A hag is a wizened old woman, or a kind of fairy or goddess having the appearance of such a woman, often found in folklore and children's tales such as Hansel and Gretel.[1] Hags are often seen as malevolent, but may also be one of the chosen forms of shapeshifting deities, such as the Morrígan or Badb, who are seen as neither wholly benevolent nor malevolent.[2][3]


The term appears in Middle English, and was a shortening of hægtesse, an Old English term for witch, similarly the Dutch heks and German Hexe are also shortenings, of the Middle Dutch haghetisse and Old High German hagzusa respectively.[4] All of these words are derived from the Proto-Germanic *hagatusjon-[4] which is of unknown origin, however the first element may be related to the word "hedge".[4][5] As a stock character in fairy or folk tale, the hag shares characteristics with the crone, and the two words are sometimes used as if interchangeable.[6]

Using the word "hag" to translate terms found in non-English (or non-modern English) is contentious, since use of the word is often associated with misogyny.[7][8]

In folklore

A hag, or "the Old Hag", was a nightmare spirit in English and anglophone North American folklore. This variety of hag is essentially identical to the Old English mæraa being with roots in ancient Germanic superstition, and closely related to the Scandinavian mara. According to folklore, the Old Hag sat on a sleeper's chest and sent nightmares to him or her. When the subject awoke, he or she would be unable to breathe or even move for a short period of time. In the Swedish film Marianne, the main character suffers from these nightmares. This state is now called sleep paralysis, but in the old belief the subject had been "hagridden".[9] It is still frequently discussed as if it were a paranormal state.[10]

Many stories about hags seem to have been used to frighten children into being good. The Northern English Peg Powler, for example, was a river hag who lived in the River Tees and had skin the colour of green pond scum.[11][12][13] Parents who wanted to keep their children away from the river's edge told them that if they got too close to the water she would pull them in with her long arms, drown them, and sometimes eat them. This type of nixie or neck has other regional names, such as Grindylow[14] (a name connected to Grendel),[14][15] Jenny Greenteeth from Yorkshire, and Nelly Longarms from several English counties.[16]

Many tales about hags do not describe them well enough to distinguish between an old woman who knows magic or a supernatural being.[17]

In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga was a hag who lived in the woods in a house on chickens legs. She would often ride through the forest on a mortar, sweeping away her tracks with a broom.[18] Though she is usually a single being, in some folktales three Baba Yagas are depicted as helping the hero in his quest, either by giving advice or by giving gifts.[19]

In Irish and Scottish mythology, the cailleach is a hag goddess concerned with creation, harvest, the weather and sovereignty.[3][20] In partnership with the goddess Bríd, she is a seasonal goddess, seen as ruling the winter months while Bríd rules the summer.[20] In Scotland, a group of hags, known as The Cailleachan (The Storm Hags) are seen as personifications of the elemental powers of nature, especially in a destructive aspect. They are said to be particularly active in raising the windstorms of spring, during the period known as A Chailleach.[20][21]

Hags as sovereignty figures abound in Irish mythology. The most common pattern is that the hag represents the barren land, who the hero of the tale must approach without fear, and come to love on her own terms. When the hero displays this courage, love, and acceptance of her hideous side, the sovereignty hag then reveals that she is also a young and beautiful goddess.[3]

The Three Fates (particularly Atropos) are often depicted as hags.

She is similar to Lilith.

In Western literature

In mediaeval and later literature, the term "hag", and its relatives in European languages, came to stand for an unattractive, older woman. Building on the mediaeval tradition of such women as portrayed in comic and burlesque literature, specifically in the Italian Renaissance the hag represented the opposite of the lovely lady familiar from the poetry of Petrarch.[22]

The hag as a fantastic creature has also been used in some fantasy novels such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, where Hags are depicted as a species of ugly, child-eating women with numerous warts.

In The Heroes or Greek Fairy Tales For my Children, Charles Kingsley characterized Scylla as "Scylla the sea hag".[23] The term Sea Hag was later popularized further as the name for a Popeye comic strip character.

In neurobiology

The expression Old Hag Attack refers to a hypnagogic state in which paralysis is present and, quite often, it is accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. When excessively recurrent, some consider this to be a disorder; however, many populations treat them as simply part of their culture and mythological worldview, rather than any form of disease or pathology.

See also


  1. Briggs, Katharine (1976) An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, "Hags", p.216. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  2. Lysaght, Patricia (1986) The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger. Roberts Rinehart Publishers. ISBN 1-57098-138-8. p.54
  3. Clark, Rosalind (1991) The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan (Irish Literary Studies, Book 34) Savage, Maryland, Barnes and Noble (reprint) pp.5, 8, 17, 25
  4. "Hag | Origin and meaning of hag by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  5. hag1 Archived 28 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition (2000)
  6. Based on a Google Book search of the exact phrase "hag or crone" and "crone or hag". Retrieved 29 March 2009.
  7. Rich, Adrienne (4 February 1979). "That Women Be Themselves; Women". The New York Times. pp. BR.3.
  8. "Feminist storyteller reprises 'These Are My Sisters'". Star Tribune. 7 July 1996.
  9. Ernsting, Michele (2004) "Hags and nightmares: sleep paralysis and the midnight terrors" Radio Netherlands
  10. The "Old Hag" Syndrome from About: Paranormal Phenomena
  11. Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful by Elliott O'Donnell
  12. Introduction to Folklore by Marian Roalfe Cox
  13. The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Darlington, in the Bishoprick by William Hylton Dyer Longstaffe, 1854
  14. The Nineteenth century and after, Volume 68, Leonard Scott Pub. Co., 1910. Page. 556
  15. A Grammar of the Dialect of Oldham by Karl Georg Schilling, 1906. Page. 17.
  16. Froud, Brian and Lee, Alan (1978) Faeries. New York, Peacock Press ISBN 0-553-01159-6
  17. K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 66-7 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
  18. Russian Folk-Tales W. R. S. Ralston, Forgotten Books, ISBN 1-4400-7972-2, ISBN 978-1-4400-7972-6. p.170
  19. W. R. S. Ralston Songs of the Russian People Section III.--Storyland Beings.
  20. McNeill, F. Marian (1959). The Silver Bough, Vol.2: A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals, Candlemas to Harvest Home. Glasgow: William MacLellan. pp. 20–1. ISBN 978-0-85335-162-7.
  21. McNeill, F. Marian (1959). The Silver Bough, Vol.1: Scottish Folklore and Folk-Belief. Glasgow: William MacLellan. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-85335-161-0.
  22. Bettella, Patrizia (2005). The ugly woman: transgressive aesthetic models in Italian poetry from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. U of Toronto P. pp. 117–20. ISBN 978-0-8020-3926-2.
  23. Kingsley, Charles (1917). The Heroes or Greek Fairy Tales For my Children. Ginn and Company. p. 148.

Further reading

  • Sagan, Carl (1997) The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
  • Kettlewell, N; Lipscomb, S; Evans, E. (1993) Differences in neuropsychological correlates between normals and those experiencing "Old Hag Attacks". Percept Mot Skills 1993 Jun;76 (3 Pt 1):839-45; discussion 846. PMID 8321596

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