Be careful with the German words “Hölle” and “Holle”! The first means “hell” and the second is just an old form of the name “Hulda.” In Old German, this girls’ name meant “lovely” and “graceful.” And so Frau Holle is not the villain of today’s Märchen, but a very beloved figure from German folklore. Read the Grimm brothers’ telling of her story in the language of your choice at GrimmStories.com: Link.
Although I didn’t remember reading Frau Holle before this year, I know the basic story. There are two sisters — a good, beautiful one and a lazy, ugly one. Their mother prefers the second sister. Each girl works for another household for a while. The good one does the chores well and receives a great reward. But the lazy one does the chores badly and receives a great punishment.
Every culture seems to have its own version of this morality tale. (Germany itself has at least two! See Die drei Männlein im Walde — The Three Little Men in the Wood — for comparison: Link) The one I was most familiar with was The Colony of Cats (Link), thanks to English writer Andrew Lang. I recall believing it was originally an Italian folktale, but no internet search is confirming my guess.
As for Frau Holle herself, all German children know that when she shakes her feather pillows, it snows on earth. But to me, she was completely new. I’m very glad that we have finally “met”!
Going Back to Grimm
Two very obvious Christian connections are the blood on the spindle and the washing in the well. By shedding her blood in obedience to her mother, the good daughter identifies with Christ. She is not just naturally good and beautiful, but also spiritually so. And of course the water in the well represents the sacrament of baptism. After her baptism, the good daughter’s works earn greater merit; they can bring grace to the rest of the world.
I have also found a very long, thorough analysis of Frau Holle from former Catholic priest Eugene Drewermann. If your German is at B2-level or higher, I recommend listening to it yourself YouTube (Link). My favorite part is at the 48-minute mark, when Drewermann contrasts the widow and Frau Holle as mothers. He calls the widow “Frau Welt” or Lady World, who is another female figure from German tradition. From the front, Frau Welt is a beautiful, queenly lady; from the back, she is being eaten alive by toads and snakes. In the Middle Ages, she symbolized worldy delights and happiness — beautiful on the surface, but corrupted underneath. (Link) Like Frau Welt, the widow remains only on the surface of the world, unable to pass through the well to a deeper reality. And her daughter cannot merit the same great reward as her stepsister.
Unlike the mother goat in Der Wolf und die sieben jungen Geißlein (Link), Frau Holle does not obviously represent Holy Mother Church. She is closer to Mother Nature (Mutter Natur). But unlike Frau Welt, Mother Nature is a benign figure. God’s creation is good. But it is not the deepest reality.
A final note: The sisters don’t have names in the Grimm brothers’ version, but German tradition calls them Goldmarie (Golden Mary) and Pechmarie (Tar Mary).
Next Märchen Monday: Die Gänsemagd (The Goose Girl)
Read it here: Link