Ladies of Legend: Black Annis and Gentle Annie

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (Pantheon Books, 1976) by Katharine Briggs, http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm, http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A14129318

What is it about obscurely terrifying women that appeals to me so much? Because these two are the definition of enigma but everything about them fascinates me. Black Annis came from the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, in the English East Midlands. She was a blue-faced ‘cannibal hag’ associated with storms and winter, with wild hair, yellow fangs and iron claws that she used to carve out a cave called Black Annis’ Bower. An oak tree grew in front of this cave and Black Annis hid behind it in order to ambush lambs and small children when they passed by. Displaying somewhat vampiric tendencies, she would then drink their blood, eat the flesh and hang up the skins in her cave like a macabre tanner so that she could wear the leathers. In the absence of glass panes, locals used to hang up protective herbs so that Black Annis wouldn’t reach through windows into their children’s cradles.

It used to be an Easter Monday tradition in Leicester to hold a ‘drag hunt’, pulling a dead cat soaked in aniseed from Black Annis’ cave to the house of the mayor, a custom that fortunately petered out at the end of the 18th century. Annis’s legend remained strong, however. A folk story recorded during World War II sets her up as a very vocal presence in the landscape, whose teeth could be heard grinding for miles around.

It was said that daylight would turn her to stone. The White Dragon website recounts a story about three children sent out to fetch wood by their wicked stepmother, but who wisely took with them a ‘witch-stone’ (a stone with a hole worn through the middle by natural means) and with that talisman they saw Black Annis approaching. Promptly dropping their bundles of wood, the children fled for home. Black Annis stumbled over the branches, returned to her cave to treat the cuts and still managed to catch up with the children at the door to their house. Fortunately, their father met her with an axe. She ran off screaming “Blood! Blood!” and died at the first peals of Christmas bells – or so that version claims, anyway.

Gentle Annie makes a better first impression. Being mild-mannered and unremarkable of looks, she didn’t need to hide behind trees to get her nasty work done. She came from the Scottish lowlands and governs storms; there is apparently a gap in the hills near the Firth of Cromarty through which she called in gales. Her temperament seems to have been a capricious one; under her influence, a fine day could turn stormy without warning, threatening local fishermen.

It’s possible both Black Annis and Gentle Annie are distorted derivatives of the ancient Celtic water goddess Danu (mother of the Tuatha Dé Danaan), the earth and fertility goddess Anu or the moon goddess Aine, all of whom can be conflated depending on the story. Other alarming ladies of the British Isles include Jeanie of Biggersdale, a murderous spirit haunting the Mulgrave Woods in Yorkshire; Caillage Ny Groagmagh, an elderly fairy from the Isle of Man who travels about as a giant bird to collect firewood and will influence the weather to ensure a good stockpile; Peg O’Nell, a water hag from Lancashire, specifically the River Ribble, who expects a token sacrifice every seven years – a bird or small animal will do – but will claim a human life if she doesn’t get it; and green, sharp-toothed Peg Prowler, another water hag, this one from River Tees in north-eastern England, who drowns anyone unlucky enough to set foot in her waters.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!

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