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. 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 beneficent nor malevolent. The term appears in Middle English, and might be short for hægtesse, an Old English term for witch. 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.
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 a misogynistic attitude.
Hag in folklore
A hag, or "the Old Hag", was a nightmare spirit in British and Anglophone North American folklore. This variety of hag is essentially identical to the Anglo-Saxon mæra — a 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. Currently this state is called sleep paralysis, but in the old belief the subject had been "hagridden". It is still frequently discussed as if it were a paranormal state.
In Irish and Scottish mythology, the Cailleach is a hag goddess concerned with creation, harvest, the weather and sovereignty. In partnership with the goddess Brìde, she is a seasonal goddess, seen as ruling the winter months while Brìde rules the summer. 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.
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.
The Three Fates (particularly Atropos) are often depicted as hags.
In Persian folklore, the Bakhtak has the same role as that of "the Old Hag" in British folklore. The Bakhtak sits on a sleeper's chest, awakening them and causing them to feel they are unable to breathe or even to move. Bakhtak also is used metaphorically to refer to "nightmare" in the modern Persian language.
Many stories about hags seem to have been used to frighten children into being good. Peg Powler, for example, was a river hag who lived in river trees and had skin the color of green pond scum. 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. Peg Powler has other regional names, such as Jenny Greenteeth from Yorkshire and Nellie Longarms from several English counties.
Many tales about hags do not describe them well enough to distinguish between an old woman who knows magic or a supernatural being.
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Hag of the Mist
In Welsh known as the Gwrach-y-Rhibyn or the Cyoeraeth, is a hag spirit comparable to the Irish banshee. Like the banshee, the Hag of the mist is portrayed as an ugly woman, whose shriek or cry is said to forewarn of misfortune or death. Often invisible, she can sometimes be seen at a crossroads or stream when the mist rises.
Her shriek warns of coming misfortune or even death. If it is death that is coming, the name of the one doomed to die will be heard in her "shrill tenor". The misfortune may be coming to the person hearing her voice, or to someone in their family.
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