Spinning with Nicnevin

Nicnevin, the Scottish Queen of the Unseelie Court of fairies, is a multi-faceted character in Scottish folklore and modern pagan folklore who seems to change her appearance depending on how you approach her (Norrie, 2014). She is considered by some to be a goddess and by others a fairy Queen. She is also known as a powerful witch and called the “Scottish Hekate” by Sir Walter Scott (Norrie, 2014). In other contexts, she affiliated with the spinning goddess, Gyre-Carling, and the weather-controlling Cailleach (Kelden, 2017). Hopefully, this article will provide insight into this intriguing individual.

There might be clues to Nicnevin’s nature in the etymology of her name. “Nic am Neah” is the popular Gaelic origin and translates “daughter of frenzy” (Kelden, 2017). This might connect her to the Irish goddess Nemain, associated with war and the frenzy of battle (Kelden, 2017). There is another etymological translation of her name, which is “Nic Noahm” and this translates to “daughter of the saint” (Norrie, 2014). Brighid, the Irish goddess of smitchcraft and fire, has been suggested as “the saint” this references (Kelden, 2017).

A third etymological analysis of Nicnevin’s name is “Nc” (the daughter of) and “Nevis”, alluding to Ben Nevis (Kelden, 2017). Ben Nevis translates “mountain of snow” (Kelden, 2017). It is an interesting parallel with the Cailleach, whose home is thought to be Ben Nevis (Kelden, 2017). It is also an interesting detail when you consider that Nicnevin’s Unseelie Court is also referred to as the Winter Court.

Nicnevin is first referred to in Montgomerie’s Flyting, where she is summoned by name and appears (Simpson, 1995). She also appears as a figure in the Scottish witch trials, witch trials that were second in ferocity only to Germany. Nic Neville was a real woman who was burned at the stake as a witch (Scott, 2018). There was also a woman named “Niknevin” who was burned at the stake during the Scottish witch trials (1885) . She claimed to have healing powers superior to the apothecaries, who she blamed for her arrest (1885). She was reported to be over 100 years old (1885).

Nicnevin’s sorcerous prowess and association with witches is prevalent throughout myth and folklore. Her name seems to have became a general term, at one point, for Scottish witches of a certain degree of prowess (Kelden, 2017). She is affiliated with goddesses of witchcraft such as Diana and Hekate by Sir Walter Scott (Scott, 2009). Many sources have also linked her with the Gyre-Carling, Black Annis, and the Cailleach (Norris, 2014). She is implied to be an individual with strong talents in necromancy in Sir Walter Scott’s accounts (Norris, 2014). In modern works that reference her, many make mention of her affinities with magick and spellcraft (Norris, 2014) (Kelden, 2017).

Nicnevin has also been associated with spinning (Norrie, 2014). There are references to her skill, including Montgomerie’s description of her as a woman with a retinue of “nymphs” and “whose cunning consists of casting a clew” (Miller, 2016). I have found that Nicnevin deserves this reputation and is quite talented in spinning and other fiber arts. Spinning is an interesting talent for Nicnevin to have, especially since it links her to many different goddesses with this ability in European mythology.

A few goddesses with the talent of spinning in European myth and folklore include Frigg, and the Moirae (Karlsdottir, 2015) (Ovid, 2001). Frigg is a Norse goddess, a wife of Odin and Queen of Asgard, who is frequently occupied by spinning or weaving (Karlsdottir, 2015). She is a talented seeress and user of magick (Karlsdottir, 2015). The Moirae are the triple Greek goddesses of fate (Ovid, 2001). I believe that Nicnevin’s affiliation with goddesses, who also wield a spindle, underscores her affiliation with forces like magick and, possibly, fate.

Nicnevin is referred to as a fairy Queen, but also as a goddess (Norrie, 2014). She is recognized the Queen of the Unseelie Court of fairies (Norrie, 2014) and described as riding at the head of a host of of intimidating supernatural beings (Scott, 2009). She is described as talented at shapeshifting, like many fairies (Norrie, 2014). However, native sources (as well as modern accounts of people who have encountered her) refer to her as a goddess (Norrie, 2014) (Scott, 2018) (Kelden, 2017).

Accounts of her appearance vary, partly due to Nicnevin’s shapeshifting talents (Norrie, 2014). She is often described as a hag or ogress, not unlike the Gyre-Carling or the Cailleach (both of whom she shares many things in common with) (Norrie, 2014). However, like the Gyre-Carling and the Cailleach, it is very possible the Nicnevin has a youthful, beautiful form (Norrie, 2014). I have, personally, found this to be the form that she appears in most often.

I hope that this article has provided some perspective on the well-known Scottish fairy Queen and goddess, Nicnevin. She is a powerful individual with many different facets to her character. There are many different ways to approach the Witch Mother of Scotland and, considering her talents for sorcery and shapeshifting, she may appear different every time.

James Miller (2016). 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. Palala Press.

Karlsdottir, A. (2015). Magic of the Norse goddesses. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.

Kelden. (2017, December 27). Nicnevin: The Scottish Witch Mother [Web log post]. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/byathameandstang/2017/12/nicnevin-scottish-witch-mother/

HMC Eglinton. (1885). London.

McHardy, S. (2000). Scotland: Myth, Legend, and Folklore. Edinburgh, Scotland: Luath Press Limited.

Norrie, P. (2014). Nicnevin. In 1317471023 967915247 T. Greenfield (Ed.), Naming the Goddess. Winchester, UK: Moon Books. doi:https://hagothehills.wordpress.com/2016/10/31/nicnevin/

Ovid. (2001). The Metamorphoses. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.

Scott, W. (2009). Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications.

Scott. (2018, December 28). Nicnevin – A Wild Witch Chase – In Search of the Scottish Hekate [Web log post]. Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://cailleachs-herbarium.com/2015/10/a-wild-witch-chase-scottish-hecate-nicneven/

Simpson (1995) “The weird sisters wandering”: Burlesque Witchery in Montgomerie’s Flyting. Folklore Vol 106.

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