Hild’s bynames #4: Hægtes

This is the fourth in an occasional series on Hild’s bynames. In Hild the novel, Hild as a young child had a pet name, Little Prickle, her first byname. As an adolescent she becomes Freemartin and, as a young adult, Butcherbird. I’ve already written posts about three of these. However, between the childhood pet name and those adolescent-then-young-adult bynames, Hild was occasionally whispered to be a hægtes. For such posts it usually makes sense to work in chronological order. So why haven’t I already written about Hild Hægtes? Simple—I didn’t know how hægtessan:

  1. could be defined or even described
  2. and, therefore, might be drawn.

I think I’ve solved those problems, at least for now. So get comfortable. This could get long.

Definitions and Descriptions

  • Hægtes, Old English, noun, f. (alt form hægtesse), nom. pl. hægtessan
  • Pronounced/ˈxæɡ.tes.se/, (IPA key ˈhæɣ.tes.se)

If I were attempting to say it aloud I’d use ‘h’ with a sort of breathy sound; ‘æ’ like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’; ‘g’ like an h (sort of) but also a bit like horking up a gob of phlegm; and ‘es’ as ‘ess’.

  • from Proto-Germanic *hagatusjon, unknown origin 
  • Dutch heks, German Hexe “witch” are similarly shortened from cognate Middle Dutch haghetisse, Old High German hagzusa
  • First element cognate with OE haga (“enclosure, portion of woodland marked off for cutting”)?
  • hæg = hedge, wood, enclosure; boundary
  • Second element connected with Norwegian tysja (“fairy; crippled woman”)?
  • ON tunriða and OHG zunritha, both = “hedge-rider” (used of witches and ghosts)
  • Descendants:
    • ME: hagge
    • MnE: hag (also haggard?)

FYI enclosures and boundaries were regarded as markers between the natural and supernatural, or sacred and profane, or middle earth and the overland, depending on your worldview. We’ll come back to this.

  • Wiktionary: ‘witch, hag, fury’
  • Bosworth-Toller: ‘fury of classical mythology’ and ‘hag, witch’
  • Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: for reasons known only to itself ‘witch, pythoness’

You’ll be shocked, shocked to hear that I disagree pretty comprehensively with those definitions (especially that last one1), and we’ll get to that. Something to bear in mind as we proceed, though, is that as a culture changes the connotations and especially denotations of some of its words also change. That is, hægtes could (and I believe would) have meant one thing to Hild and her contemporaries and something quite different to, for example, a tenth-century monk compiling leechbooks.

As this article is about using hægtes in Hild’s time, my focus will be on how people might have used the word in the first third of the seventh century. However, as we can only look at the documents that have come down to us—the vast majority (so vast a majority that I’m tempted to say all) of which were created (then copied, and glossed, and translated, and copied again, and edited to suit scribes’ contemporary tastes, and translated back)—long after Hild’s death, we have to be cautious what we infer from them.

Examples of use

For how hægtes is used in the written sources, rather than searching the entire corpus of Old English and tabulating glosses, I will be leaning heavily on Alaric Hall’s wonderful Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Boydell Press, 2007)2 in which he’s already done a lot of that work. All the usual caveats apply: all mistakes are mine; although I’m doing my best to be faithful to Hall’s intentions, I give no guarantee that, in fact, that’s what my paraphrasing will achieve; and, finally, some of the stuff I talk about, particularly etymology, is sourced from elsewhere and may therefore but at odds with Halls assertions.

One of the most useful examples is taken from Lācnunga, a compilation of remedies, and is titled Wið færstice (“For a Violent, Stabbing Pain”), a charm composed probably before the end of the tenth century. Here is Hall’s edited and translated version.

Wið færstice feferfuige and seo reade netele, ðe þurh
ærn inwyxð, and wegbrade; wyll in buteran.
Hlude wæran hy, la, hlude,      ða hy ofer þone hlæw ridan,
wæran anmode,      ða hy ofer land ridan.

Scyld ðu ðe nu, þu ðysne nið      genesan mote.
Ut, lytel spere,      gif her inne sie!
Stod under linde,      under leohtum scylde,
þær ða mihtigan wif      hyra mægen beræddon
and hy gyllende      garas sændan;

ic him oðerne      eft wille sændan,
fleogende flane      forane togeanes.
Ut, lytel spere,      gif hit her inne sy!
Sæt smið,      sloh seax lytel,
iserna,      wundrum swiðe.

Ut, lytel spere,      gif her inne sy!
Syx smiðas sætan,      wælspera worhtan.
Ut, spere,      næs in, spere!
Gif her inne sy      isernes dæl,
hægtessan geweorc,      hit sceal gemyltan.

Gif ðu wære on fell scoten      oððe wære on flæsc scoten
oððe wære on blod scoten     
oððe wære on lið scoten,      næfre ne sy ðin lif atæsed;
gif hit wære esa gescot      oððe hit wære ylfa gescot
oððe hit wære hægtessan gescot,      nu ic wille ðin helpan.

þis ðe to bote esa gescotes,      ðis ðe to bote ylfa gescotes,
ðis ðe to bote hægtessan gescotes;      ic ðin wille helpan.
Fleoh þær      on fyrgenheafde.
Hal westu,      helpe ðin drihten!
Nim þonne þæt seax, ado on wætan.

They were loud, yes, loud, when they rode over the (burial) mound;
they were fierce when they rode across the land.

Shield yourself now, you can survive this strife.
Out, little spear, if there is one here within.
It stood under/behind lime-wood (i.e. a shield), under a light-coloured/light-weight shield,
where those mighty women marshalled their powers,
and ?they sent shrieking spears.

I will send another back,
a flying arrow ahead in opposition.
Out, little spear, if it is here within.
A craftsman sat, forged a knife/knives;
?small as swords go, violent the wound.

Out, little spear, if it should be here within.
Six craftsmen sat, wrought slaughter-spears.
Be out, spear, not in, spear.
If there is here within a piece of iron/swords,
the work/deed of hægtessan, it must melt.

If you were shot/pained in the skin or were shot/pained in the flesh,
or were shot/pained in the blood,
or were shot/pained in the limb (?joint), may your life never be harmed.
If it was the shot/pain of ēse or it was the shot/pain of ælfeor it was the shot/pain of hægtessan, now I want to (?will) help you.

This for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of ēse; this for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of ælfe,
this for you as a remedy for the shot/pain of hægtessan; I will help you.
Fly around there on the mountain top.
Be healthy, may the Lord help you.

The charm seems to discuss three kinds of stabbing pain, which could be caused by three kinds of beings: ēse, ælfe, and hægtessan, who—absent other evidence—we could perhaps consider as having some kind of equivalency. Which makes things very interesting. Because ēse are gods and ælfe are elves, but the hægtessan are described as mihtigan wif, or mighty/powerful women: loud, fierce, martial, riding over burial mounds and hurling gyllende gāras, which Hall translates as ‘shrieking spears’ but could equally be ‘wailing weapons’. I like the latter because we know that there were at that time such things as whistling arrows, or howling arrows, designed to terrify the enemy (as well as, y’know, kill them). 

In this single example, then, hægtessan are, on the one hand, assigned to the same category of beings as gods and elves, that is, they are otherwordly. On the other hand they are powerful, martial women: mortals who ride over barrows—the domain of the dead, or at least one of the liminal spaces between middle earth and the overworld—and, as well as the aforementioned gyllende gāras, they perhaps wield a slōh seax (slaughter seax), or wælspera (carnage spears) forged by syx smiðas (six smiths) who may or may not be ælfe. So: mortal and martial women comfortable in liminal space between natural and supernatural worlds, and partaking of those powers.

If you look at other sources, and which beings described in Greek or Latin are glossed as hægtes, and what words (Latin, Greek, or Old English) gloss those lemmas in turn, things get pretty interesting. Here’s a list (with a focus on Old English) of words glossed by hægtes, followed by what words they in turn are glossed by:

  • striga
    • not glossed by anything other than hægtes that I could find
    • (This is a Polish word for a woman cursed to be a monster—one who hates all living being who comes out at the full moon and fights with incredible speed and strength)
  • phitonissa
    • divinatrix
    • prophetissa
    • hellrūne (OE, which you could translate roughly as one skilled in the mysteries of the world of the dead; if you look at other -rūne words such as burgrūne—‘woman skilled in the mysteries of high places’ or perhaps ‘wise woman of the fort/temple/settlement/hill’and leodrūne there is a sense of a woman in a protective role for a people/settlement)
    • wicce (OE, used various.y for sorceress, witch, soothsayer/truthteller)
    • (I suspect phitonissa is linked to the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo who foretells the future—which is probably where that ridiculous definition of hægtes as ‘pythoness’ comes from.)
  • Parca
    • wicce (OE, see above)
    • burgrūne (OE, see above)
    • gewyrd (OE, fate, destiny, condition)
    • (Parca was the Roman goddess of childbirth and destiny—protective, respected, holding people’s fate in her hands)
  • Furia
    • malignus spiritus
    • wēdes (OE, not sure, maybe a weed, a plant of noxious stock?)
    • āwyrid gāst (OE, not sure, maker of fear? destroyer? ghost?)
    • gyden (OE, goddess)
    • burgrūne (OE, see above)
    • Erenis (one of the three furies)
    • Eumenis (one of the three furies)
    • (Furia is a female chthonic deity of vengeance in ancient Greece; basically fury personified—righteous fury; only seems to hunt and hurt the wicked)
  • Allecto
    • wælcyrige (OE, sorceress, witch; but perhaps with a hint of malevolence)
  • Eumenis
    • Furia (see above)
  • Erenis
    • furia (see above)
    • wælcyrige (OE, see above)
Denotations and discussion

Some things we can be sure of: hægtessan were female, they were frightening, they were powerful, martial, and otherworldly. The degree and flavour of that Otherworldliness is a bit less clear.

Beliefs in Hild’s seventh-century Anglisc-speaking Britain are a bit tricky to lay out neatly. On one hand, you can divide the world into two realms, the natural and the supernatural, populated, respectively, by humans and inhumans. Some inhumans (dragons/wyrms, mares/mær, giants/etin) are wholly monstrous, malevolent beings that threaten society. And some supernatural beings (ēse, ælfe, hægtessan) while not monsters do occasionally hurt individual people—though not from a general malevolence towards humankind.

Hægtessan are terrifying and powerful, they hurl weapons that can kill and/or torment, and they ride over the graves of the dead. But they are not monsters; they are women with supernatural attributes who live in the boundary between worlds. I get a strong sense of them hurting only those who somehow deserve it. So you could perhaps say they do not threaten society but protect it: they defend the group’s way of life, policing the Way Things Are Done, harming only those who would either harm individuals or trespass against cultural norms.

This protection of cultural norms, or the welfare of the group as a whole, is intriguing; it becomes even more so when we consider hægtessan in relation to ælfe. Hægtes and ælfe are often juxtaposed, and they are always gendered: hægtessan are female and ælfe are male. But where it gets really interesting is that although ælfe are male, they are never referred to as men. In fact they usually possess feminine attributes: quiet (or at least hidden), beautiful, slender-necked, and seductive. They may be uncanny but they are desirable, not frightening.3 Hægtessan, on the other hand, though they are described as women, are martial, mighty, loud and fierce women; they are not desired but feared.4 So we have a strange supernatural inversion of gender: the female fights, frightens, polices and protects; the male quietly creates, looks decorative, and seduces. In fact it’s a double inversion: female as human, male as less than human; female as loud and dangerous and male as quiet and seductive.

So when Hild is called hægtes, she is being labelled uncanny, powerful, fearsome, and dangerous—but also perhaps necessary to a group’s survival, even admirable, and most definitely to be paid attention to—not for her femininity but for her otherworldly power. She might not be one of us but she’s on our side.

It’s not surprising that Hild was upset when as a child she first heard herself called hægtes. From that moment she understood she would always be an outsider and never quite belong.

Drawings and Depictions

I liked to mess around with Photoshop and Procreate but I’m not a visual artist; I’m better at creating story than image. How I usually make illustrations for posts like this is look at a variety of images, pick the two or three that most closely match what I’m looking for, then borrow elements of each and combine them in a way that matches the feel of what I’m trying to say. Some efforts are less successful than others. I like the illustration for the hedgepig for the Little Prickle bynames post, but I don’t like the one for the Butcherbird post. The latter is a perfectly serviceable drawing of a shrike, but it doesn’t capture the feel I was after (and in fact I’ve come up with something much better, chortle, and will do a separate post on that soon).

So for hægtes I started with an image search and got 20 results: a video for a UK band called Hægtesse; half a dozen pictures that linked to blog posts of mine; and the rest an odd assortment of toy trucks, a diagramme of…transport modes (?), a football match, an elementary school, and a drone shot of some ruined industrial park. Nothing remotely helpful.

So then I tried a different approach. I divided the search into several elements that I thought I kight be able to combine. I settled on:

  • woman
  • on a horse
  • with a spear
  • riding over the brow of a barrow
  • at dusk or dawn
  • formidable and frightening
  • not sexual
  • uncanny

Everything I tried either turned out to be something like a wraith from the Lord of the Rings films, or a Frankensteinian patchwork of elements. They not only didn’t look right, they didn’t feel right.5

So then I was stumped, until I read an article about art and machine learning—specifically, about two machine-learning art-generation engines called DALL-E and MidJourney. And Oh ho ho! I thought. Let’s give that a go!

DALL-E (WALL-E meets Dalí) is an invite-only, browser-based platform. That is, you go sign up for the waitlist, they pretend to think about whether you’re worthy, and the next day they invite you to join. So off I went and was greeted with a text box, into which I was invited to type a prompt. I pondered for a while then basically cribbed the description from Wið færstice, “Terrible formidable woman riding over a barrow hurling screaming spears.” What I got was a picture of a misshapen figure on something like looked like the offspring of an unnatural union between a cockroach and a hippo lumbering over…a brightly coloured wheelbarrow. Good for a giggle but not much else.

I tried again, this time with “Terrible formidable woman riding over the brow of a hill in the mist hurling screaming spears.” And got this:

A misty hill with…something? (DALL-E)

At this point I was getting impatient6 so I switched to MidJourney, which is accessed via Discord. It has more of a learning curve than DALL-E but after brief acquaintance I like it better. (The downside is that although you get 25 attempts free you have to pay for anything after that.)

Having learnt from my experience with DALL-E, this time, when prompted, I typed in “Terrible formidable woman riding on horseback from the uncanny mist over the brow of a hill towards the viewer and hurling fearsome spears.” And got this:

Good landscape, weird alien beings (MidJourney)

It’s an interesting mix of images. I really liked the backgrounds but wasn’t keen on anything else, especially the first image which looks like someone riding a ball of yarn downhill, and the fourth one which looks like a Victorian lady ghost sitting backwards on a deformed camel.

I’ll spare you the iterations, but after playing with upsizing and versions I eventually got something that could, conceivably, be three menacing figures riding over the moor. Then I got to work with Photoshop and Procreate (they have different strengths)—taking out extra legs, resizing the remaining legs and turning them the right way round (so many went backwards), transforming the weird spider things into weapons, pruning what seemed to be roots growing out of the beasts’ backs, putting heads in the right places and in the right size, adding mist, taking away rocks looming like troll-fathered Beanie Babies, turning a creepy shoulder growth into a skull totem, adding hair, adding blades, and on. And on. By the time I was done, the picture barely resembled the original and I liked it quite a lot, an atmospheric mix of J.M.W. Turner and M.R. James with a bit of Wuthering Heights thrown in:

Three Hægtessan by Nicola Griffith, based on an image generated by MidJourney

I’m pretty pleased with it. Better still, cropping it to the main figure, then converting it to noir-style black and white got me pretty close to what I was looking for.

Hægtes, by Nicola Griffith

If you’re interested in my further adventures in Hild-based AI imagery, see an upcoming post on my personal blog (I’ll post a link here). Meanwhile, if you have any feedback, whether on my musings on the meaning and implication of hægtes or the imagery, please leave a comment.

1 But, ha! I figured it out. See ‘phitonissa’ above

2 Which I’ve talked about before at length, and which is a wonderful book. Go read it. For those, like me, for have no formal academic access and can’t/won’t afford $185 for a small paperback, Hall has kindly posted an early version of the book—in the form of his PhD thesis—online for anyone to read. Here’s the introduction and first chapter: https://www.alarichall.org.uk/ahphd1.pdf and the chapter where he talks more particularly about hægtes https://www.alarichall.org.uk/ahphd8.pdf  

3 There is no Old English word for ‘nymph’—as early as the eighth century, nymph is glossed as ælfe

4 Early Medieval gender presentation and roles is not the subject of this post. This is tricky territory. I have no urge to make the argument that there was some lost matriarchal Golden Age where gender was more fluid and less policed and women were in charge of the world. But I do think it’s possible to argue that as Christianity strengthened its hold on the Anglisc elite, sex and gender became more tightly aligned. (Correlation is not causation; I’m just pointing out the parallels.) If I had to guess, I’d say early Anglisc gender was more about the notion of hard vs. soft than men vs. women (which I’ve written about elsewhere). In terms of data we can say that early material evidence shows (or perhaps it does—never underestimate investigators’ prejudice, and that works both ways) that more women were buried with weapons than men with traditional women’s goods (jewellery, clothes, weaving gear). It could be that hægtessan and ælfe are reminders of an earlier age when some women could and sometimes did bear arms and fight.

5 The closest in feel were some painting by Susie Hamilton, a London painter, whose work I stumbled across a year or so ago when I was looking for images to use for posts about my sixth-century Welsh Arthurian retelling, Spear. She has several paintings that feel gorgeously atmospheric in a vaguely chivalric-joust way, and a couple that are uncanny with a hint of shamanism. Very evocative (do go look; they’re amazing) but way too far from early medieval Britain to be useful.

6 I’ve since tried with another project and it went well, but more on that another time.

6 thoughts on “Hild’s bynames #4: Hægtes

  1. I often think of the painter Jack B Yeats (brother of W.B) when I read Hild, particularly his paintings of the natural world such as ‘In tír na nóg’ or ‘death for only one’ – they give a real sense of being completely at home or enveloped in nature. The image ‘three hægtessan’ reminded me again of his work! Especially ‘two travellers’ or ‘men of destiny’ – not the style so much as the sense the images all conjure of figures stepping between a mystical/magical world (which the viewer cannot enter or understand) and our own world. beautiful article, thank you.

  2. Fascinating! I can see why this epithet applied to Hild. It brings to mind a curious parallel in some of the ancient Greek tragedies when there’s an underlying fear of women having power. Thank you for sharing your imagery and your work! These words may strike fear in the ancient world, but they give a shiver of pride in all their terrifying magnificence.

  3. Powerful martial women riding over the barrows of the dead? Hedgeriders navigating the boundaries of the living and the dead? It’s difficult not to see parallels with the Valkyries as some sort of martially inclined psychopomp. Hellrune might also fit there.
    Is haegtes also where we get the hedgewitch construction? Though, at least in contemporary fantasy usage that seems to have been leeched of much of its implication of power.

    1. Psychopomps are helpful, in the sense that they guide the dead. Hægtessan are enforcers—likely to send you to the psychopomps if you don’t behave 🙂

      But, yes, I think ‘hedgewitch’ is a good example of how cultural attitudes to women (and other Others) change and are diminished, their only power being sexual. The hedgewitch these days is ditzy, messy, old, forgetful, and incompetent—harmless and amusing rather than frightening. Powerful women in today’s stories (whether page or screen) are always alluring and malevolent.

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