Mother Hulda (Frau Holle)
From my research it seems that the fairy tale of Mother Hulda, or Frau Holle as she is known in Germany, has origins in Norse and German mythology, where she is revered as a goddess of the underworld, the land of the dead, and guardian of young maidens and spinning and weaving. She is also acknowledged as an ancient sky-goddess who rules the weather, going back to Neolithic times.
In the Hesse region of Germany – where the Grimm Brothers lived, there is still the saying that when it is snowing Frau Holle is making her bed (shaking out her feather duvet).
So this story has remnants of memory and oral tradition from ancient times which have survived marginalization by Christianity and patriarchy. It is rich with symbolic motifs and esoteric metaphysical knowledge concerning the practical and spiritual initiation of young women, and can be seen as containing ritual information important to girls’ maturation process through puberty, which had become taboo, or silenced under patriarchy, but kept alive in the story for centuries.
The story is also a good example of the adage, “we reap what we sow”.
This story, number 24 of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and published in 1812, contains the themes of good vs bad, just vs unjust, separation-journey-return, tasks and rewards.
I am indebted to Kerby Lynn Boschee, who wrote an excellent Master’sthesis on Frau Holle.
Listen attentively to your own reactions, tangents and associations to the symbolic motifs in the story. The most important, apart from Mother Hulda herself, are the spindle, the well, the oven and the apple-tree – these motifs signify something sacred especially to do with women. There is no rescuing hero sweeping the heroine off her feet in this tale, but through her acceptance of the maturation process, her courage and resilience are rewarded.
‘Spin till her fingers bled’ – It seems that drop spindle whorls don’t have rough edges that could prick fingers, but a spinner I enquired from suggested the wool or flax or jute might have been full of thorns and ‘black-jacks’ or ‘cobbler’s pegs’ or even sharp little stones. A possible association is ‘she worked her fingers to the bone’. The blood stain on the spindle is also symbolic of the menstrual cycle, the initiatory phase when a girl turns into a woman.
‘She lost her spindle’ – and knew she was in deep trouble, as this was the essential tool for her work, and a symbol of her worth as a female. Spinning was one of the few means of earning an income for women in those far off days.
“The spindle also has great symbolic value… It carries with it a status that was highly desirable and the mark of a "good woman" both historically and, arguably, still today. In previous centuries, spinning was regarded as one of the most sacred acts… Spinning was an activity for a woman that was crucial to the livelihood of her family… The heroine's decision to jump into the dark well indicates the importance of the item.” (Kerby Boschee)
‘The well’ – source of water, Source of Life. “The well with its deep-set surface reminiscent of a watery mirror, is a frequently occurring symbol of the magical realm or land of souls. It is often equipped with feminine and motherly qualities, and is distinctly associated with birth” (Kerby Boschee).
Barbara Walker has a fascinating segment on wells in her “Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets”. In it she says that wells have been “often considered water-passages to the underground womb, and in northern Europe associated with Mother Hel, whose water-well was called the source of all the children on earth”. The journey into the unknown world of Mother Hulda’s realm starts from the well.
‘You must fetch it out again’ – Yes, we are responsible for our own actions, and yet this is one of those Impossible Tasks that begins the heroine’s Separation phase and sends her on her maturation journey. Her step-mother is an example of the Negative Mother archetype, who treats her step-daughter unjustly by exploiting her, favouring the lazy daughter, and not acknowledging her step-daughter’s virtues.
‘Beautiful meadow… sun shining’ – reminds me of Persephone picking crocuses before she was snatched into the Underworld by Hades, but this is the other way round, the girl jumps down the well into the underworld to get to the meadow. Hmmm… interesting.
‘Baker’s oven’ – represents the womb. The loaves in the oven can be seen as a symbol for pregnancy. The saying “She has a bun in the oven” is code for she’s pregnant. The womb itself can symbolize a dark nurturing place where an idea, a project, or an opus is gestated before coming to fruition.
‘Apple-trees’ - the apples which call out to be picked because they‘re ripe can be seen as a symbol for maturation. Also, the tree itself is a rich metaphor for the cycle of the seasons of shedding, blossoming and fruiting, as well as the unity of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. Apples feature in many cultures as a symbol of love and fertility. In Celtic folklore the apple tree is associated with virtue and motherhood – so we can see the progression from menstruation to pregnancy to motherhood, and all that each of these milestones entail for a woman.
The requests of the oven and the apple-tree refer to the tasks in the rites of passage of a young woman which invoke her willingness to accept the responsibilities of her role.
Mother Hulda – goes by many names in various parts of Europe, - e.g. Frau Holle, Holda, Hel and Holla. The German word for Hell (Hel, the Norse underworld of the dead) is Holle. But she always displays the same characteristics of connections with spinning, snow, kindness and justice. In German mythology Mother Hulda is connected to the figure of the Earth Mother as well as Queen of Heaven and ruler over life and death.
“She existed in the oral tradition as a goddess, and her traditions were later collected by the Grimm brothers. It is important to differentiate the two (aspects of her), because she was demoted from her goddess role in Germanic traditions after Christianity spread, turning her into the "other-world" character in the fairy tale.” (Kerby Boschee)
‘Mother Hulda’s teeth’ – are an identifying characteristic, as she is described in folklore and myths about her. They remind me of the fearful feeling in ‘what big teeth you have Grandma!’ However, Mother Hulda is not a ‘devouring mother’, though she is scary if you are receiving your just deserts from her!
‘Boiled and roasted meat every day’ – widows and orphans were poor and could not have afforded meat every day. The girl was well nourished and cared for by Mother Hulda, as opposed to her nasty step-mother.
‘She began to feel homesick’ – she reflected on her life and her need to return home. This is the beginning of the final, completion phase of the heroine’s journey, that of The Return (following the Separation and the Initiation), where the girl returns to society, better off than she was before. This is a common pattern in fairy tales.
‘Large door standing open’ – a portal, a threshold, between worlds. These sometimes appear in our dreams when we are on the brink of something.
‘Gold’ – enduring, incorruptible, of highest value. The alchemists of old attempted to change base metals such as lead into gold. Symbolically, from a Jungian psychological perspective, alchemy is about transforming ourselves, bringing our Self to full realization (gold) by processes of meaning-making in our conscious and unconscious experiences.
‘Lazy daughter’ – all her actions were contrived, and her motivations suspect. Her refusal to help the oven and the apple-tree shows her unwillingness and unreadiness to be receptive to the tasks of her initiation. The girl wasn’t ready for this stage of maturity, or wanted it for the wrong reasons, - perhaps sibling rivalry, or to please the bad mother. She had her chance to change and grow in her time with Mother Hulda and she squandered it. Even her greedy motivation for gold could not keep her working. Mother Hulda gave her a warning, and she thought gold was coming – she just didn’t get it! Some people are impervious to feedback, “there are none so blind as those who won’t see”.
‘Pitch’ – thick, gooey, stinky black stuff that anyone who has worked with birds caught in an oil slick knows how hard it is to get off. It has its uses on roads, but is unhealthy for human contact.
Barbara Walker 1996. Women’s Encyclopaedia of Myths and Secrets. Castle Books, New Jersey.
These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with.
I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.
The well as a source connection to underground water symbolises psychologically and mytho-poetically our connection to the wisdom of the unconscious. It is important to practice being receptive to that wisdom, to keep the channels open, e.g. in exploring our dreams, meditation and paying attention to our intuition and creative urges.
- In the tale of your life, what phase in the pattern (see Annotations) of Separation, Initiation and Return might you be experiencing? How do you know this? How does it feel? What have you learned and gained along the way?
- As a woman, you might reflect on your initiation into womanhood. Was your transition easy or difficult? What support did you have? Is there a girl in your life for whom you could make this transition easier or more meaningful?
- What about the other phases like pregnancy or birthing a project? If you are a crone (a highly honoured position) how are you using your wisdom to nurture the younger generation?
- How have conditions changed for women in your lifetime? What more needs to be done? What are some of the ways you can actively support your fellow women?
- How do you honour the sacred feminine in your life (even if you are a man)?