How the Ordeals of the Goddess in Story and Myth Reflect and Affect Human Life
We have been mystically orphaned of the Mother and denied the wisdom that we would have gained from her. When Goddesses are dethroned, leaving only the presence of Gods, all society suffers.
Caitlín and John Matthews , Walkers Between the Worlds
In Trilithon, volume 3, I had the pleasure of introducing a gem of ancient Goddess worship hidden in a song still sung by women working the fields on the steep mountainsides of the Austrian and Swiss Alps. In this article, I would like to explore some of the many other ways the Goddess has survived in story and myth in the German-speaking lands, particularly in the southern German regions of Bavaria and Austria.
Before we delve deeply into the ways the Goddess appears in song and lore still sung and told in German-speaking (and that includes Anglo-Saxon) Europe, let us first explore why we are talking about a female deity in the first place.
To understand the origins of Alpine Goddess lore, we need to go far back in time. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution, for nomadic tribes following the migration patterns of wild game, the worship of deities may have been related to the animals that were hunted. An ancient bear goddess, who later morphed into a god, possibly called something like Artus (eventually giving the name to the mythical King Arthur), may just have been such an animal deity of the hunter-gatherers. But with the rise of farming as the main source of food for bigger social units (i.e., beyond one family or clan), a new understanding of the pantheon seems to have emerged. Just as women give birth to children, the soil, dark and fertile as a woman’s womb, gifted the tribes with her offspring, edible crops of all kinds. The little 30,000-year-old figurine called the Venus of Willendorf seems to indicate that people back then already worshipped the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the land that fed and sheltered them like a mother. The goddess Gaia of the Greek pantheon, for example, who brought forth Uranos (the sky) herself and then, with him, gave birth to the Titans, among them Kronos, the Titan of the harvest, father of Zeus, is just one of many pieces of clear evidence that European people of old revered a great goddess from whom all life stems. This concept spawned numerous strains of lore. In those originating from the British Isles, we find her in stories of kings being married not only to their human queen, but also mystically with the sovereign of the land, herself again the spirit of the very soil the people inhabiting the kingdom live on, and from.
Seasonal changes are another important observation dating from the Neolithic that we still find in fairy tales. Other than regions close to the equator, the temperate climate zones on this planet are subject to an annual cycle of changing weather and rising and falling temperature. In order to successfully grow and harvest crops, people were forced to submit themselves to the realities, and challenges, of this yearly rotation of seasons. And, to make sure that future generations could benefit from the experiences of the previous ones—to avoid reinventing the wheel every year, so to speak—people packed their knowledge about the Goddess and about the seasons into stories.
The Goddess as a Single Figure: Frau Holle
Let us start with a mythical expression of the mother goddess that still treats her as a single personification of the land, not a trinity, like other, later manifestations of the same deity. Her name alone is of linguistic interest. “Holle” has its etymological roots in the Indo-European word *kailo, meaning something whole, uninjured. From this root derive words like holy (German heilig), holly, hail (the greeting), to heal (German heilen), and German words like the noun Heil (salvation) or the adjective heil (safe). The German words for the elder bush, Holunder or Hollerbusch, are other examples of such derivatives.
Of the many stories about Frau Holle, the one that made it into the collection of German fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is probably the best known. There, a girl, tasked by her wicked mother to spin as much wool as humanly possible, loses her spindle. It falls into the village well and the girl has to jump after it into the dark abyss. She loses consciousness, and when she awakens, she finds herself in a meadow. In the distance she sees a house, and walks toward it. Along the way, she is asked to perform a few tasks of compassion—shaking the ripe apples from a tree that can’t hold on to them much longer and taking bread out of an oven before it burns. When she arrives at the house, Frau Holle offers to employ the girl as a maid. The girl is particularly diligent, and so Frau Holle lets her perform some Goddess magic: The girl is allowed to shake out the pillows filled with goose feathers, whereupon snow falls down on earth. After a year and a day, the girl, stricken by homesickness, asks to be relieved of her duties. The Goddess discharges her, yet not before she showers the girl with gold.
In this fairy tale, we don’t learn much about the Goddess herself, but we do learn about her devotees, or even priestesses. Clearly, a person worthy of the gifts the Goddess will give must be able to overcome her fears—in this case jumping into a dark void—to travel into the Otherworld. One of the most striking pieces of evidence that the girl is in the Otherworld is that she had to travel downward to get there, but, against all laws of physics, she finds herself in a realm above the land, where she learns to make it snow. Because the story also tells about the girl’s sister, who is the opposite of devotion and therefore eventually gets fired and punished by Frau Holle, it has been categorized as a 480D fairy tale, “stories about well-behaved and naughty girls” (Aarne & Thompson, 1961). While this categorization is not wrong per se, it is a stark simplification of the depth of the myth and obviously does not take into consideration the otherworldly aspect of the tale, or the philosophical question underlying the plot: is it worth it to suffer and devote my life to a deity?
We can find a number of Frau Holle myths, probably older than this particular fairy tale, in the area around the Hoher Meissner, a mountain in Hessia, Germany. While archaeologists have found several grave sites of Celtic origin in Hessia, this region is certainly on the northern continental border of the Celtic lands, with heavy influence by Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, on the mountain in question, there is an extremely deep, yet small body of still water, called the Frau Holle Teich (Frau Holle Pond). The myth sings about the pond being an entrance to Frau Holle’s underground realm, with a castle made from silver and vast gardens filled with flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Frau Holle is said to seduce hunters to come down with her into her realm. These are all themes typical of Goddess myths, and we will hear more about romances between the Goddess and men later on. Young women would take a bath in the pond as a fertility ritual.
Frau Holle statue at the Frau Holle Pond near the Hoher Meissner in northern Hessia. Photo by Dirk Schmidt, 2009
Often, the giving nature of the Goddess comes through in the stories of Frau Holle. In some, however, we learn of her dark side, the one that takes lives. Particularly, it is said that she takes the lives of children and of women giving birth, taking their souls down with her to her underworld kingdom. However, the souls of the taken do enjoy a bounteous life with the Goddess. In some tales, young women disappear from the world for years, during which they are educated by Frau Holle herself to become her priestesses upon their return to the world of the living. Sometimes, these women are empowered to wield some magic themselves (Göttner-Abendroth, 2005).
The Goddess as the Sovereign of the Land: The Salige Madln
As folk on the path of Druidry, most of us are familiar with stories in which the land appears as a lady, to kings, to their sons, or to the unsuspecting young man for whom she has some great feat in store. For the purposes of this article, I would like to introduce another, Alpine manifestation of the spirit of the land.
Frau Holle is a figure of lore and myth mostly in central Germany (Hessia, northern Bavaria). In the Alps we know of the Salige Madln. Let us begin again by linguistically deciphering the meaning of this term.
First, Madln (mawdln) is the plural form for Madl, Austro-Bavarian dialect for the German word Mädchen (girl). There are two important concepts in this one little word that we need to explore. One is that we are talking about more than one figure, and it is no coincidence that usually three of them appear in the stories. The other concept is that the term “girls” almost seems dismissive when we are referring to holy ladies of the land. However, there is a very good reason for that. But before we delve into this apparent blasphemy, I would like to ponder the question why three of these girls so often appear in stories.
Sometime between the carving of the Venus of Willendorf and the painting of church altarpieces in remote valleys of Tyrol depicting three women with the names Wilbet, Ambet, and Borbet, the thinking of people of old seems to have evolved from worshipping a single Goddess to venerating a Goddess trinity. We can only guess why, but one thought would be that folks began to understand the different natures of the Mother Goddess. On one side she creates, provides, and on the other she takes. The land produces crops, feeds the people. And at other times the landslides down mountainsides, burying people underneath. The Goddess enchants women with her force to create new life, but every single one of us is taken by her again eventually.
Refining this dualism yet a bit further, these myths observe the fertility patterns of a woman’s lifetime as well as the yearly turn of the seasons, distinguishing three major segments: growth (spring), maturity (summer and autumn), and rest (winter). We will come back to this theme later, but for now the most important factor is that Alpine lore often talks about three godly figures representing the land, expressed in the plural form Madln.
Salige Maidens Fountain in Innsbruck, Tyrol, Austria. Although a more modern sculpture (by Hans Plangger, 1958) it shows the deep connection people in the Alps still have to these mythical figures. Photo by Leitzsche.
And then there is still the issue of why we call the goddesses “girls.” This can only be understood when considering the Christianization of the region. To refer to these deities as goddesses, or even ladies, would be contradicting Catholic Church dogma, which—in plain and simple words—was a dangerous, even life threatening, thing to do. To avoid the appearance of heresy, stories were crafted to be less threatening. Who could complain about stories where a young hunter runs into three beautiful girls deep in the forest?
The attribute Salige offers further context. The word means seelig in Standard German, which, in the context of religion, is the state one is in—and must stay in for several years—before being pronounced holy, a saint, by the pope. In essence, the Salige Madln are almost, but not quite, holy; almost, but not quite, ladies. And as such, they are no threat to the church and thus remain untouched in lore. They remain beautiful, while other former gods and goddesses are turned into brute giants, mean gnomes, and wicked hags. Salige Madln have long blonde hair, are clad in white, and appear with a divine vibrancy. That is not misogynist dreaming, but simply an idealistic image of women in this area of Europe. The long blonde hair has significance, as only unmarried women are allowed to wear it in public (or unknotted). Once a woman is bound in matrimony, her hair is braided into elaborate knots and no longer flows freely. Only her spouse may see her hair unbound in their private chambers, and only in the labor of childbirth are the knots undone to allow energy to flow. The Salige Madln are generally not bound in matrimony (except sometimes for a while); they are virgins (Jungfrauen, “young women”) in the original sense of the word: not at all untouched, but definitely unbound. Sometimes they are therefore referred to as Wilde Frauen (wild women). (Haid, 2002)
Rural woman in Austria with typical braided hair knot. Photo by author.
Following are a couple of tales that tell us, secretively as it were, of the lady of the land in her appearance as Salige Madln or wild women.
Once upon a time, a wild woman came to a farmer in Heimbach in Tyrol and worked as a maid on his farm. Since she was so capable and diligent, the farmer’s son soon asked her to marry him. She gladly agreed, but with one condition: “You must never question me when I do something odd, even if you do not understand why.” The young farmer promised and happily married his beautiful bride. For a few years, everything went very well. The cattle increased, and the fields, the stable, and the household were under a lucky star. One morning, the wild woman said, “Today we need to cut the crops!” But it was only early summer and the harvests were not yet ready. The farmer did not understand that at all and asked, annoyed, “But why?” At that instant, the wild woman left the house and was never seen again. (Falkner, 1963)
The theme of the marriage between a man and an otherworldly woman is well known in the Celtic lands. As in this Alpine tale, the man often fails to keep a promise he made her upon their wedding. The stories of the first Doctors of the Pheryllt, sons of an earthly man and a lady of the lake, come to mind, or the tale of the selkies. But here, there is another layer that I would like to uncover. In this legend we learn that the farm prospers significantly after the farmer’s son and the Goddess entered the bond of marriage. In other words, the farmer is committed to treating the land as if it was his loving wife, caring for it as if married to it. Thus, the gifts of the Goddess are plentiful. But then the farmer begins to challenge the wisdom of his wife, and in essence his old beliefs, because a new faith has arrived in the land, a faith that questions and belittles the old one. At this point, the wife, the Goddess, can do nothing but leave. When she does, there are undesirable consequences. Readers of Trilithon, volume 3, will remember that I described a similar caution in the “Song of St. Margaret”: The land withers when the Goddess leaves.
But there are not only stories lamenting the olden days, warning folks of the disastrous consequences of denouncing the Goddess. The next tale about a Salige as the sovereign of the land tells us about the interactions between farmers, their wives, and the Goddess.
The old folks of the village of Tschachoritsch near the river Drava in Austria’s most southern province, Carinthia, tell the story that one of the Salige Madln often came to the farm of the local stove fitter. One time, the wife of the stove fitter found the wild woman sleeping in the couple’s marital bed. Because the wife knew that this was a Salige Madl, she let her sleep, and picked up the woman’s blonde hair that reached all the way down to the floor. When the Salige woke up, she thanked the stove fitter’s wife for her thoughtful gesture and gifted her with a ball of yarn, saying, “The yarn shall never end until you say that you’ve had enough.” (Graber, 1941)
Clearly, the stove fitter’s wife’s reaction to finding another woman in her marital bed is somewhat remarkable. There is no jealousy. The woman even makes sure that the Goddess’s hair—note that hair was once believed to hold a person’s magical powers—does not get dirty on the floor. When we consider that the Salige Madl is in fact the land itself, the relationship between the stove fitter, himself a farmer (as craftspeople were typically both in those days), is only of a quasi-sexual nature. This second marriage of the farmer with the land, in the form of a Salige, ensures the survival of the family. Thus, the woman is not at all jealous, in fact even understanding and supportive, of this extramarital relationship. As a thank you for this deep understanding, the Goddess presents a magical gift to the woman.
There are hundreds of tales of Salige Madln in Alpine lore. As the saying goes, each valley has its own version. Later I explore another typical Salige Madln myth.
Stories of the Cyclical Nature of the Goddess
While the tales of Frau Holle and the Salige Madln focus on the activities of the Goddess and her interactions with humans, both in her form as a single deity and as a trinity, respectively, there are also stories about her life, as it were. In the temperate climate zone of northwestern Europe, we can observe major yearly changes due to the angle at which the sunlight hits the ground, warming the soil. The lower the angle, the colder it is. This is when we experience winter. On his daily path, the sun just skims over the horizon. When the path of the sun rises above a certain height, and the angle gets steeper, the soil changes. This is first recognizable at the beginning of February, when the Irish—and with them many in the Pagan community—celebrate Imbolc. In the Alps, we acknowledge this moment with the Lichtmess festivities, which literally means “light measurement.” Farmers would stick poles vertically into the ground and measure the length of the shadow to determine the right time to begin particular farming activities. During spring, the sun climbs even higher in the firmament, causing the first flowers to bloom and the winter seed to break through the surface of the soil. A few months of heat and rain cause the crops to ripen, harvest follows, and with that a sinking of the sun’s path toward the horizon once again. The land eventually dies, only to be awoken once again by the sun in the next year.
Now, with this cycle of nature in mind, let us look at some well-known fairy tales and how they relate to the seasons of the year.
Illustration of Schneewittchen by Alexander Zick, 1886. The image shows the connection between the Goddess and the animals long before Disney made this feature an integral part of his commercialized version of the story.
We all know this old fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It tells the story of very special girl, born to a loving queen and king. The mother dies, and when the princess matures, her stepmother, the wicked queen, grows jealous and tries to kill her. It takes three tries to put Snow White into a deep, unresponsive sleep. Winter befalls the land. But when a young knight in shining armor arrives, the maiden awakes again, and with her the land.
Laying the seasonal changes in the temperate climate zones over this fairy tale, we see the birth of the girl and the death of the queen, her mother, as the winter of the previous season. Quite literally, the wish for a child happens in winter, when the queen pokes her finger while embroidering, sitting at the window framed with ebony wood. The queen then asks for a girl with skin as white as snow, lips as red as the drops of blood, and hair as black as the ebony of the window frame. We will get to the meaning of the colors momentarily, but for now let’s stick with the flow of the story and how it relates to nature. The girl grows—spring—to become a woman, old enough to be fertile and to provide—summer has arrived. This is when she becomes a threat to her antagonist, the evil stepmother. The wicked queen learns from her magic mirror that she may be replaced by the maiden for good, and so she plots Snow White’s demise. That takes a while, but she is closer to success every time, just as it takes autumn a while to cool down the land, before the freezing grip of winter can kill off vegetation. At the same time, Snow White has retreated into the land, expressed by her journey to the dwarfs, dwellers in the Underworld. When the evil queen—and we can surely equate her with the Snow Queen of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same title—finally succeeds, winter has come once again. And it is a long one. But eventually a knight in shining armor, a symbol of the sun, arrives and reawakens the maiden (Storl, 2014).
Snow White and Rose Red
I have already mentioned the combination white, red, and black in the story of Snow White. Snow White, herself bearing a color in her name, has lips red as blood, skin white as snow, and hair black as ebony. In German, Snow White is called Schneewittchen. In this story, “Schneeweisschen und Rosenrot” in German, we have two sisters, one with “white” and the other with “red” in her name. And there is their mother, a widow, who is therefore wearing black. Again, the color combination we touched upon in the previous section.
In my article in Trilithon, volume 3, I explored this unity of three women wearing white, red, and black dresses. These are the women depicted in the sacral paintings mentioned above, who morphed into the three saints St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. Barbara. The women in the church pictures are dressed in these significant colors and carry the old symbols of a wheel, a worm or dragon, and a tower representing the castle keep. In even older paintings, their earlier names appear next to them or in the title: Wilbet (with reference to the wheel), Ambet (or One-bet), and Borbet. It is also interesting to consider that “borm” is the etymological root for words like warm and womb. “Bet” means “eternal.” Some might translate their names as the Eternal Wheel or Cycle, the Eternal One, or the Eternal Womb. In later pagan literature, these three figures, goddesses really, are also referred to as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. The Maiden wears the white dress symbolizing virginity and innocence, the Mother’s red dress represents her fertility, and the black dress of the Crone indicates the inevitability of the grave (Kuttner, 2003).
This is one reason why we can be so sure that Snow White is primarily a story about the Maiden, although she carries the colors of the Mother and the Crone as well. After all, she becomes both when she matures like the land in summer and withers in the realm of the dwarfs, dwellers in the mines, which are nothing less than Mother Earth’s womb.
And in Snow White and Rose Red, we also have three women, living together in a house, carrying the Goddess’s colors either in their name or as their garment. The story is about this family of three who hosts a bear (an animal often associated with the Goddess, as I noted above, not least of which because it retires in a cave over winter just like her), to give him shelter against the cold and to keep him safe from a hostile gnome. In spring, the bear has to leave, but when he walks through the gate, his fur rips and gold shines through the tear. Soon, the bear comes back as a prince clad in gold—once again, the return of the sun—and takes Snow White in marriage
Again, we find a description of at least two seasons in this fairy tale. The story seems to be much newer than Snow White, and therefore much less replete with symbolism.
Sleeping Beauty (Little Briar Rose)
Gustave Doré’s 1867 engraving showing the court fast asleep after Sleeping Beauty fell victim to the spell.
Another fairy tale, much better known than Snow White and Rose Red, is Sleeping Beauty. Again, it is about the birth of a princess—the sovereign of the land to be—and an adversary who tries to kill her. In a version known under the title “Little Briar Rose” that is older than the one collected by the Brothers Grimm, it is also a fairy who casts the spell on the ill-fated princess, but the circumstances are much more complicated than in Grimm’s variation. In Grimm, it is just the thirteenth fairy that was not invited to the naming ceremony because the court didn’t have enough place settings. However, the older version of the tale sings of the oldest of the fairies, whom the king and queen had invited, but who was absent, nowhere to be found. It was apparently typical for aging fairies to travel far and wide. But the oldest fairy still came back in time for the naming festivities, angry though about the procedural faux pas that the invitation was not extended to her, but to the twelve other fairies below her in rank. The last and youngest fairy hid behind a curtain when the oldest fairy cast the curse that the girl would die when she turned eighteen. And thus, the youngest happened to be the last fairy to make a wish for the newborn, and that wish was to reduce the death curse to one of a long sleep.
Because the curse entails the girl pricking her finger with a spindle when she is eighteen years of age, thereby falling into a 100-year-long sleep, the king orders all spindles to be removed from the kingdom. Of course, upon her eighteenth birthday, the maiden explores remote areas of the castle and finds an old woman at a spinning wheel—the ancient image of a goddess spinning the thread of fate comes to mind. The maiden does not know what that instrument is, because no such thing is allowed in the kingdom. She points at it and pricks her finger on the sharp top of the spindle. The curse is fulfilled and she falls asleep, and with her everyone else in the court. In the following 100 years, hedge roses completely cover the castle. A few princes and adventurers attempt to cut their way through the thorny hedge, but fail and die, caught in the ever-growing thicket of deadly thorns. The land turns barren and cold. Only when the 100 years have passed does a prince in shining armor—once again the sun—cut with his mighty sword—the sunbeam—through the rose hedge, finds the maiden Goddess, and kisses her awake. With this kiss of warmth, not only the lady, but also her land awakens to the bliss of spring.
Keeping the Goddess Alive in Story
All these tales of Frau Holle—Ms. Holy, the Salige Madln as the trinity of the lady, the sovereign of the land, the Goddess, and of the cycle of the seasons articulated in the lives and plights of the Maiden—are attempts to keep the knowledge of the Great Mother alive. The stories have survived the Catholic Inquisition, Martin Luther’s puritanism, the rise of science in the Era of Enlightenment, and even Walt Disney. We all ensure—in most cases without knowing—the survival of this awareness of the giving nature of the Great Goddess and the wheel of the year simply by sitting down at our children’s bedside and singing to them these old enchanted myths. And I would propose here that it could be seen as one of the challenges of the bards among us to deeply delve into these old stories, to learn them—their older versions—by heart, and tell them to a spellbound audience, children as well as adults.
A Plea from the Goddess
In this last section I explore two versions of one myth—there are many more to be found in Alpine lore—that open up a treasure box of knowledge about the Goddess.
Where we find the village of Grabenweg near Pottenstein in an idyllic valley in the Austrian province of Lower Austria today, snow-covered barren rocks once towered on either side of the desolate land. Only a few folk lived in this unforgiving area, in which only scraggly sheep could find a few clumps of grass here and there. A young shepherd knew of a few patches tucked away in the mountains and herded his flock there every day. Once, on the day of the summer solstice, he sat on a boulder and played his flute. With a great thunder and a glistening flash, a sparkling crystal palace appeared right in front of him. The door flew open and a beautiful maiden with long, blonde hair and dressed in shimmering white invited him in, telling him that he had broken, in part, a cruel spell with his song; a spell that kept her imprisoned in the crystal palace. Then she asked the astounded shepherd if he were up to lifting the curse entirely. The young man, falling in love with the maiden immediately, agreed to come back at the next summer solstice.
When he returned the next year, the crystal palace appeared again after the sun set and the church bell had finished ringing. He entered and at once an enormous snake slithered hissing toward him. But remembering his promise to the maiden, he kissed the snake on its head, losing consciousness at that very moment. When he awoke, he found himself alone in the mountains again. But now, they were no longer covered with ice, and the barren rocks were not as high and desolate any more. Another year went by, and when the shepherd returned at the summer solstice, he once again entered the palace. This time, a monster with gnashing teeth approached him. He was so frightened that he almost forgot his promise. But then he mustered all his courage and kissed the monster’s head. Awakening from his unconsciousness, he saw that the remaining rocks had given way to green rolling hills.
The last year went by and, as promised, the young man came to the spot where the crystal palace appeared after the sun had sunk beyond the horizon. This time, there were three maidens with long, blonde hair and dressed in shimmering white. One of them, with whom he had fallen in love years before, waved encouragingly at him. The shepherd entered the palace. But this time, a gigantic dragon hurled itself against the young man. All his bravery left him at once, and he fled from the monster. He was so frightened that he didn’t even hear the whimpering calls of the maiden.
Soon, the people from the valley began to miss the young man and it was not until the summer solstice of the next year that they found his corpse where he had run from the dragon. The valley, however, has been covered with lush, green meadows ever since.
Not unlike events in the story of Frau Holle, we encounter an innocent person—the shepherd—who is asked to perform some deeds of devotion to the Goddess, here clearly represented by a Salige Madl. We can just infer from the circumstances of where she lives that there are two others like her, and that she obviously wields some powerful magic. Playing music on a liminal day, a day of major change (the solstice) out in a remote place can only lead to entering the Otherworld, in which the young man is suddenly able to see the land as represented by its sovereign. He can also see the dark side, and the power, of the land. When asked to face these powers, he does, albeit only up to a certain point. His devotion to the Goddess prompts her to change the landscape for the better for the people, her children. This detail, the changing landscape, is rather unusual, yet it is exactly why I have chosen this particular one. It shows us very clearly the power of the Great Goddess, and also the power of devotion to her.
As practitioners of Druidry, we embark on a journey beyond time and space. Liminal times and places make it possible for us to enter the Otherworld. Like the farmer’s son in the earlier Salige Madl tale, we can not only visit the spirit of the land in our travels into the inner realm of our consciousness, we can also choose to enter into a deep relationship with that spirit, expressed in the story as a marriage. If we honor the Goddess like the stove fitter’s wife does by caring for the Salige Madl’s hair, or by returning to her place frequently to face the challenges of devotion, we will surely be gifted with some of her magic; whether that be a resource such as the never-ending yarn or something as large as a change in the land for the benefit of all.
The next tale suggests that there is another great achievement in store for us as the people who celebrate different facets of Druidry. It sings of devotion, courage, and failure, and most importantly of a favor the Goddess asks from us. It is a favor that will benefit us greatly and, if we are willing to fulfill her request, mustering all our courage, may also benefit the land and all people. The following story is—in its core—very similar to the previous one with the shepherd, yet it is not so much about the powers of the Goddess. This tale, of which there are many varieties in the Alpine region, speaks about a plea from the Goddess, one that is not easy to fulfill, but that would offer us immense wealth.
Where the Reinegger Farm is located today, three Salige Madln lived within its walls many years ago. Passers-by would sometimes hear them lament and cry and sing sad songs.
About a hundred years ago, the owner of the farm walked around the courtyard late at night to check if the barn and stable were locked. All of a sudden, she saw a beautiful woman with long, blonde hair standing in the moonlight. Her stature was majestic, but her face expressed sorrow and grief beyond words. “Do not be afraid,” the phantom said in a friendly voice. “I will do you no harm. You have been chosen to free my sisters and me from our prison. I therefore ask you to come with me to the ruin up there on the hill.”
“I can’t,” the farmer’s wife replied. “My heart is trembling with fear.”
Now the beautiful woman started to cry bitterly, fell to her knees in front of the farmer’s wife and begged, “If you take pity on me and my sisters, you will make yourself unbelievably happy. There is only one thing that might frighten you: a large snake will come toward you and slither by. It has a bunch of keys in its mouth. When the creature is close to you, muster all your courage and take the keys away from the snake.”
It took a while for the frightened peasant woman to get past her fear, but she finally agreed to partake in the adventure. With that, the Salige Madl disappeared.
At midnight, the countrywoman stood alone in the eerie, dark forest, and lo and behold, a huge snake slithered down from the nearby rock. Its scaly body glittered horribly in the moonlight. The creature slowly came closer, and soon the farmer’s wife heard the jingle of the keys. But then, gripped by unbearable horror, she exclaimed, “All the good saints praise the Lord!”
At that moment, the serpent disappeared and the forest was once again immersed in deep silence. And as it had been for a hundred years, people could hear the lamenting and crying from behind the walls of the ruin. (Graber, 1941)
If you feel so inclined, interrupt your reading here, prepare for Druidic contemplation, and meditate on the meaning of this tale, especially the key. What does it unlock? And why is it brought to the farmer’s wife by a snake (a “worm”)?
Whatever the results of your own contemplations, here is one suggestion for how to interpret this tale. For a brief moment, we have to put ourselves into the shoes of those of our ancestors who walked the soil of Europe in early medieval times, when Christianization began to reach from its stronghold in the urban centers into the rural areas. For many at this time, the new faith did not provide the same synchronicity with the seasons as the old one did. There was much resistance, and the old knowledge of rituals and ceremonies to ensure plentiful harvest went underground. Forced to adopt the new faith from far away, people wrapped their own, local belief into the mystery of song and story. And everyone had to hide their love of the Goddess deeply inside, imprisoning the Great Mother. Together with the campaign to suppress the Goddess came the further suppression of her human likeness, woman. Her power, finding expression in the snake, the worm, was demonized.
The story here expresses the hope, though, that one day someone will be strong enough again to look into the eyes of the big snake, with awe, yet without fear, and take the key to unlock the Goddess, Frau Holle, the Salige Madln, from their prison deep within ourselves. We could, as we embark on the path of Druidry, choose to be the ones to take on this challenge. The tale gives us much guidance for it. First, we would need to take on the task of searching for the Goddess, and it is suggested that we will find her deep in the dark forest of our inner self, dwelling in a ruin. In order to bring her back from this dreary place, we will need to muster all our courage to stare into the abyss of knowledge and wisdom. Not only are these two virtues hard to come by, they also require us to develop a strong ethical compass to withstand the taunting onslaught of this power of knowledge. We must learn to wield them in a way that benefits our community. Power is a shiny tool, glimmering like the scales of the snake that represents it, but we mustn’t get sidetracked by its seductive lure. And we must not falter. Because through knowledge and wisdom, which we gain through contemplation, practice, ritual, and service, we will receive the key that unlocks the memory of the Goddess, finding her alive and well. Then we are no longer orphans; we are reunited with the Great Mother.
Aarne, A., & Thompson, S. (1961). The types of the folktale: A classification and bibliography. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
Göttner-Abendroth, H. (2005). Frau Holle: Das Feenvolk der Dolomiten: Die großen Göttinnenmythen Mitteleuropas und der Alpen, neu erzählt. Königstein/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag.
Falkner, C. (1963). Ötztaler Buch: Sagen aus dem Ötztal. Published within the Schlern-Schriften. Innsbruck: Universitätsverlag Wagner.
Graber, G. (1941). Sagen und Märchen aus Kärnten. Graz: Lezkam Verlag
Haid, H. (2002). Mythos und Kult in den Alpen. Rosenheim: Rosenheimer.
Kuttner, E. (2003). Der Kult der Drei Jungfrauen: Eine Kraftquelle Weiblicher Spiritualität Neu Entdeckt. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.
Storl, W.-D. (2014). Die alte Göttin und ihre Pflanzen: Wie wir durch Märchen zu unserer Urspiritualität finden. Munich: Kailash.
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The writer is also the author of the book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps” on how to weave Alpine lore and customs into your own spiritual practice.
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