Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index type 480: The Kind and the Unkind Girls. We first discussed this tale type in The Three Little Men in the Forest. This story type is relatively common and also includes Shita-kiri Suzume, Diamonds and Toads, The Three Heads in the Well, Father Frost, The Three Little Men in the Wood, The Enchanted Wreath, The Old Witch, and The Two Caskets.
As promised a few weeks ago, we’ve now come to one of Perchta’s other faces, Mother Holle. The Mother Holle story has allusions to Cinderella in that the story is focused on a widow who has two daughters. One is ugly and lazy and the other one is beautiful and industrious. The widow favors her ugly daughter and makes her beautiful daughter do all of the work.
Now, one day the beautiful maiden went out to fetch water, and as she bent over to pull the bucket from the well, she leaned over too much and fell into the water. And when she awoke and came to her senses, she was lying on the ground in a beautiful meadow, where the sun was shining and thousands of flowers were growing.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 81). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
As the maiden begins to explore this beautiful place she comes upon a bread oven where the bread is asking to be taken out before it burns. She does so and continues on. She then finds an apple tree asking to be shaken because the apples are ripe. She obliges the apple tree and continues on. She then comes upon the cottage of Mother Holle.
Mother Holle is a little like Baba Yaga in that she has a fearsome visage and she may offer help or hindrance, depending on how she feels about you. Unlike Baba Yaga, however, Mother Holle’s motivations are much simpler: she really just wants someone to fluff her bed every morning.
Since the old woman had spoken so kindly to her, the maiden agreed to enter her service. She took care of everything to the old woman’s satisfaction and always shook the bed so hard that the feathers flew about like snowflakes. In return, the woman treated her well: she never said an unkind word to the maiden, and she gave her roasted or boiled meat every day.Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (p. 82). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
The maiden serves Mother Holle for an undetermined amount of time but she is happy to do so. Her life with Mother Holle is quite lovely and relatively easy. She is never mistreated, she eats well, and seems to be at peace.
Having said that, the maiden eventually gets sad and homesick–why in the name of the gods she felt homesick I can’t even begin to imagine but ok–and asks Mother Holle to release her. Mother Holle does so willingly and as she is transporting the maiden back to her home a shower of gold falls upon the maiden and sticks to her.
The widow was very excited when her missing daughter returns, but only because she is covered in gold. She has the maiden tell her how this happened and then orders the lazy daughter to undertake the same quest. As I’m sure you can imagine, it didn’t go well. She let the bread burn, she refused to shake the apple tree, and did not do right by Mother Holle. She did alright the first day and then got continually worse until Mother Holle told her to leave. When the lazy sister was returned to her home, however, she found herself covered in pitch instead of gold. The pitch would stick to her for the remainder of her life.
This story came to the Grimm brothers by way of Dortchen Wilde, Wilhelm’s future wife. In later editions of the book, the story gains some additions, including that the maiden is not drawing water at the well but is instead sitting beside it, spinning until her fingers bleed, which certainly falls in line with Perchta’s obsession with spinning (this also calls out to the ever-present spinning wheel in fairy tales, which has its own book full of analysis and interpretations about “women’s work”). There are also versions that change the shower of gold to gold falling from the maiden’s lips every time she speaks, while the lazy sister has a toad falls from hers every time she speaks.
This story is interesting on a variety of levels. Mother Holle stands as a clear figure of judgement when it comes to good versus bad. The beautiful, kind, hardworking sister receives a rich reward and the ugly, unkind, lazy sister receives a lifelong punishment. There is nothing more to it than that. Unlike so many of these stories, there are no socioeconomic issues involved. This story has nothing to do with class and status and is really just a simple story of good girls and bad girls.
This is also the rare story where the protagonist goes to the magical being, on their territory, instead of the magical being coming to the human realm to help the protagonist. And too, even though the maiden falls down into the well, it is clear that Mother Holle’s realm is somewhere above the earth, given that it snows every time her bedding is shaken out of the window.
The other thing that makes this story interesting and rare is that we have a pre-Christian deity who made the transference to fairy tale figure. Her name was originally believed to be Hulda and she is so old that she predates the Norse pantheon. She was considered a goddess of women and she ruled over the spindle. She would later be rolled into the Holle/Perchta story by the Catholic Church, where she is also equated with numerous other mother-goddess types, including Hekate. Pre-Christian winter festivals and masked processionals that are dedicated to her still take place in the Alpine regions that often harken back to the Wild Hunt.
While the analysis of the story itself is relatively short, it’s the underlying facts that make it so fascinating and also, way more than I can conceivably write about in this post (I do have a life, y’all). I do encourage you to do some reading of your own, though. The way that Mother Holle has changed and evolved over the centuries and managed to evade being completely written out of relevance by the Catholic Church is a testament to human nature and our love of a rich and varied mythology.