Berchta: An Ancient Germanic Goddess and Folkloric Figure

Names:  Berchta, Berhta, Bertha, Beraht, Perchta, Percht, Frau Percht, Frau Faste, Pehta, Perhta-Baba
Other Names:  Iron-Nosed, Long-Nosed, Belly-Slitter, Christmas Hag, The Bright Lady, The Bright One, Birch Goddess, Blessed Lady
Origins:  Ancient Germanic, Possibly Ancient Alpine Celtic
Regions:  Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia (Czech Kingdom), Slovenia
Consorts:  Berchtold, Wuotan
Associated Goddesses:  Holda, Frigga, Nerthus, Diana, Hecate, the Banshee, Abundia, Satia
Days:  Twelve Days of Christmas, Feast of the Epiphany (Berchtentag)
Plants:  Birch, Evergreen, Flax, Wild Berries
Animals:  Goose, Swan, Owl, Wolf, Fox
Foods:  bread, cheese, milk, meats, eggs, wine, water, fish, gruel, pasta
Appearance:  Often appears as a beautiful, shining woman in a long, white gown. Wears a ring of 3 keys on her belt. She is said to have long, black hair that she wears in braids on both sides of her head. She’s also said to take the form of an ugly, elderly hag. In this form, she has a long, iron nose. Some tales say she has one foot – that of a goose or a swan. She’s also said to carry a jar or vessel of tears.
Attributes/Associated Traits:  there is speculation that she was once a Triple Goddess. Protector of unbaptized babies and children, she guides the dead to the other realm on a ferry across the water. This makes her a psychopomp and explains why she carries keys – keys to the other realms or keys to the 3 major cycles of life (birth, death, rebirth). Mountain woman – said to live in the Alps. She’s also been related to a wood-wife and schrat. Rides with the Furious Host / Wild Hunt. Spinner, weaver, gift-giver. She gives gifts to the deserved that turn into gold. Her long iron nose was said to be used to stir coals (speculation – stoking the fire of ancestors?) Ancestress. Wild Woman. Bringer of prosperity (hence the gifts of gold). Shamanic initiation in her belly-slitter form. Shapeshifter (seen in the tales of her goose or swan foot).

Personal Experience with Berchta:
Berchta popped off the pages of the web at me one day whilst doing research on ancient Germanic goddesses. For some unknown reason (at the time), I found an immediate interest in her. I read about her on google, her mythology (what little there was) and folklore. I was drawn to the conflicting accounts of her name, her associations, her origins. Some said Berchta was a long-lost goddess of Germanic and Alpine origin. Others said she was a hideous hag, some referred to her as the Christmas Hag and re-named her Perchta. The name Berchta haunted me, thereafter. And I couldn’t help but feel called to connect with this somewhat obscure goddess. But the method in which she had called me felt unorthodox to me…uncomfortable, almost. A goddess who called to me through the internet? Ergh…this couldn’t be legitimate.

To my surprise, she began giving me signs that were unmistakable and overturned my doubts. I didn’t want to believe that a goddess could call to me through the internet. I didn’t want to believe that an ancient deity, one who’d been lost in the pages of time, one who’d been demonized by the Church, would actually reach to me through modern technology. But once the call came, her presence was made known through ancient means, as well as through blatant natural signs.

I have to go back and explain a little more as to why her appearance in my life was deeply significant. It wasn’t just a random deity popping in that would soon pop back out. For years, since I was in my early twenties, I felt more connected to male deities. Which, funny enough, is in opposition to most female pagans. A lot of women come to the path of paganism because it offers them the ability and option to revere and work with the Divine Feminine – something that many other religions don’t allow. So for me to come to paganism and connect mostly with male deities, seemed odd…at least to me. I wondered why I didn’t develop a strong connection with any female deities. Why always the male? The Horned Lord, Bran, Manannan, and Thoth were all deities that had a huge presence in my life…all Divine Masculine. But I didn’t fight this. I let it be.

Christmas_throughout_Christendom_-_Frau_Holle,_or_Berchta,_and_her_Train

Berchta leading the Furious Host with her consort.

Last year, I went through a big transformation after turning the big 30. Part of this transformation (I’ve learned since) was deeply embracing my feminine side. Loving my feminine self. Embracing my body as a woman and in turn grounding myself. Being close with Mother Earth. This also meant a shift in the aspect of Divinity with which I worked. This meant a closeness and new connection with the Divine Feminine that I had been lacking for many years. In this new feminine phase of my life, I took up gardening. I implemented grounding meditations and reiki cleansings to root myself into the earth. To connect my root chakra with the Divine. To heal my sacral and root chakras, that I had apparently been neglecting for years. Possibly my entire life. And in embracing this feminine shift, this healing shift, I unknowingly embraced the Divine Feminine and threw my hook out into the ocean of deities to snag a beautiful, healing matron goddess. A goddess of my German and Swiss ancestors’.

But I didn’t just want any matron. I didn’t want or long for a matron that everyone else knows. Talks about or writes about. I didn’t want to just pick a goddess from a pantheon that I’d known before. Or even one that I thought I had been drawn to in the past. And so I began digging into my German and Swiss ancestral roots. I wanted to learn their folklore. Their history. Their mythology. Unfortunately, much of the ancient people who lived in those regions had a mythology that was lost or downplayed or degraded in one way or another. We have the Saxon people of Northern Germany, whose legends and myths echo that of the Norse in many ways, and while I do have Saxon warrior ancestors, I wanted to dig further into my Southern German and Swiss roots. This is where most of my ancestors hail from. I discovered that Jacob Grimm was one of the forefront authors and folklorists for the Western region of Europe. So I’ve been digging into Grimm’s Fairy Tales, as well as Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology. Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology has quite a bit of information on Berchta and other seemingly-forgotten Germanic goddesses such as Holda and Nerthus. Even Eostre is mentioned from time to time.

But back to my calling from Berchta. After noticing her name on a Wikipedia page (gasp! I know, I know), her name haunted me. I wanted to find out everything there was to know about her. I scoured the internet, ordered Grimm’s mythological and folkloric works, and decided to ask her if she was to be my matron to send me a sign. I don’t know why this works, but it almost always does. A few nights later, a huge thunderstorm rolled through. At 4 AM, I woke up to a large clap of thunder. I sat up in bed and a random word popped into my head – Berchta. Then another word – Birch. And another – Berkano. It was like the lightning had turned on a light bulb in my mind and soul. Berchta, the demonized Christmas hag goddess, was one a birch goddess…the rune Berkano is directly linked with her. There was a connection there, as I had recently felt called to study the runes (something I’d been avoiding for years. I posted about this previously on my blog, you can go back and read it if you’re interested).

Since this thunderstorm and epiphany, Berchta has come to me in numerous ways. On a trip out west, we came across entire Birch groves. If you’ve ever seen the bark of a birch, sometimes there are what looks like eyes in the bark itself. She was watching me, and I was looking for her. She also came to me in the form of the fox. Because of her link to the wilderness, mountains, and my ancestors, she uses animals from the Alps and Black Forest to bring me messages of encouragement and comfort. All I have to do is pray and she answers me in one way or another.

The more I research her, the more I realize how deep and powerful her presence was in my ancestors’ lives. She was once a beautiful, bright mother goddess. A loving, nurturing goddess who would guide the souls of the dead from this life to the next. In particular, folklore tells us that she was the guardian and guide of children’s souls. She was said to ferry the souls of the dead safely over the waters to the other realms, so in this way she is definitely a psychopomp. There’s a story of how a woman lost her child, and shortly after saw her child being led by the goddess Berchta along with other children’s souls. Her child came up to her and told her not to weep for him, that he was in loving hands and was happy on the other side. This story is relayed in Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology. A jar of tears is carried at her side.

Grimm also speaks of Berchta being a black-haired woman who wears a white dress. Her long black hair she wears in braids and on her white dress is a golden belt with a set of golden keys.  Immediately upon reading about the keys, the concept of Berchta having the “keys” to the underworld struck my mind. If indeed it were three keys, this would mean she was a triple goddess – she opened the doors to birth, death, and rebirth – the cycle of life. If you were to look up the definition of Perchta (Berchta), there’s an online dictionary that defines her as being a goddess of fertility and death. This is because many goddesses who were known to be fertility goddess (who ruled over conception and childbirth) were also goddesses of death. While death seems like a scary and taboo topic, it was merely another part of the cycle of life and therefore another transition for the goddess to facilitate. This aspect of Berchta reminds me of Hecate, the Greek Triple Goddess of the Crossroads. Hecate is often seen as a death goddess or a psychopomp, one that guides souls to the underworld. However, most people disregard or don’t realize that she is also a guardian of childbirth. She is a goddess who rules the 3 crossroads – birth, life, and death. Or birth, death, and rebirth. Hecate is often depicted with 3 hounds, at a crossroads, and even with a set of keys.

Berchta is said to give the worthy gifts – gifts that turn into gold. This gold is supposedly kept in the mountain where she lives. In this way, might she be an ancient land spirit (aka genius loci) that became a goddess of the Celtic and Germanic peoples? I surmise her cult was widespread at one point because of how many countries still preserve her image in folklore. A figure so widespread such as Berchta must have had a large following in ancient times. She is thought to be the Southern Germany version of the Northern Germanic goddess Holda. They often seem to be one-in-the-same in attribute.

I wonder if Berchta isn’t actually from an even more ancient shamanic tradition. In relation to her hag-like appearance, and folklore that states she “slits the bellies” of people and fills them with straw and stones. This reminds me of shamanic initiation when an individual undergoes physical and spiritual transformation. Shamans have said to have had visions of having limbs cut off, and also to have organs removed. Might the belly-slitter Berchta be a nod to ancient shamanic initiation?

She is also a figure that rides with the Furious Host or the Wild Hunt, as others call it. These spirits were once gods and goddesses eventually demonized into ghosts and spirits that ride at night and torment the living as well as collect the dead. They are also leaders of witches. Her Furious Host consorts included Berchtold and Wuotan (Odin of Norse relation). The Furious Host may have once been the ancient kobolds, sprites, and elvish creatures. In this way, Berchta is related to wood-wives and schrats.

When I see Berchta, I see her as a shining motherly goddess. But in her most primitive form, I also see her as a wild mountain woman. One who lies next to wolves, shapeshifts and flies with owls and geese. Yet I can’t pin her down to one appearance or form. She takes whatever form is needed. While there are those who fear her name and relate her to the Christmas Hag or Witch who steals children, I know that these fallacies were created by those who wished to erase her name and worship from the ancient people. Her prominence and worship was so present throughout this region of Europe that they had no way to erase it, but to demonize it and scare the people from honoring her.

In more recent times, Berchta was said to be the Lady of the Epiphany, or a spirit who visits on the Night of the Epiphany. She is said to ride with other ladies at night and enter homes. The homes she enters should leave out food for her at the table, as well as set her a place at the table. If they do so, she will leave them gifts and prosperity for the years to come. The Feast of the Epiphany is called Berchtentag, which is an obvious nod to Berchta’s name.

In Bavaria, there is a town and mountain called Berchtengaten which means Berchta’s garden.

I will continue to study and work with Berchta as my Matron, as she is my ancestors’ goddess on many branches. As I learn hidden and exciting things about her, I will add them to this blog post so that others who feel called by the Birch Goddess might have access to this information.

The artist Melani Mann is responsible for the beautiful sketch of Berchta, the featured image of this post.