Diamonds & Toads | Frau Holle (Mother Holle) (A German Tale)

The following is an annotated version of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.

THERE was once a widow who had two daughters -- one of whom was pretty and industrious, whilst the other was ugly and idle. But she was much fonder of the ugly and idle one, because she was her own daughter; and the other, who was a step-daughter, was obliged to do all the work, and be the Cinderella of the house. Every day the poor girl had to sit by a well, in the highway, and spin and spin till her fingers bled.

Now it happened that one day the shuttle was marked with her blood, so she dipped it in the well, to wash the mark off; but it dropped out of her hand and fell to the bottom. She began to weep, and ran to her step-mother and told her of the mishap. But she scolded her sharply, and was so merciless as to say, "Since you have let the shuttle fall in, you must fetch it out again."

So the girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do; and in the sorrow of her heart she jumped into the well to get the shuttle. She lost her senses; and when she awoke and came to herself again, she was in a lovely meadow where the sun was shining and many thousands of flowers were growing. Along this meadow she went, and at last came to a baker's oven full of bread, and the bread cried out, "Oh, take me out! take me out! or I shall burn; I have been baked a long time!" So she went up to it, and took out all the loaves one after another with the bread-shovel. After that she went on till she came to a tree covered with apples, which called out to her, "Oh, shake me! shake me! we apples are all ripe!" So she shook the tree till the apples fell like rain, and went on shaking till they were all down, and when she had gathered them into a heap, she went on her way.

At last she came to a little house, out of which an old woman peeped; but she had such large teeth that the girl was frightened, and was about to run away.

But the old woman called out to her, "What are you afraid of, dear child? Stay with me; if you will do all the work in the house properly, you shall be the better for it. Only you must take care to make my bed well, and shake it thoroughly till the feathers fly -- for then there is snow on the earth. I am Mother Holle.

As the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took courage and agreed to enter her service. She attended to everything to the satisfaction of her mistress, and always shook her bed so vigorously that the feathers flew about like snow-flakes. So she had a pleasant life with her; never an angry word; and boiled or roast meat every day.

She stayed some time with Mother Holle, and then she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but found at length that it was home-sickness: although she was many thousand times better off here than at home, still she had a longing to be there. At last she said to the old woman, "I have a longing for home; and however well off I am down here, I cannot stay any longer; I must go up again to my own people." Mother Holle said, "I am pleased that you long for your home again, and as you have served me so truly, I myself will take you up again." Thereupon she took her by the hand, and led her to a large door. The door was opened, and just as the maiden was standing beneath the doorway, a heavy shower of golden rain fell, and all the gold remained sticking to her, so that she was completely covered over with it.

"You shall have that because you have been so industrious," said Mother Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the shuttle which she had let fall into the well. Thereupon the door closed, and the maiden found herself up above upon the earth, not far from her mother's house.

And as she went into the yard the cock was standing by the well-side, and cried --

Your golden girl's come back to you!" 

So she went in to her mother, and as she arrived thus covered with gold, she was well received, both by her and her sister.
The girl told all that had happened to her; and as soon as the mother heard how she had come by so much wealth, she was very anxious to obtain the same good luck for the ugly and lazy daughter. She had to seat herself by the well and spin; and in order that her shuttle might be stained with blood, she stuck her hand into a thorn bush and pricked her finger. Then she threw her shuttle into the well, and jumped in after it.

She came, like the other, to the beautiful meadow and walked along the very same path. When she got to the oven the bread again cried, "Oh, take me out! take me out! or I shall burn; I have been baked a long time!" But the lazy thing answered, "As if I had any wish to make myself dirty?" and on she went. Soon she came to the apple-tree, which cried, "Oh, shake me! shake me! we apples are all ripe!" But she answered, "I like that! one of you might fall on my head," and so went on.

When she came to Mother Holle's house she was not afraid, for she had already heard of her big teeth, and she hired herself to her immediately.

The first day she forced herself to work diligently, and obeyed Mother Holle when she told her to do anything, for she was thinking of all the gold that she would give her. But on the second day she began to be lazy, and on the third day still more so, and then she would not get up in the morning at all. Neither did she make Mother Holle's bed as she ought, and did not shake it so as to make the feathers fly up. Mother Holle was soon tired of this, and gave her notice to leave. The lazy girl was willing enough to go, and thought that now the golden rain would come. Mother Holle led her also to the great door; but while she was standing beneath it, instead of the gold a big kettleful of pitch was emptied over her. "That is the reward for your service," said Mother Holle, and shut the door.

So the lazy girl went home; but she was quite covered with pitch, and the cock by the well-side, as soon as he saw her, cried out --

Your pitchy girl's come back to you!"

But the pitch stuck fast to her, and could not be got off as long as she lived.


From Hesse and Westphalia. A third story from the Schwalm district connects this story with that of Hansel and Grethel. Two girls were sitting together by a well, spinning'; one of them was pretty, the other hideous. The pretty one said, "The one who lets her distaff fall into the water shall go in after it."

Then her distaff fell down, and she was forced to go in after it. When she was below she was however not drowned in the water, but came out in a meadow wherein stood a little pear-tree, to which she said, "Shake thyself, stir thyself," and then the little pear-tree shook and tossed itself about. Then she came to a little calf, and said, "Moo-calf, stoop down." Then the little calf stooped down. Then she came to an oven, and said, "Oven, bake me a roll." Theii the oven baked her a roll [1].

At length she came to a little house made of pancakes, nd as she was hungry she ate some of it, and when she had eaten a hole in it, she looked in and saw a little red woman, who cried, "The wind, the heavenly child! come in and comb my hair." Then she went in and combed the old woman's hair until she fell asleep. Thereupon the girl went into a room full of things made of gold, and put on a golden dress, and went away again. When however she came to the oven again, she said, "Oven, please do not betray me." "No, I will not betray thee." Then she came to the little calf, and at last to the little pear-tree, and to each of them she said, "Betray me not," and each answered, "No, I will not betray thee." Then she came out of the well again, and day was just dawning, and the cock cried, "Our golden girl is coming."

Soon afterwards the dirty ugly girl's distaff also falls into the well, and she has to go after it. She comes to the pear-tree, the calf, and the oven. She speaks to them as the pretty one had done, hut they do not obey her. Then she, too, combs the red old woman's hair until she has fallen asleep, goes into the room and dresses herself all in gold, and is about to go home. She entreats the oven, the calf and the pear-tree not to betray her, but they answer, "Yes, indeed, we will betray thee." So when the old woman awakes, she hastens after the girl, and they say to her, "If thou runuest, thou wilt yet overtake her." She overtakes the girl and dirties htr golden dress for her. When she comes out of the well again day is just dawning and the cock cries, "Our dirty girl is coming." A fourth story from the Paderborn district is most like this, especially in the sympathy which the things the giil has spoken to on her way show her afterwards. She has shaken a little tree, milked a cow which has had its calf stolen from it, and has taken the bread out of the oven. Then in the house she is forced every afternoon to pick the lice off a witch, an ape, and a bear, and for that she receives the most beautiful clothes and a quantity of gold and silver. When she has got all these things, she says, "I will go out and fetch some water." She goes and again finds the door of the well by which she had come down. She opens it and sees the bucket just being let down. She seats herself in it, and is drawn up. As she stays away, the witch, the ape, and the bear send a great black dog after her, which asks everywhere if no one has seen a girl quite covered with silver and gold. But the tree which she shook points with its leaves to another road, the cow which she milked goes another way and nods her head as if she were showing him the right one, and the oven shoots out its flames and points in quite a wrong direction. The dog therefore cannot find the girl. All fares on the contrary very ill with the wicked girl, when she runs away and comes under the tree which she refused to shake: it shakes itself, and throws down a great many dry branches which strike her, the cow she would not milk kicks her, so that at last she arrives above again, bruised and covered with blue marks.

A fifth story, also from Hesse, is different. There was once a woman who had a great affection for her own daughter, and did not at all love her step-daughter, who was a good and pious girl, but treated her very cruelly, and tried to get rid of her. One day she places both of them by a well, and says that they are to spin there, but adds, "If either of you lets her distaff fall down the well, I will throw her in after it." Having said this, she fastens her own daughter's distaff tightly, but her step-daughter's quite loosely. The latter has only spun very short time, when her distaff falls into the well, and the step-mother is hard-hearted enough to throw her in after it. She falls deep down, but comes into a magnificent garden and to a house in which there is no one. In the kitchen, the soup is just boiling over, the roast meat just going to burn, and the cakes in the oven are just going to turn black. She quickly takes the soup off the fire, pours water on the roast meat, draws the cakes out of the oven, and puts everything right, and though very hungry, takes nothing but a few crumbs which have fallen off while she was trimming the cakes. 

But now comes a water-nixie with frightful hair which has certainly not been combed out for a year, and desires the girl to comb it without twitching it, or pulling a single hair out, which at length, with much dexterity, she accomplishes. The nixie now says that she would much like to keep the girl with her, but can not do so because she ate the two or three crumbs, but she gives her a ring and other things, and says if at night she turns the ring round she will come to her. The other daughter likewise has now to go to the nixie, and is thrown into the well, but she does every thing wrong, does not restrain her hunger, and therefore comes back with evil gifts.

W. Reynitzsch gives a sixth story from Thuringia in his book, Ueber Truhten und Truhtensteine [2] (Gotha, 1802), pp. 128-131. The pretty sister, whose distaff has fallen into the well, is pushed down by the wicked ugly one (aischliche). She comes into a wide open country. A little white man goes with her into a green meadow in which a minstrel with his fiddle meets her, receives her singing, and accompanies her. A red cow begs to be milked in order that her udder may not burst; the girl does it. At last they reach a magnificent town; the little man asks by which gate she will enter-the golden gate, or the pitch gate? She chooses the latter out of humility, but is led through the first, where everything is dropping with gold, and her face and clothes become gilded. A maiden asks her where she will live; in the white house, or in the black one? She again says, "In the black one," but is conducted to the white one. Another asks her whether she would prefer to spin gold flax with pretty spinning-girls and have her meals with them, or with cats and snakes. The girl is terrified, but is taken to the golden spinners and eats roast meat with them, and drinks beer and mead. After she has led a delightful life there for some time she is taken back through a golden gate by another little man, and reaches home covered with golden garlands. On her arrival the yellow cock crows "Cock a doodle doo! Cock a doodle doo!" and every one cries, "Here comes Golden Mary." The ugly sister now also lets herself be pushed into the well. Everything happens quite contrariwise with her. A little black man guides her, she passes by a gate of pitch into a misty abode of snakes and toads, where she is not allowed to eat so much as she wants, and has no rest day or night. In the Naubert collection (1. 136-179) the story is on the whole treated in the same way as in the fourth tale from Hesse, and in the same manner as the rest, but it is very pleasantly amplified. There is another method of treatment in Mad. Villeneuve's stories, of which in 1765 a translation appeared in Ulm, under the title, Die junge Amerikanerin. The Marmot (Liron), so the step-child is called, has to perform the coarsest work, keep the sheep, and at the same time bring back home with her an appointed quantity of spun thread. The maiden frequently seats herself on the edge of a well, and one day when she is about to wash her face, she falls in. When she comes to herself again, she finds herself in a crystal globe in the hands of a beautiful nixie, whose hair she is obliged to comb, for which she receives a magnificent dress, and whenever she lets down her hair and combs it, bright flowers are to fall from it, and whenever she is in trouble she is to plunge into the well and seek help from the nixie. The nixie likewise gives her a shepherd's crook which will keep off wolves and robbers; a spinning-wheel and distaff, which spin of their own accord, and lastly, a tame beaver able to perform many services. When Marmot comes home one evening with these things, the other daughter also is to get some like them for herself, and she jumps down the well. She falls however, into a morass, and because of her pride receives the gift, that stinking weeds and rushes shall grow out of her head, and that if she pulls one out still more shall grow. Marmot alone can remove the hateful decoration for a day and a night if she combs her, and now she is always obliged to do it. Then follows the further history of Marmot for which other stories are used; she always has to perform something which is dangerous, but by the aid of her magical gifts she does everything safely. In Hesse they say when it snows, "Frau Holle is making her bed;" in Holstein, "St. Peter is shaking up his bed;"or "The angels are picking feathers and down," vide Müllenhoff, p. 583. In Swabian, see Meier, 77. Kuhn, No. 9. Holstein, see Müllenhoff, No. 31, 51. There is a story from Alsace, in Stöber's Volksbuch, p. 113. In Norwegian in Asbjörnsen, p. 86. Roumanian, from the Bukowina, in Wolf's Zeitschrift für Mythologie, 1. 42. In the PentameroneThe two Cakes (4,7). The first story in the Brunswick Collection has some affinity. The proud wild Fir-tree (Stolze Föhre) in Ziska, p. 38, is allied to this; also two Servian tales in Wuk, No. 34, 36. Compare the stories of Frau Holle in our Deutsche Sagen, vol. ii, and Panzer's German Mythology, i. 125, 190. For Norse stories see P. E. Müller's Sagabibliothek, i. 274-275.

1: This story is manifestly imperfect, for the help the tree, the cow, and oven afterwards give the girl is in return for kind services performed by her for them.-TR.
Return to place in notes.

2: On Druids and Druidical Stones.
Return to place in notes.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales.Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884.

Back to Top