In Germanic folklore, Frau Holda or Holle is the supernatural matron of spinning, childbirth and domestic animals, and is also associated with winter, witches and the Wild Hunt. Her name is cognate withScandinavian beings known as the Huldra and the völva Huld, and Jacob Grimmtraced her to a goddess of Germanic antiquity.
Frau Holle is an ancient figure. The name Hludana is found in five Latin inscriptions: three from the lower Rhine (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum XIII 8611, 8723, 8661), one from Münstereifel (CIL XIII, 7944) and one from Beetgum, Frisia (CIL XIII, 8830) 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 Hlóðyn, 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.
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.
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: see Weaving (mythology). 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.
Frau Holda teaches, inspires and rewards the hard worker, sometimes finishing an industrious worker’s reels for her during the night, but she punishes the lazy, fouling their work. Festivals are observed for Holda in parts of Germany, generally on Christmas Eve (see Sources below) or Twelfth Night, or for the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, and during these times there are often prohibitions regarding spinning. In Swabiaall spinning must be finished by Christmas Eve, and no new work begun until the end of the Twelfth Night. Near the Hörselberg the opposite is the case: flax is loaded onto the spindles on Christmas Eve, when Holda begins her rounds promising As many threads, as many good years, and all must be finished by the time she returns at Epiphany, this time promising As many threads, as many bad years.
While governing domestic chores, Holda is also strongly associated with the outside wilderness, wild animals and places remote from man. Frau Holda’s festival is in the middle of winter, the time when humans retreat indoors from the cold; it may be of significance that the Twelve Days of Christmas were originally the Zwölften (“the Twelve”), which like the same period in the Celtic calendar were an intercalary periodduring which the dead were thought to roam abroad. 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.
Protectress of children
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.
Many pools, wells or fountains are associated with the water-holda (roughly translated) throughout Germany. She haunts lakes and fountains and is seen as a fair White Lady bathing in the water and disappearing, a trait in which she resembles Nerthus. Like Nerthus, she too drives about in a wagon, sometimes requiring the help of a peasant to repair it. When he carves a new linchpin for her, she pays him with the cast-off wood chips which turn into gold if he is wise enough to take them. Young women would sometimes bathe in the icy Alpine pools in the hopes of becoming healthy fertile mothers.
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.
As mistress of the Wild Hunt, she is alternately known as frau Gode, frau Gaue, and frau Woden, demonstrating her connection to Odin. Agricultural customs of the region also preserve relics of pagan religion. When mowing rye, the villagers let some stalks stand, tie flowers among them, and when finished with their work gather around them and shout three times: “Fru Gaue, you keep some fodder, this year on the wagon.” In Prignitz, they call her fru Gode and leave a bunch of grain standing in each field which they call “Fru Gode’s portion.” In the district of Hameln, it was custom, if a reaper while binding sheaves passed over one, to jeer and call out: “Is that for fru Gauen?!” The name Gauen connects this legendary figure directly to Odin. In Old Norse, the fourth day of the week is known as Oðinsdagr, Odin’s day. In Swedish and Danish, it is Onsdag; in North Frisian, Winsdei; in Middle Dutch, Woensdach; in Anglo-Saxon, Wodenes dæg, but in Westphalia, they call it Godenstag, Gonstag, Gaunstag, Gunstag, and in documents from the Lower Rhine, Gudestag and Gudenstag. Similarly, in the History of the Lombards, the first literary appearance of Odin and his wife, Odin is known as Godan. Grimm observes that a dialect which says fauer instead of foer, foder will equally have Gaue for Gode, Guode. Thus, in Frau Gauen or Gauden, German farmers have preserved the memory of a Mrs. Odin at work beside her husband in the fields long after the coming of Christianity.
Because of this direct connection to Odin, Jacob Grimm came to believe that Frau Holla was a remembrance of Odin’s wife. In the third volume of his Deutsche Mythologie, Grimm writes: “I am more and more convinced that Holda can be nothing but an epithet of the mild and ‘gracious’ Fricka; and Berhta, the shining, is identical with her too.” In Lower Saxony, the parts assigned to Frau Holle are played by fru Freke corresponding to Anglo-Saxon Fricg, Old High German Frikka, Frikkia, Old Norse Frigg. Johann Georg von Eckhart (1664-1730) in De orgine Germanorum (p. 398) writes: “The common people of the Saxons honor Frau Freke, who bestows on them gifts, the same whom the nobles amongst the Saxons reckon as Holda.” In Westphalia, the name of an old convent, Freckenhorst, Frickenhorst points to a sacred hurst or grove of Frecka (feminine), or of Fricko (masculine) compare Frœcinghyrst. Adalbert Kuhn also found evidence of a fru Freke in the Ukermark, where she is called Fruike, which corresponds to fru Harke in the Mittelmark and fru Gode in the Prignitz. This identification makes sense in light of the History of the Lombards and the Second Merseburg Charm, which prove a knowledge and a veneration of Frigg in the same area in the centuries before the Frau Holle legend came to be recorded.
Matron of witches
Holda’s connection to the spirit world through the magic of spinning and weaving has associated her with witchcraft in Catholic German folklore. She was considered to ride with witches on distaffs, 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 Ginzburghas 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 andEpona, 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 H 94, 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.
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. Costumed Christmas traditions are well-known throughout northern Europe, including England and Scandinavia.
Holda in fairy tales
The most famous account of Holda was collected by the Brothers Grimm, the fairy tale Mother Hulda (German: Frau Holle):
A mother had two daughters, the elder was spoilt and idle, the younger one unloved and overworked. Every day, the younger would sit outside the cottage and spin beside the well. One day she pricked her finger on the point of the spindle (compare Sleeping Beauty). When she washed the blood away, the spindle fell from her hand and sank out of sight. When she leapt into the well after it, she found herself in the otherworld of Hulda, who kept her as maidservant for several weeks. Then Hulda was so impressed by the girl’s meekness and industry she sent her back to her family with an apronful of gold.
The mother sent the lazy daughter down the well to get more gold. Copying her sister, the lazy daughter bloodied her finger and leapt into the well. But Mother Hulda reproved her idle nature by sending her home covered with tar (Note: The German word used in the story is “Pech”, which can mean either pitch (resen) or bad luck.)
Grimm based his theory of Holda on what he took to be the earliest references to her: an eleventh-century interpolation to the Canon Episcopiby Burchard of Worms, and pre-Christian Roman inscriptions to Hludana that he tentatively linked to the same divinity. There were early challenges to connecting this figure with a pagan goddess, since her earliest definite appearance links her with the Virgin Mary, commonly called “Queen of Heaven”: an early-13th-century text listing superstitions states that “In the night of Christ’s Nativity they set the table for the Queen of Heaven, whom the people call Frau Holda, that she might help them”.Lotte Motz and Carlo Ginzburg both conclude that she is pre-Christian in origin, based on comparison with other remarkably similar figures and ritual observances spread throughout Europe. Ginzburg proposes that these mythical structures have their origins in the ancient shamanism of central Eurasia.
A pagan Holda received wide distribution in catalogs of superstitions and in sermons during the fifteenth century, and in the sixteenth, Martin Luther employed the image to personify the shortcomings of hostile Reason in theological contexts.