Mother Holle - Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Mother Holle
Fairy-Tale Witches and Mother Goose

The Goddess lives; she’s underground, can be reached via a sacred well, and can still dole out punishment and reward just as she did in her heyday.

Unusually, in the story Mother Holle the witch is named. That name isn’t random but very specific: amongst all Grimms’ fairy tales, this one’s Pagan references are most explicit:

Image Some would recognize the ancient Germanic goddess Hulda

Image Some would recognize Frau Holle the Witch Queen, Storm Goddess, Elven Queen, Wild Hunter, alleged child-stealer, and bogie-woman

A widow has two daughters, one identified in the story as beautiful and hard-working, the other ugly and lazy. In the earliest version the widow is the biological mother of both girls; later renditions make her the heroine’s stepmother. She prefers and favors the ugly, lazy girl although the narrator clearly identifies with the other.

The beautiful girl plays the Cinderella role, laboring for the family as household drudge. Among her daily chores she sits beside a well near a roadside and spins until her fingers bleed. One day, when the spindle is covered with her blood, she dips it into the well to wash it off, but it slips from her hands and falls into the depths. She runs home weeping to her mother, who unsympathetically tells her that since she dropped it, she can just go retrieve it. The girl goes back but doesn’t know what to do; she finally jumps into the well after the spindle.

In one version, although the girl still spins by the well, the scenario with the blood is deleted; instead she simply falls or jumps into the well, implying depression and suicide.

The girl loses consciousness and awakens in a beautiful meadow filled with flowers. She begins to walk, encountering various strange situations. In all cases, she is respectful, helpful, and kind. She finally reaches a little house where an old woman looking out the window sees her. The old woman’s teeth are so huge that the girl is afraid and starts to run away.

The toothy old woman calls out to her, invites her to stay in her house, reassuring her that if she does her chores properly, she won’t regret it. The woman identifies herself as Mother Holle: she is the only character in the story with a name.

The girl does her job well; Mother Holle is kind to her, never speaks a harsh word, and gives her meat to eat every day. Eventually, however, the girl becomes homesick, saying “I know how well off I am down here but I must go back to my family.” Mother Holle expresses approval: she is pleased that the girl wishes to go home.

Because her service has been faithful, Mother Holle personally guides the girl back. No trip up the well this time—she takes the girl’s hand and leads her through a door. As the girl passes through, she is showered with gold so that she is entirely gilded. Mother Holle also returns the spindle that began her quest.

The girl discovers herself back home. Mother and sister are impressed that she is covered with gold. She tells them her adventures; the mother determines that the same good fortune should befall her favored daughter.

The sister is sent to sit by the well. She doesn’t spin but pricks her fingers and hands with brambles until they bleed and then throws the spindle down the well, jumping in after. She discovers herself in the same beautiful meadow. She too begins to walk, encountering the same odd situations: she is not helpful but mean-spirited, selfish, and rude. She has heard about Mother Holle (or so she thinks) and so is not afraid or filled with awe. Mother Holle recruits her; the sister works hard for one day but then slopes off. Mother Holle dismisses her, telling her to go home. The girl anticipates being showered with gold: instead as she passes through the gate, she is showered with irremovable pitch. (Other versions suggest excrement.)

See also Frau Trude; DIVINE WITCH: Hulda; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES: Spinning; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Menstrual Power.