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
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: .)
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: .) 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: .) It is also reminiscent of shamanic descriptions of spiritual initiations—often including metaphoric experiences of being chopped up. (See .) (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 youth-centered 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.