Happy (almost) Halloween! In honor of my favorite holiday, we’re going to cover a more traditional monster this month: a good old-fashioned baby-eating hag. Normally I shy away from doing monstrous witches (as I’ve noted on this blog before, the misogyny underlying the myths can get to be a bit much), but this particular witch is so fun that I could not pass up the opportunity.
That winter skin tone
Black Annis (also known as Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes, and Cat Anna) seems, on the surface, to be a witch as stereotypical as a pumpkin spice latte. Hailing from Leicester, England, she’s got blue skin (like a Smurf! …Or a corpse) and a taste for human flesh. But Annis is no basic witch. If you’re looking for costume inspiration for your office Halloween party, look elsewhere. The iron talons replacing Annis’s hands will be difficult to type with, and her skirt of tanned children’s hides will certainly get you in trouble with HR (not to mention how difficult it will be to find a top to pair it with; many depictions of Annis have her with no top at all, which will definitely get you in trouble with HR). She doesn’t have a tell-tale hat or broomstick that would help your office workers guess what you are, and in some descriptions has only one eye.
Even if she doesn’t inspire social acceptable costumes, Black Annis looks pretty awesome. A 19th century poem describes her thus:
“‘Tis said the soul of mortal man recoiled
To view Black Annis’ eye, so fierce and wild
Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew
In place of hands, and features livid blue
Glared in her visage, whilst her obscene waist
Warm skins of human victims close embraced…”
There is a wealth of artistic interpretations of her out there, but none with permission to share, so I’ll just link to a few of my favorites here (and here and here and here and here) for you to get a taste.
It’s what you do that defines you
As cool as Black Annis looks, for me, monsters don’t come to life just by looking scary. It’s what they do. Here is where Annis gets really fun. Like any good bogeyman, she steals, skins, drinks the blood of, and eats children who wander too far into the woods. But that’s just her baseline. Annis has also been known to get creative, climbing up into trees so that she can jump down on unsuspecting passersby. If not enough people come to the woods, she comes into town. The people of 18th-century Leicester had to build their houses with as few and as narrow of windows as possible, fearing that Annis would wriggle her long, thin arms through any apertures and dig her talons into their children.
If she can’t get human flesh, Annis will rip apart farm animals. She is also a major-league teeth grinder, loud enough that if you are lucky, you can hear her coming and have a few precious moments to hide. Piss her off, and her howls will echo for miles.
There is an account from 1942 that describes three children running into Black Annis around Christmas time. Just as the sun set, their stepmother sent them into the forest to collect wood. They begged her not to make them go, knowing that their only protection from Annis was daylight (which turns her to stone). But the stepmother insisted, and so into the dark they went. A snuffling noise caught their attention, and, unable to locate its source, they looked through their witch stone to see what it was. Through the hole, they saw Annis’s blue, hideous face leering at them. Screaming, the children dropped their sticks and fled. In her rush to give chase, Annis bloodied her shins on the sticks, and paused to tend to her wounds. Even though that gave the children a head start, and even though they ran with everything they had, Annis still caught them at their cottage door.
That might have been the end of the them, if it had not been for their father. Hearing their screams, he came out and buried an ax in Annis’s face. Still she did not fall, screaming “BLOOD! BLOOD!” as she stumbled in the direction of her cave. Then the Christmas bells started to toll, and, at long last, she fell down dead.
But apparently not dead-dead, because stories about her persist.
Back in her heyday, Annis lived in a cave she dug with her own talons, decorated with (you guessed it!) human skin. 19th-century eyewitnesses described “Black Annis’s Bower” as 4-5 feet wide and 7-8 feet long, having a “ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side.” Nowadays, the cave is filled in with earth, and a housing estate sits on the site where Annis once sat sucking on her bones. But it’s said that a tunnel once connected that cave with Leicester Castle, and that Annis haunts the area still.
Where did Annis come from? Some say that she might be inspired by a nun (who really seemed to be an okay person, so idk) that took care of a leper colony in the late medieval period. Others think that maybe Annis was born of a cultural memory of real child sacrifices to an ancient goddess (!). Really, Annis could be based on any number of goddesses or mythical figures (including Hel, daughter of Loki and some time goddess of the underworld).
Regardless of who thought her up, it’s hard to argue with Black Annis’s efficacy as a bogeyman.This Halloween, let’s honor her by growing our nails out, getting a little crazy with that turquoise eye shadow, and seeing just how deep we can wedge our arm into the couch to retrieve that long-lost, scrumdiddlyumptious Cheeze-It.
Happy Halloween, everybody.
What brand of umbrella would be best to shield oneself against a full-grown witch dropping out of a tree? Share your recommendations in the comments below.