Originally published in Idunna 30, 1997
by Diana L. Paxson
As winter weather sends folk to shelter, we think of the deities whom our ancestors honored at this season. One of the most important of these is Mother Holda, who rides the winter skies in her wagon, watches over women at their spinning, and shakes out her featherbeds to make the snow fall. Our information about her comes primarily from Jacob Grimm, who in Teutonic Mythology collected folklore from all over Germany and interpreted it in the light of the Old Norse literature. His evidence suggests that Holda, Holle, Holla and Huld are all names for the same figure, who may also be related to bright Perchta, and he infers an ancient Gothic form, “Hultha”, from a root meaning to bend or to bow.
However we name her, she is a goddess of many aspects. In the summer, she may appear as a radiant lady bathing in the lake, but it is in the winter that she comes into her own. Her best-known appearance is in the fairy tale in which she shows both her bright and dark faces. To the good daughter, who bloodies her fingers with her industrious spinning, gives help to all who ask and completes her tasks quickly and well, she appears as a benevolent grandmother (even though her teeth are rather large). But the lazy sister encounters her as a terrifying hag.
It is as a hag, also, that she drives her wagon through the stormy skies. In the Middle Ages, she became identified with Herodias and Habondia, and her progress turned into a wild hunt in which she led the souls of infants who died unbaptized, witches, and heathens in general. Newborn babies were said to have been drawn from “dame Holle’s pond.” “To ride with Holle–” was to go on a witches’ ride. A Middle Dutch term for the Milky Way was Vroneldenstraet, the highway of Frau Hulde.
If one wishes to take the Huldr or Hulla of Norse folklore as a related figure, she may be the Völva who was the mother of the demi-goddesses Thorgerdhr and Irpa by Odin, or the woodwife who haunts the high pastures as a young woman dressed in blue with a white veil, or an old woman dressed in grey, mistress of the mountain spirits called the huldrefolk, the people who live under the hill. In German legend, the Venusberg was formerly the Hoselberg, where Holda dwelt in subterranean splendor. When she rode out, her procession of spirits was heralded by the hero Eckhart.
However in the folklore of Germany, Holda is most prominent as a patroness of spinsters (not unmarried women, but women who spin!). It is hard for us to understand the central importance that spinning played in the lives of women before the Industrial Revolution. To spin enough thread to make garments for an entire family took a long time. Girls learned to spin as soon as they could toddle, and women spent much of their time with a distaff tucked under one arm. Holda might reward an industrious spinster by finishing her work for her overnight. A lazy woman was punished by having her distaff burned or her flax spoiled. It is always flax, rather than wool, with which Holda is associated. One wonders if the fact that flax must be wetted before it can be spun has any connection with Holda’s association with lakes and springs.
Although in Scandinavia she may wear other colors, German folklore suggests that Holda should be visualized wearing linen as white as her snowflakes. I see her as a grandmotherly figure (“Mother” is used as a title given by adults to women of their own mothers’ years), with silver hair, but still vigorous and strong. I have always ascribed to her the elder tree (sambucus nigra), called holantar in Old High German and cneowholen in Anglo-Saxon. I do not know if the two names have any etymological relationship, but elder is associated with figures who play the same sort of role as Holda in fairy tales. Elder was held to be sacred, and in some places could not be cut without making a prayer, or burned for fear of bringing ill-luck.
Holda’s sacred season is the time between Yule and New Year’s; formerly, I would assume, the twelve days after the Solstice. All spinning currently in progress must be finished by the beginning of Yule, and spindles and distaffs put away. In some parts of the North, during this time no activity involving a turning wheel could be performed. One may take this as a directive to have all the holiday housecleaning finished by Yule, so as to keep the season sacred (although in my experience, between Christmas dinner and Christmas cleanup, the women of a household will be kept quite busy enough even without spinning to do, so the time is hardly one of rest!).
The legends of Perchta specify the night before Twelfth Day as her most sacred time. This is when the goddess visits the spinning rooms and checks to make sure all the flax has been spun from the distaffs, and if she is displeased, may hand the women empty reels to fill. She also punishes those who have not eaten her sacred food — usually dumplings or some form of gruel made from oats, and fish such as herrings.
Today we do not have to spin flax in order to keep our families clothed, but there are many other kinds of work that must be done. The maiden in the fairy tale helps with all kinds of housework, and it is her willingness to do it promptly and well that earns her a golden reward. Especially at the Christmas season, getting everything done may be hard, but that seems to be the service that the goddess demands. The danger and chaos of the Wild Hunt reflect the stress that results when holiday tasks get out of hand.
In particular, the customs associated with Holda seem to have to do with rituals of preparation for the New Year. To provide closure for the year that is passing, try to finish up any tasks that you have been putting off for too long. Keep New Year’s day as one of rest and celebration, and include pickled herring and oatcakes on the menu. Other foods might include elderberry tea and pfeffernusse, those gingery German cakes covered with powdered sugar which cover anyone who eats them with a dusting of sugar like snow.
Good housekeeping, and good Yule!
Holy Holda, in the heavens,
A snowy featherbed you’re shaking–
Bless the earth with your white blanket,
Moist the mantle you are making.
Holda high above come riding,
Your Wagon rolls through winter weather;
Turn away your face of terror,
Bless us as we bide together.
Holy Holda, here we gather,
Send us skill in all our spinning,
Huldrefolk to help in housework,
Wealth and health with your aid winning!