Berchta Hears the Longing Huts by Anna Marie Laforest
Berchta, whose name means “bright,” lived in a wooden hut in a velvet forest near a mystical stream at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. She had 24 black and white German Spaniels who bounded along with her as she danced up and down the mountains. Sometimes she would pitch camp overnight in the hills and the dogs would make a circle around her tent to protect her, 12 at a time arranged like the numbers of a clock, in shifts during the night.
Berchta always wore a white shawl that looked beautiful against her dark hair and skin, and was made of the finest lambs’ wool. In winter she would dance up the mountain and the affectionate spaniels would grasp the edges of her shawl in their soft mouths and stretch it for a kilometer in each direction. As she clapped her hands and danced, the dogs shook the shawl and snow fell from it down the mountain into the forest and out to the villages. They would play up and down in this way all winter.
Berchta’s job as a young goddess began each year on the Winter Solstice. She was to fetch the lazy nature spirits who had run off during the cold and bring them back to the high country so they could start creating Spring again. It might take Berchta and the retrievers 12 days to find them and bring them back. It was not a difficult job, though.
The dogs were proficient at finding the groundling spirits, and for those spirits who had taken to the sky, Berchta shape-shifted into a great white heron and caught them in her soft, now feathery, shawl. Soon the skies would become blue again, crystalized rivers would melt into rushing streams, and yellow and indigo alpine flowers would start to poke through the sugar-capped mountains.
After the last sprite was brought back, Berchta and the dogs would join Woden and the other gods at the festival tent for white radishes and dark beer. Then back to her wooden hut by the mystical stream for a very long nap.
Berchta had shape-shifted so often into a white heron and back that her left foot was now permanently webbed. The 24 black and white playful retrievers had shaken so much snow from Berchta’s white shawl, that their soft mouths were permanently cold and their breath icy. Berchta was no longer a teenager, and she started to wish she had a more demanding job. The dogs did not.
“What else may I do to help,” she prayed.
The White Lady, Berchta’s patroness, appeared to her, then, and said, “Child, do you feel ready to do more? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” said Berchta.
“Then,” said the White Lady, “this year, as you soar upward for spirits in the sky, look down also, and mind what happens below.”
“Oh! I will,” said Berchta. “Thank you.”
So this year on the Winter Solstice, when Berchta flew into the air as a great white heron to search for the nature spirits in the skies, she remembered to also look below. She did not know what she was supposed to look for.
It was dead winter, the wolves and bears were hunkered down in their dens and the people were in their homes, their hearth fires sending smoke up the chimneys and into the icy night air. There was a strange longing in the air, too, that floated up to Berchta, which she could not identify.
She saw her spaniels retrieve the ground spirits, darting among holly bushes, barking and dancing and Berchta laughed at them from above.
Finally, on the eleventh night of her mission, Berchta felt a very strong longing in the air beneath her and she looked down. There was a mother wolf wailing so plaintively her howl melted the snow off the evergreens in the forest around her. Berchta told the nature sprites that were clinging to her shawl to hold on, and she soared downward to the wolf’s den.
“What is the matter, mother wolf? Can I help in some way?”
“Oh, Berchta, one of my cubs has strayed and I can’t leave the others in the nest by themselves, if I go to find her.”
“Oh, dear. I did not see a wolf cub as I flew down.”
The mother wolf howled again, and the remaining snow on the evergreens dropped down onto the forest floor.
“She was born without inner eyelids, Berchta. You know, the layer that is clear and keeps the dirt and dust out, since we are so close to the ground. One of her brother pups kicked up some dust in the den while they were playing, and she took off, straight through the snow. Can you find her for me?”
“I will try, mother wolf.”
Berchta set off running in concentric circles, going out further and further, but she did not see the cub. She asked the nature sprites to help her look, but they were lazy and did not want to come out of the soft white woolen shawl where they had lodged so comfortably after being caught. Berchta called her dogs and asked them to help. The 24 dogs surrounded the wolf den and moved out in ever-widening range, but they could not find the cub either.
Finally, Berchta said, “Mother wolf, I can feel your tremendous longing but I cannot find your cub. If you will allow me to watch your other cubs for you, perhaps you can find your daughter cub yourself.”
This they did. Berchta went in the wolf den and rocked and nursed the other cubs while the mother wolf went out and, through instinct and longing, found her little cub right away.
“Thank you, Berchta,” said the mother, folding her runaway back into the nest, and scolding the others a little.
“I have a lot to learn about a mother’s longing,” said Berchta. And she shape-shifted back into a great white heron and flew up to the sky.
Berchta saw nothing else out of order during the rest of her mission. After setting the sprites to work on creating the new Spring, she and the 24 dogs stopped in at Woden’s and shared white radishes and beer with the other gods who had just returned from their own wild hunting. Then she went back to her wooden hut near the mystical stream, for a long nap.
The next year Berchta prayed, “Is it the wolves I am supposed to help? Is that my expanded mission?”
The White Lady answered. “That was a great thing you did for mother wolf, but no, it is not the wolves you are destined to help. Keep listening as you fly. You have a good ear for hearing the earth’s longings.”
So Berchta and the 24 black and white spaniels set out once again on the solstice, to retrieve the fickle nature sprites. Berchta kept her ears open. Again the bears and wolves were hunkered down in their dens and the people were in their homes, with hearth fires sending smoke up the chimneys and into the icy night air.
Again she heard the strange longing in the air that she could not identify.
The sprites in her shawl seemed slightly heavier than usual, but she knew that was not really possible as nature sprites weigh nothing in the first place.
Finally, on the eleventh night, Berchta felt a very strong longing in the air beneath her and she looked down to see a mother bear growling a growl so deep it shook the snow down from the mountains in a near avalanche. Berchta told the nature sprites that were clinging to her shawl to hold on, and she soared downward to the mother bear.
“What is the matter, mother bear? Can I help in some way?”
“Oh, Berchta, one of my cubs woke us up from hibernation, wanting to play. I was woozy and didn’t see her run off. Now I can’t find her anywhere, and I’m afraid if I go too far away in my search, my other cubs will run off. “
“Oh dear, I did not see a bear cub as I flew down.”
The mother bear growled even more deeply than before, and another avalanche started.
“Stop! You might bury us all!”
Now Berchta knew that her nature sprites would not help, and she also knew that the bear would be very annoyed if she called her dogs over. So she said, “Please let me stay with your cubs while you search.”
The mother bear rumbled off. With her keen longing and intuition, it took only a few minutes to return with the wayward cub in tow. She found Berchta in the cave rocking the others, soothing them back to hibernation.
“Thank you, Berchta,” said mother bear, pulling her runaway snugly into her arms, and settling back with the others.
“I have a lot to learn about a mother’s longing,” said Berchta. And she shape-shifted back into a great white heron and flew up to the sky.
She saw nothing else out of order during the rest of her mission. After retrieving all the nature sprites and setting them to work on creating the new Spring, Berchta and her 24 black and white dogs stopped in at Woden’s party and shared white radishes and dark beer with the other gods who had just returned from their wild huntings. After that she went back to the wooden hut for a long nap.
The next year Berchta prayed, “Is it the bears I am supposed to help? Is that my expanded mission?”
The White Lady answered, “That was a great thing you did for mother bear, but no, it is not the bears you are destined to help. Keep listening to the longings as you fly. And pay close attention to those who gather in your shawl.”
This sounded like even more work to the 24 dogs, and they were glad it was Berchta and not they who had asked for a further mission. They all set out once again.
Berchta spread her great white heron wings and collected the nature spirits from the sky while the 24 black and white spaniels chased the ground sprites and retrieved them with their kindly soft mouths.
Berchta heard the same longings come up to her as she flew, but looking down she saw no mother animals in distress.
By the eighth night she and the dogs had caught all of the nature sprites and set them to work on creating the next Spring.
Woden’s beer and radish party would not take place until the 12th night after the solstice. Berchta fed the spaniels some hot soup to warm their icy breaths, and went out alone to cruise the sky for four more nights. What had she missed? Who was it she should help, and how?
Without the dogs scuttering below her, Berchta could hear the longing from the earth even better. And when she paused in her flapping, to glide a little lower, the sound of the longing became deafening. Yet she saw nothing but the smoke from the chimneys.
The White Lady had told her to pay attention to what was in her shawl. It did feel heavier. She turned her head to inspect it with her beak. She saw its fibers had collected several little sparkles that glittered like dandelion seeds under the glow of the moon, but she saw no lazy sprites.
On the eleventh night, with the longing sounding in her ears stronger than ever, Berchta decided to swoop down closer to the chimneys. The smoke itself was silent, but as she went from chimney to chimney she noticed that the huts seemed about to burst from longing.
“White Lady, please tell me what to do? Am I to enter the huts of these families?”
There was no answer from the White Lady. But once on the ground and back into her woman’s form, Berchta felt the shawl around her arms grow heavier and heavier, and her intuition insisted, “Yes, go in! Go in!”
She chose the hut with the loudest longing, and slipped inside. The family was asleep, and everything was in order, everything clean, mended, and over by the spinning wheel all of the flax had been spun into thread, nicely, nicely. Berchta sat at the spinning wheel for a moment to rest. After a moment, a baby started to fuss. Berchta picked her up and rocked her back to sleep. She settled the baby next to her mother and slipped out as quietly as she had come in. As she left, she placed a shining black agate and a piece of holly on the spinning wheel as a gift. She also, unknown to her, left behind a scent of myrhh, as myrhh was the natural scent of Berchta’s long black hair.
She went into two other longing huts that night, and noticed the same things: everything in order, flax completely spun, dishes washed. In each hut she sat at the spinning wheel to rest a moment. A baby fussed, and Bechta rocked her back to sleep and tucked her in with the mother. Along with the holly, she left a piece of onyx in one home, and obsidian in the other. And the myrhh of her hair left a beautiful scent behind.
Berchta went home puzzled. She noticed as she took off her shawl for the night, that it seemed lighter than it had been earlier. But it still sparkled.
The next night, the twelfth night, Berchta was determined to figure out once and for all what it was she was supposed to do, and she returned to the neighborhood of the previous huts. She did not wait until full dark, but went at twilight. There at the local gathering place in the center of the neighborhood were three women holding newborn babies in their arms and each an onyx, agate, or obsidian in her hand. There was holly on the table between them and they were laughing delightedly, nursing their newborns, and holding out their hands to show each other the stones.
The sparkles in Berchta’s shawl jumped up and down for joy, and her shoulders felt as though little pieces of hail were drumming down on her skin.
She still did not quite understand her mission, but she knew that she must continue on as before, for this one last night. She flew back to her mountains and the mystical stream to pick up more black stones, the finest agates and onyx she could find. She decked herself with winter holly. Then she flew back to the longing homes, the sparkles in her shawl dancing riotously.
It was a very full night. Berchta attended each of the longing huts, and as her shawl became lighter, she finally understood that she had been carrying the souls of the unborn children who wished to answer the longing calls of the mothers, and who were coming to life as she rocked them in her shawl.
“You have done the hard work,” said the White Lady. “Illumination comes to those who have done the work. Truly you are named Berchta - bright, luminous one.”
When her shawl stopped sparkling, and all the babies were born, Berchta wrapped the White Lady into the soft white wool and flew her back to the Alps. And they both went to Woden’s party and ate white radishes and drank beer. But they said nothing to the other gods who were fresh and wild from their hunting.
Today Berchta’s long dark hair is as white as her shawl, but she still carries the sparkling seeds of the future with her. In Germany, girls are often named Berta or Bertha in honor of her.
“Mother’s Night” is a festival in Berchta’s honor, held the night before the Winter Solstice (December 20 or 21). All spinning is to be finished before this night, all dishes washed and put away, and all mending done. Some lore has it that Berchta will get angry if the spinning is not done, and leave straw instead of gifts. This is hard to believe, given her sacred mission, and the softness of her nature.
Berchta’s legend, over time, became mixed in with the Christian feast of Epiphany, which is the Twelfth Day of Christmas and still called “Berchtentag” or Berchta’s Day, in some places. Her gifts of holly and agates, and her drinking of beer at Woden’s party, predate the jolly activities of the much later legend of Santa Claus.