Frau Perchta: The Midwinter Goddess
“The Spinning Room Lady”
Frau Perchta may be one of the oldest supernatural entities associated with the Winter holidays, possibly influencing later stories of Krampus, St. Nicholas, and the traditions associated with them. This has been debated among scholars of folklore however, as some sources claim that she has been mentioned in regions of Germany as early as the 10th century, while others insist that her name and motif are too closely related to the feast of Epiphany, and therefore not pre-Christian in origin. Regardless of how old she is, her influence on holiday traditions has been significant and she is worthy of note in any scholarship of early Christmas or Winter Solstice lore.
Reaching far back into early superstition and traditions in the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany shows that Perchta had humble beginnings as the patron goddess of spinning and domestic work. Similar to other European goddesses such as the Germanic Holda and the Nordic Frigg, her primary concern was that of making sure that all households in her domain had spun enough flax and wool throughout the year. It is said that she would watch carefully over the children and house servants throughout the months and keep track of who had been lazy and failed to spin their allotted share of thread and of those who had proven their worth and earned their keep by completing all of their tasks. This role of hers evolved over time to include judgment upon all who had domestic chores and duties whether it be the spinning of wool and flax or caring for the animals and home.
Rewards, Punishments, and Traditions
Traditions state that on the Perchta nights, which are aligned with the last three days before Christmas, she would wander the forest and find the homes of the people that she watched over the previous year. If the children and servants had been hard workers, and had fulfilled their duties, she would leave a silver coin for them near the front of the house. This was usually left in a shoe or a pail. This was her yearly reward for those that she deemed worthy, and it promoted good behavior and hard work among the people of the region where she was honored. Much like other beings associated with Winter however, she embodies both reward and punishment. In the case of Perchta, this duality is extreme. Those servants and children whom she judged as lazy or ill-behaved would not find a coin for them in the morning but would awaken in the night to her standing before them. She would pull the dagger from her skirt and slit open their stomachs, pull out their entrails, and stuff them full with straw, the unused material that they should have spun, and small stones. This practice earned her the intimidating name of “Perchta: The Belly Slitter.”
In her earliest forms, Perchta was not only the enforcer of domestic chores, but the protector of society from cultural taboos. Not spinning as much as you should to keep the community running was one of these taboos, but there were many others. One taboo which she is said to have taken very seriously is failing to honor the traditional feasts — particularly hers. It was expected that the feast associated with her would be eaten at night and would consist of fish and gruel, so if other foods were eaten or if someone were to eat before the feast, she would slit their bellies and stuff them with straw like she would do to those who had failed to keep their house in order. The general idea was that Midwinter was not an acceptable time to fail your family or your community, and if you did, Perchta would come to you and gut you as punishment.
Tales surrounding Perchta state that she was accompanied by a host of helpers called perchten, which is just the plural form of “perchta.” Her entourage consisted of two distinct types of perchten, which were the beautiful ones (called “Schonperchten”) and the ugly ones (called “Schiachperchten”). During the 16th century, newer beliefs formed around her and her helpers and it was suggested that during the 12 nights of Christmas, the beautiful perchten would wander around and give wealth, abundance, and good luck to some while the ugly perchten would stamp their hooves, bare their fangs, and brandish horsetail whips to drive out demons and bad spirits. Around this time, it became common for men to don hideous masks with fangs and tusks to look like the ugly perchten, and visit homes to clear away any evil spirits which may be lingering.
Perchta has also been strongly associated with the Wild Hunt, which involves all manner of supernatural beings stampeding wildly across the world. It is said that Perchta and her companions take a leading role in the Wild Hunt, and she flies above the hoards screaming. Superstitions say that if you hear heavy winds roaring through the sky, it is her and that bad luck may befall those who hear it.
Range of Influence
The belief that she may be a precursor to Krampus and St. Nicholas comes from several aspects of her appearance and behaviors. The first is that she is said to show herself in one of two forms, presenting the same dual nature that is seen with St. Nicholas and his companion Krampus. She either appears as a beautiful young woman dressed in white as she wanders calmly through the forest or when she leaves gifts for those she has judged well, or she appears as a haggard and scarred old woman in tattered clothes when someone has earned her ill will. Another similarity is her responsibility of judgment, and the subsequent gift of a coin or severe physical punishment. The ugly perchten in her ward also had an appearance which is uncannily similar to the depictions of Krampus.
There were groups of people dedicated to honoring Perchta, and there may still be today. When she was a common household name, there was a religious group called The Cult of Perchta. This group would regularly leave food and drink for her to consume in the night during the 12 days of Christmas, hoping to earn her good graces and receive abundance as their reward. In the 1400’s this cult was condemned in Bavaria, and her worship was outlawed.
Although she is now relatively unknown and indeed overlooked in most folklore themed art and literature, she was once a very well recognized goddess. She was mentioned in many fairy tales, works of literature, and songs. Perchta was even very likely mentioned in the Icelandic Saga called Laxdoela Saga. In this tale, a protagonist called ‘Al the Black has a dream in which a woman drags him from his bed, slits open his belly, and pulls out his guts. She then stuffs him full of brushwood. It is possible that stories of Perchta had reached Iceland by this time, and tellers of the sagas saw fit to mention her in their stories.
Among the earliest beings to personify the concept of punishment or reward in midwinter, Perchta holds a special place in the study of holiday traditions. Although the precise time in which she first appeared in traditions and stories is not known, she has clearly influenced the evolution of our stories surrounding the Winter Solstice and its related celebrations.