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 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. All these words derive from the Proto-Germanic *hagatusjon- which is of unknown origin, however the first element may be related to the word "hedge". 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.
Hag 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 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. 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". It is still frequently discussed as if it were a paranormal state.
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. 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 (a name connected to Grendel), 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.
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. 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.
In Irish and Scottish mythology, the cailleach is a hag goddess concerned with creation, harvest, the weather and sovereignty. In partnership with the goddess Bríd, she is a seasonal goddess, seen as ruling the winter months while Bríd 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 English 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.
She is similar to Lilith.
In Western literature
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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.
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 world-view, rather than any form of disease or pathology.
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- Henry Fuseli's painting of a hag, from the Met collection