Deep in the Alpine region of Germany, the Christmas Season is bookended by two frightening beings, Krampus who roams on December 5th, and Frau Perchta is associate with Berchentag, the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. But Who is Frau Perchta? Or WHAT is Frau Perchta? Is she an evil hag who kills lazy women and children? Or is she a beautiful lady who protects babies, women, and children? The answer is… both.
What is Frau Perchta?
Or maybe that should be, who is Frau Perchta?
In Germanic Pagan tradition the goddess Berchta or Bertha (meaning “bright” or “shining one”) protected women and children. Bertha, the Lady in White or White Lady, was considered the Alpine cousin of Frau Holle, and the Nordic goddess Frigga. As the White Lady, she was associated with beautiful birch trees, and watched over the forests and all the wildlife in it. She was the spirit guide (a psychopomp… love this word) who led the dead into the afterlife. Her duty was to care for Heimchen, the children who died in infancy.
Berchta was considered the goddess of in-between places. (This is my favorite concept) She can be found between safety and danger, between life and death, and on Berchtentag, the Epiphany, the goddess of the time between the years.
But Berchta’s dual nature meant that she was also depicted as an old crone, the “Spinnstubenfrau” with a splayed foot (possibly from years of working the treadle on a spinning wheel?) or a goose foot (indicating that she was a shapeshifter who cared for animals) and a cane. As this image, she was thought to wander the countryside as the upholder of cultural taboos. During the Raunachte, she was part of the Wild Hunt, causing the rumbling in the mountains with the followers.
Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld: Das festliche Jahr
Quick aside…Why would there be a goddess to uphold cultural taboos? Remember, in Germany, society works together to uphold certain rules. At the time participating in holidays and feasting was important. It held the group together. By NOT participating, by working on days where the group was supposed to feast, was to bring bad luck to the group. (This concept of societies rules and taboos still carries forward today… just look at the expectation to sweep the Apartment steps on “your day”, or ordinances against washing the car on a Sunday).
As women became a larger part of the economy with their spinning and weaving, Berchta checked to make sure young women had completed their spinning for the year. Laziness was not tolerated. Looms were to be set up on January 6th, if the work wasn’t completed in time, you wouldn’t have enough thread for the warp. Put another way, the end of the year is a time for putting new resolutions or goals into place. Unfinished projects are a weight that holds you back from growth or change. A clear mind, a clear workspace, allows for new growth.
Berchta becomes Perchta
According to one of Bercha’s legend. A woman who lost her son in infancy saw him in a field with a group of other children each carrying a jug, following a lady in dressed in white. As the White Lady stepped over a low wall, the other children followed, but her son couldn’t get over. She raced over to pick him up and take him in her arms. He smiled at her warmth… but said to her “don’t cry mother, you will fill my jug with your tears, and it will overflow. I’m safe with the White Lady”. The weeping mother stopped crying, set her son on the other side of the wall with the rest of the children, and was able to return to her home content that her child was being looked after.
Women especially looked to Berchta, this Southern German cousin to Frau Holle, because she was a goddess of abundance, she cared for children, and for domestic issues. Remember, this was a time of high infant mortality, women needed to believe that their lost babies would be cared for in the afterlife. Berchta looked after the Heimchen, the spirits of children who died before they could be baptized.
On Berchtentag, January 6th, women would cook a special porridge, later called Perchtenmilch, a gruel with fish, to feed the family, and always leave a bowl out for Perchta and her followers. It was said that if Berchta enjoyed the offering, the family would receive blessings for the year.
The Catholic Church held great power over Bavaria in the 6th Century and insisted that Pagan practices be renounced. Still, many people did not want to change. Women did not want to give up their goddess. The church began to speak out against Berchta from the pulpit accusing people of praying to “Domina Perchta” instead of the Virgin Mary.
By the 12th century the Church, using fear tactics, renamed Berchta, calling her Perchta. “Perchten” are frightening monsters, and Berchta, now Perchta, was the leader of the monsters. The beautiful White Goddess was painted as an ugly crone with an iron face and a hooked nose who carried a knife in her skirts to slit the bellies of anyone crossed her.
Despite this, people kept up their worship.
Finally in 1468, the Church officials outlawed the Cult of Perchta in the Thesaurus Paupernum. It forbade leaving Perchta offerings during the Christmas Season.
(quick aside- the Thesaurus Paupernum is a collection of acceptable behaviors, recipes and medicinal cures for the poor complied over 7 centuries by Church officials).
Frau Perchta is to be Feared
New stories emerged about a Christmas Hag who would capture and eat children… or stuff children into her sack and carry them away. And worse, new legends emerged that Frau Perchta who would kill you by slitting your stomach open and stuffing it with straw and stones if your home wasn’t clean enough, or you hadn’t finished your spinning. Essentially, church officials of time turned her into a female Krampus, the evil counterpart of St Nicholas.
Keep in mind, the years between 1450 and 1700 is known as “The Burning Times” in German history. The country dealt with the Protestant Revolution, the Thirty Years War, and political instability. During this time around 100,000 people were accused of witchcraft, and many were killed. Fear and uncertainty were a powerful motivator.
By 1750, the transformation was complete, and Frau Perchta, also known as Butzen Bercht, was a Boogeyman known as the Belly-Slitter.
Frau Perchta appeared on the 12th night of Chistmas with her Perchten, spirit followers, with a new nickname, the Belly-Slitter. According to new legend, if a child were found to be a liar, Perchta would scrape out his eyes with glass. If she was unsatisfied with your behavior, left a dirty home, or worst of all, if the spinning for the year was unfinished, she would slice open your belly and stuff it with straw and pebbles and then stomp the unfinished work with her deformed goose foot.
Čeněk Zibrt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fear of Frau Perchta started new rituals. In Austria groups calling themselves Perchten would dress in masks and costumes and perform rituals to frighten away the ghostly followers of Perchta, and wake up the spirits of the New Year. But along with the Schiachperchten (Ugly Perchten) there were also Schönperchten (Beautiful Perchten), a reflection of Berchta’s White Woman, who would bring luck to villagers. The Church again banned these traditions, but they were never completely lost.
The 19th century saw a renewed interest in folk-culture. Jacob Grimm published “Deutsche Mythologie” (Teutonic Mythology) in 1835 detailing Pagan German Mythology. His research into Perchta claimed that she was once as powerful as Berchtold, and led the Wild Hunt beside him. Slowly, the old traditions began to make a comeback. Like Krampusnacht parades on December 5th, the Raunachte (Twelve Days of Christmas) became a time for traditional Perchten performances.
Frau Perchta Today
Today, in the Alpine regions of Austria, primarily in Salzberg and Salzkammergut, Perchten ceremonies are mostly held for the tourists. Schiachperchten with their heavy ugly masks, Schönperchten who wake spring. And in Rauris you better keep your home clean, or you may get a visit from the Schabelperchten, Perchten with giant beaks who make sure the floors are clean and the house is dusted (even into the corners.)
The theme of Neil Gaimon’s book, “American Gods” is that the old gods continue to exist only as long as people remember and worship them. The old image of Berchta, guardian of women and infants may have faded away… but she’s not gone. Today we still carry out some of the rituals, maybe without even understanding why. My house is cleaned for Christmas, and work between Christmas and the Epiphany slows way down, not because of Perchta, but because of my mother! And she did it because of her mother. Maybe somewhere in our history, an ancestor mother did it because she feared and respected Frau Perchta.