The Actual Meaning Of “Hag”

“A hag,” she says, “was once a holy woman.” And she smiles.

I watch her walk away, her perfect dancer’s legs, her straight back, her pewter curls escaping from the knot at the back of her head. If I were a man, I would fall at her feet.

Mary Sojourner – Hag

“Hag” as in an insult that refers to an apparently “repulsive old woman” still stings and amazingly, it’s trotted out to this day, most commonly against female politicans and performers.

It’s striking that there is no male equivalent and that it’s also the most misappropriated term possibly ever. How come? Well, it actually means Holy Woman. It not only once implied a female with metaphysical or shamanic powers, it was one of the titles of the goddess Hekate.

The historian Barbara Walker writes about how the word comes from the old German Hagazussa – a moon priestess – and says the hag’s cauldron as ‘sacred symbol of regeneration’ became a vat of terrifying poisons.

Other classic associations like Winter, night-time, black cats and ravens or crows were likewise downgraded into being downright suss.

Etymology Online says before the 16th Century, the meaning of “hag” was closer to ‘diviner or soothsayer’ and thrillingly, links it to the Hawthorn tree and the term “hedge-rider”:

“Later, when the pagan magic was reduced to local scatterings, it might have had the sense of “hedge-rider,” or “she who straddles the hedge,” because the hedge was the boundary between the civilized world of the village and the wild world beyond. The hægtesse would have a foot in each reality.”

The original connotation of liminal woman – Hekate rules crossroads and backroutes, she guided Persephone out of the underworld via a secret path – and wise, learned elder female – wasn’t lost overnight or struck out in one dictate. But it stuck, regardless.

Even the more esoteric of the mythologists and transcribers of old tales cast the hag as a hideous juxtaposition to the far more fetching character of the virtuous, virginal princess or immeasurably beautiful love goddess. She was not only assumed to be automatically enraged with envy at any younger woman, she could even shape-shift into one, purely to entrap feckless men.

The Goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose,” wrote Robert Graves in The White Goddess, “…who will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag.”

But the hag as holy woman theme has returned in recent years: Angelina Jolie’s Malificent stripped back centuries worth of misogynist layers and returned it to something more akin to the original. The “hag” isn’t jealous of the princess, she nurtures her.

And the last three years have seen the release of Virago’s Hag – Forgotten Folktales RetoldHagitude – Reimagining the Second Half of Life by psychologist Sharon Blackie and Victoria Smith’s Hags – The Demonization of Middle-Aged Women as well as The Sacred Hag’s Oracle from author Danielle Dulsky.

She writes evocatively here about learning to follow the promptings of her ‘inner hag’:

The time of snow and shadow was upon us, and the jubilant hag who sits atop my ribs and skips stones in my blood made new demands. Leave nothing undone, she said. Harvest what’s hearty now. Gather your people. Stack the wood high. Take your lessons from the mountain-dwellers. Stock salt. Build a better fire.

Not that that sort of people likely to sling the ‘hag’ epithet at Madonna, Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, Courtney Love or Britney Spears – to name but a few – will care about any of this, obviously.

But still, thoughts?

Image: Remedios Varo – The Night Hag

27 thoughts on “The Actual Meaning Of “Hag””

  1. O the mares & HRT … the torture of mares in huge cruelty farms now mainly in western China & Khazakstan, yes Pfizer, to produce pmu – pregnant mares urine for female hormones, HRT was the 1st market, now there’s gender ‘transitioning’ for a whole new lucrative market

  2. I’m dancing with Chiron (it is my return and the current North Node) and admiring the strands of gray that peek from my dark hair. I am embracing my inner Hag because I earned and learned her!

  3. What’s way past middle aged called?
    Once called them ‘Silvers’ until the that magic silver white hair thing didn’t happen to me.
    (Ok just 4 streaks of it in correct places of course).
    Once called Elders.
    Quite like ‘El’ as they were mentioned in some esoteric book i read as in ‘The El’s did or said this’

  4. I was just converting a fellow hag to the coven today! Literally talking about hag in all her archetypes. The hag is well and truly back, baby.

  5. My favorite feminist philosopher, Mary Daly,
    wrote a book in 1987 called “Wickedary: Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language.” My undergrad women’s studies prof was friends with Mary and is mentioned often in the footnotes.

    Mary was controversial for lots of reasons (many quite valid, including eurocentrcism) and my suspicion os that she’s now on the wrong side of the trans/queer debate, but in this book she does a HUGE amount of resrarch into the etymology of words like this and how they have been used to suppress women’s power. Highly recommend, though I did read it 1992…so….that’s my caveat there. Seems in feminism we keep gaining so little ground because we have keep uncovering what the last generation did.

    1. LOve the Mary Daly’s Wickedary the opposite to DICKtionary, purchased it from a real live bookshop same time as you. Didn’t she & Barbara Walker create Mother Peace Tarot, round cards as ‘nothing is as absolute as upright or reversed-there are degrees’. New words & meanings in the Wickedary where it mentioned how ‘phallocracy’ guides almost everything. It was certainly about resuming our power.
      Read a Chinese proverb yesterday that said ‘When sleeping women wake the mountains will shake’/

      1. I’m not sure sge was involved in that tarot card project…a quick google search rendered nothing, but my suspicion is she might be too plugged in to academia for tarot. I am very possibly wrong on that. I took advantage of that connection with my women’s studies prof and did an independent study on *just* Mary’s books, up to Wickedary (in 92). In Gyn/ecology (1978), she outlines how the witch hunts were merely a way to get women healersvout of the way during modern medicine and takes it into the then modern obsession with HRT and treating our bodies’ natural processes as “medical problems.” Unfortunately, she also went into clitoral mutilation and other PoC traditions and was accused to implying that non-caucasians were solely ravaged by patriarchy, which got her into a scap wuth Audre Lorde in the early 90s…as multiculturalism became en vogue on college campuses. (mary is Libra, Audrey is Aqua). She appeared intransigent to this critique (who TF takes on Audre Lorde?), but I was told it was worked out through a series of corespondences and they became friends. She did a valiant attempt at rectifying this –at best– eurocentricism in Pure Lust (1984– my personal fave) and then got in trouble for not letting men into her upper division feminist classes at Boston College. A real scrapper. I bet there’s a strong Aries energy somewhere in her chart.

        My main resonance was that we are both Irish catholic immigrants and I think it shows in that grandiosity and drama of her philosophical inventions.

    2. Wish Upon a Star

      Yes the video, I tried to attach it but couldn’t. A lady was explaining the book in a compelling way. I just put Mary’s name in Google and pressed videos. It was the first one that came up, so there are others.

      1. Wish Upon a Star

        Video title: Mary Daly/Conceptual Engineering, I am just about to watch more videos.

      2. Wish Upon a Star

        Mary Daly/The sex caste system. Another interesting video by an interesting painter.

      3. Thanks so much! I reeaaaaallly am out of it as she died in January, 2010. I remember that time….I was busy working for a grassroots org, fighting to keep the public option alive in the ObamaCare wars. Definitely a harrird busy time — trying to herd San Francisco hippies into obeying a national organization’s marching orders. Rough, man. Still, sad I wasn’t aware enough to tip one out to Mary Daly, such a huge influence on my “theaology” and education. Will get that movie on the list!!!

      4. Dear Star, if there was a way, would send you my well worn copy. You would love the ‘new’ expressions used. Brilliant & truthful creativity! Yes am at the stage of wanting & having nothing except absolute basics & just a few meaningful treasures, NOT a Marie Kondo thing but a preparation to leave no trace after my Earth Walk.

    3. Wish Upon a Star

      Reply to Pegusus:
      Oh that is so sweet that you would send a copy to me. I don’t know if Mystic could give you my address and I could pay for postage? Otherwise it is no big deal I can buy on booktopia.
      It sounds like you are going through a lightening up experience. An enlightening threshold.

  6. Translate hag into French and you get sorcière, a beautiful sounding word to say aloud. Along with crone and spinster, I been reclaiming hag as a force for good. I loved this post for it’s etymological and spiritual unravelling of hag.

      1. Which brings us to source
        source (n.)

        mid-14c., “support, base,” from Old French sourse “a rising, beginning, fountainhead of a river or stream” (12c.), fem. noun taken from past participle of sourdre “to rise, spring up,” from Latin surgere “to rise, arise, get up, mount up, ascend; attack,” a contraction of surrigere, from assimilated form of sub “up from below” (see sub-) + regere “to keep straight, guide” (from PIE root *reg- “move in a straight line,” with derivatives meaning “to direct in a straight line,” thus “to lead, rule”).

    1. Love the French language, often tell people gentile (gentle) translates as kind. Everything sounds better in French where it’s hard to cuss and sound angry with it 🙂

  7. I would love to be a ‘hedgerider’. It sounds so poetic and mysterious. hail the hag I say. Love this post Mystic.

  8. Couldn’t have time this better mystic thank you

    Based on this I was musing about pronouncing it with a long “a” for fun – hahg, like dahling.

    Also whats with that Robert Graves guy. Bit of a chip on his shoulder? Lol. You could almost hear him spit those words out, names for female animals. Maybe he was feeling peevish when he wrote that, because his wife wouldn’t make him lunch.

  9. Aahh hedgerider ….. this makes me feel so much better as a fringe dweller in a little village(little minds) with lots of Hawthorn hedges ❤️

    1. Wish Upon a Star

      Many blessings to you hedgerider. I have been where you currently are. Draw on the strength within.

      Go Well !

  10. There is so much I would like to say here but you probably would have to delete it Hail the hag! And yes she is gorgeous. I would also fall at her feet.

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