In the mythology of the people of Hesse in Germany, perhaps the most well-known character is that of ‘Frau Holle’. Exposed to the world at large in the writings of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, she has remained an important and intriguing cornerstone of German folk mythology, and is generally considered to represent a demoted form of the great European goddess of old. That she appears to share such similarities to ‘An Cailleach’ of Gaelic folklore is all the more interesting given the supposed divide between the ideas of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ mythology.
‘Frau Holle’ was in fact only one of her many names – the version common in Hesse and Thuringia, from where many of her traditions are recorded. Throughout the northern German and Scandinavian regions she went by a number of other epithets, including ‘Holda’ and ‘Frau Gode’. In the southern regions of Germany she was often known as ‘Perchta’, ‘Berchta’ or ‘Bertha’. As befits the protean Great Goddess of old Europe, the names exhibit a degree of plasticity, having been preserved in oral traditions beyond the era when ‘she’ was officially accepted as a deity. However, in the face of modernisation and the rejection of old customs during the 19thC, we owe her existence in thought and memory today largely to Willhelm Grimm and his tale ‘Frau Holle – Gold Mary and Pitch Mary’, first recounted to him by a Hessian woman called Dortchen Wild on 29th September 1811. The following is the revised 1857 version of this tale:
A widow had two daughters, the one was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. She greatly favored the ugly, lazy girl, because she was her own daughter. And the other one had to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house.
Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, next to the highway, and spin so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the reel was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off, but it dropped out of her hand and fell in. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her of the mishap. She scolded her so sharply, and was so merciless that she said, “Since you have let the reel fall in, you must fetch it out again.”
Then the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified, she jumped into the well to get the reel. She lost her senses. And when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She walked across this meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other.
After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.” cried the tree. So she shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining apples. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a pile, and then continued on her way.
Finally she came to a small house. An old woman was peering out from inside. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, and she wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you do my housework in an orderly fashion, it will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Frau Holle.”
Because the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Frau Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and boiled or roast meat every day.
Now after she had been with Frau Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off here than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”
Frau Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.
The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Frau Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the reel which had fallen into the well.
With that the gate was closed and the girl found herself above on earth, not far from her mother’s house. And as she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried:
Our golden girl is here anew.
Then she went inside to her mother, and as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for the other, the ugly and lazy daughter. She made her go and sit by the well and spin. And to make her reel bloody, the lazy girl pricked her fingers and shoved her hand into a thorn bush. Then she threw the reel into the well, and jumped in herself.
Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”
But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.
Soon she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe.”
But she answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.
When she came to Frau Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Frau Holle, when she said something to her, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she already began to be lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning. She did not make the bed for Frau Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Frau Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her of her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted, for she thought that she would now get the rain of gold.
Frau Holle led her too to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.
Then the lazy girl went home, entirely covered with pitch. As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out:
Our dirty girl is here anew.
And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.
The tale exhibits certain key traits that equate Frau Holle with the old European goddess: Firstly, Frau Holle’s world is reached through water into which a bloody spinning reel is dropped. She lives in a beautiful meadow or garden, where her work appears to be baking bread and growing apples. These are, as it happens, the ‘bounty’ depicted on Roman era statues of the goddess known as ‘Nehalennia’ from Zeeland in the Low Countries. She has the power to reward respect and hard work with worldly wealth, and to punish idleness in equal measure. Other traditions about her were subsequently collected and written down, inspired by the recently-recovered Icelandic Edda literature which opened peoples’ eyes to the Old Gods of the Scandinavians and Germans. People were eager to trace a link between folktales and childrens’ rhymes with these, and Frau Holle/Holda became a representative case of a recovered goddess, taken to task by the other Grimm, Jacob, in his seminal work Deutsche Mytholgie (1835).
Grimm found Holda/Perchta strongly associated with the female art of spinning, firmly connected with the traditions of Yuletide and 12th night, the rider of a wagon who was engaged to do work for farmers. She was ascribed a golden bucket from which rivers of water fell as she climbed hills. Holda/Perchta was also associated with the care of unbaptized souls (i.e. – children who died before baptism), and was portrayed as a leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ usually associated with Woden himself. This led Grimm to make the equation of Holle/Perchta with Frigg and Freyja. She certainly fitted the type of the kind of chthonic fertility goddess we see depicted on Roman era shrines to the Matres/Matronae and Nehalennia, however Grimm had little to say about an identity between Nehalennia and Holda, who I suggest are the same. The name ‘Halen’ is derived by removing the celtic definite article Ne- and the terminal -ia. ‘Hollen’ was another of Holda’s names – associating her with the ‘Tree of the Dead’, the Elder (Sambucus Nigra).
The earliest reference to Holda by name appears to come from the pen of a 13thC Cistercian monk, known only to us as Rudolph, who noted the following custom:
“In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regina celi quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet.”
“On the night of Christ’s nativity, they set the table in honour of the queen of heaven, commonly known as Holda”
This fits with Grimm’s observations about an association with Yuletide. The Cistercians of the 13thC were hell-bent on correcting any slippages back into heathenism, and were perhaps the greatest promoters of the cult of the Virgin Mary, who was their patron saint. The term ‘queen of heaven’ was applied to her in particular. Contemporary Cistercian authors such as Jocelyn of Furness appear to have gone out of their way to re-forge many old pagan narratives into Christian ones, as can be seen in his Life of St Kentigern. They were up against the popular courtly tales of Arthur & Co, which were almost explicit in their dealing with the goddess, as well as opposing religious sects such as the Cathars of the Pays d’Oc and Italy. In spite of adding an overlay of ‘Mariology’ to medieval Europe’s mythology, they failed to expel the memory and stories of ‘Holda’. Of particular interest to this reference by Rudolph is that the Anglo-Saxon author Bede (‘De Temporum Ratione’ – 8thC) recorded that the heathens celebrated an observance called Mōdraniht on Christmas eve: This means ‘Mothers Night’.