Black Annis is a legendary figure in English folklore and myths who was said to live in a cave in the Dane Hills near Leicester. She was known for her blue face, iron claws, and a habit of killing and eating children. According to legend, Black Annis would lure children into her cave with the promise of sweets and then kill and eat them. The legend of Black Annis dates back many centuries and was a popular tale used to scare children to teach behave well. While there is no evidence to support the existence of a real person known as Black Annis, the legend has lived on as a part of English folklore and continues to be told to this day.
How Does Black Annis Look Like?
Black Annis is described as a horrifying witch-like figure with elongated and pointed facial features, including sharp claws for capturing her prey. She has menacing eyes, jet-black hair resembling straw, and pale blue skin due to her prolonged time spent in a cave. Some accounts state that she only has one eye left and has discolored, razor-sharp teeth that are visible when she grins maliciously. Overall, Black Annis is not a creature one would want to encounter on a dark and cold evening in Leicestershire.
Black Annis Myths – Parents’ Favorite Tale
According to legend, Black Annis was a fearsome creature who roamed at night in search of children and lambs to consume. She was said to have tanned the skins of her victims by hanging them on a tree and then wearing them around her waist. The legend also states that she had the ability to reach inside homes to snatch people, and that she used her iron claws to carve out a cave for herself in a sandstone cliff, which became known as Black Annis’ Bower Close. This legend was often used by parents to scare their children into good behavior, as they warned that Black Annis would come for them if they misbehaved. The legend also claimed that she would hide in the branches of an oak tree and ambush her prey.
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According to some legends, when Black Annis grinded her teeth, the sound could be heard by people, giving them time to secure their doors and stay away from windows.
It was said that cottages in Leicestershire were designed with small windows to prevent Black Annis from reaching inside with both arms. Her howls were reportedly so loud that they could be heard from as far as 5 miles away, causing the villagers to take measures to protect themselves by covering their windows with animal skins and placing protective herbs above them.
Origin & Theories Of Black Annis Folklore
The first written reference to Black Annis can be traced back to an 18th-century title deed which referred to a piece of land as “Black Anny’s Bower Close”. This information was documented in the first volume of “County Folklore” published by The Folklore Society in 1895, which cited two title deeds from May 13th and 14th, 1764.
Note: The Folklore Society is a UK-based organization dedicated to the study of folklore. It was established in London in 1878 with the goal of investigating traditional aspects of vernacular culture, such as music, song, dance, drama, stories, arts and crafts, customs, and beliefs. The creation of the society was inspired by a proposal made by Eliza Gutch in the publication “Notes and Queries”.
The origins of the Black Annis legend are uncertain and have been attributed to various sources. Some scholars, such as T. C. Lethbridge, believe that the figure may have originated from Celtic mythology based on the goddess Danu (or Anu). Others argue that the legend may have Germanic roots and be related to the figure of Hel. Donald Alexander Mackenzie, in his 1917 book “Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe,” suggested that the legend may have originated from the ancient European mother goddess who was believed to devour children. He compared Black Annis to other similar goddesses such as Kali in Hinduism, Muilearteach in Gaelic mythology, Cailleach Bheare, Demeter in Greek mythology, Labartu in Mesopotamian mythology, and the Egyptian goddesses Isis-Hathor and Neith.
Some experts believe that the legend may have evolved from a popular memory of sacrifices made to a prehistoric goddess during the Hunting Period, with the oak tree at the entrance of the cave where the goddess was worshiped serving as a common gathering place for the local community.
According to Ronald Hutton’s book “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,” he contradicts the theory that the Black Annis of Leicestershire legend is related to paganism. Instead, Hutton believes that the legend originated from a real guy named Agnes Scott who lived as an anchoress or a nun caring for lepers.
She lived a pious life in a cave in the Dane Hills and was eventually buried in Swithland churchyard. Hutton believes that the memory of Scott was distorted into the frightening personality of Black Annis either to scare children or due to the anti-anchorite sentiment during the Protestant Reformation.
In the Victorian era, the story of Agnes Scott was mistakenly connected with the goddess Anu, and this led to interest from Wiccan groups, with T.C. Lethbridge claimed that Annis represented the Great Goddess in her crone form.
Before Hutton, the relation between Black Annis and Agnes Scott, including her gravesite and the cave she lived in, was established in an issue of the Leicester Chronicle from February 26th, 1842. This information was later reprinted in the first volume of “County Folklore” in 1895.
Traditions Associated With Black Annis
The legend of Black Annis also depicted her as a monstrous cat, and this led to a springtime ritual in which a dead cat would be pulled by hounds in front of her dwelling to mark the end of winter. According to Katharine Briggs, this “drag hunt” took place on Easter Monday, also known as Black Monday, and started at Annis’ Bower and ended at the mayor of Leicester’s house. The cat used as the bait was coated in aniseed. However, this tradition ceased to exist by the late 18th century.
According to another tradition, Black Annis, in the form of Cat Anna, was believed to reside in the cellars under Leicester Castle and had an underground passage that connected the cellars to the Dane Hills, where she would run.
In 1837, a play titled “Black Anna’s Bower, or the Maniac of the Dane Hills” was staged at the Leicester Theatre. The play revolved around the murder of a Blue Boar Inn landlady and featured Black Anna in a role similar to that of the witches in Macbeth.
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Scraptoft Witches Cave – One Of The Black Annis Favorite Places
There are several places that have been linked to being the home of Black Annis. Scraptoft Witches Cave is one of the most widely considered homes of Black Annis, which some people believe she still inhabits today.
This cave is situated in a forest on the outskirts of Scraptoft, a small village located about 5 miles to the east of the city center of Leicester and has a population of approximately 2,000 residents.
The Village Of Humberstone And Black Annis
The Humber or Holsten stone, a standing stone that is close to the village of Humberstone, was said to be inhabited by fairies who were heard to groan. Folklore suggests that there was a nunnery on the site, and an underground tunnel ran from there to Leicester Abbey. This tunnel and the groaning resemble the story of Black Annis, who was believed to dwell in a nearby cave called Hell Hole. However, there is little evidence to support this connection, as Humberstone is on the opposite side of the city center from the Dane Hills where Black Annis was said to reside. The name “hell” may come from the same word root as “holy” or from the Nordic goddess of the Underworld, Hel. Hel was associated with ice and cold and was depicted as half human and half blank or half black and half white or blue. Black Annis was described as having a blue face or a terrible appearance, and is not shown as pied like Hel. The color blue is often associated with protection, but in this case it is being used in a fearsome sense.
- ‘First Flights’ Leicestershire Record Office.
- Katharine Briggs: ‘Dictionary of British Folktales and Legends: Narratives’
- Daragh Smyth: ‘Guide to Irish Mythology’ Irish Academic Press 1996
- Brian J. Bailey: ‘Portrait of Leicestershire’