(This essay has been through several iterations over the seven years since I originally drafted it, but I wanted to put it someplace easily referenceable, as there still isn’t a ton of information on Perchta out there. As I have time I’ll be updating this with new research and thoughts. – M)
Aspects of Perchta
Lady of the Wilderness
Perchta is referred to as wild, in the original sense of “belonging to the forest”. Unlike Frau Holda (another Germanic folkloric figure), she isn’t particularly associated with one mountain. She is a creature of groves and glens, although sometimes said to dwell in a cave. Notably (and again in contrast to Holda), she’s never mentioned living in a village or a “cultured” part of the surrounding area (cornfields, etc.). (The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures, Lotte Motz)
One of the common motifs around Perchta is that of belly slitter, punishing people who betrayed cultural norms. Motz notes that Perchta bears several markings of an educator figure, and wonders if these themes weren’t originally related to an initiation of some sort:
“Stories of the education of the young by a superhuman being, especially if it takes place in the wilderness, bring to mind the practices of puberty initiation of primitive societies. In these, separation from parental dwellings and experiences inflicted by superhuman forces are essential for the spiritual second birth and for gaining an adult status. … The recurrent tale of Perchta’s opening and refilling of human stomachs appears to be an initiatory motif. … The refilling of a body with a new substances obviously takes place only in initiatory dreams … Mutilated men and men whose bodies have been cut so that their intestines trail behind are noted in descriptions of the wild host which is so frequently headed by the goddess.”
It seems that for women, Perchta’s initiatory roles would be centered around spinning, and for men, it would be involved in the perchten processions – at first becoming personifications of wild entities, and later appearing in the costume of the region, representing the state of young adulthood they were aspiring to.
Interestingly enough, there is a similar incident in Laxdaela saga, in which a character experiences a vision where a woman comes to him, cuts him open, and replaces his innards with brushwood. The next day, he’s mortally wounded in battle and thought to be dead…but the morning after that, he’s fine. Upon awakening, he says that the woman — who was actually his guardian idis* — came back to him in the night and put his entrails back.
*idis or dis is the singular form of disir, guardian figures in Norse mythology. Read more about the disir here.
The word Perchta appears to have come from an adjective meaning “bright” or “glorious” (Perchta the Belly Slitter and her Kin, John Smith). There are two things of note here:
- The Germanic origin of her name
- The positive meaning of her name
Both of those point towards Perchta being a figure that is native to the region, and a well-liked one, at that.
Throughout her stories, she is depicted to very much have a dual nature – her personality is alternately described as kind or violent. Physically, she’s described as gray, wizened, old, and ugly, but also as a tall and beautiful young woman, veiled and clothed in white. The more negative aspects of her character were possibly exaggerated later on by Christian authors looking to discredit an obviously pagan figure. Often, her “long” or “iron” nose was spoke of – Motz wonders if this is left over from an association with a bird of prey.
The medieval church spoke of “sinners” who leave food for Perchta in the “night of Perchta” in hopes of improving their prosperity and well being in the coming year. The church was also on record as asking people to believe no longer in “frawen percht”, and other records complain of locals who would rather chant to “domina Perchta” than say their prayers to the Virgin Mary. (Motz)
Together, these factors not only greatly diminish the likelihood that Perchta was created by the medieval church to keep people in line (as Smith proposes in his essay), but makes it clear that Perchta was a figure of adoration in many areas. Another testament of this would be her folk rituals surviving to this day.
A few other interesting notes:
- A church canon in the ninth century condemns women who say that they rode out with a crowd of nocturnal demons (Motz) – these could be related to perchten
- Grimm also notes Frau Berchta being spoken of in the 10th century
Related Items, Seasons, & Events
Perchta is very well documented as being associated with the spindle and with spinning. When the shepherds brought flax to her in the summer, she blessed their flocks, and they often claimed to see her walking along the steepest slopes around twilight, with a golden spindle in her hand. (Smith)
The spindle is associated with several goddesses and entities in the continental Germanic countries, and is strongly associated with fate and fortune. (more on that here) She was also associated with getting the spinning done on time – if you didn’t get it done on time, Perchta might say you’d have bad luck in the next year, or even engage in some of the aforementioned belly-slitting.
Through the spindle, Perchta may be connected to the feminine mysteries – Motz notes that the places where girls gather to spin can become the site of enactment of these mysteries, and that instruction in spinning is often part of the tradition of girls’ puberty initiations.
The Wild Hunt
Perchta is associated with the Wild Hunt in folklore, said to be the one leading it. This is not uncommon with Germanic or Northern European goddesses, as Frau Holda, Freyja, and Frigga have all been said to lead the Wild Hunt, depending on the locale. The Wild Hunt was a phenomenon occurring in the winter months that was dangerous to humans; being in the path of it could be deadly. Gundarsson’s essay is a great resource for folklore on the Hunt, more here on the Hunt.
As far as the time of the year in which Perchta plays the largest role, there’s no doubt it’s the winter season, specifically December and January. This is when her feasts and traditional processions are held. She is particularly associated with Epiphany, starting the night of January 5th and going on to January 6th. There is some evidence that this holiday was referred to as “perchtentag” (bright day, Perchta’s day, or Perchten’s day) before the conversion and it was often referred to as such afterwards as well. (Note: I’ve also seen modern-day accounts from the regions that still honor her that do their processionals on December 5th & 6th. This is possibly due to overlap with Krampus events in modern times, as the Krampus was specifically associated with December 6th.)
She is often said to have a train of unbaptized children following her, and is associated with children despite not having any children herself. Motz’s theory is that specifically noting these children are unbaptized is the Christian explanation for Perchta’s strong alliance with a group of children not her own. My personal theory is that there may have been similar tales in heathen times, but for children roughly corresponding to unbaptized Christian children – children who had died before being named and accepted into the community, or who were exposed to the elements.
In “Percht and the Prying Farmhand”, a farmer’s wife and her helpers prepared the best room of their house for a visit of Percht and her train of unbaptised children. (Smith) Another story relates a poor cottager who, going out at night in search of a godfather for a new addition to his family, finds Perchta and her train of children. When the farmer sees one child wearing nothing but an undergarment, he cries out, “Oh, you poor Zodawascherl!”* Perchta tells the man that since he had named the child, good fortune would be his, and then vanished along with her children. The cottager found a rich sponsor soon afterwards. (Smith)
This story is particularly interesting because it shows Perchta as a giver of wealth. It also makes me wonder if she had some connection to naming at some point, since names were and are considered powerful things. There are some overlapping themes the myth of Odin, Frigga, and the langobards, although I’m not sure what conclusion could be reached from that slight connection.
The milk that was put out for Perchta and her entourage during this time of year was then fed to poultry and to cattle to give them vigor & fertility in the coming year. This is another connection between Perchta and abundance, and this connection could be through specifically, as food offerings for her were common and sometimes food was eaten in her honor.
As mentioned above, Motz theorized that the descriptions of Perchta as “long nosed” or “iron nosed” were leftover nods to her association with birds of prey. She is particularly associated with animals of the chase, through the Wild Hunt – we have accounts of dogs following her carriage or participating in the Wild Hunt. Other possible associations include wolves and goats. I would argue that most forest animals, particularly nocturnal ones, could be associated with Perchta, and I personally strongly associate her with barn owls and wolves in particular (see below, “Suggested Offerings & UPG”).
*After doing a lot of research in the hopes that this name was spiritually significant, I discovered that it means…bottle-washer. As in, the kid was washing the bottle with his tears. Good joke, folk tale.
The Perchtenlauf was earlier usual on the last Fasching-evening. It was a kind of masked procession. The masked ones were called Perchten. They were divided into beautiful and ugly…. The beautiful Perchten often distributed gifts. So went it loudly and joyfully, if the wild Perchte herself did not come among them. If this spirit mixed among them, the game was dangerous. One could recognize the presence of the wild Perchte when the Perchten raged all wild and furious and sprang over the well-stock. In this case the Perchten ran swiftly away from each other in fear and tried to reach the nearest, best house. For as soon as one was under a roof, the Wild One could not have them any longer. Otherwise she would tear apart anyone, who she could get possession of. Even today, one can see places where the Perchten torn apart by the wild Perchte lie buried.”
(Sitten, Bräuuche, und Meinungen des Tiroler Volkes, in Höfler, p. 59), from here
The Perchten are one of the most interesting things about Perchta, and these traditions extend to the present day.
In short, locals (traditionally young men) will dress up as hideous monsters and parade through the village. In several places, they appear in double form – earlier in the holiday in their hideous form, and later in the “handsome” form (which usually consists of local traditional attire).
There are clear similarities between the Perchten processions (especially as described in the above account) and the Wild Hunt. There are also accounts of the processions being intentionally done to scare evil spirits away (as they’re quite loud).
And, of course, there’s a striking visual similarity between the Perchten and the Krampus. The Krampus is another wintertime figure with probable pre-Christian origins, not looked upon fondly by the medieval church for his similarity to Satan. As time has gone on, the perchtenlauf and krampusnacht are often blended into one processional or event, even though they were traditionally at different times (Krampusnacht at the beginning of December, Perchtenlauf in late December or early January).
There is no explicitly-stated historical connection between Perchta and the elves. However, her name means “bright” and she sometimes appears clothed in white, which is reminiscent of the light elves of Scandinavian mythology. Gifts that appear worthless and then turn into gold are a common motif in faery lore, and these frequently appear in stories about Perchta. She is also associated with “in between” times and places, and elves/faeries are associated with mounds – a portal between this world and the other.
Perchta and Frau Holda
Many assume or state that Perchta and Frau Holda are the same goddess with different names. This seems to have started with Grimm noting that the areas in which Perchta was worshiped were the ones where Frau Holda didn’t appear. I don’t agree with his assumption, but I do feel they’re closely related – something akin to sisters. Interestingly enough, in the Urglaawe* tradition, Holda & Perchta are viewed as sisters.
There is some evidence that could be said to back up the idea that Frau Holda and Perchta are different entities:
- Frau Holda isn’t connected with the Perchten or any similar figures
- She’s never associated with the “belly slitting” aspects that are associated with Pechta
- There is not an emphasis on Holda having a “light” form (a beautiful young woman) and a “dark” form (a hideous old hag)
- Perchta isn’t as connected with domestic activities or witchcraft as Frau Holda is
To me, they don’t feel the same, and I feel that there’s enough historical difference to regard them as separate entities. In the end, it’s up to the reader to decide for themselves.
*Urglaawe is a living tradition of heathenism practiced by Pennsylvania Dutch communities, and verified by anthropologists. Resources on Urglaawe are, IMO, a wonderful way to learn about how heathenism might have evolved were it not for forced conversion.
Walburga is the possible name of another Germanic goddess, later turned into a saint. She, like Perchta, is associated with spinning and the spindle. Also like Perchta, she is associated with the Wild Hunt, though she is chased by it, not leading it. You can read more about Walburga here.
St. Lucia’s Day
St. Lucy is a Christian saint who is celebrated on December 13th. Sweden is the country most strongly associated with the day, but it’s also celebrated in Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, and other countries.
Celebrations on St. Lucia’s Day include a procession headed by a girl wearing a white gown with a red sash and crown of lights or candles, followed by other girls carrying candles. The original legend of St. Lucy (which can be seen here) doesn’t seem related to Germanic paganism, but St. Lucia’s Day as a holiday seems to be grafted onto an earlier, pre-Christian holiday.
Although it doesn’t list a source, the Wikipedia article for St. Lucia’s Day says that Lussinatta was observed on December 13th (by the unreformed Julian calendar, which would make it coinciding with the solstice). The days between Lussinatta and Yule were considered dangerous; Lussi and her followers, collectively called Lussiferda, would ride through the air at night (reminiscent of the Wild Hunt). I can’t say for sure if there’s any connection between these events and Perchta at all, but it makes for interesting reading.
Suggested Offerings & UPG
(UPG = Unverified Personal Gnosis. Basically, my personal experiences that may or may not match yours or the historical evidence.)
Perchta is a goddess of the in between places. She can be found between safety and danger, civilization and wilderness, control and the loss of it, the time between the years, and even life and death. Those places are where she resides, and that’s where you’ll find her.
It is precisely because she isn’t quite part of civilization that she can protect from the dangerous, with her train of monsters (who were so horrifying to gaze upon not because they were evil, but to scare harmful spirits away). Anyone crossing between or living in those places would do well to look to Perchta for protection and guidance. She does indeed represents the “force of nature which is both live-giving and life-taking.” (Motz) To me, she feels very fey, in the sense of wild and feral.
I see her walking through a silent snow covered forest. I see her robed in white, cracking a whip as the Wild Hunt careens across the sky. I see her in the woods, looking up from fallen prey with blood dripping from her face and hands. I see her sitting in a hut, spinning and singing as she does so.
My personal associations with her include white barn owls. This isn’t a stretch, given her connections to birds of prey, the fact that the owl is nocturnal, and that she seems to be associated with white in her “light” form. When she first showed up in my life, she was heralded by white barn owls appearing everywhere. As far as other animals go, I associate her with large dogs, particularly black or gray ones, and wolves as well. Another personal association is the moon, particularly the full moon – more so because I think of her as being associated with the night. Because of that, I aim to make offerings to her on the full moon.
To me, Perchta is a guardian of wild places, especially forests. On one level, I view the perchten as representations of wild nature and forest spirits. They would fall under Perchta’s guardianship as well as the physical lands that they themselves live in and guarded.
As far as food offerings, I’ve personally had good luck with chai tea, oatmeal with honey and brown sugar, chocolate with hazelnuts in it, mulled mead, and red meat. For incense, I suggest herbal or forest-y scents – cedarwood, lavender, etc. My altar for Perchta has several stones on it, including red jasper, petrified wood, moonstone and a unique quartz crystal with deep lines etched in it & earth embedded in those lines, as well as representations of barn owls, wolves, and the moon.
Useful and/or academic resources about Perchta are still fairly thin on the ground, but these are what I’ve found along the way:
- Perchta is briefly mentioned in Teutonic Mythology by Grimm
- She is also (among several other figures) the focus of Lotte Motz’s essay “The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda, and Related Figures” (obtainable through JSTOR). Motz takes the viewpoint that Perchta and Holda, among others, were different forms of one single “Lady of the Beasts” winter goddess, which isn’t something I agree with, but there’s a lot of good information in the essay.
- There is a brief section on Perchta and Holda in Teutonic Religion by Gundarsson, which also takes the viewpoint that they are the same goddess.
- Another essay available on JSTOR, “Perchta the Belly-Slitter and Her Kin” by John Smith, has some good tidbits of information but I found the author’s attitude and writing style not to my taste and his conclusion (that Perchta was created by the medieval church to keep the populace in line) faulty. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re really looking for any little bits of information you can find, as the majority of the information he uses is also in Motz’s essay.
- An essay talking about the Wild Hunt and referencing Holda and Perchta as well
- The Witches of Winter