The Legend of Frau Holle

Winter Goddess
When Frau Holle shakes out her mattress, snow falls to the earth. stock_colors / Getty Images

In some Scandinavian traditions, Frau Holle is known as the feminine spirit of the woods and plants, and was honored as the sacred embodiment of the earth and land itself. She is associated with many of the evergreen plants that appear during the Yule season, especially mistletoe and holly, and is sometimes seen as an aspect of Frigga, wife of Odin. In this theme, she is associated with fertility and rebirth.

Her feast day is December 25, and typically, she is seen as a goddess of hearth and home, although in different areas she has clearly different purposes.

Frau Holle in Fairy Tales

Interestingly, Frau Holle is mentioned in the story of Goldmary and Pitchmary, as compiled by the Grimm brothers. In this context -- that of a Germanic Cinderella-type tale -- she appears as an old woman who rewards an industrious girl with gold, and offers the girl's lazy sister an equally appropriate compensation. Legends in some parts of Germany portray her as a toothless hag who appears in the winter, much like the Cailleach of Scotland. In other stories, she is young, beautiful, and fertile.

In the Norse Eddas, she is described as Hlodyn, and she gives gifts to women at the time of the Winter Solstice, or Jul. She is sometimes associated with winter snowfall as well -- it is said that when Frau Holle shakes out her mattresses, white feathers fall to the earth.

A feast is held in her honor each winter by many people in the Germanic countries.

Hulda the Goddess

A number of scholars have pointed out that Frau Holle evolved from an earlier, pre-Christian deity, known as Hulda (alternately, Holle or Holla), who predates even the Norse pantheon. She appears as an old woman, associated with the darkness of winter, and watches over children in the coldest months.

Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas said, in Civilization of the Goddess, "[Holle] holds dominion over death, the cold darkness of winter, caves, graves and tombs in the earth….but also receives the fertile seed, the light of midwinter, the fertilized egg, which transforms the tomb into a womb for the gestation of new life." In other words, she is tied to the cycle of death and eventual rebirth, as new life springs forth.

Like many deities, Holda/Hulda/Holle is a complex one with many aspects. She has evolved through the centuries in a way that makes it nearly impossible to associate her with just one theme.

Hulda was known as a goddess of women, and was connected to matter of the household and domesticity. In particular, she is tied to women's crafts, such as weaving and spinning. This, in turn, has tied her to magic and witchcraft, and she is specifically called out in the Canon Episcopi, written around the fourth century. Those who honored her were required, as faithful Catholics, to do penance. The treatise reads, in part, "Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda ... who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company?

If you have performed participation in this unbelief, you are required to do penance for one year on designated fast-days.”

In the Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Rosemary Ellen Guiley says of Hulda, "[her] nocturnal rides with the souls of the unbaptized dead led to the Christian association of her with the demonic aspects of the wild hunt... [she] was said to be accompanied by witches as well as the souls of the dead. They rode uncontrollably through the night sky... the land over which they passed was said to bear double the harvest."

Honoring Frau Holle Today

If you'd like to celebrate the spirit of winter by honoring Frau Holle, it's a good time to focus on domestic crafts as part of ritual. You can spin or weave, knit or sew. There's a lovely heathen spindle ritual by Shirl Sazynski over at Witches & Pagans that's worth exploring, or incorporate other domestic tasks into a ritual context.

She is associated with the snowfall, so a bit of snow magic is always in order when you celebrate Frau Holle.