Do you know the story of Mother Holle? It’s one of the tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. At first glance, it appears to be a moralistic and scolding tale about the good and beautiful and dutiful daughter versus the mean and ugly and lazy one. Ugh.
You can read a simple translation of the Grimm version here. As in so many fairy tales, the mother in the story loves the mean and lazy daughter best, and mistreats the good and industrious one. The dutiful daughter accidentally drops her spindle in the well and climbs down to retrieve it. Instead of drowning, she encounters an entire world down below, helps various characters out of trouble, and dutifully works for an old woman, Mother Holle, cleaning her house and fluffing her pillows. Mother Holle gives her her spindle, sends her back up the well with gold and jewels magically clinging to her clothes.
The mother sees the girl’s good fortune and throws the other daughter’s spindle down the well. But this daughter is lazy and rude and refuses to help anyone she meets in the underworld. She is rude to Mother Holle, who tells her that because she refused to fluff the feather pillows, the snow would not fall in her own world, and so there would be a drought. This daughter returns to the upper world with tar and insects and creepy crawly creatures magically clinging to her clothes.
The defiant spirit in me resists the controlling moralism of this story, the coercive shaming of the reader into good behavior for the sake of reward. Still, there’s something deeper, something more ancient and real going on here than a simple morality tale.
For one thing, scholars concur that Mother Holle seems to be a version of an ancient European goddess, Frau Holla, or the Hulda, an agriculture/fertility goddess whose beneficence was responsible for the health of the fields and crops, for the abundance which kept families and communities fed and healthy through the changing seasons of the year. Industrious hard work by members of ancient communities ensured the health of one’s family and one’s community. Textile work–creating clothing from the fibers of plant stems and animal fur–was an almost magical process, and it was women’s work. Girls with their spindles, from these two daughters to the poor miller’s daughter in the Rumpelstiltskin story, were keepers of this great mystery of spinning straw (plant stems and bits of fur) into gold (beautiful and functional cloth).
The first daughter sensed the needs of those she met in the world of Mother Holle, and she met their needs with her own soul force. She brought her whole self into the adventure presented to her, and did what needed to be done, as a member of the community in which she found herself. And when Mother Holle asked her to work for her, she did not consider herself above the menial tasks, but did them joyfully.
There’s so much in here, but the piece that catches me for today, in this place where I am descending into the well of winter, is to notice that each task presented to the girls in their underworld journey may seem basic and mundane, but each one has a sacred significance, from the spinning they were doing at the very lip of the well to the shaking of Mother Holle’s feather pillows.
Today and in the coming days, how can I shift my seeing, as I observe the daily mundane tasks ahead of me, to feel the sacred significance of each? This stack of grading that threatens to drown me–can I look at each piece of paper as a contract between myself and the student who receives it back from me? Each is a piece of the community bond that we share, and I need to strategize a way to be present for the work.
What work calls out to you today, this weekend, this season, to be done? What is the sacred truth of the most mundane task that you must accomplish?
(At the beginning of Advent, my pastor asked us to hold the swords-into-ploughshares vision in our heads, to look for stories of people choosing that vision. For the next little while, I am going to look for such stories as my daily morning meditation.)
Yesterday I listened to the report on NPR about the group Parents for Peace, about family members of extremists who created a safe group for people whose family members have been part of hate groups. They welcome former extremists into the group as well–former IS members, former Klan members, former neo-Nazis–and they’re spreading a message of care and compassion. Some of the members who have themselves been part of extremist groups are part of other groups that help families stage interventions with their loved ones who are caught in up in hate groups. They hold a vision that there is a basic humanity within people that can help lead them out of a life of hatred.