Sunday, January 2, 2011


Glow with the certainty that rises from your sorrow, your pain, your anger, bewilderment, and fear. There is something fine being made within you. You have the power of change. Bring the light.
--Thorn Coyle, from her blog Know Thyself

Happy Berchtoldstag! Celebrated in Switzerland, Lichenstein, and Alsace, January 2 honors the Goddess Berchta, whose name means “The Bright One.” The Alemmani, a Germanic tribe who lived along the shores of the Rhine in the first millienium B.C.E, venerated Berchta as patroness of weaving, animals, and the hunt. During this time of winter darkness, we also remember her virtue, that of Bëraht-nessī (Old High German, pronounced like “BUR-ate-NEZ-ee,” meaning Brightness).

Who was Berchta? More widely known as Perchta (and related to the English name “Bertha”), she had worshippers across the Southern Alps. In some tellings, she has two forms: Maiden, beautiful and white as snow like her name, or Crone--elderly, haggard, and fierce.

Berchta in her fierce Crone aspect.
The two forms reflect her behavior. During this time of the year, Berchta would visit farms and homesteads, ensuring the year’s spinning had been completed; the animals well-tended; and that people had feasted heartily on fish and gruel in her honor. If yes, children of the household might awaken the next morning to find a silver coin in their shoes. If no, they would be cut open and their innards stuffed with stones and straw! (Frankly, I find St. Nick’s choice of coal in the stocking less forbidding!)

Many traditions also claim one can recognize Berchta by one of her legs, oversized and shaped like that of a swan. Some felt this indicated her ability to shapechange into animal form, others that it symbolized her affiliation with spinning, as one foot would work a treadle on a spinning wheel.

As her cult syncretized with Christian traditions, Berchta became associated with the nearby Christian feast of the Epiphany, which completes the Twelve Days of Christmas and in some areas is still called Berchtentag (“Berchta’s Day”).

On Berchtoldstag, my mind turns to this idea of Epiphany, which means both a Christian feast (when the Men of Wisdom found the Savior) but also a moment of intuitive Realization. We sometimes call such events “light-bulb moments,” as the arrival of insight feels like a light turning on in the darkness: Bëraht-nessī. Do such moments fall upon us randomly?

No, and the story of Berchta shows us this. She brings Bëraht-nessī, this Illumination, only to those who have done the hard work of the past year: spinning the loose strands of flax or wool into coherent yarn, looking after the animals. Likewise, those who walk the spiritual path and face the darkness of their own selves--wrapping up the loose ends, shepherding the beasts of their own fear or anger--can look forward, sooner or later, to the reward of Bëraht-nessī’s arrival, the form of a Goddess who can attain feats of Transformation.

I find it typically Pagan, too, that Berchta demands her dedicants engage in Feasting and Jollity. Withdrawal from the world does not work our path. (The Buddha, too, eschewed extreme asceticism as a dead-end to spiritual progress.) Living our lives with Vigor and Engagement makes our path. The challenges we face, the chaos like unspun flax, the unruly beasts of our inner world--they are the work. Thorn Coyle’s most recent posting on this subject, Lightbringer, knits nicely with this idea, so I refer you to her site for further meditation on this theme.

So on this first day of the rest of 2011, let’s re-dedicate ourselves to the work of Self-Creation. And let’s look forward to the unpredictable moment when our work pays off with Bëraht-nessī, the Epiphany that gives us Vigor, Hope, and Inspiration to keep going.

May we see the gates of Bëraht-nessī, and perhaps make a home there. 

No comments:

Post a Comment