Berchta: Ancient Alpine Goddess of Women, Children, and the Perchten
Berchta is a name that’s changed often over the centuries. A once widespread and greatly loved Germanic goddess, she still survives in German, Swiss, and Austrian folklore but under a different, more hideous guise. She is the leader of the Perchten. She is also known by Berhta, Bertha, Beraht, Perchta, Percht, Frau Percht, Frau Faste, Pehta, Perhta-Baba, and more. Berchta’s origins are ancient Germanic; however, one theory suggests she was worshiped by ancient alpine Celtic tribes before the Germanic tribes. In his book Teutonic Mythology, Grimm writes of Berchta’s cult centered in Southern Germany near the Black Forest, through the Alps of Switzerland, into Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and into France and Northern Italy, before the rise of the Church.
She is likely much older as Grimm theorizes, because her attributes are seen in multiple goddesses throughout Europe. One specific Germanic goddess seems to be the same deity – Hulda (also known Huldra, Holda or Frau Holle). She is the Northern German aspect of Berchta (which we will explore later in this article). Berchta is associated with the ancient fertility goddess Nerthus, the Wild Hunt god Berchtold, and with Wodan (Germanic form of Odin). She might have been the same deity as Diana, Hecate, Abundia, or the Italian Christmas witch La Befana. Her name is still uttered at the Perchten parades in modern times.
Berchta: Goddess, Psychopomp, Shapeshifter
Goddess and Psychopomp
Berchta was a beloved goddess who protected babies, children, and women. Through Grimm’s writings, we see glimpses into a past Germany where Berchta was a psychopomp (a guide to the afterlife), caring especially for babies and children’s souls. Gently, like a mother, she leads them to the next life. In one tale of Berchta, in which a grieving mother spots her recently-deceased little boy following a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a motherly woman in a white gown. The boy breaks away to address his sorrowful mother. In his hands he shows her a bucket of water, which he says is his mother’s tears. Then he tells her not to weep for him, for he is safe and sound under the White Lady’s watch (Berchta).
Berchta’s 3 Keys
Because of her association with the cycle of life-death-rebirth, Berchta wears a belt with three golden keys hanging from it. The 3 keys represent the 3 cycles: birth/death/rebirth of which Berchta presides over. It might also correspond to the Celtic sacred three land, sea, and sky.
How does Berchta manifest?
In the older tales, Berchta had long, black hair worn in braids on the sides of her head, and wears a long, white gown. This is why she has been referred to as the White Woman or Lady in White. In later stories, Berchta appears as a hag or crone, an elderly woman in disheveled dress. This could indicate Berchta as a triple goddess – maiden, mother, and crone, or it demonstrates the demonization of her name with the rise of the Church.
Shapeshifter and Protector
Another major aspect of Berchta is her shapeshifting abilities. Berchta has been described as having the feet of a goose or one goose-foot. She also takes the form of a swan. This indicates another of her attributes involved protection of wildlife, but it also recognizes Berchta as a shapeshifter. This isn’t a far-fetched idea, since many of the ancient gods and goddesses were connected with the animal-world and were shapeshifters or deified land spirits. In this regard, Berchta was the “guardian of beasts”. Not to mention the fact that geese were used as guard dogs in Medieval Times because of their ferocity and territorial nature.
Berchta = Birch (and Evergreens)
From my research in Germanic folklore and mythology, Berchta’s name is derived from the word birch, as in the birch tree. Berchta has a deep connection with the birch tree, which was a well-known representation of the goddess in Scandinavia. The rune Berkano is named for the birch tree, and is directly related to the goddess’ name Berchta, therefore this rune is sacred to Berchta.
Other Sacred Plants
Because Berchta was an alpine goddess, she lives under the evergreen trees and the holly tree is sacred to her. Other plants in her domain include mayflower (which she holds in her hand in some spring lore), flax (which she spins along with people’s fate), wild berries and, as mentioned previously, birch trees. Animals associated with Berchta include the goose, swan, mountain goat, cricket, owl, and fox. Any animal in the Alpine region is under her domain and protection (ibex, weasel, marmot, stork, etc). Berchta’s home is the mountains. She’s also said to live in a cottage surrounded by gardens of which she tends. These gardens are home to lost souls.
Berchta’s Magical Associations
Berchta in Folklore: The Wild Hunt, Frau Holle, Mother Goose
After the Church’s rise to power in the Middle Ages, Berchta became less and less god-like. She was no longer worshiped as she had been before. Because of her widespread cult, the Church had no other option but to demonize her. They demoted her from a Goddess to a witch. Her name became a fairy tale…a piece of folklore…a name to be feared.
The Wild Hunt
One well-known legend in Europe is the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt is a procession of spirits, witches, and demons that ride through the skies on certain nights of the year, collecting the souls of the dead. Some tales say these are the souls of the recently deceased, others say they were fairies or devils. Berchta became one of the Wild Hunt spirits. In most tales, she became a leader of the Wild Hunt alongside Wotan or Berchtold.
God Procession and Christmas Witches
The Wild Hunt was derived from an old pagan belief in god procession. The ancient pagan gods rode their horses in the clouds, either waging war or bringing abundance. On a side note, Odin is an early inspiration for Santa Claus as he was said to ride through the air on his steed – Sleipnir. And if we compare Berchta to the Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana, both rode through the air during the Christmas season bringing abundance. Also, if we think about Berchta as a psychopomp (guide to the dead), it makes sense why she was a part of the Wild Hunt, sweeping up the souls of the departed. The Wild Hunt might’ve become the Perchten.
Berchta and Holda
Berchta is another version of the Germanic goddess Holda. When Holda is mentioned in German folklore, her name is often substituted with Berchta, and vice versa. When the writer inquired from a modern day German about Berchta, she confirmed Berchta is still a part of their traditions. Berchta or “Frau Berchta” or “Frau Holle” shakes out her feather bed, creating the first snow fall each year in Germany (sketch of Frau Holle shaking out her pillow can be seen below).
In Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there is a tale of Mother Holle. Mother Holle is a “fairy godmother” being who either punishes or bestows gifts on young women depending on their honesty and work ethic. This fairy tale relates to older Middle Age tales of Berchta leaving every-day items as a reward, such as wood-chips, which turn to gold for good, hard-working people.
Berchtentag and Berchtesgaden
Berchta’s name is seen in two instances in modern Germany: Berchtentag, which is the Night of the Epiphany, and Berchtesgaden, a national park whose name translates to Berchta’s Garden. Berchtentag, also known as the Night of the Epiphany, is commemorated on January 5th or 6th, and is the twelfth night of Christmas. Berchta visited families on Berchtentag, and it was encouraged to leave out fish and gruel, cakes and milk, as offerings else Berchta punish in gruesome ways. How closely does the tradition of modern-day Santa Claus, leaving cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, resemble the ancient tradition of leaving offerings for the gods?
Berchtesgaden is a town in the shadow of the German Bavarian Alps. Scholars debate on the etymology of the town’s name; however, the writer believes the terms origins are clear – Berchta’s Garden. It is a beautiful landscape with green forests, tall snow-capped mountains, and is known for its local salt mines which have economically enriched the town since the fifteen hundreds. Grimm mentions salt mines were associated with witches, therefore associated with Berchta. In modern times, Berchta’s horde parades around Berchtesgaden to scare away the winter ghosts.
Have you ever wondered where the story of Mother Goose came from? Some believe Mother Goose is a modern version of Mother Berchta. Berchta was flanked by geese, and her counterpart Holda is wears a goose-down cape. Berchta shakes out her goose-down blankets to create the first snow each year. She has goose feet or one large goose-foot in many tales. Because she is a guardian of children, a guide of babies’ souls in the afterlife, the good memory was passed down in the form of an old woman who kept children’s stories alive…in the form of Mother Goose. If we examine the modern depictions of Berchta, Frau Holle, etc. there is an uncanny resemblance to Mother Goose.
Listen to our podcast on Berchta here:
A Demonized Berchta and the Perchten
Berchta, The Demon Witch
Unfortunately, Berchta as the White Lady, gift-giver, guide and protector of babes, domestic goddess of spinning and women, was nearly stomped out when the Church rose to power. When the Church came against pagan customs that couldn’t be absorbed, the only way to get the “pagans” to convert was to use fear. So Berchta, the wise white lady, was demonized and turned into a crooked-nosed, belly-slitting witch and leader of the Perchten. There were tales of Berchta the witch who captured children and ate them, similar to the horrific tales of Krampus. There were tales of Berchta, the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. If she was displeased with her offerings on the Night of the Epiphany, she would slit the person’s belly open and stuff him or her with straw. Berchta’s ancient link to the Winter Solstice wouldn’t be snuffed out, so the Church had to frighten the new converts into believing she was a demon. An iron-nosed, hideous hag who would eat babies and mutilate people. This isn’t a theory. It’s a fact. The cult of Berchta was outlawed in Bavaria (where Berchtesgaden is located) in the year of 1468, according to the Thesaurus Pauperum. Leaving Berchta offerings during Christmas-time was also forbade and documented by church officials in the same century.
In addition to Berchta becoming a frightening Christmas belly-slitting witch, her consorts became terrifying demons – the Perchten. A tradition of dressing in hideous masks and taking part in parades around the Christmas holidays still happens in modern times in Germany (in Berchtesgaden), Switzerland, Austria, etc. The Perchten parade alongside Krampus, and the people belive it’s an old folk tradition to scare away the winter ghosts. The Perchten scare away more than ghosts!
Berchta, The Belly Slitter
The terrifying names of Berchta – the iron-nosed and the belly-slitter – while a part of her demonization, show an ancient shamanic tradition of initiation. What struck me as intriguing – Berchta’s act of slitting bellies and filling them with straw. Shamanic initiation involves the shaman going through a near-death experience, often with visions of losing limbs or being disemboweled, and then being “put back together” again. What the Church called “bad” people were people who rebelled or stuck with their original customs, and therefore Berchta would “slit their bellies”. Sounds scary but to ancient pagans was a wink to shamanic initiation. As far as her iron-nose, there’s a clear correlation with other ancient goddesses who were demonized, including the well-known Hungarian hag, the iron-nosed Baba Yaga (it should be noted this forest-witch sat at a spinning wheel and lived in a house atop a large bird foot).
Ways to Work With Berchta
1. Read and Research
The first thing I tell people who want to work with Berchta as their goddess is to show her proper respect by reading all about her. As I said before, this isn’t necessarily easy because she’s more of an obscure deity than the likes of Freya or Frigg. But when you find the resources, it’s worth it. Start with Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology and then read Linda Raedisch’s books.
2. Set Up an Altar
Set up a small altar for Berchta including candles, incense, offering bowls, and more. I like to keep her space on the same altar as Odin, but the way you run your altar is up to you. Dedicate it to her and put some kind of image to represent her like a statue or framed picture.
3. Regular Offerings
Berchta has a few things that are traditionally offered to her including gruel with fish called Perchtenfilch, water, oatmeal and beer. In my experience, she also enjoys fresh flowers, song, prayer, candlelight, and a clean house.
Berchta’s Beauty Remains
If we view Berchta as the demonized, child-eating witch, then we are still keeping her name alive. But if we were to really dive into the depths of her name, her ancestral lineage, and beautiful history, we would see she is much different than modern church and folkloric distinctions portray. She didn’t eat children, she protected and guided them. She punished those who deserved punishment, but rewarded those were pure of heart. Her beauty and light can be seen in the wild and snow-capped peaks of the Alps to this day.