Winter Goddess

It has become a dogma among historians that the goddess worship of the present pagan revival has no basis in historical survivals of paganism into the Christian era or the accounts of the Witch trials.

There is, however, evidence from the period before and during the witch trials that a powerful goddess figure was recognised in Central European folk culture, and that she was widely regarded as a female deity associated with witches and witchcraft. Reliable evidence for this deity's role in European folk belief is provided by an article by Lotte Motz in Folklore Vol 95;11 1984. This is entitled The winter Goddess; Percht, Holda and Related Figures and the material that follows is mostly based on that article. It is reproduced here so that it can gain a wider readership.

From information obtained from folklore sources Motz established that the folk figures of Holda, Holle and Percht/Perchta originated from the divine female guardians of nature and animals found among the ancient hunting culture. This primitive image developed into the complex female deity known in early civilisations as - The Lady of the Beasts -. This folk figure of Holda/Perchta had many local manifestations, but one basic form with definite characteristics can be recognised. In a Christian culture, where paganism was supposed to have been eradicated, this form was still given divine status by the common people. In fact it was worshipped within a ritualistic structure that included sacrificial offerings and the wearing of ritual animal disguises in seasonal celebrations.

The Roman Catholic Church recognised the existence of this goddess figure and feared her popularity among the peasantry. In the 13th Century one clerical text complained that young people would rather pray to Perchta than offer prayers to the Virgin Mary. Two hundred years later, just before the beginning of the witch hunts, the Church was still condemning sinners who left food out for Perchta during the Christmas period to ensure good luck and prosperity for the coming year. These offerings were placed on the roof of houses in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria and are an indication that Holda/Perchta was regarded as the female leader of the Wild Hunt. In Central European folk culture the Hunt was mimicked by men wearing black fur cloaks and terrifying masks who ran through the streets ringing bells, brandishing whips and shouting.

Holda's physical appearance reflected her position as both a bright and dark goddess figure. She might appear as a beautiful young girl, veiled, crowned or clothed in a shining white dress. On other occasions she was seen as a hunchbacked, wizened old crone with long tangled grey hair, a beaked nose, wolf fangs and glowing red eyes. As the White Lady, Holda was invoked to increase fertility of the fields and to bring prosperity to home and family. If she was insulted however or ignored then she became the Old Hag or Crone whose gifts were misfortune, illness and death. In this form she was responsible for the snow and fog, and is a typical dark goddess of death, the underworld and winter. As a deity who originated with the ancient - Lady of the Beasts - Holda had many totem animals. They included wolves, hounds, pigs, goats, horses, bears and birds of prey. She was also associated with the wildwood and, while seldom linked to male figures - she is represented as an uninhibited patron of orgiastic sexuality - in the Southern Tyrol she appears as the wife of the arboreal - Wood Man. In common with this male forest spirit/god, Holda was the protector and guardian of woodland animals.

Another indication that Holda was regarded as the goddess of death and destiny is her association with spinning. She was the patroness of women who were spinners and weavers (and of spinsters) and she punished those who failed at this craft or produced shoddy work. Those who did not pay her respect while carrying out the craft could be struck blind or Holda would materialise and beat them with a whip. During the twelve days of Yule all spinning ceased in her honour and bad luck came to anyone who defied this custom. Holda's attitude to children, who also come under her protection, was also ambivalent. If they behaved themselves during the year then at Christmas she rewarded them with gifts and good luck. If they had been naughty they would be severely punished. Sometimes Holda was used as a bogey figure and mothers threatened their children that if they did not behave then she would come and take them off to the woods and teach them good manners. Holda allegedly kept the children in a well, endowing the good ones with abundant luck, health and wealth, and turning the bad ones into faery changelings.

It is not fanciful to see folk memories of Holda in popular fairy tales. Stories of faery godmothers, wicked stepmothers with spinning wheels and old witches living in gingerbread cottages in woods spring to mind. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood all have elements that could be derived from folk tales about Holda. The Grand Dame of fairy tales, Old Mother Goose, is another version of Holda. In 18th and 19th century bowdlerisation of fairy tales Old Mother Goose, degenerated into a comic figure, a foolish old woman who told old wives tales. Originally she was the wise Sibyl who instilled moral values, the knowledge of the world, foresaw the future and prepared her charges for it. (See Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde - Chatto and Windus 1994). Eventually Mother Goose became the stereotyped witch with her conical hat, pointy nose, lantern, jaw and stick. The Sibyl/wisewoman had become the wicked stepmother - the alter ego of the faery godmother or gossip who protected and blessed the new born.

Holda's connection with witchcraft is mentioned in several historical accounts. Church records quoted by Motz as late as the 15th Century describe women who rode with Hold/Perchta. In 1630 an allegedly male witch in Hesse, Germany confessed he had ridden with Dame Holda on New Year's Day and had followed her into the sacred mountain of the Venusberg. A 16th Century woman from Bern was exiled after she admitted riding with the Wild Hunt led by Holda. In common parlance to ride with Holle meant to be dishevelled, to be an unkempt hag or to ride with witches. This was a reference to the long flowing hair of the goddess which was also regarded as a physical characteristic of suspected witches of both sexes, and was regarded as of magickal significance.

The evidence provided by Motz offers considerable proof that goddess worship survives into the early modern period and beyond. These beliefs still survive in seasonal customs enacted at the summer and winter solstices. In a lesser way it also links with the connections between werewolves and witches. In Germany, for instance, December was known as the month of the wolf or wolf moon. The wolf was one of Holda's sacred beasts. Motz says that because the Church identified Holda with Diana some historians have assumed the cult of this Southern European moon goddess of hunting was imported into Austria and Germany by the Romans. Motz however, believes that the hunter goddess image arose independently in these areas, although it was influenced by beliefs from the North.

In fact Holda shares many similarities with the Norse goddess of fertility and magic, Freya. M Oldfield Howey is more explicit, comparing Freya with Nerthus, Hel and Holda he says - . . .she was not only the goddess of Life but also of Death. But Death was not to her worshippers a ghastly grinning skeleton, but a loving mother recalling her tired children to sleep in her bosom. - (The Cat in Magic page 59)

Motz concludes that Holda has the common feature of the Mistress of the Wild Things symbolised by Diana/Artemis, - who represents . . . the force of nature which is both life giving and life taking -. She is therefore the archetypal witch goddess.

copyright Edward Hilton