Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Frau Harke, Goddess of the First Harvest

Around Lughnasadh or soon after, I saw my first mourning dove at our Appalachian farmhouse. We’ve lived here since March, and while I’ve seen blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, falcons, crows, and more, mourning doves were conspicuously absent. And then there it was on our white post-and-rail fence. The next day, I saw another, and then more appeared in the bushes and trees over the next weeks. This morning, there were five perched on the fence, observing me as I let out our dog.

I think of Frau Harke when I see them, thanks to Jacob Grimm, who wrote in Teutonic Mythology that "Harke flies through the air in the shape of a dove, making the fields fruitful” (Vol. 4, p.1364). Harke is a giantess of German folklore in the Brandenburg and Thuringia regions. Her name means “to rake,” calling to mind the harvest and care of the earth. While usually a dweller of wild mountain forests, she does travel about during her holy days, like other goddesses of her type. Folklorist Benjamin Thorpe wrote that "At Heteborn, when the flax was not housed at Bartholomew-tide [August 24], it was formerly the saying, 'Frau Harke will come'” (142).

Agriculture and the Wild

Harke is associated with flax agriculture but also grains in general. Thorpe also recorded a belief that if the “winter corn” (note: “corn” could mean any grain, not maize, which is not native to Europe) was not harvested, Harke would punish the farmers by spoiling it. In addition, a folk tale relates how Harke found a farmer with his ox and plough and carried them home in her apron for toys. Her father told her to put them back: "If the little ones below yonder do not plough, the big ones up here cannot bake” (87). She – and other land spirits –are deeply tied to agricultural fertility, and there is a symbiotic relationship between spirits and living humans, an exchange of gifts and energy.

Harke is also a mistress of wild animals, protecting and herding them on her mountain, and also a mistress of the hunt, deciding whether hunters will or will not catch game. Woe to those who hunt without giving her due respect: a group of hunters tried once, and instead of a badger, they returned home with a single, large eye in their bag (Kuhn 110-111). She has been likened to similar goddesses of spinning, wealth, and the hunt throughout Germany (all whom I’ve written about in an article to be published in the forthcoming Fall/Winter issue of Witches & Pagans – I hope you’ll check it out!)

The Natural Give and Take

When I think of Frau Harke, I envision an innocent young woman walking barefoot through the forest, caring for every rabbit, bird, badger, and wolf. At the end of summer, she flies in the shape of a dove over fields of grain, judging whether the work is performed in a timely and thorough manner, and blessing the harvests. She expects kindness and generosity, fairness, industriousness. She might try to destroy a church (she is a giant after all) or wreak vengeance on farmers and hunters if she finds them lacking. Even so, she favors those who work intimately with the land, who earnestly place their hands in its soil, and who know that in order to receive, one must first give. Isn’t that the meaning of the harvest, after all?

 

Works Cited

Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Ed. James Steven Stallybrass. Vol 4. George Bell and Sons, 1880.

Kuhn, Adalbert and W. Schwartz. North German legends, fairy tales and customs from Mecklenburg, Pomerania, the Mark, Saxony, Thuringia, Brunswick, Hanover, Oldenburg and Westphalia. Leipzig, 1848.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.

 

Image: Plate 286 of John James Audubon's Birds of America.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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