The Hag and the Owl

Comparative Linguistics is often an ignored art, but when you take a microscope to related languages and lay bare their cognates and shared philosophies, you discover a wealth of secrets about our ancestors. The speeches of today preserve whispers of the beliefs and worldviews of yesterday in a way that would make an archaeologist salivate.

Today let's examine the mystery of the hag in ancient society. While it simply denotes an old, wretched woman - perhaps one a bit wild or even crazed - that was not what a hag once was. The first linguist to rediscover its origins may have been Thomas Wright, who in 1884 realized it was a Middle English abbreviation of the earlier Anglo-Saxon hægtesse. 

So what was a hoegtesse before it became a hag? Well one clue is that hægtesse in the plural was used by Old English translators to name the Greek "Furies" - hideous women in black robes that guarded the entrance to Tartarus and punished sinners. By the 16th century, simply the word hags would be used to translate the word "Furies." Another clue comes from the definition of the word larua, Elyot's Dictionary of 1538 wrote they were night-time spirits, often called a "hegge" or a "goblyn." Similarly, John Aubrey wrote in 1696 a most curious paragraph in his Miscellanies,

[In Herefordshire] they hinder the night mare, they hang in a string, a flint with a hole in it (naturally) by the manger; but best of all they say, hung about their necks, and a flint will do it that hath not a hole in it. It is to prevent the night mare, viz. the hag, from riding their horses, who will sometimes sweat all night. The flint thus hung does hinder it.

Aubrey was writing of the superstitions around England in his day, but sadly, Aubrey does not elaborate upon what was the Nightmare that the locals so feared.

Other Germanic languages bear similar clues. Jakob Grimm glossed Middle Dutch haghedisse into Latin as a strix. The strix was first an owl that could assume the form of a woman and terrorized and sucked the blood of children. Or as Mayhew wrote in a letter to The Academy and Letter in 1881:

The owl, the bird of the night, dwelling in the gloomy and lonesome woodland, striking horror into the souls of men with her melancholy screech or hoot, became an embodiment of the vague terrors of darkness; and then to the superstitious fancy this symbol took human shape, and appeared in the spiteful, mischievous, supernatural being - a witch.

Etymologically, however, the word is a bit of a mystery. It comes from Proto-Germanic *hagatusjōn-. The first element is from the word hedge, a line of shrubbery that marked the abstract boundary between a village and the forest beyond. The second element is unknown. Harper connects it with Norwegian tysa "fairy," "crippled woman." Likely there was a connection between the spiritual life of the forest, the village, and the vague boundary in between, but without understanding of what *-tusjōn- meant, we are in the dark. We may never know. The problem with whispers is that they are so hard to hear.