Perchta or Berchta (English: Bertha), also commonly known as Percht, was a goddess in Southern Germanic paganism in the Alpine countries.
The name originates form the Old High German word peraht, or brilliant, meant as a warning against the sin of vanity. The words peraht, berht and brecht mean bright, light and/or white.
Perchta had many different names depending on the era and region: Grimm listed the names Perahta and Berchte as the main names (in his heading), followed by Berchta and Frau Berchta in Old High German, as well as Behrta and Frau Perchta. Regional variations of the name include Berigl, Berchtlmuada, Berchta, Pehta, Perhta-Baba, Zlobna Pehta, Bechtrababa, Sampa, Stampa, Lutzl, Zamperin, Pudelfrau, Zampermuatta and Rauweib. In Baden, Swabia, Switzerland and Slovenian regions, she was often called Frau Faste (the lady of the Ember days) or 'Kwaternik', elsewhere she was known as Posterli, Quatemberca and Fronfastenweiber. In southern Austria, in Carinthia among the Slovenes, a male form of Perchta was known as Quantembermann (the man of the four Ember days). In Italy, Perchta is roughly equivalent with La Befana, who visits all the children of Italy on the eve of 6 January to fill their socks with candy if they are good or a lump of coal if they are bad.
In some descriptions, Perchta has two forms, she may appear either as beautiful and white as snow like her name, or elderly and haggard. In many old descriptions, Bertha had one large foot, sometimes called a goose foot or swan foot. Grimm thought the strange foot symbolizes she may be a higher being who could shapeshift to animal form. He noticed Bertha with a strange foot exist in many languages (German "Berhte mit dem fuoze", French "Bertha au grand pied", Latin "Berhta cum magno pede"): "It is apparently a swan-maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside...and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle".
The Twelfth Night
January 6 the Twelfth Night was once known as her festival day (replaced by Epiphany in Christianity). The festival included a feast of traditional foods of gruel or dumplings and fish.
- In the folklore of Bavaria and Austria, Perchta was said to roam the countryside at midwinter, and to enter homes between the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (especially on the Twelfth Night). She would know whether the children and young servants of the household had behaved well and worked hard all year. If they had, they might find a small silver coin next day, in a shoe or pail. If they had not, she would slit their bellies open, remove stomach and guts, and stuff the hole with straw and pebbles. She was particularly concerned to see that girls had spun the whole of their allotted portion of flax or wool during the year.
- Bertha is reportedly angered if on her feast day, the traditional meal of fish and gruel is forgotten, and will slit people's bellies open and stuff them with straw if they eat someting else that night.
The word Perchten is plural for Perchta, and this has become the name of her entourage, as well as the name of animal masks worn in parades and festivals in the mountainous regions of Austria. In the 16th century, the Perchten took two forms: Some are beautiful and bright, known as the Schönperchten (the beautiful Perchten). These come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to "bring luck and wealth to the people." The other form is the Schiachperchten (ugly Perchten) who have fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.
- Perchta was at first a benevolent nature spirit also called The Lady of the Beasts. She was a guardian of the animals and nature in ancient Germanic hunting cultures, possibly stemming from the same mythic origins as Holda. According to Grimm and Motz, Perchta is Holda's southern cousin or equivalent, as they both share the title and role as the guardian of the beasts and come during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany when they check on the spinning. Grimm says Perchta or Berchta was known "precisely in those Upper German regions where Holda leaves off, in Swabia, in Alsace, in Switzerland, in Bavaria and Austria." In Bavaria and German Bohemia, Perchta was often represented by St. Lucia. Later canonical and church documents characterized Perchta as synonymous with other leading female spirits: Holda, Diana, Herodias, Richella and Abundia
- According to Jacob Grimm (1835), Perchta was spoken of in Old High German in the 10th century as Frau Berchta and thought to be a white-robed female spirit. She was known as a goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving, like myths of Holda in Continental German regions. He believes she was the feminine equivalent of Berchtold, and she was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.
- The cult of Perchta was condemned in Bavaria by the Thesaurus pauperum (1468). It requested of its followers to leave food and drink for Fraw Percht and her followers, in exchange of wealth and abundance. The same practice was condemned by Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis (1439).
- Because of the Church action, she was given a more malevolent character (sorceress or witch) in later ages.
Today the Perchten are still a traditional part of Salzburg and Austrian holidays and festivals (such as the Carnival Fastnacht). The wooden animal masks made for the festivals are today called Perchten. In the Pongau region of Austria large processions of Schönperchten (beautiful Perchten) and Schiachperchten (ugly Perchten) are held every winter. Other regional variations include the Tresterer in the Austrian Pinzgau region, the stilt dancers in the town of Unken, the Schnabelpercht (beaked Percht) in the Unterinntal region and the Glöcklerlaufen (bell running) in the Salzkammergut. A number of large ski resorts have turned the tradition into a tourist attraction drawing large crowds every winter.
- Frazer, Sir James George. 1920. The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion. IX. Part 6. "The Scapegoat", pages 240-243. MacMillian & Co. (Facsimili Elibron Classics, 2005) ISBN 1-4021-8348-8. (Online). File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Grimm, Jacob (1835). Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology); From English released version Grimm's Teutonic Mythology (1888); Available online by Northvegr © 2004-2007: Chapter 13, page 6;Chapter 13, page 8; Chapter 17, page 7;Chapter 31, page 4.
- Hilton, Edward. Winter Goddess (A Summary of Lott Motz) (Online). File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Motz, Lott. 1984. The Winter Goddess, Folklore 95:11.
- Müller, Felix and Ulrich. 1999. Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und Schiach-Perchten. Wunderlich, Werner (Hrsg.): Mittelalter-Mythen 2. Dämonen-Monster-Fabelwesen. St. Gallen, S. 449-460. (Online, German) File retrieved May 18, 2007.
- Reginheim. 2002. Forgotten Gods. (Online). File retrieved 05-17-2007.
- Perchtenläufe: Salzburg’s Pagan Heritage. 2007. (Online) File retrieved May 18, 2007.