Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Faces of the Golden Queen

Hulda, Holda, Holle, Huldra, Perchta, Berchta, Bertha, Percht, Bircha, Behrta, Huldra, Huld, Hludana, Frau Faste (the lady of the Ember days), Mother Goose, La Reine Pedauque, St. Lucia, Pehta, Kvaternica, Posterli, Quatemberca, Fronfastenweiber; Her name means "the bright one" (Old High German beraht, bereht, from a Common Germanic *berhto-, ultimately root-cognate to Latin flagrare "blaze", flamma "flame")

Station of the Wheel
North-East, Spring Equinox, March, Castle of Revelry, Hare Moon

Hare, Birch, Goose

Broom, Lamp

Frau Holle is an ancient figure. The name Hludana is found in five Latin inscriptions: three from the lower Rhine, one from Münstereifel and one from Beetgum, Frisia all dating from 197 AD- 235 AD. Many attempts have been made to interpret this name. The most steadfast connections are with Frau Holle and Hulda on one hand, and the Old Norse Hloðyn, a byname for the Earth, Thor’s mother, on the other. She is also frequently equated with Nerthus, who also rides in a wagon, and Odin's wife, Frigg, from her alternate names Frau Guaden [Wodan], Frau Goden, and Frau Frekke as well as her position as mistress of the Wild Hunt. The similarity of meaning and etymology between German "Holl(d)a" and Old English "Hella," as well as both being described as leading the dead, could point to a link between them.

Frau Holda is matron of all of women's domestic chores, but none so much as spinning, an activity with strong magical connotations and links to the other world. Spinning traditionally was a woman's task, and one of the few from which they could earn money. Holda first taught the craft of making linen from flax. She governs the cultivation as well as the spinning of flax, and in many respects is similar to the Norse goddess Frigg who governed the spinning of wool and was also close to women.

Holda seems to personify the weather that transforms the land, for when it snows, it is said that Holda is shaking out her feather pillows; fog is smoke from her fire, and thunder is heard when she reels her flax. Holda traditionally appears in either of two forms: that of a snaggle-toothed, crooked-nosed old woman, or a shining youthful maiden clothed in white. As the maiden in white, her garments resemble the gleaming white of a fresh mantle of snow.  She is often crowned with candles or carrying a lantern.

While Holda is generally described as unmarried, and has no children of her own, she is the protectress of children, the kind spirit who would rock a child's cradle when its nurse fell asleep. She is said to own a sacred pool, through which the souls of newborn children enter the world.

In many old descriptions, Bertha had one large foot, sometimes called a goose foot or swan foot. Grimm thought the strange foot symbolizes she may be a higher being who could shapeshift to animal form. He noticed Bertha with a strange foot exist in many languages (German "Berhte mit dem fuoze", French "Berthe au grand pied", Latin "Berhta cum magno pede"): "It is apparently a swan-maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside...and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle".

Bertha is reportedly angered if on her feast day, the traditional meal of fish and gruel is forgotten, and will slit people's bellies open and stuff them with straw if they eat something else that night.

In The Real Personages of Mother Goose, Katherine Elwes Thomas submits that the image and name "Mother Goose", or "Mère l'Oye", may be based upon ancient legends of the wife of King Robert II of France, Berthe la fileuse ("Bertha the Spinner") or Berthe pied d'oie ("Goose-Foot Bertha" ), called in the Midi the Reine Pedauque who, according to Thomas, is often referred in French legends as spinning incredible tales that enraptured children.

In popular legends and fairy-tales distributed extensively throughout Hesse and Thuringia Frau Holle (also Holde, Hulda, Hulle, and Holl) is manifested as a superior being with a helpful disposition who is never cross unless she discovers disorder in household affairs. The legend of Frau Holle is found as far as the Voigtland, past the Rhön mountains in northern Franconia, in the Wetterau up to the Westerwald and from Thuringia to the frontier of Lower Saxony. She is also called Frau Bercht, Frau Percht, and Striga Holda, among other names.

According to Jacob Grimm (1835), Perchta was spoken of in Old High German in the 10th century as Frau Berchta and thought to be a white-robed female spirit. She was known as a goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving, like myths of Holda in Continental German regions. He believes she was the feminine equivalent of Berchtold, and she was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.

In German legend, Holda held her court within the Hörselberg, and from this mountain would issue the Wild Hunt, with her at its head. The faithful Eckhart was said to sit at the base of the mountain warning travellers to return whence they came; he also rode ahead of the Wild Hunt warning people to seek shelter from the coming storm. While Holda in northern Germany is described as leading a procession of the dead, her close counterpart in southern Germany, Perchta, is described as being surrounded by the souls of unborn children, or children who died before they were baptised. This points to Holda's dual role as protectress of souls both entering and leaving this world.

In the folklore of Bavaria and Austria, Perchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes between the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. If they had, they might find a small silver coin next day, in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year.

The word Perchten is plural for Perchta, and this has become the name of her entourage, as well as the name of animal masks worn in parades and festivals in the mountainous regions of Austria. In the 16th century, the Perchten took two forms: Some are beautiful and bright, known as the Schönperchten ("beautiful Perchten"). These bring luck and wealth to the people. The other form is the Schiachperchten ("ugly Perchten") who have fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.

Holda's connection to the spirit world through the magic of spinning and weaving has associated her
Witch with Distaff by Holbein
with witchcraft in Catholic German folklore. She was considered to ride with witches on distaffs (the wooden tool on which spinners tie their raw fiber before spinning it out) which closely resemble the brooms that witches are thought to ride. Likewise, Holda was often identified with Diana in old church documents. As early as the beginning of the eleventh century she appears to have been known as the leader of women and female nocturnal spirits, which "in common parlance are called Hulden from Holda". These women would leave their houses in spirit, going "out through closed doors in the silence of the night, leaving their sleeping husbands behind". They would travel vast distances through the sky, to great feasts, or to battles amongst the clouds.

As a holdover from the old heathen religion, she appears to have been demonized by the new faith. Christian religious texts denounce her worship. It is said of Frau Holle that she flies through the air with witches in her train. The ninth century Canon Episcopi censors women who claim to have ridden with a “crowd of demons.” Burchard's later recension of the same text expands on this in a section titled De arte magica:
“Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda (or, in some manuscripts, strigam Holdam, the witch Holda), who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company? If you have performed participation in this unbelief, you are required to do penance for one year on designated fast-days.”
Later canonical and church documents make her synonymous with Diana, Herodias, Bertha, Richella and Abundia. Historian Carlo Ginzburg has identified remarkably similar beliefs existing throughout Europe for over a thousand years, whereby men and women were thought to leave their bodies in spirit and follow a goddess variously called Holda, Diana, Herodias, Signora Oriente, Richella, Arada and Perchta. He also identifies strong morphological similarities with the earlier goddesses Hecate/Artemis, Artio, the Matres of Engyon, the Matronae and Epona, as well as figures from fairy-tales, such as Cinderella.

A Thesaurus pauperum of 1468 from Tegernsee states: “Diana who is commonly known as Fraw Percht is in the habit of wandering through the night with a host of women.” A 16th century fable recorded by Erasmus Alberus speaks of “an army of women” with sickles in hand sent by Frau Hulda. Thomas Reinesius in the 17th century speaks of Werra of the Voigtland and her “crowd of maenads.” And in 1630, a man was convicted at a witch trial in Hesse for having ridden in the Wild Hunt of Frau Holle. She is clearly identified as a goddess of the old religion. In 1494, Stephanus Lanzkrana in Die Hymelstrass, admonishes those who believe in “frawn percht, frawn hold, herodyasis or dyana, the heathen goddess.” Martin of Amberg says that meat and drink are left standing for her, indicating a sacrifice.

Holda figures in some pre-Christian Alpine traditions that have survived to modern times. During the Christmas period in the alpine regions of Germany, Austria and northern Switzerland, wild masked processions are still held in a number of towns, impersonating Holda, Perchta or related beings, and the wild hunt. Vivid visual descriptions of her may allude to a popular costumed portrayal, perhaps as part of a seasonal festival or holiday drama. In 1522, in The Exposition of the Epistles at Basel, Martin Luther writes:
    Here cometh up Dame Hulde with the snout, to wit, nature, and goeth about to gainstay her God and give him the lie, hangeth her old ragfair about her, the straw-harness; then falls to work and scrapes it featly on her fiddle.
A Huldra
According to Oberlin, Luther compares Nature rebelling against God to the heathenish Hulda “with the frightful nose.” Martin of Amberg calls her Percht mit der eisen nasen, “with the iron nose.” Vintler calls her Frau Percht with the long nose and a MHG manuscript refers to her as Berchten mit der langen nas. She is known as Trempe, the trampling one, and Stempe, the stamping one. She and her train are expected to make a racket.

In Scandinavian folklore, the Huldra (in Norwegian culture, derived from a root meaning "covered" or "secret"), or the skogsrå or skogsfru/skovfrue (meaning "Lady (read, counterpart of a Lord) of the forest") or Tallemaja (pine tree Mary) in Swedish culture, is a seductive forest creature. The huldra is a stunningly beautiful, sometimes naked woman with long hair; though from behind she is hollow like an old tree trunk, and has an animal's tail. In Norway, she has a cow's tail, and in Sweden she may have that of a cow or a fox. Further in the north of Sweden, the tail can be entirely omitted in favor of her hollow or bark-covered back.

In Norway, the huldra has often been described as a typical dairymaid, wearing the clothes of a regular farm girl, although somewhat more dazzling or prettier than most girls.

The huldras were held to be kind to colliers, watching their charcoal kilns while they rested. Knowing that she would wake them if there were any problems, they were able to sleep, and in exchange they left provisions for her in a special place. A tale from Närke illustrates further how kind a huldra could be, especially if treated with respect.
    A boy in Tiveden went fishing, but he had no luck. Then he met a beautiful lady, and she was so stunning that he felt he had to catch his breath. But, then he realized who she was, because he could see a fox's tail sticking out below the skirt. As he knew that it was forbidden to comment on the tail to the lady of the forest, if it were not done in the most polite manner, he bowed deeply and said with his softest voice, "Milady, I see that your petticoat shows below your skirt". The lady thanked him gracefully and hid her tail under her skirt, telling the boy to fish on the other side of the lake. That day, the boy had great luck with his fishing and he caught a fish every time he threw out the line. This was the huldra's recognition of his politeness.
In some traditions, the huldra lures men into the forest to have sexual intercourse with her, rewarding those who satisfy her and often killing those who do not. The Norwegian huldra is a lot less bloodthirsty and may simply kidnap a man or lure him into the underworld. She sometimes steals human infants and replaces them with her own ugly huldrebarn (changeling huldre children).

Sometimes she marries a local farm boy, but when this happens, the glamour leaves her when the priest lays his hand on her, or when she enters the church. Some legends tell of husbands who subsequently treat her badly. Some fairy tales leave out this feature, and only relate how a marriage to a Christian man will cause her to lose her tail, but not her looks, and let the couple live happily ever after. However if she is treated badly, she will remind him that she is far from weak, often by straightening out a horseshoe with her bare hands, sometimes while it is still glowing hot from the forge.


  1. Frau Holle is also sometimes syncretized with Saint Ursula, because of their association with the Hörselberg and position as psychopomp-like characters. This can be found in books like "Myths and Myth-makers" by John Fiske, Sabine Baring-Gould's "The Lives of the Saints" and the "Zeitschrift für deutsche Mythologie und Sittenkunde".

  2. Interesting! I live in a town called Lanaken (Belgium). In the ninth century it was called Ludinaca. Personally I think this is a symbiose of Hludana and ache. Ache means creek or small river in Germanic. Indeed there is an ancient creek. The main catholic church is known to be devoted to Saint Ursula since at least the eleventh century.(!)Lanaken has always been the mountanious gate to a big forrest and still is. Maastricht, in ancient times famous for top notch linnen (flax connection)is only five miles away. And we still have a witch as patronesse of carnival! Amazing huh!

  3. Very much appreciate this and all the information presented, just wish a bibliography had been included.


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