Winter Spirits: Berchta

Gods and Goddesses governing the repeating cycles of nature are pretty universal and certainly predate recorded history. Humans naturally attribute things beyond their comprehension to deities of some sort. There are very few world cultures that don’t have a winter deity.

One of my favourites is Frau Berchta from the Alpine Germanic tribes of Europe. My interpretation of her stories spins around the idea shes fundamentally insane. She has incarnations and counterparts in most Pre-Christian European mythology. and is often considered the third part of a Goddess Trinity, a common theme where a group of three women – The Maiden, The Mother and the Crone collectively control portions of natures cycles.

Side Note: My absolute favourite divine trinity are the Morigu of Irish Celtic Folklore, in particular the Morrigan who utterly fucked up the hero CĂș Chulainn. Both will be appearing in a future post. I really have a think for capricious Goddesses.

Berchta has been subject to a great deal of academic speculation. Jakob Grimm (yes that one) recorded her as a Pre-Christian Goddess who goes by different names around the Alps. She is at the height of her power around the winter solstice and would enter peoples houses about this time. If the children there had kept up with their chores and been good throughout the year she would place a silver coin under their pillow as they slept. If however they had been naughty she would eviscerate them, replacing their entrails with straw and stones.

Side Note: …. What the fuck!? If Father Christmas was presented as doing this I would be arming my kids and teaching them to blow his fucking head off.

I would imagine this was a more effective mechanism of control than threatening children with a lump of coal. One of her attributes is the Goddess of spinning and she is often seen in the woods on a winters night spinning cloth. As such she had a particularly interest in girls who had maintained their allotment of spinning for the year.

Side Note: I would explore this in more detail but I’m pretty sure the answer to any questions about her focus on young girls and normalised childhood servitude will be “because the patriarchy”.

She is mostly depicted as a veiled woman in a glittering white dress. Often with one eye and carrying a staff.

Side Note: Yes dear reader, what we have here is Odin in drag.

The Berchta would also take her knife to the abdomen of anyone who deviated from her specific menu on her feast night. If you ate anything but fish and gruel you would find yourself full of straw and stones which frankly isn’t dissimilar to how I have felt on boxing day most years.

She did also serve as a protector. Occasionally being presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt. Her portfolio seems to have increased rather after the invasion of Christianity and includes protecting –

The Unbaptised Dead,
The dead who have no one to remember them,
Those who commit suicide due to a broken heart,
Stillbirth, Miscarriage and Abortion.
Those who lacked a respectful burial.

She would gather up these souls and they would walk with her, under her protection.

Modern Academics question whether the Berchta is a Pre-Christian deity and suspect she was dreamt into being around the tenth century. However she fills a niche created by many deities and spirits and whilst the name may be newer it’s likely the character is extremely ancient.

Side Note: I’m aware I have just applied the word “extremely” to ancient, something I would chastise anyone else for doing however in context I want to emphasise something so old its almost primordial.

Some Final Thoughts

Terry Pratchett commented on pagan mythologies beautifully in his book The Hogfather. He observed that “the very oldest stories of the beginning are sooner or later about blood” and that all other stories came from these origins. In the same book there is an amazing dialogue between the protagonists when one asked what would have happened had they not saved the Hogfather the other states that the sun would have not risen tomorrow. When prompted for more detail he expands “a mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the sky”. I know I have recommended this book before but when it comes to myths and human nature this is a must read.

Another of my favourite interpretations on the nature of Gods comes from a book by David Gemmell, The king beyond the gate, in which he speculates that in the beginning the Gods were all powerful creators of the universe however they have grown senile with age and spend their days playing tricks on mankind with cosmic bad taste.

Whatever your beliefs or backgrounds I think its irrefutable that stories as a way of shaping the world around us are important, they connect us with something ancient in a way that nothing else can.

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