Winter Mythology

Winter is intriguing and mysterious. However, long dark days and nights, snow and fog that will muffle sound and hide your vision and a number of winter-prone health conditions to be vigilant for (hypothermia, frost bite and the common cold), it may well do you in. Any of my “friends” in the North will know exactly what I am talking about. With the popularity of Disney’s ‘Frozen’ movie, it made me wonder where did all the wonderful intrigue and mystery go? So, I have put together a few common ‘mythologies’ (or so we will call them for now) that will see how ancient cultures dealt with the on-flux intrigue and mystery of ‘Winter’ every year. As I don’t pretend to be an expert on the issue, I have copied and pasted from a couple different sites and provided the credit and link to their site as well.


Wikipedia and Winter:

Persian: In Persian culture the winter solstice is called Yaldā (meaning: birth) and it has been celebrated for thousands of years. It is referred to as the eve of the birth of Mithra, who symbolised light, goodness and strength on earth.

Welsh: Gwyn ap Nudd abducted a maiden named Creiddylad. On May Day, her lover, Gwythr ap Greidawl, fought Gwyn to win her back. The battle between them represented the contest between summer and winter.

Scottish: Beira is the name given by 20th-century folklorist Donald Alexander Mackenzie to the Cailleach Bheur, the personification of winter and the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scottish mythology.[1] She is associated with one of the Celticcreation myths (which usually pertain to local land features) and bears a similar role to Gaea in Greek mythology and Jord in Norse mythology. According to Mackenzie, Beira was a one-eyed giantess with white hair, dark blue skin, and rust-colored teeth. She built the mountains of Scotland using a magic hammer, and Loch Ness was created when Beira transformed her negligent maid Nessa into a river, which broke loose and made the loch. Ben Nevis was her “mountain throne”. The longest night of the year marked the end of her reign as Queen of Winter, at which time she visited the Well of Youth and, after drinking its magic water, grew younger day by day.

German: Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples, later undergoing Christianised reformulation resulting in the now better-known Christmastide. Yule was an indigenous midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic peoples. The earliest references to it are in the form of month names, where the Yule-tide period lasts somewhere around two months in length, falling along the end of the modern calendar year between what is now mid-November and early January.

Scholars have connected the month event and Yule time period to the Wild Hunt (a ghostly procession in the winter sky), the god Odin (who is attested in Germanic areas as leading the Wild Hunt and, as mentioned above, bears the name Jólnir), and increased supernatural activity, such as the aforementioned Wild Hunt and the increased activities of draugar—undead beings who walk the earth.

Modranicht, an event focused on collective female beings attested by Bede as having occurred among the pagan Anglo-Saxons on what is now Christmas Eve, has been seen as further evidence of a fertility event during the Yule period. 

The events of Yule are generally held to have centred on Midwinter (although specific dating is a matter of debate), and feasting, drinking, and sacrifice (blót) were involved. Scholar Rudolf Simek comments that the pagan Yule feast “had a pronounced religious character” and comments that “it is uncertain whether the Germanic Yule feast still had a function in the cult of the dead and in the veneration of the ancestors, a function which the mid-winter sacrifice certainly held for the West European Stone and Bronze Ages.” The traditions of the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar (Sonargöltr) still reflected in the Christmas ham, Yule singing, and others stem from Yule customs, and customs which Simek takes as “indicat[ing] the significance of the feast in pre-Christian times.

Taken from AccuWeather,

Greek: The Greek seasons myth centers on the story of the goddess Demeter, ruler of harvest. When her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld, she became so despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Norse: For the Norse mythologies, Ullr was the god of winter. Son of a frost giant, he would rule Asgard in Odin’s absence in the winter. It was believed he created the northern lights to help compensate for the shortened daylight during the season.

From Crystal Wind:

Holda, “the gracious one”, reigns over the skies from her crystal palace. When it snows, Holda is shaking her feather bed. Every day she spins at her wheel — the closer to the solstice, the slower the wheel turns. By Yule, her wheel grinds to a halt.

At Yuletide Holda descends from her palace to visit mankind. A tall, golden-haired beauty, she fertilizes the fields as she drives through the countryside. When people are of service to her, she rewards them with gold. Out of respect towards her, no wheels should turn during this period.

From this custom comes the saying: “From Yule Day to New Year’s Day, neither wheel nor windlass must go round.” In the old days, this meant women got a break from spinning; but they still had to keep a neat house, because sloppy workmanship angered the benevolent goddess.

Berchta: Holda’s dark twin is Berchta, a grey-haired snaggled-toothed hag. Berchta, although not evil, is most definitely on the cranky side. She demands that the wisdom and skills of her and her sister goddesses be practiced with diligence and appreciation by mankind. Her feast day is January 5th. It is a very good idea to eat her feast foods of fish and oat-cakes on this day, so as not to anger her.

La Befana and Baboushka: Berchta is not the only Yuletide hag. La Bafana, the Italian crone goddess, rides around the world on her broom leaving candies and gifts to well-behaved children. One way to entice her into your household is to place a rag doll in her likeness by your front door or windows. Baboushka is the Russian counterpart of La Bafana.

The Callieach, Louhi and Skadi: Though no Yule or Christmas customs are associated with these crone goddesses, the Callieach, Louhi, and Skadi deserve mention — and perhaps a ritual in their honour — at this time. The Callieach, known as the old hag of winter, may be the crone aspect of Bridget. She begins her reign on Samhain. With a giant hammer she strikes the earth. Cracks of frost appear where she’s struck until the earth is covered with ice. Louhi, the Finnish “witch goddess,” kidnaped the Sun and Moon, and held them captive inside a mountain. This was the world’s first Winter Solstice. She was eventually forced to return the celestial bodies and allow the light to be restored. From Scandinavia, we have Skadi, a giantess who married into the Norse pantheon. She invented skis and snowshoes. Pray to Skadi when you find yourself in a dangerous winter landscape.

Woden: In Norse mythology, Woden acts as the god of the dead and of darkness. Leading the Wild Host, a hunting party of ghosts and hell-hounds, he rides the winter winds. Woe to anyone wandering outdoors at night and hear the barking of hounds and gallop of a thousand hooves, you must throw yourself face down in a ditch. If you’re lucky, the Wild Host will take no notice of you; if you’re not, you may be made to ride with the ghosts to the end of time.

Kallikantzaroi:  In Greece, the Kallikantzaroi awake when the world turns to darkness. These malevolent figures are half-human, half-animal, sporting tusks, red eyes, and long red curling tongues. Black and hairy, they represent the dark time of the year. Entering through the cellar or down the chimney, they eat all your food, drink your liquor, and break everything they can find. Householders can protect themselves by locking their homes and keeping a stout fire burning in the hearth from Yule until Twelfth Night.

Tomtes: The Swedish tomtes are a gentler race. Under four feet in height, with long white beards and little red caps, the tomtes tidy the house. All they ask for their labour is to be left a nice rice pudding on Yule. If the householder is too stingy to provide the tomte a treat, he simply departs and leaves the business of running a household to the owners.