In German lore, Holda was the protectress of women and women's crafts. She is likely equated with the Scandinavian goddess Hulda. She is also equated with Frigg, Odin's wife as we learned previously, and "the Mistress of the Wild Hunt" in Norse mythology.
Of all female crafts, Holda was most protective of spinning. She is said to have taught women how to cultivate, harvest, and spin flax into linen. Holda inspires and rewards the hard worker and punishes the lazy and messy worker. Indeed she is best known from the Grimm fairy tale in which she praises her industrious daughter (as the loving mother) as the girl sits at her spinning wheel and bloodies her finger as she spins, but rails against her "lazy" daughter as the old crone.
We cannot overstate the importance of spinning before the Industrial Revolution. Think of how much thread needed to be spun in order to weave fabric to make garments?! "Girls learned to spin as soon as they could toddle, and women spent much of their time with a distaff tucked under one arm. Holda might reward an industrious spinster by finishing her work for her overnight. A lazy woman was punished by having her distaff burned or her flax spoiled." (Idunna 30, 1997)
She is honored during the 12 days of Christmas and there are prohibitions against spinning during this time. In Swabia, in Southeastern Germany, all spinning must be finished on Christmas Eve and no new work can begin until Twelfth Night.
In the Horselberg region, the opposite is true. Flax is loaded onto distaffs on Christmas Eve. Holda makes her rounds promising as many good years as there are threads spun by Epiphany. In some traditions, Holda is like Santa Clause, she delivers gifts to children on Christmas Eve and determines who is naughty and who is nice.
Holda is a goddess associated with winter and all the crafting that takes place indoors during that time. When it snows, it is said she is fluffing her feather pillows. She is described as both the maiden, with a mantle of white (often resembling snow) and as the crone, with crooked, decaying teeth.
"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." (From the Canon Episcopi, quoted in Ginzburg, Carlo(1990). Ecstasies: Deciphering the witches' sabbath. London: Hutchinson Radius. p. 94. ISBN 0-09-174024-).
According to scholars, Perchta is likely Holda's southern counterpart in Germany. They both share the role of Guardian of the Beasts (or hunt). They both appear and are honored during the twelve days of Christmas, or during winter in general. They both rule over spinning. Finally, they both appear in two forms, the maiden and the crone.
Jacob Grimm says that Perchta appears, "precisely in those Upper German regions whereHolda leaves off, in Swabia, in Alsace, in Switzerland, in Bavariaand Austria."(Grimm, 1835:13:6) InBavaria and German Bohemia, Perchta was often represented by St. Lucia.
In some older descriptions of Perchta, she is described as having one overly large, swan-maiden foot. This foot links her to other high goddesses like The Valkyrie (in their Swan-Maiden forms), and it is this foot which allows her to treadle the spinning wheel more effectively.
In Bavarian folklore, Perchta was said to roam the countryside in the winter and come into homes during the `twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. "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. " (Frazer 1920:240)
Had you heard of this Mother Christmas legend? Do you recognize the Grimm fairy tale these goddesses are associated with? Which one is it?
In the next post, we'll learn about the Celtic Goddess Brigid.