When we think of the Wild Hunt, we think of Odin, or his Germanic counterpart Woden. However, he was not the Hunt’s only leader. In this post I want to look at Perchta and Holda, and the specially feminine spin they gave their midwinter rout.
Geographically speaking, the incidence of the numena in question can be tidily delineated in terms of Upper (Southern), Middle, and Lower (Northern) Germany. Frau Perchta/Berchta belongs to Upper Germany, Frau Holle to Middle Germany and Frau Herke/Freke/Gode/Wode to Lower Germany. (Heath: 5)
Like Woden, they ride through the sky at night at the head of a host of animals or sometimes spirits. The 12 days of Christmas are their special time.
Christmas traditions like the Perchtenlauf, in which masked figures parade through town making noise, were inspired by the Wild Hunt legends. (Look up Perchtenlauf or Krampuslauf to see videos.)
Unlike Woden, both goddesses retain a domestic side. They visit houses during this time to check if all the spinning is done, and tangle the threads of those not done in time. They also visit houses to bless the household, or to curse them if no offerings are left for them.
Flax was a common offering: “a good year for every thread”, but the threads then had to be worked off the spindle by the Feast of the Epiphany (Jan.6th) or else the blessing was reversed.
The Goddess and the Wild Hunt
Grimm is a valuable source of information about Holda, Perchta and other such figures, whom he saw as descendants of Frigg or Freyja:
Her annual progress, which like those of Herke and Bertha, is made to fall between Christmas and Twelfth-day, when the supernatural has sway, and wild beasts like the wolf are not mentioned by their names, brings fertility to the land… At the same time Holda, like Wuotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wutende heer.’ From this arose the fancy, that witches ride in Holla’s company (ch. XXXIV, snowwives); it was already known to Burchard, and now in Upper Hesse and the Westerwald, Holle-riding, to ride with Holle, is equivalent to a witches’ ride. Into the same ‘furious host,’ according to a wide-spread popular belief, were adopted the souls of infants dying unbaptized; not having been christain’d, they remained heathen, and fell to heathen gods, to Wuotan or to Hulda.
(Grimm on Perchta: ch 13)
In Gardenstone’s book on Frau Holle, he includes a number of quotes about the Wild Hunt, one of which encapsulates much of the lore:
In Frankhausen Holda moves at the head of the fellow hunters. In Schwarza (Thuringia) she is accompanied by ‘the faithful Eckhart’, in Hassloch and Gruneworth her horse carries little bells and the villagers shout: ‘Listen, the Rollegaul (Holle’s horse) moves around!’ (105)
This custom, of Holda travelling in a wagon accompanied by a human male, has led some to compare her to the goddess Nerthus, who also travelled about with a priest. During her festival work was set aside, and peace reigned.
Lotte Motz in particular saw the two as having a great deal in common, but it’s hard to trace a direct route between the goddess Tacitus describes and the later figure of folklore.
All the same, “the faithful Eckhart” was supposed to go before the Hunt and warn people of its approach. He was a heroic knight grafted onto the Holda legend by way of the story of Venus and Tannhauser, although he was always imagined as a benign old man.
He may also have been a warning to put out food or other offerings to the goddess, often on the roof:
Do you know the Frau-Holle-Day by now?… Because January 6th is Frau Holle’s day, the day when the Twelfth, sometimes also called ‘the crooked days’ come to their end. Frau Holle, elsewhere called Perchta, rushes through the airs at the head of her procession, and the people below either put some food on their roofs, or set a special place at the table… (Gardenstone: 110)
Mrs. Odin leads the way
Besides Perchta and Holle, the Wild Hunt was sometimes led by Frau Gode or Wode. The name is important, because from the 1400s onward in Germany women were commonly known by their husband’s name, so the resemblance to Wode or Wodan is no coincidence. Since “g” and “w” were once used interchangeably in German, both forms essentially mean “Mrs. Woden”. (Heath: 6)
Another form of this figure is called Die Frick, a name which goes back to the Germanic goddess Frija, and Frau Herke may derive her name from the same root as Odin’s by-name Herjan, or “leader of the host”.
In the myths about Odin and Frigg, she seems close to the domestic side of these goddesses, while Odin is the one who wanders and personifies fury, but these Germanic figures seem to straddle this divide. They may fly or ride through the night with ghosts and demons in their wake, but they are kind to strangers, and take time to check that the housework is being done.
The most poignant part of this feminine Wild Hunt is the retinue of unbaptized infants, whose souls lingered between heaven and hell. As Grimm puts it:
Of Perchtha touching stories are known in the Orla-gau. The little ones over whom she rules are human children who have died before baptism, and are thereby become her property. By these weeping babes she is surrounded (as dame Gaude by her daughters), and gets ferried over in the boat with them. (ch. 29)
He goes on to tell the story of how a mother grieved after her child died, but met its soul during the Twelve Nights, only to be told either that her tears had filled a pitcher almost too heavy for the child to carry, or else that she should no longer weep for her child. (In the latter version the child tells her this directly.)
Stories like these must have been a comfort back when infant mortality was so much higher, and many mothers had to face the loss of infants and small children. In these stories, all the other children with Perchta or Holle are happy, which drives the lesson home.
It also makes me wonder if these goddesses looked after dead children before Christianity. After all, warriors had Valhalla, unmarried women went to Gefjun, and everyone else went to Hel. Why not a special place for children, even if only in pagan folklore rather than canonical myth?
Gardenstone 2011: Goddess Holle: In Search of a Germanic Goddess, Books on Demand. (trans. Michelle Lina Marie Hitchcock) (Google Books)
Heath, Catherine 2013: “From Fairytale to Goddess: Frau Holle and the Scholars that try to reveal her origins” (academia.edu)
Motz, Lotte 1984: “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holle and Related Figures”, Folklore 95/3: 151-66. (Scribd)
Simpson, Jacqueline 2000: “The Folklore of Infant Deaths: Burials, Ghosts and Changelings” in Representations of Childhood Death, eds. Gillian Avery and Kimberly Reynolds, MacMillan: 11-28. (Google Books)