Mother Holle Story and Ritual (Mother and Daughter)
Updated: May 30, 2021
In this summary, I have pasted the original Mother Holle story and also the ritual that was developed from this story thanks to all the students at the Clophill Centre who acted out this powerful coming of age ceremony.
If you have more questions or some pressing issues about this work, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org - especially if you are considering embarking and exploring this ritual.
First the story:
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm - 1812
A widow had two daughters, the one was beautiful and industrious, the other ugly and lazy. She greatly favoured the ugly, lazy girl, because she was her own daughter. And the other one had to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house.
Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, next to the highway, and spin so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the reel was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well to wash it off, but it dropped out of her hand and fell in. She cried, ran to her stepmother, and told her of the mishap. She scolded her so sharply, and was so merciless that she said, "Since you have let the reel fall in, you must fetch it out again."
Then the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified, she jumped into the well to get the reel. She lost her senses. And when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She walked across this meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, "Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I'll burn. I've been thoroughly baked for a long time." So she stepped up to it, and with a baker's peel took everything out, one loaf after the other.
After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. "Shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe." cried the tree. So she shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining apples. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a pile, and then continued on her way.
Finally she came to a small house. An old woman was peering out from inside. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, and she wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, "Don't be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you do my housework in an orderly fashion, it will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world.* I am Frau Holle."
Because the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Frau Holle's satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and boiled or roasted meat every day.
Now after she had been with Frau Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off here than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, "I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people."
Frau Holle said, "I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself." With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.
The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. "This is yours because you have been so industrious," said Frau Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the reel which had fallen into the well.
With that the gate was closed and the girl found herself above on earth, not far from her mother's house.
Then she went inside to her mother, and as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for the other ugly and lazy daughter. She made her go and sit by the well and spin. And to make her reel bloody, the lazy girl pricked her fingers and shoved her hand into a thorn bush. Then she threw the reel into the well, and jumped in herself.
Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, "Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I'll burn. I've been thoroughly baked for a long time."
But the lazy girl answered, "As if I would want to get all dirty," and walked away.
Soon she came to the apple tree. It cried out, "Oh, shake me. Shake me. We apples are all ripe."
But she answered, "Oh yes, one could fall on my head," and with that she walked on.
When she came to Frau Holle's house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Frau Holle - she was thinking about all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she already began to be lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn't even want to get up in the morning. She did not make the bed for Frau Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Frau Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her of her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted, for she thought that she would now get the rain of gold.
Frau Holle led her too to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of black pitch spilled over her. "That is the reward for your services," said Frau Holle, and closed the gate.
Then the lazy girl went home, entirely covered with pitch.
And the pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.
*Therefore in Hessen whenever it snows they say that Frau Holle is making her bed.
The Mother Holle story is transmitting cultural and ritual information on the maturing process of "girl to womanhood." For fairytales to survive in the general imagination for hundreds of years they need to have a substance in them which provides an "anatomy of our psychology. " (Marie Von Franz).
The relationship between Mother and Daughter is paramount in our society. Here the fairy tale functions as a guide of the developmental process from childhood to adulthood. Our protagonist goes through symbolic steps which are passages of time and seasonal changes to reach maturity. (It is by jumping into the WELL that the journey begins into a magical land where she is alchemically transformed).
The change of seasons and passages of time in the story can be seen in the following steps:
Spring - The wildflowers
Summer - The Bread
Autumn - The Apples
Winter - Shaking the Holle's bed covers and it snows
Mother Holle has been associated with the winter and the wild hunt in many parts of Europe where she controls the snow fall. The folklorist, Eugen Mogt points out that Mother Holle is one of the leaders of the wild hunt alongside Odin.
"Like Wodan (Odin), she too rode through the air, most especially during the time when the souls of the dead were about, during the twelve nights. Throughout central Germany she appears at the head of the spectres from the underworld as Frau Holle, who tangles the yarn of lazy spinners and punishes them, rewards good children, punishes bad, and who lives in mountains and ponds or lakes like the dead"
In the beginning of the plot we are introduced to the spindle and the blood, which informs us that a "maturing" process is under way. The biological function of moving into womanhood. The place where women gathered to spin flax is related to the female mysteries, from the Mediterranean up to Northern Europe.
The practice of Seidr relates to spinning and weaving, the wyrd is usually depicted as a spun carpet. Spells were cast and stories told whilst spinning. Because of this it was regarded rather unmanly to practice Seidr in the old times. It was usually a woman's art form as it was connected to women's craft in the homestead.
Von Beit says this of the Well:
"The Well, with its deep surface reminiscent of a watery mirror, is a frequently occurring symbol of the magical realm or land of souls. It is equipped with motherly qualities and distinctly associated with birth. A popular belief says that small children come from the well. In Germany these are called Holle Wells where the stork gets her children."
The Well is also a container, relating to the rune Petra P - a place where souls are born and made. The well is an initiatory portal, where we need to gaze into to find the wisdom we need to complete our individuation.
Also the baking of bread after the blood points to pregnancy or a pregnant possibility, we have the old saying "the bun in the oven." Apple trees indicate life and especially maturing life, when they are ripe they are also revealing the Autumn season here. Apples are related to the Goddess Idun who in Scandinavian mythology tends the apples that give the Gods long lives.
Both the apples and the bread give us echoes of regenerative qualities, the first daughter heeds their messages.
She meets with Mother Hella and serves her throughout the winter. She does so diligently and is given her gifts and her maturation is complete. She is showered in gold.
We de-literate the gold and instead read gold as we "feel" the sensation of gold to be. We are not dealing with "real" gold but spiritual gold. Our language here is a "vocabulary of the senses," non-literal, metaphorical and close to our own feelings.
The Mother Holle RITUAL
Background: Mother Holle is represented here as an old Goddess of the North, the subterranean Hella - Hel.
Statement of Intent: Finding beauty, love and empathy in the coming of age severance of mother and daughter.
Insight into what transforms negative emotions into positive ones: finding gold in the darkness.
Preparations and tools:
Apples, bread, string and a bowl of water. A cloth (the trembling veil) between the worlds.
Put out two chairs - one for the mother and one for the daughter. Fill a bowl of water. As a ritual leader, learn the story in detail and explain the proceedings. Use the runes to appoint Hella, unless someone steps forward, the same for the mother and daughter. Please note: this can also be ritualised between a real mother and daughter who want to heal rifts or difficulties. Explain the process:
Daughter being stained by blood whilst spinning her life by a well (not real blood - use a red colour, or ochre to show this if necessary)
Facing the Mother
Told to pick up the spindle in the well
Falls into the underworld
Find divine sustenance in bread
Collects the Apples
Hella instructs (soul instructions hidden as chores)
She longs for her spiritual home
Hella gives her gold from her time serving her
2nd daughter (acted by the same daughter)
Mother wanting the gold for her
Pricking her with thorns trying to make her bleed
The daughter has to hold the string which her mother also holds in this world
She bleeds because her mother is forcing her
Falls into the well
Works little and does not serve with her heart
She is covered in pitch
Sometimes it can be good to reverse this and the 2nd daughter goes first to meet Mother Holle.
Once the return is done, the daughter is confronted by her mother who feels shame and who does not agree with her. Here the voice of the mother is that of control and shaming. The daughter has to now find her own voice and speak back. Finding a voice and communication between them is important here, or the ritual can break - this needs to take the time it takes. The ritualist and the people around will have to express their own voices and nudge them along for reconciliation. But not intervene.
Once the ritualised speaking comes to an end there should be a severance with beauty, sensitivity and respect for each other. The cutting of the string represents this, it can be done ceremonially by Hella or the ritual leader, ideally with a given ritual knife rather than scissors. The daughter is then released and gains her maturity into womanhood.
Fathers and other participants drumming and singing and expressing their emotions throughout the ritual. This can be especially powerful if there is a mother and daughter that have chosen to do this ritual for healing and reconciliation.
To make this ceremony as meaningful and tender as we can, please see this above as the bones of a ceremony and add your own interpretations and choreography.
We are using a story which has powerful symbols and meanings that relate to a ceremonial past. A story to heal one of the world's most important relationships: mothers and daughters.
Once the ritual is over; I would suggest a feast for the daughter and a recognition of the severing of the string, giving her gifts and warm words of praise. She should also be covered in gold with praise words, and given gifts for a new found maturity and position in the community. It can also mean transforming her dress sense, braiding hair, crowning her at that moment and much more, it is for the ritual leader to decide, the props around the ceremony can be as simple or as elaborate as we wish them to be.
The aim is that art, spirit and relationships can flower and for these rituals and practices and to bring reconciliation to relationships and the wider community.