When we think of the holiday season, we are often swamped with the modern rush of shopping, gifts, and pulling families and friends together. Let’s take a step back to a time where what mattered was recognizing ‘winter is coming’ and the huge need to prepare for the Winter Solstice, Yuletide festivals, winter rituals and, more importantly, receive the entities of old.
After much diving in my favorite resources, I collected 21 winter mythological figures you probably never knew existed, or if you did, would love to know more about! Some may surprise you as to having strong archaeological connections, poetry and music tied to them, and inspired or crossover some recognizable pop-culture content. Pay careful attention to how nature, the flow of the sun especially at the peak of winter, plays huge parts in many of these.
If you missed the first part of this post check that out, otherwise lets dive back in…
Frey, Lord of Alfa or Elves – Norse & Scandinavian
Frey, a better-known entity, was known as the Lord of Elves, twin brother of Freya, but the ritual in tribute to his elves was during winter. An alfablot was a ritual or sacrifice made by humans, normally performed by the women of the household. There were seasonal pre-requisites involved and many blessings, calling for inspiration, praying and even storytelling during the ritual itself. Offerings are in the form of food and art. Great importance in acknowledging many of the Norse Gods and their roles with the elves, including Thor and Freya.
Gillian/Jillian – British Folklore, Arthurian
This spring maiden or goddess is said to be imprisoned in a maze or labyrinth. When this happens, winter starts to fall upon the land. When she finally escapes, springtime can begin again. The culprit is often unclear, sometimes suggesting it’s her suitors trying to hide her away from one another. Gillian’s tale has inspired some festival events that play out this scenario, a girl finding her way out of a turf maze of sorts.
Gwynn ap Nudd/Herne the Hunter/Gabriel – Welsh Hero, British
He is the Welsh king of Fairyland known as the “White one, son of the Dark” who ruled over beautiful tiny people in blue. They were said to dance all night, but he was known for leading the Wild Hunt when they raided the land of the living or mortals. It is said he was in competition for the spring maiden’s hand in marriage, but was defeated, thus ending winter. There is a belief he still roams the Windsor Forest in England, where he disappears at midnight. He was also famous for keeping vicious fairy hounds.
Hoder/Hodr/Hod – Norse
The blind twin brother to Baldur, he was known as the God of Darkness and Winter. It is after killing his brother that he sets off the Ragnarok, destruction of the world, thanks to Loki’s trickery. This is the mythological equivalent to a nuclear winter happening after Hodr drops the mistletoe bomb.
Holly King – Celtic, Welsh, Arthurian, British
There is a story about forest gods, similar to the Green Knight in tales involving King Arthur, battling for supremacy. The Oak King and the Holly King duke it out, causing the onslaught of Fall and Winter. At the winter solstice, the Holly King is defeated, and the Oak King brings back spring and summer. Oddly enough, a song dating to the Medieval period is inspired by this tale, called “The Holly and The Ivy” as made famous by the late Natalie Cole ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HtMWopE-zQ ). The holly was a symbol of masculinity while the ivy was its feminine counterpart.
The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.
-Lyrics for “The Holly and The Ivy”
Hrimgrimnir – Norse
This was a rime-giant, or main giant, invoked by the fertility god Skirnir in an effort to help his master Frey, Lord of Elves, force Gerda, giantess, to marry him. He was among the first giants in Norse mythology, representing the strong forces of nature in the form of the cold northern winter. Gerda was told if she did not marry Frey, she would be made Hrimgrimnir’s mate and live out her days in Hel, the underworld. He is aligned with the changing of the seasons, eternal night, and the dangers of the cold.
Pooka of Kildare/Phooka – Pre-Celtic, Irish folklore, British, Welsh, Norse
This is a strange hobgoblin who can take the form of a donkey, white horse, black dog, a calf, a goat, or any combination of these. For the most part they are mischievous, but occasionally have been known to aid farmers in their work. The Pooka of Kildare came to a young boy’s rescue when he was trying to support the household farm. He refused any gifts of gratitude, but the boy insisted, giving him clothes. He disappeared after that. Other tales say he is to blame for blighting plants or for people falling over during the winter season, attacks increasing after Samhain (Oct 31). Stories say he comes up out of the ground, between your legs, taking you for a ride or simply knocking you into the mud. At Castle Pooka in Doneraile, the poet Edmund Spenser insisted one was haunting him.
Skadi/Skaoi/Skade – Norse
Famous for being a cold-hearted giantess and goddess, she represents winter, skiers and hunters. It was said only two people could touch her with their warmth, Njord her husband and the God of summer along with Loki who is often represented by the fire’s hearth. Ironically enough, Skade picked her husband by lining them up with only their feet exposed and picked the most alluring pair. She was both shocked and unhappy about the result, since Njord and she never could get along, neither willing to visit one another’s palaces.
Spider Woman & the Hawk Maiden – North American
Soyal is a celebration near the winter solstice to celebrate the sun’s victory over the darkness of winter. Two deities are celebrated for helping the sun, the Spider Woman, who helped reclaim the wife of the Son of Light, and the Hawk Maiden who aided in their escape with flight. This celebration is said to draw in the Kachine, or ancestral spirits, who only walk the land during winter and return underground during summer.
Uller/Ull – Norse, Scandinavian
The male counterpart to Skade, Ull is the god of skiers and hunting. He is often depicted with snowshoes, bow and shield. His imagery, especially the bone nature of the snowshoes, reached far into the Scandinavian beliefs. Poetry suggests he used the shield as a boat while others have labelled him a clever and cunning magician who travelled overseas.
Yukki-ona/Snow Woman/Lady of the Snow – Japanese
A type of evil female spirit whom died in the snow or was a woman left in poverty by her husband. In one story, a master and his pupil encounter one of these phantoms. She used her icy breath and froze the master, allowing the younger man to escape. Later, married, he realizes his wife is the Snow Woman from before. It is here she simply disappears in a cold mist of air.
Words from the Author
Most of these deities come mainly from Nordic and Celtic roots because that is where most of my research for my own fantasy romance series comes from, and secondly, their cold region plays a huge part in the amount of cold, snow, winter and darkness based deities. Often these stories where to explain the shortest day of the year, while others serve as a warning, at times bluntly to say, the cold can kill you. Snow is pretty, but like the Snow Woman, her breath can freeze you to death. In other stories, they reveal spring cannot come into being without Winter giving birth to it first as it hints in Cailleach Bheur’s story. This article was inspired by a manga, or comic, and recent anime, cartoon, called “Ancient Magus Bride” by Kore Yamazaki that included many Celtic deities of old in her winter chapters (Chapter 25 was most intriguing). It brought great joy and excitement to see some forgotten entities brought to life in her artwork and storytelling. Happy holidays, and beware of the northern winds and freezing snow!
- Deities of the Winter Solstice by Patti Wigington
- Deities and Personifications of Seasons
- The Dictionary of Mythology by J.A. Coleman
- The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan
- Norse Mythology A to Z, Third Edition, by Kathleen N. Daly, revised by Marlan Rengel
- The Mummer’s Dance sung by Loreena McKennitt
- The Holly & The Ivy sung by Natalie Cole
- Alfablot Ritual by Paradox, Raven and Shamrock
- Bru na Bionne Visitor Site
- Mumming – A Yuletide Tradition
- Aventine Keyhole
- Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble 1993 Edition
Valerie Willis is the author of The Cedric Series, a high-rated Paranormal Fantasy Romance Series featuring an anti-hero dragged away from the revenge he seeks on his maker by love and the onset of a larger threat. Valerie’s work is inspired by a melting pot of mythology, folklores, history, topped off with a healthy dose of foreshadowing.