Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Diamonds and Toads Week: Frau Holle

It's difficult to pick a most popular variant of ATU-480: The Kind and the Unkind Girls. I've picked Diamonds and Toads/The Fairies by Charles Perrault as the top level on SurLaLune to receive annotations. It predates the Grimms' Frau Holle in print and I also think it is simply an easier way to identify the tale since it describes the punchline in a way.

Today, however, I wanted to focus on Frau Holle, also known as Mother Holle, Mother Holly, Mother Hulda and a few other names.

The tale is better known in Germany than here especially thanks to the appearance of Frau Holle more than the popularity of the tale type itself.

From Wikipedia's entry on Mother Hulda:

The exact origin of Mother Hulda is difficult to trace but it is thought that the character originated in Norse mythology, where she is associated with a number of different deities including Frigg and Hel; also in German, there is an etymologic connection between the name Holle, the name Hel, and the word for hell (Hölle).

Hel is the queen of Hel, the Norse underworld, and described in Norse mythology as a half-dead, half alive monster, but in German mythology she was viewed with some beneficence, as a more gentle form of death and transformation. In this context, Mother Hulda is connected with Hertha, the goddess of peace and fertility, otherwise known as Hlodyn in the Edda. Hlodyn herself was more commonly referred to as Jord, the personification of the primitive, unpopulated, and uncultivated Earth. She is one of the wives of the chief god Odin and the mother of the god Thor. Since the term mother goddess is used interchangeably in various texts across Europe it is possible that some confusion exists over the exact status of Jord and Frigg in this context.

In early Germanic mythology however, Hulda was known as the goddess of marriage. She was a beneficent deity, the patroness and guardian of all maidens.

Marija Gimbutas names Hulda (or Holda, Holla, Holle) as having originally been an ancient Germanic supreme goddess who predates most of the German pantheon, including deities such as Odin, Thor, Freya and Loki, continuing traditions of pre-Indo-European Neolithic Europe.

When Christianity slowly replaced Scandinavian paganism during the early Middle Ages, much of the old customs were gradually lost or assimilated into Catholic tradition. By the end of the High Middle Ages, Scandinavian paganism was almost completely marginalized and blended into rural folklore, in which the character of Mother Hulda eventually survived.

In Germanic Pre-Christian folklore, Hulda, Holda, Holle and Holla were all names to denote a single Goddess. One who rules the weather; sunshine, snow and rain. Hulda is also related to the Germanic figure of Perchta. She dwells at the bottom of a well, rides a wagon, and first taught the craft of making linen from flax. Hulda is the goddess to whom children who died as infants go, and alternatively known as both the Dark Grandmother and the White Lady, elements which are more typically associated with the Grimm's fairy tale as well. Her connection to the spirit world through the magic of spinning and weaving has associated her with witchcraft in Catholic German folklore.

The legend itself, as it was eventually passed to the Grimm Brothers, originates from oral traditions in Central Germany in what is now known as Hesse. It was told to them by Henriette Dorothea Wild (whom Wilhelm Grimm married in 1825) with more details added in the second edition (1819). It is still common expression in Hesse to say "Hulda is making her bed" when it is snowing, that is, she shakes her bed and out comes snow from heaven!

Mother Hulda is one of Germany's most durable female legendary figures and one who without doubt represents a pre-Christian heathen deity who survived in popular belief and in the memory of common people well into the nineteenth century.

The Grimms' tale also has a different reward and punishment for the sisters. The kind sister returns home covered in gold and the unkind returns covered in pitch. The rewards are more just and useful without being torturous for the kind sister, but I admit I find myself more intrigued by the diamonds and toads versions.

On the other hand, I love the image of the feather bed causing the weather on earth. Such a vivid image that feels so accurate when one compares snowflakes to pin feathers. The quiet shushing sound and the fluffy whiteness is certainly wonderful.

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