Who is the Goddess Holda?
What we know from myth, history, and inspiration
by Shannon Graves
Holda is a Germanic goddess with many interesting characteristics – maiden, mother, hag, spinner, stormbringer, ruler of the Wild Hunt, protector and thief of children’s souls. She was usually seen dressed in snow-white with white or silver hair, regardless of whether she appears as young and beautiful or as an old hag. In this latter form, she is said to have crooked teeth, a big nose, and one foot flatter than the other from working the spinning wheel. She wears keys at her belt, the sign of the lady of the house.
First, she is a goddess of the domestic arts – spinning, cooking, cleaning, and child care. She is a patroness of housewives, and what she values above all is industriousness. There are many legends of her rewarding diligent female workers and punishing lazy ones. She would rock cradles while exhausted mothers slept, and
Her preference for hard workers is reflected in the German folktale of “Frau Holle”, where a young girl falls down the well into a strange underworld. She helps every creature she meets, and willingly cleans for the old woman in her cottage, after which the old woman sends her back with a gift – a gold piece falls from her lips every time she speaks. Her mother, amazed, forces her lazy sister down the well; the sister refuses to help anyone and the old woman sends her back with a different gift – instead of gold, toads drop from her lips when she says anything.
She was especially stern when it came to women who were lazy about spinning, which was her specialty – particularly the spinning of flax. One legend has a peasant man stumbling into a cave in a mountain where Holda is seated enthroned with maidens clustered about her. She offers to give the dazed man a gift; humbly, he asks for the cluster of blue flowers in her hand. These were the flowers of flax, which according to the tale was unknown in that area at the time. Holda gave the man some flaxseeds, and eventually taught his wife to ret, scotch, break, and spin flax, thus giving us a myth about the beginning of flax culture. Holda was implacable about using her gift properly; hard workers who fell asleep over their work would awake to find their spinning done for them, while lazy women would find their spindles broken or burned.
She was also a protectress of children, although some of her myths might seem quite the opposite at first glance. It was said that Holda collected the souls of dead children, usually infants who died too soon – before being christened in Christian times, before being named in the days before that. In pre-Christian times, children were named at nine days old, and before that were believed not to be attached to the ancestral tree. If they died before that time, Holda would take them on instead of their ancestors. She also took children of other ages, for various reasons. The darker side of her myth had her stealing the lives of otherwise healthy children. She was said to travel as an old woman in a wagon, flanked by a procession of childrens’ dead souls.
Second, Holda is a goddess of Winter. She was said to bring on the first snowflakes of the year; they were referred to as Mother Holda plucking her geese, or shaking out her goose-feather pillows and comforters until the down flew. She is the White Lady during this time, the silver-haired goddess who knits the white blanket of the snow. She was also associated with other weather phenomenon – when it rained, Holda was doing her washing; lightning was her scotching the flax; the fog was the smoke from her chimney. Her association with Winter ties into her craft of fibre arts; winter was the time when people stayed inside and turned the summer’s wool and flax into clothing.
Yule, the longest day of winter, was her holiday, and until recently she was one of the Christmas gift-givers in parts of Germany. There she was pictured as a red-cloaked witch on a broom who would fill children’s shoes with goodies and then move on. German children left milk and bread for her, in hopes of better presents.
The earlier myth had her leading a Wild Hunt at Yuletide, rife with the howling spirits of her aforementioned dead children, quite different from Odin’s Wild Hunt with its dead warriors … yet, to my thinking, even more horrific. A Middle Dutch term for the Milky Way was Vroneldenstraet, the highway of Frau Hulde.
Some scholars equate her with Perchta, another Germanic goddess with similar attributes, but much crueler and bloodier. Some of the worshipers of Perchta say the two are the same, but some (especially those who work directly with Perchta) say that they are two separate goddesses who happen to have overlapping areas of expertise.
Third, Holda is a goddess of witches. While many modern Pagans find this to be an insult, created by medieval churchmen who tried to vilify an old and revered goddess by associating her with witch-cults, I am not so sure that this is an insult. Certainly as someone who is a kitchen witch myself, and a former British Traditional Wiccan, I find Holda’s patronage of witches to be comforting and a great honour. During the Middle Ages, instead of leading her Wild Hunt made solely of dead children, she added the ride of the flying witches to it, along with other random heretics. They may either have been the last survivors of a Pagan tradition or simply rebels against the restrictive medieval church, harking back to a more magical time that still bubbled in their blood.
Accounts of these witches claim that they used various methods to leave their bodies and journey to Holda’s mountain, where they hailed her as their queen. In this, we can see that Holda is a goddess who can be called upon for aid in journeying, faring forth in trance. She is also associated with the witches’ work of knot magic (sacred fibre arts), potions (sacred cooking), and shapeshifting into cats or livestock. Every kitchen witch who has found magic in the normal arts of domesticity has entered into Holda’s realm.
Fourth, Holda is a goddess of the Underworld, but despite what some scholars claim she bears no resemblance to Hel. The myth of Frau Holle shows her in a mysterious world reached by falling down a well; other myths show her inside a mountain. This is not Underworld as Realm Of All The Dead, as ruled by Hel, but of a very specific sort of underworld. Both Holda and Hel were associated with the Elder tree, Hollebier and Holantar in German, whose spirit (also seen as a dignified old woman) is said to guard the road to the Underworld … be it quiet Helheim or Holda’s magical realm. The Elder tree was known as the “medicine chest of the common people” because its leaves, flowers, stems, and berries were all useful for different ailments. Like the Elder spirit, Holda was also associated with bodies of water such as fens, bogs, springs, wells, and ponds. Newborn children were said to have been pulled wet from Holda’s pond. Her Underworld is more easily achieved by falling through the water than walking the road of the Dead.
If anything, Holda’s underworld realm bears more resemblance to the faery realms, the People Under The Hill. This brings us to another point: Holda is a goddess of the faery folk. At least one race of faeries, the Huldrefolk, may be named for her. They were woodwives, fair maidens with cow’s tails which they endeavoured to hide from potential human suitors. In other folktales, Huldrefolk included a number of different sorts of elves and faeries, all under Holda’s protection. In medieval times, faeries were often thought to be the reborn souls of dead unbaptised infants, which brings us back to Holda’s retinue again. Indeed, she is said to ride in another kind of procession, dressed in grey and holding a milk bucket, at the head of a flock of Huldrefolk. In this aspect, she has a special sad music that is sung for her, known as huldreslaat.
Holda certainly has this love of wagon processions in common with the Vanic Gods, who were also often carried about in wagons. Also similar to the Vanic Gods, Holda’s mortal processions sometimes carried either a plough or a ship to symbolize her help in both agriculture and navigation, reminding us or Frey and Njord.
In Nordic literature, there is a giantess named Hulda in Sturlunga’s Saga who may be related to Holda (or may be Holda). In the Ynglinga saga, the Völva and Seithkona named Hulla may be related to Holda. She also may be related to a woman named Hulda who was said to have had an affair with Odin, bearing the goddesses Thorgerdhr and Irpa who appear in various Germanic sagas. They may have been local land-goddesses in Germany, giantesses who had cults in their own right.
Holda is a magnificent Goddess who managed to hold her own throughout the darkness of the Middle Ages, a versatile lady with many different sides to her worship, who deserves all due credit. May she be hailed, and honoured with this shrine!………………………………………………………………………By Thorsigurd AOR
First published in ORB 200, Spring 2006
Having studied our lore for quite some time now, I have recently become fascinated with minor and regional Gods and Goddesses, mainly those that have not been given overly attention by any of the Sagas. With another Yule having drawn by, I decided to devote some study to one of the Goddesses connected to this time of year, more specifically one who was worshipped mainly among the tribes of nowadays Germany, and part of whose memory is preserved until present day in the folklore of Germany, Switzerland and my native Austria: Holda.
First, one should maybe consider Holda’s position in our mythology, one that is not trivial at all, and in fact very complex and even complicated. Holda is preserved in many folktales, where she has been given a variety of names such as Holde (which stands for “merciful”), Perchta, Berta (“Bright”), Frau Freke, Frau Gode and most famously so, Frau Holle.
Notable is maybe that both the name Frau Freke and the theme that surrounds her are closely related to the myth surrounding the Norse Goddess Frigg; and since the information about Frigg, by reference to various sources of Teutonic mythology is rather limited and scarce, the myth and tradition in honour of Holda could be vital in reconstructing the position of Frigg in our lore, and more importantly, the position she had in the daily lives of our ancestors.
Going into more detail here, we will realize that this correlation with Frigg is not on grounds of a single occurrence, but that similarities are apparent throughout the sources we can rely on.
As such, a further indication that Frigg and Holda could be two names for the same person can be found in a name she has been given, “Frau Gode”. It is probable that this is related to Odin, who in German regions is called Wotan, and whose name in the old proto-Germanic language, Wodanaz. Indeed, there was a shift in sound from W to G in German in the early medieval, which has also left many place names with the prefix Gode-; most famously so, Bad Godesberg, which is now part of Bonn, Germany.1 Mrs. Gode would thus be Odin’s wife by logic – which again suggests a synonymous nature to Frigg.
Another clue may be that in several local legends, Holda is presented as a Goddess of Healing, and is equalled to the Earth-Goddess Nerthus, who in other regions is referred to as Hludana or Hlodyn; the latter name being used in Stanza 51 of the Voluspa for Thor’s mother. This particular link is based upon the assumption that Nerthus and Frigg might also be of a synonymous nature, a topic which this article will not deal with overly, as William P. Reaves has sufficiently done so in his article “Nerthus: Toward an Identification”. Indeed, several names for a specific deity seem to be quite commonplace in Germanic mythology – Odin alone has at over fifty2, and his son Thor has among others the following names: Asa-Thor, Oku-Thor and Wingthor.
Holda is also preserved to a great extent in German folklore. The most famous folktale about her was written down in the early 19th century CE, by the Brothers Grimm. Here she is referred to as “Frau Holle”. She has the role of both a good grandmother (to the girl who helps wilfully) and a hag (to the girl’s lazy half-sister who refuses to be of any help). On the surface, this seems to be merely a story of morals, but it reminds of the celebration of Christmas (thus, Yule): She rewards those who have been good, but punishes those who have been bad.
A further indication of her as a Yule goddess can be found in the idea that “when Frau Holle makes her bed, it snows”. Needless to say, snow is a sign of winter, which is the season in whose midst we celebrate Yule. Also, some of her names are linked very closely to light, especially Perchta and Berta. Again this suggests the time of Yule – as it is indeed the time of year when we celebrate the return of the sun. The idea of her being a Yule goddess is reinforced in many folkish traditions. Again, I will explain this at a later stage.
What may also be of interest is the way she is portrayed. She is sometimes referred to as a Goddess of beauty (which could, however, be rooted in the fact that the name of Frigg – Frija – and the name of Freya – Freyja – are often confused), yet sometimes as an old hag. The “hag” part may however be a later, Christian, infusion. Thus, we are left with the idea that she is a Goddess of beauty and also an old woman – a concept that appears very alien to the time we live in, where the words “youth” and “beauty” are often used interchangeably. Yet, this serves as an indication that older women – and old people in general – were respected a lot more than sadly is the case today.
Nevertheless, what almost all of the legends agree upon is her portrait as a spinstress. This idea is most famously reinforced in the popular Yuletide story, Die Blaue Blume. Here she appears as the guardian of a cave – a cave which appears in a number of local German folktales as the habitat of Holda, and which is generally conceived to be the one of the caves of the Hoher Meißner mountain in Hessen, Germany. In this story a man enters her cave by coincidence, while he is in pursuit of escaped cattle. The woman who lives in the cave offers him to choose among all of her treasures, and he picks a bunch of blue flowers, despite the abundance of jewels and diamonds. These flowers then multiply in his garden the following spring; and as a reward, the woman pays the man and his wife a visit. During that time she shows them how to spin flax from them.
Furthermore, a number of sources, mention her as a patroness of all women and children – which again contributes to the idea that there is at least a connection, if not a correspondence to Frigg.
Interestingly enough, while most of the gods are only known to us from the lore that is preserved, traditions devoted to Holda were continued even after our ancestors where Christianized; and some of these traditions are conducted up to the modern day.
In previous times (and still today in some rural societies) a bowl of milk was set upon the table on “Christmas Day” and is left there while the family went to the mass. This was to symbolize the fertility that Holda’s name is connected with. It is also known that youths dressed up and carried a large image of a goddess figure through the village as the part of a happy procession.
More distantly related is also the tradition of the Perchtenlauf in southern Germany and Austria, where people dress up as demons during the twelve days between Christmas Eve and Three Kings Day – the time span corresponds to our own twelve days of Yule.3 The reasons why people dressed up as demons may be diverse, but a certain theory could be of particular interest:
The tradition appears to be based upon the myth of the Holdafolk. These are mountain spirits that wander about the forest, the hills and the highlands. They are rather small, and quite fair, but often have a deformity, such as a hollow back or a tail. They are generally conceived to be well wishing, but as the tales have it, they need to be approached with some caution, just like any other spirits one might meet along the road.
It remains however possible that these were seen to be an “army” of ancestral spirits – as it is widely known that Yule, among other things, is a time where the connection to the ancestral spirits is particularly close.
Either way, during the twelve Rauhenächte, processions are conducted
with these “devils” as protagonists – and of course, both ancestral spirits, and fair but deformed creatures as remnants of heathen times would have been seen as such in Christian society. To be afraid of any kind of wight travelling about indeed seems to be a motive that was quite common to the time – one may just refer to the reactions of the people regarding the repeated hauntings that occur in Eyrbyggja Saga.
Furthermore we can also suggest that once our Folk was Christianized that the practice, otherwise also known as the “Wild Hunt”, was extended to include other creatures that were feared. It is even possible that Holda herself, as a heathen goddess was seen as a demon. However, we can only assume the wider reasons behind this ancient and extensive custom; and to deal with them in brief would hardly do them the justice that is due.
Finally, in regards to traditions, we realize that Holda had the twelfth night of Yule allocated to her. Interestingly enough, in Old High German, the name of this night is perahtun naht – meaning “the luminous night”. The connection both to the goddess (as another name for her is “Perchta”) and the general idea of the celebration of Yule can hardly be a coincidence.
On a last note, one may find interest in her connection to the Elder Tree. It has been mentioned beforehand that a number of sources deal with her as a goddess of healing. Indeed, the Elder Tree can be said to be connected to Holda – not at last because of its Old High German name holanthar; and even its modern German name Holunder (or Holler) bears some resemblance. Elder was held as a sacred tree and could not be cut without a prayer, and was furthermore not sown but left to grow on its own. Most importantly however, it is still used as a vital ingredient in the natural medical recipes of many areas of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Hail to our Gods!
Who is the Goddess Holda?