This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Fairy Tale Goddesses and Spectres of Christmas

Perchta, Woodcut ca. 1486

Grimm’s Saga No. 269: Beware of Wild Berta

In Swabia, Franconia and Thuringia people often admonish stubborn children by saying: “Be silent, or Wild Berta will get you!” Other people call her Bildaberta, Hildaberta or even Iron Berta. On the last day of the year in December she appears as shaggy-haired Wild Woman and besmirches the spindles of maidens, who have not spun their entire amount of flax. On this day many folk eat dumplings and herring*. Others claim the woman is Perchta or Prechta, the one who will cut open your stomach, take out the food first eaten and replace it with stones**. Then she sews up the incision with a ploughshare instead of a needle, and instead of a thread she uses a chain.

* Food eaten during a period of fasting.
** Probably a reference to persons who have broken the prescribed fast and their purported punishment.

The Fairy Tale Goddesses and Spectres of Christmas

A coterie of fairy tale goddesses presides over the fast days of December, the time of the winter solstice. Frau Holle, Frau Bertha, Perahta, Frau Lutz and the Dirneweible all appear at the end of the year in the month of December. Their importance, though impossible to completely reconstruct today, was linked to the season with the longest amount of darkness and shortest amount of light. The winter solstice was celebrated as the turning point back to light and illumination. The goddesses connected to this tradition were celebrated with processions, lighted candles, singing and fasting. According to The Oxford Book of Days*, by the third century A.D. the Sun was considered to be the one true God by vast segments of the population. The Roman emperor Aurelian made December 25th the official birthday of the sun and proclaimed the day as Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquerable sun). When vast segments of Europe became Christianized, the traditions associated with the pagan solstice goddesses were also transformed. In parts of Bohemia and Scandinavia, Frau Berta became St. Lucy and her feast day was set on December 13th. It was at this time of year that Frau Holle and Frau Bertha reputedly marched in procession for 12-days, marking the time between Christmas and New Year. The procession itself was probably a dramatic reenactment of the natural cycle of the earth, turning from darkness and returning to light.
Nordic countries still celebrate Saint Lucy with a December festival or Luciatag. The day is commemorated with singing and parades marking the twelve days preceding Christmas. Saint Lucy was revered as the patroness of weavers, spinners and the harvest. Consequently, all weaving, spinning and threshing had to be completed by her feast day. Participants in her festival wore white and sang songs in her honor with typically one child being selected to represent the saint. This maid wore a white dress, a crown of lighted candles and a red sash to set her apart from the other participants, who were also clothed in white but wore silver crowns and sashes. The name Lucy itself suggests light and lucidity. According to Christian tradition, Lucy refused to marry the suitor her parents had selected for her. As punishment for her disobedience, her eyes were pulled out. A gory fate, we might think, but only a minor setback for a spunky saint. Miraculously Lucy was able to reinsert her eyeballs. Thereafter she was associated with persons suffering from eye ailments and was soon known as the patron saint of the blind. According to another tradition popular since the Middle Ages, Lucy was so filled with the Holy Spirit she became quite heavy. A whole group of men and team of oxen could not budge the saint from where she stood. Such weightiness might be the ultimate horror for girls her age and a most terrifying fate. But Lucy used her supernatural torpor to her advantage. Nothing could dislodge her and so she was able to continue arguing her innocence before the proconsul. (In summary the attributes of Saint Lucy: 12-day procession in December; patroness of harvest, weavers and spinners; red sash; name meaning light and lucidity; bringer of luck and prosperity; connection to eyesight, vision and seeing; supernatural weightiness resulting in immobility).
Perchta, Berchta, Perahta (old high German Perahta) or Berta (English) are various names for a Southern Germanic Goddess who was also prominent at the end of the year. These names mean the illuminated or shining one. Frau Holle, revered in areas where Berta left off, was also said to make shining white snow when she shook out her feather bed. According to pagan tradition, maidens were responsible for filling their spindles with neatly spun flax by the end of the year. If this was not accomplished, the goddess would cut open the girl’s stomach while she lay sleeping and fill it with hay and stones. In other traditions, the goddess demanded that a fast be kept and if the typical food prescribed for such fasts was not eaten, the goddess would exact her revenge in a similar manner. Instead of using a needle to sew up the disobedient girl’s stomach, a particularly irked goddess would use a ploughshare bone and instead of thread, an iron chain was used. Apparently the sleeping maiden never woke up during the ordeal and only noticed something amiss upon waking when she was unable to move under the weight of the stones in her stomach. Like Saint Lucy, Perchta also had an eye connection. She had the power to blow out a person’s eyes and thus, she was a force to be reckoned with. (In summary the attributes of Frau Berta, Perchta or Frau Holle: 12 day procession in December; patroness of weavers and spinners; white garment, name meaning light and the shining one; connection to eyesight, vision and seeing; bestower of supernatural weightiness resulting in immobility).
These December goddesses are associated with the life-giving forces of the sun, which wane in December but then dramatically begin to ascend. In Nordic mythology the sun represents life and eternity. The ability to see the sun was equated with being alive; by contrast the dead could no longer see the light of day. The color red, the only color that can be traced back to an Indo-European root, represented the dawn, or the color of the rising sun. This might be why red is a frequent marker and associated with the gods. The gods themselves are concerned with maintaining their health and longevity. To prevent aging, they ate apples tended by the goddess Idunn. In Ossettic mythology, apples are life-giving, bestowing immortality and protecting against disease. An appropriate gift at the arrival of winter and the cruel months of the year.
A lesser goddess among the powerful personages of December was the Dirneweibl. She appeared at a specific bush in the woods, often referred to as the Christmas Bush, and is more like a nymph of the forest than a full-fledged goddess. She wore a bright red cloak and offered mortals red apples from the basket she carried. Anyone accepting such a gift was rewarded with health and prosperity. But should the person not accept her offering, she retreated further and further into the forest crying pitifully. She is a mysterious figure, both luring the unsuspecting passerby deeper and deeper into the woods but also offering health and happiness in the form of her apples. She is simultaneously dangerous yet beneficent. It is only fitting that her cloak be red, symbolizing all those emotions associated with arousal, including anger, passion, love and even death. Thus, red is tied to those things that are fundamental to our very survival, security and prosperity. A signifier of what is both essential and longed for. (In summary, the attributes of the Dirneweibl: her connection to light is only through the red garment she wears and the red apples she offers; she is a potential bringer of health and prosperity but is misunderstood by mortals; appears in the forest or near a specific shrub or tree.)
And finally we get to the most famous winter solstice fairy tale of all (which is usually not associated with December): Little Red Riding Hood. The protagonist LRRH is perhaps most like the Dirneweibl. In fact, in the opening line of the fairytale she is referred to as eine kleine suesse Dirne. The word Dirne reflects the dual attributes of her character, she is both a temptress yet seemingly innocent. Like the color red, she symbolizes strong emotions, including lust and passion. Dirne is an antiquated word for Maedchen and in its modern-day usage it designates both a girl and a prostitute. Like the goddess Idunn, Red Riding Hood brings her grandmother life-giving food and nourishment at a particularly vulnerable time. The passage in the narrative about seeing the sun beams flicker through the trees might be considered only a weak marker tying her to other December goddess associated with the winter solstice. But her fate as ballast in the wolf’s stomach and then later, the supernatural torpor, immobility and subsequent death of the wolf induced by large stones placed in his belly are clearly reminiscent of this pre-Christian tradition.Thus, elements of the LRRH story most probably allude to winter solstice folk traditions, victory of the sun over darkness and death, and the uncanny powers of the Christmas Fairy Tale Goddesses*.

(*According to Nordic folk tradition, the sun is consumed by a wolf in December when it briefly vanishes altogether, possibly another winter solstice element of the LRRH story that would have been understood by ancient audiences but is now completely overlooked by modern readers.)


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