They Come In Threes: Germanic Goddesses in Folktales and Lore
Three women arrive in the night, seemingly from nowhere but the darkness itself. They appear human enough at first glance, but there’s something off – features that are too extreme, or too animal. A broad, flat foot like that of a waterfowl. Wolf-like fangs. A long, iron nose. They look frightening, but they have kindness in their eyes. They have seen you struggling, and they know how to help. They offer wealth, freedom from burden, the solution to your predicament. They spin fiber into thread and weave the threads together; they foretell the future; they fly through the air with those whom the new god has forsaken but they never will. Like it is with mothers, you are always welcome in their home – a cave deep in the mountains, or the bottom of a lake, or somewhere in the forest. But they have high expectations, and don’t you dare disappoint them.
The term Interpretatio Romana indicates the ancient Roman practice of identifying other cultures’ indigenous deities with Roman deities in order to syncretize the two religions. The Romans did this virtually everywhere they conquered. When they learned of collectives of Celtic and Germanic goddesses – ancient ancestors or tutelary land spirits, or perhaps both – the Romans referred to them as Matres et Matronae, Mothers and Matrons. In iconography, they are depicted in groups of three. Dogs, apples, grains, and spinning implements accompany them. And while all this might suggest that they were worshipped primarily by women, this is not the case. The tablets and votives discovered throughout Western Europe were often offered by men (Devora). Unfortunately, we know very little about these deities – their worship didn’t survive in any overt way past Christianization. But, like many ancient beliefs, memory of them survives in fairy tales and folklore and folk traditions. We carry them with us in our stories, word-hoards of wisdom, immortal feasts that can be devoured, absorbed, and reconstituted again and again, like the goats that drive Thor’s chariot. Nothing ever truly dies here, nothing is ever destroyed. Change is constant, but the essence of things persists.
Three Golden Gifts
In the Norwegian tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” the heroine meets three elderly women on her journey to the eponymous location. They each loan her their horses for part of the way as well as give her gifts, the usefulness of which only become clear much later: a golden apple; a golden carding-comb; and a golden spinning wheel. The latter two are clearly related to the crafting of thread, and the first is a symbol used in iconography depicting deities of agriculture, including the Matres and Matronae mentioned above.
While they don’t solve her problem for her, which is something only she can do for herself, they do play a crucial role in helping her find her way and defeat the troll-women. They seem to appear out of nowhere for no other purpose than to support her, little by little, on the her way.
Similarly, in the Grimms’ tale “Frau Holle,” the goddess sets three tasks for the sisters: remove a loaf of bread from an oven, shake all the apples from a tree, and serve faithfully as the goddess’s housemaid. Again, we see apples, grains, and the domestic sphere. They seem to be connected, these nameless wise women and Holda, presiding over the same spheres, but the exact nature of their relationship is uncertain. Still, the connection — however tenuous — deserves consideration.
The Grimms collected another tale about a girl whose mother has forced her into a dangerous ultimatum: either spin heaps of flax overnight and marry a prince, or meet her death. “The Three Spinners” is similar to “Rumpelstiltskin,” but differs in that the supernatural help comes from three mysterious women with grotesque features:
“The first one had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.”
These features are associated with spinning work: the flat foot comes from working the pedal of the spinning wheel; the lower lip comes from wetting the tips of flax fibers in the spinning process; and the broad thumb comes from twisting the fibers.
It might be easy to dismiss these wise women’s attributes as mere grotesqueries to neatly tie up the plot, as their explanation for their features to the prince at the wedding causes him to forbid his bride from spinning (which she detests!) Yet the goddess Perchta is also given the attribute of a broad, flat foot – a “goose foot.” There is another figure in French legend who is believed to be a manifestation or variation of Perchta: La Reine Pedauque, Queen Goose-foot. Some say that La Reine Pedauque started spinning at the beginning of time (Dashu).
In addition to their grotesque features, the narrative also describes them as being “dressed in strange clothing.” This underscores their otherness, and (given their other traits) likely their supernatural status.
Spinners at the Well
Of course, the image of three spinning women also hearkens to the Norns and the Moirai – goddesses in sets of three, spinners and weavers of the threads of the universe into which we are all woven. It is important that, while they are depicted in triplicate, they are not the maiden-mother-crone Celtic type. The three women that appear in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” are all elderly, while “The Three Spinners” story doesn’t mention their ages, although they must be older than the heroine because she refers to them as her aunts.
It is also important to note that, while the Norns are depicted in myth as three, there are many more, nameless Norns. In some reports, there is at least one Norn for every person born, a personal deity who arrives at the birth and guides and defines the fate of the individual. They may be the same figures, by a different name, as the disir. The distillation of them into three figures accords them the power of three in Germanic cultures: a mighty number associated with creation and fulfillment — functions that are also expressed in their spinning and gold-giving.
We aren’t told where these women come from or where they go when they leave; we aren’t told what they want. They are as mysterious as they are generous. But if we compare them to goddesses we do know more about, if we attend to their similarities, they may provide clues to the worship of Germanic goddesses nearly forgotten, shrouded in the pre-Christian past.