Every so often you come across something in folklore that makes you raise an eyebrow and wonder. The figures of Frau Pechte/Perchta and Frau or Mutter Holle are two of those. One leads the Wild Hunt, and the other features in several of Grimm’s fairy tales.
Most of us familiar with the Wild Hunt know it from Scandinavia and England, where Odin/Wotan and his hounds, or Herne the Hunter lead the chase sometime between October 31 and January 7. There are a number of other variations, and one from the Alps and north-eastern France (Rhone Valley) has the hunt led by a woman called Frau Perchte. She sometimes rides in a wagon, other times is on foot or on horseback, and leads the dead, or the soon-to-be dead between Christmas and Twelfth Night. Accounts of sighting her go back into the 1400s-1600s, sometimes in letters or sermons by churchmen, other times in chronicles or town records.
To the north, the woman leading the dead or the hunters is called Frau Hulde or Holde. Interestingly, this blends etymologically into Frau or Mutter Holle. One of the differences is that Frau Holde leads the Hunt or the dead, while Frau Holle is always associated with a fixed location, either in a lake, or in a magical realm reached by falling into a well. The water association suggests a legend with roots very deep into the past, especially when you consider that “Holle” in German also means a cavern, or Hell. (Norse goddess Hel as a cognate? Don’t know, haven’t read that deeply.)
There are a few locations in Germany associated with Frau Holle, including Hessische Lichtenau-Hollstein. The Hollstein is an unusual rock formation associated with Frau Holle. She makes snow fall when she shakes out her feather-beds, and she has a castle and church at the bottom of her lake (which you can visit). Frau Holle’s pond (small lake) is not far, and there are trails and a museum about her mythology. In Grimm’s stories, she punishes the lazy and greedy and rewards the virtuous and hard-working. Modern revisions to the original story have the good sister helping the bad sister to reform, and the bad sister no longer dies or is cursed for life. The sense of Mutter Holle as dispenser of justice remains, although attenuated.
How far back in time to the legends reach? No one knows, although I would have difficulty keeping a straight face around anyone who starts talking about “women’s secret knowledge” and “ancient Wiccan tradition linked to Old Europe” and that sort of thing. Whatever the kernel of legend was, I suspect it goes back to the Celts and the Germanic tribes of the late Bronze Age through the Volkerwanderung of the AD 300s-500s CE. Then got transmuted over time and Christian influence until the Grimm brothers and other collectors wrote it down and started analyzing it.
As I’ve written before, I find it intriguing that the legend of the Wild Hunt crossed the Atlantic and became “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” It is something you do not want to meet, and if you meet it, you should hide, cover your eyes, and pretend to be a rock or become one with a tree. Frau Holle/Hulda/Perchta has no patience for the lazy, foolish, or disrespectful, and her secrets are her own.
For more info: The last link has primary source links as well.
http://www.hessisch-lichtenau.de/kultur-tourismus/holleum.html Note that the museum’s site is in German.