Holda appears no where in the Anglo-Saxon literature, on the continent however, there are many folktales linking the Goddess Holda or Holle1 with witches and witchcraft. Many of these occur in areas lived in by the Old or continental Saxons. According to Grimm, "Horselberg is at once the residence of Holda and her host, and a trysting-place of witches." This link beween Holda and witchcraft appears over and over in medieval literature. Holda is first mentioned in literature c.1015 by Burchard, Bishop of Worms:
Credidisti ut aliqua femina sit, quae hoc facere possit, quod quaedam a diabolo deceptae se affirmant
necessario et ex pracepto facere debere, id est cum daemonum turba in similitudinem mulierum
transformata, quam vulgaris stultitia Holdam (al. unholdam) vocat, certis noctibus equitare debere
super quasdam bestias, et in eorum se consortio annumeratum esse.
"It was believed that somehow it was possible for some female to do this, who had been deceived by the
Devil, and who confessed herself compelled to do it by a spell; that is, by a demon changed into the form
of a woman whom vulgar stupidity calls Holda (or Unholda), being forced on certain nights to ride upon
certain beasts, and to be numbered among their company."
(translation by Nick Ford)
It is interesting to note that the first passage about her is one pertaining to the witches' ride. This link between the witches' ride and Holda is echoed throughout the Middle Ages, to the point that one gets the feeling it is not just another false accusation by the Church. It appears in canons of the Church, witch trials, and folk tales as well. It appears in later folk tales as well, "The Trip to the Brocken" demonstrating a belief in the witches ride:
"The day came when witches go the Brocken, and the two women climbed into the hayloft, took a small glass, drank from it, and suddenly disappeared. The bridegroom-to-be, who had sneaked after them and observed them, was tempted to take a swallow from the glass. He picked it up and sipped a little from it, and suddenly he was on the Brocken, where he saw how his fianc?e and her mother were carrying on with the witches, who were dancing around the devil, who was standing in their midst."
These tales are usually linked in some way to Holda or the Brocken or other mountain peaks. The Canon Episcopi states pretty much the same thing as Burchard, but uses the name of the Roman goddess Diana instead of Holda:
"Some wicked women are perverted by the Devil and led astray by illusions and fantasies induced by demons, so that they believe they ride out at night on beasts with Diana, the pagan goddess, and a horde of women. They believe that in the night they cross huge distances. They say that they obey Diana's commands and on certain nights are called out in her service..."
This confusion too continues throughout the Middle Ages with the names Holda, Diana, and sometimes Hecate being used interchangeably. The question then becomes whether Holda was goddess of the witches, or a Germanic Goddess of faeries and leader of the Wild Hunt, and therefore confused with the Roman and Greek Goddesses of witches. There are no easy answers to this. The folklorist Lotte Motz felt that Holda as goddess of the witches was a native tradition, and that her attributes arose independently of Diana and other southern goddess. Another explanation, since all of the areas these Goddesses appear were at one time or another settled and held by Germanic tribes, is that the Southern goddesses are merely the imported Holda guised under a native name. Confusion later came about when the Church, not knowing the name of the Goddess identified her with Diana or Hecate2. Regardless, in the Medieval mind there seems to be a connection between the Goddess Holda, and witches riding through the air at night, usually to some sacred mountain peak.
A rather late documentation of Holda, in connection with a mountain occurs in 1630 when a werman in Hesse, Diel Breull, confessed to have traveled in spirit form to the Venusberg (Blocksberg or the Brocken) in a witch trial. There he was shown by Frau Holt the sufferings of the dead refected in a pool of water. This testimony though is very suspect as it seems confused with perhaps more southern beliefs. No one is certain where the idea of a goddess in a mountain first origninated. It does not seem current in the folklore surrounding Holda (Germanic folktales always take place on top of the mountain, not in it), merely in Germanic literature. Marion Ingham traces the origin of this tale to thirteenth century German literature where the goddess appears as Venus, as well as Italian and French versions that date to the fifteenth century. Ingham goes on to say:
The motiff of the hollow mountain inhabited by malicious beings seems to occur first in German literature, in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth, when the Tannhauser legend was gaining gorund, the Church was condemning the belief. Most of the sources suggest people connected the Venusberg with Italy, so the beginnings of the motiff may lie in traditions of the Sibylline grotto and the Elysian fields derived ultimately from Virgil. Early German sources equate it with the fairy realm where Arthur lives on, and also portray it as the home of the Grail: in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the place wa apparently known as der Grale as well as der Venusberg.
(Ingham, The Goddess Freya and Other Figures, p 194)
It would appear then that we are not faced with a genuine Germanic belief, but a literary motiff which either originated in the south in connection with tales about the Sibyl, or with Arthurian legend. This really does not matter much to us as there may be grains of truth to Breull's tale, as it appears he went to sleep and awoke in the Venusberg. It appears then he may have traveled to it in spirit form, just as the witches in the folktales are said to do, and such tales about witches travelling there may have influenced his tale as much as the literary tales about a goddess in a mountain.
Grimm connects several other figures with Holda, most notabally Perahta and Berchta (also called variously Perchta, Perchte, Bertha). Neither of these figures are as readily connected to witches as Holda. They are however spinners like Holda, disdain laziness, and are celebrated at Yule. Most notabally however is their link to to troops of children that follow them about. Grimm retells one of the tales of Percha invovling the children (quoted in part here):
"Below the Gleitsch, a curiously shaped rock near Tischdorf, the story varies in so far, that there Perchthu along with the heimchen was driving a waggon, and had just broken the axle when she fell in with a countryman, who helped her out with a makeshift axle, and was paid in chips, which however he disdained, and only carried a piece home in his shoe. A spinning-girl walked over from the Neidenberg during that night, she had done every bit of her spinning, and was in high spirits, when Perchtha came marching up the hill towards her, with a great troop of the heimchen-folk, all children of one sort and size, one set of them toiling to push a heavy plough, another party loaded with farming-tools; they loudly complained that they had no longer a home."
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass translation)
This is very similar to the Norse and Danish tales about Hulla, whom Grimm links to Holda:
"Of still more weight perhaps are the Norwegian and Danish folk-tales about a wood or mountain wife Hulla, Huldra, Huldre, whom they set forth, now as young and lovely, then again as old and gloomy. In a blue garment and white veil she visits the pasture-grounds of herdsmen, and mingles in the dances of men; but her shape is disfigured by a tail, which she takes great pains to conceal. Some accounts make her beautiful in front and ugly behind. She loves music and song, her lay has a doleful melody and is called huldreslaat. In the forests you see Huldra as an old woman clothed in gray, marching at the head of her flock, milkpail in hand. She is said to carry off people's unchristened infants from them. "
(Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Stallybrass translation)
The fact that these children are unchristened is crucial. In the ancient Heathen religion, children that had not yet been named (which was done at nine days of age), were considered not to possess a complete soul. They could not be exposed by the father if he accepted them at birth, but neither the orlog and fetch were thought to have attached to the child until an ancestral name was given. It would seem then (in my opinion anyway), that without ancestral spirits to protect them, the Goddess Holda fulfilled that role. Thus it may be that if a child died before it was named, its soul stayed with Holda for protection. Thus we have evidence, though suspect, of Holda as protector of the dead souls of children. The witches ride and children's procession were not the only links to nightly travels however. Holda was also said to lead the Wild Hunt.