Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender
Issues 9.1 (2005) 62-87
Unearthing A Birth Goddess In A German Jewish Naming Ceremony
One avenue of inquiry in feminist spirituality has been the exploration of folklore and folk ritual related to women. Folk ritual often contains elements from outside Jewish law and tradition, imported from idiosyncratic or syncretic local custom, and may therefore contain a hint of the theological imaginings of Jewish women—or even a source of images of the feminine Divine. One of the folk rituals of central Europe is the German Jewish baby naming ritual, used for both girls and boys, known as Hollekreisch (also Holekreisch, Holegrash, or Houlegraash). In this ritual, family and friends gave a child a name (usually a secular name), raised the infant's cradle three times, and, in some areas and periods, called the name of Holle. Scholars now agree that this ceremony, whose origins lie in the Middle Ages, likely stemmed from the legend of Frau Holle, a German mythic figure associated with birth, death, the cycle of seasons, the household, and the underworld.
An examination of medieval Jewish legend and ritual from central Europe confirms that some Jews knew of Frau Holle, whom German women worshipped throughout the Middle Ages in spite of Church decrees forbidding it. Many modern scholars of Jewish folk custom, attempting to understand Holle's presence in a Jewish ritual, have read the Teutonic legends of Frau Holle to suggest that she is a witch and a stealer of children. They conclude that the Hollekreisch ceremony was a ritual protecting the newborn from demons. However, if one examines all the available sources from the Middle Ages to the present about Frau Holle, or Holda—and the numerous almost identical Central European goddess-figures associated with life, death, witchcraft, and children, such as Perchta, Frau Gode, Frau Venus, Frau Harke, Frau Frick, and Frau Stampa —she appears as an ambivalent figure. In European legend, to be sure, Holle rode on winter nights with terrifying spirits of the dead; in the tenth century, Burchard of Worms spoke of the women who rode with Holda or Holle as witches and named Holle a demon. Yet according to many folklorists who have studied the legends of the period, Holle also presided over a well of infant souls, rocked babies to sleep when their mothers dozed, and brought gifts to children at the winter solstice. It is at least probable that the ceremony of Hollekreisch, at one time, had ambivalent meaning: it was both a protective circle around the child to guard it from Frau Holle's fearsome qualities, and an invocation of Frau Holle's benevolence, urging her to grant the child life and prosperity. Thus, the ceremony may have addressed the needs and feelings of the woman who had just given birth and had to release her child into a world that was both abundant and frightening.
Many European home birth rituals invoked separation from the earth, and from nature, as a fundamental necessity for entering the human community. An understanding of Holle as a representative of the earth's forces of birth and death and a symbol of the mother's womb itself has not yet been applied to the ritual of Hollekreisch, though this understanding clearly can be read into the ceremony. A new examination of Holle's role in Hollekreisch, one that decodes earlier scholars' reactions to her and appropriately revises our understanding of her function, might uncover an as-yet untapped source for birth ritual and for explorations of the divine feminine. This revisionary work would be a kind of "re-remembering"—not a recovery of original meaning, but an opening up to the possibility of new meaning rooted in long-standing imagery.
Future readers of the Hollekreisch ritual might choose to regard Frau Holle as an example of a divine feminine figure immanent in birth and death, embodying both the joy and the terror of creating new life, and representing the necessary, but perilous, separation of the child from the womb. Such an image would challenge internalized rabbinic norms that seek to control the unpredictability and femininity of...