Who is Holda?

What we know from myth, history, and inspiration

by Shannon Graves

Frau Holle by Jenny JinyaHolda is a Germanic goddess with many interesting characteristics – maiden, mother, hag, spinner, stormbringer, ruler of the Wild Hunt, protector and thief of children’s souls. She was usually seen dressed in snow-white with white or silver hair, regardless of whether she appears as young and beautiful or as an old hag. In this latter form, she is said to have crooked teeth, a big nose, and one foot flatter than the other from working the spinning wheel. She wears keys at her belt, the sign of the lady of the house.

First, she is a goddess of the domestic arts – spinning, cooking, cleaning, and child care. She is a patroness of housewives, and what she values above all is industriousness. There are many legends of her rewarding diligent female workers and punishing lazy ones. She would rock cradles while exhausted mothers slept, and

Her preference for hard workers is reflected in the German folktale of “Frau Holle”, where a young girl falls down the well into a strange underworld. She helps every creature she meets, and willingly cleans for the old woman in her cottage, after which the old woman sends her back with a gift – a gold piece falls from her lips every time she speaks. Her mother, amazed, forces her lazy sister down the well; the sister refuses to help anyone and the old woman sends her back with a different gift – instead of gold, toads drop from her lips when she says anything.

She was especially stern when it came to women who were lazy about spinning, which was her specialty  - particularly the spinning of flax. One legend has a peasant man stumbling into a cave in a mountain where Holda is seated enthroned with maidens clustered about her. She offers to give the dazed man a gift; humbly, he asks for the cluster of blue flowers in her hand. These were the flowers of flax, which according to the tale was unknown in that area at the time. Holda gave the man some flaxseeds, and eventually taught his wife to ret, scotch, break, and spin flax, thus giving us a myth about the beginning of flax culture. Holda was implacable about using her gift properly; hard workers who fell asleep over their work would awake to find their spinning done for them, while lazy women would find their spindles broken or burned.

She was also a protectress of children, although some of her myths might seem quite the opposite at first glance. It was said that Holda collected the souls of dead children, usually infants who died too soon – before being christened in Christian times, before being named in the days before that. In pre-Christian times, children were named at nine days old, and before that were believed not to be attached to the ancestral tree. If they died before that time, Holda would take them on instead of their ancestors. She also took children of other ages, for various reasons. The darker side of her myth had her stealing the lives of otherwise healthy children. She was said to travel as an old woman in a wagon, flanked by a procession of childrens’ dead souls.

Frau Holda by Michelle PadgettSecond, Holda is a goddess of Winter. She was said to bring on the first snowflakes of the year; they were referred to as Mother Holda plucking her geese, or shaking out her goose-feather pillows and comforters until the down flew. She is the White Lady during this time, the silver-haired goddess who knits the white blanket of the snow. She was also associated with other weather phenomenon – when it rained, Holda was doing her washing; lightning was her scotching the flax; the fog was the smoke from her chimney. Her association with Winter ties into her craft of fibre arts; winter was the time when people stayed inside and turned the summer’s wool and flax into clothing.

Yule, the longest day of winter, was her holiday, and until recently she was one of the Christmas gift-givers in parts of Germany. There she was pictured as a red-cloaked witch on a broom who would fill children’s shoes with goodies and then move on. German children left milk and bread for her, in hopes of better presents.

The earlier myth had her leading a Wild Hunt at Yuletide, rife with the howling spirits of her aforementioned dead children, quite different from Odin’s Wild Hunt with its dead warriors ... yet, to my thinking, even more horrific. A Middle Dutch term for the Milky Way was Vroneldenstraet, the highway of Frau Hulde.

Some scholars equate her with Perchta, another Germanic goddess with similar attributes, but much crueler and bloodier. Some of the worshipers of Perchta say the two are the same, but some (especially those who work directly with Perchta) say that they are two separate goddesses who happen to have overlapping areas of  expertise.

Third, Holda is a goddess of witches. While many modern Pagans find this to be an insult, created by medieval churchmen who tried to vilify an old and revered goddess by associating her with witch-cults, I am not so sure that this is an insult. Certainly as someone who is a kitchen witch myself, and a former British Traditional Wiccan, I find Holda’s patronage of witches to be comforting and a great honour. During the Middle Ages, instead of leading her Wild Hunt made solely of dead children, she added the ride of the flying witches to it, along with other random heretics. They may either have been the last survivors of a Pagan tradition or simply rebels against the restrictive medieval church, harking back to a more magical time that still bubbled in their blood.

Accounts of these witches claim that they used various methods to leave their bodies and journey to Holda’s mountain, where they hailed her as their queen. In this, we can see that Holda is a goddess who can be called upon for aid in journeying, faring forth in trance. She is also associated with the witches’ work of knot magic (sacred fibre arts), potions (sacred cooking), and shapeshifting into cats or livestock. Every kitchen witch who has found magic in the normal arts of domesticity has entered into Holda’s realm.

Fourth, Holda is a goddess of the Underworld, but despite what some scholars claim she bears no resemblance to Hel. The myth of Frau Holle shows her in a mysterious world reached by falling down a well; other myths show her inside a mountain. This is not Underworld as Realm Of All The Dead, as ruled by Hel, but of a very specific sort of underworld. Both Holda and Hel were associated with the Elder tree, Hollebier and Holantar in German, whose spirit (also seen as a dignified old woman) is said to guard the road to the Underworld ... be it quiet Helheim or Holda’s magical realm. The Elder tree was known as the “medicine chest of the common people” because its leaves, flowers, stems, and berries were all useful for different ailments. Like the Elder spirit, Holda was also associated with bodies of water such as fens, bogs, springs, wells, and ponds. Newborn children were said to have been pulled wet from Holda’s pond. Her Underworld is more easily achieved by falling through the water than walking the road of the Dead.

If anything, Holda’s underworld realm bears more resemblance to the faery realms, the People Under The Hill. This brings us to another point: Holda is a goddess of the faery folk. At least one race of faeries, the Huldrefolk, may be named for her. They were woodwives, fair maidens with cow’s tails which they endeavoured to hide from potential human suitors. In other folktales, Huldrefolk included a number of different sorts of elves and faeries, all under Holda’s protection. In medieval times, faeries were often thought to be the reborn souls of dead unbaptised infants, which brings us back to Holda’s retinue again. Indeed, she is said to ride in another kind of procession, dressed in grey and holding a milk bucket, at the head of a flock of Huldrefolk. In this aspect, she has a special sad music that is sung for her, known as huldreslaat.

Holda certainly has this love of wagon processions in common with the Vanic Gods, who were also often carried about in wagons. Also similar to the Vanic Gods, Holda’s mortal processions sometimes carried either a plough or a ship to symbolize her help in both agriculture and navigation, reminding us or Frey and Njord.

In Nordic literature, there is a giantess named Hulda in Sturlunga’s Saga who may be related to Holda (or may be Holda).  In the Ynglinga saga, the Völva and Seithkona named Hulla may be related to Holda. She also may be related to a woman named Hulda who was said to have had an affair with Odin, bearing the goddesses Thorgerdhr and Irpa who appear in various Germanic sagas. They may have been local land-goddesses in Germany, giantesses who had cults in their own right.

Holda is a magnificent Goddess who managed to hold her own throughout the darkness of the Middle Ages, a versatile lady with many different sides to her worship, who deserves all due credit. May she be hailed, and honoured with this shrine!

1st Artwork by Jenny Jinya

2nd Artwork by Michelle Padgett