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Hags

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Every nation has their own variation of the wicked old witch, to the point it is a stereotype largely mocked in media - reserved for frightening little children on Halloween or playing the antagonist in often simplified fairy tales that have been altered significantly from their often darker roots in mythology and legend.

Where I'm from they are known as Hags and although the term has slowly begun to be replaced by the generic "witch", it is still widely used - though belief in these supernatural beings has long died out even in the more remote regions of the Scottish Highlands.

Once believed to be spirits of nature, not unlike the fairies (who were originally far darker than the winged humanoids made popular by Disney), the Hags were feared and worshipped in equal parts over many parts of Scotland; as Christianity began to spread, however, the Hags lost their original purpose as nature spirits and took on the malevolent roles we have come to associate with the "wicked witch".

Mothers would warn disobedient children of the grisly Black Annis, whose long claws could capture children from their beds and spirit them off to the countryside where she would devour them, adding their bones to a small pile situated deep in a cave someplace in the mythical hills.

Others would discourage adventurous youths from playing near streams or ponds by telling tales of Jenny Greentooth, a malevolent spirit who could take on the form of floating weeds or branches: dragging those who strayed to near the edge to a watery grave.

Many innocent men and women were victimized under brutal witch-hunts in the height of this superstitious age, the now infamous burning of "witches" being one of the dark chapters of European history (one that would sadly resurface overseas in the Salem Witchcraft Trials).

Across Scotland there are numerous stones and "witches' wells" dedicated to the memory of those poor unfortunate souls who were sacrificed to the demons of religious fanaticism and mob mentality.

Yet this tragedy only shows how very real the threat of the Hags was seen to be in the eyes of our ancestors, everything that went wrong could be blamed on these malicious crones - ranging from minor afflictions to the death of cattle or even tragedy in a household.

Even in the modern age when one takes the time to head to the more remote areas of Scotland one can understand why the land was once thought to be crawling with goblins, ghouls and Hags... as the mist comes down from mountains one can easily imagine a spectral crone walking amongst the haze, casting her spells or looking for unwary children to feast on.

For the tranquil scenes of mist and heather hide a brutal and bloody past, rife with treachery and clan-warfare - which is why I am one of relatively few who have began to believe in Hags again, though not as the wicked witches of early Christian dogma but instead as the spirits of unhappy and restless souls... wandering the landscape and searching for a world long lost to the march of time.

Even as towns and cities start to stretch across what was once open countryside I imagine the Hags continue their spectral walk; after all, the living world is fleeting, but the world of the spirits is truly eternal even though the days of sword and superstition have long faded the spirits of Scotland's many Hags remain.

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