The Winter is Female: Powerful Women in Folklore

Many folklore traditions around the world reference snow queens, winter witches, and other powerful female figures who appear when the nights grow long and the weather cold. In folklore, these women—whose power comes not through men via their fathers or husbands, nor through restrictive standards like ‘pure hearts’ or a particular beauty—often carry with them traditional elements of judgment, punishment, tricks and choices.

Think of the White Witch in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, tempting Edmund with sweets, or the Snow Queen of Scandinavian lore whose ice has the power to lodge in the heart. Associated with winter and the darkest time of year, these powerful women are most often depicted as cruel and calculating, offering difficult or trickster-like choices, or ruling with iron fists. Myths, legends, and fairy tales teach us about the societies from which they come, and it’s worth remembering that, for most of recent history, a woman asserting any kind of agency or desire for control was likely to be considered difficult, unlikable, and/or mentally unstable.

These winter witches buck tradition by relying on their own choices and magical powers, asserting agency, meting out good & bad, punishments & mercy.

La Befana, an Italian witch who visits children after Christmas, is one of the most famous winter witches, and has been a part of Italian tradition since long before Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). La Befana is traditionally connected to the Day of Epiphany, celebrated on January 6th in observance of the Magi’s arrival to give gifts to the baby Jesus. Legend has it that the magi stopped at La Befana’s home to rest and seek directions to the baby they believed would grow to be a savior and king. While the magi asked La Befana to accompany them but, having too much housework, she declined. Later, though, she reconsidered as she swept her home, and set out with sweets as a gift for the baby. The magi were long gone, but La Befana followed the star they pointed out, leaving sweets at the door of every child’s house in the hopes of finding Babbo Natale. Some strands of the legend feature la Befana flying on her broom, as a reminder of the reason she stayed behind.

Skadi, a figure from Norse mythology is one of the most famous winter goddesses. According to lore, Skadi is from the Norse race of giants often associated with Norse gods, and as a goddess Skadi is associated with the winter’s dark, cold days and unending snow. Linked to the Sami (an indigenous Scandinavian people) and traditional Sami ways of life like skiing and hunting, Skadi is also connected to tales of magic and shamanism.

The Russian snow maiden, Snegurochka, has a magical story that originates from Slavic mythology. The child of Grandfather Frost and a the goddess of spring, the Snow Maiden is made of snow and, cold. In one version of the tale, because the Snow Maiden is made of such cold, she doesn’t have the ability to love. Even without it, though, she pines for a normal life, and shortly after her mother bestows on the Snow Maiden the gift of being able to love, the girl falls in love and so, melts, having been warmed by the sentiment. In another story, an older couple longing for a child make a little girl out of snow, who grows and becomes a real child, but she melts jumping over a fire, and reappears in legend as a helper of Saint Nik.

The Snow Queen is one of the newer fairy tale characters on this list—her story was written by Hans Christian Anderson in 1844—but in her story are pieces of many older tales. The Snow Queen spirits away the friend (or, in some versions, the love) of a young woman, Gerta, who must not only go in search of them, but also free her friend Kai from the Snow Queen’s power, which hardened his heart and made him forget her. In some versions, the Snow Queen is connected to trolls; in one story, a blend of these legends and Beauty and the Beast, she turns the young man into a bear.

Oshiroi Baba is the snow hag of Japanese folklore, and is sometimes called ‘face powder hags’ because she wears the white makeup of geisha. Oshiroi Baba is an old woman, according to lore, who wears a tattered kimono and drags mirrors behind her. She’s said to be the servants of the Japanese goddess of cosmetics, but she isn’t malevolent—in Ishikawa, she’s said to appear during heavy snow storms, bearing hot sake to help those out in the snow in need of some warmth.

For more information about winter witches, or folklore in general, check out this blog post by Folklore Thursday.