One of the magic words for which there is no male form, suggesting its original meaning was close to "diviner, soothsayer," which were always female in northern European paganism, and hægtesse seem at one time to have meant "woman of prophetic and oracular powers" If the hægtesse once was a powerful supernatural woman (in Norse it is an alternative word for Norn, any of the three weird sisters, the equivalent of the Fates), it might originally have carried the hawthorn sense. Later, when the pagan magic was reduced to local scatterings, it might have had the sense of "hedge-rider," or "she who straddles the hedge," because the hedge was the boundary between the civilized world of the village and the wild world beyond. The hægtesse would have a foot in each reality. Even later, when it meant the local healer and root collector, living in the open and moving from village to village, it may have had the mildly pejorative Middle English sense of hedge- (hedge-priest, etc.), suggesting an itinerant sleeping under bushes. The same word could have contained all three senses before being reduced to its modern one.
Pic: From The Little Bones Women © Rig Svenson
Through interpretations of some of the archaeological treasures of the Swedish National Museum, now on display in Edinburgh, Dr Janina Ramirez of Oxford University explores the fascinating wealth of Viking culture and its long-lasting influence on the British Isles.