Holda (also known as Holle, Huld, and Frau Holle) is a Goddess from Northern Germany. Her name means “friendly, benevolent one” (in Old High German the word “Hold” meant benevolent or faithful) or “hidden one”. She is said to dress in white with keys on her belt. The keys were often worn by women who were head of their household to indicate their status. She is described as having ugly, big teeth, a big nose and a flat foot, which is a result of her love of weaving. The foot can flatten a due to the frequent pressing of the peddle on the loom. Her home is widely accepted to be Hohe Meissner mountain in Westphalia. She is said to dwell there in Kitzkammer cave where her cats live (who may be girls who Holda has turned into cats to live and work with her for a time as a consequence of their laziness) and have a lake known as Frau Holle lake where she keeps the souls of newborns and infants who die.
Holda has a particularly strong connection to spinning and flax. She is said to have given a peasant flax seed and taught him and his wife how to harvest, spin, weave and bleach it, thus granting them prosperity. This is just one case of one of her most common aspects. She often grants gifts and rewards to hard working people. It is said that if a person works hard at spinning all day, she may come in and finish the spinning during the night. Likewise, she often punished lazy people by burning or dirtying their spinning.
In central Germany there are many versions of the story that the Brothers Grimm wrote down as Mother Holle. In this story, a hard-working girl goes to the well to wash out some blood that she got on her spinning reel, but accidentally falls down into the well (in some versions she drops the reel in accidentally and jumps in after it). When she reaches the bottom of the well, she finds herself in a beautiful green land. She starts walking along the land and sees an apple tree that is full of apples. The tree cries “Shake me! Shake me! My apples are ripe and my branches are heavy with all these apples!” So the girl goes to the tree, shakes all the apples off the tree and stacks them in a pile. She moves on and comes across bread baking in an oven. The bread cries “Take me out! I’m done and going to burn!” She goes to the oven, removes the bread and sets it out to cool.
Eventually she comes to a house where an old woman lives. The woman introduces herself as Mother Holle and invites the girl in to live with her in return for helping with the chores. The girl stays with Mother Holle and is very hard-working and industrious. Mother Holle is quite pleased with her. Eventually Mother Holle realizes that the girl is homesick and wants to go home. So Mother Holle shows the girl the way home, and the girl returns to her home and finds herself covered in gold.
When she returns home, she tells her lazy sister what had happened. Her sister decides that she wants some of this gold as well, so she goes to the well with some weaving. She weaves for a bit and then gets tired and so pricks her own finger and throws the reel down the well, jumping down behind it. She finds herself in the same land the other sister had described and starts walking towards Mother Holle’s house. Along the say, she sees the apple tree full of apples. It calls to her and says “Shake me! Shake me! My apples are ripe and my branches are heavy with all these apples!”, but she replies “I don’t have time for you” and walks on. She sees the bread which cries “Take me out! I’m done and going to burn!”, to which she replies “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” and walks on. Eventually she reaches the home of Mother Holle and announces that she would like to work for her. Mother Holle takes her in and puts her to work. In a short time however, the girl gets bored with the chores and became very lazy. Soon the girl announced that she was homesick and wanted to return home. Mother Holle was relieved and showed the girl the way home. But when the returned home again, she found that she was covered in dirt that would not wash off.
Holda also has a particularly strong connection with water. She is associated with springs, wells and lakes, such as the lake where she is said to keep the souls of newborns and infants who die unnamed. She also has a connection with fog. It is said that Holda can be seen at times as a dark shape drifting in the fog, and fog maidens are called “die Hollen” after her. And she is associated with snowfall. It is said that snowfall is Holda shaking her bed and making the feathers fly.
Holda is also associated with Yule. She is said to drive her wagon over land at Yule at the head of hosts of children. Food associated with her such as oatmeal and fish are eaten at this time, and plates are set out for her as an offering. And at the beginning of Yule, people shake apple trees saying “little tree, wake up, Frau Holle is coming!” in order to ensure that the tree will bear more in the next year.
Holda is also linked with witches and witchcraft in folktales. In Christian times, she was seen as the queen of the witches, and was said to lead witches, along with unbaptized children on her wild hunt. Those who ride with Holda were said to go on “a witches’ ride”. The Milky Way was sometimes called the highway of Frau Hulde in Middle Dutch.
Holda is often linked to Brocken mountain, which is associated with witches in the folktale, “the Trip to Brocken” says:
"The day came when witches go the Brocken, and the two women climbed into the hayloft, took a small glass, drank from it, and suddenly disappeared. The bridegroom-to-be, who had sneaked after them and observed them, was tempted to take a swallow from the glass. He picked it up and sipped a little from it, and suddenly he was on the Brocken, where he saw how his fiancée and her mother were carrying on with the witches, who were dancing around the devil, who was standing in their midst."
The type of witchcraft associated with the witches on Brocken mountain and with Holda is knot magic, shape shifting, flying, using potions and casting spells. It was a different sort of magic than seithr, which is primarily trance work.
The Elder tree, which has many medicinal and alcoholic uses, is sacred to her. It was thought that Elder by the door of a farmhouse brings protection and luck. Other trees possibly sacred to her are maple, juniper and linden.
References to Holda appears other literature, besides the fairly tales,. There is a giantess named Hulda in Sturlunga Saga that may be related to Holda (or may be Holda). In the Ynglinga saga, the Völva and Seithkona named Huldr or Hulla who may be related to Holda. She also may be related to a woman named Hulda, who is said to be beloved of Odin and mother of Thorgerdhr and Irpa in a 14th century saga (this Hulda and Huldr may be the same person). Folk tales in Norway, Sweden and Denmark speak of Hulla, Huldra or Huldre as a mountain- or wood-wife. In Iceland, Landwights or dwarves are called huldrefolk which could connect them to Holda, although it’s possible that there is an older meaning of the word huldr that could be a general word for benign spirit.
Frau Holda is often related to other goddesses within the Norse pantheon. She is sometimes related to Frigga due to her association with spinning, households and children, as well as the possible association between her and Odin (see above paragraph). It has been suggested that she may be an aspect of Frigga that has been separated out. Because she is a leader of the Wild Hunt, is associated with death (of children) and is a worker of a type of magic more similar to galdor, of which Odin is a master, than seithr, which Odin is said to have learned from Freya, it has been suggested that if you merge her and Frigga, she would make the perfect counterpart to Odin. Holda is also associated with Freya at times due to her connection to cats (her cave, Kitzkammer means “Cat Chamber”), with magic, and with the dead. She is also sometimes associated with Hel, though that seems to be primarily due to the similarities in their names and Holda’s association with death.
Holda is often associated with Perchte and Berchta, a goddesses from southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland. They are both associated with spinning and abhor laziness like Holda. And both are associated with Yule and the Wild Hunt. They do not, however, share Holda’s association with magic and witchcraft.
Other goddesses sometimes associated with Holda include Hlodyn, Nehalennia and Hlundana. Outside of the Norse pantheon, Holda has also been linked with the Roman goddess Diana her association with the wild hunt, and with Hecate due to her association with witches.
“Frau Holle in the Sky” by Birgit Knorr, published in Idunna
“Holle” by Birgit Knorr
Workshop and interviews with Birgit Knorr
“Holda and the Cult of Witches” http://www.ealdriht.org/witchholda.html
“Holda” by Thorskegga Thorn http://www.thorshof.org/holda.htm