Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night

 

And so. Another Yuletide ends. But not so fast! Before we take down the mistletoe and finish off the sugar plums, there is one more celebration which should be recognized. This is the legend of Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night.

Perhaps you have never heard of this obscure character. But if you happened to be living in Bavaria or Austria during the Middle Ages, you might have been quite troubled as the Christmas season came to an end. During this time Frau Perchta would be on the loose, doling out punishments and rewards for the naughty and nice, respectively.

The “official end” of Yuletide in many traditions is January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany. It was on this night that Frau Perchta would drop in for a visit. If you had been good over the past year, you would be rewarded with a piece of silver. But if you had been bad – watch out! Frau Perchta was a stern distributor of justice. In fact, she was also called “the belly slitter” because punishment for bad behavior consisted of Frau Perchta cutting open the offender’s stomach, removing the inner organs, and replacing them with straw and pebbles. Ouch!

In Christian traditions, January 6th is  Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the manger where Christ was born. According to the Bible, three mages from Persia, following a bright star, made their way to Bethlehem to greet and bestow gifts upon the baby Jesus. Webster defines “epiphany” as an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.”

The Twelfth Night is a time of great wonder and revelation. So why all the terror and judgement associated with Perchta? I wondered how Frau Perchta got such a bad rap.

The True Goddess

I did some sleuthing and found out that Perchta has a very interesting story. She wasn’t always an evil witch. In fact, she was at one time a greatly loved Germanic goddess. She is also called Berchta or Bertha.  The name Bertha literally means “bright” or “shining one”.  In ancient, pre-Christian times, Berchta was a powerful figure, worshiped by both Celtic and Germanic tribes. It was her job to protect babies, women and children. She was associated with birch trees (in Old High German birch is birka which also means “bright”.) She was a protector of forests and wildlife. She was also a “psychopomp” – that is, a spirit who guides the dead into the Afterlife.

Pretty impressive stuff.

Berchta was associated with the cycle of life, death and rebirth. She was depicted as a beautiful woman with long hair. She wore a white gown and was often called the White Woman or the Lady in White.  She was considered a triple goddess (perhaps because of her association with life’s cycles) and was able to take on forms of the maiden, mother and crone.

As a guide into the Afterlife, Berchta was a tender and caring figure that helped souls in their transition. There is one tale in which a grieving mother sees an apparition of her recently deceased little son. He is with a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a woman in a white gown. The little boy breaks away to speak to his sorrowful mother. The boy tells his mother not to weep, for he is safe and under the watch of the White Lady.

Berchta also had shapeshifting abilities. She was described as sometimes having the feet of a goose, and she also took on the form of a swan. As the protector of animals, she was  called “Guardian of Beasts”.

A Tainted Image

In the later, scary tales of Perchta, she is represented exclusively as a crone – more specifically, a scary old hag. She wears a disheveled dress, has a face made of iron and a nose like a beak.

She carries a knife beneath her cloak (in case she needs to slice open someone’s belly!) And of course, she has those strange looking goose feet.

So how did Berchta become Perchta? How did this benevolent goddess get demonized and transformed into an evil witch? Three words: The Medieval Church.

Christianity became powerful in Bavaria in around the 6th century. The Pagan cults that had evolved around Berchta were pretty strong and set in their ways. Worshippers of Berchta refused to be absorbed into the new Christian traditions. And so, for conversion purposes, the Church resorted to fear.

Her name was changed, among other things.  The word “perchten” means scary monsters, so Berchta became “Perchta, leader of the Perchten.”  Berchta, the wise white lady, was thereafter known as Perchta, a crooked-nosed, belly-stabbing hag.

As centuries went on, the worshippers of Berchta proved a stubborn lot. They were not willing to give up their goddess. The Church took further action. According to a religious document known as the Thesaurus Pauperum, the cult of Berchta was outlawed in 1468.  This document specifically condemned the practice of leaving food and drink offerings for Berchta during the Christmas season.

You might be wondering, as I did, what the heck is a Thesaurus Paupernaum?

Well, it had nothing to do with a thesaurus as we know it. Rather, it was a collection of recipes and natural medicinal cures, presumably for the benefit of poor people (paupers/ paupernaum) who could not afford expensive doctors. Interestingly, this document is cited as containing such information as: medicinal values of precious stones, herbal medicines for childbirth, astrological charts and a table for the uses of precious metals.

Hmmm. Magical crystals, herbal medicines and astrology. Sounds kinda Pagany to me…

The Thesaurus Paupernaum was written by prominent church officials such as Pope John XXI and Saint Albertus Magnus, with contributions from mineralogist George Frederick Kunz. Its recordings span a period of about seven centuries, and it is included in the Library of Congress Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection.

So, for Medieval folks it was a big deal. Something they had to pay attention to.

Yuletide was her special time and Frau Perchta became a figure akin to Krampus, the evil counterpart of Saint Nicholas.

Propaganda and the Burning Times

There were tales of Frau Perchta capturing children and eating them. There were tales of Frau Perchta as the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. She would visit on Twelfth Night expecting food as an offering, but if she was displeased with what someone left, she would slit the person’s belly open and stuff him or her with garbage. She was also a stickler for clean homes, and the completion of spinning. So if women had neglected their housework or their flax, they could expect the belly slitting as well.

The repression of Berchta and subsequent scary tales of Perchta took place during an interesting period. In Europe, the years between 1450 and 1700 are known as The Burning Times. During these years, Protestant Reformations began, splitting the Christian Church into various factions. Instability caused even more paranoia. It is estimated that around 100,000 men and women were put to death for witchcraft, many of them burned at the stake.

Germany, a major proponent of the Reformations, was one of the worst offenders. Historians report that entire populations of women in towns and villages were sometimes eliminated.

Keeping Berchta Alive

Despite the church’s attempts to get rid of Berchta, she lives on. A Halloween like celebration in which children would dress as demons (Perchten) during Yuletide was observed in some parts of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some families would prepare a porridge called “Perchtenmilch.” Part of the porridge would be consumed by the family, with a portion set aside as an offering for Perchta and her Perchten.

In the 19th century, even the Brothers Grimm had their say about Perchta. According to Jacob Grimm, who translated texts from Old High German, she was spoken of as Frau Berchta, a white-robed goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving and was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.

By honoring her as a scary witch, we keep the name of Perchta alive. She, along with Krampus and other monsters have enjoyed a rejuvenation in recent years. Some folks prefer a bit of  horror in their Christmas.

The goddess Berchta will never be forgotten. Her bright beauty is evident in Yule’s return of the sun, in the new fallen snow, in white swans and in the magnificence of the Alpine Mountains she hails from.

This Twelfth Night, you may want to take some time out to honor Berchta/ Perchta. An altar could include white candles, birch branches, or white feathers. You can meditate on loved ones who have crossed over and ask Berchta for a safe passage.  You may want to leave her an offering of cake or porridge. And – it might be wise to keep the house clean – just in case!

 

 

 

Our Ancestors at Winter Solstice

 

On this, the longest night, they waited. Waited in the Scandinavian darkness for the return of the life giving sun. They burned bonfires with Jul logs, crisp and crackling.  The return of the sun brought hope that once again summer would come, the fields would ripen and food would be abundant.

Druid priests slaughtered a white bull and gathered mistletoe, believed to be a magical plant. Likewise, the people slaughtered the last of their animals. The meat was salted and stored, in hopes of warding off starvation for the remaining winter.

In what is now the United Kingdom, monuments had been built, by the ancestors or others that came before them, awe-inspiring and bold as they stand to this very day. Perhaps an ancient race of giants or aliens had dragged the megalithic rocks that would form Stonehenge and Newgrange. Somehow this ancient race had aligned the rocks perfectly to catch the rising of the solstice sun. It was here the Druid priests performed their rituals.

During the endless night of Winter Solstice, it was believed that spirits of the dead walked the earth. These were the restless and the lost who could not find peace in the afterlife. Our Germanic and Slavic ancestors honored their own loved ones who had passed in the previous year by whittling wooden dolls to resemble the dearly departed. These dolls were placed in the forests and the bone-yards as beacons, to help the spirits of family members find their way home, in case they got lost with the wandering dead.

Ancient Celtic tribes had a custom of traveling to the forests and fields, singing and shouting to drive away any evil spirits who might keep the land from prospering. They poured wine and cider on the ground to purify it.

In later years, this custom would evolve in a different form, called wassailing, popular in Victorian England. Instead of pouring the libation on the ground, they would drink it. Instead of singing to drive away evil spirits, they would sing Christmas carols. Neighbors would go to each others houses, drink a cup of ‘wassail’ punch, and bless their homes under the new sun.  In yet later years, they skipped the wassail punch altogether and this tradition became simply Christmas caroling.

In ancient Rome, the great feast of Saturnalia continued (having begun on December 17th.) There was much eating and drinking and debauchery. In the long, stir-crazy darkness, people ran wild in the streets, honoring Saturn, Capricorn and all things goat.

In later years, reminiscent of Saturnalia, the revelry continued. In England, in upper-class households, a common servant was elected as The Lord of Misrule. He held a place higher than the master of the house. For one night, all roles were reversed. The lords and ladies waited on their own servants. Servants insulted their masters. In this long, glorious night, there was much dancing, masking and merriment. Come morning, the working class returned to their lot, the lords and ladies once again in command. This custom continued in England until the early 20th century.

Weird Winter Solstice Coincidences

On December 21, 1620, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. With the return of the sun, in the brutal New World, they went about setting up a place where they hoped to worship and live as they chose. Many died, but those that remained tilled the land, relied upon their faith and took advantage of what the rocky Eastern seaboard could offer. They faced hardship and political unrest. Their ideas, both good and evil, brought challenges. Yet their discovery was the beginning of the United States of America.

On December 21, 1898, Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie made her discovery of  radium, thus ushering in the atomic age. The discovery was bittersweet, as the element itself is both helpful and deadly. Nonetheless, Marie Curie won a Nobel Prize in Physics for her efforts.

On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched. It was the first mission to the moon that included live astronauts. What followed was the Apollo 11 moon landing, “one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” This too, however, was an event shrouded in darkness and mystery, as the US Government cancelled all further moon missions for mysterious and unknown reasons…

This holy day is a time of darkness and mystery, a time of ancestral communication and reverence. It is also a time of hope as we celebrate the return of the sun. Whatever you choose as your Winter Solstice ritual, have a merry time! And who knows, perhaps you will make a dark discovery of your own 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Quiz: Which Christmas Fairy are You?

 

christmas fairy

As Yuletide continues, so the fairies of winter continue to entice and enchant us with their holiday magic.  Shakespeare had Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Titania and Puck. But did you know that your life path number, combined with your personal proclivities and most cherished Christmas traditions can earn you a fairy title as well?

Which magical Christmas fairy are you? Take this quiz to find out!

Magical Fairy Quiz

 ** A note about calculating your Life Path Number: It’s super easy! Just add up all the numbers in your date of birth and reduce them to a single digit.  For example, a person born on April 1, 1999 would add 4 (as April is the 4th month) plus 1, plus 1999.

4 + 1 + 1 + 9 + 9 + 9 = 33.    3 + 3 = 6. This person’s Life Path Number is 6.

Does your fairy name fit you? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Mine was:

 Aqua Sparkleflip!

You’re a sweet, compassionate little fairy who wants the BEST for everybody involved!   Your gift of enchantment is bringing everybody together and whispering words of balance and harmony through the air.   You are loving, loyal and trustworthy, and everybody knows they can count on you to bring your purity and charm to the festive table!
christmas fairy 3

Have a blessed and brilliant Yuletide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucia and Lussi: Celebrating the Darkness and the Light

 

Lucia 1

Today, December 13, marks the well known festival of Saint Lucia. But it is also a celebration for her lesser known counterpart, the witch Lussi. This is a magical time of delicious darkness as we wait for the Winter Solstice. Fairies, elves and all sorts of supernatural beings are said to be out and about on their Wild Hunt.

The Christian feast day of Saint Lucia is celebrated with songs, a procession, and a young girl being selected to play the role of Lucia. This girl wears a white robe with a red sash, and a crown of lingonberry greens with seven candles.

(A strategic balancing act! No fires reported so far.)

SantaLucia

Originating in Sweden, these processions are now conducted in Finland, Denmark and Norway. (And sometimes the US and Canada.)  In these cold and bleak nights before the Solstice, the vibrant figure of Lucia wearing a wreath of candles is a great reminder that the sun will soon be returning.

The chosen Lucia is at the center of a procession of girls, all clothed in white robes with red sashes as symbols of purity. They sing hymns and carry special cakes  (called lussekatter.)  However, the fairies and elves are also out on their Wild Hunt    (called Oskoreia.)  Traditions holds that if during the procession the girls hear the sound of the Wild Hunt behind them, they should toss one of the cakes over their shoulder to appease the elves.

lucia 5

Who was the real Santa Lucia? Ironically, she did not start out as a Swede. She was originally Sicilian. The story goes that Lucia was helping Christians hiding in the catacombs by bringing them food and water while they dodged persecution from the evil ruling empire. Lucia, always a resourceful girl, put candles on her head to light her way and was thus able to hold more food in her hands.

Lucia was martyred for her Christian activities in 304 CE.  Legend has it they attempted to burn her on a pyre, but she remained alive. A Roman soldier then tried to kill her by slicing her throat. No luck. Stubborn Lucia did not die until she was given the Christian sacrament of Extreme Unction.

She became a very popular saint, and by the 6th century her feast day was honored in Anglo-Saxon England. Gradually she was acknowledged in Northern Europe, although the first Lucia candle processions were not recorded until the 19th century.

However, as with many legends, there is another, darker side to the story! Enter the witch Lussi.

lussi 3

Who is Lussi?  A Nordic sorceress, close in parallel to the Germanic goddess Holle or Perchta.  Not much is known about her, but she is said to be a powerful figure. She is the initiator of the Oskoreia and rides through the air with  Odin and their followers – a troupe of wandering elves, fairies, nymphs and the like. They are called the Lussiferda, a band of trouble-making nuisances, out on a Wild Hunt intended to cause chaos and frighten humans.

wild hunt

December 13 is called Lussinatta or Lussi Night, a time to honor and fear her.

If you happen to see Lussi and her elven group, beware!  Any human who encounters the Wild Hunt might be abducted to the Underworld. It is also believed that people’s spirits can be pulled away during their sleep to join the cavalcade.  (So be very conscious of your dreams tonight. You might want to skip sleep altogether… More on that later.)

During the long nights between Lussinatta and Yule, trolls, daemons and the spirits of the dead are thought to be swirling about outside, enjoying the darkness. They are particularly active on Lussi Night.  Naughty children are advised to hide away.  According  to some traditions, Lussi herself can come down through the chimney and abduct children who have been bad.

 

Lussi 2

(Seems to me Lussi might be in kahoots with Krampus and Old Saint Nick…)

But adults should beware too.  Lussi is particularly sensitive to all those dull and time consuming chores that must be done before Yule. You know — gathering wood for the fire, stocking the larder, salting the meat and making jam…  If you (lazy human!) have not completed your winter tasks, you just may be abducted, along with your nasty children!

Some people do not want to take that chance, even in their dreams!

In a tradition called Lussevaka, folks would stay awake all through the long Lussi Night in order to guard themselves and their households against abductions.  However, in the 21st century, Lussevaka has apparently taken on a different form.  It’s called partying till the break of dawn!

If you don’t make it through the entire night, it still might be fun to stay up extra late tonight, light a few candles and be on watch for Lussi and her band of fairies.

Whether you choose the reverent road of singing hymns for Saint Lucia, or the decadent road of partying all night in hopes of seeing the Wild Hunt, have a jolly and elegant season as we wait for the return of the sun.

yule

 

 

 

 

Veni Veni Emmanuel

 

Halo (Icebow or gloriole).

The longest night, awaiting light, we deck green boughs, winterberry and pine.  Some wait for the birth of a son.  Some wait for return of the sun.  And though winter’s darkness may leave us moody,  the gods are still with us.

‘Veni Veni Emmanuel’ is a 12th century ballad. The Latin lyrics are based on the bible prophecy of the birth of Christ from the book of Isaiah.  Performed here by the (fabulous!)  Mediaeval Baebes.  Hope you like it!   Happy Winter Solstice.

 

 

 

 

In The Bleak Midwinter

 

winter-pd

Today for your listening entertainment, I give you ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ performed by the fabulous Mediaeval Baebes.  Lyrics for this song were taken from a 19th century poem by Christina Rossetti. Music is by Gustav Holst.

Here in the Midwestern U.S.A. we remain buried in snow and ice, so this song is particularly appropriate for me!  Hope you are warm and safe wherever you are.

 

 

 

The Holly and the Ivy

One of my favorites.  This early 18th century carol combines Pagan and Christian imagery. The holly and ivy represent male and female medieval fertility symbols juxtaposed with the birth of Christ. The references to ‘merry harp’ echo  the words of Chaucer.

Performed by the fabulous Mediaeval Baebes, this carol is a trip into yesteryear.  So grab some hot cocoa, sit back, relax and listen. I hope you enjoy it!