44. Frau Perchta (German Folklore)

In today's episode, we celebrate the Christmas season by talking about Frau Perchta from German folklore! We discuss the frightening nature of many Germanic folktales, survival during winter, and the ways that traditions and beliefs get passed down from generation to generation.

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Wikipedia - Perchta

“Frau Perchta: The Midwinter Goddess” by Yamuna Hrodvitnir

“The Wild Hunt” by Prof. Geller

“Perchta the Belly-Slitter and Her Kin: A View of Some Traditional Threatening Figures, Threats, and Punishments” by John B. Smith

To donate, please go to ko-fi.com/mytholadies.

Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux.  You can find her and more of her work on Instagram @helena.cailleaux.illustratrice. Our theme song was composed and performed by Icarus Tyree. To hear more of their music, check out icarust.bandcamp.com.


[intro music]

Lizzie: Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts.

Zoe: I'm Zoe.

Lizzie: And I'm Lizzie, and how are you today, Zoe?

Zoe: I'm good. I am about to go on a little break, as in, from school. I'm going to go home for a few days, which I'm really excited about, because I haven't been home all semester. And it'll be a really nice break. And also, I gave a presentation in a class yesterday. And I realized that giving oral presentations has become a lot less difficult and daunting for me, because of this podcast, because I basically—

Lizzie: Oh!

Zoe: —because I basically, for my presentation did the same process that I do. For one, I'm making notes for the podcast. And I realized when I was practicing, that, like, it's not really scary or difficult, because I have done this so many times before, and I know how to like, speak from bullet points, which is very cool and exciting.

Lizzie: Yeah, I also really hate doing presentations. But like, I feel like with Mytholadies It's just like me talking to my friend. So it's not too hard. But it also like acclimates you to like, presenting and like making a presentation.

Zoe: Yeah. And also it helps that my professor that I was presenting in front of a super nice and loves me and I knew was going to be a super chill grader on the presentation. So like, I wasn't that stressed about it, but still, like getting things together and like practicing... it was a big help to like, get all that together.

Lizzie: That's awesome.

Zoe: How are you, Lizzie? What's up with you?

Lizzie: I'm fine. I just had some friends visit from various countries, which was really fun. On the topic of school, I like as you know, graduated recently, but I just got an email like last week being like, your like school services, whatever is about to expire and I'm really sad about it, because it's how I access academic articles for the podcast.

Zoe: Oh!

Lizzie: So that's going to be rough when it expires.

Zoe: Yeah. Oh, shoot, I hadn't even thought about that. Uh oh.

Lizzie: I know, I got like an alumni thing. So I should in theory be able to access my school's library still, but yeah.

Zoe: Oof, I hadn't thought about that.

Lizzie: Academia is so expensive. Yeah. And I've also been to this used bookstore in Amsterdam now like twice and gotten a total of like five mythology, folklore related books was really exciting for me.

Zoe: Yeah, that is awesome.

Lizzie: Yeah. So that's a fun time. And yeah, so who are we talking about in this episode?

Zoe: So today? Okay, so Lizzie, when this episode comes out, it will be December, I believe, right?

Lizzie: Oh, they won't it it will be near your birthday, won't it?

Zoe: It will be near my birthday, actually. Which means it's prime time for edgy podcasters to start talking about Krampus, which is the Germanic spirit considered the dark side of Santa Claus. However, we will not be doing that. And you know why? Because Krampus is a guy and this is a podcast about women.

Lizzie: Yes.

Zoe: We're not going to do that. So you know what we're going to be doing? We're going to be talking about Frau Perchta, who is the evil Germanic female spirit that's considered the dark side of Santa Claus.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: Instead.

Lizzie: Awesome.

Zoe: Feminism.

Lizzie: Exactly.

Zoe: Also, she's not necessarily fully evil, but like, she's generally—

Lizzie: Well, that's sort of the thesis of the podcast. Evil women usually aren't evil.

Zoe: That's true. But yeah, so that's what we're talking about today is Frau Perchta.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: So. Yeah, so first we start off with a bit of etymology. So her name may mean "the bright one" which is derived from Old High Germanic beraht or bereht, but it which is sort of related to the English word which means bright, actually.

Lizzie: Ah, okay.

Zoe: Yeah, which is fun. And it's likely also related to Berchtentag, which is the German word for the feast of the Epiphany, which she is related to. And the Epiphany, for those who don't know, is the day 12 days after Christmas, when the wise men appeared, visited Jesus; and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And that's basically what it's celebrating. And that's sort of considered like the end of the Christmas holidays, and it's also known as Twelfth Night.

Lizzie: Oh, like, like the play?

Zoe: Yeah. Which I like didn't realize that was why it was called that until doing this research. So.

Lizzie: I don't question Shakespeare titles.

Zoe: No, I don't either. Also, fun fact, in Germany, the person bringing the gifts is the baby Jesus and not Santa Claus, I believe. On Christmas.

Lizzie: There's a lot of different gift Bringer variations. Like, in the Netherlands they do Sinterklaas which is like Santa Claus. But it's not on Christmas. It's on December…

Zoe: December sixth?

Lizzie: Sixth. Yeah.

Zoe: Yeah. Because that's St. Nicholas’ Day. Which is the saint, obviously. that Santa Claus is based on. So yeah, lots of holidays that people celebrate throughout December and early January. Very exciting. Going back, we have an alternate etymology for her. Some people also believe that her name could come from the Old High Germanic verb, pergan, which means hidden or covered. So that- are- that's the theories and so she is, Frau Perchta is a folk spirit slash goddess, mostly popular in southern Germany and Austria and also a bit in Switzerland. She's basically Alpine, kinda

Lizzie: Huh, Okay.

Zoe: —is where she is most well-known. And she is also known as Berthe or Berchta, which is why we have like the relationship to Berchtentag and beraht and bereht and all that stuff, you know.

Lizzie: I love etymology.

Zoe: Yeah. Super fun. Also, /b/ and /p/ are related. Linguistically.

Lizzie: Indeed they are.

Zoe: She’s often described as having one large foot, and it's often called a goose foot or a swan foot. And that was theorized by Jacob Grimm to be the foot that works the treadle of a spinning wheel.

Lizzie: Like she has two feet, but one of them is weirdly big?

Zoe: Yes.

Lizzie: Awesome. I love that.

Zoe: You will find out she is related to spinning, she's associated with that. So she visits people's homes around Twelfth Night or January 6th, again, the Epiphany in Christianity. But she's also associated with Perchta Nights, which are the last three days before Christmas. And so traditionally, one should leave out a bowl of porridge for Frau Perchta.

Lizzie: That seems healthier than cookies.

Zoe: Yeah. I mean, also, if we're thinking of like medieval like pre—

Lizzie: it would have been more cost effective to leave out porridge.

Zoe: Yeah. [laughs] People don't have time or the ability to make cookies. Yeah, her main purpose is to ensure that people are keeping their house in order and cleaned. And she's especially associated with spinning flax thread with the nickname “Spinnstubenfrau”, which means spinning room lady.

Lizzie: Oh!

Zoe: So households were supposed to have all their flax spun into thread by Twelfth Night when Frau Perchta would arrive. And also you weren't supposed to spin at certain times, such as at night or during the holidays, because that's like a holy time you're not really supposed to be working. And so if their thread was not spun, she would fly into a rage and punish them, trampling the unspun fibers or even setting them on fire.

Lizzie: Oh!

Zoe: Things could get worse.

Lizzie: Ooh…

Zoe: If you didn't spin the thread and also your house is a mess in general, or you don't leave out porridge, she will perform the action from her other nickname, which is the Belly-Slitter.

Lizzie: Oh, no. [laughs]

Zoe: Yeah. So, what she will do is she will go into your bedroom, she will disembowel you, and she'll fill up your body with rocks and straw instead.

Lizzie: And you die. I'm presuming.

Zoe: Yeah, I'm also presuming that.

Lizzie: That's, that sounds like it could be related to bad children getting coal.

Zoe: Yeah, that's a very good point. Actually. I hadn't even thought of that.

Lizzie: People who misbehave get like rocks.

Zoe: Yeah. inside you.

Lizzie: Yes. Which sounds really horrible.

Zoe: No, yeah. Ouch. However, things aren't all bad. She will also reward those she sees working hard. And looking after the household and farms, she'll often leave a silver coin in a shoe or a pail left out for her. Which for those who know, that is a very, that is traditional for St. Nicholas Day when you leave out your shoe and you see gifts of money or candy or something in your shoe. And aside from looking after household chores, Frau Perchta is also associated with upholding other aspects of societal order and customs. And a huge one is honoring feasts and traditions, and also days of fasting. But the big one is feasts in honor of herself. So she has a feast that consists of fish and gruel and it’s supposed to be eaten at night.

Lizzie: Oh, okay.

Zoe: So if someone eats different foods, or eats before her own feast, she will, again, slit your belly and stuff it up with rock and straw.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: Her two different moods will manifest themselves in her appearance. When she is rewarding people, she will appear as a beautiful young woman. And when she's coming to punish people, she appears as a haggard old woman, often with an iron-beaked nose and dressed in rags.

Lizzie: An iron-beaked nose?

Zoe: Yeah, she has like a nose that's like tipped with iron.

Lizzie: I do have to just like wonder about the Germanic associations of like, evil old lady has a huge nose.

Zoe: Oh 100% You should absolutely wonder about that. Because that is 100% an antisemitic trope.

Lizzie: So much like Germanic like old folklore like some of it is outright antisemitic, and some of it it's like a bit more subtle. But it's there. It's very present.

Zoe: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, as we've talked about before, I think like the classic rendition of the witch with a long crooked nose is literally based on antisemitic caricatures.

Lizzie: Yeah. A lot of people don't even realize that like, yeah, really, really common, like iconography and like tropes in folklore and whatever are like straight up antisemitic caricatures, like a witch's hat, and a lot of stuff has to do with vampires.

Zoe: Yeah. Which you did talk about in our vampiric woman episode.  

Lizzie: Briefly. We want to do a full episode on the topic. But.

Zoe: Yeah, we do

Lizzie: Anyway.

Zoe: Yeah. So a few other things associated with Frau Perchta. She is said to have her own host of spirits and helpers known as the Perchten, which is basically like a plural of Perchta.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And it's often said to be the spirits of unbaptized children, which again, you can read into that of being an antisemitic concept, because she has a bunch of children with her, basically.

Lizzie: Are they unbaptized children who have died?

Zoe: Oh, yeah, they're dead.

Lizzie: Dead children.

Zoe:So basically, they’re children that died before they were able to be baptized, so they're like, in hell.

Lizzie: Got it.

Zoe: There are two different types. There’s schönperchten and schiachperchten, which means basically pretty perchten and ugly perchten.

Lizzie: Awesome.

Zoe: Yeah. And so during the 16th century, it was believed that the schönperchten would travel the earth during the 12 days of Christmas, giving gifts and wealth to those who were good that year, while the schiachperchten would wander the earth stamping their hoofs, bearing their fangs, and brandishing whips to chase away evil spirits.

Lizzie: That's crazy. I think it's simultaneously fun and also not fun how like so vivid, like these really common folklore themes are of like, beauty equals good, ugly equals evil. Like it’s—

Zoe: It’s also interesting, because in this part, it's like, not necessarily bad. Because they're not hurting people, they're scaring away evil spirits.

Lizzie: but also, Frau Perchta when she's in her ugly form is the one slitting people's stomachs and killing people.

Zoe: Yeah, for sure.

Lizzie: Do we know like how old this legend is?

Zoe: We're gonna get into that a little bit.

Lizzie: Oh, okay.

Zoe: A little bit. And also, so, in order to scare away spirits themselves, men around this time would wear similar frightening masks with like, fangs and horns. And they would brandish whips and stuff.

Lizzie: Okay.

Zoe: Does that sound familiar to you at all?

Lizzie: Fangs and horns, the devil?

Zoe: I mean, yeah. Yeah. So then we have the Wild Hunt. Have you heard of the Wild Hunt?

Lizzie: No.

Zoe: Oh, the Wild Hunt. I love this story. It's so scary and so fun. Basically, it's a folk myth all across all of like all of Europe, like Central, Northern, Western Europe, which is basically a ghostly hunt that travels across the sky at night. And so like a hunt is, you know, like a group of people who are hunting, they’re on horses, they've got dogs and stuff and like bows and arrows. And, you know. And they just travel across the sky at night and you like, see them and if you see them or hear them, it often signifies- you often see them during the winter and it often signifies bad weather or other ill omens.

Lizzie: Oh.

Zoe: and yeah, I don't know. I just love this story. It's like—

Lizzie: That’s so interesting.

Zoe: —can you imagine seeing that? That would be terrifying.

Lizzie: It would be terrifying.

Zoe: But oh, I love it. Anyways. And also it's like eventually become associated with like other like noble kings and stuff. Like eventually some people say Charlemagne is the leader or Barbarossa. And eventually King Arthur is like this, the Spirit leading the Wild Hunt. And then I guess it takes on a more positive like characteristic. But at this point, it's like a scary thing. And in some stories, Frau Perchta is the leader of the hunt. She flies above the rest of them and is screaming in the sky. And seeing it or hearing it. Bad sign.

Lizzie: That's so girl power of her.

Zoe: You don't want to do that. Yeah. But yeah. I love this story. So scary. So, do you want to hear some short little vignette stories associated with Frau Perchta?

Lizzie: I would love to.

Zoe: Okay, so the first one is called "Percht and the Prying Farmhand". So we have, in this story, picture a farmer's wife and their workers, preparing a fine room to welcome Frau Perchta and her perchten to their house at Twelfth Night. A curious farmhand decides to climb into the stove to observe Frau Perchta as she examines the room. However, being Frau Perchta, she knows right away that he's there and tells one of her attendants, the perchten, to block the hole and the stove that he's using to observe her. The farmhand, seeing nothing, withdraws from the stove and realizes he's gone blind.

Lizzie: Oh!

Zoe: Seeking advice from a hermit on what to do, he takes the same position in the stove a year later. And Frau Perchta tells her attendant to unstop the hole. And when he withdraws, he realizes he can see again.

Lizzie: Interesting.

Zoe: So the other story is, another story is called "Percht and the Cottager". So one winter, we have a poor cottager, who's going out in the night in search of a new godfather for the latest addition to his extensive family. So basically, his wife just had another baby, and he already has a lot of kids, but he's like, I need another godfather for this child. And when it comes across—

Lizzie: So that if he dies, they all go to different people? Like all his children?

Zoe: Yeah, it's also sort of like, you know, a benefactor. It's like someone who looks after the kids and like, is invested in their health and like, wellbeing.

Lizzie: Fair enough, I don't actually have any godparents.

Zoe: Yeah, I mean, I don't think you're Christian. You're not Christian.

Lizzie: No, oh is that a Christian thing?

Zoe: Oh, yeah. It's a Christian thing.

Lizzie: I didn't even know that. Anyway.

Zoe: It says God in the title. Anyway.

Lizzie: I mean... okay. [laughing] Fair enough.

Zoe: Anyway, he came across Perchta and her company of children and, seeing a child dressed only in rags, exclaimed, "oh, you poor little Zodawascherl." Which means ragged, little mite.

Lizzie: [laughs] German is so fun.

Zoe: Yeah. Also, I think this is like an older Germanic thing, because I don't understand how that works. But like, we're not gonna worry about it.

Lizzie: I mean, I'm guessing it's like not Modern German.

Zoe: Yeah. But, and then, Frau Perchta told him that since he had given her children a name, or one of her children a name, he would be rewarded with a great fortune. With that, they vanish. And immediately afterwards, the man found a rich and generous sponsor for his new child, and who would also provide for his family. And that's the end of the story.

Lizzie: Oh, okay.

Zoe: So yeah, he got what he wanted.

Lizzie: So Frau Perchta does help people.

Zoe: Yes.

Lizzie: She's like a Baba Yaga.

Zoe: I mean, we talked about that earlier. We talked about earlier, like, you know, how she gives coins and stuff to people who are being good and hardworking.

Lizzie: Yeah, but also it's like you have to behave in a certain way in order to get her favor. It's not—

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: —just about whims. It's about like, you have to behave in a certain way.

Zoe: Yeah. And so our final story is called "Percht and the Farmhand". This is a different farmhand.

Lizzie: Different farmhand.

Zoe: It's not the prying farmhand.

Lizzie: 'Cause he's not prying.

Zoe: Yeah, he's just a farmhand. So, one night, Frau Perchta was traveling with her company of children. However, the road was particularly bumpy, and the carriage they were traveling in lost a linchpin and cannot continue. A farmhand happened upon the scene, and they asked him for help. He was able to secure the wheel with a new linchpin, which he carved from a piece of wood. Frau Perchta told him to keep the shavings as a reward. He was a little confused, but frightened, and did his he was told, pocketing the shavings of wood. When she disappeared, they turned to gold in his pocket.

Lizzie: Oh, that's nice.

Zoe: Yeah. And so, in all these stories, we see the essential concept of Frau Perchta. She is rewarding those who do good and punishing those who do bad, basically. But also, we see a sort of more benevolent side to her in all these stories anyway, because even with the prying farmhand, like he loses his sight for a year, but then he's learned his lesson and she gives him his sight back.

Lizzie: Yeah, he's not condemned for the rest of his life. He has a chance to like be redeemed.

Zoe: Yeah. So she has a lot of connections with other figures. So Elard Hugo Meyer theorized that the stories of Frau Perchta likely originated from earlier Germanic goddesses such as Frigga, the Norse goddess of the household, and Holda, a Germanic agricultural figure. So this can lead, this leads to her association with flax spinning, a common household task, as well as her role of judging how well families have been looking after the houses, punishing those who are lazy and rewarding those who are hardworking.

Lizzie: Which sounds like Frau Holle, who also comes from the Germanic goddess Holda.

Zoe: Yes. Interesting that you would think of that. Anyways. Jacob Grimm likewise theorized in his Deutsche Mythologie that Perchta originated as a pre-Christian goddess, setting the links between her name and the word "shining one" as an indication of her holiness. There is evidence that before the 1400s, there were cults dedicated to her worship as a goddess. They would leave food and drink for her during the 12 days of Christmas. However, her worship was banned in the 1400s, probably due to the increased influence of Christianity. Some people believe that her negative depictions are a result of Christian efforts to malign her in order to prevent her worship.

Lizzie: I believe that.

Zoe: Who's to say. He could be right.

Lizzie: I mean, I feel like that's a common theme in like, Christianized places.

Zoe: I mean, we've definitely talked about this before.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: So this, however, all of that theory is controversial. Some people, particularly folklorist John B. Smith, believe that she is not a pre-Christian figure, but rather came around with the introduction of the Epiphany and is basically the personification of the holiday of the Epiphany because her name is so similar to the name for the Epiphany, Berchtentag, Frau Perchta or Berchta.

Lizzie: Oh. Yeah, fair enough. She could be a folk figure that was not pre-Christian.

Zoe: Yeah, I mean, it's also important to point out that like, especially with Jacob Grimm, he was really interested in making a specifically German mythology and specific German culture. And he was doing this during the 1800s, which is when Germany was going through the process of unification. And so, like, he has an agenda for claiming like this, you know, you know, primordial figure—

Lizzie: That she's like a ancient ancestor of the Germans.

Zoe: Yeah. Yeah, like that she's this ancestral goddess that Germans have been worshipping for a really long time. And this is a sign of like, the deep, you know, cultural roots of the German people. Like, it doesn't necessarily mean that he is wrong. Like it's possible that's the case. But we have to like note that he has a very distinct agenda for claiming this. And for, like, writing specifically that this, that she exists, he has a very distinct nationalist purpose for this.

Lizzie: Yeah. Which we've seen in other cultures as well, like people—

Zoe: I mean, this is also the Kalevala is basically, a very similar motivation is that Finnish independence from Russia.

Lizzie: There was that Lithuanian goddess who somebody kind of made up, but then it caught on.

Zoe: Yeah, that caught on and she's really popular. Anyway. So, Frau Perchta is also associated with Frau Holle, who we discussed in our old crones episode.

Lizzie: Amazing.

Zoe: So in general, Frau Perchta is considered to be a scarier version of Frau Holle, more commonly found in Southern Germany, while Frau Holle is most associated with Northern Germany. But they're both associated with the creation of snow. Fun fact.

Lizzie: Ah, yes, Frau Holle had her bedsheets that had feathers shaken out of it.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: And then that was snow.

Zoe: Yeah. And Frau Perchta is also considered to be someone who makes snow.

Lizzie: Does she have a method?

Zoe: I don't know more details. I don't think, I couldn't find it. But they were like, yeah, she makes snow and I'm like, okay, cool.

Lizzie: You know, when you're a kid and people are like, rain is God's whatever, snow— 

Zoe: I remember my dad, my parents, because I was really afraid of thunderstorms and still really don't like thunderstorms. They would be like, that's the sound of angels bowling.

Lizzie: [laughs] Bowling?

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Did your parents make that up? Is that like a thing?

Zoe: I don't know, actually.

Lizzie: I think it's really fun.

Zoe: But it like, it worked to calm me down. Like, I don't know if like, I actually believed it or not, but it like worked. I was like, okay, the angels are bowling.

Lizzie: Awesome. So fun.

Zoe: Yeah. She is thought to be the precursor to the more popular nowadays story of Krampus.

Lizzie: Yes.

Zoe: They are both associated with the same time of year, the time period around the winter solstice. Saint Nicholas Day is actually the more Krampus time and Christmas. They're both associated with either violently punishing or rewarding good and bad behaviors. And they both have a dual nature. Frau Perchta has good and bad forms and Krampus is considered like, you know, the dark side of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. And the description of the schiachperchten is very similar to the description of Krampus, including the hoofs, horns and whips.

Lizzie: Ah, okay.

Zoe: Yeah. So that is Frau Perchta. Thoughts?

Lizzie: I think she's really fun. I think... I like the Frau Holle Association. That's what I thought of like, literally immediately because we just talked about her, like two episodes ago. It makes sense that she's the southern counterpart because they're really similar, but like a little different. I think it's fun, and we talked about this in.. for the Kikimora in the...

Zoe: Yep. Yeah.

Lizzie: And I think it's kind of fun because it's, I can just imagine like, mothers being like, if you don't clean then somebody is gonna come and kill you, you know?

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: I mean, it's a great fear tactic. If, you know, to tell children. I would be scared. And it goes with the whole—

Zoe: I would also be scared.

Lizzie: I mean, there's a whole thing that like Santa is about we're like you, he knows everything that you do, and if you're good, he gives you presents and if you're bad, he gives you coal. But I feel like getting coal is kind of neutral, like it's sad, but it's not actually harmful whereas, like, Frau Perchta will straight up kill you.

Zoe: Yeah, it is interesting that like, there's that level of violence to it.

Lizzie: From the, from stories like this and like the Grimm tales, it makes me think that older like German society was like so scary for a child.

Zoe: No, I mean, there's literally like this book of German cautionary tales for children that's literally like, this child went for a walk and then like, got murdered by this horrible monster. So don't do that, children. It's like, what?

Lizzie: That's amazing.

Zoe: Yeah, like it's terrifying. There was the one that was like I saw some, like I saw recently online that was like, this child says that he won't eat soup. And then he wastes away over the next few days.

Lizzie: Wow.

Zoe: Like of starvation because he said he won't eat soup. So, eat your soup, children. Like.

Lizzie: I mean, when you're a kid, you don't know to like question it. You're like, oh my god, I gotta eat my soup.

Zoe: You're like, oh my gosh, I need to eat my soup or else I'll die. And it's like, I don't know, maybe we don't need to traumatize children—

Lizzie: That's so messed up.

Zoe: —to get them to obey us like, but yeah.

Lizzie: Such a tense moralistic society.

Zoe: I mean, like, I think that, obviously, a really important thing that we talk about is that we're never trying to make like a value judgment of like, this is true or this is not true.

Lizzie: Yeah. Exactly.

Zoe: But I do think, like, when we come up with these stories is like, I think an interesting question is like, you know, was this like, a thing that was believed? Or is this a thing that was just said?

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: You know, like, did people really believe that Frau Perchta was going to come and slit their bellies if they didn't spin all their, their flax? Or was it just something that they like, told, like their children or daughters to, like, scare them into, like, doing their chores? Or, I mean, this is sort of like going into my analysis, but like, is this something that is created to like, enforce, you know, hard work, and make sure you're doing the work that you need to do in order to sustain yourself and your family over the winter months? Like, is this like a legitimate, like belief? Or is this just like, you know, a representation of like, the social norms and the social like, expectations, you know?

Lizzie: Yeah, like, if they weren't being told that Frau Perchta was going to kill them, maybe they would be till told that, like, a family member was gonna hurt them if they didn't clean their room, you know? And it's kind of fun to have a witch or like a old lady figure than like being scared of people you live with? I don't know.

Zoe: Yeah. I mean, maybe? Yeah. I mean, again, I don't know. I have no idea. This is not actually in my notes. This is something I just came up with on the spot. But I think it's interesting when we come up like with these cautionary tales.

Lizzie: Yeah, like, where do they come from?

Zoe: Sort of type of, yeah, it's like, you know, do we actually, I mean, parents, if you're listening with your children, you might want to cover their ears for the next portion. But like, at some point, like as a child, you do believe in Santa Claus.

Lizzie: Yeah. Or like, the tooth fairy.

Zoe: Or the tooth fairy, but like, at some point, you find out that's not a real thing. But then you, as a parent, make the conscious decision to continue that sort of lie and that cultural like, thing, and continue like enforcing that idea.

Lizzie: Yeah, even though you know it's not true.

Zoe: Yeah. And I mean, like, I don't know, I feel like I'm, I'm lost my thread a little here [laughs]. You know, we have all these stories that we tell people for like, enforcing certain behaviors, like, be good, or else Santa Claus will give you coal.

Lizzie: If you had kids, would you enforce belief in Santa Claus?

Zoe: I don't think so, to be honest.

Lizzie: Honestly, me too. I just don't want to lie to my kids.

Zoe: Yeah. Also, Santa Claus just seems like a lot of work. Like my parents stay up so late on, my parents stay up so late on Christmas Eve just to like put out presents. And it's like, why do that? I don't know.

Lizzie: Yeah. And plus, you don't get credit for the amazing gifts that you give your children.

Zoe: Yeah. Like, I don't know.

Lizzie: But also, it's like even when they don't believe in Santa anymore. It's still fun to do these little rituals of like, oh, look what Santa left you.

Zoe: No, that's true. Also, my parents have this ritual where like the elves leave us PJs.

Lizzie: Aww!

Zoe: Where like we get new PJs every year even though like I don't need more PJs.

Lizzie: But it's fun. Little ritual.

Zoe: But it's fun. And like my parents would be like, oh, check the stairs, there's something there. And I'm like, oh, my gosh, more PJs, where did they come from? But yeah.

Lizzie: Sometimes it's about the ritual and not like, real belief. You never know.

Zoe: Yeah. So yeah, as I sort of implied, I think that Frau Perchta's basic role is that of enforcing, you know, certain cultural and social expectations and not necessarily in a bad way. Because a lot of the things that she does is basically saying, are you doing the job, the work that you need to do in order to provide for yourself and your community during winter, which is like the hardest time of the year? Especially like if we're thinking of these, you know, Middle Ages era when like, you don't have electricity. You don't have heat.

Lizzie: You don't have a life purpose outside of like, whatever your role is.

Zoe: Yeah, like you, you, you need, you really need to work hard in order to make sure that people are surviving and like your house is warm and there's food and clothes.

Lizzie: There's not a lot of space to just like, slack off.

Zoe: Yeah. And so basically, I think it sort of works that her function is to sort of punish people who are not, you know, keeping up their end of what they need to do in order to take care of their family and their community as a whole. And I think that like, you know, maybe punishment isn't like the best solution in the world, but I understand like, the, the idea behind it, like, if you're not doing, if you're not providing, if you're not helping people, if you're not doing your job, in order to make sure that everyone survives, like, that's not good, you know.

Lizzie: And that's sort of like at the root of the Frau Holle story as well of like, don't be lazy, or you will be punished. And like, if you're good, then that can be rewarded, because that's like, a good, good behavior, good traits, and you might get a shower of gold, and you're super rich.

Zoe: And then it also, I mean, it's also like, if you do hard work, you're gonna be more successful, because if your family has food, if your family has firewood, you're gonna be better off.

Lizzie: That's true.

Zoe: Like, you're gonna, maybe you won't have like little silver coins in your shoe, but you're gonna, hopefully still be alive, which is better than not being alive.

Lizzie: Wow, so true.

Zoe: So true. And also, I think it makes a lot of sense to me then that she is depicted as an old woman, because older women were often the heads of the family, especially in pre-Christian times and oversaw the workings of the household. And so the idea of her basically being like the old woman who comes into the house and punishes people who are violating like the cultural taboos, are failing to do their fair share of work makes a lot of sense. It's basically like a mythological version of a mother coming to scold and punish neglectful children.

Lizzie: Yeah. And I mean, women were obviously associated with housework. So of course, it was gonna be, like, a woman.

Zoe: Yeah, I mean, it's sort of like what we talked about in our old crones episode of like, being the cultural representation of people's issues with their mothers.

Lizzie: [laughs] Yeah.

Zoe: Of like, oh, this big, scary old woman is going to come and slit open my belly if I don't do this properly, you know. And then it makes sense that she has a lot of unbaptized children as her attendants because then she's sort of like a demonic mother to lost souls, which fits again with the image of a powerful matriarch.

Lizzie: But I feel like the image of her like, a little, like, mother figure to all these lost souls is kind of nice.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: Maybe they're like her child army. But still.

Zoe: Yeah, I mean, I think she seems like she takes care of them. I don't know. She's not like hurting them.

Lizzie: I mean, it's nice that somebody's looking out for them.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: I don't see why being unbaptized is the worst thing in the world. But anyway.

Zoe: Yeah, I mean, this is again, from a Christian society.

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: And so also finally, in case you're wondering, why, why the belly slitting? Why? I found some analysis about that.

Lizzie: Ooh, okay.

Zoe: So, in particular, it represents her role as one who oversees cultural and religious feasts and fasting.

Lizzie: Oh, okay. So it's related to like, appetite?

Zoe: So, for example... yeah, so it's said that her knife could be deflected on a feast day by a significantly rounded belly. But if she came across an empty belly, she would fly into a rage and stuff their bellies full herself.

Lizzie: That makes sense.

Zoe: And so, and similarly, if she came across a full belly on a day when you were meant to be fasting, she would probably punish you in a similar way. So then she is not only supposed to encourage a solid work ethic, but also to make sure that religious days of rest and celebration are enforced as well. So basically, she sort of controls like, or she sort of oversees basically every aspect of people's lives. She oversees work, she oversees religious holidays and days of rest and fasting. And yeah, so she is quite a powerful figure.

Lizzie: That's kinda nice. I see her like association with the winter. I think it makes a lot of sense, because food is more scarce, it's like a generally more difficult time.

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: But I'm guessing she's present throughout the year, right, too?

Zoe: Yeah, I think that her biggest time period is around like December and January. And if we're looking at like pre-Christian time, I'm guessing she's associated with like the solstice. And that's where like, that's coming from simply because, you know, it's the darkest time of the year and that's like this kind of the scariest time because—

Lizzie: But what about the household upkeep? Is that not year-round?

Zoe: I guess it is year-round, but I think it's sort of like also, you know, this is like, the time when it's the most important is in the winter.

Lizzie: Yeah, I mean—

Zoe: Like, if you're not, you really can't slack off during the winter.

Lizzie: That's true. Yeah. Which also corresponds to like Santa because people get more vigilant of being like, oh, you better be nice. Around—

Zoe: Yeah.

Lizzie: —Christmastime.

Zoe: Yeah. And I think that, like, I mean, you probably can't really slack off too much through the rest of the months but the winter is like really it's like do or die.

Lizzie: Yeah, definitely.

Zoe: Like if you don't put, if you don't get the firewood, your family will freeze to death. You know?

Lizzie: If you don't have enough food stores you will starve.

Zoe: Yeah. You know, it's just kind of is how it is, you know? So yeah. That's my, this is our Christmas episode.

[Both laugh]

Lizzie: And Zoe's birthday episode.

Zoe: It is my birthday episode! Happy birthday to me. I'm 21.

Lizzie: Yay!

Zoe: Almost. And yeah—

Lizzie: You should get some glühwein. Actually, do they sell that in America? I have no idea.

Zoe: I mean I can get regular wein—

Lizzie: [laughing] True. Regular wein.

Zoe: —and make it into glue. [Both laugh] All right. Yeah. So have a good holidays, everyone. Hanukkah is already over at this point. 

Lizzie: Yeah.

Zoe: I hope everyone had a good Hanukkah and people have a good relaxing break. If they have a break. And have a good Christmas if they celebrate, good Kwanzaa. And yeah. Have a good new year. Oh, though, we're getting to the new year we'll have an episode.

Lizzie: Yeah, we're gonna have another episode.

Zoe: Yeah, we don't need to cover all the bases.

Lizzie: [laughs] Yeah. Happy Valentine's Day. I don't know what other—

Zoe: St. Patrick's day.

Lizzie: So true.

Zoe: Okay, that's enough.

Lizzie: Okay, thank you for listening. Please feel free to subscribe, listen to our other episodes, and we also have a ko-fi if you want to do a monthly or a one-time donation, we would appreciate it. Thank you.

Zoe: Thank you so much. Bye.

[outro music]

Lizzie: Mytholadies Podcast is produced, researched, and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Mytholadies and visit us on our website at mytholadies.com. Our cover artist is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thanks for listening, see you in two weeks.