Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hags...the name says it all or does it?

Hag - a word often used as a derogatory term for a grumpy or mean female.

Where does the term come from? Is there a male equivalent? Why does mythology fixate so frequently on the ugly side of the female sex?

Lets take a look....
According to the dictionary, the English word Hag, apparently has it's origins in the Old English (1175–1225 AD) word hægge, which is similar to hægtesse meaning "witch", and hagorūn meaning "spell". 
It is unsurprising that Hags (sometimes called Crones) crop up in a multitude of countries. The most common description of a hag is of an unattractive older lady with malicious intent. Hag mythology is characterised by the presence of bad dreams, or uncomfortable sensations during sleep. The traditional hag myth revolves around old ladies being responsible for the poor sleep of their targetted victim.

It is believed that most Hag myths have been derived from  explanations of a condition known as 'sleep paralaysis' (also known as Old Hag Syndrome!) in which a person feels a weight on their chest and experiences difficulty breathing. Succubi and Incubi are also characterised by this sensation. However the Hag mythology has evolved into more corporeal creatures such as Banshee, Baba Yaga (and their varients) as well as interestingly Onibaba (Japan). Onibaba is a legendary evil old woman from the Fukushima region, who allegedly cut the living liver from a pregnant woman, who later turned out to be her own daughter. This act sent her into homocidal psychopathy and tales of her hideous behaviour survive to the modern day.
Here is a list of some other interesting more traditional 'hags'.
Boo Hag (African American) - Skin stealing, creature who gains sustenance from the breath of their victim. They enter the bedroom and 'ride' the victim by sitting on their chest, and stealing their breath.
Mara / Mare (Norse) - Old woman who enters the bedroom through the keyhole to bring the sleep nightmares. Legend has it that women may become a Mara through evil or wicked actions or being cursed.
Nocnitsa (Polish) -  this hag specialises particularly in tormenting sleeping children. She is primarily made of shadow and has a particularly earthy scent that can infiltrate dreams. She can be warded away by placing an iron knife in the child's bed, or drawing a protective circle around the bed with an iron knife. Depression or prolonged periods of sadness attract Nocnitsa to adults and she gains power from negative feelings.

Gorska Makua (Bulgarian) - Bulgarian version of Nocnitsa.
Phi Am
Phi Am ผีอำ (Thai) - ghost widow who steals the souls of young men as they sleep. To defend against this ghost, some men in the northeastern villages of Thailand wear lipstick to bed, in the belief that these female widow ghosts are women and won’t harm other females.

Cailleach (Ireland/Scotland) - an enormous old, ugly woman, often linked with natural destructive elements. She comes down from her home on November 1st and hits her staff against the ground to bring on cold winds and storms.
Are Hags always horrible?
 Not always...
There is the conflict between the concept of the 'hag' and the archetype of the "old woman healer" - who crops up in myth, literature and film. She however, is often considered to be a 'white witch' rather than a hag or crone.
Additionally the "British Hag" is (by some scholars at least) believed to be an evolution of one of that country's many ancient goddesses. This hag, however, is regarded as the personification of winter. In the winter months she is usually old and very ugly looking. As the season changes though she becomes more and more beautiful, and younger.
Celtic mythology also has The Morrigan Goddess, who is sometimes (but infrequently) linked with Hag mythology. Traditionally the Morrigan (who some say is a combination of three Goddesses) is a goddess of war, and can take the form of ravens etc. In human form she has a normal female appearance.
Other Hag-like mythical beings can, at times, choose to be benevolent. For example Baba Yaga may assist people on quests if the mood strikes her, however she is just as likely to eat you.
Similarly the Bean nighe (often linked with the Banshee). She appears as an old washerwoman. This Hag is sometimes seen as an omen of death, however, if you can sneak up to her and suckle at her long hanging breast (as you do!) you could then claim to be her foster child and she will grant you wishes...
The resounding theme here? The constantly perpetuated idea of the fickle female, which crops up again, and again in mythology and indeed sociology. there a male equivalent for the Hag?
 I would like to think so, but from my research (which I confess is NOT exhaustive) most old men myths speak of either 1) benevolent fatherly being (or god/demigod) who gives advice, 2) a trickster, 3) a combination of both. It is rare to have an malevolent mythical being who takes the form of an old man. Charon (from Greek mythology is probably the exception, though he seems more angry and annoyed than actually malevolent).

 Charon (Greek) - He is the ferry-man who takes the dead over the river Styx. He usually takes the form of a grumpy older male, clad in dirty clothes, with haggard cheeks and an unkempt beard, a fierce ferryman who guides his craft with a long pole. He must be paid to transport souls across the river.

Old Man of the Sea (Greek) - a primordial God-like being who is associated with a number of water-gods. Old Man of the Sea gains a mention in Homer's "Odyssey", and also in "Sinbad the Sailor". He can give useful advice to travellers, but also tricks people.

Yue Lao - old man under the moon,  月下老人 (Chinese) - Yue Lao is Chinese deity of marriage. People pray to Yue Lao for assistance in finding a marriage partner. Statues of him may be found throughout Asia. He is typically seen as an elderly man holding the book of marriage (姻缘簿) in his left hand and a walking stick in his right hand.

Napi / Oldman (Blackfoot Native American) -  Napi, is a creator god and trickster figure in the mythology of the Blackfoot people of North America. He is said to have created the world and all the creatures in it

The concept of the 'wise old man' is an archetype rarely connected with malevolent acts.
This type of character is typically represented as a kind and wise, older father-type figure who uses personal knowledge of people and the world to help tell stories and offer guidance that, in a mystical way, may impress upon his audience a sense of who they are and who they might become, thereby acting and acting as a mentor.
Why are there so many negative mythologies about old women and so few about old men?
There are probably many theories out there, which you'd have to research yourself, but this is my take on the situation.

In ancient times and in some modern traditional societies, men die earlier than women and those that survive would (one would assume) be the wisest and cleverest and most able to give advice to the younger generations on running the community (in a patriachal society at least).
Women live longer than men as a general rule. Therefore, those women past their useful childbearing years must do something to remain useful in a traditional society or else they are not worth the food they are fed.
Therefore women who could heal others and were wise would be kept and looked after (enter the archetype of the old woman healer). However, those older women who were sly, and tricky survived using wits and deceit - and it is those individuals I believe the negative hag myths have evolved from.

In addition to my "life-expectancy and usefulness theory of Hag evolution", I also believe that myths are created as moral tales to teach people societies 'norms' and instill fear to ensure co-operation. So, what could be more scary than a mother figure being twisted and made into monster? I'm certain it was that twisting of the natural order of motherhood and grand-motherhood, that has made Hag myths so popular and so frightening for people in times past.

On that note, I've had enough of typing and I bid you farewell.

Enjoy your Weekend.



  1. I really enjoy all of your posts on different mythological beings. They are well researched and quite informative. :)

  2. Another great one to list in the male section would be Odin/Wotun. He fits, and Loki, his counterpart, is the height of trickery. I enjoyed this read. I wrote my thesis on witchcraft, actually. Women were definitely the main target, or "womanly" men.

  3. I hadn't even thought of Loki, thank you, and I'll look into Wotun too. Congratulations on your thesis what an awesome subject to study :)