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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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Spirits Haunt the Land in December

Killing the Wild Man, After Pieter Breughel, ca. 1566

Grimm’s Saga No. 270: The Tuerst, the Posterli and the Straeggele, the Wild Ghosts of Christmas

When the storm howls and rages in the woods at night, people in Lucerne say: “The Tuerst (or Thirst) is on the prowl!” In Entlebuch they know this spirit as the Posterli. He is a demon, who leads an enormous procession on the Thursday before Christmas Day, with frightful noise and loud clanging sounds. The people of Lucerne call this ghost the Straeggele, a witch, who on the Holy Wednesday Fast Night before Christmas haunts the landscape. She brings special trouble to maids who have not spun their daily portion of flax, exacting punishment in many different ways. That is why this evening is also call the Straeggele Night.

Christmas Ghosts in Switzerland: the Straeggele

On Holy Wednesday Eve before Christmas, pious folk in Switzerland keep a fast. On this eve, maids also hurry to complete their spinning; they are especially diligent in binding off the last bit of flax from their spindles because at night, the Straeggele is known to appear. She is a wild woman with depraved demeanor. Her hair is smeared and unruly; she has a savage countenance and she rubs pitch on the doorknobs while doing all kinds of mean acts. She howls and moans and roars around the corners of the house. Often you can see her leading a long procession of ghosts, hear their rattling of chains and the ringing of bells as they follow her in the darkness.

Once the Straeggele was seen in the Lucerne village of Urswil. A hard-hearted stepmother once thought to terrify her weak step-child by giving her an impossible amount of wool to spin. When at 9 o’clock her spindle was still not empty, the woman threatened the child and said she would reach the girl through the window and deliver her into the arms of the Straeggele. When the appointed time came and the child was still busy spinning, the step-mother took the screaming child and held her through the window. Suddenly the screams retreated into the darkness and were heard far above the house. The terrified woman gazed out into the dark night and into her outstretched, empty hands. The child had been ripped away. The next morning they found pieces scattered round the village and collected them as a reminder of the horrible fate that awaited those who did not believe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: the Wild Man and Wild Woman of Christmas

Dark Nights of the Fairy Tale: The Wild Man and Wild Woman of Christmas

Storm spirits polt through the air in December. When their feet touch the ground and they arrive at the doorstep they are known as the Wild Man and Wild Woman.
They are ominous, fate-altering beings, as fickle as the weather and as destructive as the gale wind. It is best to appease such spirits with small offerings. They might also be swayed by demonstrations of diligence or industriousness. Whatever the method, folk tradition makes it clear that it is best to keep these spirits on your side.
Knecht Ruprecht is cast from the same mold. He appears in early December as St. Nicholas’s shadowy helper, ready and willing to do harm to all those who rile him.

Grimm's Saga No. 151 The Wild Ghosts of Christmas

Among the Vicentine and Veronese Germans (who inhabit the Italian Alps), it is widely known that from the second half of December until mid-January it is ill-advised for even the most daring hunter to visit the Wildbahn. All fear the Wild Man and Wild Woman. During this time shepherds do not drive their cattle. Instead children fetch water in containers from the nearest available source and water their herds in the stable. The women spin a piece of their hair onto spindles to appease the wild woman or woods wife, as she is known. Then they throw it into the fire to placate this spirit. On Christmas Eve, every place in the house with a chimney or an opening, through which air enters, is spread with ash. In the morning the footprints in the ash are carefully studied to see their position, size and whether they are moving into or out of the house. This tells which good or bad ghosts are visiting the dwelling.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Attitudes toward the Feminine through the Prism of Fairy Tales and Music

Attitudes toward the Feminine through the Prism of Fairy Tales and Music
Here is a musical romp through various fairy tale themes I have explored in the past months.
First, the changing of the seasons: This is a dominant subject at the end of November when blustery and stormy weather arrives heralding a darker season. As nature itself seems to be slipping into unpredictability, danger and even sadness seem everywhere . German fairy tales (and in particular saga) reflect this unsteady time, but stress that the seed of all future happiness is most often sown when times are the bleakest. Accepting life’s difficult changes is likened to the acceptance of seasonal transformations, and at the absolute heart of the fairy tale.
Here is a most beautiful and poignant song that takes up these notions, sung by Judy Collins and Pete Seeger.
It is the shape-shifting female who often provides the key to life’s troubles. Read here about the significance of Ember Days (marking the changing of the seasons) and the Chatelaine of the castle.
The beginning of December is an especially spooky time in fairytale land. Weather and storm are dominant themes and likewise those goddesses and spirits residing within the storm cloud or tempest are important at this time. On this website, read about Frouwa, Queen of the Valkyrie. These feminine virtues prized and promoted in many a fairy tale are readily apparent in the following two video clips:
Kirsten Flagstad singing Valkyrie with introduction by Bob Hope.
This staged performance by Diva Flagstad is only a small part of the opera. In the following clip, the Valkyries are engaged in performing another important function: collecting the bodies of dead soldiers. This clip has it all: bad weather, strong women and inklings that from lost lives future life emerges.

And finally, toward the end of the season we will once more reach a place of calm and hope, where feminine beauty is expressed in its most idealized state, absolute love and acceptance, here most fittingly rendered in the German folksong Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging:
Which is best read alongside The Singing Fir Tree
Happy December to you all!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fairy Tale of the Importance of Giving Thanks for Our Daily Bread

Our Daily Bread

Grimm’s Saga No. 241: Bread Becomes Stone

In many places, especially Westphalia, the story is told of a hard-hearted sister, who in time of terrible famine denied her sister bread for herself and her babe with the words: “And if I had bread, I would rather that it turned to stone!” Immediately her bread supply became stone. In Leiden in Holland such stone bread is held up in St. Peter’s Church as a sign to the people that the story is true.

In the year 1579 a baker in Dortmund had purchased much corn during a time of famine and thought he would prosper as a result. But in the middle of transacting this business, all the bread in his house was turned to stone. When he grabbed a loaf and and wanted to cut it open with a knife, blood flowed out. Soon thereafter he hung himself in his chamber

In the main church of Holy St. Castulus in Landshut there hangs a round stone in silver casing in the shape of bread. There are many small indentations on its surface. The following saga has been told about it: Just before the Holy Saint Castulus died, he approached a widow in the city dressed as a pauper and begged for alms. The woman told her daughter to give the stranger the only bread they had left. The daughter did not like the idea of giving it away. She wanted to break off a few pieces, but in that moment it turned into stone and you can still see the imprint of her finger.

At a time of great famine a poor wife took her child on her arm and wandering the streets of Danzig cried out for bread. There she met a monk from Cloister Oliva, whom she begged for a bit of bread for her children. The monk replied: “I have none.” The woman said: “But I see you have concealed some near your breast.”—“That is only a stone I like to throw to the dogs,” the monk replied and walked away. After a while he wanted to reach for his bread to eat it. He found that it had actually turned to stone. He recoiled in fear, admitted his sin and relinquished the stone, which now hangs in the cloister church.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fairy Tale of the House in the Woods

(Image, Maurice Sendak from Dear Mili)

Grimm's Fairy Tale No. 169 The House in the Woods

A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and three young daughters in a small hut at the edge of a desolate wood. One morning. when he was setting off to return to work, he said to his wife “Let the oldest daughter bring the noon-day bread to me in the woods. Otherwise, I shan’t finish. And so that she does not lose her way,” he added "I will take a sack with millet and scatter the grains across the path.”
When the sun stood in the middle of the sky high above the woods, the maiden began her walk carrying a pot of soup. But the field and forest sparrows, the larks and finches, the blackbirds and siskins had already pecked the path clean of any millet and the maid could not find her way. Trusting luck, she continued on her way until the sun sank and night fell. The trees rustled in the darkness, the owls hooted and the girl became frightened. In the distance, she saw a light blinking between the trees. “People must live there,” she thought “and they will keep me over night.” She continued to walk toward the light. It was not long before she came to a house whose windows were brightly illuminated. She knocked and a rough voice called out from inside “Come in.” The girl entered a dark hallway and knocked on the parlor door. “Enter,” the voice called and when she opened the door, there sat an old, icy gray man at a table. Supporting his head in both hands, his white beard flowed over the table and almost reached the floor. But on the hearth three animals rested: a chicken, a rooster and a brindle cow. The maid told the old man about her fate and requested lodgings for the night. The man spoke:
“Lovely hen, Pretty cock,
And beautiful brindle cow, too,

How do you moo?"

The animals replied “Duks!”. (Which translated probably meant: “We are satisfied, healthy and happy!”) The old man continued, “We live in abundance here, go to the stove and cook us dinner!”
The maid found the kitchen. Everything was stocked to excess and the girl was able to cook a hearty meal. But the animals thought differently. When the girl entered the room carrying the bowl, she placed it on the table, sat down beside the old gray man and stilled her hunger. Soon she had eaten her fill and said “But now, I am tired. Where is a bed so that I can lie down and sleep?” The animals replied
“You ate with him, You drank with him,
About us you have not thought,
You shall stay the night where you ought.”
The old man spoke “Just climb the stairs, you will find a chamber with two beds. Shake out the bed and cover it with white linen. I will also come up and lie down.” The girl went up and when she had shaken out the feather bed and covered it with fresh linen, she laid down in one of the beds without waiting for the old man. After some time the old gray man came, illuminated the girl with his candlelight and shook his head. When he saw that she was almost fast asleep, he opened a trap door and let her drop into the cellar.
The woodcutter came home late that evening and accused his wife of letting him starve the entire day long. “I’m not to blame,” she replied “The girl went out at midday. She must have lost her way. Tomorrow she will return again.” But the woodcutter rose before daylight, wanted to go into the woods and asked for his second daughter to bring lunch this time. “I will take a little sack with lentils” he said. The grains are larger than millet, the girl will see them better and then cannot miss the path.” At lunchtime the girl also carried out the meal, but the lentils were gone: the birds of the forest had eaten them like the day before and none were left. The girl wandered around in the woods until night fell. She also arrived at the house of the old man, heard the voice call out inviting her in and requested food and lodgings for the night. The man with the white beard once again asked the animals:
"Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,
And you beautiful brindled cow, too,
How do you moo?"

Once again the animals responded “Duks,” and everything repeated itself like the day before. The maid cooked a good meal, ate and drank with the old man and did not take care of the animals. When she asked about her accommodations for the night, they responded:
“You ate with him,
You drank with him,
About us you have not thought, You shall stay the night where you ought.”
When the girl had fallen asleep, the old man came, looked upon her and shook his head. Then he opened the trap door and let her fall into the cellar.
On the third morning the woodcutter spoke to his wife “Today send me the youngest child with the food. She has always been good and obedient. She will find the right way and not like her sisters, swarm around like wild bumble bees.”
The mother did not want to heed his request and replied “Must I also lose my dearest child?”
“Do not worry,” he replied, “the girl shall not go astray. She is too smart and understanding. I will take peas in abundance with me and scatter them on the path. They are even larger than lentils and will show her the way.” But when the girl went out with her basket on her arm, the forest doves already had the kernels in their gullet. She did not know where to turn. Full of dismay, she only thought about how her poor father would hunger and how her good mother would wail if she did not return. Finally, when night fell, she saw the little light flickering in the woods and came to the forest house. In a friendly voice, she asked if she could stay the night and the man with the white beard asked his animals once more
“Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,
And brindle cow too,
What do you moo?"

“Duks,” they replied. The girl went to the hearth where the animals lay and caressed the chicken and rooster and ran her little hand over their smooth feathers. She rubbed the brindle cow between its horns. And when at the request of the old man she prepared a good soup and the bowl was on the table, she asked “Am I to eat my fill and the good animals still have nothing?” There is abundance here. Let me care for them first.” She went and fetched barley and scattered it before the hen and cock. She brought the cow fragrant hay, an entire arm full. “I hope you enjoy it, dear animals,” the girl said. “And when you are thirsty you should also have a fresh drink.” She carried a pail full of water inside. The chicken and rooster jumped onto its rim and stuck their beaks inside. Then they held their heads in the air, like birds do when they drink and the brindle cow also took a hearty gulp. When the animals had been fed, the girl sat down next to the old man and ate what he had left over for her. It was not long before hen and cock began to place their heads under their wings. The spotted cow blinked its eyes. The girl spoke “Shall we not go to bed?”
“Lovely hen,
Pretty cock,

And you beautiful brindle cow, too,

What do you moo?

The animals replied “Duks,”
"You ate with us,
You drank with us,
You always remembered us,Now we wish you a good night."
The girl climbed the stairs, shook out the feather pillow and covered it in fresh linen. And when she was finished, the old man came and laid down in bed so that his white beard extended to his feet. The girl lay down in the other bed and said her prayer. Then she fell asleep.
She slept calmly until midnight. Then it became so noisy in the house that the girl awoke. Crackling and rustling sounds began to come from the corners, the door fell open and hit the wall, the beams groaned as if they would be torn from their joints and it seemed as if the stairs were about to collapse entirely. Finally there was a loud crashing sound as if the roof had fallen in. But then it became quiet again and because nothing had happened to the girl, she fell asleep once more. But in the morning when she awoke and the sun was shining brightly, what did she see? She awoke in a large hall and all around her everything glistened in royal splendor. On the walls, golden blossoms sprang up on a green silk background. The bed was made of ivory and the coverlet was red satin. Nearby on the stool lay a pair of slippers with pearl stitching. The girl thought it was all a dream but when three richly clothed servants appeared and asked her what her desires were, the girl replied “Just go, I will get up soon and cook a soup for the old man and then feed the lovely hen, pretty cock and brindle cow.”
She thought the old man had already risen and looked over to his bed. But he did not lay there, instead there lay a strange man. And when she gazed upon him and saw he was young and handsome, he awoke. He sat up and said “I am a king’s son and was enchanted by an evil witch. I had to live in the woods as an old, icy gray man. No one was allowed to serve me except my three servants, a hen, a cock and a brindle cow. And the enchantment would not end until a maiden came to us, of such good heart, that she not only showed kindness to people but also animals. And you are that maiden and tonight at midnight we have been redeemed by you and the old house in the woods has been once more transformed into a royal palace.”
And when they got up, the king’s son said the three servants should go out and fetch the father and mother of the maid and bring them to the wedding celebration.
“And where are my two sisters?” the girl asked. “I have locked them in the cellar. Tomorrow they will be led into the forest and shall work for the man who burns charcoal until they have improved themselves and do not let poor animals starve.”

To find out more about the history of charcoal burners:

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