The word hag, like the woman it represents, is old, tracing back to the Old English, but hag does not appear to be a very common word until the sixteenth century, when it underwent an explosion of usage and popularity. And while today hag simply means an ugly old woman, the history of the word indicates that it once meant something darker and more sinister.
The Old English progenitor of the word is hægtesse, which meant a “witch, a Fury, an evil female spirit.” The Old English word is relatively rare, appearing mostly in glosses of Latin text that reference the Furies of ancient myth. It does appear in the Metrical Charm 4, which is evidently to be used to cure a sudden stitch:
Ut, spere, næs in, spere!
Gif her inne sy isernes dæl,
hægtessan geweorc, hit sceal gemyltan.
(Out, spear, not in, spear! If any portion of iron, the work of hags, is in here, it shall melt.)
In the Middle English period the word was clipped to hagge. The modern hag has cognates in other Germanic languages that underwent parallel transformations. The Old High German hagazissa became the modern German hexe, and the Middle Dutch haghetisse became the modern Dutch hecse. The English hex, meaning a magical spell, is a nineteenth century import from modern German.
The clipped hagge appears in the B text of William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, c. 1378, 5.191:
He was bitelbrowed, and baberlipped also, With two blered eyghen, as a blynde hagge.
(He was sharp-browed, and thick-lipped also, with two bleary eyes, as a blind hag.)
In modern use, hag has a number of different, albeit related, meanings. Because the term is not common before 1550 and by that date all the senses were in use, it is hard to determine the order in which the senses arose. These include references to the Furies and Harpies of classical myth, assorted demons and bogeymen, nightmares, witches, and simply old women. We do know that from its earliest days, hag has had the meaning of “an evil spirit, a female demon.” The term night-hag dates to the seventeenth century, originally referring to female ghosts and spirits believed to visit men at night—the succubi of nightmares—but now used to refer to the psychological phenomenon of imagined paralysis and hallucination that occurs in some people as they fall asleep, often mistaken today as alien abduction.
Elliott van Kirk Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record 6, New York: Columbia University Press, 1942, 122.
“hagge, n.,” Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001.
“hag, n.1,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton