Hessische Sagen – Frau Holle
Recently I’ve purchased a German manuscript probably written probably between 1910-1940. The manuscript contains hundreds of hand-written legends. The name of the writer is not very good legible, but I can make out his first name Rudolf. He collected explicitly all the “Sagen” for the generations after him. The book was unfortunately never published. I’ve made it one of my goals to start publishing his writings as we go. It is not my intention to clean or modernize the language. I focus on the transcription only.
The manuscript was written in Sütterlin which makes it not easy to decipher the manuscript. I couldn’t decipher one word though, which is marked by a red frame. Maybe you can help me out?
Welchem Kinde im Hessenlande wäre nicht die Frau Holle bekannt? Und wer hätte im Winter, wenn die weißen Flocken vom Himmel hernieder rieseln, nicht schon ausgerufen: “Frau Holle schüttelt ihr Bett”.
Frau Holle durchzieht zwar alle deutschen Gaue, aber ihre Wohnung hat sie im Hessenlande, eine Wohnung, wie sie kein König schöner und prächtiger haben könnte. Und größte und schönste Berg des ganzen hessischen Berglandes, der herrliche Meißner, eine mächtige Berghöhe, von der man bei klarer Lüft bis zu dem Brocken und dem Inselsberge, der Wartburg und der hohen Rhön, dem Odenberge und dem Habichtswalde schauen kann, ist ihr eigen. Hier thront sie im untererirdischen Palaste , und von hier aus tritt sie ihre Umzuge durch die Lande an.
Der Gipfel des Meißner ist abgeglattet und bildet eine Ebene, die ungefähr eine Wegstunde lang und an manchen Stellen etwa halb so breit ist. Uralte Überlieferungen knüpfen sich an einzelne Orte dieser weiten Hochfläche, und kamen von altehrwürdigen Klang, wie der Schlachtrasen und die Runen-wiese, die Kitz-Kammer, und der Gottesborn, weisen zurück in die graue Vorzeit. Eine besondere Merkwürdigkeit der Hochfläche aber bildet eine kleiner, von hohem Gras und Schilf umrahmter See, eingebettet in die muldenartige Vertiefung einen Moorwiese. Das ist der Frauhollenteich, die Wohnung der Frau Holle.
Telegony and the Sacred King
Scientist of the University of South Wales proved that telegony (also known as impregnation theory), the theory stating that offspring can inherit the characteristics of a previous mate of the female parent, exists. This applies for fruit flies at least, The researchers compared the size the young by the size of the first male the mother mated with, rather than the second male that created the offspring. In other words, the first one to mate with the mother leaves some “genetic” mark which is passed on to all offspring, regardless of the other mating-partners.
The outcome of this research is very remarkable and has great implications. Although the theory of telegony has been discarded until now, it is not new. It was observed by cattle in the previous century, although not proven. The farmers knew that when a cow mate with an outstanding bull for this first time, she would give life to a very good offspring. When a mediocre bull mated with the cow for the first time, the offspring would inherit the mediocre characteristics of the bull too. Although not all characteristics were passed on, the number must have been big enough to be observed and enter in the knowledge of cattle breeding.
The idea of telegony applies to humans too, according to Aristotle. The characteristics of the one who deflowers the becoming mother will be passed on to the direct and indirect offspring too. The same happens in the mythology when gods like Zeus mate with mortal woman. Those woman give birth to a demi-god, but also her other offspring seems to inherit some heavenly characteristics.
I have been pondering on the idea whether the “ius primae noctis” finds its origin in the telegony. The “right of the first night” appears in the early antiquity. The first explicit evidence can be found in the Gilgamesh Epic from the old Babylonian period (about -1900). In this text, Gilgamesh, the tyrannical hero and ruler of Uruk, capital of Babylonia, is said to have enjoyed several privileges because of his outstanding position in the society of Uruk: “He cohabits with the betrothed bride – He first, The husband afterwards”. Classical writers mention the right of the first night in the same context, describing it as a privilege of rulers. It is explained as a good or bad custom according to the position of the ruler. We hear of other account from Libya and the island Kepahlonia. Valerius Maximus (20 AD) mentions a similar custom that arose during the revolt of the slaves of Volsinii: no free man could marry a virgin who had not previously been deflowered by a slave. This implies the inversion of the custom to breed out certain characteristics. In 1361 Edward, the Black Prince, heir to the throne of Edward III of England, resisted in marrying Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, who had been previously married because the blood of their offspring would not be pure anymore. The offspring would still have characteristics of the first husband of Joan. It must be clear that the custom and the beliefs surrounding it, were not limited to a certain culture but was widely spread, although not always practiced.
The right of the first night was known during the Viking time. In the eighth century in the Annals of the monastery Clonmacnosie (Ireland), the Vikings are accused of demanding the right of the first night from Christian brides: “the cheefe Gouvernour of them should have the bestowinge of any woman in the k’dom the first night after her marriage, so before her own husband should have carnal knowledge of her, to whom he pleased or keep her … (Indecipherable. Part of page-end frayed) to himself by night, to satisfy his lust”. The Irish heroes of these epics are said to have enjoyed the privilege of the first night with the brides of their inferiors.
If this custom was really widely spread in the northern lands, is unknown, but the custom survived in the middle ages. A text from 15th Century Switzerland references the Lord of Maur demanding the right to take either the virginity of a bride or a fee, to be paid on the behalf of the betrothed.
In this sense J. Wettlaufer states:
The Germanic “mundium” payment of the free bridegroom to his bride or her family implied the right to take possession of the bride by means of taking her home and having the first sexual intercourse with her. If an unfree man in the early Middle Ages wanted to marry a free woman, he not only had to ask his lord’s permission; it was also the lord who paid the mundium for the servant’s bride as a loan. The unfree man was not legally entitled to act independently from his lord, and by paying the mundium, the lord acquired not only a new subject and wife for his servant but also (in a very formal sense) the right to take the woman home and to perform the “Beilager”, a symbolic custom representing the first sexual intercourse with the bride. The Germanic “Beilager” was an important part of the Germanic marriage ritual that was later integrated into the ecclesiastical ritual of marriage.
We learn that the ruler or the king had the privilege or the right to perform the act. In the Germanic culture, we know the concept of the sacred king. He stands under the protection of the gods (Óðinn) and represents the heavenly power on earth in all its aspects. The king embodies the supreme power, fertility and might. Moreover, he must be considered equal to the gods in a physical and psychological way. This function places him between gods and mortals making him the “better” human in every way.
Does this custom find its origin in the fact that the king, the representative of the gods, must leave his mark on the woman in order to spawn better offspring? The ruler or the king represents (or should represent) courage and fertility. And those are the characteristics which are considered as very important in the Germanic culture. When telegony is “proven” for fruit-flies and has been observed in cattle, it is not unlikely that it applies to humans too rendering this theory not so unrealistic.
- Wettlaufer, J., “The jus primae noctis as a male power display”, A review of historic sources with evolutionary interpretation.
- Baetke, W., Yngvi und die Ynglinger – eine quellenkritische Untersuchung über das nordische Sakralkönigtum. (1964)
The wooing of Gerðr by Freyr is covered by the Skírnismál. However, the motive in this myth is not very uncommon. The eddic myth is far from complete and some gaps needs to be filled. There is a saga which can shed some extra light on this bridal-myth.
In the Sturlaugssaga starfsama king Sturlaugr vowed on Julnight to find out the origin of the úrarhorn that he obtained after many adventures in Bjarmalandand and then gave to King Harald. Véfreyja, the old foster mother of his wife of Asa, advices him to pretend like he would marry Mjǫll, the daughter of the king Snær. She was the only one knowing the secret. Sturlaugr however, asks his blood-brother Frosti that he would travel to the kingdom of Snær in Finland. There he must convince Mjǫll to marry Sturlaugr. He gives him a rune staff (on. kefli) which Frosti need to throw in the lap of Mjǫll.
Frosti takes on the assignment and goes to the court of Snær. To veil his true identity, he calls himself Gestr. In the vicinity of the king’s hall is another homestead that is enclosed by a high wooden poles (on. skíðgarðr). Here lives the king’s daughter Mjǫll. Frosti always dwells in the vicinity of this place to catch a glimpse of the king’s daughter, but all winter long he did not succeed. But on one day, the hall was opened. He enters and sees the princess sitting there on a chair and combing her hair with a golden comb. Never before had he seen such a beautiful woman. He throws the rune-staff in her lap which she attentively reads. Worried about the outcome, Frosti cannot sleep and eat. In the following night the princess comes to him and throws a gold ring on him. Frosti went outside to meet Mjǫll. She asks him if it is true what the rune staff said what he affirms. She is willing to be the wife of Sturlaugr. Mjǫll flees the court of her father together with Frosti. She has a magic girdle which gives her the ability to move very fast. Frosti has to follow her and clinches on to her belt.
When they arrive in Sweden, Sturlaugr is satisfied but he is actually not really interested in marrying her. He tells Frosti to dress like him and sleep with her because both were very alike. During the wedding night Frosti should ask her for the secret of the úrarhorn. Sturlaugr would eavesdrop on their conversation. Frosti does what the kings tells him to do and sleeps with the bride. She is tricked into believing that she sleeps with Sturlaugr. Mjǫll confesses all her secret knowledge, and when Sturlaugr has heard enough, he left. Véfreyja insist that he burns the hall in which the two sleep. Both Frosti and Mjǫll die in the fire. Sturlaugr and Véfreyja feared the witchcraft of Mjǫll when she would find out that she has been deceived.
In this saga, the main characters are representations of gods like Freyr, Skaði/Gerðr, Skírnir and Freyja. I’ve published an more extensive article about this and other myths in the latest issue of Wende (Issue 15, 2014).