Ancient Germanic Goddesses: 8 Nearly-Forgotten Deities for Heathens
The Germanic tribes of Europe had their own deities, just like the ancient Celts. Some of these deities are commemorated in the days of the week. Frigga and Freya, for example, are remembered in the word Friday. Tyr is remembered in Tuesday. Odin/Wodan – Wednesday. And so on. However, there are many who have been nearly forgotten. Here are eight nearly-forgotten ancient Germanic goddesses whose stories are just as interesting as any others. They each have something to teach us, if we only listen.
1. Berchta: The Germanic Goddess Who Became a Child-Eating Hag
Berchta was an Ancient Germanic goddess whose worship was widespread through the Alps. She came to be known well in Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Kingdom. There is some speculation that Berchta isn’t Germanic and was actually first a Celtic Alpine deity. Her name, Berchta, means “The Bright One”. Moreover, if we look at the syllables of her name we see “berch” which links her to the Birch tree and the Berkano rune.
Jacob Grimm writes of her in Teutonic Mythology, saying she was once a guardian and protector of babies and children. She ferried the dead across the water to the spirit world. Berchta wore a white gown, which shone in the darkness, and carried a set of keys. She was also a spinner/weaver goddess, which links her to fate and the life/death/rebirth cycle.
How Berchta Became a Hag
When the Church rose to power, Berchta’s name was dragged through the proverbial mud. She was demonized and eventually called the “Christmas Hag”. Her beautiful motherly image morphed into an ugly old hag who ate bad children or slit their bellies open and filled them with straw and stone. This once-loved ancient Germanic goddess became part of the Wild Hunt and rode alongside the wicked dead. Her consorts were Berchtold and sometimes Wotan (Odin). Reduced to a witch, Berchta became an evil figure in folklore to be feared.
An Ancient Germanic Goddess Immortalized
The Perchten are a group of masked men and women who parade on winter holidays to scare away evil spirits. They are modeled after the hag version of Perchta (Berchta). Berchta’s name is immortalized in the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Berchtentag, and also in the town of Berchtengaten in Bavaria. Legend says she travels with other female spirits and enters the homes of those who leave her offerings on this special night. If Berchta is pleased with the meal, she grants prosperity to the household.
She may be the same goddess as Holda (a.k.a. Mother Holle).
2. Eostre: The Easter Germanic Goddess
Most people don’t know where the term “Easter” comes from. According to Bede, Eostre was the Germanic goddess of Spring. When the Church rose to power, they couldn’t completely wash out her name and it became the name of the resurrection holiday. This was a way to help pagans convert to Christianity by masking the Spring Equinox with the Resurrection. The Germanic people feasted in Eostre’s honor in the month of her name.
Easter Eggs and Bonfires
Easter eggs are attributed to her worship, according to Jacob Grimm. The people lit bonfires in Eostre’s name – she was also the Germanic goddess of bright light. Hence another connection between the resurrection and her worship (the rising of the Sun/Son). Not a whole lot more is known of Eostre, as her name has been nearly erased in time. Bede wrote of her and so did Grimm, but there are scholars who deny her existence entirely.
3. Holda: Germanic Mother Goose Goddess
Holda is another ancient Germanic goddess who many believe is the same deity as Berchta. Grimm called Holda the North German aspect of Berchta, the Southern German goddess. Holda was a spinner goddess in Pre-Christian times, then following the spread of Catholicism, she was ALSO turned into a witch. She rode on a distaff alongside other witches in the Wild Hunt (sound familiar?)
Holda is sometimes depicted as a young woman with light hair: white or blonde. She’s said to “shake out her garments” and the snow falls. Similar to Berchta, she is associated with Diana, an ancient Roman goddess. She has also been related to the Virgin Mary, and because of this scholars deny the fact that Holda was once a pagan goddess. They say she was more likely a version of the Virgin Mary. Holda may be the pre-cursor to Mother Goose. Because of Berchta and Holda having a “goose-foot” in some stories, and also because they protected babies, these goddesses may have inspired the classic figure in Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.
4. Nerthus: Germanic Fertility Earth Goddess
There was an ancient Germanic tribe called the Suebi tribe that worshiped a fertility goddess named Nerthus. Nerthus was the consort of the ancient Germanic god Ing (see the Ing or Ingwaz rune). Tacitus writes of the Nerthus cult from the first century AD. The Suebi tribe kept a sacred grove on an island dedicated to Nerthus. The fertility goddess was thought to walk among the Suebi people. And on the days she was worshiped, no one did anything except celebrate her.
Archaeology Confirms Nerthus
Sources say sacrifices were made in Nerthus’ name, slaves of the Suebi tribes. Nerthus rides a cart pulled by two cows. Her worship may date to the Bronze Age. Archaeological finds confirm Tacitus’ writings of Nerthus. Tacitus refers to Nerthus as Tera Mater, or Mother Earth, so she was more than just a fertility goddess. She was the Earth Goddess. She is related to the Norse god Njord.
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5. Walburga: Saint OR Germanic Earth Goddess?
Walburga is a goddess I recently learned about. Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, is said to be named for a Saint Walbuga, but upon deeper research and examination, we find she may have been the Saint that took the place of an earth/fertility goddess named Walburga who was also a witch and forest fairy queen. Similar to how St. Brigid “took over” for the goddess Brigid in Celtic lore and belief.
Walburga wore all white with a golden crown “White Lady” “Bright One”. She carries a spindle and mirror (the spindle matches Berchta, Freya and Holda). She is literally grain personified in certain tales. There’s a tradition for making corn dolliles in parts of Germany and they call them Walburga. AND interestingly, Walburga is thought to have appeared before a death in the family…very reminiscent of the Celtic Banshee and the psychopomp aspect of Berchta.
6. Nehalennia: Germanic Sea Goddess
Debated as to whether she was truly Celtic or Germanic, we include Nehalennia here because she was found in a place where there were Germanic tribes. In recent years, multiple votives and altars dedicated to this goddess were discovered on the Schelde River shorelines of The Netherlands. Scholars believe her cult dates back to at least the 2nd century BC but continuing into the 3rd century AD. But she is possibly older. Nehalennia is typically depicted with a dog beside her and marine symbols. And is therefore considered a sea goddess. Her name means “she of the sea”, after all. Call on her for prosperity, for journeys at sea, and to protect your canine friends.
7. Gullveig also known as Heidr
Why am I always attracted to the witch in every story? Gullveig is a figure in the Poetic Edda, a woman who is burnt three times and stabbed through the heart, only to keep coming back. This despicable act is actually performed by the Aesir gods, including Odin. It’s said this is what triggered the Aesir-Vanir war. When Gullveig returns from the dead the last time, she takes on a new name – Heidr. And she practices the Norse magic called Seidr. Some scholars believe Gullveig might actually be Freya in another form. Her name translates to “gold” and “drink” or possibly translates to mean she was thirsty for gold. The original gold-digger, ladies and gentlemen. But seriously, what a fascinating figure in the Eddas!
From the Voluspa:
“When the gods with spears had smitten Gollveig, And in the hall of Hor had burned her, Three times burned, and three times born, Oft and again, yet ever she lives. Heith they named her who sought their home. The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise; Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic, To evil women a joy she was.”
8. The Disir: Ancestral Germanic Goddesses?
I feel like the Disir are often forgotten when it comes to practicing Norse paganism and witchcraft. And I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps because their origins and traditions aren’t frequently documented or spoken of? Though they should be. The Disir are spirits that are attached to your family and to you. They are of a feminine nature and are believed to be either ancestors OR goddesses. They might possibly be both. The Disir look over your family, but are also largely in control of one’s fate. Sometimes the Norns are suspected of being Disir, as are the Valkyries. If you begin working with your own family’s Disir, consider celebrating Disablot, an ancient festival honoring the Disir. Just know that like other Norse spirits, the Disir have a good and a dangerous side to them, depending on the situation.
Read More About the Goddess:
- Berchta: Celtic Alpine Goddess of Children
- Eostre: Germanic Goddess of Spring
- How to Start Working with a Goddess