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Black Annis - Leicester Legend or Widespread Myths?

By Kate Westwood

Published Samhain 1998

There will be but a few readers who have not heard of the infamous Black Annis. For virtually every book that refers to Anu or Danu there is a mention of Annis and about half of these refer to Gentle Annis or Cailleach Bheur (or Bear e). Black Annis crops up not only in books on folklore, mythology or witchcraft, but also historical tomes - especially ones on Leicester.

The Tales

Annis has borne many names over the years - Black Anna, Black Anny, Black Agnes as well as Cat Anna. Her dwelling was a cave (called Black Anna's, or Black Annis's Bower) in the low-lying Dane Hills on the outskirts of Leicester. Annis is supposed to have clawed the cave out of the sandstone rock using naught but her long, and very sharp, nails. At its mouth grew a pollarded oak in which Black Annis crouched in order to pounce on unsuspecting children. These she carried off into her cave, sucked them dry of blood and ate their flesh before draping the flayed skins of her victims out to dry on the oak's branches. She wore a skirt sewn from the skins of her human prey. As she also preyed on animals, local shepherds blamed any lost sheep on her hunger. Many a generation of Leicester's young, if either naughty or out after dark, were told, 'watch out or Annis'll get you'.

By the late 19th century her cave was filling-up with earth. A housing estate, built just after the first world war, now covers the area. A 19th century eye-witness said the cave was 4-5 feet wide and 7-8 feet long and 'having a ledge of rock, for a seat, running along each side'. A tunnel was said to connect Black Annis's Bower with Leicester Castle and she had the free-run of its length (1).

An account of Annis was related by an evacuee to Ruth Tongue in 1941(2): Three children were sent out by their wicked step-mother to collect fire-wood. As night descended they feared to see Black Annis who only came out after dark for, it was said, 'daylight would turn her to stone'. They heard a snuffling and, through a hole in their witch-stone, saw Black Annis. Unable to escape her whilst carrying the faggots, they dropped them and ran. Annis bloodied her legs on the bundles and, mumbling and cursing to herself, went to her bower to rub her legs with salve. Then she came back for the children and caught-up with them at their cottage door. Their dad came out with an axe and hit Annis full in the face. She began to run for her cave shouting 'Blood! Blood!' but just then the Christmas bells began to peal and she fell down dead.(***)

The evacuee claimed Annis's howling could be heard as far as five miles away and, when Annis ground her teeth the sound was so loud that all the people had time to lock and bar their doors. The evacuee also said, because the people didn't have window-glass in those days, witch-herbs were tied above the apertures to stop Annis reaching inside with her very long arms and grabbing their babies. This was why Leicester cottages only had one small window. Annis was said to be very tall with a blue face and long white teeth(2). Other descriptions say Annis's teeth were yellow rather than white and that she only had one eye. All agree her face was hideous and blue(3).

A Leicestershire poet, John Heyrick Jnr.,(18th century) wrote of her:

'Vast talons, foul with human flesh, there grew In place of hands, and features livid blue Glar'd in her visage; while the obscene waist Warm skins of human victims close embraced.'(1)(1A excerpt)

In history

Although the origins of Annis story are - as is the nature of folk-lore - unknown, there were two fifteenth century women who it has been suggested might be the origins of Black Annis. It is likely that Annis's tale existed in the 15th century and the women's' lives became part of the folk-lore. The first is a Dominican nun, Agnes Scott, who lived as an anchorite and is described as a 'hermit of the forest'. She wore the long black habit of her order and died in 1455. Swithland's church bears a brass plaque in her memory as well as a three foot veiled statue of her. From a translation of the Latin inscription Agnes is surmised to have lived in a cave near the Dane Hills and from there ran a leper colony(1&4). Unfortunately the connection between her and Black Annis was made by Robert Graves, poet and writer. His insight may have been visionary - it may have been nothing more than poetic licence(6). Nevertheless, an interesting speculation.

The second woman is rather more tenuous in her association with Black Annis for she is the witch or wise-woman who foretold Richard III's death. As he rode over Leicester's Bow Bridge on his way to the Battle of Bosworth, his spur/foot struck a stone on the bridge. The wise-woman told how, on his return, it would be his head that hit that stone. When Richard's corpse was brought back over Bow bridge his head did indeed hit the same place (5). A tablet was put on the bridge (newly-built last century) saying "his head was dashed and broken as a wise-woman (forsooth) had foretold, who before Richard's going to battle being asked of his success said that where his spur struck his head would be broken" (7).

Hare-hunts and Melodramas

A more recent reference (1767!) to Black Annis' Bower is of a mock-hare hunt (a dead cat was actually used) which was re-enacted every Easter Monday (known as Black Monday (1)). The cat, soaked in aniseed, was dragged from the Bower, through Leicester's streets to the Mayor's door. In later years the hunt gave way to an annual event known as the Dane Hills Fair (10).

Finally, Annis also turned up in Victorian Melodramas, 'Black Anna's Bower, or The Maniac of the Dane Hills' a tale about the murder of the landlady of 'The Blue Boar' (the place Richard III spent the Battle of Bosworth eve). Annis was portrayed in the same manner as Macbeth's three witches(1). In 'The Broken Heart' she is a woman demented by the murders of her baby and spouse (1). In 1989 she appeared in Freda Warrington's recommended fantasy, 'The Rainbow Gate' which is based in Bradgate Parkland, former home of Lady Jane Grey.

The Gateway to Hel?

The remains of a standing stone called the Humber or Holsten stone is not far from the village of Humberstone. Also called Hell or Holy stone it was believed that fairies lived in it for people heard their groaning. Folk-lore claims there was a nunnery on this spot and from it to Leicester Abbey, ran an underground tunnel (1&4). The tunnel and the groaning bear a resemblance to Annis' story especially as it has been suggested that there was once a cave near the Hel-stone in which she was also suppose to dwell. This was called the Hell Hole (1). Whether any credence can be attached to this is doubtful - for one thing, Humberstone is on the other side of the city centre to the Dane Hills - and there has never been any suggestion that Annis had spread beyond the Dane Hills. However, the name hell may be from the same word root as 'holy' but it could also be derived from Hel, the Nordic denizen and occasional goddess of the Underworld.

Although Hel's name was taken by the Christians for their place of perpetual torture, her kingdom was one of ice and cold. Sired by Loki, the Trickster, on Angerboda, Hel was one of three children and it was Odin himself who gave her the Underworld kingdom Nifleim (mist world). Here she had power over the nine worlds for in each was a portion of Nifleim. Garm, a ferocious dog, sat at the entrance - reminiscent of Anubis. Hecate, another Underworld Goddess who was associated with cross-roads, had at her side Cerberus, the triple-headed dog who guarded the path to Hades.

Hel is portrayed either with a face which is half human and half blank or she is shown as a pied being - half black and half white (or even, blue). Annis, though not pied, is described as being blue-faced (dyed with woad? (12)) or of 'Terrible appearance'. Brigid of Ireland also has a face either pied, half youthful and half crone or half beautiful and half ugly. Though in these descriptions, blue is being used in a fearsome sense, it must be remembered that this colour is usually associated with protection and Madonnas and Sky goddesses are depicted with blue mantles.

Cailleachs

Gentle Annie (or Gentle Annis) is a Scottish legend whose name may be derived from Anu. This is quite likely for many Scottish myths share an origin with the Irish. References are wide-spread, coming from the Lowlands as well as the Highlands. She is said to have been a weather spirit watching over the gales on the Firth of Cromarty. As spasmodic squalls can blow up in moments, Gentle Annie has a reputation for treachery (2a&3). Presumably she was called 'Gentle' in the fearsomely polite way that we refer to Elven Folk as 'Fair' - in terror of offending them. She is associated with Cailleach Bheur (Ireland's Cailleach Beare) and is seen as the winter face of the goddess. The stories of the two are united in Mulearteach (moolyarstuch) who is the watery form of Cailleach Bheur. Whilst in the sea Mulearteach's form was scaly but on land she became a hag who raised winds and sea-storms (2A).

Cailleach Bheur had one eye in a visage of mackerel blue and her teeth were red. She was the queen of winter and, at winter's end, she drank from the Well of Youth. The waters transformed her into the Queen of Summer(14). Annis, though not associated with winter and summer as such was, according to the evacuee's tale, associated with night. Night in the Year's Wheel equates with winter - but whether there was a summer version of Annis Is now unknown.

As Brigit?

Cailleach Bheur kept the princess Bride captive (in a cave) forcing her to wash Bheur's mantle. Bride eventually escaped and married Angus who was the King of Summer. Here, Bheur was winter and Bride summer. Bheur, by keeping Bride captive actually keeps the spring from rising - reminiscent of Persephone, except that Persephone's lover is winter rather than summer. Demeter incidentally, (Persephone's mother), assumes the appearance of an aged crone in a great black cloak when Persephone is taken into the underworld.

Though the stories of the King of Summer do not equate Bride with Brigit of Ireland Brigit and Aengus, in Irish mythology, are the children of the Dagda, brother and sister rather than husband and wife. As already stated, In some legends Bheur is both winter and summer in different guises. The transformation is made by Bheur drinking from the 'Well of Youth' at the conclusion of both winter and summer. As Bride in some legends is summer, then this makes Bheur and Bride one and the same (14). Bheur, representing winter, yields to Bride, as summer, at Imbolc (St. Bride's Day), - thus making it pretty conclusive that Bride is also Brigit.

Brigit, Annis, Bheur and Hel all have the beautiful/hideous form. This recalls Lady Ragnall of 'The Marriage of Sir Gawain' a story much like Chaucer's 'The Wife of Bath's Tale', which are tales of sovereignty. It leads to another question, is Annis Sovereignty of Leicester? Is she a daughter of Lear who, though based on Welsh legend, was said to be buried in a cave near Leicester's River Soar?

Brigit, as well as Gentle Annie, is equated with being another form of Anu or Danu. If Black Annis is another form of Gentle Annie/Cailleach Bheur, then is she also Brigit? Perhaps Annis's lost face of summer was never lost at all - just hidden. Perhaps, in Leicester, Bride's still washing the Hag's mantle, still awaiting rescue by the King of Summer - whosoever he may be in Leicester folk-lore!

Bel - Summer King?

There is, however, a possible beau for Annis: Though not exactly a Summer King there is Leicester's Bel. Bel is believed to be derived from Baal - a name also given to the devil in Christianity - and it is supposedly for him that the Bel-taine fires are lit. He was believed to be a god of light or more precisely, his name could mean 'bright' or 'fortunate'. Whether Leicester's Bel had ought to do with Beltaine's Bel is a moot point - but it is good for speculation. Beltaine is the May festival. Annis as Hag and a Hel incarnation is most definitely of the winter. Here we have a possible connection between winter and summer via Annis as Samhain and Bel as Beltaine.

The story of Leicester's Bel is actually a naming-story for some of the local villages and is unlikely to be older than the Norman conquest (1) but he and Annis are at least food for thought for not all coincidences are random. Bel was a giant who boasted that he could reach Leicester in three large leaps. So, he mounted his sorrel mare at Mountsorrel and took one leap(#) to Wanlip. The next leap near killed his horse for the mare's heart and harness all burst at Birstall(#) and the last leap, which was too much for horse and rider, killed them. They were buried at Belgrave, a mile and half short of their destination. Belgrave was, before Bel's leap, known as Merdegrave which meant 'Grove in the Meadows'. As Belgrave is only just north-east of the Dane hills, he could have been coming for Annis as his summer queen. His death may have locked her into her winter form! (# good puns if said in a Leicester accent.)

Do not forget the legend of the Rollright Stones: if, in seven steps, an unnamed king could climb a mound and see Long Compton, the King of England he would be. He was thwarted by the very land herself when she rose-up to prevent him. He, as stone, is watched over by a witch in the form of an Eldern tree. Exactly why Bel boasted - or desired - to reach Leicester in three leaps is unrecorded by folk-lore. Could he too have been running for kingship - with Annis as queen? Or was Annis his Eldern witch who protected the land?

Cailleach tales

When, as a giantess, the Cailleach created the mountains, small stones fell from her apron. These formed the numerous islands around Scotland's shores. In Anglesey there is a monument called Barcladiad-y-Gawres (The Giantess's Apronfull) supposedly created by the giantess emptying her apron. Inside this neolithic mound are five decorated stones that are said to be similar to those at Newgrange (Bruig Na Boinne) (15) - which is the palace of Ireland's Aengus. Ireland's Cailleach Beare (called in Ulster, Cally Berry) is associated with the Beare peninsula which is on the border of Cork and Kerry. She too is credited with dumping lots of stones when her apron-string broke. During a stone-tossing fight with a neighbouring giant hag, one of the stones landed on Beare Island and it is still there today as a standing stone (16).

Wild Hunter or just a baby-eater?

As a Cailleach representing winter, Annis's eating of children and animals takes an interesting turn. She could just be the culler of the herd - a sort of female version of the Wild Hunt, taking the weakest (naughtiest, stupidest etc) so that the strongest will survive. It is suggested that human sacrifice was believed to be associated with Earth divinities (11). Annis's devouring of children could be a memory of human sacrifice. It could also be the reality of child mortality for not all children reached adulthood, a fact that was more true in the past. In some cultures the placenta was eaten as it contains vital nutrients, again, this could also be recalled in Annis's somewhat unsavoury culinary habits.

Cailleach Bheur was also the keeper of animals and is seen as their guardian spirit. She herds and milks deer and protects them against the hunter - presumably not just Herne! Other wild animals come under her protection too and though Annis is regarded as a huntress and eater of animals could this be a lost aspect of her? Both Cailleach and Annis could, like The Wild Hunt, be both protectors and cullers of the herd. An interesting notion, hag as Wild Hunter, a position normally given to the male in the form of Herne. Perhaps this just goes to show that all aspects are inter-changeable regardless of gender. As an aside it is worth noting that Odin as Woden was also attributed as being the Leader of the Wild Hunt - remember, he it was who gave Hel her kingdom.

Black Virgins supposedly granted eternal bliss to dead babies - and it is certainly true that Annis could well be a part of the Dark side of this aspect of the Goddess. Perhaps the sucking of bodies dry and leaving them on an oak is but another view of the belief that the dark/veiled side of the Goddess takes the soul of the dead down through the world tree - usually a yew - into the world of the ancestors. It could also be a version of hanging on the World's Tree in order to gain knowledge. Perhaps equating the World's Tree with purgatory for Hel's kingdom is reached by one of the three roots of Yggdrasil - and Northern mythology would have been well-known in ancient Leicester. As Christianity took hold, old tales may have became twisted. With the advent of Hel becoming hell ruled by the devil, the world of the ancestors and the lower world became part of a debased dominion. Perhaps this is true of Annis.

As Bean-Sidi?

Caves are entrances not only to the Underworld but also to the Celtic Land of Faery known as The Hollow Hills. These worlds are also the realms of our ancestors and of the dead. Perhaps Annis - before being debased into a wicked witch - was once a guardian of the Hollow Hills - and getting past her could win you the hidden knowledge of Faery. Indeed the gifts of civilisation supposedly came from the underworld (the entrance to which is often a hillside-cave) and the gods therein. The Indwellers - as well as the hills themselves - are, in Ireland, called The Sidhe. A particular group of female Sidhe are of interest as regards Annis and Cailleach Bheur.

Though bean-sidhe was originally just a woman of the faery, it has come to mean a wailing spirit who foretells death. In Scotland she was called Bean-nighe or Little Washer at the Ford. She it is who washes the blood-soaked garment of those about to die (2a). To meet her washing your linen was, to say the least, an ill-omen. It was in this form that the Irish Morrighan washed the clothes of Cu Chullain foretelling his immediate demise. Bean-sidhe are not a pretty sight.

Aniseed, cats and oak

Annis is referred to as being derived from Anu but, as Leicester was settled by Anglo-Saxons as well as by Danes, equating her name's origins with a Celtic Goddesses may not be true. Though her name may derive from Anu - it may also have derived from the Aniseed used on the dead cat - especially as the mock-hare hunt is just described as 'ancient' in the records. Which came first, Cat Annis or the cat and the aniseed (Anise)! Aniseed was believed to avert the evil eye (17) and, on one hand it is used to protect a magician from evil spirits whilst on the other it is used to call forth the friendly ones! (18) It is conceivable - just - that the aniseed was used to drive away the witch of the cave! Cats, of course, were often thought to be a transformed witch out on the prowl. And oaks - there is much folk-lore and legend connected with them. Apart from one being called Herne's Oak it was the oak that fuelled the perpetual fires burnt at Kildare (meaning Cell of Oak) by the women of Bride.

The Dane Hills

The name 'Dane Hills' may have been derived from Danu though Bob Trubshaw, in his notes to C.Bilson's 'Vestiges of Paganism in Leicestershire' (1) says "The name Dane Hills probably derives from the name of the landowner, Dannet". Exactly when 'Dannet' owned the land is uncertain but it may well have been in the 18th century. Another suggestion for the name is dunes( 1) for Annis's cave is of sandstone. As Leicester was within Danelaw the hills could have been named after the Danes - except Danes weren't known as 'Danes' until later in history - and when the hills obtained this name is unknown (**).

Some connections may be loose but the reader is invited to look closer at them - especially those of you in Leicester. Below are the main sources used in this article. Freya, Hel, Brigid and the lore of the Oak tree all yield fascinating insights into Annis, her cave, name and habitat. The full scope of these is much wider than an article can encompass so the rest is up to you!.

Sources

(**) To be precise, I couldn't find out! (***)Bells were believed to have the power to defeat evil spirits. Christina Hole 'Encyclopaedia of Superstitions' Helicon 1995
(1)C.J.Billson 'Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland' Llanerch Enterprises. Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed SA48 8PJ and 'Vestiges of Paganism in Leicestershire' Heart of Albion Press - see (4)
(1A)'First Flights' Leicestershire Record Office.
(2)Katharine Briggs: 'Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives'
(2a)Katherine Briggs 'A Dictionary Of Fairies' Penguin
(3)'Readers Digest of Mythology'
(4)Bob Trubshaw. 'Standing Stones and Mark Stones of Leicestershire and Rutland' Author and a well-known source on Leicestershire Earth Mysteries and Folk-lore: Heart of Albion Press, 2 Cross Hill Close, Wymeswold, Loughborough LE12 6UJ send S.A.E. for book list.
(5)Arthur Mee's 'Leicestershire and Rutland' Hodder & Stoughton 1937
(6)Brian J. Bailey: 'Portrait of Leicestershire'
(7)Susan Green 'Selected Legends of Leicestershire' Heart of Albion Press see [4)
(10)C.Hole:'Dictionary of Folk Customs' Paladin 1986
(11)J.A.MacCulloch 'The Religion of the Ancient Celts' Constable 1992
(12)Lewis Spence: 'Mysteries of Britain' Aquarian 1979 (13)David Bell: 'Leicestershire Ghosts and Legends' (14)D.A.Mackenzie: 'Scottish Wonder Tales from Myth and Legend' Dover 1997 and John Matthews:'Celtic Fairy Tales'
(15)M.Fitzgerald 'Ancient Monuments of Wales' Abercastle Publications
(16)Daragh Smyth: 'Guide to Irish Mythology' Irish Academic Press 1996
(17)A.Wynne Hatfield :'Pleasure of Herbs' Thorsons 1972
(18)S.Cunnigham: 'Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs' Llewellyn 1985 Hel: B.Branston 'Lost Gods of England' H.R.Ellis Davidson: 'Gods and Myths of Northern Europe' and Larousse's 'Encyclopaedia of Mythology'

Thanks also to R. Trubshaw, L. Fuller and J. Matthews who permitted me to pick their brains as well as cousin Sue who perused her local Leicester library on my behalf!