“Hag” and Other Frightening Words

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Cailleach lately because of a triad and the weather. First, the weather.

These are the days when the Scottish tale says that Wintry Beira and Vernal Angus struggle over the return of Brigid. So we have days of freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw, pulling roads apart and toppling boulders in stone walls that stretch through the woods. Rain, snow, sleet, ice, fog, and then more rain, and so it goes.

Various cultures have found a female presence at the heart of reality. Taoists say that the Tao cannot be named or even known, but once we call it “the Tao,” it becomes the Mother of the Ten Thousand Things, in other words, the Mother of Everything That Is. In the Hebrides there’s a saying, “In the heart of God is a mother’s heart,” and I’ve seen it worded even more pointedly, “The heart of God is a mother’s heart.” The heart of something is what it is. The Celtic fascination with this ubiquitous female presence extends even into areas of life that seem far from “motherly” or “feminine” in the standard sense of those words. The female presence is also involved in the brutal, unpleasant, and uglier aspects of life, such as fear, war, old age, death, and decay.

The numerous battle goddesses among the Celtic peoples attest to this female presence in war, as do their transformation into crows and ravens afterwards to clean up the battlefields. Death can be presaged by banshees (literally women of the sidhe) screaming to announce a death in a family. There is an equally unnerving otherworldly female known as the Washer at the Ford who, when you meet her, turns out to be washing your blood-soaked clothing, bloody weapons, or your personal shroud. There’s also an Irish story about three brothers seen dancing with three beautiful otherworldly women shortly before going off to World War I where each is killed. The story is called “Choosers of the Slain.” And then there’s Beira.

In some ways these female presences are forms of the Cailleach, the Gaelic word that usually refers to a frightening, old, cantankerous woman, whose characteristics we come to know through stories about her. Although she is usually portrayed as old with certain physical deformities to scare us, in some stories she is young or has a younger sister or even young, beautiful daughters who are also cailleachs. She is often described as a hag.

I looked up the definition of “hag” because I’ve known some women to object to the word, and I wondered if there was some meaning for it that goes beyond frightening, old, ugly, and cantankerous, even though in popular English that’s how the word is often used. Part of the objection to the word arises from the absence of a similar word for men. It doesn’t seem fair that there’s a special word to refer to women when they are old, frightening, or cantankerous but none for men. But there are some male equivalents even though they are not used in quite the same way.

According to Webster, the first definition of “hag” is “a female demon, an evil or frightening spirit, a hobgoblin.” This definition doesn’t indicate whether a hag is young or old, ugly or beautiful. In other words, this first meaning is the female equivalent of bogeyman, another term I looked up in the interests of equal time for men. Curiously, a definition for “bogeyman” (even though it contains “man”) can be “a terrifying person or thing.” The word “bogey” means “a source of fear, perplexity, harassment,” and it’s also a synonym for hobgoblin which is a synonym for hag! So a bogeyman, a hag, and a hobgoblin function similarly in being sources of fear.

What I think lies at the heart of both these words–hag and bogeyman–is power. And it’s the specific power to cause fear. Both words initially imply a spirit, but can be applied to humans as well. When I was a little boy, all of us kids were afraid to go by a certain house on the block where an ugly old man lived alone in the basement. We called him a boogeyman, and there were stories about how mean he was, but none of us ever talked to him or hung around when he was out so we could never judge if the stories were true. We also knew where an old woman lived whom we thought was a witch, even though no one ever saw her do anything witchy, and we called her a hag. I wonder today just how old these people really were. After all, we were kids. Every adult looked old.

I find it interesting that hobgoblin is a synonym for hag. The word “hob” means “mischief or trouble.” (It is also an English word that can mean “faery.” J.R.R.Tolkien may have drawn on it in creating his Hobbits.) So a hobgoblin is technically a goblin that causes trouble–a mischievous goblin–and it could be either male or female. But most of the stories I know about hobgoblins imply they are male. So a term that was originally ambiguous, “hobgoblin,” has come to mean generally a male spirit that causes fear, mischief, trouble. And “hag,” a word that first means a frightening female spirit or demon, has come to mean an old, ugly, and mean-spirited woman.

No one is in charge of languages. They just evolve over generations of usage. They aren’t always fair.

I’ve been thinking about the Cailleach lately because of a triad that has been a kind of koan for me recently. It goes: “The endurance of the Cailleach brings cleansing, purity, and renewal.” Since I first came across this triad, I’ve felt that there was some deeper meaning that would only come from long pondering and journeying on it. I pondered and journeyed long. Nothing really came, so I resorted to Webster once again, suspecting there were important insights here that I was missing. I like to go to dictionaries because they have words for things I didn’t know I knew.

My basic question here is, “Why would enduring the Cailleach cleanse, purify, and renew?”

To cleanse means to “rid of dirt, impurities, extraneous matter.” Something that is clean is “unadulterated, pure, characterized by clarity and precision.” I like the fact that “pure” can mean “free from what vitiates, weakens or pollutes.” To endure the Cailleach, then, is to endure fear. The cleansing that fear can initiate (don’t we say that fear “washes over” someone?) brings about a state free from weakness and pollution. “Pure” can also mean “containing nothing that does not belong.” So the upshot here is that the Cailleach’s effect on us, provided we can endure her, is to bring us back to what is our core, our true state of being just what we are meant to be, our pure state of being clearly and precisely us, free from whatever does not really belong in us or to us. Paradoxically this state of wholeness and essential whatness–a state of strength–comes from an initial encounter with fear which we often think of as vitiating and weakening.

But if we survive, we are ready for renewal. I didn’t look this word up. There are some words I know I know. It means to be new again, to start afresh, to begin another beginning. Fear, then, if it does not kill us, can bring us to our basic core. It removes inessentials. It reduces us to our fundamental what-we-are. And this condition is essential for newness.

I found it curious that one meaning for “pure” is “sheer,” which has an obsolete meaning of “bright and shining” in addition to the modern meaning of “thin, transparent, diaphanous.” So I guess we could say that if we are purified by the Cailleach, we become in some way bright, shining, transparent, and diaphanous. If the triad contains some mystical wisdom, and I think it does, it may be something akin to the concept found in other traditions that being reduced to our basic essence, being stripped of all that is not really us, allows for a thinness or transparency through which reality–who we really are–can be seen or emerge. It’s the kind of nothingness or void that is the fertile source of all that is. It requires enduring the fear of looking that nothingness–or whatever it is we essentially are–right in the face. Then we become new again.

I’ve come to see the Cailleach’s age as critical to her power, even to our fear of her. With an older woman, you cannot lie or deceive. She has seen it all. She knows when you are faking it. She can see right through you.

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