Old Frick, the Devil’s Grandmother: Goddesses in Folk Tales and Lore
Old Frick is a complex, mysterious figure in Brandenburgian lore, sometimes fearsome, other times helpful. Alternately referred to as Frau Fricke, she is one of a number of feminine spirits given the respectful title Frau (meaning “lady”) across Germany (Hammer 62). I first came upon Frick while researching the Norse goddess Frigg. Wikipedia cites “Fricke” as the Low German (i.e. the dialect of Germans living in northern Germany) cognate of Frigg, both ultimately originating from Proto-Germanic word *frijjo, meaning “dear, beloved.”*
The next time I ran across (a variation of) this name was in Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2, which contains a wealth of lore from northern Germany. She is listed as “Old Frick” under the section of lore from Mecklenburg, the Brandenburg Mark, and nearby regions. With this area being the region from which all my German ancestors immigrated (Brandenburg, Pomerania, and Berlin), I was especially interested in reading the lore that originated there. Frick in particular intrigued me — particularly her designation as “the devil’s grandmother.” The more I learned about her, the more my fascination deepened. Unfortunately, information about her is scant and difficult to reconstruct (a common complaint regarding anything to do with continental Germanic polytheism). Who is she? What role(s) does she play in Low German lore? What can she mean to us now?
A Wild Huntress
Many spirits, including deities, have been attributed the role of leader of the Wild Hunt. In Germanic myth and lore, this includes Odin, cultural heroes, and a number of divine ladies (whom I think of as the Frauen). Frick is, of course, among them. Benjamin Thorpe states in the 2nd volume of Northern Mythology that
“Old Frick, or Fuik, is the devils’ grandmother, and has frequently been heard making a great noise in the night. Many have also seen, and at once recognized her by the large dogs, which she always has with her; for when they barked, pure fire has issued from their mouths and nostrils” (80).
A brief tale follows this description, relating how a peasant came upon Frick and her team on his way home from work. He is walking down a road at night, bearing sacks of corn flour on his back, when he hears the thundering of Frick’s wagon and the barking of her dogs. Frightened, the peasant empties the corn flour onto the road, which the dogs consume. The peasant hurries home and tosses the empty sacks in the corner of the room, yet when he wakes in the morning, the sacks have been refilled.
The Wild Hunt is a prolific myth present at some level in all or most European cultures. It most commonly occurs in the winter time, especially around the Twelve Nights, but it can pass at any time of the year when the wind howls and thunder rolls. It still haunts our secular culture today. It’s the ancestor, so to speak, of Santa Claus’s gift-bearing ride on Christmas night, as well as the inspiration for Stan Jones’ cowboy song “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Grimm believed that, for ancient heathens, its passing during the Twelve Nights was auspicious, imparting welfare and blessings (like Santa Claus today). Since the medieval period, it has typically taken on a much more sinister aspect (as with the tale of Frick above). Overall, it seems to me to be fairly ambiguous — risky for anyone viewing it or caught in the middle of it, to be sure, but capable of both good and ill results, depending on one’s behavior during the encounter. In some circumstances, it may be viewed as a kind of test, and humble, considerate viewers (who provide aid to the hunter or huntress or their retinue) may be rewarded or at least spared.
For many of the Frauen (Frau Holle, Frau Perchta, Frau Gode, etc.), leading the Wild Hunt is arguably an element of their divine role as Mistress of the Animals — a title that places those deities who bear it in that ripe liminal space between wilderness and civilization, and signifies that they oversee the success of hunters in the acquisition of prey (such is the case with Diana, with whom Frau Holle/Holda is identified in old church documents) and therefore the health and success of communities. I believe this is true for Fricke as well, especially considering her connection to dragons and corn, which we’ll examine next.
The lore highlighted in the previous section has a couple of points of interest beyond Frick’s role as the leader of the Wild Hunt. The most important is the first statement: that Frick is the devil’s grandmother. Old Frick is a mysterious figure — information about her is not readily available, at least not compared to other Germanic divine women, such as a Frigg, Perchta or Holda. There is, however, a wealth of lore surrounding the devil’s grandmother, and this is a key designation for learning more about Frick.
Her company of dogs is related to this. Dogs are common partners in hunts even today, and many spirits who lead the Hunt are accompanied by dogs (such as Frau Gode, who was once a living woman with several daughters who were transformed into dogs due to their great — and, according to Christianity, sacrilegious — love of hunting) (Thorpe 74). What separates Frick’s dogs from the rest, however, are that they breathe fire and consume corn. Both of these suggest a connection to a certain type of European dragon.
Dracs, a kind of domesticated dragon spirit, are likewise often connected with grains. Claude Lecouteux states in The Tradition of Household Spirits that “we can find the drac of wheat, semolina, barley, and, in Lusatia, that of grains…” (153). Keep in mind that corn is a grain. When dracs serve households as domestic spirits, they may bring grains, silver, or gold to their masters or mistresses — all related to success and therefore both wealth and survival. Dracs are also strongly associated with fire, reputed to live in or behind the stove and, when seen in the air above homes, to resemble poles of fire.
There is a certain Grimm tale, called “The Devil and His Grandmother,” that meaningfully brings all of these points together. The devil mentioned in the tale’s title is actually a “fiery dragon” who makes a deal with three soldiers defecting from a war (563). Far from total evil, he functions as an ambiguous trickster character. He meets the soldiers in a corn field — again, the connection to corn — and tells them that he will protect them from the war and make them rich if they promise to surrender themselves to him at the end of seven years. He offers them an opportunity to escape this fate: if they can guess the answers to a riddle he will pose to them at the end of the seven years, they will be free. One of the soldiers finds his way to the dragon’s home under a “fallen rock which looks like a little house” and meets the dragon’s grandmother (565). The grandmother takes pity on the soldier and agrees to help him. She tells him to hide in the cellar and, when the dragon returns home, tricks her grandson into revealing the answers to the riddle. So, while being intimately connected to a “devil” (which, Lecouteux makes the convincing case throughout his book Demons and Spirits of the Land, is really just a Christian term for a nature spirit), the grandmother is actually quite willing to help humans who appeal to her — using the same cunning on which the dragon prides himself.
Frick is never named in the story, but considering Thorpe’s (and others’) assertion that she is the devil’s grandmother, as well as certain details mentioned above (i.e. the connection to corn, dragons, and devils), it’s a reasonable assumption to make. This theory becomes even more probable when we look at other folk tales and lore from northern Germany.
The Witch in the Woods
There’s a tale from the Uckermark region of Brandenburg, Germany, called “The Old Frick,” which sheds a contrasting light on Frick’s nature. Echoing the more familiar “Hansel and Gretel,” two children wander in a forest and come to a door that leads to an underground cave. The children knock at the door and “Old Frick came out, a huge sorceress and man-eater. As she saw the children, she took them down into her cave and locked up the little brother into a cage… She kept the girl around to help her with the housekeeping” (59).
While her nature here is vastly different from the cunning but sympathetic grandmother in the Grimm tale, they both live in a cave (or, in the Grimm tale, a “house-like rock”) deep in a forest. Further details about Old Frick emerge in this story: she keeps a rod that can make wishes come true (i.e. a wand) in a bag, and she cannot cross a lake (although she is capable of drinking up all the water in it to get across). This aversion to water is interesting (and, so far, inexplicable to me), as many Germanic feminine spirits — including many of the Frauen — dwell in water and/or use it as a means of crossing into the world of the living. It may be an alteration by the clergy to separate Old Frick from her divine state. In addition, like Frau Harke, another Frau from northeastern Germany, Frick is described as “huge,” perhaps even a giantess (as she’s also described as a man-eater). As I mentioned, it’s unclear how much of this tale is impacted by Christian attitudes toward Frick, and how much was changed in the story to accommodate those attitudes, but I’m willing to accept that she has a dual nature, like the Alpine Frau Perchta and the Slavic Baba Yaga.
A Force of Chaos
There is a wealth of idioms in northern Germany regarding the devil and his grandmother. Folklorist Isobel Cushman Chamberlain has recorded quite a few of them and notes that the “devil’s…grandmother often has the popular sympathy, and does not always appear as an evil-doing or as an ugly individual” (280). One such idiom, “The devil is beating/bleaching his grandmother,” explains a sunshower, a weather phenomenon in which it rains while the sun is shining. One might be tempted, based on this idiom, to infer a connection between the grandmother Frick and the sun or weather, but when considered with other idioms, the overall sense is that she represents a portion of any paradoxical or disruptive event:
- When a loud argument occurs: “The devil and his grandmother are the best guests in the house”
- When things go awry: “As if the devil had ploughed with his grandmother”
- When a whirlwind arises : “The devil is dancing with his grandmother”
It’s significant that all of these idioms have their source in the Mecklenburg region of northern Germany. These, of course, may be purely Christian in origin that have only the faintest roots connecting them to Frick. But the fact that, as Chamberlain mentions, she has retained the benefit of sympathy even as she is paired with the Christian embodiment of greatest evil is very telling — namely, that she once held a very important place in the hearts of northern Germans, and still does to this day (at least to some degree).
Who is the Old Frick?
With only these scraps to go on, it’s impossible to peel away the Christian lacquer from the pre-Christian understanding of Frick, but the medieval and modern vision of her is at least consistent: She is cunning and capricious, the progenitor of a trickster figure — whether a devil or dragon. She is associated with fire, hunting, and corn, as well as the chthonic realm. She can be antagonistic toward humans, even consuming them if not provided a suitable alternative offering, but she can also help those who appeal to her for sympathy. She is probably not someone you’d want to meet alone on a dark night, but if you need help out of a sticky situation, you might go to her home underground, deep in the wild dark forest, for some helpful sleight-of-hand.
*The linguistic connection to Frigg is interesting, although I hesitate to say that this means that they’re one and the same for a number of reasons. Of course, they certainly could have been at some point; but another possibility is that the term *frijjo was originally a title, not a personal name, that was used for a variety of goddesses revered in various Germanic cultures. Perhaps each tribe had their own Frijjo — their own divine lady, beloved for her guardianship and guidance of their people — and the Norse later applied it as a personal name for their own particular beloved lady. This is all conjecture, but it bears mentioning.
Chamberlain, Isabel Cushman. “The Devil’s Grandmother.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 13, no. 51, 1900, pp. 278–280.
GardenStone. “The Old Frick.” Goddess Holle. Translated by Michelle Lina Marie Hitchcock, Books on Demand, 2011.
Hammer, Jill. “Holle’s Cry: Unearthing a Birth Goddess in a German Jewish Naming Ceremony.” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, No. 9, Jewish Women’s Spirituality (Spring, 5765/2005), pp. 62-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40326618
Lecouteux, Claude. Demons and Spirits of the Land. Inner Traditions, 2015.
—The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.
“The Devil and His Grandmother.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Translated by Josef Scharl, Pantheon Books, 1972.
Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.