Holda is a Germanic goddess whose cult has survived in the folklore of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The tales surrounding her are of vital importance to us because the underlying theme represents the lost myths of Frig. By reading the various sources of Teutonic mythology, one can find little information on Frig, and consequently she has been only briefly mentioned by twentieth century researchers. It is therefore to Holda that we should turn to fill the gaps in our lore.
These continental folk tales give the goddess many names, Holde (`merciful’), Frau Holle, Perht, Berta (`Bright’) and Frau Freke (a name connected to Frig). Holda is described as an old woman with long teeth and tangled hair, travelling either in a wagon or bearing a plough and attended by the spirits of unborn children. She is a protector of the household and patron of the housewife and mother. In some districts she was even accredited to the task of bringing children to expectant mothers, in the manner of the stock in the Western tradition. She was also believed to rock children’s cradles after the nurse had fallen asleep. Holda owned a sacred pool where she was believed to call the local children and reward any who were kind and hardworking. Young women even bathed in her pool hoping to became healthy and fertile mothers.
Holda is mainly associated with the winter season, on Christmas day a bowl of milk was set at the table for her while the family went to church. The remaining milk from ‘Holda’s’ bowl was given to the livestock and thought to increase fertility. Far earlier sources refer to special days set aside for such local goddesses. A procession would be made in which disguised youths would carry a large image of a goddess figure with much merrymaking and revelry.
However Holda had another side, as she rewarded the good she also punished the lazy and cruel. Many tales were told of Holda to frighten children into behaving when they were unmanageable. Holda was said to come at night and drag the child off in a sack or stamp on it with her foot. If the child was especially naughty she might cut open its stomach and fill it with chopped straw and dirt from the cottage floor. Holda’s dark side is evident in her role in the witches’ ride, an equivalent of the Wild Hunt. As the witch queen she claimed the souls of unchristened children for the old gods.
Holda was also the patron of the spinner and in this aspect her the reward/punishment control over the household is seen most strongly. Spinning was a very important task for the housewife as it was often her only opportunity to earn money. It was a task performed only after the other chores of the day were done and an industrious woman would spin late into the evening. Even after the industrial revolution, the spinning woman remained a symbol of virtue. It is therefore not surprising that a goddess protecting the home was believed to have a special interest in the spinner’s work. Holda was said to tour the villages inspecting the women’s handiwork. Industrious spinners were rewarded with gifts, distaffs laden with the finest flax or golden threads. In some cases the spinner would wake to find her work had been finished by Holda while she slept. The idle were punished by having their work tangled and broken, or by having their distaffs burnt. Holda would also punish women who worked over the Christmas period, on Sundays or on saints’ days in like manner. This gives us the rather ironic picture of a pagan goddess protecting a Christian tradition, but it clearly shows how old legends can adapt to new ideas if given the chance.
One folk tale tells how Holda lured a poor farmer into a magical cavern on a mountain top. In this story she appears as a beautiful queen surrounded by her handmaidens, in a room full of precious stones and gold. Holda asked the farmer to name a gift that he desired. Overawed he said that the flowers she held in her hand would be blessing enough. As luck would have it the blooms were of the flax plant, which were then unknown in the world of men. Holda gave him a bag of flax seeds and when the crop was ripe she taught the farmer’s wife to make linen cloth from the plants.
Holda was also believed to be the cause of many natural phenomena. Snow was caused by her shaking her feather bed, fog was the smoke from her fire, when it rained it was Holda’s washing day and lightning was heard when she worked at her flax. It was also said that she made the fields fertile and awoke the apple trees in the spring.
The tradition of honouring Holda may be the clearest survival of a cult connected to a Teutonic deity. While the worship of other gods has been suppressed into silence for so many centuries Holda’s legends have adapted from age to age. The transformation from goddess into witch wife, so similar to tales of the Norse gods told after the conversion, is clear. As the heavenly queen in the tale of the gift of flax, Holda’s connection with the Norse goddess Frigg is very evident. The Norse wife of Odin is attended by loyal servants and Holda seems to have borrowed Frigg’s handmaidens for the occasion. Frigg also has connections with spinning and in Scandinavia the constellation we call Orion’s Girdle was known as ‘Friggjar rockr’, meaning Frigg’s distaff. Holda’s connections with the sky again support her connection with Frigg as the `Queen of Heaven’, as do her associations with mothers and children.
From these two sources of the worship of the goddess we can try to recreate the role of the Saxon goddess Frig. She is principally the patroness of mothers and children. Her powers extend over the heavens, fertility and possibly fate. She is the embodiment of female wisdom and women’s skills were her gift to the world, a goddess of peace and stability.
The spindle was a powerful symbol for our heathen ancestors. In the Norse myths it was employed by Norns and Valkyries alike to shape the destiny of man. The Norse Eddas tell of Frigg’s knowledge of the future and her role as a spinner may be connected to this tradition. Though it is equally likely that the heavenly spindle represented the continuity of life under the protection of the high goddess. It is very difficult to equate the spindle to the modern world. The housewife’s life today has been so simplified that no single item has the same importance. It can be tentatively compared to a mother’s part time job or the love lavished on a family by a proud mother. It is a pity that this ancient symbol has lost its relevance, it is probably easier to remember its original meaning. A symbol of womanhood, virtue and wisdom.
Holda’s connections with winter are reminiscent of the worship of the female spirits in the winter months in England and Scandinavia. In Holda’s case this is probably due to the common practice of spinning while it was too cold to work outside. Also Frigg’s star symbol in Orion is only clearly visible in the Northern Hemisphere during December, January and February. Again linking the goddess and spinning to the winter season.
Christianity has also left its mark, in many tales Holda is an ugly old woman and patron of witches. This is in keeping with the concept that as a heathen goddess Holda was a demon. Fortunately the impact of this negative superstition was only slight and all her benevolent qualities have remained faithfully recorded in the German legends.
- The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe – Hilda Ellis Davidson.
- Myths and Legends, The Norsemen – H. A. Guerber.
- Teutonic Mythology – J. Grim.
- The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda and Related Figures – Lotte Motz. Folklore 95(ii), 1984
- First Published in Folkvang Horg #2 1995
- Submitted for Theod 1996