Mother Goose: Why Was She Sometimes Shown as a Witch?

by Jeri Studebaker

About Mother Goose very little is known. The few theories floating around about her are sketchy at best: she was Clotilde, wife of king Clovis of the Franks; she was Charlemagne’s mother “Goosefooted Bertha”; or, she might have been Bertha, wife of King Robert II of France. Others say she was Queen Pedauque, known only from mysterious statues in Medieval French churches of a woman with a webbed foot. Still others insist she was Elizabeth Goose of 18th-century Boston, Massachusetts, whose son-in-law supposedly published a book of the rhymes she sang to her grandchildren (no one, though, has ever found a copy of it).

Above left: Queen Pedauque, on the far right, with her one webbed foot.

Whoever she was originally, to many late 19th and early 20th century American artists Mother Goose was a Halloween witch. These artists show Mother with a large hooked nose, a giant pointed chin, and an evil, sinister grin smoldering on her face. She flies though the night sky on a goose or a broom, often in front of a big, round, orange-yellow moon. Sometimes a black cat rides behind her.

Above right: Mother Goose as witch; notice her foot turned backwards.

The question is, why would the patron saint of young children ever be shown as a sinister, evil-looking woman?

I believe the answer is connected to an old Germanic goddess, one so anciently powerful she’s still spoken about today: the goddess Holda. Like Mother Goose, Holda was deeply connected to children. She instructed them, brought gifts to them at Winter Solstice, took unbaptized babies back into her womb, and even kept unborn infants in her underground water reservoirs, ready for delivery to their human mothers when the time was right.

The Goddess Holda was deeply connected to children. At the beginning of each year,
she was a young woman…

…but as the year went on, she grew older…                    …and older.

Still other traits link Holda to Mother Goose: Neither ever had a male partner. Both have been depicted spinning by a hearth fire as they tell stories to children. Both are sometimes shown with large, bird-beak noses, which in the case of Holda might be a holdover from very ancient days when she was still a bird goddess. And, both flew through the air on birds, or in wagons or sleighs pulled by birds. What’s more, after the fall of Rome, Holda merged with the goddess Aphrodite, who is shown by more than one ancient artist winging through the air on the back of a goose.

That Holda is a very ancient, powerful goddess is suggested by the fact that so many things in Europe even today still bear her name. “Frau Holles Badeplatz” is a small lake in central Germany. In Westerwald, Germany, “Frau Hullistein” is a rock Holda sits upon. “Hollenabend” is the Thursday before Christmas. “Frau Hullibaum” is the name of a certain kind of tree. Whole countries are even named after this goddess: Holland, for example, is actually “Holla’s land.”

Aphrodite flying through the air on the back of a goose.

According to the Church Holda no longer
instructed young women, but corrupted them.

Another measure of Holda’s immense power: even though for centuries the Church demonized her, in Germanic lands she’s still remembered today. When it’s snowing, people still say, “Holda’s shaking out her feather bed!” Festivals still bear the name of her sister deity, Perchta, also known in English-speaking lands as Bertha (remember those theories about Mother Goose being one of two French “Bertha’s”?).

But demonize her the Church did, along with all its other rival deities. According to the Church, Holda was a hideous old hag who no longer loved babies, but cooked and ate them for lunch. No longer did she instruct young women in the spinning and weaving arts; now she corrupted them. Instead of flying on a bird, she flew on a broom, and her bird-beak nose became preternaturally large and hideous.

After the Church demonized her, it became deadly for Europeans to associate themselves in any way with Holda. Most stopped teaching their children about her. I believe, however, that some still followed her, but for safety’s sake called her by a secret code name: “Mother Goose.”

Nineteenth-century children’s book illustration
showing Mother Goose telling stories to children.

Published in 1697, the first picture of Mother Goose
shows her spinning flax or wool as she spins stories
to children. This is the frontispiece of the book
Tales of Mother Goose.

Interestingly, Mother Goose came out of the closet at the same time the European Witch Craze began to taper off. By 1630, the worst of the witch trials were over, and only four years before that, in 1626, the term “Mother Goose” made its first appearance in print. The first known picture of Mother Goose was published in 1697, in the first book to bear her name, Tales of Mother Goose. And in 1806 Mother Goose appeared as a bona fide witch in the British play Harlequin & Mother Goose, in which Mother Goose not only raises a storm but also raises a woman from the dead. In this play Mother Goose is accused of being a witch, and town officials march her off to the ducking pool (Harlequin saves her from certain death).

By the 1880s, American artists felt safe showing Mother Goose as a beneficent magic woman – akin to the goddess Holda/Aphrodite. Although to most she was a child-loving goddess, to some she was still the sinister monster the Church had tried to turn her into. I believe this explains the images of Mother Goose as sinister Halloween witch. Since 1930, Mother Goose has rarely been depicted as an evil-looking woman, and sometimes she’s even shown as her beautiful, majestic and glorious self: the ancient Mother Goddess Holda, beneficent protector and adorer of children.

Since about 1930 Mother Goose has often been shown as her beautiful, majestic and glorious self: the Great Goddess Holda.

Journal, Volume 3 Issue 4