Mother Holle – The Germanic Goddess of Death and Renewal, Weaver of Fate and Fortune

Most of us will remember Mother Holle (or Frau Holle in German) from the Grimm’s fairy tales. She is the old woman who lives in a world at the bottom of a well and whose feather beds when shaken make snow fall on Earth. It is said that anyone who enters her realm will be rewarded exactly with what they deserve, be it good or bad.

What is rarely known, though, is that Mother Holle is in fact a very ancient Goddess. Her roots are so ancient that they most likely reach all the way back into Palaeolithic times. Elements of the fairy tale such as the apple tree and the baking of bread most certainly link Her to the Neolithic.

Mother Holle started off Her existence as the Goddess of Death and Regeneration. During the Neolithic in what Marija Gimbutas termed Old Europe people believed in the cyclical nature of all existence. Every ending was understood to be the beginning of a new chapter. Death, rather than being the final end, was seen as a resting stage prior to new life. Just as seeds rest deep undergound during the cold winter months waiting to sprit up as a seedling in spring, so were the dead seen as having returned to the Goddess’ dark womb to await renewal and rebirth.

The Goddess of Death and Regeneration was associated with winter and the colour white. Small stiff white Goddess figurines with small breasts and exaggerated pubic triangles were placed alongside the dead in order for Her to accompany the person on her or his journey of renewal. The Goddess of Death and Regeneration was not feared or seen as being evil, but instead was considered to be benevolent and generous.

“She holds dominion over death, the cold darkness of winter, caves, graves and tombs in the earth….but also receives the fertile seed, the light of midwinter, the fertilized egg, which transforms the tomb into a womb for the gestation of new life.” Marija Gimbutas in “The Civilazation of the Goddess”

Old white-haired Mother Holle and Her underground realm are one interpretation of this aspect of the Goddess. In the fairy tale Mother Holle is described as being kind and generous and very just. She lives at the bottom of a well, which connects Her to water and thus the Goddess as Regeneratrix and Birth Giver. The well itself can be interpreted as being the birth canal leading to Her dark underground womb. The apple which features prominently in the story with its hidden pentagram is a symbol of life and has always been associated with the Goddess. The same is the case with bread-making which during the Neolithic was a sacred act.

Mother Holle is described as having ugly big teeth, a big nose and a flat foot. The latter shows her love for weaving or spinning, another sacred act associated with the Goddess: She is the Life Weaver, the Spinner of Destiny and Fate.

Even after mixing with the Indo-Europeans, the white Goddess of Death continued to exists, although often in a less benevolent form.

Mother Holle was known all across the Germanic world. She was called Holle in Germany, Hel or Hella in Scandinavia and Holde on the British Isles. She is the origin for the word hell and its German variant Hölle, as well as words such as holy and holding in English and Höhle (= cave) in German.

The Scandinavian Goddess Hel is probably the most widely known version of Mother Holle as Goddess, although by the time the Indo-European Norse wrote down their religious beliefs, Hel was no longer the benevolent Regeneratrix of the Neolithic. She had become the dreaded Queen of the Dead.

As was the case during the Neolithic, Hel’s realm Nifhelheim also lies below the earth at the root of the World Tree. Incidentally the bottom of the World Tree is also home to the three Norns, Weavers of Destiny. While, as said above, originally the Goddess of Death and Regeneration was also the Weaver of Fate and Fortune, later beliefs separate Her more and more into Her various aspects.

Despite being feared by the Norse as the dreaded Hag of Death, Hel has Her benevolent roots hidden in plane sight. Being linked to the earth, She is one of the old Vanir Earth Goddesses, Vanir meaning “the Giving One”.

In Central Europe Mother Holle also evolved over time. Instead of becoming the Goddess of the Underworld, though, She became the Queen of Elves and the Mistress of Witches. Her character was actually very similar to that of Greek Hekate, the old Crone who roams the world with Her fearsome dogs.

Around 900CE Frau Holle had become an old weather hag who was said to ride in on Her broom stick bringing with Her whirlwinds and snowfall. Her life-giving generous nature was retained more in Germany than in Scandinavia, as even during Christian times She was seen as bringing life to the land causing growth, abundance and good fortune.

Frau Holda

Hail to Frau Holda, the beautiful and bright,
Crowned and clothed, all in glistening Winter white.

Ay seeking and searching, She sweeps o’er the land,
Scourge for the slovenly, held firmly in hand.

As Holda fares forth, with Her own Holy Host,
May She deem distaffs full, befitting a Yule boast.

For when all is cleanly, content She shall be,
Thus Her bedding she flaps, with a whirlwind flurry.

Soon crisp snowflakes, come falling feather light,
Cleverly She shakes, cloaking the clutter with white.

‘Til Earth is enclosed, by a fine fluffy down,
A bedecked beauty, in Her sparkling snow gown.

Heed well and hear, when Holda’s housework doth end,
A faint satisfied sigh, for the mess Frau did mend.

© Rhonda Turner

By author´s special permission, may be freely shared for private, non-commercial purposes,
as long as it remains intact and this copyright notice is included.

NOTES

[1] Read the fairy tale here: http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-21.html

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The trickster god in mythology « Cradle of Civilization
  2. Margriet Blok
    Jan 04, 2016 @ 02:32:08

    beautiful information thank you

    Reply

  3. Audrey Lorna
    Mar 21, 2016 @ 21:07:44

    Hi, this is some really interesting information. I am writing a university essay regarding the history of German fairy tales. I was wondering if you could give me any sources you used to acquire this information? Thanks 🙂

    Reply

  4. Elune Blue
    Jan 14, 2017 @ 03:33:36

    Ty for this informative and lovely post.

    Reply

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