Spring’s Victory: the Goddess Hretha

Two weeks ago I wrote about the goddess Eostre, who gave her name to the Easter festival. In Anglo-Saxon times, Eostre’s festival was in April, while March belonged to another goddess, Hretha.

If we know very little about Eostre, we know even less about Hretha. The only source we have for either of them is the Venerable Bede‘s book on the calendar, where he lists the names of the Anglo-Saxon months in England, with brief explanations of each name. I think you’ll agree his descriptions are terse:

The first month, which the Latins call January, is Giuli; February is called Solmonath; March Hrethmonath… Hrethmonath is named for the goddess Hretha, to whom they sacrificed at this time.
(On the Reckoning of Time 15.331)

It’s not very surprising that Bede, a Christian monk, would not give details of the sacrifice to Hretha. He wasn’t going to provide what would have been essentially instructions for pagans, either in his lifetime or after.

While some have cast doubt on Bede’s month-names, the 19th-century writer Jacob Grimm included similar names for March in his discussion of Hretha:

March is in OHG. lenzinmânôt, named for the season lenzo, lengizo [lengthening of days]; (78) but it may have borne other names as well. Oberlin quotes, from Chorion’s Ehrenkranz der teutschen sprach, Strassb. 1644, p. 91, Retmonat for March; and a doc. of 1404 (Weisth. 1, 175) has Redtmonet, it is not clear for what month. When we find in the Appenzeller reimchronik p. 174:

In dem Redimonet
die puren kamen donet,
do der merzenmonat gieng herzu
an ainem morgen fru
do zundentz Rorschach an;

here Redimonet seems, by the displacement so common in the names of months, to be the month before March, as Chorion uses his Retmonat for February as well. Von Arx explains the word quite differently, and I think untenably, by a mountain. Apart from the Swiss term altogether, I believe the AS. name was really Hrêð or Hrêðe = OHG. Hruod or Hruodâ, and derived, as I said on p. 206, from hruod gloria, fama; so that we get the meaning of a shining and renownful goddess. The Trad. fuld. 2, 196, furnish a female name Hruadâ, gen. Hruadûn, and in 1, 42. 2, 26, another nom. Hruadun, this last apparently formed like ON. Fiörgyn and Hlôdyn. The AS. adj. hrêð or hrêðe means crudelis (Cædm. 136, 21. 198, 2), perhaps victoriosus? I am in doubt about hrêð, sigehrêð, Beow. 5146. 974. 1631; they waver between an adj. and a subst. sense, and in the last passage, ‘Beowulfe wearð guðhrêð gifeðe,’ victoria is evidently meant. When the AS. Menologue, line 70, translates Martius by reðe, this may stand for hrêðe.
(Grimm: 290)

More recently, Rudolf Simek suggested that Hretha might have similarities to the Roman god Mars, since both give their name to the third month and Hretha might be connected to the Old Norse for “victory”:

Hrede or Hreda (OE ‘the famous’, ‘the victorious’). The eponymous goddess of the OE name of the month Hredemonath (= March) mentioned by Bede in his De tempiborus ratione. An OHG personal name Hruada tempted J. Grimm to connect the name with ON hrodr, “fame”; thus the goddess could have a similar meaning to the eponymous Roman god of the same month, Mars.
(Simek: 159)

Hretha, Goddess of Victory?

Grimm suggested some possible meanings for the name Hretha, which has, as scholars say, resisted interpretation. Phillip Shaw (author of a book on Anglo-Saxon goddesses) analyzed a number of possible etymologies for Hretha:

  • reed: not likely, one’s a short e and one’s a long e, and Bede always distinguishes them.
  • goatskin: also not likely
  • fierce: although R.I. Page suggested that March might be called hrēðe, fierce, rather than named for a goddess, Shaw sees this as unlikely
  • to rejoice: the Anglo-Saxon word Hreðon is used once in the Old English poem Exodus, and describes how they “rejoiced” with a battle-song after escaping death, so Shaw links it to the next possibility:
  • victory: Shaw dismisses this one as well, although Simek and most heathens like it
  • quick: still problematic, but likes it better.

(Shaw 74-82)

As with Oestre, Shaw’s interpretation connects Hretha to the matronae, mother-goddesses who were protectors and guardians. Tribes and smaller groupings often had their own matronae, as many inscriptions on Hadrian’s Wall attest. (They are rather touching, as you imagine homesick soldiers invoking the mothers of their native tribe or village to look after them abroad.)

She may have been the goddess of the Goths, although Shaw admits that once again, this is hard to prove:

The possible connection between Hreda and a name applied to the Goths in Old English and Norse, however, suggests another possibility: Hreda could relate to a group name. [Hreðgotan, Reiðgotan] That the group name is one usually applied to the Goths is clearly troubling, but it is a name that appears to have formed part of English and Scandinavian traditions of the Goths. It is at least possible that this name element was employed in forming personal and/or group names closer to home, as well as being attached to the Goths.
(Shaw: 97)

Modern Experiences of Hretha

Modern pagans who follow Anglo-Saxon or Germanic traditions have wrestled with the question of who Hretha was, and what sort of “sacrifices” were offered to her during her month. During my trawl of the interweb, I found two interpretations of Hretha, perhaps reflecting different experiences of the month of March.

Many, like the author Galina Krasskova, take their cue from the possible meanings of “famous” or “victorious”, seeing her as part of spring’s victory over winter. As Krasskova puts it:

Personally, I know this Goddess by feel, by the pressing momentum that for me so defines Her presence. When I sense Her, I sense also a tumble of rushing winds, a gaiety, and a fierceness. I associate Her with those brisk winds and I can’t help but think of the old saying about March “in like a lion, out like a lamb.” She is best personified by the chill weather heralding and preceding the coming of spring.

Given the etymology of Her name, there is some indication that She might have been a battle Goddess. Certainly She is a Goddess Who can really shake things up—not a bad thing, especially after the enforced inertia of winter.

The Godinnen var eigen bodem Facebook page sees Hreda as a survivor, from the days when winter was harder and famine a possibility:

Although I am not convinced that Hretha is a stereotypical war goddess, “The Victorious” speaks to me of her role in the older Anglo-Saxon Heathen society. Winters were hard for the Ancestors. Food would have to be preserved and rationed, and if a harvest was poor, starvation was a real threat. Disease was ever present, and without the modern healthcare and medicine that we are privileged to today, the Anglo-Saxons could quickly find that a mere cold could turn into deadly pneumonia. March is the month where the frosts are less frequent, life returns, and the promise of springtime follows the banishing of winter. Those Ancestors that had made it through the lean months would themselves be “The Victorious”. To me this would be a very good reason to celebrate and give thanks. I would suggest that as well as being a deity associated with springtime, Hretha is a patroness of survivors and those that have seen through difficult times.

Others, like the writer Carla Nayland, see Hretha as a war goddess:

Kathleen Herbert says the corresponding adjective, ‘hrethe’, means ‘fierce, cruel, rough’, and suggests that Hretha was a war goddess or a valkyrie (Herbert 1994).

March is the last month of winter and is quite capable of bringing destructive storms as well as warm sunshine – as the people picking up the pieces in southern and western England and Wales after yesterday’s visit from Storm Johanna could testify. There is a traditional belief that the seas around Britain are especially prone to violent storms in March and September, hence the term “equinoctial gales” (The equinoxes are not really associated with storms, incidentally, but there is a grain of truth in the tradition, as the frequency of high winds rises sharply in late September and declines again around the end of March).

So March might well seem an appropriate month to dedicate to a violent goddess of battle, especially if she was also fickle. Perhaps the sacrifice, whatever it was, hoped to placate her and avert the worst of the equinoctial storms. Perhaps also to ask her favour in warfare for the forthcoming campaigning season. As usual, not proven, but an interesting possibility nonetheless.

The Northern Grove page on Facebook sees Hretha’s battle with winter as opening the way for Oestre, and many pagans concur in seeing the two goddesses, and their months, as part of a sequence.

For those who prefer a quiet life, I found two sites who saw Hretha as more of a hearth goddess, waiting out the storms before Eostre brought milder weather. River Devora describes her experience of Hretha:

For me, I understand Hreda as a goddess of hearth and home. I understand her as governing that felt sense of being in your own home. This concept of the idealized home is very powerful – this is the home that a soldier will go to battle to defend, and will die in defense of their home. Home is where we return to refresh and renew, where we are nourished and healed. Home, for many people (and more so for folks from older times), is where we were more likely to be born and where we may die. Home is where we sleep, where we are supported and loved. For me, Hreda holds all of this. For me, she also stands at the threshold of that idealized home and can help us to transition into whatever we need to be when we are out in the world, and transition back when we return home – she can help us put on our armor to deal with the rest of the world, and help us take it back off when we don’t need it any more.

Anita Shulz agrees with the hearth-goddess interpretation, adding the idea of Hretha as goddess of the threshold. This makes sense for a goddess whose festival falls in the month of the spring equinox:

With the birth of Spring, we are met with a new growing season, fertility, and the loving embrace of the bounties of Mother Earth. One ritual many of us observe is “Spring Cleaning”, when we cultivate the readiness of our home to provide us with nourishment, healing, sanctity, and comfort.

Hreda has also been called a goddess of hearth and home. She stands in the threshold, smoothing our transitions not only through the twilight time between Winter and Spring, but also our daily explorations into the world, and returning to the safety of our dens, where we find support and love.

Sometimes she is depicted as a warrior goddess, who defeats Winter, and clears the way for the new growth and abundance of Spring. She encourages the continuation of life in all its varied forms. In her role as goddess of fertility, we can sense the quickening of our ardor for life.

The Godinnen van eigen bodem page sees Hretha as an earth goddess like Hertha or Nerthus, while Áine at By Land, Sea and Sky sees her as more like Gefjun, a goddess of “plenty, agriculture, and the plough.”

Hredmonath

Another puzzle for modern pagans (and scholars!) is the nature of the celebrations to Hretha during her month. Presumably they celebrated the end of winter, and the return of food in the form of milk and cheese from newly lactating sheep and laying hens. In a good year the first spring greens might be up. (This all applies to England, where Hrethmonath was celebrated.)

On the Heathen calendar, the festival of Disting usually takes place in February, as does Charming the Plow. Both are too early for Hrethmonath, and the next big festival is Easter itself. Some have opted to develop a new festival for Hretha, with suitable offerings.

Molly Khan links Hretha’s festival to Lent, a time known as the Hungry Gap because of supplies running low while crops were only just getting started. Given the little we do know, Khan says “there are few wrong ways to honor Her.” One UK site has a Hretha blót (lit. sacrifice, but now meaning a Heathen festival) celebrating the lengthening days. It adds that some pagans incorporate the modern Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day for North Americans) in their celebration. Perhaps Hretha’s ‘sacrifice” was offerings of butter, eggs and spring greens.

We have to assume that Hretha and her festival were important enough that March was named for them, and no doubt made a welcome break in a dull time of year. And while our lack of information about Hretha can be frustrating, the modern responses to this suggest that her lack of definition could be an opportunity to create something new: a modern cult of Hretha that

incorporates other festivals within it, just as some sort of Shrove Tuesday may once have been part of her cult.


References and Links

Shaw, Phillip A. 2011: Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hretha, and the Cult of the Matrons, Bloomsbury Academic.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology vol. 1 (Internet Archive)
Wikipedia entry on Hreda
The Goddess Hretha and the Month of March (Molly Khan)
Northern Grove Facebook
Godinnen van eigen bodem Facebook
Hrethmonath: third month of the Old English Calendar (Carla Nayland)
Reflections on Ostara, Part 2: Honouring Hrede, Goddess of the Winds of March (Galina Krasskova)
Hreda and Eostre, The Goddesses That Bless This Time of Year (River Devora)
Glorious Goddess of March, Hreda (Anita Shulz)
Thorskegga image on Deviantart
Germanic Goddesses document on Scribd incorporates material from an earlier website
Norse/Germanic Deities (Gefjun = Hretha)
Wyrd Designs – The Holy Tides – Ostara, Sigrblot & Summer Nights (connects Hretha and Ostara to the Sigirblot or victory sacrifice)
Hretha Shrine on Pinterest

The image at the top can be found here.

6 thoughts on “Spring’s Victory: the Goddess Hretha

  1. Faye

    I love the beautiful imagery expressed in parts of this sharing of academic writings. The whole feeling and embracing of the seasons is inspiring. I like the……. in like a lion and out like a lamb imagery particularly. Because seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are so very different I can understand why Months for us are not appropriate to the naming feeling for seasons. May here for example, is more like a soft, slow dying of Summer’s grandeur and a gentle balmy chill threatening cold to come, but always the undergirding promise too that if winter if upon us can spring be far behind? Thanks for blog. Travelling with you through the starry heavens both instructs, inspires and challenges me.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. solsdottir Post author

      Thanks – I know a little of how you feel about months, because I live in the North and when it’s spring everywhere else it’s still frozen solid here. The seasons are really a matter of experience, which doesn’t transfer very well from one place to another.

      Like

      Reply
  2. caelesti

    The description of her as goddess of the hearth & transitions, including both winter & spring, reminds me a lot of the German Holda, though she is more winter-y.

    Like

    Reply
    1. solsdottir Post author

      That’s a good insight. I’ve seen sites compare Hretha to earth-goddesses but I think Holda may well be a better fit.

      Like

      Reply

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