In Austria and Bavaria, Dec 5th + 6th are special days, these are the days that Krampus visits children. The rest of the month is primarily dedicated to Santa, but on the week leading up to January 5th, that's when the Perchten rule in the name of Perchta.
Let me show you
right, Cayla found more mummery for Christmas, but also so much more.
So mummering also known as mumming, for those unfamiliar is a very old tradition that has roots in much of the UK and Europe. Around Christmas, people will dress up in masks and costumes and go door to door spreading holiday cheer.
Masked figures from the 'Wilde Jagd' Christmas folklore festivity in Salzburg, Austria. This picture is from Masks, Face Coverings and headgear by Norman Laliberté and Alex Mogelon
The practices vary from region to region and based on the characters which are being mummed, but in general, mummers would show up at your house and put on a performance of some kind whether a skit, a dance, jokes or music and in return the hosts are to give food and or drink.
If you're a long-time listener or just all-around cool person, this may sound awfully familiar to the rap-battling Mari Lwyd and you would be correct! Now the Mari Lwyd is a practice that originated in Whales, but the practice we're talking about today mostly takes place in Central and Eastern Europe.
You've probably heard of Krampus, the horned demonic looking figure that is Santa's shadow. What you might not know is that Krampus is part of a large mummering tradition. And where you find a Krampus, you will almost always find Perchten
While Krampus and Perchten are distinct entities with their own traditions and mythos, they have spent centuries circling each other and intersecting, so much so that today, they can look quite similar at a surface level
Modern Krampusses and Perchten are brothers and sisters in arms. Like the Mari Lwyd, both groups are made up of hundreds of performers and troupes that create a tight network of comradery and cross-promotion.
During their holidays Krampusses and Perchtens run the street in elaborate masks and costumes, entertaining and spreading holiday cheer in their own unique way. But it wasn't always like this.
In fact this level of mummery has only come back in vogue in the last century.
Franz Grieshofer commented in 1992
Right now we are experiencing the "Verperchtung ["Perchtenization"] of Austria. [There is]hardly a place in the countryside of Salzburg without a new Percht (Krampus) group]
In the past forty-odd years we have seen an explosion in these practices as can be seen here. While Krampus is considerably more well known in the west, in almost every place the Krampus character is celebrated, as are the Perchten
The reason for that is likely based on location. Krampus has been celebrated in both rural and urban areas, where Perchten historically mostly been found in the more rural areas
The places that most fervently celebrate Perchten are Salzburg, Tyrol, Carinthia and Bavaria. These locations are heavily forested Alpine and sub-Alpine areas, many of which were quite geographically isolated before the coming of the railroads, and some are still only accessible with difficulty in the winter months
These are hardy, hardworking people, dependent on forestry and farming in the valleys to keep themselves fed alongside a rich hunting culture. Their values and thus folklore have been heavily shaped from centuries of living in such harsh environments where everyone needed to chip in for a community to survive.
What may be surprising is that most modern mummers in these groups are Catholic, despite common claims that these traditions have deeply rooted pagan origins. And this leads into one of the biggest debates about this practice:
What really are the roots?
Many locals insist the origins are ancient and pagan and have only recently be recovered from Catholic oppression, but scholars push back on this idea, insisting these are practices that rose into prominence in a culture that had already been thoroughly Christianized
I mean, if you look at a Krampus or Perchten performer, or listen to the stories associated, they sounds very pagan, but the fact of the matter is, there's a point in history where we simply can't find any earlier mentions of these figures
The Perchten masked performers are most prominent in Austria, Bavaria and Italian South Tyrol, but go back a couple centuries and you find Perchten and similar figures spread throughout what is now known as: Slovakia, Slovenia, Alsace, Hungary, and the Czech Republic
Perchten mummery is still a predominantly rural practice, but interest is growing in bigger cities like Salzburg, Innsbruck and Munich
The earliest records of Perchten mummer practice occurs in the 17th and 18th centuries. While today, most of these performances occur in the public, during parades or at taverns, historically, much like their skeletal horse cousin the Mari Lwyd, Perchten mummers made house calls with their antics
But this wasn't always appreciated. At the least they were considered a nuisance, at worst, well the practice was straight up outlawed.
A stark contrast to today where these have become much beloved festivities, where people travel from all over the world to experience the Krampus or Perchten Run
Both Krampusses and Perchten wear costumes made of goatskins or sheep pelts, enormous bells strapped to their belts, and grotesque wooden "devil" masks, elaborately carved and featuring horns, protruding tongues and fangs. They carry switches (either horse tails, cow tails, or bundles of twigs) with which to whip spectators, singling out young women and boys for special attention
Performances can consist of dancing or leaping or they can be the "Hellshow" type where it is primarily the monstrous figures attempting to scare people like you would encounter at a haunted house or during a Halloween parade.
The Hellshows tend to be stationary, people come and gather around where the performance is taking place. This allows the troupes to include music, special effects like pyrotechnics or to be able to perform complex skits. This also allows for the display or more detailed or less mobile costumes.
Hellshows tend to be more about putting on a show for the enjoyment of the audience, where classic mummering was a mobile, interactive event that usually happened with smaller groups.
Krampus & Perchten
The reason there is so much similarity between the Krampus and Perchten performance is that when they were going through revival, only fragments could be salvaged of the old practices, causing the two to blend together. As we have learned more, many mummers seek to make a greater distinction between the two
While often presented as an authentic cultural experience from an unbroken line of tradition, Krampus and Perchten are truly just what we have managed to piece together.
For some this makes these practices look like a sham, an inauthentic effort to reclaim something that never was or at worst fraudulent in the pursuit of profit. There is a massive tourism industry around these festivities, you can understand where some of that concern comes from.
folklore out of context, folklore which has been altered or even invented for specific purposes
Perchten and Krampus events attracts thousands every year, people of all ages and creeds. Locals and tourists alike.
Since much of the origins of these practices has been lost to time, performers are forced to gather the fragments and fill in the rest, often with modern imagery and symbolism. Masks have evolved to align more with pop-culture representations of demons and monsters. Conventional devil imagery re-imagined through the lens of contemporary heavy metal culture, science-fiction/fantasy and horror films, and video games
This has raised much debate and criticism around the practice. Some practitioners insist on sticking as closely to tradition as possible, while others seek to breathe new life and interpretations into the practice and not everyone is happy about that.
The first unambiguous references to Perchten mummers date to the second half of the sixteenth century recorded in civil and church documents and set against the backdrop of the Wars of Religion, which started from the Protestant Reformation of 1517
We find mentions of Perchten mumming coinciding with the years following the Peace of Augsburg (1555), which was meant to resolve the warring of Catholic and Lutheran forces in Germany and divide the spoils between them. But the peace was only temporary, and the Thirty Years War, which ran from 1618 to 1648, initiated a roughly two hundred-year period during which Perchten were under siege from civil and church authorities.
Mummers were felt to represent the paranoid climate caused by endless war, which generated the atrocities of disease, famine and torture by marauding soldiers as well as massive dislocation and depopulation. The chaos of the Thirty Years War also gave rise to the witch hunts, which peaked between 1580 and 1630 with a series of major trials in Bavaria, claiming thousands of lives
In 1662, for instance, a Carinthian court recorded the witchcraft trial of a woman named Regina Paumann, who was accused of weather-working and participating in the witches' sabbat and subsequently put to death. According to the trial records, the chief devil was named '[the old Perchtl]"'. At one point during the sabbat, the skies darkened and she appeared amid thunder and lightning, at which the assembled people scattered in terror and fell upon the ground. So obviously, she was a witch
We have court records showing a rash of decrees forbidding Perchten mumming on religious and civil grounds issued in Bavaria, Salzburg, and Tyrol from the late sixteenth through the early seventeenth centuries. The reason for the ban? There was concern that Perchten mumming could lead to violence and sorcery. These mummers were punished with imprisonment, public humiliation, military conscription and hard labor
These bans would brand the house visits as Heischengehen (going begging) — even when hosts protested that they had given gladly — it would only then incriminate the hosts who could also suffer punishment. Many people in Austria and Germany, especially those in the countryside, had to share their meager resources with the many starving and dispossessed people who came begging. Some of these beggars were Perchten. So you know, obvious Christian thing to do, punish the suffering and those that assist them, exactly as Jesus wanted
These developments added another dimension to the dramatized tension between the poles of reward and punishment, insider and outsider, giving and receiving embodied in Perchta folklore.
Numerous decrees banning the Perchtenlauf (perchten run) and court records of their trial, imprisonment, and other punishments were documented in Bavaria, Tyrol, and Salzburg from the late sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. Many rural communities were hit by a battery of repeated bans, seven between 1721 and 1777 in Salzburg and four between 1743 and 1804 in East Tyrol alone.
Nevertheless, the Perchtenlauf continued unabated, carried on largely by unmarried young men working on farms, farmer's sons, farmhands, and tradesmen (or rather, their apprentices), but they also included boys, men in late middle-age, and women (elderly widows or mothers with sons in tow)
A report from Kitzbühel in 1735 reveals that the devil masks and bells associated with perchten today were present in that period, mentioning thirty to fifty young men 'dressed as revolting apparitions with devil masks […] hung with big bells]'"
Although the bans came in large part from ecclesiastical authorities who suspected that Perchten were invoking demonic powers with their dancing, they were levied overall more on social than religious grounds. As it was common for perchten to carry props that could potentially be used as weapons like pole-vaulting sticks, oven forks, scissors and brooms, many of these cases stood on the grounds that there was a potential for violence
Nonetheless, other records from this period show that mock-violence did sometimes descend into the real thing. In 1721 Dürrnberg, the Perchten were linked to [deadly brawling]', and in Hüttschlag in 1777, real weapons were carried alongside springing poles
When rival groups from adjacent troupes met on the road, they sometimes came to blows in a deadly display of regional pride, sometimes resulting in burial on the spot.
Those who died with a "devil" mask on were forbidden burial in consecrated ground, and were therefore conscripted to these roadside burial sites. As the burial in unconsecrated ground shows, to don the mask was to venture outside the safe bounds of the Christian (and human) world into a liminal state rife with danger.
Due to "The awareness that through the masked procession they had drifted into the extra-Christian", Perchten placed something blessed in their shoes. This protection was provided by receiving Communion beforehand
While many legends describe Perchten dying of wounds sustained at human hands (each other's), in others, the death brought about by Perchten mumming is magical in nature, caused by the unwitting invocation of the Wild Percht herself, who might be summoned by the wearing of the mask, illustrating how such careless and unskilled traffic with the spirit world may result in death for the foolish human who attempts it.
Superstition wasn't just for the non-perchten though. One Perchten legend is known as "One Too Many", described as a scenario where a group of Perchten realize that there is an extra man among them:
A young man who did not belong to them, but was disguised in the same manner, mingled among them. The Perchten recognized that their number was one greater with terror, for in superstitious fear the foreign newcomer was taken for the Devil incarnate.
About a century ago the practice of going door-to-door had begun to flourish again, with bans having been removed or forgotten. With this has come a slow shift to performances at public events and any home visits usually occur on the front step instead of inside the house as they once would have. Today these practices are celebrated instead of criminalized, even if there are some not so happy about
But we're not here to talk about Perchten, well not directly anyways, because before there was Perchten, there was Perchta. Described as the ultimate symbol of duality, Perchta is a folklore character from the alps. She can be both kind and generous, or vengeful and terrifying.
Now I just want to note here, the term Perchten has many meanings, usually it's used these days to describe the perchten performers, but just to make it more confusing it can also just be used to describe any masked performer.
But it can also be used to refer to Perchta herself. So for the sake of all our sanities, I will use the term Perchten when I am referring to the performers and Perchta when I am referring to the mythic entity
Finding information on Perchta that actually included academic citations and sources was a bit of a task. Most websites seem to regurgitate the same information, with very few containing actual sources, and often the ones that did were papers or academic books on the topic that were neither available online nor in English
I was beginning to think I wasn't going to have much like parsing this mystery. Then I came across the 600 page thesis "Perchten and Krampusse: Living Mask Traditions in Austria and Bavaria" by Molly Carter a PhD in Folklore and Cultural Tradition from 2016
This proved to be the most valuable resource to me, not only had she done an incredible job at citing her sources and compiling information, she also included interviews she had conducted with modern practitioners and included information she found in the myriad of German texts I had seen mentioned but had no access to myself.
So big shout out to Molly Carter you prevented me from losing my mind chasing my tail.
The earliest records of Perchta show she was a common figure in cautionary tales for children. In stories she would test children, looking for proof of their obedience, diligence and piety. Leaving her food offerings was one way to help swing her favor your way, as if you managed to appease this entity, you would be rewarded, often with a silver coin left in your shoe.
But if you didn't, you would be punished
Stories vary, but on consistent aspect of Perchta was her doppelaspekt (dual aspect) one face is bright, beautiful, and clement, while the other is dark, deadly, and terrifying. Schonperchten describing the beautiful, benevolent side and Shiachperchten describing her ugly, vengeful side
This duality is reflected in all things they represent, day and night, sun and moon, summer and winter, life and death. It's this shiachperchten aspect that is most commonly presented in perchten performers today, which is what causes them so easily be confused and muddled with the krampus performers.
The legend is that during the 12 nights of Christmas, Perchta and her followers roam the land, visiting house after house, and whether it's the old hag that knocks on your door or the beautiful woman, is completely dependent on you and what you've done in the last year. As long as you appeased her by her day, Perchttag or Epiphany on January 5th, you would be safe for another year.
There's countless tales that describe the terror she would reign down on those that didn't adhere to church decree or carry their weight in their community. But the punishment most commonly associated with her is known as gastrotomy, or the slitting open of victims' bellies and stuffing the cavity with refuse. Yeah, bet you didn't see that one coming
Keeping Perchta Happy
So what exactly are her domains? How do you appease this frightful creature?
- Keep your house clean
- Observe Christian fasts and feasts
- Spin all your flax/wool by her day, perchttag, also known as epiphany on January 5
- Leave out offerings of food
- Do not be greedy or gluttonous
Perchta of legend inspects the household for cleanliness, and the spinning (the work of girls) for indications of productivity and skill, interrogating children to learn whether they have properly fasted and listened to their parents. These duties are parental in nature, but her threatened punishments far exceed the worst a parent would ever do (perhaps this was the lesson; there are worse things than a spanking!), setting her in the realm of the supernatural, where the rules of everyday life no longer apply. A child cannot barter for his life with an ogress the way he can try to evade punishment from his mother; the former is an exaggerated and distorted mirror of the latter, wherein lies the point.
If you don't do these things you put yourself at risk for her wrath, women and children alike
Thought it's not entirely impossible to escape Perchta's wrath it would seem. While eating too much of the wrong foods spelled trouble at Epiphany, gorging oneself on the permitted foods was allowed, even prudent.
Overstuffed bellies might attract Perchta's ire, but it was precisely the overstuffing of one's belly that assured protection from her sickle and chain. An account published c. 1782 reports that:
In the hills around Traunstein one says to the children on the eve of Epiphany, when they are bad, the Berche comes and cuts open their bellies. on this day greasy cakes are baked and among the farmhands it is said that one has to smear one's belly with them; then frau Berche's knife will slide right off
Origins and Purpose
Let's talk about origins, today telling the difference between a krampus and perchten is not easy, but they do come from very different roots.
It's commonly thought that Perchta comes from pagan roots, while Krampus comes from Christian roots. Did you know Krampus had Christian roots? Because I didn't
To understand why, we have to talk about Santa. The Santa Clause we know today is thought to have been inspired by St. Nikolaus the 4th century bishop of Myra whose feast day is Dec 6.
In Christian belief, powerful saints are able to bind devils to their service and that's where the krampus comes in.
Today, Santa is a jolly guy that gives good children presents and at worse gives bad children coal. But once upon a time, the punishments for bad children were much more severe, and that was the Krampus's realm of expertise.
This idea of bad and good is tied tightly into the Christian beliefs and practices, like going to church, praying before meals and bed, etc. So really it was more about being a good Christian, not necessarily just being morally good, you could save a thousand lives but if you didn't pray to god, it would be the Krampus that comes knocking.
There's a lot more to Santa and Krampus origins, but that's not why we're here
Perchta on the other hand is thought to have been more concerned about the welfare of the earth on a greater, more impersonal scale. Perchta is commonly regarded as a personification of the forces of nature. Like a wild animal, she can't be reasoned with and doesn't follow our socially constructed moral guidelines.
Perchta's own duality represents the fight between two forces: warmth, fertility and good fortune vs cold and sickness. The darker side is thought to have agents, known as winter demons that help bring all such unfortunate things. If you appease Perchta she will protect you from these winter demons
Where Santa and Krampus seek to instill Christian morals, Perchta represents the balance of all things on a grander scale. Where Santa and Krampus divide the labor, Perchta is judge, jury and executioner.
The reason behind this is suspected to be related to the isolation of these communities and the harsh environments they lived in. Surviving was a community effort, if you didn't spin all your wool you couldn't keep your family clothed and couldn't help the community. And adhering to Christian beliefs was thought to protect the community, it only took one sinner or witch to call demons upon a community which could snuff it out in an instance, these beliefs likely reflected the fact that these communities could just disappear over a season if not enough food or goods were harvested in the warm season, leaving nearby communities to speculate and spread rumor of their demise.
But this is only one of the many aspects of Perchta
Now I am just going to take you through some of the different versions of Perchta we've seen
Perchta of the Wild Hunt
Are you guys familiar with the Wild Hunt? This is motif that occurs in many European cultures and folklore. It usually involves a chase led by a mythological figure, with an army of ghostly or supernatural entities at their side. General beliefs around the hunt is that if you saw it, it was a bad omen, that something bad was coming like war or plague, or maybe even your own death. Or just for witnessing it could lead your abduction to the realm of the fairies or underworld. In some stories it was believed that your spirit could be pulled away in your sleep to join the hunt.
One aspect of Perchta was her attachment to the wild hunt, often depicted as its leader
Her army of hunters varies though: witches, animals (sometime headless), skeletons, three-footed hounds and the devil. But probably the most common we see is her army of Kinderseelenschar, which are the souls of children that died before baptism
Encountering Perchta's wild hunt could lead to all manner events.
In some you would be destroyed if you were deemed a "wicked" person, torn "into dust and ashes". This refrain is echoed in Styrian legends in which it is said [that Perht rips apart or grinds to ash wicked people whom she encounters on Three Kings Night]'.
Those lax in their Christian devotions (not heeding the bells calling the villagers to prayer, for instance) risked being swept away by the deadly forces outside the safe confines of the Christian/human world. That world was circumscribed by house walls, baptism, the consecrated ground of the churchyard, and daylight
In some it didn't matter whether you were a sinner or not. One such legend centers around the door as protective boundary:
People who were outdoors late on the eve of Perhten day heard a cowbell in the distance. They ran into the nearest house and had hardly closed the doors when they heard rapping and scratching at the house doors. 'It is the Perchtl!' they cried in terror. Luckily one young man had a knife on which the sacred names were [inscribed]; he stuck it into the doors, at which the Perchtl disappeared, but on the [next] morning the doors were found scratched up from top to bottom.
In some Perchta folktales, church bells seem to signify the division between the human and the non-human, the living and the dead, Heaven-bound Christians and those who die without receiving the sacraments of baptism or the last rites:
Frau Perhte is a tall, deeply-veiled woman with long, undone hair waving down. She is mostly to be seen on the peak with some small dogs after the bell [calling people] to prayer, climbing down the mountain […] through a ditch overgrown with scrub.
But it's probably Perchta's association with the Kinderseelenschar that is the most interesting. In some treatments Perchta appears as a wild woman of the mountains flanked by baying hounds who are said to be the souls of unbaptized children and referred to as the 'innocent children' that is, the Holy Innocents, whose feast day, December 28, is one of the Rauhnächte.
While they are usually encountered outdoors, Perchta and her Kinderseelenschar are drawn to human habitation during the Rauhnächte, where they partake of the food left out for them after the household has gone to bed.
In Styria, leaving out of Perchtlmilch is used in divination:
[every year a farmer's wife left them a bowl with sweet milk dished up and some spoons standing overnight]'. [Perchta] and her children always savored a few drops and moved on, wherefore blessings settled upon the house. Despite the prohibition, a meddlesome servant hid himself in the oven and observed them; she struck him blind by saying to a child: 'Put the lights out!' At the advice of the priest, the servant hid himself in the oven one year later at the same time, and [Perchtlgoba] made him see again
One's reaction to the suffering of the Kinderseelenschar would determine whether Perchta would respond with wrath or generosity. Legends centering the theme of compassion reveal Perchta's benevolent side. In some variants, her child souls are weighted down with jugs filled with the tears their mothers shed for them
But just as their mothers' grief could trap them in their purgatorial state, so could the giving of a name free them, the naming being tantamount to baptism, since they had died unbaptized and thus unnamed. A tale from Kallwang, Styria describes a farmer out looking for a godfather for his newborn child on Percht Night. He runs across Perchta with her child-souls and is taken aback by the pitiful, wretched appearance of the last child in the train.
He cries out compassionately, [Oh, you poor little ragamuffin!]"', which releases the child (thus named and claimed as a Christian soul, he is free to go to Heaven). Rather than punishing the man for costing her a child, Perchta rewards him lavishly for
his kindness, blessing him and his newborn child with good fortune.
Legends revolving around the Spänelohnmotiv ("wood shavings-reward" motif), mostly found in Saxony and Thuringia, also illustrate the rewards of charity. In one, Perchta's wagon breaks down while she is out roaming the night with her Kinderseelenschar, and a passing man stops to help repair the wheel. Perchta rewards him with the remaining wood shavings, cold comfort until they turn to gold in the morning.
Cruelty and greed, however, are met with fit punishment. In a variant from the German Vogtland, a greedy man offers to repair Perchta's plow with this in mind, but is punished for his selfish motivations a year later when Perchta delivers a hatchet blow to his neck, rendering it crooked for the rest of his life.
In one version, a maidservant sees the Kinderseelenschar struggling along, dragging a heavy plow behind them, and laughs at the sight, at which Perchta strikes her blind until the following Three Kings Night, when she blows into her eyes to make her see again
TLDR if you ever encounter Perchta with her children, don't be a dick
The earliest mentions of Perchta are not necessarily by that name, two such identities being called Spinnstubenfrau (mistress of the spinning chamber) and Frau Faste (Lady Fast, "Faste" also being the German word for Lent). And then there was her persona as a Kinderschreck (child-frightener), enforcing the church traditions of fasting on the holy days of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, known in folk parlance as the Rauhnächte (the "Wild Nights")
This connected three important motifs of Perchta: spinning, fasting and of course, belly slicing, sometimes all three motifs would show up in the same story. Many of the stories relate to the socialization of children, particularly girls, in both domestic and religious spheres a theme which extends to another of Perchta's Kinderschreck personas, that of the Butzenbercht
In some, she appears as an allegorical figure personifying the vices of vanity and luxury, while other sources she is seen as figure set out on temping women to join her in her girl gang (consisting of Diana and Herodias) for wild night rides, women who fell for such temptations were to be condemned.
Perchta is sometimes mentioned with iron features when she appears in her Kinderschreck role. Medieval sources refer to Perchta's long nose, iron nose, or both, and in some cases it is her gloves that are iron. In addition to St. Emmeran's reference to Perchta's iron nose, in a poem from Tyrol c. 1393, a father threatens his child with the horrid [Berchten with the long nose]', who will come after him if he fails to clean his plate.
Grimm speculates that the iron features of Perchta alluded to in nineteenth-century threats made to misbehaving children as well as these medieval sources, may have been related to the metal implements (knife, iron chain, and plowshare) she used to perform gastrotomy
Other treatments appear in St. Emmeran's fifteenth-century penitential, which refers to Perchta as one of the Three Sisters receiving food offerings and riding through the night in the company of Diana and werewolves.
In his Tractatus de superstitionibus (1460), Benediktbeuren also numbers Perchta among the airborne host of demonic beings abroad on January 5, and mentions that people leave tables set with food and drink for her.
It is in Vintler that the earliest known pictorial representations of Perchta are to be found, and an illustration in the 1486 edition depicts her as a woman with a long, pointy blue nose (scholars speculate the blue color signifies iron). While the iron motif tends to be concentrated in the medieval sources, it surfaced occasionally centuries later in oral tradition, as in Virgen, Tyrol and Litzldorf in the Mölltal, where she was said to leave an iron glove behind in the houses she visited.
One of the most important early sources for the study of Perchta folklore is a pair of woodcuts entitled "Butzen-Bercht und Kinderfresser" published in Augsburg, Germany in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The depiction of the belly-slitting Butzenbercht and the accompanying verses contain elements common to Perchta folklore, including threats of gastrotomy as punishment for naughty behavior
The Butzenbercht's male counterpart, the Kinderfresser (child-gobbler), mirrors her threats in the companion woodcut. Shared elements between these two figures, such as the cannibalism implied by the large baskets on their backs for carrying off children and underscored by the Butzenbercht's oven fork and the Kinderfresser's sharp teeth
The Butzenbercht is a humpbacked, tattered old woman advancing with snot (Butze) dripping from her nose, a deadly looking oven fork in one hand and a distaff wound with flax in the other. Strapped to her back is a large basket filled with squalling children. Disobedient and lazy girls could expect to receive the terrible attentions of the Butzenbercht, related with unseemly relish in the verses that follow
- Mum mum mum
- Where are you, children, where?
- Why do you hide yourselves, why flee from me so?
She proceeds to issue a number of imaginatively sadistic threats:
- Do you, too, want to be bad, lazy, and do nothing,
- Be grumpy and out-of-sorts, like a silly goose,
- Learn nothing in school, neither sew nor spin,
- Neither go to bed, nor get up, so shall you not escape
- My old broomstick, the whip and the switch,
- With which I will beat you until you are red with blood.
As if that were not enough, she threatens to take away their toys, set their pigtails on fire, and cut off their noses. Most significantly, the Butzenbercht promises to inflict the act for which Perchta is most notorious in her Kinderschreck guise, slicing open her victims and stuffing them with refuse:
- so will I spool
- your intestines up out of your belly and then with rasping
- And panting let it be filled
In the final verse girls are advised to be docile and obedient, lest they '[come into the basket of the Butzen-Berchte]'.
1800-1900s - First Wave Folklore
Between the 1800s and early 1900s was a time of revivalism as scholars began to collect and compile folklore. Up until this point, much folklore was strictly oral, but with increases in literacy and writing, scholars saw an opportunity not just to capture topics of the era, but to record topics that had never been recorded before and analyze them
This is considered a time of 1st wave folklore revivalism for Germany in particular.
In 1835, Jacob Grimm published his book Deutsche Mythologie, and this is one of our more prominent sources for the origins of Perchta. In it he claimed that she likely evolved from German folkfigures Holle and Holda based on their shared bright and dark characteristics. Despite describing both sides of Perchta in his works, it's still the dark version that is most prominent today
Grimm draws upon his vast comparative scope to relate the diverse aspects of figures, including Hecate and Artemis, thus linking her to hunting hounds and the Wild Hunt. He compares her to the Queen of the elves Titania
Author James Frazer noted that the jumping and leaping that Perchten performed was seen as a magical way of increasing fertility and creating a successful harvest. The bells that Perchta is said to wear are thought to be for banishing demons who might otherwise blight the crops
In the early 1900s many scholars saw Perchta as the remnants of old world goddesses of fertility and even death cults that had managed to amalgamate. Later interpretations saw her as a leader of souls due to her association with Wild Hunt and her retinue of child souls
1930-1970 - Second Wave Folklore
There was a lot of ideas about what Perchta was, citations and distillations of numerous sources. But then the Third Reich happened which changed German folklore from the 1930s all the way up to the 70s. This era is known as second wave
The nazis took all this folklore and retrofitted it in service of their own political and social-engineering agendas. The nineteenth-century focus on ancient "cultic" origins and the romantic objectification of rural people was appropriated and twisted by the Third Reich. The guiding values behind this first wave fascination with folklore remained, except that now "nationalism" was made an explicit social good and the search for continuity fed into the folk-nationalistic project of reconstructing a "pure" German society
After the war, much work had to be done to undo all the nazi propaganda that had permeated every level of society, including folklore. It wouldn't be until the 1970s when much of what had been least had begun to be reassembled, leading into the third wave of german folklore.
1970-Present - Third Wave Folklore
In 1991 Marianne Rumpf would publish her 280 pg book on Perchta and Perchten. This is still considered one of the best resources for the history of Perchta. It was Rumpf, through much research that came to the conclusion that Perchta came from Catholic roots, not Pagan as was thought for so long.
To this day we're still uncovering stories and documentation that tell us more about Perchta and her origins, but much of her folklore may be lost to time forever.
The lore of Perchta and the Perchten tell us a lot about eastern european history and culture. And sure the modern Perchten may not be a completely authentic practice, it does come from deep and very important roots. While Perchta herself is not nearly as prominent as she once was, she's a pretty damn cool broad, and I think more people should know about her. Move over Krampus
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