with witchcraft, but a recent survey of materials from witch trials (the 2003 Survey of Scottish Witchcraft) showed overwhelmingly that witches prosecuted between 1485 and 1666 were middle aged, middle class and at the centre of the local community. Some witches were elderly or isolated women suffering from dementia or mental illness but in the main those who were out of sight were out of mind.

In the UK writers have argued a cultural link: Crone goddesses linked with Death like Morrigan, the Celtic death goddess and mother of monsters. She represents the end of the life cycle in the Maiden, Mother and Chrone goddess trio. She is death and war. Lillith and Erishkigal do much the same in Near Eastern myth. Erishkigal rules the underworld, whereas Lillith is just a rotting demon hag passed by as Gilgamesh goes about his heroic business.

Perhaps it’s just the association between old people and death, the fact that they remind us of it and the innate authority of elders in less ‘developed’ cultures, yet inverted so that wisdom becomes trickery and age becomes a dangerous fraternisation with powers beyond the veil.

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