Visiting Gods at the Yuletide Table
In old heathen times, the purpose of the Hearth Cult was not to invoke the wild nature spirits, but to welcome the gods who commanded such creatures. After a thorough study of her legends and her related forms, both Jacob Grimm and Erica Timm identified Frau Holla, Perchta, Berhte and her other forms as Odin's wife Frigg. According to mediveal writers, each Yule she visits homes and people prepare a table for her and her companions, welcoming her into their homes.
Medieval folk traditions in Germany speaks of this old heathen goddess, whom men invite into their home with food offerings. They set a table for her and her children, or otherwise set food out for her.
Aberglaubensverzeichnis, a dictionary of superstitions believed to have been written by Rudolf, a Cistercian monk, between the years 1236 and 1250, speaks of a curious custom, welcoming the earth mother and her train into one’s home, performed annually: “On the night of Christ's nativity, they set the table for the Queen of Heaven (regine celi), whom the common people call Frau Holda, so that she might help them,” In nocte nativitatis Christi ponunt regine celi, quam dominam Holdam vulgus appelat, ut eas ipsa adiuvet. In agreement with this, the Life of St. Eligius (588-660 AD), who served as the chief counsellor to the Merovingian King Dagobert I, warns the newly converted people of Flanders, “nothing is ominous about the Calends of January. [Do not] set tables at night or exchange New Years' gifts or supply superfluous drinks.” Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church railed against such customs as “preparing a table for Perchta” and participating in processions, going about with “incense, cheese, a rope, and mallets” on “the eighth day of the Nativity of our Lord.”
In our mythology, it is Frigg who controls the land-vættir commanding them all to take oaths to do her son no harm. In this myth, her role as the Earth Mother becomes clear. She alone commands the land-vættir.
Grimm notes that the German Frau Holle is sometimes seen as the queen or leader of elves and hulde-folk, her name being extended to her entire troop, who appear as die guten holden, guedeholden, holderchen, holdeken, etc, terms synonymous with “good elves” in Germanic fairy tales and legends.
The goddess did not travel alone, but with a crowd of spirits. Frau Perchta rewards children who have worked diligently and learned their lessons well with nuts and sugar plums. When a fog floats over the fields, they see her gliding along, wrapped in a flowing white mantle. Her presence makes the farmers’ fields fruitful and causes their cattle to thrive. In the 1800s and early 1900s, on the evening of Twelfth-Night, the superstitious would leave their dinner scraps on the table for her and her companions. When they had gone to bed and all was quiet in the house, she would come in the form of a little, wizened old woman with a crowd of children and feast on the leftovers. But woe to the prying eye who peeped through the key-hole just then! Many a man, it was said, had been blinded for a whole year as a punishment for his curiosity.
Gylfaginning 50: The beginning of this tale is, that Balder dreamed dreams great and dangerous to his life. When he told these dreams to the asas they took counsel together, and it was decided that they should seek peace for Balder against all kinds of harm. So Frigg exacted an oath from fire, water, iron and all kinds of metal, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds and creeping things, that they should not hurt Balder. When this was done and made known, it became the pastime of Balder and the asas that he should stand up at their meetings while some of them should shoot at him, others should hew at him, while others should throw stones at him; but no matter what they did, no harm came to him, and this seemed to all a great honor.
Fréttir sögðu,at feigr væriUllar sefieinna þekkastr;fékk þat angrsFrigg ok Sváfni,rögnum öðrum:ráð sér festu.
3. The responses saidthat to death destined wasUllr's kinsman (Baldur),of all the dearest:that caused griefto Frigg and Svafnir (Odin),and to the other powers -On a course they resolved:
Út skyldi sendaallar vættirgriða at beiða,granda ei Baldri;vann alls konareið at vægja,Frigg tók allarFestar ok soeri.
4. that they would send,all vættir (wights)assurance to solicit,Baldr not to harm.All species sworeoaths to spare him;Frigg received alltheir vows and compacts.
But the plan fails, and Baldur is killed any way. In an ironic twist, it is the people in Hel who have laid out a table to prepare for Baldur's arrival, even as we lay a table out each Yule to welcome his mother:
Vegtam11. "Vegtam is my name,Valtam's son I am Tell me of Hel:from earth I call on you.For whom are those benchesstrewed o'er with rings,those costly coucheso'erlaid with gold ?"
Völva12. "Here stands mead,for Baldr brewed,over the bright potiona shield is laid;but the 'sons of the Æsir'are in anticipation.By compulsion I have spokenI will now be silent."
From Frigg herself, Loki learned that one thing did not swear an oath, the delicate mistletoe that does not grow in the ground but hangs west of Valhalla as a parasite from trees. Loki uses that knowledge to form a weapon from it, and trick Baldur's brother Hodur into killing him with it. Undetered, she sends Hermod on a mission to Hel, to see Baldur and secure his release.
(Gylfaginning 52) In the morning he asked Hel whether Balder might ride home with him, and told how great weeping there was among the Aesir. But Hel replied that it should now be tried whether Balder was so much beloved as was said. If all things, said she, both quick and dead, will weep for him, then he shall go back to the Aesir, but if anything refuses to shed tears, then he shall remain with Hel. Hermod arose, and Balder accompanied him out of the hall. He took the ring Draupner and sent it as a keepsake to Odin. Nanna sent Frigg a kerchief and other gifts, and to Fulla she sent a ring. Thereupon Hermod rode back and came to Asgard, where he reported the tidings he had seen and heard.53. Then the Aesir sent messengers over all the world, praying that Balder might be wept out of Hel’s power. All things did so,—men and beasts, the earth, stones, trees and all metals, just as you must have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into heat. When the messengers returned home and had done their errand well, they found a certain cave wherein sat a giantess (gygr = ogress) whose name was Thok. They requested her to weep Balder from Hel; but she answered:
Thok will weep
With dry tears
For Balder’s burial;
Neither in life nor in deathGave he me gladness.
Let Hel keep what she has!
- William P Reaves, 2021