Hulda and the Blessed Maidens

Among the mythical beings appearing in the folk beliefs of the Tyrolean land, the Selige, Salige, or Blessed Maidens are the most distinguished. This overall designation is altered in some valleys, and they appear as Wild Maidens, Forest Women, Mountain Women, White Maidens, and even sometimes (though much more rarely) as Snow Maidens. The term Holy Ones is also encountered, without implying a relationship to the saints of the church. “Salige” is only the dialect variation of the Upper Inn valley, where the “e” in many words is spoken as an “a”, such as in “Gald” (“Geld”, money), “Fald” (“Feld”, field), and so forth.

The queen of the Blessed Maidens is Hulda, who is already the most significant female figure of German myths. Almost all of her traits which are encountered in Thuringian and Swabian legends are repeated in Tyrol as well, but the mythology of her entourage is richer in Tyrol, and purer and in a more ideal state as well. The ur-poetry in the inner life of the people acted more creatively here, and sang a song of the golden age, a time of innocence, of the purity of souls and customs to the land. The herders listened to this song, and sung it faithfully anew. Like in the rest of Germany, Hulda is the patron of flax cultivation similar to Ceres of antiquity. As the poets say:

“The guardian of benevolent mores,
which bring humans together.”

The flax from the Ötz Valley is still considered to be the best in the country, and according to legend Hulda first introduced flax cultivation there. Its most delicate threads are sold far into foreign lands, and at higher prices than any other flax. During the time when the flax blossoms bloomed, Hulda journeyed over the fields of flax with a joyous countenance, righted bent stalks, and blessed plants and blossoms. Her abode was a crystal palace, where, accompanied by lovely singing, she spun those balls of twine whose thread never ran out, and which she used to reward and bring joy to devout and diligent, poor but virtuous housewives and girls.

In the imagination of the Tyrolean country population, Hulda’s realm beneath the mountains has been detailed in a highly poetic manner. Chamber upon chamber with vaults of glittering mountain crystal have been adorned with garnets. The ceilings are of transparent, glittering glacial ice, in which the sunlight illuminating the grotto is magically fractured into thousands of colors of the rainbow. Surrounding the goddess’ palace is an almost inaccessibly paradisiacal landscape, with gardens full of miraculous flowers, eternally green hills and groves populated by chamois and shimmering snow grouses, wild streams with golden-scaled trouts, and above all it all the pleasant, whispering breeze of an eternal spring. The Blessed Maidens, Hulda’s subjects and in a manner her servants, dwelled with her in this wide, splendid realm. From it, assorted secret and hidden portals lead into the regions of the human world, which regional legends still know and designate today. It was not uncommon for those openings to terminate close to a glacier. But they were often hours away in a dark, wild forest region, or between naked rock crevices which hide a block of stone or an icy wall from the human gaze. Only rarely was a mortal honored with the privilege to enter the realm of the Blessed Ones, and woe to them if they accidentally mentioned this favor of the good spirits to anyone else. Some were also lured into the magical interior of the mountain by sweet, heart-stirring songs and never returned to the outside world. This element hints of the Middle German Venus- and Danhäuser tale.

The legends portray the Blessed Maidens as dressed with silver-threaded cloth, girded with golden bracers, beautiful as the angels in form, with blonde curls and blue eyes. This blue of the eyes was of the color of the flax blossom or of the mountain speedwell, which, like the lady’s mantle, was a flower holy to Hulda.

In appearance, the Queen of the Blessed Ones was just like the latter, only more beautiful and regal, and her head was adorned with a tiara made out of garnets. On festival days, Hulda wore a dress of a color that was as rosy as the dawn, and the Blessed Maidens adorned their heads with snow-roses. The activities of the Queen Hulda and her Blessed Maidens were manifold, in the manner of blessing, weal-bringing deities as they are encountered in the myths of most countries. They carried succor and blessings into the huts of humans, brought curative mountain herbs to the ill, and taught the whole flax trade to girls - from the planting of the flax seeds to the sewing of bridal shirts. They also helped with spinning the flax itself, and brought fortune to the houses in which they dwelled. They adorned the graves of children who had died early with flowers. This, too, is an important trait of the Hulda myth, for - according to Vogtland legend - the souls of all unbaptized children belonged to her. For all the good things they did to the mothers and sisters of a house, the Blessed Ones never took wages nor gifts. To the contrary, when someone insulted them with such proposals, they departed with a sad countenance and never returned - a trait which can be primarily found in the legends of the little people.

During the summer time, the Blessed Ones helped with haymaking on the mountain meadows. However, they did not help everyone, but only modest and virtuous mowers. When such a mower practiced the “Luring the Moweresses” - that is to say, when he pushed the whetstone over the back of the scythe three times, which created a shrill sound that echoed far into the mountains - then commonly two Blessed Ones appeared and scattered the cut grass apart so that it would dry faster. The custom of “Luring the Moweresses” is still practiced. But Blessed Ones no longer come, and only stout, worldly young women follow this strange luring call.

Hulda and her maidens love above all alpine song, the bells of the herds, the sounds of shawms, and the melodies of zithers. In contrast to the dwarves of North German legends, who have left entire regions because there was too much ringing of the bells, these beings also loved the sound of church bells. Their myths soon became comfortable with Christianity. They also honored the Holy Cross. Wanderers frequently spotted Blessed Maidens slumbering beneath a cross. If they then kneeled down without waking her up, and quietly prayed the Lord’s Prayer for her and for themselves, they would be blessed with good fortune for their entire lives. In return, the cross provided protection to the Blessed Maidens as well - particularly during the waning days of the giants, when a dour giant pursued her. When a fleeing Blessed One hurried towards a cross and embraced it, or when she jumped on a tree stump into which three crosses had been hewn, the giant soon had to stop his pursuit. This trait is a faithful repetition of the tales about the little moss and wood women of the Vogtland region and the Fichtel Mountains. These are pursued by the Wild Huntsman, and he has to spare them and refrain from abducting them if they succeed in reaching a tree stump with three carved crosses. For this reason, certain lumberjacks and wood workers still carve three crosses on such tree stumps, particularly in the Vinschgau area. At times, these crosses were also caved into the trunk of the tree itself with particular speed and with twelve strikes of the ax. And when the little wood women in the Vogtland, or the Blessed Ones in Tyrol sit down on such a trunk, then the Wild Huntsman chasing the former or the giant or Wild Man chasing the latter was unable to harm them. In this trait, the Blessed Maidens of the Southern German and the little wood women of the Middle German legends have merged into one. They, and Hulda (Hulle, Holle) with them, have likewise done so for their nightly roaming during Christmas Time and the Twelve Nights of Christmas (which is to say, from Christmas Night to Epiphany), which create a rather strange time for spinning in the Tyrol. During this period, Hulda sends her maidens to those places which she doesn’t visit herself. The maidens secretly peer through the small windows of the spinning chambers and search for the most diligent spinners. These are then rewarded unexpectedly. In this manner, many a poor, honest maid has made her fortune. They bless wheel and distaff, and gifted shirts which they had spun themselves. These shirts were so finely woven that an entire shirt would fit into the hollow of a hand. These were lucky shirts and miracle shirts, and those who wore such a shirt would be successful in all of their endeavors.

But when good old customs and the purity of souls vanished from a house, the Blessed Ones grieved and did not return. However, if a single good person remained among the inhabitants, a white pigeon or even more commonly a snow grouse would come. Snow grouses have gray-brown, earthen-colored feathers in the summer, and snow-white feathers in the winter. They are the size of a pigeon or a partridge, and have feathered feet all the way to their toenails. This bird would bring a four-leaf clover in its beak, which it would present to the person whom the Blessed Maidens still favored. If the people who had been warned in this manner took this clover into their mouths, they could easily find one of the entrances into the mysterious alpine paradise. Then the clover served as a magical opening herb, for by its touch the hidden gates revealed the corridors of the grottoes which led to the beautiful realm of Hulda. Those who venture inside may then linger there with the Blessed Ones until suitable positions with devout people could be found for them. There is no mention here of heathen, sinful lust, like in the Venus Mountain of Middle German legend, and neither is Hulda the Wild Huntress and leader of the Wild Army of Tyrol.

The most important entrances to the realm of the Blessed Ones named by local legend are:

About a quarter of an hour above Graun, a village in the Etsch valley of the Vinschgau, there is a precipice on the middle heights of the mountain with rock plates and a crevice which is still called “z’Salig” today.

Beneath the Kirchmähderferner glacier in the Gurgler Tal valley, where the Kipel alpine meadow begins, there is a vertical crevice going into the mountain. The people living nearby claim that it is a gateway into the mountain.

At the Hinternisferner glacier, the spring of the Ötztal river emerges from a picturesque grotto of ice. This opening, too, was an exit of the Blessed Maidens.

Beneath the Teinferner glacier, which stretches a pointy tongue down from the left side of Fenk, and at the spot where the path goes to Rosenthal, there is an entrance to a cave.

Near the hamlet of Zufall in the Martelltal valley, there used to be an ivy-wreathed cave which resembled an evergreen arbor. There Blessed Maidens had their abode. They established beautiful gardens in the direction of the valley. For this reason, this mountain district is still called “Schönblümlthal” (“Valley of Beautiful Flowers”) even today.

Blessed Maidens also emerged beneath the frozen cliff at Hintertux at the foot of the Tuxer Ferner glacier, and they sang on the highest alpine meadows in the light of the moon.

A quarter of an hour below Schönau, dark rock walls rise up above the path through the valley. Above them, a tilted ceviche yawns which is higher than a church tower, and which forms an exit to the realm of the Blessed Ones located within the Ötztal valley.

From the foot of the Timmelsjoch pass and leading downwards throughout the alpine meadows until after Rabenstein, mica slate rock with a silver sheen can be seen on the surface, which often has embedded garnets. The people of the Alps say that these are the cobblestones of the Blessed Maidens, and recite the following rhyme:

“From Timmelsjoch to Rabenstein

The Salig Woman sets the cobblestone.”

A commonly known entrance near Strad is called “Ercha’s Keller” (“Erscha’s Cellar”), about which a particular legend will follow below.

On the Staföllberg mountain near Ried im Oberinntal, where the sheep pasture of the Staföll meadow stretches close towards the glaciers of the Ötztal valley, there also used to be an exit. There is also one at Zams, a wild, cragged rock formation called the “Sal’g”. A further “Salig Entrance” is shown in the Zillertal valley, in a valley beneath Hippach at the Laimacherberg. From outside this entrance looks like a fearful chasm. But just past the entrance, there is a grotto wreathed by creeping plants and filled with beautiful stones. From this grotto, a long tunnel leads into the interior of the mountain.

Blessed Women also live in the Kalmtal valley. In the past, one of them was seen riding on a chamois. For this reason, she is called the “Chamois Maiden”.

The Blessed Ones have shown preference for spending time on the “Frauenpleitze” behind the “Endkopf”, which represents the start of the Langtauferer side valley within the Upper Inn valley, and which in turn links up to the glaciers of the Ötztal valley. The same is true of the beautiful mountain meadows of the Kopraner estate in the Langtauferer valley. Blessed Maidens likewise lived beneath the high glacier which represents the northern boundary of the Passeier valley. But when a herder from Passeier once succumbed to the base desire of approaching a Blessed One with inappropriate proposals, and went so far to pursue her and pressuring her to jump over a rock, she breathed on him and cursed the people of the Passeier valley. Since then, the blessings of the mountains vanished at the nearby Schneebach, and all mines subsequently ceased to yield any ore as soon as miners from Passeirer worked in them. The entire trade collapsed in the region.

Hulda and the Blessed Ones were also the benevolent protectors of alpine animals. As mild-mannered as their characters are presented by the legends, and as much as the southern German Hulda lacks the dark sides of her northern German counterpart, they nevertheless were able to hate and pursue those who would harm their wards and beloved animals. They confronted hunters and poachers who intruded into their domain, appeared at sheer cliffs and rock precipices, startled them with the sudden, blinding bright light which they emitted, and thus caused them to suddenly fall into bottomless depths. They carry shot and injured chamois into their realm, cured them, and added them to their herds which consist of such rescued animals.

Deep in the Kaunertal valley, there is a long depression where a large alpine pasture is spreading towards the south to the gargantuan Gepatschferner glacier. This glacier then flows through the strange Oehlgrubenthal valley. Once, the so-called “Chamois Heaven” was located in this latter valley, hidden and fortified by the shimmering and protecting vaults of ice and close to the abodes of the Blessed Ones. This location still retains that name today, and resembles the legend of the “Paradise of Animals” which supposedly exists on Matterberg mountain high above the Vispertal valley in God-blessed solitude and eternal silence. There, all the animals mix and live freely and peacefully, whether ibexes and chamois, eagles and bearded vultures, snow grouses, blackcocks and alpine accentors, alpine hares and marmots. They dwell beneath ancient maples and stone pines, alpine roses and weed-like willows, which are the trees that reach the highest elevations.(*)

Now the old people of the Alps lament that the Blessed Ones are rarely if ever seen. “The world has become different, but not better. The wild men have arrived in the land and driven the Saliges away or even killed them. Of this, much can be told.”

While Hulda is firmly embedded in German myth, should the Blessed Maidens be compared with the mythical beings of other people? It can be done, it is no art, but it is for no gain and for no nourishment of the soul, and it is of absolutely no use. Every comparison is limping, as the old adage says. And comparative mythology is limping even more, just like the farmer who was assisted by a Blessed Maiden in cutting hay. He took too much of a liking to her, and did not just want to accept the assistance, but take possession of the whole maiden in her entirety. Thus, he grabbed her by the foot. The maiden, in her desire to escape, broke her frail leg, and vanished under tears. The next morning, the farmer also broke his leg, stayed lame throughout his life, and his family has to suffer for it even today, for one scion of the family will always end up being lame.

Only little is gained by claiming: The Blessed Maidens are the same as the nuns appearing in the Swabian Hulda legends, who usually appear in threes. However, the Blessed Ones also appear in limited numbers in some individual legends, usually 2 or 3, but not always.

Should Hulda be artfully refashioned into a Roman Ceres, since the Romans and Latin people founded colonies in Tyrol, and declare the Blessed Maidens to be oreads of of Roman myth?

And it would be just as false to assume that the Blessed Ones of Tyrol are identical with the Slavic vile. Both show more opposite than common elements. Vile have black eyes, Blessed Ones blue eyes; vile deal with heroes of battle, Blessed Ones with herders and farmers; vile dance, Blessed Ones sing; vile are vengeful, Blessed Ones are forgiving.

The Hulda and Blessed Ones mythology of Tyrol is neither Roman nor Slavic. It is purely Germanic, originally Germanic, and turned Christian-Germanic very early. We shall let it stand with this dignity, without reinterpretation and mixing it with non-German elements, as something unique to the land of Tyrol, but related to similar myths of Middle and Southern German districts. The closest relationship is with the numerous wandering White Maidens of the German, particular Middle German legends - in particular regarding their purity, and the luring singing encountered in many tales. But here the element of being pursued is missing which the Blessed Ones of Tyrol are suffering from, and thus the latter ultimately stand independently.

(*) See K. Bechstein: Deutsches Sagenbuch. Leipzig 1852. 20.

Source: von Alpenburg, J. N. R. Mythen und Sagen Tirols. 1857, p. 3ff.

Notes & commentary: The Blessed Spirits of the Mountains