Who is Black Annis

There is a jumble of thoughts about his below, and I will throw more at the page as I find it.

I go with the idea of Black Annis being a shape-shifting time traveller myself.

It is thought that the earliest written reference to Black Annis was from the eighteenth century, from which a title deed referred to a parcel of land as “Black Anny’s Bower Close”.[3]

The pagan goddess of Britain is known from ancient texts as Anu or Dana, an obvious etymological root of Annis. And as for the Dane Hills, although it is likely they were named after the Dane’s who landed in Leicester many moons ago, it is also just as likely they were named after the goddess herself.

So Leicester’s Black Annis seems to be a memory of the ancient British mother goddess who, like the fabled King Leir, proved to be the ancient British Water God, was also chiefly worshipped here in Leicester, which seems to be the spiritual home to the pantheon of ancient British gods. Interestingly, in Nicholls, an account from 1606 says of the area:

     “There is in the Park a cave, digged out of the rock, where it is said King Leyer [Leir] did hide himself from his enemies – a cowardly part!”

A goddess in ancient times, was usually an expression for a physical event, object or earthly force. Ancient deities were always the personification of great forces and Heyrick leaves enough clues for us to theorise as to what Black Annis symbolises. Annis may well be Anu, but by being known as Black Annis, she must be an expression of dark and destructive forces – well this is what Heyrick’s poem suggests!

The only object that fits Heyrick’s description, in my opinion, is astronomical in origin. It would be seen around the globe and it is easy to understand why folklore and religion would arise from viewing such an amazing sight. It would explain the worldwide impact of the destructive mother goddess and the exoneration of an entity with such an unlikely appearance. To the unlearned eye, it would be breathtaking to view. It is of course a comet.

And how would the ancient people of Leicester describe seeing such a marvellous astronomical phenomenon? Probably very similar to Heyrick’s detailed description -blue in appearance (you may remember seeing Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997) with streams or talons of material coming off the fierce and wild cometary eye as the Sun thaws the icy body. Its size would be huge, obscene even, and if heading close to the Earth, the glare created as the Sun’s light reflects off what astronomers call a ‘dirty snowball,’ would be unbearable.

If Black Annis (the comet) was heading towards the Earth, mankind could have done nothing to stop her and as she caused vast amounts of death and destruction, they would have feared ‘the goddess’ who punished them. A cometary impact on Earth would create a dust cloud that would engulf the atmosphere of the Earth, and create darkness all around. Humanity could never stop such a phenomenon and only in time could the dust settle.

If this interpretation is correct, the poem infers that the icy body struck the Earth as Heyrick’s description shows what you would expect if such a thing was to happen, knowledge he couldn’t have known back in the 18thcentury. He was a military man and part-time scholar, not a scientist after all. Mankind would have been completely helpless as the effects of Annis would have blocked out the light and turned the Earth black.

To the ancient British, the mother goddess Anu would be to blame for the darkness, which was created. I believe this gave birth to the myth of Black Annis and has since lived on in her town of chief worship – Leicester – as a folkloric tale ever since. Thomas Charles Lethbridge made this connection and went on to claim that Annis was the personification of the Great Goddess in crone form, leading to interest from Wiccan groups.[7] It is likely that the bower was once the cave womb where she was worshipped

Her legend resembles the Black Lady of Bradley Woods.

Germanic mythology (see Hel).[4]

The mother-goddess of ancient Europe, which was thought of as a devourer of children.[3]

The Indic Kali, Black Kali is a goddess with a long and complex history in the religion of Hinduism. Her earliest history states that she was a creature of annihilation, a symbol of destruction. She was and remains the ancient mother-goddess to the Hindu religion. Like Annis, Kali’s skin colour was deep blue; she devoured humans, wearing a garland of fifty heads around her neck. She also had an unusual number of eyes – three, compared to Annis’ one. But Heyrick doesn’t give a number; he states that ‘mortal man recoiled to view her eye’ – her third eye perhaps? Heyrick also mentions that Annis had an obscene waist and that “warm skins of human victims close embraced.” Images of Kali portray her wearing a skirt made of human arms.

Black Kali is just one of a huge number of ancient mother goddesses found in every ancient culture around the world (there is also Black Ceres or Demeter of Greece), all of which are associated with disaster and destruction. But I am not the first person to associate Annis with Kali. 19thcentury local writer John Dudley made the link in the mid-nineteenth century in his book Naology.


the Greek Demeter,

the Mesopotamian Labartu,

the Egyptian IsisHathor


It has been suggested that the legend may derive from a popular memory of sacrifice to an ancient goddess.[6]


Some think she may be a local version of Brighid or Brigantia, or the dark mother goddess who took the souls of human children into her care. The Dane Hills [possibly from Danu] may have been the centre of her cult. If Black Annnis was a winter hag, she would have had a summer form as a lovely maiden which is lost to us.

However, her husband may have been Leicester’s Bel [‘Bright’], for whom the bel fires are lit at Beltane [May Day]. Bel was a giant who boasted that he could reach Leicester in three large leaps. He mounted his sorrel mare at Mountsorrel and took one leap to Wanlip. The next leap burst the mare’s heart and harness at Birstall and the last leap, which was too much for horse and rider, killed them. They were buried at Belgrave, just north-east of the Dane hills.

Black Annis is the crone goddess who brings the winter; the dark lady holds the souls of the dead in her embrace. However, the wheel turns, and in the spring she transforms into the bright maiden, and her underworld tomb becomes the womb of rebirth. The hag goddess presides over the winding down of the year, dissolution, decay and conclusion.

It is thought that offerings of children may have been made to the goddess that inspired the legend in the archaeological Hunting Period, the oak tree at the cave’s entrance also a common site of local meetings.[3]

Annis was also represented in cat form.

A hundred years before Heyrick wrote his famous poem, the Leicester town records talk of an ancient paganistic ritual held annually at the site of Black Annis’ bower on Easter Monday, often attended by the ‘Mayor and his brethren.’ The historian Throsby states:

     “Since this election an innocent holiday has been gradually dwindled into disuse. It had long before been customary, on Easter Monday, for the mayor and his brethren, in their scarlet gowns, attended by their proper officers in form, to go to a certain close, called Black Annis’ Bower Close, parcel of, or bordering upon, Leicester Forest, to see the diversion of hunting, or rather, the trailing of a cat before a pack of hounds; a custom, perhaps, originating out of a claim to the royalty of the Forest. Hither, on a fair-day, resorting the young and old, and those of all denominations. In the greatest harmony the Spring was welcomed. The morning was spent in various amusements and athletic exercises, till a dead cat, about noon, was prepared by aniseed water, for commencing the mock hunting of the hare. In about half an hour after the cat had been trailed from the tail of a horse over the grounds, in zigzag directions, the hounds were directed to the spot where the cat had been trailed from. Here the hounds gave tongue, in glorious concert. The people from the various eminences, who had placed themselves to behold the sight, with shouts of rapture, gave applause; the horsemen, dashing after the hounds through foul passages and over fences, were emulous for taking the lead of their fellows. It was a scene, upon the whole, of joy; the governing and the governed, in the habits of freedom, enjoying together an innocent and recreating amusement, serving to unite them in bonds of mutual friendship, rather than to embitter their days with discord and disunion. As the cat had been trailed to the mayor’s door, through some of the principle streets, consequently the dogs and horsemen followed. After the hunt was over, the mayor gave a handsome treat to his friends. In this manner the day ended.”
1767: a mock-hare hunt (a dead cat was actually used) which was re-enacted every Easter Monday (known as Black Monday ) In later years the hunt gave way to an annual event known as the Dane Hills Fair (10).

Or the legend led to a local ritual in early spring, when a dead cat would be dragged before a pack of hounds in front of her bower, to celebrate the end of winter.[5]

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 cat, trailing from the back of a horse may also be an expression of a travelling comet, being chased away by the townsfolk? Maybe I’m clutching at straws, but it is just an interpretation! The ritual happened at the start of Spring, so it was ushering in the better weather. Easter Monday is also the day of another pagan festival in Leicester – the Hallaton Bottle Kicking. Easter is a holiday named after the pagan goddess Eostre, whose symbol is a hare. The pagan festival was about the sun overcoming the powers of darkness. If my idea that a cometary impact brought a harsh winter to the Earth, celebrating the sun’s return would have been commonplace across the world, and this could have led to the well-documented Easter rituals in pagan Britain.

Agnes Scott, a late medieval anchoress (or by some accounts a Dominican nun, born in Little Antrum, who lived a life of prayer in the cave in the Dane Hills, and was buried in the church yard in Swithland.[7][8] Hutton suggests that the memory of Scott was distorted into the image of Black Annis, either to frighten local children, or due to the anti-anchorite sentiment that arose from the Protestant Reformation.[7] In Victorian times, the story of Agnes Scott, or Annis, became confused with the similarly named goddess Anu.

Agnes Scott lived as an anchorite and is described as a ‘hermit of the forest’. She wore the long black habit of her order.  Agnes (full name Agnes Scott) was a real historical figure. She died in 1455 and was buried at Swithland church. A memorial brass as well as a three foot veiled statue of her still remains at the church, engraved with Latin words which translate as follows:

Enclosed in this tomb lies Agnes Scott, called the devout mother of Lady Ferrers.Whoever thou shall pass by pour out prayers, I beg. I am what thou shalt be. I used to be what thou art. Pray for me, I pray.

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. 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.

Agnes was certainly an important figure due to the association with Lady Ferrers, but a connection with Leicester’s Black Annis is truly impossible. For one, Agnes Scott has no known association with a cave, or the Dane Hills region of Leicester. Agnes is not described in a grotesque manner and the fact that her body was entombed and commemorated with a brass plaque in a Christian house of worship, seems to show how popular she must have been, but following her death in 1455, her legend took a sinister turn to deter children from misbehaving.

Black Annis 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 [1585], his spur/foot struck a stone  pillar on the bridge. The wise-woman/hag told how, on his return, it would be his head that hit that stone.

After losing the battle, his naked body was thrown across the saddle of a horse and his head, hanging down as low as the stirrups, hit that very stone.[1] A tablet was put on the re-rebuilt bridge in the nineteenth century saying “his head was dashed and broken as a wise-woman 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”.

Annis was portrayed in the same manner as Macbeth’s three witches(1).

Black Annis may be connected with the other crone-like Annies and Annises found throughout Britain, such as the Scottish Gentle Annie (or Gentle Annis). Many hags are described as ‘blue faced’ such as Scotland’s Cailleach Bheur. These hags were once winter goddesses, their faces blue with cold, who brought in the time of cold, dissolution and death.

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. 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. 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.

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. 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!

Her legend resembles the Black Lady of Bradley Woods.

See also: White Dragon: http://whitedragon.org.uk/articles/blackann.htm

This was Leicestershire: http://www.thiswasleicestershire.co.uk/2012/09/the-tale-of-black-annis.html

Mercian Gathering: http://www.merciangathering.com/black_annis.htm