Tregenda of the Old Goddess, Spirits, and Witches
Excerpted from The Witches' Goddess, unpublished MS; © 2006 Max Dashu.
At the end of the Middle Ages, an international myth of the Old Goddess stretched from the Slavic east to the Celtic west and from Italy to Scandinavia. People said that a vibrant, powerful crone flew in the midst of a cavalcade of spirits dead and unborn, joined by witches of all lands. On the eves of pagan holydays the spirit hosts set out for high mountaintops or other sacred places. At these animist sanctuaries the witches would dance, play music and games, feast and celebrate their mysteries. The divine "Mistress of the Night" would preside over the gathering, giving cures and revealing the future. Often she would miraculously revive the animals the witches were feasting on. The goddesses, their flight on the pagan festivals, even their destinations, all are closely interwoven in popular tradition with witches and faeries.
Over most of Europe, May Eve was a time when witches and the faery host were abroad. The German Walpurgisnacht was marked by the mass flight of witches, who assembled on mountaintops to dance and make magic. Scandinavians also celebrated the trollathing (spirit assembly) with dance, song and witchcraft. [Lea, 406] So did the followers of Dzina in Rumania. The Inquisition closely questioned Jeanne d'Arc about her dancing around a faery tree on le beau Mai. Lithuanian witches flew to Mount Szatria on Midsummer's Eve to be received by the mighty enchantress Jauterita. [Grimm, 1053] Also on that night, the streghe of Italy set out for the pagan Tree of Benevento, where they danced and immersed themselves in the pool of the "dianas."
On the old Celtic holiday Samhain, the crone goddess Nicnevin led the Hallowmas Rades with a wand of power in her hand. The tallest mountain in Scotland, Ben Nevis, was sacred to her. Gray-cloaked Nicnevin rode the storm with a troop of faeries and witches astride animal spirits. Galloway Scots said that ocean whitecaps once carried away some of her company's low-flying mounts. In anger, Nicnevin struck out with her slachdan, transforming the local geography. Tales of her cunning in charms describe her as setting sail in a sieve, as witches were said to do all over Europe. [Davidson, 9]
A Norwegian name for the spirit hosts aaskereida, aaskerej, aaskereia means "lightning-thunder." The goddess Reisarova would lead a host of riders who journeyed at Yuletide, crossing land and sea on black steeds with eyes like embers. Their revelry could be heard from afar. During storms, the sound of a saddle tossed onto a roof by the spirit cavalcade, rushing overhead, would be interpreted as a death omen for someone in the house. Sometimes the riders would sweep up careless bystanders into their midst and carry them off. [Grimm, 945-6]
Norwegians also called the goddess leading this spirit procession Gurorysse. Her name comes from the gurri, a faery with a long tail and hooves, like the Scandinavian huldra, the Basque lamiña, and the Scottish glaistig. [Grimm, 945-6] The guro/gurri element is visible in the name of the Eddic witch-goddess Hyrrokin, who rode the heavens on a wolf bridled with snakes. [Ankarloo, SdS, 252] The Aesir called to this goddess of winter storms when they were unable to launch Balder's funeral boat. Riding her wolf, she grabbed the prow and rapidly pushed the barge into the water. [Ann/Imer, 410]
Scandinavian settlers brought Gyrorysse into Britain, where she became the Scottish Gyre Carline. The poet Montgomerie equated her to "Nicniven with hir nymphis." [Briggs, 310] The Gyre Carline watched over women's distaffs at year's end. Women of Fife made sure to spin off the last of the flax on their distaffs before New Years to keep the Gyre Carline from making off with it overnight. [Grimm, 945-6] This taboo ensured magical completion before a new year's cycle began. In Slovenia and Croatia the Mittwinterfrau oversaw the same ceremony of spinning-off, as did Luca in Hungary and Perchta in Austria. [Pocs, 26]
The Old Goddess went by a variety of regional names in German-speaking countries, always retaining the character of a long-nosed spinner venerated on the Ember Nights. In northern Germany she was Hölle or Fraw Holt; in the southern reaches she was Perhta or Percht or Berthe. Bertha is mentioned interchangeably with "Fraue Holt" in the Landskranna Himelstrasz (1484). Folklore cast both goddesses as queen of the elves and holden. [Grimm, 1367]
Writers from 1300 to 1500 report that people still left out food and drink offerings to the Old Goddess. It was customary on the winter holiday to bake a braided loaf, the Hollenzopf, "Hölle's braid," as an offering to the Mother of the Dead. [Gimbutas, Lang, 320] This bread was probably preserved for use in blessing and curative rituals during the coming year, as was the French custom with faery loaves. The same observances were recorded of Perchta in southern Germany. In the mid-1300s, Martin of Amberg wrote that people left meat and drink standing for Percht with the iron nose. Medieval documents refer to the Winter Holiday as perchtentag or perhtennaht ("bright-day," or "-night"). A manuscript of 1302 uses the expression "till the eighth day after the Perht's day." [Grimm, 279-81]
The divine spinning crones Hölle and Bertha or Perchta would travel "in the Twelves," during the last days of the year. [Rey-Flaud, 187] The south German "wild women" would also come into power during these "Twölven." [Grimm, 929] Legend often presents these goddesses as old witches with shaggy hair. They would appear suddenly, accompanied by infants, elves, dwarves, night-hags and enchantresses. [Grimm, 282] In Hesse and Thuringia, Holle would lead the Wild Hunt, riding a black horse with her wild hair streaming in the wind, as she blew a horn and cracked a whip.
The Old Goddess gave spindles to industrious spinners and filled their spindles with thread overnight, but tangled and dirtied those of lazy, careless spinners, especially the ones who failed to finish off their flax before the Ember season. At that time Austrian women used to spin some flax especially for the shaggy "wood-woman" and throw it on the fire as an offering to her. Women in Vicentina spun off the flax on their distaffs and threw it into the fire for the holzweibel. [Grimm, 432]
In Switzerland the Sträggele was abroad on the Embernight, checking to see if girls had finished their spinning, and punishing them if they had not. [Grimm, 934] Her title which translates as "witchie" adds a German diminutive to the Italianate strega, recalling the 10th-century witch-goddess, striga Holda.
Tricks were played on spinners who failed to finish their work before the winter holiday. If an English girl were found spinning on the English Saint Distaff day, the spirits would burn her flax and distaff. [Sebillot, Metiers, 20] In Bavaria Berchta would burn the hands of lazy spinners and ruin the flax they didn't finish off, or even cut open their bellies and fill them with chopped straw and battings. [Rey-Flaud, 187] Or the wild Berta would wipe her butt with the unspun flax, to show her displeasure at finding it still on the distaff for her festival. [Grimm, 1370]
Basques said that witches would do the same if spinners didn't finish the flax before retiring on Saturday night. Or they said, "Finish the rest of the distaff so the witches won't dance with it." [De Azkue, 385] In the Enhaut region of Swisse Romande, spinners finished their distaffs by Christmas Eve and concealed them behind the chimney. Otherwise, at New Year's Tsaôthe Vidhe would come to hopelessly tangle up the tow (unspun flax). This old witch would go around on the final days of the year riding a blind horse. Alpine villagers kept the custom of hiding the distaffs during the Winter Nights into the early 1800s. [Sebillot, Metiers, 19]
In many countries the wild hosts of women accompanied a goddess described as a crone with a nose of iron, or a long nose, or iron teeth. Tyroleans said that women rode animals to the Var gathering in the company of Percht with the iron nose, and alluded to the journeying night-women's cauldron. Serbians said that the old woman Iron Tooth carried around live coals in a pitcher and burned the distaffs of lazy spinners. [See Ralston] The witch goddess Luca or Lucia was known to the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Slovenians, and east Austrians. For all these peoples, Luca fit the eastern European image of the witch with an iron nose. She sometimes took the form of a pig. Though her origins were completely pagan, Luca was integrated into the Christian calendar as an apocryphal saint. Her feast day was set on the winter solstice sacred to the Ember Nights spinners, and as the matron of spinning, she made sure that no households spun or baked on her holiday. A woman holding a white-veiled sieve like a mask over her face impersonated Luca during the celebration, giving gifts to children. [Domotor; Pocs; Rüttner-Cova, 118, on gifts]
The Russian witch grannies called Baba Yaga also had iron teeth or noses. They flew in their mortars and drove with the pestles, or rode on the backs of wild pigs. Byelorussians said that Baba Yaga went about with the witch sisterhood on Kupalo, Midsummer's Eve. They gathered herbs and made magical fires, in accord with international pagan custom. [Hubbs, 77, 252]
In lower Austria, Iron Perchta and the Gvozdenzuba passed over the earth, then descended into it during the Winter Nights. The Slovenes said that Perchta Baba was accompanied by eagles and snakes, symbols of the upper and lower worlds. Carinthians said that the Perchtas and their wild troop circled the world three times on the Twelfth Night. Their horse-headed figures could be glimpsed looking through people's windows - portending a death, like the banshee - and sometimes breaking in. Tyroleans said that whoever got in Wild Berchta's way on this night would sink into trance and upon awakening, be able to predict how the next harvest would be. [Pocs, 72, 81]
Villagers, especially young adults, impersonated Perchta's host in processions and ecstatic dances. [Pocs, 81] At Holzberndorf in upper Franconia, "Iron Berta" paraded in a cow's hide with a bell, giving nuts and apples to good children, but thrashing the ones who had been bad. [Grimm, 1370] The Perchten would make the rounds at night, appearing in horned wooden masks with snouts or beaks, cloaked in black sheepskins, with hoods of badger or bear fur. They would blow cowhorns, clash cymbals, shake poles festooned with bells. The Perchten would run through the streets with glowing embers in their mouths, as if breathing fire. They would rush into houses to "clean" them, and chase the shrieking children, threatening to put them in sacks. The mummers claimed the offerings which were set out for Perchta. [Rey-Flaud, 100, 182-7] Occasionally Nicholas would appear in company with Perchta, Holle, or Frau Chunkle. In many places he displaced the Old Goddess as the primary figure. Like her, Nicholas carries a sack and is accompanied by masked, animal-skinned processions that surge into houses. His gifts and rewarding or punishing of children are themes originating with Befana or Perchta.
Austrian and Swiss villages staged ritual battles called Perchtenlaufen for the fertility of their fields. "The 'troops' have to visit each house, to bring good luck and a rich crop. The Perchtenlaufen may also contain ecstatic dances, imitating enchantment." Masked as the beautiful Perchtas and the ugly Perchtas, the mummers enacted the triumph of life-force over the power of the underworld. [Pocs, 81] The ugly or terrifying Perchtas represent death, a part of the natural order, its time and place chosen by the fateful goddess. Simultaneously they represent the power to regenerate life. So in Germany, Frau Chunkle would throw a mixture of meal and ashes from her pot at people's heads. In Lötschental, Switzerland, the terrible Perchten would sprinkle spectators with liquid manure. The Bavarian and Austrian Perchten would give a "blow with the life-wand." [Schlag mit dem Lebensrute, Rey-Flaud, 187, 213]
In the southern German-speaking lands, the folk goddess Saelde possessed a wheel and an abundance-bearing horn, the Saeldenhorn. People said she came to babies' cradles to endow them with gifts. [Grimm, 1036, 1569, 1400] Many medieval German expressions openly refer to her as a Fate with divine power: "Travel in Saelde's keeping." "Saelde is the staff you shall lean on." "Saelde smiled on her." Or, "vrou Saelde turns her neck," and this looking away signaled misfortune. Saelde was sometimes said to be blind; superficial appearances were of no importance to her. Her vigilance was proverbial. She was believed to advise people and bid them to do things. [Grimm, 1565-69] It was customary to await her coming in a night vigil called "waking the Saelde."
Many variants of Frau Saelde's name are known Selten, Zälti, fraw Selga from Switzerland to Austria. Witch trial transcripts have her leading witches and spirits who roamed the skies on the Ember Nights, a time pregnant with possibilities and omens of the coming year. Tyroleans said that Frau Selga could be seen riding at the head of the nightly host. [Ibid, 1567-1619]
The medieval witch goddesses would travel during the twelve nights between Winter Solstice and the Roman New Year or, in churchly terms, between Christmas and Epiphany. This festival took its name from the ancient Greek mysteries: epiphania meant "divine appearance," as when Kore appeared in the barley. The pagan name was assimilated into Christianity, where other pagan traditions promptly fastened themselves to it, persisting in spite of centuries of ecclesiastical attempts to re-form them.
To the European peasantry, Epiphania signified the advent of their ancient goddess, and they smuggled their animistic customs into the Christian context. In Italy and Sicily, the name Epiphania was transferred directly to the Old Goddess who traveled in the Ember Nights. She appeared in Renaissance witch trials as goddess of the witches and, in spite of the Inquisition, observances in her honor have been kept alive into the present day. People appeal to Befania or Befana for good fortune on the winter holyday. The magical night of Epiphania is charged with power: people can foresee the future, and animals speak, even prophesy; the dead return to earth, and all kinds of marvels take place. One of Befana's titles is Marantega (from mater antigua, "old mother"). [Centini, 11920]
Sicilians especially kept alive the memory of Befana, la Strega, la Vecchia "the witch, the old woman" an ugly, good old woman who leaves presents in children's stockings on Twelfth Night. She descends from the mountains at night, unseen, and enters houses through the chimneys. Sometimes she rides a broom. She brings gifts, or coal for the children who have been bad, and stuffs them into stockings hung above the hearth. [Centini, 119-20]
Singers serenaded houses where cloth images of Befana were placed in
the windows, or carried her image from house to house while caroling.
Families welcomed the visiting witch goddess with tambourines, horns,
and drums. Children sang "La Befanata," asking her favors. In
some places, oranges and sweets were put into the Befana, and they broke
it open like a piñata. [Bonomo;
C.S. McKenzie, Matrix, Dec. 1987, p 7]