Winter Gods and Goddesses: Berchta, Odin, Cailleach, and More
Why do we have feasting, gift-giving, and share merriments during the Winter? Our ancestors needed a light-hearted approach and break from the brutal Winters of the past. Before electricity and modern conveniences, our ancestors had to endure the cold, hunger, sickness and more. They celebrated the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, because it meant the sun would return the next day. Winter was also a season to honor seasonal deities including those who personified Winter and those who represented death and the sun. Here are our 12 favorite Winter gods and goddesses from various pantheons for the 12 days of Christmas.
6 Winter Gods
This list of Winter gods merely scratches the seasonal surface. Nearly every culture that experienced a Winter, and particularly harsh Winters, had their own version of Winter deities. Some were even regarded as Winter personified.
1. Odin (Wotan)
Santa Claus…or Odin the Allfather? Let’s just say Odin has been a part of the Winter festivities since long before Santa Claus was a thing. Yet they look awfully alike, don’t they? Santa drives a sleigh led by 8 reindeer. Odin flies on his trusty eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Both Santa and Odin slip down chimneys and give candy and gifts to the children. In Germanic lore, Wotan (Odin) led the Wild Hunt which is a spiritual cavalcade of sorts that flies through the sky on Winter nights. Sometimes the Wild Hunt collected lost souls and sometimes a person joined the Wild Hunt in their sleep (via astral projection, no doubt). In Nordic countries, the people gave sacrifices to Odin in the Winter months to ensure safety and prosperity. Don’t take Odin out of Christmas, folks.
2. Jack Frost: A Norse & Anglo-Saxon Winter God Turned Folkloric Figure
While Jack Frost might not technically be considered a “god” to some, he is a powerful spirit in his own right. Jack Frost is the personification of frost, ice, sleet and snow. In England and the Nordic countries, people used to say that Jack Frost had visited when patterns of frost were left on their windows. Many believe he was once a Winter god that became demoted to a folkloric figure over the centuries. He regained popularity in the late eighteen-hundreds and took on a more elemental-trickster type personality. He may be the same spirit or an offshoot of Old Man Winter.
3. Bacchus and Dionysus
Yes, the Greeks had their Winter gods too. As did the Romans. Bacchus is the Roman equivalent to the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. While he’s most well-known for ruling over wine, Dionysus is much more than that. He presides over the cycles of life, death and rebirth. This god is a divine shaman and teaches his devotees ecstatic trance, untamed primal wildness, and much more. His feast days are throughout the Winter months: Dionysia at the end of November, another feast day one month later, then again in January and February. Because of this, he is considered a Winter god to some. I don’t mind a little wine and a party in the Winter time.
4. Ullr: The Norse God of the Winter
Interestingly, many Norse pagans venerate Ullr as a Winter god. Yet scholars say Ullr is never mentioned as a god anywhere in the Eddas. But more of a mythical figure. I say, just because Snorri wrote it, doesn’t mean it was the full truth. There’s archaeological evidence of a large shrine in Sweden to suggest Ullr was indeed honored as a god by the people. But whatever you believe, Ullr is a divine figure of some kind that brings the Winter season to his people. His domain also includes skiing, snow sports, and the Northern lights. Legend says the spray from Ullr’s skis created the Aurora borealis. Read more about Ullr here.
5. Boreas: The Winter God of the North Wind
Boreas sounds like a nice Winter god to work with, but be warned. He’s also known as The Devouring One. He is the spirit of Winter and can be both violent and benevolent. Depending on the person and situation. The Greeks believed he came from the North, being the North Wind, and because of this was considered Thracian in origin. He’s depicted with two faces – one in front and one in back. Judika Illes surmises this means he can see the past and the future. I believe it means he has a benevolent and malevolent side and is always “watching his back”, so to speak.
Get to know this old Winter god’s true nature by reading Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. He is featured as a complex character in this book series, and personally, one of my biggest book crushes of all time. Morozko is a Russian fairy tale and his name means Father Frost. The Story of King Frost is featured in Andrew Lang’s Yellow Fairy Book and tells this Winter deity’s tale. In other tales, he is called Ded Moroz and is an East Slavic version of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas. He brings presents to well-behaved children in the Winter months, particularly on December 31st.
6 Winter Goddesses
Any goddess that personifies Winter, Death, or the Winter holidays may be honored at this time of year. There are certain pagan deities that have been venerated on the Winter Solstice for centuries, but remember you can make your Winter sabbat your own. Here are 6 of our favorite Winter goddesses from various traditions:
I believe Berchta was inspiring me to write this article about Winter deities…possibly so she can get her name out there again. I don’t mind promoting her. She’s a wonderful Winter goddess to work with and honor in your practice. Who is Berchta? She’s an ancient Germanic (possibly Celtic) Alpine goddess who has been honored in Germanic Winter festivities since time immemorial. She was considered a goddess of the dead, specifically of children and lost souls, who was demonized by the Church in the Middle Ages. They turned her into a child-eating hag. Her gang of spirits is called the Perchten, and there are still Perchten parades in Austria and other mountainous regions. Learn more about Berchta here.
2. Bona Dea: The “Good” Winter Goddess of Ancient Rome
Bona dea has origins in ancient Rome. Though, technically, no one knows if Bona Dea was originally one goddess or many. And, at some point, she became a group of female spirits similar to the Norse Disir. The Bona Dea were venerated by women only and are considered a mystery cult. No men were allowed. She’s also frequently linked to the goddess Fauna, protector and ruler of wild animals and the countryside. Bona Dea’s feast days vary depending on the source but are either around December 3rd or May 1st.
Skadi is a Jotunn goddess in the Norse tradition. Jotunn means she is a giantess and lives in Jotunheimr (one of the realms of the Norse World Tree – Yggdrasil). She is attested to in the Eddas and Sagas as a goddess of Winter, bowhunting, skiing, and the mountains. Skadi is featured in stories with Odin, Loki, and Njordr among others. She’s even associated with snowshoes, and in later stories is said to have married Odin and bore him many children.
4. Cailleach: Divine Winter Hag
Also known as Beira, Queen of Winter, Cailleach is an ancient divine ancestor of the Irish and Scottish Celtic peoples. Her name literally means “old woman” and “hag”. It is she who brings Winter to Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. She rules the land during the Winter months, while Brigid rules the Summer months. There are hundreds of legends of Cailleach, dozens of places named for her, and quite a few deities associated with her. Certain Irish families claim descent from Cailleach including: Flynn, Coffey, O’Connell and others. Learn more of the Irish family names linked to Cailleach here.
5. Sunna: Sun Goddess and Saint Lucy
You’re probably wondering why I’m mentioning a sun goddess on a Winter deity post. Well, sun gods and goddesses are actually big during the Winter season. Why? Because our ancient ancestors celebrated the return of the sun following the longest night of the year – Winter Solstice. So, interestingly, Saint Lucy (the patron saint of Sweden) has her feast day on December 13th. Which used to be the Winter Solstice before the Gregorian calendar. And guess who else has a feast day on the Winter Solstice? Yep, the sun goddess of the Norse/Germanic people – Sunna. She’s also called Sol. Many believe Saint Lucy is a Christianized continuation of Sunna in modern times.
6. Morana: Slavic Goddess of Death and Winter
Morana, also called Morena, Mara or Mora, is the Slavic goddess of death, Winter, and the cycle of life, death and rebirth. She’s also closely associated with dreams. It’s likely her cult drowned an effigy in the river on the Spring Equinox to ask for her to end the harsh Winter season. Today, a Marzanna tradition is still carried out in towns in Central and Eastern Europe in the form of effigies, walking with the copse, and more.