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, this is my collection of 21 winter mythological figures you didn’t know, or may like to discover 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, and the flow of the sun (especially at the peak of winter) plays huge parts in many of these.
Alcyoone – Greek
Alcyoone was a Goddess, who threw herself into the waves when her lover washed up on the shore, so that she might join him in death. She was reborn as a Kingfisher, and in some accounts so was her lover. During two weeks in winter, she nests and hatches her young. It is said these are the only two weeks where the seas remain calm during the colder months.
Amaterasu – Japanese
Amaterasu ruled over the heavens until her brother, Susanowa, challenged her. The winner would be the new ruler of the kingdom of heaven. Amaterasu accepted, taking Susanowa’s sword, chewing it up and spitting out in the form of three female deities. He in turn, took her five-strand necklace, chewed it up, and spat forth five male deities, winning the contest. Distraught, the sun goddess hid away in a cave and thus winter came to the land. Eighty myriad gods did all they could to lure her out of the cave with a large celebration and party. In the end, it took a gift of a mirror called Kagami, and Uzume (her daughter) dancing to cheer her up, making her laugh. She came out, putting everything back in order again.
Balder/Baldur – Norse
Baldur dreamed of his own death, and his mother, Frigga, went out and begged nature not to harm him. Unfortunately, she overlooked the humble mistletoe. Loki (a notorious trickster) took note of this. Baldur’s blind twin brother, Hodr, was given a spear made of mistletoe, or in some account a sword tempered by mistletoe named Mistelltein, and Loki had the two fighting. Hodr struck down Baldur, killing him. It is said his wife, Nanna died of grief and they were laid side-by-side on the funeral pyre. Odin leaned in and whispered ‘rebirth’ and thus he was reborn again.
Another story says Hela would not free Baldur from Niflheim until every creature shed a tear for him. A giantess, said to be Loki in disguise, would not and thus Baldur was stuck. It is said Frigga declared the mistletoe a symbol of love, thus countering the element of death.
Balor of the Evil Eye – Pre-Celtic
Known as the king of Fomorians who invaded and ruled Ireland for some time before the Celts and said to have a third eye in the middle of his forehead which could spit fire and destruction. At one point, he stole a magical cow from a Celtic hero Cian, which led to a prophecy being fulfilled of his own grandson bringing about his death. As for his association with winter, his bitter nature is to blame for smiting the growth of plants with frost and chill. Also seen as a God of the Underworld.
Boand/Boann – Irish
Boand was seen as the woman of white cows, or shining cow, or the Cow Goddess. She also gave up her name to the river Boyne. The story says she found a well, lifted the rock blocking the spring to give life to the land, and the river poured forth, drowning her. The 1-eyed salmon, Fintan, is believed to be a symbol of her inner-vision and outer-blindness. During June, drinking from this river is said to give you the talent of a Seer and Poet. In fact, one of the most known winter solstice sites, Bru Na Bionne or “Palace of Boann” is said to be the location where she was lured from her husband, Nechtan, by the good god Dagda. It was here, Dagda froze the sky for nine months, so she could give birth to their child, and Nechtan was none the wiser for it seemed only a day had passed.
Bona Dea – Roman, Greek, Celtic
Roman women would gather in early December at a secret temple on Aventine Hill in Rome to hold an ancient ritual. They all came to worship the fertility goddess Bona Dea. Only women were allowed and more importantly, were forbidden to talk about men or anything masculine. The interesting note is this ritual is said to be from a more ancient religion. Snakes were associated with it in conjunction to a tale about the goddess having been raped by her father in serpent form. Others have found connection to Fuana, Maia, and Ops, which are Celtic and Greek deities. In my own work, this connects to my character Nemaine, one of three Celtic sorceress sisters from the Cedric Series.
Cailleach Bheur – Pre-Celtic, Gaelic, Scottish, British, Arthurian
Her name means “veiled one” or “hooded one” which in terms of the older myths meant aged or burdened in some fashion. Other names tied into this deity included Beira, Queen of Winter, the Triple Goddess, Mother of Magic, and a creation goddess of old. She is known most famously for flipping between an old hag and young maiden. She is most active during the dark days, between Samhain (Oct 31) and Beltaine (May 1). Arriving in late Fall, bringing storms and causing the earth to die, it is believed she is a sort of witch-god who turns to stone on Beltaine only to be revived again.
As an old woman, she is said to have 1-eye in the middle of her face, bad teeth, a blue-gray face, uncanny eyesight reaching up to 20 miles (as if seeing the back of her hand) and matted hair. In some tales, she is called the Hag of Hair or Hag of the Long Teeth and would choke hunters who killed pregnant animals in the wild woods. Another aspect says she would carry materials in a basket or her apron to mold the land. She is to blame for the rocky landscape, said to drop rocks from her basket or apron, or throw them at men in anger. There are tales, even of King Authur’s contenders, being asked to kiss or have intercourse with an old hag. Any who braved to do so, soon discover her to be a splendid young woman who bestows sovereignty on any men kind enough to oblige an old woman.
Going back to her older, Pre-Cletic roots, Bheur is part of a cosmic tale with no name for her original believers. She is the winter sun’s daughter, born old and grows younger throughout winter, ending the season as a young spring maiden. For Scottish beliefs, she is depicted as a crane with sticks in her beak to forecast storms or a herder of deer. During winter storms, a common proverb was “The Cailleach is trampling the blankets tonight” and referred often to as the “sharp old wife” or Daughter of the little sun, winter sun. They believed the Mumming dances, celebratory sword dance with a wooden stick, drove her away, which has inspired songs during this festive tradition. One song known more recently would be ‘The Mummer’s Dance’ by Loreena McKennitt.
Demeter – Greek
A title well earned for Demeter was ‘Dark Mother of Winter’ and for many reasons. First off, she was just as famous as Hera in terms of her temper. In more than one account she turned people into lizards when they dared to joke about her or her children. There is even a tale of Tantalus feeding her his son Pelops, in which she happily ate his shoulder and replaced it with an ivory one when the Gods reassembled the boy. When her daughter Persephone was taken to the underworld by Hades, she grieved for her. At first, she travelled the earth looking for clues as an old hag. Soon, she encountered a kindhearted king who let her in his household and she became a wet-nurse for his son. Demeter loved the boy so much, she wanted him to become immortal, so she threw him into the fireplace. Naturally, the Queen kicked her out and she continued to grieve for her daughter, killing the earth. Her dark, cold onslaught ended when her daughter was given leave to visit. Thus, giving her credit to the changing seasons.
Estonea-pesta – North America
Known as the Lord of Cold Weather, he was responsible for providing protection to Sacred Otter by giving him a Snow-lodge. Thus, he is responsible for providing shelter and protection from the cold in which he oversees, making him one of the few positive winter time deities.
Frigga/Frau Holle/Freya/Mother Hulda – Germanic, Norse, Scandinavian
We all know Frigga is responsible for labeling the mistletoe a symbol of love due to Baldur’s death. She is also associated with the evergreen plants often used to symbolize the Yule season. Another aspect is the stories that snow falls because she is shaking out her feathery mattress. You can even find a story in the Grimm’s fairytales called “Mother Hulda” which captures this fun notion.
“You must take great pains to make my bed well, and shake it up thoroughly, so that the feathers fly about, and then in the world it snows, for I am Mother Hulda.”
– Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
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.