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Hekate Wears Tartan!

Author: David Rankine
Posted: December 25th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,049

Much of the old magic may be found hidden in plain view if you but look in the right places. And those right places are often old histories and works of folklore. A case in point which grew from a seed to a precious fruit was a reference I found in Franck’s 1658 work Northern Memoirs when Sorita d’Este and I were researching our book Visions of the Cailleach (2009) . In the ‘Notes’, at the back of the book there is a reference to ‘Old Chanery, hung about with charms’ – surely an intriguing reference to any practitioner of the magical arts? There, as bold as the stag on the hill, was a stunning statement, which hinted at so much more:

“Nicneven, the Hecate of Scottish necromancy, is thus introduced:
Nicneven and her nymphs, in number anew,
With charms from Caitness, and Chanrie in Ross.

If the witches of Chanrie possesses, as is intimated, the power of compelling grampuses [killer whales] to come ashore, their skill must, in such a situation, have been of great use to their town-folks.”

This initial find led me on a crooked path of research to the Capon Tree. And did Hekate hang the Golden Fleece there in the Highlands for the brave of heart or pure of spirit to find? Yes, I believe in some ways she did!

The reference to Nicneven and her nymphs comes from an earlier 1585 work, The Flyting of Montgomery and Polwart. Flyting was a verbal contest of insults, often given in verse, between two poets in medieval Scotland. This tradition has an ancient history, and may be found in many cultures around the world. Interestingly it was often used as a prelude to physical battle between warriors, including in ancient Greece, where we find Hekate. Whilst discussing the classic epic the Iliad, Hilary Mackie observed:

“In short, Achaeans are proficient at blame, while Trojans perform praise poetry.”
Nicneven is Nic-neven, or Nic-Nevis, i.e. the ‘daughter of Nevis’. She is the traditional Queen of the Fairies whose hall is the otherworldly realm under the earth, in this case beneath Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. So how does this connect to Hekate, you might ask?

Well, Hekate also turns up in connection to witches in this Flyting:
“On ane thre headit hecate in haist þair they cryit:”
(On a three-headed Hecate in haste there they cried)

The reference to the triformis Hekate in this text associated with witches was quite stunning. This is even more so when you see the content of the proceeding invocation, which is effectively what is described in the text. Even though they are found in an insult contest, what is particularly striking is the way that classical Hekate has been placed firmly in the context of Scottish witchcraft practices and folklore. Thus she is invoked:

“By the height of the heavens and by the howness [pit] of hell,
By the winds and the weirds and the Charlewaine [Ursa Major]
By the Horns [Ursa Minor], the Handstaff [Orion’s Sword] and the King’s Ell [Orion’s Belt],
By thunder, by fyreflaughts [lightning flashes], by drought and by rain,
By the poles and the planets and the signes all twell [twelve],
By the mirkness [darkness] of the moon – let mirkness remain –
By the elements all that our craft can compel,
By the fiends infernal, and the Furies in pain”

The inclusion of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) with Hekate is very intriguing, when the charm connecting them in the Greek Magical Papyri is recalled (PGM VII.686-702) . However the fact that a number of constellations are listed emphasises her stellar nature and recalls her mother, the star goddess Asteria. The inclusion of the planets and zodiacal signs, the elements, heaven and hell as well as the other major stars hints at a more cosmic Hekate, not simply the witch goddess.

I speculate that this Flyting was the source for Shakespeare placing Hekate in Scotland for his Macbeth, written some twenty years later in the period 1603-7, particularly as Hekate refers to charms twice in her speech in Act IV, a piece which is far more interesting and inspirational than the witches chant that has been so popularised. The declaration in Macbeth that “witchcraft celebrates pale Hecate’s offerings” and “black Hecate’s summons” may well have influenced the later use of her name to describe the head of a covine in the nineteenth century as chronicled by Scott.

Well returning to that original quote, where Nicneven was linked to Hekate, I realised that the reference to orcas (grampuses) was an echo of the description of one of Hekate’s powers in the Theogony, that of aiding fishermen, where it stated:

“and to those whose business is in the grey discomfortable sea, and who pray to Hekate and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, easily the glorious goddess gives great catch, and easily she takes it away as soon as seen, if so she will.”

Another major factor of note with Nicneven is that she is a giantess. In Scotland and the other Celtic lands, it was common for the gods to be described as giants, and this continued into folklore, with the Old Ones often surviving in local legends, sleeping in the landscape or in the wild shadows waiting for the call of the ivory horn and the silver pipe. Back in Greek literature, Hekate was described by Lucian in his Philopseudes as being a giantess who stamps her foot on the ground causing a vast chasm to the underworld which she jumps into, and where the hero sees dead relatives at the bottom before it closes again.

Also regarding Nicneven as the ‘queen of the fairies’, this can be seen as akin to Hekate as queen of the restless spirits who haunt the crossroads, particularly when we remember that the fairy queen told Thomas the Rhymer:

“This road leads to heaven, and this roads leads to hell,
And this road leads to elfame, where thee and I must go.”

Clearly Nicneven had Thomas at the three-way crossroads, and by taking him to Elfame she was initiating him. She is fulfilling the same role as Hekate, Initiating Queen of the Crossroads. She is also taking him to the paradisiacal beauty of Elfame, which is akin to the Elysian Fields of the Greek otherworld, which is ruled by Hekate! Of course, the otherworld can be the place of death as well for many, and this is emphasised by the initial reference to necromancy. Walter Scott in Letter V of his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830) described the head of a Scottish covine of witches practising necromancy as both the Hekate and the Nicneven at different times, significantly using the terms interchangeably.

The connection between Hekate and fairies may be found earlier than this however, in William Warner’s 1586 epic work Albion’s England. Here Hekate as queen of hell or the otherworld is directly linked with fairies and elves, the implication being that these are acting as her servants, thus making her the fairy queen:

“Saw Hecat new canonized the Sourantisse of hell,
And Pluto bad it holliday for all which there did dwell …
The Elves, and Fairies, taking fists, did hop a merrie Round:”

So, as with many other parts of the world, Hekate made her mark and has continued to dwell in the local Scottish landscapes of myths and folklore.

Betz, Hans Dieter (ed) . The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1992
D’Este, Sorita and David Rankine. Visions of the Cailleach. London, Avalonia, 2009
Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (Trans) . The Hesiod of Theogony. Stilwell, Digireads, 2008 (originally 1914)
Fowler, H.W. and F.G. (trans) . The Works of Lucian of Samosata Volume III. Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1905
Franck, Richard. Northern Memoirs. Edinburgh, Archibald Constable and Co, 1821 (reprinted from 1658) .
Mackie, Hilary Susan. Talking Trojan: Speech and Community in the Iliad. Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield, 1996
Scott, Walter. Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Nuvision, 2005 (originally 1830)
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The Annotated Shakespeare) . Yale University Press, 2005 (originally 1603-7)
Stevenson, George (ed) . The Poems of Alexander Montgomorie and Other Pieces from Laing MS 447. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, 1910.
Warner, William. Albion’s England. Chalmers English Poets, 1810 (originally 1586)

Copyright: (c) David Rankine 2010


David Rankine

Location: Glastonbury, England


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