This posting is the last on the subject of my new book Beyond Faery.
Amongst the broad class of ‘faery beasts’ there is a clear category of female monsters, creatures we often label as hags. The dividing lines between hags, giantesses and witches are not always very clear and many of the Highland Scottish ‘hobgoblins,’ the gruagach, glaistig and uruisg, are primarily encountered as large, violent and unsightly females. In similar fashion, the dividing line between ‘hags’ and banshees is not exact- an important point to bear in mind when we realise that banshee (bean sith) means nothing more than ‘fairy woman.’ Likewise, the closely related bean nighe is nothing more or less than a ‘washer woman.’
In Scotland the best known ‘hag’ is the cailleach, a word generally glossed as ‘witch.’ For example, on the hills over Glendaruel there is a large stone called the cailleach-bhear, the ‘huge hag,’ which is said really to be a woman who herds cattle on the uplands. She has been described as the thunder personified; when she is angry she causes floods and, if cattle go missing during storms, it is because she has stolen them.
The banshee is best known popularly for singing at the time of a death. In the Scottish Highlands, this was particularly the role of the female being called the caointeach (the keener) but the bean nighe often marked impending death by washing the clothes or shrouds of those foredoomed to perish. Indicative of the combined, and complex, nature of these traditions is the Cowie of Goranberry Tower in Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. This male being bore all the hallmarks of a broonie (brownie) in that he got in peat for the fires, herded the sheep, harvested the grain, cut up wood, spun wool and ground corn. However, if he lamented, it was the sign of an imminent death in the family.
All the examples given so far are Scottish, but the Isle of Man had its own cailleach, known as the Caillagh ny Groamagh who was linked (like the Scottish one) to bad weather and the changing seasons. Wales too had its own versions of the hags and the banshees (the latter being called the cyhyraeth). The latter would be encountered first as a fierce rushing sound in the air, followed by a shriek that was so loud and appalling that listeners might be thrown to the ground. The cyhyraeth‘s cry presages an imminent death and the sound is heard to travel from the doomed individual’s home to the place of burial. In addition, the creature is often heard in advance of bad weather and it cries out three times, each quieter than the last, dwindling to a death rattle. An encounter with the cyhyraeth recounted in the Carmarthen Journal during September 1831 described a woman with black, dishevelled hair, deeply furrowed cheeks and corpse-like skin, loose lips, long, black fangs and horrible gashes on her body. In a manner reminiscent of the bean-nighe, she splashed her hands in a stream and wailed for her husband. Understandably, the witness fainted away in terror.
Another Welsh type of hag is the gwrach y rhibin, a being in the form of an immense and very hideous girl. The name has been explained as meaning ‘the hag of the dribble,’ the dribble being a trail of stones that she releases from the apron in which she carries them. She had coarse, bright red hair, sharp cheeks, a pointed nose and chin and just a few long and jagged teeth. She would appear suddenly to people at crossroads or at sharp turns in paths, howling horribly “Woe is me!” She might also appear outside the home of a sick person, calling their name. Her presence foretold the death either of the witness or of a relative of that unfortunate person. The former was an especially likely outcome, because her sudden appearance could either give the person a fatal shock or drive them mad with fear.
Another description of this ‘queen of terrors’ describes her as tall and yellow-skinned with a few front teeth that are one foot long and hair that sweeps the ground. She uses her teeth to dig graves for her victims and her hair to brush the earth back into the hole.
Britain is well supplied by hideous and terrifying female spirits. The examples cited here are cases I’ve turned up since I finished writing the text of Beyond Faery. More detailed and lengthy treatments will be found in the book, which is now available from all good book sellers etc.