Advent 13: Mother Holle

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?


Envisioning:
(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.

A Brilliant Brigid’s Day

Song for Brigid’s Day
by Beth Weaver-Kreider

Do you feel how the world comes alive?
How even underneath its coat of snow,
inside the bright crystals of the ice,
something in the Earth is stirring?

Within your own eyes I see it rising–
in this breath,
and now this one–
the Dreamer is awakening.

The dawn has come,
spreading its golden road before you,
asking, “Will you step upon the pathway?”

As you move out onto the road,
Brigid’s sun upon your face
will trace your outline full behind you,
defining you in the Shadow
which will be your soul’s companion
into spring.

–2018

Brigid’s Day has dawned bright and sparkling. The groundhog and her rodent kin have seen their shadows. The crone can merrily wander through the woods edge and hedgerows to gather firewood for the next six weeks of winter.

And here’s one of the sacred truths of the moment: If I’m willing to look deeply into the reality of my own shadows, if I’m willing to know them, to understand how they reflect me and show my inner realities, then I have nothing to fear from the shadows. I have nothing to fear from the coming weeks of winter.

Yesterday after I got home, I went out to shovel the drive so it would be easier for Jon to get up the slope. My neighbor came out to help me. She loves to shovel snow, she said. She loves winter, especially when it’s cold and snowy. And for those moments with her, shoveling and talking together, I too loved the cold and the snow. For the beauty, for the exercise, but mostly for the neighborliness.

Questions to Contemplate in the Season of Brigid
This is the season of sunlight and shadow:
What is the shape of my shadow?
How does it hamper me?
How does it hold me?
How does it tell me the shape of my soul?

Brigid is the Smith, she who works the forges:
What within me is being tempered this season?
What is being shaped and shifted?
What sacred patterns are being traced along my edges?
What useful tool am I being forged to become?

Brigid is the Healer.
The waters of her well bring wholeness.
What spaces within me need the touch of her waters?
What dis-ease drains my vitality?
How can I offer the waters of healing to others?

Brigid is Patroness of Poets.
How do words shape my reality, like iron is shaped in the forge?
How do my words bring healing, like water from the well?
How can I speak poetry into the cold and the shadows
of the season which is upon us?
Can I offer my daily words with the care and the artfulness of the poet?