Sunday 30 December 2007

Mother Holle

MOTHER HOLLE is a winter sky spirit of Nordic and Teutonic folklore. Also known as Perchta or Berchta, she is an old crone who presides over the dark end of the year and it is said that it snows when she makes her bed and shakes the duvet, making the feathers fly. Mother Holle is also patron of spinners and weavers, and one of her feet is flattened and longer than the other from continuous pounding of the spinning wheel treadle.

A popular German folk tale tells the story of a widow with two daughters, one her own and the other a stepdaughter.
The stepdaughter was kind and industrious, but her own daughter was selfish and idle. Every day the poor stepdaughter had to spin until her fingers bled. One day it happened that she stained the spindle with blood, and went to the well to wash it, but it dropped out of her hand and fell to the bottom. Her stepmother scolded her and told her she had to go and retrieve it. So the girl went back to the well and not knowing what to do, jumped into the well. When she came to her senses she found that she was in a beautiful lake by a meadow where a little cottage stood. There was an apple tree nearby laden with apples, and as she approached, it called out to her “Shake me! Shake me! My apples are all ripe!” The girl dutifully shook the tree until all the apples were down. Gathering them up, she took them into the cottage where a baker’s oven full of bread stood. The bread yelled “Take me out! Take me out! I’ve been baking long enough!” So she took the loaves of bread out and laid them carefully on the table. The cottage belonged to an old woman with enormous yellow teeth – Mother Holle, who invited the hardworking girl to stay and do the household chores for her. She agreed, and worked hard, never once complaining, and, as instructed, always made the bed well, shaking the duvet enough to make the feathers fly. For when the feathers flew, Mother Holle told her, it snowed on earth.

The girl spent a long while with Mother Holle, but eventually became homesick. So one day she asked Mother Holle if she could return home. Mother Holle was kind and happily led the way, taking her to a doorway, giving her back the spindle she had lost, and as she walked through the door, the girl was showered with gold. She emerged on the other side not far from her home. As she entered the yard, a cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your golden girl’s come back to you!” Covered in gold, as she was, the girl was well received, but her stepmother insisted on knowing how this had come about. Desiring the same for her own daughter, she sent her to do the same, pretending to drop her spindle in the well in the same way. Events happened the same as for the first girl, but being lazy and spoilt, she did not shake down the apples from the tree, take the bread out of the oven, nor shake the duvet. So it did not snow on earth.

Eventually, when it was time for this selfish girl to return home, Mother Holle showed her the doorway. This time, however, the girl was showered with pitch, and as she walked into the yard, the cock crowed “Cock-a-doodle-doo! Your pitchy girl’s come back to you!” The pitch stuck fast to the girl and could not be removed as long as she lived!

Illustration: drypoint etching

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