Thursday, May 1, 2008

Frouwa: Portrait of a Witch as a Young Woman

Diminutive Ancient Wagon, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

The Germanic goddess Frouwa was the sister of the sun god Fro. Because of this solar connection, she is associated with things that shine and glisten, such as brilliant gems and the perfect sunshine of a cloudless spring day. As goddess of love, fertility and beauty, she was held in high esteem by Germanic tribes. But by the Middle Ages she had become associated with witches, devils and other demonic beings.

Frouwa had endured hardship as a young goddess. The source of her trial lay in the fact that she was not married to a god, but rather a human, who in stealth abandoned her. Full of longing, she searched the world over for her lost love. She had barely caught up with him, when he vanished again. The tears that fell from her eyelashes reached the ground as pearls or droplets of gold. That is why the pearl often represents a tear in German mythology.

The greatest hope of a Germanic woman was to become part of Frouwa’s sacred realm after death. The heavenly palace where Frouwa received these departed women was called Freistatt.

Like other gods, Frouwa also held a procession that lasted twelve nights. On these nights she often appeared riding a boar with golden bristles (witches were also known to ride boars on Walpurgis Night). But usually she traveled in a wagon that was pulled by cats. The cat was sacred to Frouwa and that is why her realm was filled with a large number of these animals. Carefully tended and revered, no one was allowed to touch them.

The ladybug (or ladybird) was given a special place of honor by Frouwa. It was said that the number of black spots on its back foretold the number of Talers a bushel of corn would cost in the coming year. Later Christian priests renamed this insect after the Virgin Mary, because it was thought the Virgin was most similar to the goddess in regard to purity, goodness and beneficence. The ladybug in German is therefore often called Marienkaefer. Likewise, the church transformed Frouwa’s cats into witches or devils and these became known as the fearful creatures accompanying her on her night flight.

As leader of the Valkyries she also had a swan-feather shirt, which gave her the power to take on the shape of swan and travel through both air and water, doing the gods’ bidding. By some accounts she could also transform herself into a falcon or bird of prey. However, her actions were always honorable and she was therefore considered to be the model of feminine virtue.
By the time of the poet Snorri (12th century AD), Frouwa was the only pagan goddess that was still venerated in Iceland.

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