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The Old Goddess

This article is excerpted from a longer chapter in The Witches' Goddess, which looks at pagan faiths in the middle ages and afterwards. It includes descriptions of the transnational faery faith, belief in "the women who go by night," the Tregenda of the witches, Melusine and Baba Yaga and many other folk goddesses.

The Witches Goddess is part of the multi-volume Secret History of the Witches, a forthcoming sourcebook on European women's spiritual traditions: the goddesses, sanctuaries, and priestesses, and later, the folk religion that persisted under state Christianity. These books attempt to reweave the torn fabric of lost culture, and to recover the spiritual riches of a cosmovision which Europe once held in common with the rest of the world.

The Secret History also probes the political underpinnings of religion in Europe: how women were barred from the priesthood, how Goddess reverence was attacked as heresy and devil-worship, and how witch persecutions became a means of repressing women's speech, power, and self-determination. Read the Table of Contents for an overview of the scope of this work.

The Old Goddess / Friday Goddess of the Witches
Andra Mari Euskadi / Basques
Laima Lithuania, Latvia
Nicniven, Gyre Carline Scotland
Hulda Denmark
Holle, Holda, Fraw Holt north Germany
Perchta, Perhta Baba, Zlata Baba south German, Austria
Fraw Saelde, Zälti Austria
Luca, Szepasszony Hungary
Saint Friday Estonia
Mokosh / Paraskeva Russia
Dame Habonde, Abundia France
Befana (Epiphania) Sicily
Signora Oriente, Diana, Signora del gioco, Sapiente Sibillia Italy

Excerpted from The Witches' Goddess, unpublished MS; © 2006 Max Dashu.

The Old Goddess of the pagans lived on in popular speech, rituals of hearth and earth, in festival custom with its cargo of symbols and myth. She was the source of life power and wisdom. People prayed to her for well-being, abundance, protection, and healing. They invoked her in birth, and the dead returned to her. They said that the Old Goddess rode the winds, causing rain and snow and hail on earth, and that she revealed omens of weather and deaths and things to come.

Across Europe, Friday was observed as her holy day, beginning with its eve on Thursday night. The dark of the year was sacred to Old Goddess. On winter solstice nights, she was said to fly over the land with her spirit hosts. Tradition averred that shamanic witches rode in her wake on the great pagan festivals.

Reverence was made to Old Goddess in planting and harvesting, baking, spinning and weaving. The fateful Spinner was worshipped as Srecha by the Serbs, as Holle or Perchta by the Germans, as Mari by the Basques, and as Laima by the Lithuanians and Latvians. She appears as Befana in Italy and as myriad faery goddesses in France, Spain, and the Gaeltacht. In Russia she is Mokosh or Kostroma or the apocryphal saint Paraska.

I call her the Old Goddess because she was commonly pictured as an aged woman, and her veneration was ancient, as well. While the goddesses of the various ethnic cultures have their unique qualities, they share certain traits, some international deep root of commonality. Old Goddess is like the weathered Earth, ancestor of all, an immanent presence in forests, grottos and fountains. In her infinitude she manifests in countless forms, as females of various ages, and shapeshifting to tree, serpent, frog, bird, deer, mare and other creatures. In the Middle Ages and even under the downpour of diabolism during the Burning Terror, she remained beloved by the common people.

Frau Holle
Holle was already described as a witch goddess in the 9th century Corrector Burchardi, which rebuked the belief that shamanic women rode animals through the skies in her company. Many centuries later, these beliefs were still current. Holle was said to head a wild cavalcade of spirits, witches and the dead in the dark of the year.

At Giessen her visits were anticipated in a proverbial saying: Die Holle kommt. "The Holle comes" in storms, riding the winds. German peasants said that witches fared to Holle's sacred mountain on the old holydays. [Rüttner-Cova, 150, compares Hollefahren (Holle's journey) to Hexenfarhten (the traveling of witches).]

a young woman impersonating Frau Holle on the winterfest

A young woman impersonating Frau Holle on the Winterfest

Holle creates whirlwinds and snowfall. She brings life-force to the land, causing growth, abundance and good fortune. Her yearly circling of the fields brings rich crops. Hulda and her Seligen ("happy ones") roam across the land where flax will be planted. [PÓCS, 74] According to Alberus, the women traveling in Hulda's host carried sickles. [GRIMM, 476] Such myths reflect actual rituals blessing the flax fields, like the Slovenian ceremonies in honor of the Mittwinterfrau. [PÓCS, 76] Holle protects the hearth and watches over the distaff and flax baskets placed near it. Her gifts — coal, wood, flax pods — seem insignificant but turn out to have unimagined value.

In lower Saxony, Harke or frau Harke flies over the fields as a dove, making them fruitful. [GRIMM, 1364. He notes that a folktale presents Harke as a witch's daughter.] Holle also shapeshifts into a frog to retrieve the red apple of life from a well. [GIMBUTAS, 255] As the Haulemutter of the Harz mountains, she has the power to become huge or tiny. She is a shaggy-haired, hump-backed old woman who walks with a crutch.

Holle also appears as a young woman bathing in the midday sun, combing her hair or playing enchantingly beautiful music. A young woman with a crown of candles impersonated her on winter holiday. Or she was dressed in straw, flanked by women with sickles. More often, though, Holle is a fateful crone goddess who initiates young woman and rewards them according to their merits. She is especially pleased with compassion and generosity.

The folktale of Frau Holle's Well takes up this theme. A mistreated stepdaughter is made to spin til blood runs from her fingers. She goes to wash the spindle in the well, and it falls in. The cruel stepmother tells her she has to go in and get it out. The girl jumps into the well and loses consciousness. She awakes in a beautiful sunny meadow full of flowers. She begins to walk and soon comes to an oven full of baking bread. The oven calls out to her, asking her to take out the loaves before they burn. She willingly complies. Then she comes to a tree loaded with ripe apples. It asks her to shake them down, and she does that too. At last the girl came comes to a cottage where an old woman with big teeth sits looking out at her. The girl is afraid at first, but the crone reassures her. She asks her to stay with her and help around the house, especially to shake her down comforter so that the feathers fly, causing snow on earth. "I'm Frau Holle."

The girl stays with the old woman and leads a comfortable life with plenty of good food. But after a while she becomes homesick. Frau Holle offers to take her back to her world. She leads the stepdaughter under a big gate, which showers down gold that sticks to her. Walking through the gate, the girl sees she is not far from her house. She returns to her family and tells them the whole story.

When her stepsister sees how Frau Holle has treated her, she decides to also pay a visit to the world under the well. She passes through the same cycle of events, but refuses to take the bread out of the magical oven or to shake the apple tree, and avoids work at Holle's cottage. When she passes through the gate, she is drenched with tar. [GRIMM- GFT]

The plunge into a magical well, the old woman deep in the earth, the apple tree in the abundant land, the bread that the faeries bake — all are old animist images.

Spinners
The earliest known sources show the Old Goddess as a spinner. She is Fate, whose spinning has immense creative force in time and space. A Finnish kenning for the sun — "God's Spindle" — reflects her power. [Kalevala, 32, 20, in GRIMM, 1500] The Goddess's spinning and weaving also "symbolize the creation of matter, especially of human flesh." [MATOSSIAN, 120] There are countless avatars of the spinning goddess.

Among the Greeks, the spinner Fates are threefold, the mighty Moirae, and this theme is repeated in innumerable folk traditions all over medieval and early modern Europe. French peasants of Saintonge said that the fades (fates) or bonnes ("good women") roam in the moonlight as three old women, always carrying distaffs and spindles. The fades have prophetic powers and cast lots. They are seen along the banks of the Charente river, or near certain grottos, or near megalithic monuments. [Michon, Statistique de la Charente, in SEBILLOT 444]

In Berry, a white faery carrying a distaff was said to walk on certain nights at the edge of an old mardelle called Spinner's Hole. Three pale ladies spun their distaffs by the Faeries' Rock near Langres. A spinner could be heard at Villy, but was only seen at dawn or dusk. [SEBILLOT-METIERS, 23-4]

Portuguese women made offerings to faeries whose name shows its derivation from "the dianas":

In the Algarve the memory is not extinct of female creatures called jãs or jans, for whom it used to be customary to leave a skein of flax and a cake of bread on the hearth. In the morning the flax would be spun as fine as hair and the cake would have disappeared. [GALLOP, 58]

In the Landes of southwest France, women placed fine flax at the entrance of caves or the edge of fountains inhabited by the hades, who instantly turned it into thread. [SEBILLOT-METIERS, 23-4]

Even in the far north, in a very different cultural world, the spinning wheel was sacred to the spring goddess of the Saami. She is the spirit maiden Rana Nedie, who makes the mountains green and feeds the reindeer. When sacrifices were made to her, they rubbed the blood on a spinning wheel and leaned it against her altar.

The spinning faeries are often encountered near water. A Welsh faery woman emerges from Corwrion Pool to spin on beautiful summer days, singing to herself, "Sìli ffrit, sìli ffrit..." Another tale says a faery used to borrow things from a Llyn farmwoman, but wouldn't give her name. Once she borrowed a spinning wheel. The woman overheard her singing while spinning, "Little did she know/ That Sìli go Dwt/ Is my name." [RHYS II, 584, compares Silly Frit and Sìli go Dwt with the Scottish seelie (591) as in "seelie wights," helpful faeries.]


spinning sow, from a 15th century French church sculpture

Church sculpture at Malestroit, Morbihan, 1400s. The spinning sow appears in folklore from Wales to Russia.

The border Scots revered Habetrot as the goddess of spinners. She is seen near water, usually by a "holey" stone that is a gateway to the Otherworld. Habetrot appears as a helper and initiator of girls, bringing good fortune to them. It was said that "a shirt made by her was a sovereign remedy for all sorts of diseases." [BRIGGS, 216]

Another spinning water faery is the Loireag. Warping, weaving, and washing of webs are her sacraments, and she sees to it that women follow the traditions. Singing is one of them, and it has to be melodious. A modern source dismisses the Loireag as "a small mite of womanhood that does not belong to this world but to the world thither" and "a plaintive little thing, stubborn and cunning." [from Carmichael's Carmina Gadelica, in BRIGGS, 271]

Scottish faery lore is full of spinning and weaving. The Gyre-Carling, queen of the "good neighbors" (faery folk) oversaw the work of spinners in Fife. [BRIGGS, 325] The faeries could sometimes be heard chanting waulking songs: Ho! fir-e! fair-e, foirm! Ho! Fair-eag-an an cló! ("Well done, grand, bravo the web!"). [EVANS-WENTZ] Border Scots believed in the thrumpin, a fateful guardian with the power to take life, or Thrummy-cap, a faery wearing a hat made of wool that weavers clipped from the ends of their webs. [Ibid, 395]

The French said that faery divinities came to houses to spin on certain nights. An Alsatian ballad pictured them as three fates:

When midnight sounds
not a soul in the village awake
Then three spectres glide in the window
and sit at the three wheels
They spin, their arms moving silently
the threads hum rapidly onto the spindles...
[As they finish, an owl cries from the cemetery,]
What will become of the fine fabric
and will there again be three engagement robes? [SEBILLOT-METIERS, 15]

Spring gossamer was often explained as the craft of faeries. An Italian saying — "See how much the three Marias have spun tonight" — substitutes a Christian name for the old triune goddess. [GRIMM, 1533] The sacraments of spinning and weaving were transferred to certain saints: Germana of Bar-sur-Aube; Lucie of Sampigny, whose stone helped women conceive; and Genovefa of Brabant, who was said to sit behind the altar at the Frauenkirchen ("women's church") where the buzz of her spinning wheel could be heard. [ECKENSTEIN, 25-6]

Spinning faeries often appear to help out children burdened with work. A Manx servant girl asked the spiders to help her with a load of spinning. Not only did they spin her wool, but they wove her a gorgeous shawl out of their own thread. [BRIGGS, 138] In a Swiss Romande tale, a girl's parents made her spin a full distaff, and herd the cattle too.

One day a fee came to ask her hospitality in her chalet, and having been well received, she came every evening to take her distaff, put it in the horns of one of the cows that was going to pasture, then, sitting on the brave beast's back, she began to spin by moonlight, for the benefit of her protegée, and each morning she returned her distaff filled with skeins of beautiful fine thread. [SEBILLOT-METIERS, 23]

"German legend is full of spinning and weaving women," as Grimm pointed out. They make magical mantles or other clothing, like "the robe that a wild faery (wildiu feine) span." A Westphalian tradition says, "in the cave sits an old spinster..." This cavern-dweller prophesies to those who seek her advice. The elves, too, are often described as weavers. [GRIMM, 1402, 407, 447]

The Swedish hill troll Dame Soåsan was also associated with the spinster's craft. "To those who were careful not to offend her the woman exhibited much kindness and extended many favors." She helped a starving old woman by offering her flax to spin. But she laid a condition: the woman should not wet the thread with spittle, since she had been christened. The old spinner left the yarn in a glade and received silver pieces in return. She prospered, until she stopped keeping faith with the trolls and wet the thread with her spit. Then she got lost in the woods, and when she returned home, all her silver had turned to pebbles. [BOOSS, 254-6]

In a Norwegian folk tale, a girl goes in quest to find a prince who lives "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." She ascends a mountain, "where an old woman [is] sitting and spinning on a golden spinning wheel." She lends the girl a horse, gives her a golden spinning wheel, and advises her to ask the east wind for help. [BOOSS, 63-70]

An old Estonian tradition says that Vana-ema (Old Mother) will spin all night if you leave out a distaff and thread. In some districts Estonians called this spinner the Grandmother or the Night Mother. She was connected to the dead and the underworld spinning women (maa-aluste naised). [MATOSSIAN, 121] Estonian peasants used to explain the strange ticking sound of wall moths as the spinning of the Twilight Mother.

The old women said that if you wake up at night and upon awakening hear that something is purring in the corner, then you should try to put your hand on it; then the twilight mother's spinning wheel will stop and her power to work will stay in your hand; if someone was an excellent spinner, it was said that she had touched the twilight mother's spinning wheel. [Loorits, 1948, 62, in PAULSON, 149]

Notes

  1. The Gaeltacht refers to any of the regions in Ireland where the Irish language is officially the major language, that is, the vernacular spoken at home.
  2. The Corrector Burchardis is a penitential book included in an 11th century compendium of canon law by bishop Burchard of Worms. However, the Corrector is believed to originate from an earlier Frankish text, probably circa 900. Loaded with condemnations of pagan observances, it takes the form of an interrogatory in which priests question the common people about forbidden practices and beliefs: "Is there any woman who...[says she journeys with the goddess by night, does rain magic, love spells, etc.]? This text is one of several that condemn the belief that certain women go by night with the Goddess of the pagans. This theme of shamanic flight by witches became a key element in the demonization of witchcraft several centuries later.
  3. Waulking is pounding a piece of woven cloth, usually wool, to make the fibers bond together (similar to the effect of felting). Originally, waulking songs added a blessing to the cloth.

Citations

  • [BOOSS] Booss, Claire, Scandinavian folk & fairy tales: tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. New York: Avenel Books, 1984.
  • [BRIGGS] Briggs, Katharine, An Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures, Pantheon.
  • [BRIGGS] Briggs, Katharine, A Dictionary of British Folk Tales.
  • [ECKSTEIN] Eckenstein, Lina, Woman under monasticism; chapters on saint-lore and convent life between A.D. 500 and A.D. Cambridge: University Press, 1896.
  • [EVANS-WENTZ] Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, Humanities Press, NJ, 1978.
  • [GALLOP] Gallop, Rodney, Portugal: A Book of Folkways, Cambridge University Press, 1936.
  • [GIMBUTAS] Gimbutas, Marija, The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization. Thames & Hudson, 2001.
  • [GRIMM] Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, Vols I-IV, translated from 4th edition by James S. Stallybrass, George Bell & Sons, London, 1883.
  • [GRIMM-GFT] Grimm, Jacob and Wilhem, Grimm's Fairy Tales.
  • [MATOSSIAN] Matossian, Mary Kilbourne, "Vestiges of the Cult of the Mother Goddess in Baltic Folklore," in Ziedonis, Arvids et al., eds, Baltic Literature and Linguistics, Columbus OH:Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, 1973.
  • [PAULSON] Paulson, Ivar, Old Estonian Folk Religion, Bloomington: Indiana University, 1971.
  • [Pócs] Pócs, Eva, Fairies and Witches at the Boundary of Southeastern and Central Europe, FF Communications, Vol CV, #243, Helsinki, 1989
  • [RHYS] Rhys, John, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971.
  • [RUTTNER-COVA] Ruttner-Cova, Sonja, Frau Holle, die gesturzte Gottin : Marchen, Mythen, Matriarchat. Basel : Sphinx Verlag, 1986.
  • [SEBILLOT] Sebillot, Paul, La Folklore de la France, Vols I-IV, Librairie Orientale et Americaine, Paris, 1904.
  • [SEBILLOT-METIERS] Sebillot, Paul, Légendes et Curiosités des Métiers. Paris: Flammarion, 1895.

Graphics Credits

  • Frau Holle and Spinning Sow courtesy of the author (from her collection).
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