The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The Divine Witch: Goddesses and Gods
Also known as Berchta, Frau Berta, Eisen Berta, Berchtli.
A Pre-Christian German divinity, Perchta manifests as a beautiful woman with pearls braided into her golden hair. A white veil obscures her face. She carries the keys to happiness in one hand and a spray of mayflowers in the other. Perchta lives in a subterranean palace, which has a fabulous garden where she welcomes the souls of children who died in infancy.
She has another face, too, also manifesting as an old decrepit hag with long, unkempt, gray hair and disheveled clothes. In this guise, she carries a distaff. It’s unknown now whether she always had these two aspects (and it’s very possible) or whether she was transformed into a hag following the arrival of Christianity.
Perchta had many devotees and so post-Christianity was aggressively denigrated. She was demonized as a Queen of Witches and is among the leaders of the Wild Hunt, where she usually leads a parade of unbaptized babies.
Perchta travels with a retinue of spirits known as the Perchten. According to Christian legend, the devil rides in their midst, although this may merely indicate the existence of a male deity who once accompanied her.
Perchta is used as a threat to make children behave before Yule. She allegedly personally punishes “bad children,” although she gives gifts to good ones.
With the coming of Christianity she became the personification of the night preceding Epiphany (January 6th). In German tradition, this is known as Perchtennacht. (Epiphany is also called Perchtentag—Perchta’s Day.) Modern Perchten processions are characterized by grotesque masks.
Perchta possesses various paths:
As Butzenbercht she comes bearing gifts
As Spinn Stubenfrau (“Spinning Room Woman”) she visits homes at night
As Stomach Slasher she inflicts severe punishment on women who do not leave her traditional Yule offerings of pancakes, dumplings, and herring. She rips open their stomachs, removes what she wants, and roughly sews them up again
Vestiges of devotion to Perchta survive. In some Alpine villages it is still customary to place offerings of food for her on rooftops.
See also Befana, Herta, Hulda; CREATIVE ARTS: Dance: Perchtentanz; ERGOT: Corn Mother: Perchta; TOOLS: Masks; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning.