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Nicneven or Nicnevin or Nicnevan (whose name is from a Scottish Gaelic surname, Neachneohain meaning "daughter(s) of the divine" and/or "daughter(s) of Scathach" NicNaoimhein meaning "daughter of the little saint")[1] is a Queen of the Fairies in Scottish folklore. In Ireland and Scotland, "the Feile na Marbh", (the “festival of the dead”) took place on Samhain (Celtic New Year) The names Satia, NICNEVEN, Bensozie, Zobiana, Abundia, Herodiana, were all used to identify the Scottish Witch Goddess of Samhain. The use of the name for this meaning was first found in Montgomerie’s Flyting (c.1585)[1] and was seemingly taken from a woman in Scotland condemned to death for witchcraft before being burnt at the stake as a witch.[2] In the Borders the name for this archetype was Gyre-Carling whose name had variants such as Gyre-Carlin, Gy-Carling, Gay-Carlin amongst others.[3] Gyre is possibly a cognate of the Norse word geri and thus having the meaning of "greedy"[4] or it may be from the Norse gýgr meaning "ogress";[1] carling or carline is a Scots and Northern English word meaning "old woman" which is from, or related to, the Norse word kerling (of the same meaning).[5][6]

She was sometimes thought of as the mother witch, Hecate, or Habundia figure of Scottish fairy mythology.[7] This guise is frankly diabolical.[8] Sir Walter Scott calls her:

a gigantic and malignant female, the Hecate of this mythology, who rode on the storm and marshalled the rambling host of wanderers under her grim banner. This hag (in all respects the reverse of the Mab or Titania of the Celtic creed) was called Nicneven in that later system which blended the faith of the Celts and of the Goths on this subject. The great Scottish poet Dunbar has made a spirited description of this Hecate riding at the head of witches and good neighbours (fairies, namely), sorceresses and elves, indifferently, upon the ghostly eve of All-Hallow Mass. In Italy we hear of the hags arraying themselves under the orders of Diana (in her triple character of Hecate, doubtless) and Herodias, who were the joint leaders of their choir, But we return to the more simple fairy belief, as entertained by the Celts before they were conquered by the Saxons.[9]

Alexander Montgomerie, in his Flyting, described her as:

Nicnevin with her nymphes, in number anew
With charms from Caitness and Chanrie of Ross
Whose cunning consists in casting a clew.[10]

Even so, the elder Nicnevin or Gyre-Carling retained the habit of night riding with an "elrich" entourage mounted on unlikely and supernatural steeds. Another, satirical popular depiction made her leave Scotland after a love-quarrel with her neighbour, to become wife of "Mahomyte" and queen of the "Jowis". She was an enemy of Christian people, and "levit vpoun Christiane menis flesche"; still, her absence caused dogs to stop barking and hens to stop laying.[11] But in Fife, the Gyre-Carling was associated with spinning and knitting, like Habetrot; here it was believed to be unlucky to leave a piece of knitting unfinished at the New Year, lest the Gyre-Carling should steal it.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "nic" meaning "daughter" and "naoimhein" meaning "of little saint" ( > the proper name Niven)
  2. ^ Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: Volume Two by John Jamieson, Printed at the University Press for W. & C. Tait, 1825, page. 156
  3. ^ A Glossary of North Country Words, with Their Etymology, and Affinity to Other Languages: And Occasional Notices of Local Customs and Popular Superstitions by John Trotter Brockett, William Edward Brockett, E. Charnley, 1846, page 203
  4. ^ An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language: Illustrating the Words in Their Different Significations by Examples from Ancient and Modern Writers, Volume One by John Jamieson, Printed at the University Press for W. Creech, 1808, page. 374
  5. ^ A Dictionary of North East Dialect by Bill Griffiths, Northumbria University Press, 2005, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, ISBN 978-1-904794-16-5, page. 28
  6. ^ Scandinavian Loan-Words in Middle English, Part 1 by Erik Bjorkman, BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2008, ISBN 0-559-15368-6, ISBN 978-0-559-15368-6, page 142
  7. ^ Joseph Mallord William Turner, ed., The poetical works of Sir Walter Scott (Robert Cadell, 1833), v. 2 pp. 279-280.
  8. ^ Katharine Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (Penguin, 1977; ISBN 0-14-004753-0), p. 310
  9. ^ Sir Walter Scott, Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1831), ch, 4
  10. ^ James Miller, St. Baldred of the Bass: a Pictish legend. The siege of Berwick: a tragedy: with other poems and ballads founded on the local traditions of East Lothian and Berwickshire (Oliver & Boyd, 1824), p. 267
  11. ^ David Laing, William Carew Hazlitt, Early popular poetry of Scotland and the northern border (Reeves and Turner, 1895), p. 18
  12. ^ Briggs, above, p. 213