The Tregenda of the Old Goddess, Witches, and Spirits .

Excerpt from The Witches’ Goddess ....... Max Dashu

At the end of the middle ages an international myth of the Old Goddess stretched from the Slavic east to the Celtic west and from Italy to Scandanavia. People said that a vibrant, powerful crone flew in the midst of a cavalcade of spirits dead and unborn, joined by witches of all lands. On the eves of pagan holydays the spirit hosts set out for high mountaintops or other sacred places.

At these animist sanctuaries the witches dance, play music and games, feast and celebrate their mysteries. The divine “Mistress of the Night” presides over the gathering, giving cures and revealing the future. Often she miraculously revives the animals the witches have been feasting on. The goddesses, their flight on the pagan festivals, even their destinations, all are closely interwoven in popular tradition with witches and faeries.

A witch riding a tiger over the wind.

She blows a horn,

skyclad except for her cape,

her breasts unbound.

Danish church mural, 1300s.


Over most of Europe, May Eve was a time when witches and the faery host were abroad. In Germany, Walpurgisnacht was marked by the mass flight of witches, who assembled on mountaintops to dance and make magic. Scandanavians also celebrated the trollathing (spirit assembly) with dance, song and witchcraft. [Lea, 406] So did the followers of Dzina in Rumania.

The Inquisition closely questioned Jeanne d'Arc about her dancing around a faery tree on le beau Mai. Lithuanian witches flew to Mount Szatria on Midsummers Eve to be received by the mighty enchantress Jauterita. [Grimm, 1053] Also on that night, the streghe of Italy set out for the pagan Tree of Benevento, where they danced and immersed themselves in the pool of the “dianas.”

On the old Celtic holiday Samhain, the crone goddess Nicnevin led the Hallowmas Rades with a wand of power in her hand. The tallest mountain in Scotland, Ben Nevis, was sacred to her. Gray-cloaked Nicnevin rode the storm with a troop of faeries and witches astride animal spirits. Galloway Scots said that ocean highcaps once carried away some of her company's low-flying mounts. In anger, Nicnevin struck out with her slachdan, transforming the local geography. Tales of her cunning in charms describe her as setting sail in a sieve, as witches were said to do all over Europe. [Davidson, 9]

A Norwegian name for the spirit hosts—aaskereida, aaskerej, aaskereia—means “lightning-thunder.” The goddess Reisarova leads a host of riders who journey at Yuletide, crossing land and sea on black steeds with eyes like embers. Their revelry can be heard from afar. During storms, the sound of a saddle tossed onto a roof by the spirit cavalcade rushing overhead was interpreted as an omen of coming death for someone in the house. Sometimes the riders swept up careless bystanders into their midst and carried them off. [Grimm, 945-6]

Norwegians also called the goddess leading this spirit procession Gurorysse. Her name comes from the gurri, a faery with a long tail and hooves, like the Scandanavian huldra, the Basque lamiña, and the Scottish glaistig. [Grimm, 945-6] The guro/gurri element is visible in the name of the Eddic witch-goddess Hyrrokin, who rode the heavens on a wolf bridled with snakes. [See Ankarloo, in Sabbat des Sorciers, 252] The Aesir called to this goddess of winter storms when they were unable to launch Balder’s funeral boat. Riding her wolf, she grabbed the prow and rapidly pushed the barge into the water. [Ann/Imer, 410]

Scandanavian settlers brought Gyrorysse into Britain, where she became the Scottish Gyre Carline. The poet Montgomerie equated her to “Nicniven with hir nymphis.” [Briggs, 310] The Gyre Carline watched over women's distaffs at year's end. Women of Fife made sure to spin off the last of the flax on their distaffs before New Years to keep the Gyre Carline from making off with it overnight. [Grimm, 945-6] This taboo ensured magical completion before a new year's cycle began. In Slovenia and Croatia the Mittwinterfrau oversaw the same ceremony of spinning-off, as did Luca in Hungary and Perchta in Austria. [Pocs, 26]

The Old Goddess went by a variety of regional names in German-speaking countries, always retaining the character of a long-nosed spinner venerated on the Ember Nights. In northern Germany she was Hölle or fraw Holt, in the southern reaches she was Perhta or Percht or Berthe. Bertha is mentioned interchangeably with “Fraue Holt” in the Landskranna Himelstrasz (1484). Folklore cast both goddesses as queen of the elves and holden. [Grimm, 1367]

Writers from 1300 to 1500 report that people still left out food and drink offerings to the Old Goddess. It was customary on the winter holiday to bake a braided loaf, the Hollenzopf, “Hölle's braid,” as an offering to the Mother of the Dead. [Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess, 320] This bread was probably preserved for use in blessing and curative rituals during the coming year, as was the French custom with faery loaves. The same observances were recorded of Perchta in southern Germany. In the mid-1300s Martin of Amberg wrote that people left meat and drink standing for Percht with the iron nose. Medieval documents refer to the Winter Holiday as perchtentag or perhtennaht (“bright- day,” or “-night”). A manuscript of 1302 uses the expression “till the eighth day after the Perht's day.” [Grimm, 279-81]

The divine spinning crones Hölle and Bertha or Perchta travel “in the Twelves,” during the last days of the year. [Rey-Flaud, 187] The south German “wild women” also come into power during these Twölven. [Grimm, 929] Legend often presents the goddesses as old witches with shaggy hair. They appear suddenly, accompanied by infants, elves, dwarves, night-hags and enchantresses. [Grimm, 282] In Hesse and Thuringia, Holle led the Wild Hunt, riding a black horse with her wild hair streaming in the wind, as she blew a horn and cracked a whip.

The Old Goddess gave spindles to industrious spinners and filled their spindles with thread overnight, but tangled and dirtied those of lazy, careless spinners, especially the ones who failed to finish off their flax before the Ember season. At that time Austrian women used to spin some flax especially for the shaggy “wood-woman” and throw it on the fire as an offering to her. Women in Vicentina spun off the flax on their distaffs and threw it into the fire for the holzweibel. [Grimm, 432]

In Switzerland the Sträggele was abroad on the Embernight, checking to see if girls had finished their spinning, and punishing them if they had not. [Grimm, 934] Her title—which means “witchie”—adds a German diminutive to the Italian strega, recalling the 10th-century witch-goddess, striga Holda, of the Corrector Burchardi.

Old witch with a distaff,

surrounded by baby souls

(both attributes of Holle)

and riding on a goat or ram.

16th century etching,

Albrecht Dürer.


Tricks are played on spinners who fail to finish their work before the winter holiday. If an English girl was found spinning on the English Saint Distaff's day, they burn her flax and distaff. [Sebillot, Metiers, 20] In Bavaria Berchta ruins the flax and burns the hand of lazy spinners and ruins the flax they didn't finish off, or even cuts open their belly and fills it with chopped straw and battings. [Rey-Flaud, 187] Or the wild Berta wipes her butt with the unspun flax, to show her displeasure at finding it still on the distaff on her festival. [Grimm, 1370]

Basques said that witches would do the same if spinners didn't finish the flax before retiring on Saturday night. Or they said, “Finish the rest of the distaff so the witches won't dance with it.” [De Azkue, 385] In the Enhaut region of Swisse romande, spinners finished their distaffs by christmas eve and concealed them behind the chimney. Otherwise at New Years Tsaôthe Vidhe would come to hopelessly tangle up the tow. This old witch goes around the final days of the year on a blind horse. Alpine villagers kept the custom of hiding the distaffs during the Winter Nights into the early 1800s. [Sebillot, Metiers, 19]

In many countries the wild hosts of women accompanied a goddess described as a crone with a nose of iron, or a long nose, or iron teeth. Tyroleans said that women rode animals to the Var gathering in the company of Percht with the iron nose, and alluded to the journeying night women's cauldron. Serbians said that the old woman Iron Tooth carried around live coals in a pitcher and burned the distaffs of lazy spinners. [See Ralston]

The witch goddess Luca or Lucia was known to the Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, Slovenians and east Austrians. For all these peoples, Luca fits the eastern European image of the witch with an iron nose. She sometimes took the form of a pig. Though her origins were completely pagan, Luca was integrated into the christian calendar as an apocryphal saint. Her feast day was set on the winter solstice sacred to the Ember Nights spinners, and as the matron of spinning, she made sure that no households spun or baked on her holiday. A woman holding a white-veiled sieve like a mask over her face impersonated Luca during the celebration, giving gifts to children. [Domotor; Pocs; Rüttner-Cova, 118, on gifts]

The Russian witch grannies called Baba Yaga also had iron teeth or noses. They flew in their mortars and drove with the pestles, or rode on the backs of wild pigs. Byelorussians said that Baba Yaga travelled around with the witch sisterhood on Kupalo, Midsummers' Eve. They gathered herbs and made magical fires, in accord with international pagan custom. [Hubbs, 77, 252] The Baba Yaga was much-demonized, but continued to play an initiatory role in the Russian skazki. (And, I have heard that her masks figured in womanhood rituals for Ukrainian girls as late as the 19th century.)

Baba Yaga setting off

in her mortar at dusk

on the new moon.

Watercolor by

Ivan Bilibin.


In lower Austria, Iron Perchta and the Gvozdenzuba pass over the earth, then descend into it during the Winter Nights. The Slovenes said that Perchta Baba was accompanied by eagles and snakes, symbols of the upper and lower worlds. Carinthians said that the Perchtas and their wild troop circled the world three times on the Twelfth Night. Their horse-headed figures could be glimpsed looking through people's windows—portending a coming death, like the banshee—and sometimes broke in. Tyroleans said that whoever got in Wild Berchta's way on this night would sink into trance and upon awakening, be able to predict how the next harvest would be. [Pocs, 72, 81]

Villagers, especially young adults, impersonated Perchta's host in processions and ecstatic dances. [Pocs, 81] “Iron Berta” parades in a cow's hide with a bell at Holzberndorf in upper Franconia, giving nuts and apples to good children, but thrashing the ones who have been bad. [Grimm, 1370] The Perchten make the rounds at night, appearing in horned wooden masks with snouts or beaks, cloaked in black sheepskins, with hoods of badger or bear fur. They blow cowhorns, clash cymbals, shake poles festooned with bells. The Perchten run through the streets with glowing embers in their mouths, as if breathing fire. They rush into houses to “clean” them, and chase the shrieking children, threatening to put them in sacks. The mummers claim the offerings which have been set out for Perchta. [Rey-Flaud, 100, 182-7.

Occasionally Nicholas appears in company with Perchta, Holle, or Frau Chunkle. In many places he displaced the Old Goddess as the primary figure. Like her, Nicholas carries a sack and is accompanied by masked, animal-skinned processions that surge into houses. His gifts and rewarding or punishing of children are themes originating with Befana or Perchta.

Austrian and Swiss villages staged ritual battles called Perchtenlaufen for the fertility of their fields. “The 'troops' have to visit each house, to bring good luck and a rich crop... The Perchtenlaufen may also contain ecstatic dances, imitating enchantment.” Masked as the beautiful Perchtas and the ugly Perchtas, the mummers enacted the triumph of lifeforce over the power of the underworld. [Pocs, 81] The ugly or terrifying Perchtas represent death, a part of the natural order, its time and place chosen by the fateful goddess. Simultaneously they represent the power to regenerate life. So in Germany, Frau Chunkle throws a mixture of meal and ashes from her pot at people's heads. In Lötschental, Switzerland, the terrible Perchten sprinkle spectators with liquid manure. The Bavarian and Austrian Perchten give a “Blow with the life-wand.” [Schlag mit dem Lebensrute, Rey-Flaud, 187, 213]

In the southern German-speaking lands, the folk goddess Saelde possessed a wheel and an abundance-bearing horn, the Saeldenhorn. People said she came to babies' cradles to endow them with gifts. [Grimm, 1036, 1569, 1400] Many medieval German expressions openly refer to her as a Fate with divine power: Travel in Saelde's keeping. Saelde is the staff you shall lean on. Saelde smiled on her. Or, Vrou Saelde turns her neck, and this looking away signalled misfortune. Saelde was sometimes said to be blind; superficial appearances were of no importance to her. Her vigilance was proverbial. She was believed to advise people and bid them to do things. [Grimm, 1565-69] It was customary to await her coming in a night vigil called “waking the Saelde.”

Many variants of Frau Saelde's name are known—Selten, Zälti, fraw Selga—from Switzerland to Austria. Witch trial transcripts have her leading witches and spirits who roamed the skies on the Ember Nights, a time pregnant with possibilities and omens of the coming year. Tyroleans said that frau Selga could be seen riding at the head of the nightly host. [Ibid, 1567-1619]
The medieval witch goddesses travel during the twelve nights between Winter Solstice and the Roman New Year or, in churchly terms, between Christmas and Epiphany. This festival took its name from the ancient Greek mysteries: epiphania meant “divine appearance,” as when Kore appeared in the barley. The pagan name was assimilated into Christianity, where other pagan traditions promptly fastened themselves to it, persisting in spite of centuries of ecclesiastical attempts to re-form them.

To the European peasantry Epiphania signified the advent of their ancient goddess, and they smuggled their animistic customs into the Christian context under her name. In Italy and Sicily, the name Epiphania was transferred directly to the Old Goddess who travels in the Ember Nights. She appears in Renaissance witch trials as goddess of the witches and, in spite of the Inquisition, observances in her honor were kept alive into modern times. People appeal to Befania or Befana for good fortune on the winter holyday. The magical night of Epiphania is charged with power: people can foresee the future, and animals speak, even prophesy; the dead return to earth, and all kinds of marvels take place. One of Befana's titles was Marantega (from mater antiga, “old mother”). [Centini, 11920]

Sicilians especially kept alive the memory of Befana, la Strega, la Vecchia—“the witch, the old woman”—an ugly, good old woman who leaves presents in children's stockings on Twelfth Night. She descends from the mountains at night, unseen, and enters houses through the chimneys. Sometimes she rides a broom. She brings gifts, or coal for the children who have been bad, and stuffs them into stockings hung above the hearth. [Centini, 119-20]

Singers serenaded houses where cloth images of Befana were placed in the windows, or carried her image from house to house while caroling. Families welcomed the visiting witch goddess with tambourines, horns and drums. Children sang “la Befanata,” asking her favors. In some places oranges and sweets were put into the Befana, and they broke it open like a piñata. [Bonomo; C.S. McKenzie, Matrix, Dec. 1987, p 7]


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