Winter witches stoked holiday frenzies and freezing winter weather across Europe and the Nordic Countries. Many originated from ancient goddesses of the winter solstice who held power over punishing weather. With the arrival of Christianity, they were sugar coated and integrated into contemporary winter holidays. But many winter witches maintained a sinister side that ran from household pranks to cannibalism. Long after Yuletide ended they continued to create chaos through snow and icy storms.
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Today, we can quickly access sophisticated animations to explain complex celestial events. Our ancient ancestors had to track the position of the sun on the horizon, marking the longest and shortest days for agricultural purposes. They created gods and goddesses, including winter witches to explain the mysteries of the universe. Seasonal changes topped that list. The ancients formed festivals around important dates, often to scare the dark side and invite good fortune.
Particularly in northern regions, days grew shorter, temperatures dropped sometimes to life-threatening lows. With most agricultural work done for the year, people spent more time together indoors. It’s easy to imagine how winter witches who delivered punishment to children and adults alike offered reminders to everyone about the importance of community and togetherness for survival during the cold months.
Many of the winter witches had evil counterparts or sidekicks like Krampus. They terrified children with cautionary tales about those who misbehaved, neglected their chores, or wandered into the woods.
Nothing says happy holidays like winter witches. Following are four of our favorites.
Baba Yaga Controlled Winter Storms
Baba Yaga could be both the most brutal and the most benevolent among winter witches. Emerging from Eastern European folklore she flies over a wide range of countries including Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and many more.
In his 2004 book Baba Yaga: The Ambiguous Mother and Witch of the Russian Folktale, author Andreas Johns writes that Baba Yaga is:
“…a many-faceted figure, capable of inspiring researchers to see her as a Cloud, Moon, Death, Winter, Snake, Bird, Pelican or Earth Goddess, totemic matriarchal ancestress, female initiator, phallic mother or archetypal image.”
She is a hideous old hag who flies in a giant mortar, using a pestle to steer. She lives in a hut in the forest that has one or more giant chicken legs that allow it to move around. She can be a monstrous crone who eats bad children, a protector of animals and sometimes a wise old woman who helps people in trouble.
She resembles many other winter witches. according to Ancient Pages:
“She resembles Frau Holle mentioned in ancient Germanic tales and a famous witch Bogorkań (Bogorkan) in Hungarian folklore. In the Czech ancient tales, Baba Yaga is called Baba Drasznica; she is an evil creature – Mother of Dragons – riding the dragon instead of a broom.” (Ancient Pages)
In her role as one of the most powerful winter witches, Baba Yaga created snow storms. by shaking her feather pillow that released flurries of snowflakes.
Gryla Cooked Naughty Children Into Her Stew
Gryla is a cannibalistic troll who lives in a cave in the far north of Iceland with her husband, her man-eating Yule cat, and her 13 sons known as the Yule Lads.
A. Sutherland of Ancient Pages writes:
“In Snorre Sturluson’s Prose Edda, from the 13th century, she is mentioned as the most horrible sorcerer who scared children into obedience.”
In the Sturlunga Saga (a collection of Icelandic sagas of the 12th and 13th centuries) this winter witch is described as having:
“…horns and hoofs, a large warty nose, and thirteen or fifteen tails,… On each tail, she had 100 sacks, and in each of them, she stuffed disobedient children.” (Ancient Pages)
Gryla, whose name translates loosely to growler, stalked Icelandic towns in search of naughty children. She shoved them in her sacks and cooked them in a stew for herself and her family.
It wasn’t until the 19th century Gryla began to be acknowledged as a Christmas character in poems and songs.
Like other horrific winter witches, Gryla and her 13 Yule lads received a public-friendly makeover during the 19th and 20th centuries. Possibly in an attempt to preserve tradition in recent years, this family has been returning to their terrifying roots in holiday parades and celebrations.
Perchta Disemboweled Lazy Housekeepers
Frau Perchta is a winter witch from the Alpine regions of southern Germany and Austria, particularly Salzburg and the Alpine regions of Switzerland. Also known as Berchta or Berta, she’s a shape shifter who takes two main forms.
Sutherland of AncientPages writes:
“In Northern Germany, Perchta is a benevolent creature, ‘”white as snow”, and in Southern Germany, she is an evil old witch that scares children.,, Today Perchta is the Christmas witch, who is usually depicted as having a goosefoot (or swan foot), which is related to ancient beliefs that goose fat helped witches fly.”(AncientPages.com)
Frau Perchta made sure that Yuletide celebrations were not used as excuses to avoid hard work and chores. A household must be spotless and all the flax spun by Twelfth Night (January 6). If it wasn’t Perchta delivered terrible punishments to the lazy. In the most egregious cases she would sneak into the house while people slept.
“One of her favorite penalties involves ripping out the sinful’s intestines to replace them with garbage and straw.” (AncientPages.com)
Jacob Grimm (19th-century folklorist and one half of the Brothers Grimm) believed that Frau Perchta lead the Wild Hunt, a chase in which she was escorted by a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters and the souls of unbaptized children. Screaming winds and roaring thunder was most likely Perchta on her Wild Hunt.
Grimm also believed that of all the winter witches Perchta was responsible for the horrific character Krampus. Like many other Yuletide couples, Krampus tortured bad children while Santa Claus rewarded them.
Frightening wooden animal masks known as ‘Perchten’ are used to this day to drive away evil spirits in Salzburg and other parts of Austria.
La Befana Behaved Like Santa Claus On A Broomstick
Of these three winter witches, La Befana is the closest to Santa Claus. Yes, she looks like a haggard old crone streaking across the sky on her broomstick. A wizened old woman wearing raggedy clothes and a pointed hat, she has a long crooked nose, brittle hair and plenty of warts. She is decidedly fearsome, but kind.
In Italian folklore, this winter witch carries gifts and good tidings for the coming year on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. To bad kids, she delivers a lump of coal or a pod of garlic in their empty bowl or stocking.
This winter witch tidies up after she drops down the chimney, using her broom to sweep away sooty footprints.
According to Horniman Museum:
According to Horniman Museum:
“Befana’s name could also be a derivative of ‘Bastrina’, a word for presents specifically given to Strenua, the Roman goddess of wellbeing and the new year. Strenua’s shrine sat atop the Via Sacra, the main street in ancient Rome.”
Towns across Italy celebrate la Befana in their own unique way. A favorite happens in Venice which sponsors a regatta of witches competing in their gondolas.
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