Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Christmas and Household Goddesses

Article by Ty Hulse
The woman's face is filled with an ancient beauty, like the grandmother you love and the stern school teacher your fear, all rolled into one. She lifts her pillow high over head and shakes it from the mountain top. A gentle snow flies from that pillow, falling and swirling onto the villages below. She is Holda, and tonight she will fly through that fall snow, an army of phantams and witches in tow. She will check on the spinning and cleaning of each girl, Those who have finished their work will be given gifts, and those who haven't will be punished. For Holda is the Goddess of domestic work and the spirits of the dead. A goddess that is found again and again, across Eurasia, from the far North of Asia to the hills of France. In Europe these witch/goddess figures would give gifts near Christmas. In Italy Befana will come on Epiphany Eve (January 5th) filling children's socks with candy. Befana appears as a classic witch old, long nosed, and riding a broom.

File:Das festliche Jahr img021 Frau Holle (Perchta).jpg
Holda Leading the Wild Hunt

Befana's legend specifically refers to her as the best house keeper in her village (when she was human), and was too busy with her house work to join the magi on thier journey to find the baby Jesus. There are other stories about her origin (also Christian in nature), yet I want to focus on the concept of housekeeping because it is such a common theme for many of the most important goddesses.

First it's important to note that household industries, especially spinning and weaving which Perchta, Bertha, Holda, Gyre Carling (in Scotland) and many more focus on is an important part of any economy. Leigh Minturn (1996) states that;

"Cloth has been an important trade item in a number of societies from ancient times to the present. Therefore, women spinners and weavers made significant contributions to the labor force and economies of many societies, which have often been unrecognized."

The women of the Middle Ages were the ones who turned goods into useful products. They made milk into butter, grain into flour, flour into bread, barley into ale, wool and flax into yard, and these into clothes. In general this meant that many of the magical traditions in Ireland, for example, were passed along from mother to daughter, to insure that these processes worked as they were supposed to. Failing to carry out this work meant that a family would starve. People's lives hung in the balance with regards to these choirs. Thus it made sense for one of the most important goddesses, and at times the most important goddess, to be concerned with them. This was true among Hunter-Gatherer and Pastoral Societies as well.

Consider the Selkup goddess Ilinta Kota, also known as "Living Old Woman." She is the patroness of all living beings in Middle World (Earth).  She dwells in a heavenly home and plucks duck feathers which turn into ducks for Selkup hunters. She also cares for the souls of the unborn childen in a huge iron house or in the cave under a seven rooted tree. Yet in addition she provides cedar for the coffin of the dead, for she is also a goddess of death, as well as birth. She is also the one who watches over the upbringing of young girls until they are married. 

In the book "Selkup Mythology" it is stated of her that: "her residence is located underground; a “hole” in the forest is the entrance to it, and a “filthy road” leads to the hole. The wife of the son of God had to go on this road in order to bring food (a sacrifice) to her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law awards the hard-working and hospitable woman with a bucket and scraper, gall for tanning skins and sinew threads – a distinctive initiation of a young mistress"

So in the figure of Ilinta Kota we have the goddess who is the mother of the primary deities, both the good and the evil one, and who is the goddess of birth, death, and of household choirs, who lives both in the heavens and underground. This in turn is similar to the figures of Holda, Bertha, Perchta who live at times underground and in the heaven. Travel with the spirits of children yet to be born and those dead, and of course reward those who work hard at cottage industries and punish those who don't. T

Baba Yaga, the Russian hag in fairy tales will reward those who work hard, that is those who visit her, often taking liminal paths simialr to the one people took to reach Ilinta Kota. Baba Yaga is often interprited as living on the edge of the land of the dead. A hard worker would be rewarded by her, while those who were lazy would be punished, often in horrible fashion. Baba Yaga had other features, dangerous features, but that is often the nature of deities. She would kidnap children in stories, but so would Hermes. She would bring suffering to people, but so would Zeus. Deities and shamanistic figures are complex, often seemingly amoral. Of course, Baba Yaga doesn't have as much to do with Christmas as her Central European neighbors, but like them she also has connections with the idea of the tooth fairy. 

None of this is to say that these were all the same goddess. People of the past had multiple religions and cultures, that could influence each other, but still maintain differences. Further, weaving was extremely important to many people, so it would make sense for every culture to have a goddess of this. In Greek lore, the patron of Athens, Athena is the weaving goddess, and she has little in common with the other household goddesses other then that she was extremely important to the people who believed in her. So while we often forget that people's survival was dependent on cottage industries that women oversaw, the people of the past didn't. Thus their  most important goddess oversaw such industry as Athena Holda, Baba Yaga, and Illinta Kota did. What's more, in Central Europe this goddess would take on the role of Holiday Gift Giver.  

It is interesting to note here that the household spirits who brings gifts to people on Christmas in Scandinavia are male fairies/ancestral spirits who protect each house and oversee/help with the choirs. In other words, sometimes the domestic deity could take the form of a male, but in Western Europe, they still brought presents to people. 


The Economic Importance and Technological Complexity of Hand-Spinning and Hand-WeavingLeigh MinturnFirst Published November 1, 1996