Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Perchta, Winter Goddess of the Alps

The Yuletide is a season of wonderment, with warm food and drink, songs of joy and peace, the soft lighting of hearth fires, candles, and strings of electric light, gifts and blessings. But there's a darker aspect: the nocturnal Wild Hunt, when the fierce spirits of the wilderness roam.

 

Krampus Night has come and gone. Krampus has gotten a lot of coverage the past few years, as people around the world are reviving the more fearsome aspects of the Yuletide. But Krampus is really only the beginning. Another powerful night comes after Christmas and the New Year: the Feast of Epiphany.

 

The Epiphany is the day Christians celebrate the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Some cultures celebrate the day with a King Cake into which a little figurine is baked. Whoever finds the figurine in their slice will have luck for the year.

 

In the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, Perchta and Her train of spirits visit houses on the Eve of Epiphany, bringing blessings or curses depending on whether Perchta is pleased with the household or not. Her spirits have been identified in folklore as the souls of babies who died before baptism, sometimes described as transformed into dogs that yelp in the darkness of Wild Hunt nights. The Perchtenlauf is a ritual parade that honors this event. Men troop in costume through their villages as schöne Perchten (in traditional Alpine clothing) and schiache Perchten (wearing furs, bells, and grotesque masks).

 

As for Perchta herself, She is described as having a long "iron nose" like that of a "beak of a bird of prey" (Motz 156). She is also sometimes described having one human foot and one goose foot, signifying a shapeshifting ability as well as dominion over both human civilization and the wilderness, especially the hunt where these two spheres intersect. It's significant that geese and other water birds are often connected to Celtic goddesses of water, healing, and fertility. There's an old belief that the souls of soon-to-be-born babies emerge from caves and bodies of water, and folklore tells of Perchta's cave where infant souls dwell, as well as her train of unbaptized, deceased infants described above.

 

Perchta is also connected to the welfare and maintenance of the household. In particular, She has a tutelary role in fiber work. To stay on Perchta's good side when she visits, the household should be clean and orderly, and all spinning work should be finished and put away. If the work is not done, She will curse the household with bad luck. She even may soil the remaining fibers by wiping her bum with them! Additionally, a meal of fish and porridge or pancakes should be eaten on the night of Epiphany in Her honor, and a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter should be left out for Her. Different sources have different recommendations for where this offering should be left: on the porch, on the roof, or in a window.

 

Perchta isn't the only spirit honored on this night. Holda, too, was feasted and given offerings, as well as Fricke and Gode farther north, and all of These may leave gold or bad luck in Their wake. In Italy, La Befana brings gifts to children on Epiphany Eve. The Old English Modranīht is generally believed to have been celebrated around the winter solstice, but it similarly celebrated sacred Mothers. However much of pre-Christian belief has been lost, we still hold the memory of certain deities, including the much-loved gift-bearing Ladies of the hearth and wilderness. We worship Them as we know how, in the ways that remnant traditions have taught us: feasting, offerings, and good works in Their honor.

 

(You can read more about Perchta, Holda, and similar goddesses in my article "Riding With the Frauen" in Witches & Pagans: Gods, Goddesses, & the Beautiful Divine.)

 

 

Works Cited

 

Motz, Lotte. "The Winter Goddess: Perchta, Holda, and Related Figures." Folklore, Vol. 95, No. 2, 1984.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and European folk traditions. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. 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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