Hag: Part One of Two
RACHEL ATTITUQ QITSUALIK
I have already written of how many Inuit groups used to fear the wrath of Nuliajuk — known to southern art collectors as “Sedna” — the fingerless, lice-ridden hag beneath the sea — mistress of marine mammals.
I was thinking of her the other day, as well as of the dreaded amayersuk, the cannibalistic crone who kidnaps children, tossing them into the great hole in her humped back.
Then I remembered the mention of monstrous hags in other folkloric traditions, and started to ask myself: what’s with the hag thing? So I sat down with the books, and soon found that it was worse than I had at first suspected – human beings around the world are positively obsessed with their fears of hags.
Japan is rife with them, such as the knife-wielding, cannibalistic adachigahara, who treasures the blood of children, and ambushes wilderness travellers. Variations include the horned hannya, and the tongue-flicking nure onna. Also similar is the yama-uba, a hag whose hair transforms into serpents, catching her victims and pulling them into the opening in the top of her head.
There is the langsuir of Malayan folklore, once a woman who died in childbirth. She is marked by her long nails and hair, the latter concealing the hollow in her back. A corpse may be prevented from becoming a langsuir by placing eggs under her armpits, beads in her mouth, and needles in her hands.
There is the azeman of South America, an obsessive hag who drains the life-force of sleepers. She can be stopped by throwing down a handful of seed, which she is compelled to count.
The British Isles are worse than Japan. There is the Celtic banshee, the anglicized version of the Gaelic bean sidhe or bean sith, meaning “woman of the fairies, a crone – often attached to specific families – whose keening foretells an impending death. A variation common to Ireland and Scotland is the bean nighe, once a woman who died in childbirth, now a ghostly hag who washes bloody clothes by the river. The sight of one is an omen of one’s own death.
Others include the adh sidhe of Ireland, sharp-toothed hags that rend the flesh of sinful persons, and can only be seen by such individuals at midnight.
There is the black annis of Scotland, a massive cave-dwelling hag, whose claws are iron and whose one-eyed face is blue. Being cannibalistic, she loves to snatch children from their beds.
There is the Baba Yaga of Russia, an ogress that flies about in a giant mortar and pestle, and whose hut dances upon massive chicken legs. Her favourite dish is children, of course, whom she rends with stone teeth, or crushes against her stone breasts.
There is the Berchta of southern Germany, an ugly old woman used to frighten children into behaving. Although kind to good children, she may cut open bad ones in her search for food, afterwards resewing them with iron chains.
There is the nocnitsa of Eastern Europe, who prowls about villages at night, with the intent of tormenting children. Mothers may keep her at bay by drawing a circle about their child’s bed, then placing an iron weapon underneath it.
Even in Judeo-Christian and Islamic lore, there tell of Lilith, said to be the first wife of Adam (before Eve). Refusing to acknowledge Adam’s supremacy over her, she was exiled from Eden, and later spawned generations of demons and monsters. When most of her progeny were killed, she took to killing human babies in vengeance. In the Middle Ages, the names of three angels were inscribed upon cradles and amulets to ward her away from sleeping babies.
The word “hag” comes from the Old English hagge or hoegtesse, a witch. The specific European monster known as a hag or nightmare is a hellish crone that visits sleeping victims, riding their backs throughout their dreams.
When the victim awakens looking haunted and dishevelled the next day, he is known to be “hag-ridden.” Death was ultimately the result of repeated visitations. The “mare” of the word “nightmare” pertains not to a female horse, but instead to the Old English mare, a demonic hag. So the word “nightmare” actually stems from what was thought to be the visitations of such monsters.
So what’s going on here? Are old women really all that scary?
(continued next week)