This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.
Hello and a Happy, Bright Solstice, belated Channukah, early Kwanza, Happy Yule, and Merry Christmas! Welcome to another episode of Crimes and Witch-Demeanors, I’m your host, Joshua Spellman. On today’s episode we’re going to be discussing the witches of winter.
Did you know that many of the attributes Santa Claus actually come from a beloved winter witch? The giving gifts in a stocking if you’re good, leaving you a lump of coal if you’re bad, and the whole sliding down the chimney to do so schtick? Yeah, that’s all plucked straight from the mythology one of our winter witches. These tropes weren’t assigned to Santa Clause until the 1812 book by Washington Irving, and predate him by a few centuries. But be forewarned…not all of our witches are good: some are frightening cannibals or violent hags that embody the ruthless spirit of winter itself. But history suggests that these witches were not always haggard old crones or even witches at all, but instead were once beautiful goddesses; transformed into bogeymen with the passing of the Edict of Thessalonica and subsequent attempts by the Roman Empire to stamp out the stubborn cinders of pagan religions. In fact, their origins may lie in the goddess Artemis, whose temple was destroyed by none other than jolly old Saint Nick himself. Today we’ll be looking at these winter witches, investigating their origins beyond superficial blog posts, and seeing how Christianity managed to turn divine goddesses into hook-nosed old crones who will rip our your organs.
But before we delve into today’s topic I have to announce the winner of the giveaway! The winner of the 2 soy candles and 2 crystal necklaces is…Dylan Morin! Congratulations! I’ll message you so that you can pick out the fragrances and stones you want and to get your details. And to everyone else who didn’t win: I picked our winner at random, but genuinely thank you to everyone who entered and left a review. Please know that I appreciate you and cherish you. You are all stellar! I’m sure you’d all get gifts from our first witch of the winter season and our least horrific; La Befana.
So who is La Befana? Her origins, like most pagan traditions, have been obfuscated by the Christian Church. But…as we know, traditions find ways to live on within the confines of Christianity and La Befana is no exception. Try as the church might to eradicate her from tradition, La Befana remained a stalwart of Italian lore, becoming inexplicably entwined in the story of the birth of Christ himself.
In folklore La Befana is typically pictured as an old crone covered in soot who flies around on a broomstick. On the night of January 5th, or epiphany eve, she visits the home of every child in Italy, flying down their chimneys to deliver candies (or more traditionally, dates and figs) into the shoes or stockings of children who have been good throughout the year or…if you’ve been bad…she’ll place a lump of coal, a stick, or garlic in your stocking. But, regardless, La Befana will always use her handy broom to sweep your floors before she leaves. And, in doing so, sweeps away the troubles and worries of the previous year in order to welcome in the fresh energy and blessings of the new one. The the children of the house will often leave out a glass of wine and a small plate of food to thank Befana for her gifts. However, children must be sure to stay in bed, because if they catch sight of La Befana she is sure to smack you with her broom.
La Befana’s name is said to be derived from the Italian mispronunciation of the word “Epifiana” which is Latin for “manifestation of the divine” and is associated with the birth of Christ. Others suggest that Befana’s origins are with that of the Roman Strenua, or Strenia, who was the goddess of the New Year. Those who agree with this idea suggest the name Befana was derived from the New Year’s presents that Strenia gave called bestrina.
In his 1823 book, Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily, John J. Blunt States:
“Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana—figs, dates, and honey. Moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character”
In fact, even in transforming Strenia into an old hag as Befana makes mythological sense. Being an elderly woman, La Befana represents the old year. In many parts of Europe, it was tradition to burn a puppet of an old woman at the beginning of the New Year to represent it’s passing. This doesn’t have a direct connection with Befana…but…burning a witch…that’s also an age old tradition, I guess!
Italian anthropologists have actually traced Befana’s origins all the way to Neolithic traditions and beliefs. In fact, Befana has a lot in common with our other winter witches suggesting they may all stem from the same source: a goddess most likely associated with fertility and agriculture.
However, like most Christian holidays – Christmas…Easter…Valentine’s Day…Halloween…and even Catholic Saints, pagan holidays and deities have always managed to persevere through time, albeit in new forms. Unlike the pagan gods before her who had their names changed to become saints, she managed to do one better: she inserted herself directly into the story of the birth of Jesus.
It is said that the three wise stayed at La Befana’s home on their way to find the Christ-child. When they once again departed on their journey, they asked La Befana to come with them. She hesitated, but decided to stay home because she had so much sweeping and housekeeping to do. Although, once the wise men left, she quickly regretted her decision. She gathered up her gifts for the infant Jesus and attempted to follow them and the star in the sky. However, La Befana got lost along the way and never found the Christ-child. So, every year on Epiphany Eve, La Befana visits every child in Italy and leaves them gifts, because even though these children are not the messiah, Christ can be found in the heart of all children.
How sweet. Our next witches though…not so much.
The Germanic winter witches are not the quite quaint grandmotherly figures like La Befana, and are frightening enough that they could scare the hooves off of Krampus if they tried. Their names are Frau Holle and Frau Perchta. While these witches can be seen as distinct figures, and are treated as such by most listicles, they are actually regional variants of the same entity though one is less forgiving than the other. They are known by many names: Frau Percht, Perchta, Holle, Hulda, Hilda, Berchta, Bertha, Spillaholle, Gauden…the list goes on and on.
Frau Perchta is the variation of this myth originating in Austria and southern Germany. Perchta’s name derives from an adjective meaning “bright” and she is associated with, like La Befana, the Twelfth Night of Christmas and Epiphany—the fifth and sixth of January. However, Perchta doesn’t bear gifts like her Italian counterpart. Quite the opposite. Regardless, this night is the Eve of Perht—there are some linguistic gymnastics to get here but I don’t want to attempt speaking old German. Just take my word for it, or read the article “Perchta the Belly-Slitter and Her Kin: A View of Some Traditional Threatening Figures, Threats and Punishments” by John B. Smith in the publication Folklore.
Perchta’s main concern is with feasting and fasting. She also shares an association with spinning, but we’ll discuss that more with Frau Holle. Perchta makes her rounds on the 12 days of Christmas and if she finds that you have been lazy…she will take her knife, slit your stomach open, rip out all of your organs, and replace them with garbage, rags, and rocks. If you fasted or did not eat enough on Perchta’s feast night, she would execute this punishment to make sure that you were full…of something. A full belly on her feast night will ensure that her knife cannot penetrate your skin and you’ll be spared that horrific fate. She was also known to pick up broken glass from un-swept floors and cut the tongues of lying children. But it’s not all bad here. If you place some dumplings on your roof during Perchta’s night she will bestow your family with blessing of the new year. So you just have to eat and be tidy to not die? A dream. You don’t have to ask me twice! But honestly, with my mental health layer cake of seasonal affective disorder, anxiety, and regular depression…my surroundings are not as clean as I’d like. So maybe I won’t survive an encounter with Perchta.
However, Perchta will also punish you for abstaining from spinning or spinning during times when you shouldn’t. This brings us to Frau Holle who is closely associated with the activity of spinning and the mythical figure that Perchta evolved from.
Frau Holle’s name was once thought to mean “benign” or “merciful” but more recent research shows that her name may come from a misreading of Latin texts from a word that is properly translated to “demon”. Reassuring, right? Some anthropologists believe Frau Holle or Hulda was once a supreme Germanic goddess predating other members of the Germanic pantheon including Odin, Loki, and Freyja and Thor by centuries. Old church texts equate both Frau Holle and Perchta as being synonymous with the goddess Diana, or Artemis and they do have some morphological similarities.
Frau Holle, as well as Perchta…since they’re the same person…are associated with spinning flax, the Wild Hunt, and the spirits of dead infants (much like the last witch we’ll talk about). They both spend most of the year beneath a lake, in a well, or cave but emerge in mid-winter for their feast days to ride about in their carriages. They are now associated with the Twelve Days of Christmas but these dates line up with earlier pagan festivals such as Yule and solstice celebrations.
Frau Holle, like Perchta, does dole out some pretty intense punishments. Typically, women would need to conduct a set amount of work before a certain day. For example, ten reels of flax would have to be spun by the Wednesday before Christmas. If this task was not finished there were a range of punishments to bed had including waking up to find that Frau Holle has smeared her excrement all over your flax or, like Perchta, she may slice open your stomach and fill you with dirt. Oh, but don’t worry, not only will she punish you for not finishing your work in time—she’ll also punish you for working on the wrong days!
But don’t fret. Frau Holle and Perchta also give out rewards to those who are good. Frau Holle promises a “good year for every thread” spun between Christmas and Epiphany but if it has not been worked off by the time she comes back around on her night, she grants the opposite: a bad year for every thread. For women that keep a tidy home and complete their chores she will give gifts of silver coins and those who have fixed her carriage receive gifts of pure gold. Frau Holle has also threatened to boil people alive and has made them blind but…we’ll just ignore that. Just stay on her good side and you’ll make bank during the holidays.
As mentioned earlier, Holle and Perchta preside over the spirits of deceased infants. After Christian influence it was said they would take in the spirits of unbaptized and unnamed children. However, Holle and Perchta do not steal this children, but instead care for them in the afterlife. In fact, Holle was known to reward those who may give a name to an orphan spirit in her procession who did not have one in life.
While Holle and Perchta led a ghostly train of dead babies…Gryla, the winter witch of Icelandic tradition would leave dead babies in her wake.
Down comes gryla from the mountains,
With forty tails,
Bag on back,
Sword in hand;
Comes to cut out the stomachs of the children
Who are crying for meat in Lent.
That is a translation of an old poem from the Faroe Islands. Now, just listening to that I bet you can already see the similarities: Gryla is also a stomach slasher who punishes those who disobey traditional feast rules. Unlike our previous witches who may either appear as a beautiful maiden or a crone Gryla is much more fearsome in appearance.
Described as an ogre, a troll, or a giantess she is portrayed as either having three heads or three hundred heads and each of these heads either has three icey blue eyes or eyes on the back of her heads. Her ears are long either hang down to her shoulders or join with her nose. She may or not have a beard and horrible dental hygiene and long, grotesque fingernails. The descriptions don’t end there: she may also have, as in the poem, 40 tails, or 15 tails. But wait, we’re not done. She carries a large sack upon her back filled with children…or she carries 100 sacks filled with children and wields a sharp sword.
She descends from her mountain home where she lives with her husband, giant man-eating-cat, and her 13 sons known as the Yule Lads. Gryla wanders the Icelandic snowscape searching for naughty children or, after Christianity came in, those who have eaten meat during Lent. Although, if there are no bad children to steal, she’ll snatch up even the nicest of little boys and girls, throw them in her sack, and take them up to her home where she’ll eat them raw (if she’s particularly famished from her hunt) or boil them into a stew where she’ll use a large shovel as a spoon.
Keeping up with the running theme of all of our witches: while Gryla won’t slit open your stomach for not spinning your wool…her cat will. Gryla has an enormous cat named Yo-la-kurten which translates to “Yule Cat”. This cat stalks the frozen winter nights and will mutilate and devour anyone who has tattered clothing and didn’t receive new clothes for Christmas. While this seems highly classist it was originally aimed at those who didn’t make new clothes in time for Christmas. In Iceland their main source of income and industry was wool and the whole family partook in the process. The Yule Cat was a tool that encouraged young children to do their share of work so that they would have new clothes in time for the coldest part of winter.
However, my favorite part of the Gryla lore is not Gryal and it’s not her cat: it’s her sons. The Yule Lads have become known in more recent times to be jolly gift-giving elves that place candy in good kid’s shoes in potatoes in the shoes of those who have been naughty. However, traditionally, they are sly little pranksters out to ruin your day.
There are 13 Yule lads in total, one of them comes down from the mountains each day during the 12 days leading up to Christmas (beginning on December 12th) and begin to depart on Christmas day in the order that they arrived. Therefore, each Yule Lad stays for a total of 13 days. Each Yule Lad has a literal name that describes their very specific prank. I’m not going to attempt to pronounce their Icelandic names because I’d be mortified to even try. These are the 13 Yule Lads in the order they arrive and the pranks they pull:
|Sheep-Cote Clod||Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.|
|Gully Gawk||Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.|
|Stubby||Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.|
|Spoon-Licker||Steals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.|
|Pot-Scraper||Steals leftovers from pots.|
|Bowl-Licker||Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.|
|Door-Slammer||Likes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.|
|Skyr-Gobbler||Has a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).|
|Sausage-Swiper||Hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.|
|Window-Peeper||A snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.|
|Doorway-Sniffer||Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).|
|Meat-Hook||Uses a hook to steal meat.|
|Candle-Stealer||Follows children in order to steal and eat their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).|
I want to leave us all on that jolly note of Yule Lads. There is so much to discuss around the topic of Winter Witches their significance with greater deities, cultural dissemination, and the purveyance and evolution of pagan religions despite the oppressive hand of Christianity but that’s honestly a whole thesis. I didn’t even cover half of the things I wanted to about these lovely ladies of winter. And…there’s even more winter witches than this to cover but these are the most popular and widely known.
If you want to learn more about how these winter witches relate to Artemis or Diana I’ll be happy to give you some resources. But here’s the basic rundown: they’re virgin huntresses of the forest, associated with the night, are accompanied by beasts (Artemis the stag and the witches usually with wolves), are teachers and protectors of youth, they are considered ‘wild’, are associated with the spindle, and are followed by masked devotees and processions.
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season for whatever you celebrate or don’t. I think we all can agree to celebrate one thing, well, two. One—that the days are finally going to be longer, our days brighter, and hopefully our outlook on life will be as well, and two—that you don’t have to worry about being disemboweled by a winter spirit for not spinning your share of thread. But…I know that a few listeners to the podcast are from the regions where these ladies prowl…so…maybe be careful just in case?
So please: stay warm, keep your organs from being torn out by witches, stay curious, and of course, stay spooky my friends!
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Smith, J. B. (2004). Perchta the Belly-Slitter and Her Kin: A View of Some Traditional Threatening Figures, Threats and Punishments. Folklore, 115(2), 167–186.
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The Icelandic Legend of Jólakötturinn, A Giant “Yule Cat” Who Stalks Those Without New Clothes at Christmas. (2019, December 23). Laughing Squid. https://laughingsquid.com/jolakotturinn-yule-cat-icelandic-legend/
Why Does Santa Claus Come Down the Chimney? (2018, December 22). https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/90217/why-does-santa-claus-come-down-chimney
Wild Hunt. (2020). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wild_Hunt&oldid=991985936