#HalloweenFrights Day 6: James Brogden uncovers the history of the hag

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It’s day six of #HalloweenFrights, and today I’m handing over the reins to author James Brogden, whose books Hekla’s Children and The Hollow Tree both deal in frightening folklore. His new book, The Plague Stones (Titan, May 2019), delves into the history of the traditional hag. Here, he gives us a little history lesson and paints a very creepy picture. Prepare to shudder…

She shuffles along the empty country lane in her rough-spun cloak and her red skirt. From the cottages in the valley behind her rises smoke and the weeping of grief-stricken villagers. In the windows of the houses in the valley ahead of her gleam warm lights as their inhabitants rest comfortably, unaware of who approaches their homes. She is bent, tired beyond measure, because she’s killed so many and her work is nowhere near done.

Her name is Pesta, and she is the Plague Hag.

‘She Covers the Whole Country’ by Theodor Kittelsen

The British landscape abounds with her sisters. Stray too close to one of those dark, weed-carpeted pools in the lonely northern countryside and you might get caught by Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Longarms or Peg Powler. Don’t let your children stray in the neighbourhood of Dane Hills in Leicester, because even though it’s been developed into suburbia there used to be a cave which was the home of Black Annis, the blue-faced crone with iron talons for hands who would drain her victims’ blood, eat their flesh and flay their skins for her clothes – and she might still be there.

Even at home you’re not safe. You might awaken from a nightmare, breathless and paralysed – that’s because a hag has been sitting on your chest, squeezing the life out of you. Even the word nightmare itself comes from her, because the Old English word for a hag is mæra.

The misogynistic connotations of the word in its modern usage cannot be ignored, however, and the historical treatment of women accused of withcraft is nothing short of the worst kind of persecution, torture, and murder. But hags, properly speaking, are not witches. They’re more ancient than that, encompassing something wider and deeper. It may be that they’ve simply evolved from cautionary tales told to stop children from straying into dangerous places – caves, rivers, forests. Or the hag might be a folk-memory of the worship of more ancient pagan goddesses – the merciless and destructive side of nature which goes hand in hand with the life-giving and nurturing. Like most folk tales, a hag’s origin is difficult to pin down.

What is interesting about Pesta is that she is neither a cautionary tale nor a diminished goddess, and her origin is very specific. She came into existence in Norway as merchant ships from England spread the Black Death, wreaking a destruction so terrible that it couldn’t be attributed to anything as ‘normal’ as the Devil, and so a new evil was created. It is a rare and sobering insight into the process of mythogenesis, by which humans populate the world with figures of legend sprung from our hopes and fears.

When Pesta arrives at that village she will be carrying either a rake or a broom, and the villagers had better pray that it’s the rake, since some of them might then escape through its teeth. If it’s the broom, then whole communities will be swept away, and nobody will survive.

Thanks James! Make sure you follow James on Twitter here, and if you want more sleepless nights, you can pre-order his new book The Plague Stones here. Tomorrow’s guest post is a bit of a doozy as I welcome one of the year’s bestselling authors, who’ll be revealing just why she loves horror so much