Black Annis - Scottish/English legendary hag
English Midlands and Scotland
Similar entities: Peg Powler
Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes, Cat Anna, Gentle Annie
Where down the plain the winding pathway falls,
From Glen-field vill, to Lester's ancient walls;
Nature, or art, with imitative power,
Far in the Glenn has plac'd Black Annis's Bower.
'Tis said the soul of mortal man recoil'd
To view Black Annis's eye, so fierce and wild;
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and her features livid blue,
Glar'd in her visage; whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims embrac'd.
– John Heyrick
The legendary Black Annis is known in the folklore
of Leicestershire and Scotland
, and despite their geographical distance, the descriptions are remarkably similar. She has one eye, wrinkled bluish skin and is immensely strong, with long claws and sharp white teeth. She lives in a cave, although the Leicestershire
legend also mentions her as hiding in an ancient oak
tree. From her hiding place, she preys on unsuspecting passers-by, leaping out and tearing them apart, disembowelling
them and gorging herself on their flesh. She is said to be especially fond of children, at least in her dietary preferences, and her habit when she does catch one is to flay
the unfortunate victim alive before beginning her feast. Her cave is said to be decorated with the skins of her prey, a grisly trophy room whose floor is littered with bones.
When she is unable to get human flesh, she will catch almost any animal she can get, from deer down to farmyard livestock, but her preferences are quite clear. Because of her reputation and enormous strength (she is said to have dug the cave herself), she was greatly feared – there was no escape once Black Annis had you in her grasp! As late as the 18th Century, drag hunts were organised using a dead cat, as Annis was also associated with these animals, hence one of her many aliases, 'Cat Anna'.
Black Annis is possibly a memory of a pagan goddess from pre-Saxon times, there being many such who demanded propitiation in the form of sacrifice. Failure to offer the appropriate sacrifice would drive her to wreak her revenge by taking her victims in violence. There were certainly Celtic earth goddesses who did demand this kind of treatment.
Her name may well have come from one Agnes Scott, a Dominican nun who lived near to Swithland in Leicestershire, She ran a leper colony which is supposed to have been near the Dane Hills, where Black Annie's cave ("Black Annis' Bower") is said to have been. Agnes died in 1455 and her grave may still be seen in St. Leonard's church. One can imagine medieval mothers telling their children the story of 'Black Agnes' in her nun's habit, living in close contact with lepers – a scary prospect in those superstitious times. This good woman may have gone into folklore as a ravening hag, rather than the saintly healer she doubtless was.
Sometimes known in Scotland as "Gentle Annie", this time the creature is of faerie origin, possibly being derived from Anu, a Celtic fertility goddess. "Gentle" she was called, not because she was 'nice' or kind, but because it it was considered that such flattery would in some way mollify her. Not that it did, seemly - she was vicious and cruel, snatching bairns from the cot, dragging them to her dwellingplace, there to hang their hides on her walls.
The similarities with her Southern cousin are extraordinary. Again, she had one remaining eye, a "visage of mackerel blue", but her teeth were red instead of white or yellow.
Black Annis' Bower
The cave she dwelt in at Dane Hills has long ago been hidden from view. By the late 19th century, it was filled with earth, and a housing estate was built in the 1920s. It was said to have measured 5 feet by 8 (1.5 metres by 2.5), with ledges running along the sides, leading to a tunnel, which connected the cave to Leicester Castle or Leicester Cathedral.
Whatever the truth of her origin, the legend of Black Annis lives on. Beware, innocent traveller, you may not be as safe as you thought.