Berchta: Ancient Alpine Goddess of Women, Children, and the Otherworld
Berchta's Ancient, Mysterious Origins
Berchta is a name that has gone through many changes over the centuries. A once widespread and greatly loved Germanic goddess, she still survives in German, Swiss, and Austrian folklore but under a different, more hideous guise. Berchta isn't her only name. She is also known by Berhta, Bertha, Beraht, Perchta, Percht, Frau Percht, Frau Faste, Pehta, Perhta-Baba, and more.
Berchta's origins are mostly said to be ancient Germanic; however, there are those who believe her worship dates back further to ancient alpine Celtic tribes present before the Germanic tribes' time. Jacob Grimm writes of Berchta, and from his works we find most of our information on this somewhat-obscure goddess. In his book Teutonic Mythology, Grimm writes of Berchta's cult having been centered mostly in Southern Germany near the Black Forest, through the Alps of Switzerland, into Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and potentially into France and Northern Italy, before the rise of the Church.
She is likely much older as Grimm theorizes, mainly because her attributes are seen in various goddesses throughout the continent. One specific Germanic goddess seems to be almost the same deity - Hulda (also known as Holda or Frau Holle). This goddess is the Northern German aspect of Berchta in many ways (which we will explore later in this article). She is also associated with the ancient fertility goddess Nerthus, the Wild Hunt god Berchtold, as well as with Wodan (also known as Odin). Some say she might have been the same deity as Diana, Hecate, Abundia, or even the Italian Christmas witch La Befana.
Berchta: Goddess, Psychopomp, Shapeshifter
Berchta was once a well-known and revered goddess who protected babies, children, and women. Through Grimm's writings, we see glimpses into a past Germany in which Berchta was thought of as a psychopomp, a guide to the afterlife, particularly caring for babies and children's souls. Gently, and like a mother, she leads them from this life to the next. This is evident in one tale of Berchta, in which a grieving mother spots her recently-deceased little boy following a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a motherly woman in a white gown. The boy breaks off from the group to address his sorrowful mother. In his hands he shows her a bucket of water...which he tells her is her tears. Then he tells her not to weep for him, for he is safe and sound under the White Lady's watch (Berchta).
Because of her association with the cycle of life-death-rebirth, Berchta is spoken of in mythology as wearing a belt with three golden keys hanging from it. The 3 keys could very well represent the 3 cycles: birth/death/rebirth of which Berchta presides over. She was said by some accounts to have long, black hair that she wore in braids on the sides of her head, and often she is wearing a long, white gown. This is why she has been referred to as the White Woman or Lady in White, etc. In later tales, she is said to appear as a hag or crone, an elderly woman in disheveled dress. This could indicate Berchta as a triple goddess - maiden, mother, and crone, or it could simply demonstrate the demonization of her name following the ultimate rise of the Church.
Another major aspect of Berchta is her seemingly ubiquitous shapeshifting abilities. Berchta has been depicted and described in old tales as having the feet of a goose or one goose-foot. She also takes the form of a swan. This indicates another of her attributes was to protect the wildlife, but it could also point us in the direction of Berchta as a shapeshifter. This isn't a far-fetched idea, since many of the ancient gods and goddesses were deeply connected with the animal-world and many were thought to be shapeshifters or be a deified version of a land spirit. In this regard, Berchta was once thought to be the "guardian of beasts".
From my research in Germanic folklore and mythology, I've come to identify Berchta's name as being derived from the word birch, as in the birch tree. This signifies Berchta's deep connection with the birch tree, which was a well-known representation of the goddess in Scandinavian regions. The rune Berkano is named for the birch tree, and as we can see is directly related to the goddess' name Berchta, therefore this rune is sacred to Bercha.
Because of Berchta's association with the wilds of the Alpine region, she is often depicted with evergreen trees, particularly with the holly tree. Other plants in her domain include mayflower (which she holds in her hand in some spring lore), flax (which she spins along with people's fate), wild berries and, as mentioned previously, birch trees. Animals associated with Berchta include the goose, swan, mountain goat, cricket, owl, and fox. Though we could venture to say any animal in the Alpine region is under her domain and protection (ibex, weasel, marmot, stork, etc). Berchta's home is the mountains.
Berchta in Folklore: The Wild Hunt, Frau Holle, Mother Goose
After the Church's rise to power, in the Middle Ages Berchta became less and less god-like. She was no longer worshiped as she had been before. Because of her widespread cult, the Church had no other option but to demonize her. Basically demoting her from Goddess to witch. Her name became a fairy tale...a piece of folklore...in some cases a name to be feared.
One particularly well-known legend in Europe is the legend of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a procession of spirits, witches, and demons that ride through the skies on certain nights of the year, collecting the souls of the dead. Some tales say these are the souls of the recently deceased, others say they were fairies or devils. Berchta became one of the Wild Hunt spirits...in most tales she became a leader of the Wild Hunt alongside Wotan (Odin) or Berchtold. The Wild Hunt was theorized by Grimm to have been a folkloric derivation of a much older pagan belief in a parade of gods. The thought was that the ancient pagan gods would ride on their horses in the clouds at night or on specific sacred days, either waging war with one another or, to the benefit of the people on earth, bringing abundance and gifts. On a side note, Odin is thought to be an early inspiration for Santa Claus as he was said to ride through the air on his steed - Sleipnir. And if we compare Berchta to the Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana, we see that both rode through the air during the Christmas season bringing abundance. In contrast, La Befana is known in Italian folklore to bring gifts to children on Christmas, while this potential attribute of Berchta has been lost in time. Also, if we think about Berchta as a psychopomp (guide to the dead), it makes sense why she was a part or sometimes lead the Wild Hunt which was also, by some, believed to sweep up the souls of the dead as they rode by. What was once potentially a revered and awe-inspiring spiritual event of the "cavalry of gods" became one to be feared - people would not go out on the nights when the Wild Hunt was said to ride by for fear they would be swept up and taken to the otherworld.
Berchta is said to be another version or the same goddess as Holda, another ancient Germanic deity. When Holda is mentioned in folklore in Germany, her name is often substituted with Berchta, and vice versa. When the writer inquired from a modern day German about Berchta, it was mentioned that she is still a part of their traditions. Berchta or "Frau Berchta" or "Frau Holle" is said to shake out her feather bed, creating the first snow fall each year in Germany (sketch of Frau Holle shaking out her pillow can be seen below). In Grimm's Fairy Tales (personally one of my favorites), there is a tale of Mother Holle. In this story, Mother Holle is a "fairy godmother" type being who either punishes or bestows gifts on young women depending on whether they work hard and are honest or are lazy and deceitful. This fairy tale relates directly to older Middle Age tales of Berchta leaving every-day items as a reward, such as wood-chips, which turn to gold for good, deserving people.
Berchta's name is seen in two obvious instances in modern Germany: Berchtentag, which is the Night of the Epiphany, and Berchtesgaden, which is a national park and literally translates to Berchta's Garden. Berchtentag, also known as the Night of the Epiphany, is commemorated on January 5th or 6th, depending on the region/customs, and is the twelfth night of Christmas in some Christian traditions. It was said in later years (following the Middle Ages), that Berchta would visit families on this night and it was encouraged to leave out fish and gruel, cakes and milk, etc. as offerings else Berchta would punish them in gruesome ways (more on this in the next section). How closely does the tradition of modern-day Santa Claus, in which we leave cookies and milk, resemble the ancient traditions of leaving offerings for the pagan gods and spirits such as Berchta and the like?
Berchtesgaden is a town in the shadow of the German Bavarian Alps. Scholars debate on the etymology of the town's name; however, the writer believes the terms origins are pretty clear...Berchta's Garden. It is a beautiful landscape with green forests, tall snow-capped mountains, and is known for its local salt mines which have brought the town fortune since the fifteen hundreds. Grimm mentions in Teutonic Mythology of salt mines being associated with witches. Berchta was also associated with witches. The writer keeps discovering more and more parallels between Berchta, European history, the landscape, folklore, and how the Church tried to stomp out the belief in this ancient pagan goddess.
Have you ever wondered where the story of Mother Goose came from? Some believe Mother Goose is a more modern version of Mother Berchta. Berchta was depicted as being flanked by a goose, or geese, and her counterpart Holda is known to wear a goose-down cape. When she shakes out her down blankets, they are goose-down. Berchta is also depicted as having goose feet or one large goose-foot. Because of Berchta's attribute of being a protector of children, a guide of babies' souls in the afterlife, the good memory and custom was passed down through time (somewhat undercover) in the form of an old woman who kept children's stories alive...in the form of Mother Goose. If we were to examine the modern depictions of Bercha, Frau Holle, etc. we can see an uncanny resemblance to the illustrations of Mother Goose (see photos below).
A Demonized Berchta and the Perchten
Unfortunately, Berchta as the White Lady, gift-giver, guide and protector of babes, domestic goddess of spinning and women, and all of her other wonderful qualities were nearly stomped out when the Church rose to power in Germany and nearby regions. When the Church came against pagan customs and traditions that couldn't be absorbed or washed away easily, the only way to get the country "pagans" to convert and forget their ways was to use fear. So Berchta, the wise white lady, was demonized and turned into a crooked-nosed, belly-slitting witch. There were tales of Berchta the witch who would capture children and eat them, similar to the horrific folk tales of Krampus. There were tales of Berchta, the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. If she was displeased with her offerings or if offerings weren't left to her during the Night of the Epiphany, she would slit the person's belly open and stuff him or her with straw. You see, Berchta's ancient association with the Winter Solstice could not be snuffed out, so the Church had to use whatever means necessary to frighten the new converts into believing she wasn't anything more than a demon. An iron-nosed, hideous hag who would eat babies and mutilate people. This isn't a theory. It's a fact. The cult of Berchta was outlawed in Bavaria (where Berchtesgaden is located) in the year of 1468, according to the Thesaurus Pauperum. Leaving Berchta offerings during Christmas-time was also spoken out against and documented by various church officials in the same century.
In addition to Berchta becoming a frightening Christmas belly-slitting witch, her consorts became demons of terrifying appearance - the Perchten. A tradition of dressing in hideous masks and taking part in parades around the Christmas holidays still happens in modern times in places in Germany (not surprisingly in Berchtesgaden), Switzerland, Austria, etc. They are often seen along with Krampus during the Perchten parades, and the people say they are an old folk tradition to scare away the winter ghosts.
These terrifying names of Berchta - the iron-nosed and the belly-slitter - while a part of her fall from glory or her demonization, still show an ancient shamanic pagan aspect that can't be fully erased no matter how hard they try. What struck me as intriguing - Berchta's act of slitting bellies and filling them with straw. The initiation of a shaman in many cultures speaks of the shaman going through a near-death experience, often with visions of losing limbs or being disemboweled, and then being "put back together" again. What the Church called "bad" people were people who pushed back, people who rebelled or stuck with their original customs, and therefore Berchta would "slit their bellies". Sounds scary but to ancient pagans accustomed to shamanic traditions was actually a wink to shamanic initiation. As far as her iron-nose, a correlation can be made with many other ancient goddesses who were demonized, including the well-known Hungarian hag, the iron-nosed Baba Yaga (it should be noted this forest-witch was also known to sit at a spinning wheel and lived in a house with a large bird (chicken) foot).
If we view Berchta as the demonized, child-eating witch, then we are still keeping her name alive. But if we were to really dive into the depths of her name, her ancestral lineage, and her beautiful history, we would see she is much different than modern church and folkloric distinctions make her seem. She didn't eat children, she protected and guided them. She only punished those who deserved punishment, but rewarded those who did good and were pure of heart. Her beauty and light can be seen in the wild and snow-capped peaks of the Alps to this day.
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© 2017 Nicole Canfield