Riding with Nicnevin

9 May, 2017 by katelaity

Riding with Nicnevin

The Scottish version of Hecate (at least according to some) rides with a company of ‘weird sisters’ in the night, with wild plans of mischief. No wonder I think of it now that Walpurgisnacht is upon us. There’s a most interesting poem that offers us insight in to the beliefs of the past. ‘The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart’ is a humorous verbal battle. Flyting is probably better known amongst the Norse, but the Scots have that tradition of joshing verbal battles, too. Though a challenging text, the 16th century poet Montgomerie demonstrates well the variety and force of Scottish insults (seriously!) but there’s also some interesting supernatural information that usually comes in the form of scurrilous suggestions like:

 Wih warwolfes and wild Cats thy weird be to wander

With werewolves and wild cats your fate it is to wander


The lines about Nicnevin come along more than half way through the poem. Montgomerie summons Pandora and all the diseases he can think of to insult his opponent.

Than a cleir companie came soone after closse
Nicneuen with her nymphes, in number anew,
With charmes from Caitnes and Chanrie of Rosse,
Whose cunning consists in casting of a Clew,
They seeing this sairie thing, said to them self,
This thriftles thing is meit for vs
And for our craft commodious,
Ane vglie Aipe and Incubus
Gotten with an Elf.

Nicnevin and her nymphs come along in a huge crowd with charms to cast and spy the poor poet — a sorry thing — and decide they need to practice their art on this ugly Ape and Incubus sired by an Elf. These ‘Thir venerable Virgins, whom the warld call witches’ ride to the meeting on various beasts:

Some backward raid on brodsowes, & some on black bitches,
Some in steid of a staig ouer a stark Monk straid,
Fra the how to the hight some hobles, some hatches.
With their mouthes to the Moone, murgeons they maid,
Some be force in effect the foure windes fetches,
And nyne times withershins about the throne raid,
Some glowring to the ground, some grieviously gaipes.
Be craft conjure and fiends perforce
Furth of a Cairne, beside a croce
Thir Ladies lighted fra their horse
And band them with raipes.

Whether riding on ‘brood-sows’ or black dogs, they fly from the four winds, riding nine times widdershins before they land and tie up their mounts beside the cross (which may be a market cross not necessarily a church’s cross). They call on ‘three-headed Hecatus’ to aid the workings they threaten upon the poor poet. They warn they will tie ‘this thrise thretty knots on this blew threed byd’ to bind the members of a hundred men to a shoe. ‘Now grant us goddess before we go do our duties’ they say, then swear

Be the hight of the heavins and be the hownesse of hell,
Be the windes and the weirds and the Charle waine
Be the hornes, the hand-staff and the kings ell.
Be thunder be fyreflaughts, be drouth and be raine,
Be the poles and the planets, and the signes all twell
Be mirknes of the Moone, let mirknes remaine,
Be the Elements all that our crafts can compell,
Be the fiends infernall, and the furies in paine,
Gar all the Gaists of the dead that dwels there downe
In Lethe and Styx thae stinkand strands.
And Pluto that your Court commands
Receiue this howlat off our hands
In name of Mahowne.

They hand over the owl in the name of ‘Mahoun’ which was a common medieval spelling of Mohammed. It’s easy to see how witches, devils, demons and all kinds of enemies were lumped together as the bad guys. And yes, mixing up Greek and Latin terms with native traditions happened a lot too. But the elegance of their infernal cries is quite lovely.

[Image Henry Meynell Rheam’s The Sorceress (1989)]

The serial will return next week.

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