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Perchta or Berchta (English: Bertha), also commonly known as Percht and other variations, was once known as a goddess in Alpine paganism in the Upper German regions of the Alps. Her name may mean "the bright one" (Old High German beraht, bereht, from Proto-Germanic *brehtaz) and is probably related to the name Berchtentag, meaning the feast of the Epiphany. Eugen Mogk provides an alternative etymology, attributing the origin of the name Perchta to the Old High German verb pergan, meaning "hidden" or "covered".
Perchta is often identified as stemming from the same Germanic goddess as Holda and other female figures of German folklore (see Frija-Frigg). According to Jacob Grimm and Lotte Motz, Perchta is Holda's southern cousin or equivalent, as they both share the role of "guardian of the beasts" and appear during the Twelve Days of Christmas, when they oversee spinning. In some descriptions, Perchta has two forms; she may appear either as beautiful and white as snow like her name, or as elderly and haggard.
Grimm says Perchta or Berchta was known "precisely in those Upper German regions where Holda leaves off, in Swabia, in Alsace, in Switzerland, in Bavaria and Austria."
Names of Perchta
Perchta had many different names depending on the era and region: Grimm listed the names Perahta and Berchte as the main names (in his heading), followed by Berchta and Frau Berchta in Old High German, as well as Behrta and Frau Perchta. In Baden, Swabia, Switzerland and Slovenian regions, she was often called Frau Faste (the lady of the Ember days) or Pehta or 'Kvaternica', in Slovene. Elsewhere she was known as Posterli, Quatemberca and Fronfastenweiber.
In southern Austria, in Carinthia among the Slovenes, a male form of Perchta was known as Quantembermann, in German, or Kvaternik, in Slovene (the man of the four Ember days). Grimm thought that her male counterpart or equivalent is Berchtold.
According to Jacob Grimm (1882), Perchta was spoken of in Old High German in the 10th century as Frau Berchta and thought to be a white-robed female spirit. She was known as a goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving, like myths of Holda in Continental German regions. He believes she was the feminine equivalent of Berchtold, and she was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.
In many old descriptions, Bertha had one large foot, sometimes called a goose foot or swan foot. Grimm thought the strange foot symbolized her being a higher being who could shapeshift to animal form. He noticed that Bertha with a strange foot exists in many languages (German "Berhte mit dem fuoze", French "Berthe au grand pied", Latin "Berhta cum magno pede"): "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside...and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle".
In the folklore of Bavaria and Austria, Perchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes between the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. If they had, they might find a small silver coin next day, in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year. She would also slit people's bellies open and stuff them with straw if they ate something on the night of her feast day other than the traditional meal of fish and gruel.
The cult of Perchta, under which followers left food and drink for Fraw Percht and her followers in the hope of receiving wealth and abundance, was condemned in Bavaria in the Thesaurus pauperum (1468) and by Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis (1439).
The word Perchten is plural for Perchta, and this has become the name of her entourage, as well as the name of animal masks worn in parades and festivals in the mountainous regions of Austria. In the 16th century, the Perchten took two forms: Some are beautiful and bright, known as the Schönperchten ("beautiful Perchten"). These come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to "bring luck and wealth to the people." The other form is the Schiachperchten ("ugly Perchten") who have fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.
Sometimes, der Teufel is viewed as the most schiach ("ugly") Percht and Frau Perchta as the most schön ("beautiful") Percht.
Today in Austria, particularly Salzburg, the Perchten are still a traditional part of holidays and festivals (such as the Carnival Fastnacht). The wooden animal masks made for the festivals are today called Perchten.
In Italy, Perchta is roughly equivalent with La Befana, who visits all the children of Italy on the night before 6 January to fill their socks with candy if they are good or a lump of coal if they are bad.
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- Mogk according to Natko.
- Grimm, 1882.
- Motz according to Hilton 1984.
- Grimm, 1882:272.
- Timm according to Natko.
- Grimm 1882:279.
- Grimm 1882:280–81.
- Frazer 1920:240.
- Frazer 1920:242-243
- Wagner 2007.
- Illes, p. 269.
- Frazer, Sir James George. 1920. The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion. IX. Part 6. "The Scapegoat", pages 240-243. Macmillan & Co. (Facsimili Elibron Classics, 2005) ISBN 1-4021-8348-8. (Online). File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Grimm, Jacob (1882). Deutsche Mythologie 4th ed. . Trans. James Stallybrass Grimm's Teutonic Mythology Volume 1.
- Motz, Lotte. 1984. "The Winter Goddess", Folklore 95:11.
- Mogk, Eugen. 1907. Germanische Mythologie
- Müller, Felix and Ulrich. 1999. "Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und Schiach-Perchten." Wunderlich, Werner (Ed.): Mittelalter-Mythen 2. Dämonen-Monster-Fabelwesen. St. Gallen, S. 449-460. (Online, German) File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Natko, David. 2014. Ritual Rebellion and Social Inversion in Alpine Austria: Rethinking the “Perchtenlauf” in its Relationship to the Carnivalesque. (Online). File retrieved 01-04-2015.
- Timm, Erika. 2003. Frau Holle, Frau Percht und verwandte Gestalten: 160 Jahre nach Grimm aus germanistischer Sicht betrachtet.
- Wagner, Alexander. 2007. Perchtenläufe: Salzburg's Pagan Heritage. (Online) File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Waschnitius, Viktor. 1913. Perht, Holda und verwandte Gestalten: ein Beitrag zur deutschen Religionsgeschichte. Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse.