Summer is waning here in the mountains of Idaho. It is still hot and dry during the afternoons, but the days are shortening and the coolness of the alpine nights lingers later into each morning. It is almost - but not quite - September. The nesting instinct is just waking up in my body, whispering at the edges of awareness, “soon now - Winter.” My thoughts sometimes turn to Grandmother Winter, a favorite story character of my children’s early years. She is better known in many circles by her older name, Frau Holle.
Frau Holle, or Mother Hulda, is one of my favorite folktale characters. Part apple-cheeked granny, part Mother Nature, part powerful Baba Yaga, and part wise Crone, Frau Holle is enigmatic and appealing. This lovely lady remains popular in German and Scandinavian folklore, and her familiar story can be easily found in a modern edition of the Grimm Brothers’ historic collection. According to tradition, Frau Holle is responsible for making the snow fall from the heavens, where she raises a large flock of pure white geese. Their soft feathers are used to stuff Mother Holle’s plump downy quilts. Winter arrives when Frau Holle deems it time to shake out these voluptuous quilts high in the sky, far above the world of human activity. The delicate goose feathers become snowflakes as they fall to Earth. Interestingly though, in most stories Mother Holle’s world is accessed not through the sky, but through deep wells (those common otherworldly portals of myth and folktale).
In the well-known Grimms’ tale, a young girl’s encounter with the crone occurs as a result of an accident. The girl - an unappreciated and nameless stepdaughter forced to spin and spin for hours on end - works until her fingers bleed. To wash the blood off the shuttle, she dips it into the waters of a well. The shuttle falls from her hands. Distraught at considering the punishment that will likely result from this loss, she jumps in after the shuttle, “loses her senses,” and awakes in the realm of Frau Holle.
Here, in an open meadow, she meets the imposing old woman with large teeth and spends a length of time as Mother Holle’s helper, tending apple trees, helping with the baking of bread, shaking the feather quilts. After some time has passed, the girl longs to return to her own world. Mother Holle guides her home through a magical doorway. As the worthy girl passes over the threshold, a shower of gold falls upon her, a reward for her industry and care. Her missing shuttle is also returned to her.
Seeing the bounty bestowed upon her stepsister, the second girl in tale decides to follow suit. She pricks her fingers intentionally, throws her shuttle into the water, and jumps in after it. She, too, agrees to serve Frau Holle - but this sister is lazy, disinterested, and selfish. She is not a worthy apprentice or good steward. Finally, when she is returned home through the magic portal, a big kettle of pitch is dumped upon her at the threshold and “could not be got off as long as she lived.”
There is evidence to suggest that Frau Holle (sporting many variations of this name) was a popular character prior to the Christianization of Europe. Some scholars, including the late Marija Gimbutas, believe that the folktale character of Frau Holle is the vestige of a more ancient Earth goddess once venerated by the people of Old Europe. Interestingly, a close association with geese is shared among many goddesses. Others are more skeptical about the details of Frau Holle’s past and are content to let her live on in the realm of the less “reverential” folktale. Her connection to geese has even led some scholars to link Frau Holle with the much more modern keeper of nursery rhymes, the character Mother Goose. Regardless of her misty past, Frau Holle remains a powerful folk figure closely associated with the Earth and the weather, able to bestow both boons and punishment.
Once considered merely a morality tale for children, the deceptively simple story of Frau Holle may carry much more heft than is obvious at first glance. Perhaps the tale is more relevant today than ever, as we face the consequences of our callous, selfish treatment of the Earth. Have we been “good” stewards of the Earth, living in service of our “grandmother?” What will we reap at the end of our term of service - gold (symbol of abundance) or pitch “that can never be got off?” Is it too late to shift our behavior? Is it too late to become attentive, to honor the spirit that animates our world and provides for our needs? What do you think?