Hægtessan & Burgrune

Taken as a gloss for “witch”, the word has uncertain origin and has also been strongly associated with “Hag” or “Crone”, however the Old High German cognate, hagusizze has the meaning of “border/hedge-sitter” and may specifically relate to a class of females who would literally sit upon the border or boundaries of sanctuaries such that they straddled them and received power and knowledge from being dwellers of both the profane and the sacred.

These women were also associated with some of the characteristics of the Wælcyrige in sharing their raw and bloody power. The term “Hægtesse” is referred to in the Lacnunga charm, Wið Færstice as a specific group associated with other beings of the Otherworld (Namely, the gods and elves) therefore these women may well have been supernatural in origin, considered to be powerful, almost deific in origin and certainly to be feared by mere mortals, yet possessed of extraordinary insight and knowledge.

Both Bede and Coifi refer to heathen temples in similar fashion indicating the importance of boundaries when setting aside the sacred from the profane:

ða wīgbed ond þa hergas þara deofogilda mid heora hegum”

“…the altars and the harrows of the temples with their boundaries” (Coifi c.627 AD)

“…aras et fana iodlorum cum septis quibus erant cirumdata”

“…the altars and temples of the idols, with the fences by which they were surrounded” (Bede 731 AD)

The fact that Bede remarked on the boundaries of the sanctuaries implies that these were significant and has allowed us to draw the conclusion that some form of emphatic boundary would be necessary to designate the point at which the worshipper crossed from the profane to the sacred space.

The significance of sitting on a boundary is that it is a liminal space, open to influences from both sides and thus important in the heathen worldview. We know from evidence that those who worked magic or sought information from the Otherworld were in the habit of sitting on a barrow mound in Norse traditions and that this was known to the Anglo-Saxons similarly “sittan sundor æt rune” or “sit apart in secret thought”.

The Hægtessan are remembered in the place-names of England, such as Hascombe (Surrey ) and Hescombe (Somerset) meaning, literally “Witch Valley”.

A Burgrune has similar meaning, specifically “female skilled in mysteries of the high place” and is also glossed from the Latin “parcas” meaning “fates” which ties in well with practices of divination in high places on platforms raised above the surrounding land, such as seiðr rites. The term may have some reflection upon tales such as Rapunzel and the Germanic seeress Veleda who performed her prophetic magic in a high tower. The boundaries that would be straddled in this example may be between earth and sky as profane and sacred places, set apart from more traditional sanctuaries.

A Hægrune means “one of the boundary who is skilled in mysteries” and is one of a group of terms associated with female supernatural or magical figures, also including Leodrune “one skilled in mysteries within the tribe” or Helrune meaning “one skilled in the mysteries of the world of the dead” and could therefore reflect a more shamanic leaning, involving the Otherworld in journeys and necromancy.

Of particular interest is that these roles appear entirely associated with powerful female supernatural beings with extraordinary powers and magical abilities. There appears to be no male cognate and thus the domain of prophecy, divination and mystery seems to be exclusively female. The one notable exception to this is that of Wōden himself, whose use of magic to divine information and wisdom seems to be unique in terms of male deities that are known within the Anglo-Saxon pantheon.