Embracing The Hag: Feminist Implications Of Proto-Pagan Ritual

Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Mythologies across the world have stories from before the regular pantheon. Before the Norse gods there were frost giants, and before Zeus there was Cronos and the Titans.

The Winter Hag, or Cailleach, is an ancient deity, a goddess of winter and the land who predates even the earliest Celtic pantheon of spirits. My aunt Valeria—an expert on mythology through her own religious practices—once told me a folktale all about how no one could recall the Winter Hag’s age.

The story goes: One day, a parish priest visited Cailleach’s house to asks how old she was. The woman replied that she couldn’t quite remember, but every year on her birthday she would kill a cow and throw the thigh bone in her attic. So if he wanted to, he could go up to the attic and count the bones. In the end the priest sent his assistant to go, and the last anyone heard, the young priest is still counting.

It’s a joke, but it accurately represents the proto-age of the mythos. A dark, scary earth mother from a cold, ancient time where the harsh northern winters of Ireland and Scotland could easily kill. She sleeps throughout the summer and returns in late fall to bring winter across the land.

My aunt has been interested in the legends of the Winter Hag for years. Fittingly, we sat down by the fireplace on a winter night with a glass of wine and talked a lot about the evolution of religion, and how deities are shaped to fit the lands they’re brought to through diaspora and travel. The Winter Hag comes from Ireland and Scotland and was such an integral part of the land there, but being adopted by practitioners across the world shapes the mythology, in much the same way that European and American Christian practices can be so different.

The Winter Hag’s mythology predates the maiden/mother/crone archetypes defining so many women in folklore. These proto-deity earth mothers are found throughout mythologies and come from a time when land was central to existence. The Hag is her own woman, having many lives, faces, and facets representing the whole of her experiences on earth. She’s the grandmother, the spinner, and the weaver, similar to the Fates in other mythologies.

Her appearance is described in the tale of Beira, Queen of Winter as that of a very old, wrinkled woman with a blue face and one eye. In Norse mythology, as recounted in James Weigel’s Mythology, the god Odin shares this feature, having traded his other eye for wisdom.

According to the Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, the name Cailleach means “old woman” in Modern Gaelic, but comes from an older word for “veiled one.” But rather than veiled out of modesty, like the Catholic nuns who came to populate the insular world once Christianity spread across pagan lands, the Winter Hag covers herself in a veil of mystery. She isn’t about hiding her appearance, and neither is it the practice of those who worship her. Valeria described how some contemporary rituals involve looking deep into a mirror to really look at yourself and see the strength of all the qualities you’ve acquired in your life. Seeing Cailleach in yourself means seeing – and accepting – yourself for who you really are.

The stories of the Hag are helpful guidelines when looking at aging, mortality, and change. Old age and ugliness can be seen as terrible things, especially for women in contemporary society. “There’s a lot of this identity where your value as a human being is about being sexually attractive to men,” Valeria mentioned. She feels that, as women grow older, they grow more invisible, but also that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can help take focus off of physical appearance, one of many, many aspects of womanhood. “And you get less focus from creepy men,” she laughs, but it is very true.

A lot of the “fear” of the elderly comes from a fear of death. But, as in the case of the Winter Hag, age can indicate how long you’ve survived just as much as it indicates how close to death you are. It’s good for old and young people to share each other’s strength, and it benefits folklore, stories, and wisdom. I experienced this firsthand while I talked to Valeria; I learned about mythology, but I also gained a better perspective on the relationships between youth and age.

The story of the Winter Hag is all about teaching each other from experiences and accepting aging and changing. This folklore came to Valeria at a point in her life when she was accepting change and becoming an elder within her community; it really made her think about the passage of time – in stories and community – and everyone’s place within it. She’s going to be a grandmother soon, which puts it all into a concrete perspective. It’s similar to the sense in which you’re a different person now than you were in high school, but you’re also still the same person. You are aging and growing, both spiritually and physically.

Winter is resisted the same way aging is. But if it was always summer, and we were always young, the natural balance would be upset. “Part of embracing the hag is accepting the seasons and appreciating what winter offers us,” Valeria reminds me. I offer up the idea that winter functions as a “palate cleanser” for all the emotional strife that summer always brings me; something to wipe away all the drama and leave you ready to start over again. Valeria agrees, “If it was always summer it would be out of balance.” The unchanging can only offer so much.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege


The Old Gods and the New: Religion in Westeros and Beyond

Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Just as George R. R. Martin draws inspiration from real-world history and politics to add depth to his world in A Song of Ice and Fire (or, as HBO would prefer, Game of Thrones), so too does he look to real-world religions.

Religion, a central aspect of medieval culture, is also an important theme throughout A Song of Ice and Fire: it pushes the story along, develops characters, and fleshes out an immensely complex world. Many different faiths are depicted and are all shown to have their own power, whether it be politically, in the strength of their followers, or magically.

Drawing from the books and the show, here are three of the major religions in the series, the roles they play within the story, and their real-life historical and contemporary counterparts.

1. The Drowned God 

We Do Not Sow

The Drowned God is worshipped on the Iron Islands, one of the only parts of Westeros to resist the conquest of the Faith of the Seven. The Ironborn culture is one of reaving and taking; they are conquerors. Their god reflects their maritime lifestyle, and his priests are called Drowned Men. The Drowned God is in constant conflict with another deity, the Storm God:

“From the sea had come the ironborn, and the fish that sustained them even in the depths of winter, but storms brought only woe and grief.”

The Drowned God’s watery halls

In Norse mythology, one of the gods of the sea was Aegir. His wife, Rán, was a goddess of death who used a net to bring the drowned to feast and drink mead in her and Aegir’s great hall below the waves – an underwater Valhalla. Much of the Ironborn culture reflects that of the Vikings, and similarly the Drowned God welcomes drowned men into his halls. When Balon Greyjoy, former king of the Iron Islands, is pushed from a bridge and dies, it’s said that “he feasts now in the Drowned God’s watery halls.”

Bless him with salt, bless him with stone, bless him with steel

When Theon Greyjoy first returns to the Iron Islands in A Clash of Kings, he meets his uncle Aeron, a priest, who baptises him with the salt water Drowned Men carry as holy water, blessing him and bringing him back into the culture and faith he was taken from as a child.

Being baptized to the Drowned God is violent. “Fill your lungs with water, that you may die and be reborn. It does no good to fight,” says Aeron during a baptism in A Feast For Crows. As children, Ironborn are sometimes baptized gently, with a dab of water similar to Christian baptisms, but Aeron and other devotees look down on these. In both practices, baptism and holy water are key rituals for integrating people into the religion.

2. The Faith of the Seven

The dominant religion in Westeros, the Faith, is common everywhere except in the Iron Islands and the North. In structure and its role in society, it is similar to the Catholic Church of medieval Europe, holding a powerful place politically and socially. At the head of the Faith is the High Septon, who serves like a pope. Female members of the clergy are called Septas and usually serve as governesses to noble families; the Stark girls were taught by Septa Mordane.

Seven Faces

The Seven are seven facets of one god: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Smith, the Maiden, the Crone, and the Stranger. These seven faces are similar to the Christian Holy Trinity, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, though the seven have more distinct roles. A follower of the Faith may pray to the Crone for wisdom or the Warrior for military victory.

The High Sparrow

The rising tension between church and state becomes a major conflict as the series progresses and is at the heart of the King’s Landing story in season six. The High Sparrow and his Faith Militant act as an inquisition, intent on bringing faith-imposed justice for a myriad of political and religious reasons in the same way the medieval inquisitions started by the Catholic church fought against heresy with violence and torture.

3. The Lord of Light

R’hllor, the Lord of Light, is a strange, foreign deity who isn’t well-understood in Westeros, but is widespread in Essos. The basis of the religion is the conflict between R’hllor and The Great Other, who brings darkness and death. The mythology of this faith is also a metaphor for the central conflict of the series: the fight between fire and ice, dragons and White Walkers, life and death. Red Priests and Priestesses work with fire as a divination method, using the flames to see what the Lord has to show them and its cleansing power to sacrifice non-believers.

The Night is Dark, and Full of Terrors

Melisandre, a priestess who is the main voice of R’hllor in the series, uses potions and tricks for show, but is very capable of real magic – surviving deadly poison, casting glamour charms to make one man look like another, and, in the show, bringing back the dead. Similarly, Thoros of Myr continually brings Beric Dondarrion back to life, and, in the books, does the same with Catelyn Stark after her murder at the Red Wedding.

Fire, light, and rebirth are key motifs throughout this religion’s folklore and the central theme of light against dark is universal in the real world as much as it is in Martin’s fiction. Dualities, such as God and Satan, enlightenment and suffering, fire and ice, life and death, are integral to mythology.


In the New Testament, Jesus rises from the dead and will come again to the world. In Essos legends, Azor Ahai is a legendary hero who sacrificed his wife with his sword, Lightbringer, in order to bring light to the world when all was dark. The world starts out dark in the Old Testament too, before God creates light. Azor, as God, as Prometheus, will be born again to fight off the terrible dark of the long winter looming over Westeros.

Melisandre believes Stannis to be Azor Ahai reborn. Some claim it is Daenerys Targaryen after she rose unharmed from a pyre with three dragons. But if season six is anything to go by, it may end up being Jon Snow who is Azor Ahai, reborn to lead the fight against the White Walkers before a rapture of night and ice overtakes the world.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

What We Gain: Children’s Literature and the Self

What We Gain.png
Illustration by Victoria Liao

Allan Stratton is a University of Toronto alumnus, playwright, actor, novelist, and a really nice guy. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him twice.

The first time, he was giving a talk at my former high school’s library and a friend I’d been visiting there convinced me to go. He read an excerpt from The Phoenix Lottery (“I wish you were alive and everybody else was dead. I do. I really, really do” reads the teenage diary of Lydia, directed at her cat) and I introduced myself afterwards. We talked about writing, Victoria College, and his characters, and I got a copy of his book which I enjoyed later that summer.

I met him again more recently at Harbourfront Centre. The Forest of Reading, a children’s literary festival where Stratton was nominated for (and won) the Red Maple Award, had taken over for the week, and my job was to ferry authors, excited students, and stressed teachers to the right events. On our way to his Q&A I reintroduced myself and we talked as long as the walk down the hallway would let us.

He was talking about his latest book, The Dogs. It follows a young boy named Cameron and his mother as they run from his abusive father and look for another new start in a small town, where they move into a farmhouse haunted by the ghostly dogs of a previous owner. It was clear that kids loved it, so I read it the next week and enjoyed it as much as an adult reading a book written for twelve year olds can – a decent amount. It was an exciting story and while the supernatural was my favourite part, it contained enough of the real world to be scary on its own.

Good children’s literature offers more to adult readers than just an entertaining story. Thank goodness, for the sake of anyone who has to read to kids regularly. And lots of this literature is also speculative: the most popular YA books out there involve magic and the supernatural, to say nothing of the talking animals and fairy tales that dominate picture books. Lots of classic speculative fiction novels, like Alice in Wonderland or The Chronicles of Narnia, are also definitive works of children’s literature – and they’re praised and enjoyed by all ages.

As we grow up and interact with stories differently, we gain and we lose. We gain the inside jokes and the Easter eggs that are intended to be entertaining only to adults. We gain the grittiness of folk tales and the integral darkness of our culture. At the very least, we gain a better understanding of the plot.

But we lose perspective, and the unique ways children deal with problems. Sometimes an obvious solution, to an adult, requires much more creative problem-solving from a child. I’m sure I can come up with an example of a basic story plot that I didn’t understand as a kid and for which I had to create my own complicated solution.

The kids at Stratton’s Q&A were really interested in the reality of the book – a major theme that leaves a lot up to the reader. Questions about whether the ghost was real or imagined, the truth about a character’s ambiguous death, and even what Cameron looked like, were passionately called out from the audience for most of the session. Even in a speculative world, the search for the concrete lives on.

The Dogs definitely does horror well, and the creepiness is probably why the students who voted for it enjoyed it so much. Cameron thinks he sees faces out of his bedroom window. There are disturbing drawings left behind by a long-dead child, and scratch marks in a dark basement. At one point he fears that the attic of his house has bodies in it.

It’s creepy, but it poses more than enough questions to overcome the fear and read on for the answers, as Cameron himself does in the story. And while he’s busy dodging bullies and spirits, his mom grapples with her own fears of Cameron’s abusive father finding them. She’s more afraid of him than Cameron ever is of the violent dogs and uncovered bones.

Revisiting anything can be emotional, but as kids our identities are complex as they change and take shape. Earlier this year I re-read some of the Narnia books and rediscovered so many things I’d forgotten, and how they shaped me. What still rang true about these books I’d loved so much? I’ve always loved the world-building offered by The Magician’s Nephew. As an adult I was more drawn to the humorous misery of Edmund, but when I was younger, Susan had been my clear favourite.

Ask anyone why stories are important and they’ll tell you it’s because they open us to new perspectives. But children’s literature does this in a unique way by giving us back our old perspectives: it’s the the familiar hidden in the alien. Even if we are not a story’s target audience we can still learn about who we are, and who we were.

-Contributed by Risa Ian De Rege

The Bureaucracy of the Supernatural: A Review of Neil Smith’s “Boo”

Boo Neil Smith
image source: news.nationalpost.com

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

“The facts of America do not apply here. The fact is that an unplugged lamp should not turn on… the fact is that people should not vanish into thin air when they die.” 

I came across Boo, by Neil Smith, through an interview with the author on CBC radio. It sounded worth reading, but I couldn’t remember the title or author, so I went to Chapters and sleuthed around until I found it in a “New Can-Lit” display.

Boo is about Oliver Dalrymple (nicknamed “Boo” for his pale appearance), a young boy who wakes up in heaven.

The story is narrated by Boo in the form of an extended letter to his loving mother and father. He hopes that, if he can ever get it to them, it will ease their pain. Throughout the narrative of his death, we learn more of his life – severely bullied and obsessed with science, Boo was a weird-looking loner frequently stuffed into his periodic table-decorated locker. He’s a bit of a smartass, though unintentionally, and has a weird sense of humour that comes across in his narration.

I was particularly drawn to Boo’s narrative style. There is something subtle about the formality of his tone, and the character himself, that reminds me strongly of one of my close friends. Though he’s hardly a typical teenage boy – being dead and all – Boo seems familiar and amiable in a way. We want to be nice to Boo. We also might want to make fun of him, just a little bit.

What I like best about the novel are the intricacies of the setting and the characters’ nonchalant attitudes towards them. It is the “bureaucracy of the supernatural” – where something mysterious and otherworldly turns out to be run in a similarly mundane fashion as our own world. There’s no escape.

As he explains to his parents, Boo’s heaven is a place called Town, surrounded by walls and entirely populated and run by thirteen-year-olds. The afterlife is subdivided by age and country, so Boo is surrounded by everyone else who died in America at the age of thirteen. Once someone dies and comes to Town they stay there for about fifty years, so that they get a chance to live out a full lifetime. With its city council of thirteen-year-olds and rummage-sale furniture, Town reminds me of being homeschooled (I started school in grade six, after years of kid-focused nonstructural learning).

Town has hospitals and cafeterias and a thriving arts scene. Books, food, and other things are provided as needed by what most “Townies” assume to be God. There are art classes, support groups for getting over being murdered, and a museum of curious things including a revolver and a kitten. Townies do not grow old and their bodies don’t change; wounds heal themselves, buildings repair themselves, and traumatic memories are often wiped. Smith captures the intricacies of a thirteen-year-old personality so nicely: the uncertainty, the bravado, the desperation for answers. Boo figures he lost a few IQ points but gained a few social skills, and makes friends. He does much better in Town.

At first attributing his death to a heart condition, he soon realizes that there’s more to it than expected with the arrival of Johnny, another boy from his school who died shortly after Boo. Johnny insists that they were murdered at school by some crazy kid he calls “Gunboy”, and, along with their friends, the two boys try to solve their own deaths while navigating the peculiarities of the afterlife. Desperate to find a portal back to the living world, Johnny’s quest for revenge upstages Boo’s curiosity-fuelled scientific quest for understanding when they run into a boy Johnny is convinced killed them. From there, the story quickly snowballs into a clash of friendship, violence, and the supernatural.

Smith’s world and characters are surprisingly uplifting, and the plot was charming and exciting. Every time they think they’ve caught an answer it escapes, and the story gets more involved until the intense climax. In the bittersweet conclusion, Johnny is given a second chance and Boo learns more about himself than he ever did while alive. Town gives Boo what he needs in order to both find the truth and be happy with himself. It is, in the end, his own heaven as he needed it to be.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

David Bowie and Alan Rickman in the Speculative World


January 2016 saw the loss of two great figures in the speculative world when David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed away within days of each other. Throughout their careers, both influenced and contributed to science fiction and fantasy in their own ways.

David Bowie’s albums were generally highly conceptual, working with not only music but also stories and characters that he ‘became’ as part of the immersive art experience. Throughout his discography, space travel, extraterrestrials, and the grand, sometimes dystopian, themes common in science fiction have majorly influenced his work.

Space Oddity, a 1969 mega-hit, is about the death of Major Tom, an astronaut persona whose spaceship crashes. Bowie would revisit the Major Tom character in subsequent pieces. Recently the song gained even more fame when in 2013 astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded a cover of it aboard the International Space Station.

Blackstar, the album released just days before Bowie’s death on January 10, is also the name of a type of spacecraft, and the music video for the titular track continues with the themes of astronauts and stranded aliens that have been recurring motifs throughout his career. Bowie is also the only musician to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at the Experience Music Project (EMP) Museum, a museum dedicated to popular culture.

Bowie’s career took off at a point when space exploration was a new and exciting reality, making science fiction more relevant than ever. Unlike the grand and feel-good space operas of the time, like the original Star Trek and, a few years later, Star Wars, Bowie’s work was often weird, anxious, and uncomfortable. His The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars follows Ziggy, Bowie’s self-insert persona, a rock star alien attempting to bring a message of peace to an ailing Earth who is eventually consumed in the final number, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. He captured the anxiety that space travel brought to humanity alongside the wonder, in terms less black and white than the good versus evil morality science fiction often offers.

As well as bringing science fiction into his music, Bowie is well-known for his portrayal of Jareth, the goblin king, in Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth. A cult classic, the plot follows a girl named Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, who has to make her way through a labyrinth full of fantastical creatures to save her baby brother after he’s kidnapped by the goblins. Labyrinth is a wonderful work of fantasy, brought to life by Jim Henson’s puppets. Bowie’s character is a powerful monarch with powers of illusion and transformation. Labyrinth is remembered to this day as a creepy, beautiful cautionary tale of what happens in fantasy when you get what you wish for.

Alan Rickman, who passed away on January 14, is also remembered for his roles in speculative movies, though he was also a very accomplished stage actor and starred in films ranging in genre from Die Hard to Love Actually.

Rickman provided the voice of Marvin, the paranoid android, in the 2005 film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Rickman gave a great voice to one of the most famous robot characters, the bored and very depressed Marvin. While it was hardly the best or most notable book-to-film adaptation of a science fiction novel, as a media series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of the most influential, funny, and classic pieces of science fiction. As seen with this series, Adams’ love and use of technology—he was apparently the first European to own a Mac—fed in and out of his science fiction stories.

Rickman also ventured into space in 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a loving parody of Star Trek and other similar popular shows. He played a cast member of Galaxy Quest, a fictional television series about space travel. When aliens mistake the show for reality, they reach out to the cast for help.

Of course, Rickman’s most prominent speculative role, if not role in general, was as Severus Snape, the great villain-hero of Harry Potter. He played the character to great acclaim among both critics and fans, shaping Snape from the cold, unlikable bully he starts off as to the complex, tormented double-agent who sacrifices everything in the final installment. Bringing the character from harsh and cruel to a sympathetic hero over Snape’s whole character arc, Rickman brought real life and depth to one of the series’ most beloved characters.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling described him as “a magnificent actor and a wonderful man,” and Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the films, said, “I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor.”

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege