Costumed Holiday traditions are quite common throughout northern Europe, as well as in England and Scandinavia. In some regions, Holda, Percht and Bercht play a prominent part in them. Indeed, vivid visual descriptions of her may allude to a popular portrayal, perhaps as part of a seasonal festival or holiday drama. In 1522, in The Exposition of the Epistles at Basel, Martin Luther writes:
“Here cometh up Dame Hulde with the snout, to wit, nature, and goeth about to gainstay her God and give him the lie, hangeth her old ragfair about her, the straw-harness; then falls to work and scrapes it featly on her fiddle.”
According to Oberlin, Luther compared Nature rebelling against God to the heathenish Hulda “with the frightful nose.” Martin of Amberg called her Percht mit der eisen nasen, “with the iron nose.” Hans Vintler, a late medieval Tyrolean poet, called her Frau Perchta with the long nose and a MHG manuscript refers to her as Berchten mit der langen nas. She is called Trempe, the trampling one, and Stempe, the stamping one, indicating that she and her train were expected to make a racket. In Pinzgau, her followers are known as Perchten and roamed the village in disguise carrying cow-bells and cracking whips to drive the witches out. On Perchten nacht, the night before Epiphany, the young men of Salzburg dressed up in fantastic garb and leapt wildly in the fields, shouting in her honor. The higher the leap, the higher next year’s crop would grow. This behavior, called Perchtenlauf, “Perchta running,” was also customary in Tyrol. The raucous rabble of maskers marched along with jingling bells and resounding whip-cracks, entering houses, dancing and drinking, winding from village to village like the Wild Hunt itself. Such tumultuous masquerades were thought to be beneficial to the crops; a bad harvest would be attributed to omission of the Perchten.
Whether the way was wet or pitch black, the procession went forward with flaring lights, the men leaping along with the help of long poles, waking the slumbering valley with their merrymaking. Such behavior is immediately reminiscent of the acrobats depicted on Bronze Age petroglyphs in Scandinavia and a bronze figure found at Grevensvænge, Zealand in 1779, dating roughly between 800 BC and 500 BC. Likewise, some of Perchta’s followers, known as Perchten, personify horned and furry beasts, like those figures from prehistoric petroglyphs thought to represent men dressed as mountain goats, with curved horns and built-up leggings. In 1890, Hans Junger, known to be a reliable narrator, described such a party in Salzburg as consisting of twelve men known as the Perchten, who were concealed in black cloaks with hoods. On their heads, they wore carved wooden masks, some with movable parts, with exaggerated features: long teeth, twisted horns, protruding beaks and spiny bristles; all carrying clusters of bells sewn onto broad leather straps, or swinging cast iron cow bells.
The Wild Perchten comprised a motley crew of peasants in repulsive masks, clad in a strange collection of tatters, made up as such stock characters as the ragman and his wife (played by a man almost twice his mate’s size decked out in drag), a chimneysweep, a postman, a chained bear and his handler, and a cowering village idiot, all darting about, brandishing sticks and sounding particularly penetrating bells. Others dressed as beasts and devils accompanied them. As a rule the Wild Perchten performed their Perchtenlauf after dark. In times past, they would make their rounds on the three Thursdays of Advent armed with whips, drums, iron kettles, and a quantity of larger and smaller bells. Some of their masks were extraordinarily grotesque, adorned with long teeth and twisted horns, a long tongue rolling out of the mouth, protruding eyes, deep wrinkles, warts and such, with variations of devil- and animal-masks being the most popular. At first this train affected a certain dignity, as if having no desire to look conspicuous. Thus, according to custom, the spectators would tease and taunt them until they emitted the expected war-cries, whistles, growls and groans.
Until then, the wild ones kept a calm demeanor, but afterward begin to quarrel amongst themselves. The chimneysweep and the ragman would enter into a violent argument, hurling insults at one another until the chimneysweep made a wild plunge in his direction, nearly knocking over half-a-dozen spectators; and then they would chase each other about, dodging in and out of the gathered crowd, executing acrobatic leaps and bounds. The postman took this opportunity to flirt with the ragman's wife, an affront which could not be tolerated, so the ragman dropped his quarrel with the chimneysweep, rushed to clasp his "darling Eliza" and punch the postman upside the head. All the while, the untamed bear pursued by his master prowled about in a stealthy manner, catching those absorbed in the performance unaware and startling them.
The traditional Perchten in neighboring towns and valleys vary somewhat. A specific kind of Schön Perchten called Tresterer wear bright red and yellow suits with golden crowns adorned with rooster feathers. Schwegler or flutists play music to which the Tresterer dance. They travel in groups from farm to farm, performing a folk dance to reawaken the fields for a good harvest. Schlacht Perchten and a host of folk characters accompany this procession including the Lapp and his Lappin, Huhnerpercht (a raven-billed Perchten), and Krapfenschnappers (wolfish Perchten). In the Rauris Valley southwest of Salzburg, Schnabelperchten, dressed up as giant bird women, with long beaks protruding from under headscarves, roam about in groups, emitting a piercing “caw-caw” announcing their arrival. They check the cleanliness of the farmhouse, and carry baskets filled with gifts which they distribute in orderly homes. Like Perchta, these bird-women threaten to cut open the stomachs of lazy housewives, stuffing them with whatever mess they find. For this purpose, one of the group carries an oversized set of scissors.
In the Austrian town of Bad Mittendorf, southeast of Salzburg, creatures called Schabmänner or “Sweeper-men” dressed like straw brooms open the Perchtenlauf, clearing the way for St. Nicholas. In Goldegg, a small village in the Pongau region south of Salzburg, the citizens stage a Krampus or Perchten parade, replete with several folk figures. Besides the Schlacht Perchten or more devilish Krampuses, there are Frau Percht and her witches, the Hassergoaβ (a goat figure), a jester with large pointed cap named Hans Wurst, a large group of Schön Perchten (men in folk costume with huge symbolic headdresses like those described above), Zapfenmandl (a wooly man covered in pine cones), Werchmandl (a man covered in fur), Kaminkehrer (a man in white cap and black face, who brings good luck), as well as the Baer und Baerentrieber (bear and his handler), Schneidermandl (a tailor caricature), Puppenweibl (a man in drag representing a dollmaker), Korbelweibl (a caricature of a man and his wife), night watchmen, and the Three Wise Men.
Such customs live on in the same regions today, although their appearance has become decidedly more devilish as time has passed. In modern times the lines between the Perchten and Krampus has become blurred. Today the Krampus, traveling with or without St. Nicholaus, leads a large troop of hell-raisers known as the Krampuslauf. Sometimes as many as four hundred horned, hairy, demonic creatures parade through the remote villages around Salzburg and in Western Austria, particularly in the Pongau region.
An excerpt from the book:Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology (2018)The First Definitive Study of Odin's Wife Frigg.
By William P Reaves