Hags and Witches have been haunting childhoods for as long as people have been telling stories. We all remember avoiding the house at the end of road, knowing with absolute certainty a witch lingered inside waiting for unruly children who dared to come too close. Elderly women appear in countless fairy tales; mostly while they are trying to defeat the beautiful princess or innocent child and destroy their happy ending. But why do these women seem to get such a bad reputation in our beloved childhood stories?
There are many theories as to how old women became so terrifying in fairy tales and folklore. Historically, the mother was the most powerful figure in children’s lives; being both the person who nurtures and cares for them, as well as the one who disciplines them and defines the rules for their behaviour. It would appear in many stories these two roles have been split into separate characters which may have created the archetype of the evil stepmother. In Cinderella, her mother is described as a kind and loving woman but when she dies she is replaced by a cruel and strict step mother who forces her to slave in the kitchen all day. This draws an interesting contrast between the two sides of the traditional mother’s role; the woman who is there to adore you and the woman who also must ensure you are well behaved and grow up properly.
This idea also draws on the duality that is created when a woman becomes a mother, the conflict of having to put their desires second to their child’s and the shame that comes with failing to do so. This is shown in Snow White where her mother is a loving woman who wishes only to have a child that is beautiful and happy but after her death is replaced by an evil stepmother who is obsessed with her own beauty and hates Snow White for being more youthful than her. In this story, the step mother is obsessed with being the fairest and is willing to kill her step daughter to ensure that, but is ultimately destroyed by her vanity.
As well as the nightmarish stepmothers that appear in many of our favourite stories there is of course, the terrifying evil witch. In a time where life expectancies were significantly shorter elderly women were a rare sight; in many cultures, they became seen as powerful creatures with mysterious wisdom, but in sight of things that are hard to understand, fear is born. These women are usually described as hideous or decrepit and are always incredibly powerful. In Russia, there was the ogress Baba-Yaga who lived in a hut with chicken legs, known for stealing and eating children. In Japan, a similar character known as Yama-uba is a mountain witch, who also lures people into her hut and eats them. These witches are always hidden away and due to a societal fear of aging they seem to hate children.
However, it’s not always that simple. In one story, a young girl named Vasilisa is sent to Baba-Yaga’s hut to fetch a candle. Certain she is being sent to her death, when she arrives she is made to slave for the witch but as she did exactly what she was told, Baba-Yaga sends her home with what she asked. The Japanese Yama-Uba has also been known to help a lost traveller on their journey. Elderly women in fairy tales and folklore often show more complexity then their youthful counterparts.
These women draw contrast between the beauty and innocence of princesses whose motivations are easy to understand and the complexities that come with age. They are characterisations of the aspects of women that, in the times these stories were written, were less understood and accepted. Stories are how people have taught their children about the world and elderly women, witches and hags have become a warning to children.
Behave yourself, or the nasty old witch will get you…