I was thinking of addressing some Germanic mythology today, and looked at the introduction that the Brothers Grimm wrote for their fairy tale collection for possible inspiration. It turns out that I already discussed several of the mythological figures mentioned therein, including Sigurd, Baldur, and Loki. Harald the Fair-Haired might make for an interesting study, but since he was an actual person (albeit one with a lot of legends associated with him), he’s probably best saved for another day. One reference I came across that I didn’t know about previously was to “the old myth about the true and false Bertha,” which the Grimms compare to the tale of the goose girl. Bertha, also known as Berchta or Perchta, was a German goddess who was downgraded to a spirit or witch once Christianity took hold.
The “true and false Bertha” apparently refers to the fact that she has two different aspects, one young and beautiful with a white complexion (like Snow White, as the Grimms themselves point out), and one old and worn. She is associated with animals and with domestic tasks like spinning, and is often described as having a large goose foot. Her feast day was in January, and everyone was required to eat fish and gruel for dinner then, or she would cut their bellies open and fill them with straw. This festival eventually came to be tied in with Christmas, and she was regarded as a figure similar to Santa Claus, or perhaps more accurately the dark figures who either accompany or replace Santa in some European cultures, like the Krampus or Befana.
She’ll give gifts to people who have been good, but those who haven’t don’t simply receive coal or a switching. No, she does the belly-cutting thing with them as well. This is one woman whose bad side you don’t want to be on. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too hard to outrun someone with only one foot, right?
Perchta is also sometimes identified as the leader of the Wild Hunt, a European myth about a group of ghostly huntsmen on horses and ferocious hounds that occasionally makes an appearance to someone, pretty much always being a bad omen. It’s not entirely clear what they’re hunting for, but their quarry is sometimes identified as a boar, sometimes a troll, and sometimes a human woman. It seems that the earliest references to this apparition make the riders spirits of the dead under the leadership of Odin, mounted on his steed Sleipnir.
As the idea spread across cultures, a large variety of figures came to be identified as the leader in place of Odin. Perchta was one of them, as were Gwydion fab Don, Gwynn ap Nudd, Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, the Devil, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and even Sir Francis Drake. In England, the leader was sometimes identified as Herne the Hunter, the antlered ghost of the royal game warden of Windsor Forest.
Due to his antlers, he might be an updated version of the god Cernunnos for the Christian age. Sometimes the hunters are ghosts and other times fairies, although there isn’t always much of a distinction between the two in the mythology of the British Isles.