'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
A well-known legend in the Dane Hills area of Leicester, England, UK is that of Black Annis1. She is said to be a blue-faced crone with long claws, yellow teeth and a single eye. She sometimes manifests as a cat-demon and is said to eat children.
Little children, who went to play on the Dane Hills were assured that she lay in wait there, to snatch them away to her bower2 or; and that many like themselves she had scratched to death with her claws, sucked their blood, and hung up their skins to dry"– Letter to the Editor, Leicester Chronicle, 1874
According to the stories, 'Black Annis' lives in a cave known as 'Black Annis's Bower', that she is said to have clawed from the rocky hills with her own bare hands. She eats children who stray into the Dane Hills after dark3, skinning and dismembering her victims before scattering the bones over the hills and hanging the skins from nearby oak trees to dry. She may also decorate the cave with them as a gruesome art form. She has also been blamed for the disappearance of babies from nearby homes, supposedly reaching through the windows with her long arms to steal them, as well as local livestock if she is hungry enough. Some stories also have her haunting the underground chambers of Leicester Castle, which she would reach through a tunnel from the bower.
Although today mainly used as a bogeyman figure to scare children into behaving, some believe Black Annis may in fact have once been a venerated goddess, possibly the Celtic goddess Danu (sometimes called Anu), until Christian belief demonised her along with many other old gods. It is also believed that her bower may actually mark an Iron Age shrine. In the 15th Century, a Dominican nun named Agnes Scott cared for a leper colony in the Dane Hills area and this is believed to be the strongest factual source for at least Annis/Agnes's name, if not more of the legend.
On occasion, Black Annis is said to appear as a large black cat and seems to be strongly linked with cats in general. Until the early 18th Century, a mock hunt was held in Leicester town. A dead cat was soaked in aniseed and then dragged throughout the streets, beginning at the bower and ending at the front door of the Lord Mayor's home. The connection between aniseed and Black Annis is unknown, apart from the obvious similarity of name4.
Although a housing estate was built on the site of the bower in the 1920s, the legend of Black Annis lives on. The mock hunt is now, in its modern form, the Dane Hills Fair. Every Midsummer's Eve, the Black Annis Women's Morris Dancers meet and dance atop the old bower site.