Black Annis is a cave-dwelling, old witch associated with storms and winter, from British (Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England) folklore with a blue face, wild hair, yellow fangs, iron claws and a taste for human flesh. She is mentioned in books on folklore, mythology and legends, witchcraft as well as historical books and records especially ones on Leicester.
BACKGROUND, HISTORY AND LORE
‘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
And features livid blue glared in her visage
Whilst her obscene waist,
warm skins of human victims close embraced.
– John Heyrick 1742 – 97
According to legend Black Annis lives in a cave in the Dane Hills in Leicestershire, in the East English Midlands, two miles west of the centre of Leicester city. The name for the ‘Dane Hills’ may have been derived from the name of the landholder ‘Dannet’ or the name may come from the fact that Leicester used to be part of ‘Danelaw’ and may have been named after the Danes. When the hills first became called the Dane Hills in unknown.
Currently the area is well built-up but in the past was an empty series of low sandstone hills. Her small cave is reportedly 10-12 feet across and is known by the locals as Black Annis Bower. Some tales tell that Black Annis carved out her cave in the Dane Hills with her iron claws and that an oak tree grew in front of the cave which she would hide behind to ambush lambs or children as they walked past.
According to lore daylight would turn her to stone and her favourite food choices are small human children and lambs, whom she came out at night to prey on. Local shepherds would blame Black Annis for any sheep they lost from their flocks. After catching her victims, scratching them to death, feasting on their flesh and drinking their blood she would skin them and ‘tan their hides to hang in trees as décor or wear them around her waist as a trophy belt’. Some lore tells that she would wear a skirt made from the sewn together skins of her victims.
The poet John Heyrick Junior wrote in the 18th century that Black Annis had:
“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”https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm (Kate Westwood, 1998)
There is also much folklore and legend connected with oak trees, it was reportedly oak which fuelled the ‘perpetual fires burnt at Kildar by the women of Bride’.
Tales of Black Annis lying in wait in the Dane Hills waiting to ‘snatch them away to her bower’ would be told to children to discourage them misbehaving and scare them away from any thoughts of running away from home. Locals would also hang protective herbs in their windows to protect children and babies from Black Annis. This is reportedly why some Leicester cottages only have one small window.
By the end of the 19th century also began to be known as ‘Cat Anna’ and was said to live under Leicester Castle in the cellars. There was reportedly an underground passage connecting the castle to the Dane Hills which Black Annis, or ‘Cat Anna’, used.
Another story describes Black Annis as an ogress with a ‘livid blue face’, most notable she is described as an ogress in a poem by ‘Lieutenant John Heyrick’.
“She had carved her cave out of the sandstone with her talons, and the blood of children and lambs stained the floor.”http://britishfolklore.com/black-annis-bower/ (Jennifer Bailey, 2018)
In 1767 a reference was made to ‘Black Annis’ Bower’ in the records of a ‘mock hare hunt’ in which a dead cat was apparently soaked in aniseed and dragged from the ‘Bower’ through the streets of Leicester to the door of the town’s mayor every Easter Monday. In later years this mock hunt evolved into the annual event known as the Dane Hills Fair.
By the late 19th century Black Annis’ cave was filling-up with earth and a housing estate was built over the area after the first world war. A 19th century eye-witness reportedly said that 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’.
The exact origins of Black Annis are unknown as is the case with most folklore and legends however there are reportedly records of two women from the fifthteenth century that may have been part of Black Annis’ origins or became a part of the lore.
The first woman was a Dominican nun named Agnes Scott who lived as an ‘anchorite’ or ‘anchoress’ (a religious recluse) and is described as a ‘hermit of the forest’. It’s possible she lived in a cave near Leicester ‘upon the west side of the town, at this day called Black Agnes Bower’. The legend of Black Annis being an ogress may possibly be a ‘distorted local memory of a real person’, possibly Agnes Scott. However, this connection, between Agnes Scott and Black Annis, was made by Robert Graves a poet and writer and may have been little more than poetic license or speculation.
“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”https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm (Kate Westwood, 1998)
The second woman is reportedly the wise-woman, or witch, who prophesied Richard The Third’s death who would trip on a stone on a bridge on his way to the Battle of Bosworth.
“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. 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’”https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm (Kate Westwood, 1998)
The witch Black Annis may be a type ‘supernatural hag’ common in British folklore as her blue face resembles the ‘Cailleach Bheur’ or the ‘Blue Hag’ of the Highlands. It is also suggested that ‘her devouring of children reflected cannibalistic rites once conducted by the ancient British’ however there is no evidence at all that such rites took place.
Black Annis would also appear in Victorian Melodramas such as ‘Black Anna’s Bower, or ‘The Maniac of the Dane Hills’ which is a tale about the murder of a landlady of ‘The Blue Boar’ inn, also reportedly the in where Richard The Third spent the night before The Battle of Bosworth. Here Black Annis is portrayed in a similar manner to the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and in ‘The Broken Heart’ she is represented as a woman ‘demented’ by the murders of her baby child and husband. In 1989 Black Annis appears in Freda Warrington’s fantasy ‘The Rainbow Gate’ which is reportedly based in Bradgate Parkland the former home of Lady Jane Grey.
It is possible that Black Annis’ name is derived from the name of the ancient Celtic water goddess ‘Danu’, or Anu the earth and fertility or the moon goddess Aine, all of whom ‘can be conflated depending on the story’. However Leicester was settled by the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes, who were not celts. It is possible that both Black Annis and Gentle Annie are derivatives myths of the ancient celtic water goddess.
Gentle Annie is from a Scottish legend, possible with a shared origin in Irish mythology, whose name might also be derived from Anu like Black Annis’. Gentle Annie is described as a weather spirit who watched over the ‘gales on the Firth of Cromarty and reportedly has a reputation for treachery. She may be called ‘gentle’ in a respectful way to not offend her as she is considered to be ‘fearful’.
“Gentle Annie makes a better first impression. Being mild-mannered and unremarkable of looks, she didn’t need to hide behind trees to get her nasty work done. She came from the Scottish lowlands and governs storms; there is apparently a gap in the hills near the Firth of Cromarty through which she called in gales. Her temperament seems to have been a capricious one; under her influence, a fine day could turn stormy without warning, threatening local fishermen.”https://beyondthedreamline.wordpress.com/2016/08/02/ladies-of-legend-black-annis-and-gentle-annie/ (Beyond the Dreamline, 2016)
Black Annis’ name also might be derived from the name of the ‘Aniseed’ which dead cats were soaked in for the old mock-hare hunt tradition. This may also be where the name ‘Cat Anna’ came from. Aniseed was believed by some to avery the ‘evil-eye’ and may also be used by a magician to protect against evil spirits or to summon forth spirits who are friendly. The cat used in the ancient mock-hare hunt may have been soaked in aniseed as cats were believed to sometimes be witches in disguise or the familiars of witches.
Another story which has a resemblance to Black Annis is that of the ‘Hell’ or ‘Holy Stone’, a standing stone (also known as the Humber or Holsten stone) near the village of Humberstone. It was believed that fairies lived under the standing stones and folklore tells that there used to be a nunnery on the same spot and that there was a tunnel running from the nunnery to Leicester Abbey. This story bears a resemblance to that of Black Annis’ and the tunnel from her cave to Leicester castle. It has also been suggested that there was once a cave called the ‘Hell Hole’ near the ‘Hell Stone’ in which Black Annis also dwelled. However, the village of Humberstone is on the other side of Leicester from the Dane Hills.
Although, the name for the standing stones ‘Hell’ or ‘Holy Stone’ may be derived from the name of a nordic goddess of the underworld ‘Hel’ who has been portrayed as having a blue or half black and half white face or even as having a face which is half human and half blank. Her kingdom is said in legend to be one ‘of ice and cold’ and she is said to have power over ‘the nine worlds’.
ng stones ‘Hell’ or ‘Holy Stone’ may be derived from the name of a nordic goddess of the underworld ‘Hel’ who has been portrayed as having a blue or half black and half white face or even as having a face which is half human and half blank. Her kingdom is said in legend to be one ‘of ice and cold’ and she is said to have power over ‘the nine worlds’.
By the 19th century Black Annis was more commonly known as ‘Black Anna’ but her legend remained strong and during the second world war a folk story told of how her teeth could be heard grinding for ‘miles around’.
One story said to have been told by an evacuee to Ruth Tongue in 1941, reportedly tells of three children who were sent out for firwood by their stepmother who took with them a ‘witch stone’ (also known as a ‘hag stone’ or ‘adder stone’) which helped them to see Black Annis coming. They reportedly heard her shuffling and were able to see her by peering through the hole in their witch stone. The story tells that when they say her they dropped their bundles of firewood and ran home, Black Annis stumbled over the dropped wood bloodying her legs and returned to her cave to tend to her wounds with a salve. After she went back out to chase down the children and managed to catch up with the children at the door to their house when she left her cave again. The father of the children met her at the door with an axe, some stories tell that he hit her in the face with the axe. Black Annis began to run away back to her cave screaming “Blood! Blood!” and died ‘at the first pealing of the Christmas bells’, falling down suddenly 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.”https://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm (Kate Westwood, 1998)
ALSO KNOWN AS
- Black Anna
- Black Anny
- Black Agnes
- Cat Anna