The Distribution of The Legends of
Frau Holle, Frau Percht

and Related Figures

by Erika Timm
with the cooperation of Adolf Beckmann
S. Hirzel Verlag Stuttgart, 2003

used with permission of the publisher.

       Across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are found a closely related group of popular legends involving a faded heathen goddess associated with both the plow and the spinning wheel. She appears under such names as Frau Holle, Holda, Percht, Bercht, Herke, Harke, Herra and Werra, among many others. Further north, the same figure is known as Frau Frekka or Frick, as well as Frau Wode or Gode, who accompanies her husband Wodan as he heads the Wild Hunt. Despite the wide variations in her name, she always has the same character, visiting homes during the Twelve Nights, dispensing rewards and punishments, paying particular attention to spinning and domestic order. She comes as a beauty or a hag. Those who know her both love and fear her. Largely undiscovered by the English-speaking world, a large body of fairy tales, folk tales, local legends, customs, and physical sites are linked to her; particularly in the regions of Hesse and Thuringa, but extending throughout Germany and into the surrounding countries. In the early nineteenth century, Jacob Grimm recognized these legends collectively as the remnant memory of a pre-Christian goddess. In the early twentieth century, Viktor Waschnitius published a rich collection of tales and traditions involving her. Most recently Erika Timm, a professor of Yiddish studies at the University of Triers, has thoroughly cataloged her history, producing a vivid color map which details the distribution of her documentation.

Frau Percht, Bercht, Berthe, etc.
Frau Holle, Holda, Hulda, Hulli, etc.
Berchthöldere, etc.
Frau Herke, Harke, Herra, etc
Frau Gode, Gauden, etc
Frau Wode, Woden
Frau Free, Frick, Frekka, Fru, etc
Murawa, etc
Percht, etc
by Non-Germans

The Wild Hunt, et al.

The Wild Hunt,
mainly of Wode (Woden, Odin)

Arrows at left of page, center:
  Vrouw Vreke (Netherlands)

Foriegn Language Islands (not included on the Main map):
Folgaria, Luserna, Forsental, North Italy
Zarz, Gottschee, Yugoslavia
Siebenbürgen (Seven Mountains), Romania
Bielitz, (East Upper Silesia)
Mining towns of Central Slovakia


“Though many names are encountered, the creatures show such strong resemblances to one another that we may be sure of one basic configuration; she is a spirit of the woodland, a visitor to human dwellings in the winter season. She may inspect the order of the household, check on the behavior of children, and receive the offered gifts. She may punish or ordain fortune or misfortune for the coming year.”
 Lotte Motz, The Beauty and the Hag, (1993), pp. 78-79, 124
Frau Holda by Gustav Richter, 1852

From Fairy Tale To Goddess
Frau Holle And The Scholars That Try To Reveal Her Origins  

by Catherine Heath, 2013  
 An excerpt

The first scholar to fully describe Frau Holle was Jacob Grimm in his seminal work 'Teutonic Mythology', which furnished us with the following description of what might be considered her basic characteristics:

“In popular legends and nursery-tales, frau Holda (Hulda, Holle, Hulle, frau Holl) appears as a superior being, who manifests a kind and helpful disposition towards men, and is never cross except when she notices disorder in household affairs. None of the German races appear to have cherished these oral traditions so extensively as the Hessians and Thuringians (that Worms bishop was a native of Hesse). At the same time, dame Holle is found as far as the Voigtland, past the Rhön mts in northern Franconia,in the Wetterau up to the Westerwald, and from Thuringia she crosses the frontier of Lower Saxony. Swabia, Switzerland, Bavaria, Austria, North Saxony and Friesland do not know her by that name.
 From what traditions has still preserved for us, we gather the following characteristics. Frau Holle is represented as a being of the sky, begirdling the earth: when it snows, she is making her bed, and the feathers of it fly. She stirs up snow, as Donar does rain: the Greeks ascribe the production of snow and rain to their Zeus: so that Holda comes before us a goddess of no mean rank. The comparison of snowflakes to feathers is very old; the Scythians pronounced the regions north of them inaccessible, because they were filled with feathers (Herod. 4, 7. conf. 31). Holda then must be able to move through the air, like dame Herke. She loves to haunt the lake and fountain; at the hour of noon she may be seen, a fair white lady, bathing in the flood and disappearing; a trait in which she resembles Nerthus. Mortals, to reach her dwelling, pass through the well; conf. the name wazzerholde.
 Another point of resemblance is, that she drives about in a waggon. She has a linchpin put in it by a peasant whom she met; when he picked up the chips, they were gold. Her annual progress, which like those of Herke and Berhta, is made to fall between Christmas and Twelfth-day, when the supernatural has sway, and wild beasts like the wolf are not mentioned by their names, brings fertility to the land. Not otherwise does 'Derk with the boar,' that Freyr of the Netherlands (p. 214), appear to go his rounds and look after the ploughs. At the same time Holda, like Wuotan, can also ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the 'wutende heer.'' 

However the real interest for the scholar lies in his entry about 'Perchta',  which, after making the argument that Holda/Holle and Perchta are the same being, Grimm then went onto theorise that:

“If, independently of the christian calendar, there was a Holda, then neither can Perchta be purely a product of it; on the contrary, both of these adjective names lead up to a heathen deity, who made her peregrination at that very season of yule, and whom therefore the christians readily connected with the sacredness of Christmas and New- year.”

 Needless to say, the idea of a Heathen goddess surviving through centuries of Christianity as a folkloric figure that is still widely known to this day is very compelling. It is easy to see why scholars would be interested in trying to discover the true provenance of such a figure.

...In 2003, a professor of Yiddish studies in the German studies department of the University of Triers by the name of Erika Timm, published her book Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten. The book, a multi-disciplinary study of Grimm’s theories regarding Frau Holle, Percht and related beings such as Frau Gode, Herke, Stampe, Freke etc. is an extremely well-written and concise examination; not only of Grimm’s theories, but of every extant piece of evidence pertaining to the subject matter, and its social and historical context. Unfortunately, the information presented in this paper is a very summarized version of Erika Timm’s arguments, Dr. Timm is a very thorough scholar, and the full extent of her arguments are at times so complex or technical as to merit papers of their own.

For the most part, regardless of her different methods and sources, Timm’s findings support Grimm’s theories. When it came to his critics, Timm asked if it was possible to have such differing theories of origin if all of the scholars were looking at the same sources. As she later reveals though, none of Grimm’s detractors had access to all of the texts, and indeed one of them had access to none!

...  For Grimm, Frau Holle and Bercht/Percht were of ancient provenance, a heathen period goddess that survived in German folklore and tradition, their names sometimes substituted for Diana, or their roles even outright supplanted by Mary. The approach Timm takes is far more systematic than that of Grimm,whose work  at times can read like a very passionately written jumble of information. In contrast, Timm's work is ordered to an extent that spoils the reader, from the first chapters examining the sources pertaining to Holle et al., to the chapters examining the different geographical areas linked to each of the parallel beings and finally chapters discussing the question of godhood.

In terms of sources, not including the account of Burchard of Worms, there are eleven sources that can be considered to refer to Frau Holle, and the earliest mentions of Holle can be attested to the 13th century, with possible attestation in the 11th. Earlier evidence for Perchta is slightly stronger, due to a greater incidence of scribal culture in the geographical area associated with Perchta/Berchta, and earliest mentions trace back to the 12th century, also with a possibility of attestation in the 11th century.  As for the parallel beings of Herke, Freke, Wode and Gode, the sources are a little later than that for Holle or Percht.

Geographically speaking, the incidence of the numena in question can be tidily delineated in terms of Upper (Southern), Middle, and Lower (Northern) Germany. Frau Perchta/Berchta belongs to Upper Germany, Frau Holle to Middle Germany and Frau Herke/Freke/Gode/Wode to Lower Germany. From the inclusion of a map that came with Timm's book that marks out all the incidences of lore/tradition/evidence of belief in each being, in each region, the Upper/Middle/Lower delineation is very clear cut. While there are the odd pockets of differing belief in each area (e.g incidences of Herke in the Holle region), Timm concludes that these are the result of factors such as dialectal differences or  populations movements. Unfortunately, the various beings of Lower Germany are a little more complex for the scholar to unravel, on the one hand, the documentation of beings like Frau Gode / Herke / Wode / Frick / Freke, only really began to appear after what she calls the "Germanisation" of those areas.  However, on the other hand, there is also the question of the account of the Vergōdendēl ("Frau Gode's Portion") ritual that allegedly took place in sever  al places in Lower Germany that may provide further clues to an earlier provenance of these beings.

The "Vergōdendēl‟  ritual centres around the harvest and the felling of the final sheaf of rye, which isdecorated. When the rest of the work is done, the workers all gather around the final, decorated sheaf, take hold of the ears of rye and shout the following three times:  

Friggöu, Friggöu, Friggöu! Dütt Jahr up 'r Kare‚t andre up'n Wagen!
Friggöu, Friggöu, Friggöu! This year on the wheelbarrow, the other up on the wagon!"   

The Vergōdendēl has definite parallels with the harvest practices recorded by Grimm from Lower  Saxony in which it was normal to leave an ear of corn standing in a field "to Woden, for his horse", or the account from Schaumburg of a field offering of drink to the cries of  "Wôld, Wôld, Wôld!"

   The interchangeability of some of the female numena and Wodan in various roles or rituals is discussed quite extensively by Timm, and as she points out, Wodan is well documented in the Lower German area in the form of bracteates, and records concerning tribes linked to Wodan by contemporary accounts.  Etymologically, Wode/Gode and Wodan are the same, as there was a period when the letters G and W were used interchangeably.  It was common practice from the late 1400s onwards for women to be known by their husband's first name, making names like Frau Gode/Wode simply ways of saying Mrs Wodan, and is therefore suggestive of belief in a marriage between the two. Frau Herke also falls into this category, as the word Herke is believed by Timm to have its origins in the Wild Hunt, or as Orderic Vitalis wrote in 1091: "La familia Herlechini". The word Herlechini, was most likely a corruption of the Old English Her(e)la Cyning or  'King Herla'. The further speculated connection here being that Her(e)la is not only believed to link to the tribal name Hari'i , but deriving from the Indo-Germanic word * χariaz  , meaning "host leader", and accordingly referring to Wodan. This would place Frau Herke in the same category as Frau Gode/Wode, as being names that appear to have come from the custom of married women being known by their husband's first name. However in the case of Herke, not only does she potentially take Wodan's name, but in some places she's also believed to take his role as leader of the Wild Hunt.

As the Scandinavian Odin has a wife in the form of Frigga, so Paulus Diaconus tells us in the  Historia  Langobardorum   (Book 1:8) that Wodan/Godan's consort is Frea, according to Grimm:  

“This Langob. Frea accords with the OHG Fria, I take it not only identical with Frigg, but the original form of the name.”

But is Frau Gode/Wode/Herke a survival form of the forerunner of the Nordic Frigga or something else? One of the numena from Lower Germany that Timm addresses but has not been discussed yet in this  paper is that of "Die Frick", who Timm believes, with her relatively simple etymology leading back to Frija, to be a "survival form" of the goddess Frija. According to Timm, this Frija is not like the Frigga or  Freyja of Scandinavian tradition in terms of function, but more of a "Great Goddess" like the Nerthus of  Tacitus' Germania.

The idea of a "Great Goddess", in any capacity, has been somewhat sullied in Heathen circles due to the  prominence of  the ubiquitous Wiccan "the Goddess". However, as Timm points out, the general character of pre-Roman Iron age archeological finds in Northwest Germany do show a fertility cult being prominent, but as time progresses the character of those finds changes, until eventually "the cultus of a war god erases the peaceful farmer cultus".

In conclusion , Timm states that "in the lower German north, the core area of the Saxon tribal state, Wodan usurped the position of a female being in the late heathen period".

To turn to Holle and the question of her origins, both Grimm and Timm discuss the account of the "Diana of Würzburg" found in the Passio Minor of the Passion of St Kilian. The Passio describes a saint's attempts to convert people in the   Würzburg area to Christianity, and some of the religious practices that he came up against. One such practice was the worship of the "Diana of Würzburg",  to which the people were reportedly very attached:

volumus servire magnae Dianae, sicut et anteriores nostril fecerunt patres, et prosperati sunt in eo usque in praesens
"We want to serve the great Diana, as our fathers did and in doing so, have prospered  well to this day."

   The Passio Minor  is potentially quite old, and Timm gives the possible date of writing as some time between 788 and 800.  Although the piece was undoubtedly written by a Christian, it's worth remembering that Boniface only founded the diocese of Würzburg in 741/742 and that his diocese only really succeeded in pushing heathen practices out of the limelight,  at least initially. Therefore it's highly  possible that were the piece written in 788, either the author or his parents or grandparents grew up withthe pre-Christian ways and beliefs of that region, and given the importance placed on the transmission of  information from older members in more traditional societies, it's highly likely the scribe would have heard about those practices first hand.  But who is the Diana referred to in the Passio Minor? Timm rules out a cult to the "real" Diana, making the point that the worship of the "real" Diana never reached that region. Regarding the Passio, Grimm's conclusion is that the Diana referred to is none other than Frau Holle: 

"As it is principally in Thuringia, Franconia and Hessen that Frau Holda survives, it is not incredible that by Diana, in the neighbourhood of Würzburg, so far back as the 7th  century, was meant none other than she. "

The theory that the Diana of Würzburg is none other than Frau Holle is supported by Timm. In five of the eleven pre-1500 sources that she examines pertaining to Frau Holle, Diana and Holle are equated with each other. The phenomenon of substitution of heathen goddess names is also discussed by Grimm in his section on "Frikka, Frouwa", in the case of Frikka, Mary was often substituted e.g the Friggerock constellation, became known as the Mariarok.  Not only that, but Grimm reported that many of the qualities attributed to Frigga and Freyja were later attributed to Mary, and this "Marian substitution‟ was not limited to Frikka/Frouwa or Frigga, but was also applied to Holle/Holda. In later nursery tales, it is Mary that sets the girls to spinning and sewing instead of Holle, and it is Mary that is linked to snow— all functions that Mary does not hold in original Christian tradition. Timm highlights the use of the title Queen of Heaven  to refer to both Mary and Holda in the earlier documents ,and notes that the use of  the title Queen of Heaven in conjunction with Mary can be traced to the 6th century.  In the end though, not only does Timm support Grimm's assertion that the Diana of Würzburg is Holle, but that Holle is a by-name for Frija and that Frija was the deity whose worship was depicted at Würzburg in the  Passio Minor.  

The final area of focus and only real area of disagreement with Grimm's theories for Timm is that of  Perchta/Berchta and her origins. While Perchta does clearly share certain attributes with Holle and the Lower German beings (e.g her link to spinning, the Wild Hunt, connection with winter etc.), there are still areas of differentiation. Unlike the other beings explored in Timm's book, she's linked to roof top offerings, or certain foods, she engages in the yearly punishment of those that do not keep her feasts or taboos, she's linked to iron and her nose is documented as being an "eiserne Nase"  (iron nose) in four sources from the 14th and 15th   centuries. Moreover, Timm holds that the origins of Perchta's name are  potentially Celtic, possibly coming from Brixta, a Celtic goddess linked to healing wells that was recorded almost a thousand years before the first documentation of Perchta. So while Berchta/Perchta is often equated with Holle and the Lower German beings, for Timm, she is the product of Celtic origins that shares traits with more eastern beings such as Baba Yaga.

...The question of the provenance of Frau Holle is perhaps much larger than it may initially seem, with many people writing her off as being nothing more than a folkloric figure. However as more than a few scholars have found out over the years, Holle's story isn't nearly as simple, nor her mysteries as easy to uncover as one might think. Rather than being an open and shut case, it's a journey beginning with Grimm and then quite securely back to the 13th  century. Things begin to get a little "murky" around the 11th century, but the researcher is still on relatively secure ground. But then there are these tempting links and pieces of evidence to chase down that take the research back further still, and that‟s when the hunt  becomes almost as dark and uncertain as the fifth century bogs where she may have had her origins.

heil sjá in fjölnýta fold
  “Although the conception of a mother goddess remains a shadowy one, and Frigg in particular is an obscure figure, it is no longer customary to dismiss her as of little importance, and to explain her away as a pure literary creation. As Odin’s wife and the queen of Asgard, she plays a consistent part in the poetry, and the lack of detail about her in myths and the failure to find place names named after her may be due to the fact that she was remembered under other titles.”
—  H.R. Ellis Davidson Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, 1964, p.114.
  Alexander Zick 1901
Frau Holda

Alexander Zick, 1901

FRAU FREE/FRICK: Frau Fru, Frick(e), Firk, Frau Free(n), Fru Fregge, Fru Freke, Fru Fretchen, Frau Frie(n), Fru Frieseke, Fu/Fui(j), Fuik(e), die Fujjen, Ful, Vrouw Vreke, friga Holda, Friggöu, Frigg, Frija
FRAU GODE: Fru Gaud(en), Fru/Mutter Gaudsch/G(oo)dsch(e), Frau Gaue(n), Mutter Gauerken, Fru Gauk/Goik, Fru Gaul/Gaus/Gosen, Fru Gaur, Fru Godke,  de Goor, Vergoden
  FRAU HOLLE: Frau Helle, Frau hollen, frauw helt, fraw Hold, Frau Holda/Holde, Domina Holda, Striga Holda/ friga Holda, ver Holde, Frau Holla, Holl, Hollefrau, Holle-/Hullibär, Fra Holle/Holte, Hulde grawen, Holle-Löcke, Holle(n)zopf, Holloch, Frau Hoole, fraw Holt, frawenhuld, fraw Hulda, Domina Hulde, Huldie, Hullafraa/-bouz/-klatch/-mau/-pöpel/-watch/-wauwau, Hullefrau, Hulleberta, Hullefrau, Hullepopel, frawe vorholde/vorhawlde/vorhowlde, Vraawholde, Hollen, die guten Helde, die Holden, die Hulden, fraw Holden/Hulden, Frau Roll(e), Rulle, et al.
  FRAU HERKE: Harke, Frau Ache(n), Frau Arke, Mutter Haagsch, der Haken, de Haksche, Frau Harfe(n), Harfenfichte, Frau Harken, Frau Härkster, Frau Har(r)e, vrouwe/vor Here, Herekwif, Hirke/Hurke, worhacken, Harkemai
  MURAWA/MURAUE, Moarache/Moersche, More, et al.  
BERCHTHÖLDERE: Brechhöldere, Brechtöldin, Brechtölterin, Brechalder
  FRAU PERCHT/BERCHT : frawperte, Pe(c)htra/Perchtra Baba, Perahta, Perchta, Domina Percta, mensae Perchtae,
Perchte, Perchtl, Perchtlgaba/ -waga/ --wawa, Perechta, frawe Pericht, perhtwiese/Pertenwisun, Perscht, Perschtl, Frau Pert, Pert(h)a/Perte, Frau Pertige, Dea Precha, Perechta, Perh(a), Pericht, Pernaht, Perscht(l)/ -mutter, Pert, Precht ; der Bär, Bär-/Bermutter, Berfrau, Berchtlgaga/-waba/-waga, Berchtla, Bergda, Vrauwe Berhe, fraw Bertha/Berthe, Bericht, Berscht, Bert, Bert(h)a, la Brava/donna Berta, schwarze Berta, wilde Berta, Berta, Bert(h)a, Berchta,  Froberte, et al.
FRAU WODE: Fru Waud, Frau Wauer, Fru/Mudder Wau-, Waurstrusch, Frau Wagen, Frau Was(en), Waul(en), Waus(en), Wohl, Fru/Mudder Wauf
(FRAU) WERRE/WIRRE, Werra in the Vogtland.
Further Reading:

The Definitive Study of Frigg