When it snows in Hessen, people say that Frau Holle shakesg out her feather beds. And thanks to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, we all have an image in our minds of imagine an old woman airing her bedding out the window. But the story of Frau Holle goes further back in German history, she dates back to pre-Christian times as Hulda, and may be the first goddess in the Germanic pantheon. The Catholic church specifically mentions her by name in the 11th century (the only goddess with such notoriety). And there are stories told about her across Germany, both highlighting her support of industrious women and punishment of the lazy (how very German). Frau Holle is known from Switzerland to Sweden, and even has her own pond on the Märchen Straße (her castle lies deep under the water), I thought it would be fun to share her story here.
“Frau Holle schüttelt ihre Betten aus”
– Hessian saying
Frau Holle Stories
The brother’s Grimm first heard the story of Frau Holle in 1812 from Henriette Dorothea Wild. (William finally married her in 1825 after she told them a few more stories). This story, that many of us heard while growing up, would become story #24 of the Kinder und Hausmärchen vol.1. The second story, Frau Holle and the Distaff, comes from the Harz. Both of have the same moral. Industrious girls are rewarded, lazy girls are punished! (short aside- This type of story is common enough to be cataloged as AT 480 in the international Folktale catalog, under Supernatural Tasks… The list assigns numbers to fairy tales and legends from around the world. Apparently rewarding the industrious and punishing the lazy is a common theme worldwide).
Frau Holle Story #24 (condensed from a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales)
Once upon a time there was a woman who had two daughters, one was pretty and industrious, the other was ugly and lazy. Naturally, she preferred her natural daughter, the ugly one, to her pretty stepdaughter. Every day the pretty girl sat by the well with her spinning wheel, spinning until her fingers bled. One day she leaned into the well to wash the blood from her shuttle, it fell into the well, and fearing punishment for losing it, she jumped in.
When she awoke, she was in a beautiful meadow. She walked across the meadow and came to a bread oven. Inside the bread called to her, “take us out or we will burn!”. She took the bread shovel and removed the bread. Walking further, she came to an apple tree. The apples called to her, “Shake the tree! we are all ripe!”. She shook the tree until all the apples fell around her. After gathering them into a neat pile, she continued on.
At last she came to a little house. An old woman with large teeth called to her, “don’t be afraid! Stay with me. If you keep house properly, you will be better for it. But you must take care to shake my featherbed thoroughly until the feathers fly every day. For then it will snow on Earth. I am Frau Holle.” The girl stayed, and worked hard. Every day she shook out the bed. It was a good life, no one was ever angry with her, and she ate roasted meat every day.
‘Du mußt nur Acht geben, daß du mein Bett gut machst und es fleißig aufschüttelst, daß die Federn fliegen, dann schneit es in der Welt.’
‘But you must make sure you make my bed properly and shake it out thoroughly, so that the feathers fly – then it will snow the world over.’
Still, she felt homesick for her world. Even though her new life was so wonderful, she missed her home. She told Frau Holle she wanted to be back with her own people. Frau Holle praised her work, and took her up to a doorway. As the girl walked through, she was showered in golden rain that completely covered her. Frau Holle told her “you shall have the gold because you were so industrious”, then handed her to lost shuttle, and sent her on her way.
When she got close to her mother’s house, the rooster announced her arrival “cock a doodle doo! Your golden girl has come back to you!”
The mother and sister wondered at the gold, and decided that the ugly sister should have some too.
She sent the girl to the well to spin. Since the girl didn’t want to work so hard, she pricked her finger with a nettle and wiped blood on the shuttle before tossing it into the well… then she jumped in. In the meadow she heard the bread call to her and answered, “why should I make myself dirty!”. When she came to the apple tree she walked past saying, “One of you might land on my head!”.
At Frau Holle’s house she wasn’t afraid, and went right in. The first day she worked hard. The second day she did less. By the third day she didn’t bother to get up in the morning, and didn’t shake out Frau Holle’s bedding. Frau Holle was tired of it, and sent her home. At the door, the girl waited for the golden reward, but instead she was covered with a kettleful of pitch. “That is your reward for service” said Frau Holle… and shut the door.
The lazy girl went home, and the rooster cried out “Cock a doodle doo! Your pitchy girl has come back to you!”. No matter how hard they tried, they could never remove the pitch from the lazy girl.
The moral– Industrious girl, covered in riches by Frau Holle, lazy girl covered in pitch….
Frau Holle und die Flachdresse (Frau Holle and the Distaff)
This second story was new to me. I was excited by the connection to Easter because it connects Frau Holle to rebirth rather than just winter. This edition of, “Die Frau Holle und die Flachsdiesse,” comes from “Harzmärchenbuch; oder, Sagen und Märchen aus dem Oberharze” (Stade: vberlag von Fr. Steudel, 1862), pp. 193-194 of book… pg. 203 of electronic copy. (Read it yourself here) I’ve condensed the tale here for brevity.
(fyi- Distaff – the stick that holds the raw wool or flax that gets spun to thread.)
Once upon a time there were two orphaned sisters. One was fleissig (hard working/industrious) and the other lazy. The girls earned what they could by spinning. Every day the industrious girl would spin until 11pm. While the lazy girl would already have been in bed for hours.
On Easter Eve, the lazy girl went out to enjoy the pre-Easter celebrations in the village, and the the industrious girl stayed home spinning. At 11 pm, just as she was finishing, the door opened, and a beautiful woman walked in. She had flowing golden hair, and wore a white silk dress. In her hand she held a distaff made of silver. She said,
Empty is your distaff
Fine is your thread
you have done well”
Then she touched Liese’s spinning wheel with her distaff, smiled and vanished.
Liese went to bed, and when her sister came home, they both slept. When they woke on Easter morning, Liese’s old wooden spinning wheel had been replaced by one made from gold. The thread she spun was fine and white… and no matter how much she used, it never ran out.
The lazy sister discovered her distaff was covered in straw instead of flax, and her chest was filled with straw instead of the fine linen cloth she wove.
The moral, this is why the distaff must be spun empty on Holy Eve, or Frau Holle will bring straw!
Frau Holle in Germanic Mythology
Jacob Grimm didn’t just seek out and record fairy tales, he also wrote about Frau Holle in his book of German Mythology (Deutsche Mythologie), and there are clear connections to snow and spinning. In early German lore, Frau Holla was called Hulda (Hulda, Holda, Holle, Holla… all one goddess). As the earliest of the Germanic goddesses (sky goddess or weather goddesses), she made it snow, but also brought sunshine and rain. (Hulda may even predate Wodan, Thor, and Freya… because early man would have been very connected to weather). In this guise Hulda was seen as a fair maiden who watched over children, especially those who died young. As goddess of the Life Cycle, death, fertility, and rebirth. It is said that she accompanies the souls of the dead as part of the Wild Hunt… and that land she passes over has better harvest.
Most importantly, she was the original Domestic Goddess, the goddess of spinning and weaving. And she took great interest in the daily activities of each household. Hulda favored those who worked hard with gifts that might make the work easier, and showed disapproval of laziness by souring the milk. (These traits were clearly carried forward to the Fairy Tales, both industrious girls were blessed with gifts of gold/golden spinning wheel. While the lazy ones were punished with pitch and straw).
Hulda also appears as an old woman in the dark of Winter, watching over children in the coldest months.
Some of you may have noticed a resemblance to Perchta. They aren’t the same, but they are very similar. Think of them as north and south (almost like the Weisswurt Equator) Perchta holds the same position in the Swabia, Alsace, Bavaria regions of Germany, and parts of Austria. Read more about Perchta here.
Holda, Christianity, and Frau Holle
In the 300s CE (AD) Christianity started making inroads into Germany, and over the next few hundred years, the pagan gods and goddesses were pushed aside. But they weren’t all forgotten. People still remembered the stories, especially Holda.
The church responded by equating the pagan goddess with witches. The Canon Episcopi, first mentioned in 904 CE, soon became canon law (the law of the Catholic church). This document holds a dark place in church history, since it was the document that first called pagan practices witchcraft. Ultimately, this led to the Inquisition, and Witch Hunts that killed thousands. Then came a direct assault on Holda. Burchard of Worms was born to a rich Hessian family, then, when he became Bishop of Worms in 1000 CE (yes, Bishop Burchard), he set out to organize Canon Law. His Decretum (ca. 1008-1012 CE), is a 20 book compilation of church canon up to that time, each book covering specific topics, such as Church Authority, administration of Sacraments, Magic, Church Orders, and my favorite… “Last Things” (death, heaven, hell, etc). The final 6 books of the set are all about penitence or punishment. In Corrector (Book 19), Holda is called out by name, and is labeled a demon who flies around with other demons (or ghosts, depending on the translation) who look like women. Anyone who believes in her must perform penance for one year.
From the Corrector
70. Hast thou believed that there is any woman who can do that which some, deceived by the devil, affirm that they must do of necessity or at his command, that is, with a throng of demons transformed into the likeness of women (she whom common folly calls the witch Hulda), must ride on certain beasts in special nights and be numbered with their company? If though hast participated in this infidelity, thou shouldst do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.
According to the church, the goddess Holda, is now a witch who flies with other witches, only instead of a broom, Holda flies on a distaff….
(Think about this for a moment. Of all the god and goddesses in the Germanic pantheon, of all the Roman and Greek gods and demigods, of the random assortment of gods that people might worship or thank, only Holda, the domestic goddess, is mentioned by name. Most likely women in Rhenish-Hesse where Burchard grew up still spoke of her. She obviously wasn’t stomped out, because it’s in Hesse where her fairy tale was collected.)
Frau Holle is Still a Part of German Folklore
Despite the church’s best efforts, Frau Holle remained a part of the German folklore. Generally she’s portrayed as an old hag with long scary teeth, and is used to frighten children and those tasked with domestic chores. She’s the overseer of spinning taboos, and in midwinter she’s known to go house to house and peek through windows and cracks in walls to make sure spinsters and their children are working diligently.
In Silesia, some called her Spillahulle, and she’s described as a sallow old woman with short arms and legs. When the wind blows at night, and the oven flames flutter, parents frighten their children by telling them “die Spillagrille kommt!” And in Bohemia, she carries Brennesel (stinging nettles) to punish the lazy (OUCH!).
Maidens near Hörselberg in Thüringa placed new fibers on their distaffs on Christmas Eve (when Frau Holle began her inspection rounds), and said rhyme “So manches Haar, so manches gutes Jahr”, (“For every thread/hair, a good year shall be had”), but woe if they didn’t finish by her return on the Epiphany “So manches Haar, so manches böses Jahr”( “For every thread/hair, a bad year shall be had.”) Odin’s Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology by William P. Reaves
She is mentioned in a 16th century fable by Erasmus Alberus, a contemporary of Martin Luther, who also mentions her in his writings. Her name is woven into German culture. According to Lotte Motz in her paper “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda and Related Figures (1985), Frauhollenabend was Saturday in the Rhönegebirge and Hollenabend designates the Thursday before Christmas in the Westerwald.
You can still see signs of her in Central Germany. Hike to the Frau Hollestein, on the on Hägberg ridge near Aschaffenburg, Lower Franconia. The rock has a depression, from where she put her basket down to rest. Here is where it’s said Frau Holle appears to help those in need. Like the baker who was kind to an old woman, and found his sack filled with a year’s worth of flour (some stories say gold)… and the young woman being chased by wild dogs who was saved by a figure of light.
Or maybe visit the Frau-Holle-Teich (Frau Holle Pond) near the Hoher Meißner, in Hesse, along the Fairy Tale Route. Legend has it that Frau Holle’s silver castle lies at the bottom of the deep pond. You may even catch sight of her bathing at noon… but don’t let her see you!
Today Frau Holle is generally seen as a kindly old woman who shakes her beds out to make it snow. But her fascinating legacy dates back to the very beginnings of the German people. Her legends adapted, and survived the move from pagan religion to Christianity. She is original domestic goddess, and so much more than a fairly tale.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales (my daughter’s copy)