Storytellers from the Wood Sisters in Totnes will be performing versions of the “loathly lady” myth at Bridport Arts Centre’s Story Café on 24 July, 7:30pm.
Lisa Schneidau, Ronnie Conboy, Sue Charman and musician Laura Salmon have spent many years working with myth and music in the belief that stories can change our lives.
The Hag of the Land story cycle they are bringing to Bridport is based on the ancient folktale of a hideous old woman at the well, whom the king is forced to kiss in order to make the land fertile again. In this version, the tale is told three times: as the Dark Age Arthurian myth of Gawain and the Loathly Damsel, as the Old Irish version Diarmuid and the Crone, which the Wood Sisters have updated to give a more modern take on what happens in fairytales after the “living happily ever after” phase has worn off, and finally as a new fable about an old woman living on the edge of a rubbish heap. In this last version, the woman spends all her time trying to tidy up the mess, but never succeeding. She gives up cleaning and instead uses the trash to build a beautiful landscape and her creativity tempts nature back.
“We’re telling the same story over in ways that bring out different subtleties,” explains Sue Charman.
“It’s all about the journey of the idea of a ‘hag’, which has an ancient root meaning of ‘holy one’, through to the more recent meaning of ‘horrid old crone”.
Intrigued by this idea, The Yarn looked up the etymology of “hag” but couldn’t find any root meanings that indicate a link to “holy one”. It’s been used pretty relentlessly to mean “hideous old bag” right back into its origins in Old English and Old Teutonic. Intriguingly, it does have some secondary meanings of a parcel of land; specifically a field hacked out of woodland, or a piece of woodland or a hedge, which links back very neatly indeed to the Hag of the Land theme and the name of the Wood Sisters themselves.
(If any readers have any other information on the word, please let us know.)
Sue has performed in Bridport several times before. In 2008 she joined the Westcountry School of Myth before co-founding the Wood Sisters. The Wood Sisters describe themselves as: “a modern Mystery school for women, which meets for regular one day gatherings and morning meetings in rural Devon, based on the Celtic Cycle of the Eightfold Year.”
The Sisters say the inspiration for their name came from a German fairy story called The Handless Maiden. The heroine journeys through many changes and challenges and includes a period spent in the wild wood, where she is helped by angels or wise ones, sometimes described as Wood Sisters.