Holda and the Cult of Witches

Holda appears no where in the Anglo-Saxon literature, on the continent
however, there are many folktales linking the Goddess Holda or Holle
with witches and witchcraft. Many of these occur in areas lived in by
the Old or continental Saxons. According to Grimm, “Horselberg is at
once the residence of Holda and her host, and a trysting-place of
witches.” This link beween Holda and witchcraft appears over and over
in medieval literature. Holda is first mentioned in literature c.1015
by Burchard, Bishop of Worms:

Credidisti ut aliqua femina sit, quae hoc facere possit, quod quaedam a diabolo deceptae se affirmant
necessario et ex pracepto facere debere, id est cum daemonum turba in similitudinem mulierum
transformata, quam vulgaris stultitia Holdam (al. unholdam) vocat, certis noctibus equitare debere
super quasdam bestias, et in eorum se consortio annumeratum esse.

“It was believed that somehow it was possible for some female to do this, who had been deceived by the
Devil, and who confessed herself compelled to do it by a spell; that is, by a demon changed into the form
of a woman whom vulgar stupidity calls Holda (or Unholda), being forced on certain nights to ride upon
certain beasts, and to be numbered among their company.”
(translation by Nick Ford)

It
is interesting to note that the first passage about her is one
pertaining to the witches’ ride. This link between the witches’ ride
and Holda is echoed throughout the Middle Ages, to the point that one
gets the feeling it is not just another false accusation by the Church.
It appears in canons of the Church, witch trials, and folk tales as
well. It appears in later folk tales as well, “The Trip to the
Brocken demonstrating a belief in the witches ride:

“The day came when witches go the Brocken, and the two women climbed into the hayloft, took a small glass, drank from it, and suddenly disappeared. The bridegroom-to-be, who had sneaked after them and observed them, was tempted to take a swallow from the glass. He picked it up and sipped a little from it, and suddenly he was on the Brocken, where he saw how his fiancée and her mother were carrying on with the witches, who were dancing around the devil, who was standing in their midst.”

These tales are usually linked in some way to Holda or the Brocken or other mountain peaks. The Canon
Episcopi states pretty much the same thing as Burchard, but uses the
name of the Roman goddess Diana instead of Holda:

“Some wicked women are perverted by the Devil and led astray by illusions and fantasies induced by demons, so that they believe they ride out at night on beasts with Diana, the pagan goddess, and a horde of women. They believe that in the night they cross huge distances. They say that they obey Diana’s commands and on certain nights are called out in her service…”

This confusion too continues throughout the Middle Ages with the names Holda, Diana, and sometimes Hecate being used interchangeably.  The question then becomes whether Holda was goddess of the witches, or a Germanic Goddess of faeries and leader of the Wild Hunt, and therefore confused with the Roman and Greek Goddesses of witches. There are no easy answers to this. The folklorist Lotte Motz felt that Holda as goddess of the witches was a native tradition, and that her attributes arose independently of Diana and other southern goddess. Another explanation, since all of the areas these Goddesses appear were at one time or another settled and held by Germanic tribes, is that the Southern goddesses are merely the imported Holda guised under a native name. Confusion later came about when the Church, not knowing the name of the Goddess identified her with Diana or Hecate2. Regardless, in the Medieval mind there seems to be a connection between the Goddess Holda, and witches riding through the air at night, usually to some sacred mountain peak.

A rather late documentation of Holda, in connection with a mountain occurs in 1630 when a werman in Hesse, Diel Breull, confessed to have traveled in spirit form to the Venusberg (Blocksberg or the Brocken) in a witch trial. There he was shown by Frau Holt the sufferings of the dead refected in a pool of water. This testimony though is very suspect as it seems confused with perhaps more southern beliefs. No one is certain where the idea of a goddess in a mountain first origninated. It does not seem current in the folklore surrounding Holda (Germanic folktales always take place on top of the mountain, not in it), merely in Germanic literature. Marion Ingham traces the origin of this tale to thirteenth century German literature where the goddess appears as Venus, as well as Italian and French versions that date to the fifteenth century. Ingham goes on to say:

The motiff of the hollow mountain inhabited by malicious beings seems to occur first in German literature, in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth, when the Tannhauser legend was gaining gorund, the Church was condemning the belief. Most of the sources suggest people connected the Venusberg with Italy, so the beginnings of the motiff may lie in traditions of the Sibylline grotto and the Elysian fields derived ultimately from Virgil. Early German sources equate it with the fairy realm where Arthur lives on, and also portray it as the home of the Grail: in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the place wa apparently known as der Grale as well as der Venusberg.
(Ingham, The Goddess Freya and Other Figures, p 194)

It would appear then that we are not faced with a genuine Germanic belief, but a literary motiff which either originated in the south in connection with tales about the Sibyl, or with Arthurian legend. This really does not matter much to us as  there may be grains of truth to Breull’s tale, as it appears he went to sleep and awoke in the Venusberg. It appears then he may have traveled to it in spirit form, just as the witches in the folktales are said to do, and such tales about witches travelling there may have influenced his tale as much as the literary tales about a goddess in a mountain.

Grimm connects several other figures with Holda, most notabally Perahta and Berchta (also called variously Perchta, Perchte, Bertha). Neither of these figures are as readily connected to witches as Holda.  They are however spinners like Holda, disdain laziness, and are celebrated at Yule. Most notabally however is their link to to troops of children that follow them about. Grimm retells one of the tales of Percha invovling the children (quoted in part here):

“Below the Gleitsch, a curiously shaped rock near Tischdorf, the story varies in so far, that there Perchthu along with the heimchen was driving a waggon, and had just broken the axle when she fell in with a countryman, who helped her out with a makeshift axle, and was paid in chips, which however he disdained, and only carried a piece home in  his shoe. A spinning-girl walked over from the Neidenberg during that night, she had done every bit of her spinning, and was in high spirits, when Perchtha came marching up the hill towards her, with a great troop of the heimchen-folk, all children of one sort and size, one set of them toiling to push a heavy plough, another party loaded with farming-tools; they loudly complained that they had no longer a home.”
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass translation)

This is very similar to the Norse and Danish tales about Hulla, whom Grimm links to Holda:

“Of still more weight perhaps are the Norwegian and Danish folk-tales about a wood or mountain wife Hulla, Huldra, Huldre, whom they set forth, now as young and lovely, then again as old and gloomy. In a blue garment and white veil she visits the pasture-grounds of herdsmen, and mingles in the dances of men; but her shape is disfigured by a tail, which she takes great pains to conceal. Some accounts make her beautiful in front and ugly behind. She loves music and song, her lay has a doleful melody and is called huldreslaat. In the forests you see Huldra as an old woman clothed in gray, marching at the head of her flock, milkpail in hand. She is said to carry off people’s unchristened infants from them.”
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass translation)

The fact that these children are unchristened is crucial. In the ancient Heathen religion, children that had not yet been named (which was done at nine days of age), were considered not to possess a complete soul. They could not be exposed by the father if he accepted them at birth, but neither the orlog and fetch were thought to have attached to the child until an ancestral name was given. It would seem then (in my opinion anyway), that without ancestral spirits to protect them, the Goddess Holda fulfilled that role. Thus it may be that if a child died before it was named, its soul stayed with Holda for protection. Thus we have evidence, though suspect,  of Holda as protector of the dead souls of children. The witches ride and children’s procession were not the only links to nightly travels however.  Holda was also said to lead the Wild Hunt.

“Then we see both the name and the meaning [m. or f.] fluctuate between frô Wôdan and
frôwa Gôda. A goddess commanding the host, in lieu of the
god, is Holda, his wife in fact. I am more and more firmly convinced,
that ‘Holda’ can be nothing but an epithet of the mild ‘gracious’ Fricka; conf. Sommer’s Thür. sag. 165-6. And Berhta, the shining, is identical with her too; or, if the name applies more to Frouwa, she is still next-door to her, as the Norse Freyja was to Frigg. It is worth noting, that her Norweg. legend also names a ‘Huldra,’ not Frigg nor Freyja. The dogs that surround the god’s airy chariot may have been Wuotan’s wolves setting up their howl.”
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass translation)

The Wild Hunt appears throughout Northern and Central Europe amongst both the Celtic and Germanic peoples. Its leader is variously named as
Harlequin, Herne the Hunter, Dietrich of Bern, but also Woden and
Holda. The first mention of the Hunt is in the Ordericus Vitalis
written by Wachlin, who claimes to have seen the Hunt in January of
1092. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1127, also mentions it:

“Let no one be surprised at what we are going to relate, for  it was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a  whole pack of huntsmen in full cry. They straddled black   horses and black bucks, while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes. This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford. All through the night monks heard them sounding and winding their horns. Reliable witnesses who kept watch in the night declared that there might well have been twenty or even thirty of them in this tantivy as near as they could tell.”
(translation by Brian Branston)

Whether the Wild Hunt of Holda’s was thought the same as the procession of children or seperate is not clear.  Woden as leader of the Hunt was sometimes said to have children with the Hunt, not to mention take
children. How a procession of dead children and the Wild Hunt relates
to the nightly ride of witches is hard to explain.  The link
between Holda as leader of the Wild Hunt is ready enough to be seen if
ancient Germans saw her as the wife of Woden, its usual leader. As a
Goddess linked to children, it is logical she lead a children’s furious
host as well. As to how this links to the witche’s ride, one explanation may be that witches also served as midwives, thus the link to babies, not to mention witches may have summoned the aid of the Huldufolk.  We are told repeatedly that Holda’s witches rode the backs of beasts. May not these beasts have been the wights of field and stream, mountain and forest, in essense the huldufolk? There is a
distinct possibility that the witches ride, the children’s procession,
and the Wild Hunt as far as it concerns Holda were all and one the same thing That is the unnamed children joined the Wild Hunt to be under its protection, not a seperate one of its own, and the witches as
priestesses of Holda also took part.

In conclusion, under the
Heathen religion, witchcraft and the cult of Holda was probably out in
the open.  Its rites were probabally not secret. Witches may well
have been merely the priests and priestesses of Holda. While no doubt,
wermen (males), played a role in witchcraft, and are mentioned, the
image of the witch has come down to us as female. It could be that
women were held to be the more powerful, and formed the core of Holda’s cult. Strabo described priestesses performing human sacrifices.
Elsewhere we are told by Tacitus that Veleda was honoured as a goddess and gave oracular counsels to whomever wanted them. Jordannes also mentioned female witches in his history of the Goths. King Filimer, a convert to Chirstianity exciled female witches known as
haliurunnae. It would not therefore be strange for women to be at the
forefront of a Goddess’ cult. The places where witches once gathered
would suggest a cult that was once in the open. The Brocken and other places thought sacred to Holda where witches were said to gather may well have been places that all Heathens once gathered for the Spring rites. Grimm states in the passage cited above that Hulla was thought to join in the dances of men, and thus this may be where the idea of a special witches’ dance came about. He also notes that the gathering places of witches were fomerly the places of Heathen justice. Originally, these dances may have been nothing more than the Maypole dancing of the ancient Heathens later restricted to the priests of Holda after the Conversion only to die out. The tales however lived on in folklore and were gradually demonized by the Christians with the addition of details even the Heathens would have been appalled at.

We can probably safely conclude that Holda was a Goddess of witches. Was she THE goddess of witches for the Germanic panthoen may be a different matter. Freya in the Old Norse texts appears as the Goddess of a different form of magic, seiðr, and may have had a similar “witch” cult. Indeed, Woden may have had a similar cult of users of galdor, beserkers, and runesters. Indeed, Woden may have been a god of witches in the sense Holda was. Some of the gathering places linked to witches are crossroads and gallowes, both connected to Woden. Finally, Grimm mentions several other figures linked to the witches, and commonly thought to be Holda such as Perchta. While these figures could well be Holda, they may, indeed be seperate Goddesses in their own right. Holda’s cult, secluded by the Hartz mountains may well have survived due to its location. Deep in the Hartz Mountains, the cult may have been left alone.  Many of its celebrants may have well been Christians wishing to continue the age old rites of their ancestors. Regardless, folklore has retained the image of Holda of Goddess of witches. Many modern Heathens link Holda to Frige on the basis of Grimm’s conclusions. Others view her as Hel, although this is doubtful.

Finally, no indepth studies have been made by Heathen scholars of Holda and her links to witches with the intent of reviving their rites in modern times. Studies instead have centered on the runes, galdor, and seiðr with the spirit journeys of the Hartz Mountain witches falling by the wayside.

1. Note: Many have attmpeted to link Holda with Hel on the basis of the name Holle. What they fail to take into account is the word Hel or hell in High German is Hölle not Holle. While Holda or Holle is linked to the dead, the dead are the souls of children, and not the dead in
general.

2. Burchard’s is the earliest to name a goddess in connection with the witches of the Hartz Mountains, and he names Holda, not Diana.

3. “Still more plainly do the Localities coincide. The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered. “
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Chapter 34)

Bibliography

Crawford, Jane. “Evidences for Witchcraft in Anglo-Saxon England.” Medium Ævum. 32:2 (1963) pp. 99-116.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Facts on File, New York, 1989

Grimm, Jacob (Stallybrass, James translator), Teutonic Mythology, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass. 1976

Ingham, Marion, The Goddess Freya and Other Female Figures in Germanic Mythology and Folklore, Cornell University, 1985

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

Motz, Lotte. “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures.” Folklore 95:2 (1984) pp. 151-166.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Cornell Univ. Press, 1972.

Waschnitius, Viktor, Perht, Holda und verwandte Gestalten. Ein Beitrag zur deut-schen Religionsgeschichte,&

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