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Erdhenne: Gray Hen of Germanic Folklore

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They have adorned the walls of temples and modern kitchens alike. They are creatures associated with fertility, victory, and divination. Folklore long regards them as key characters throughout the ancient and post modern world. I’m talking about chickens. Throughout the crisp Alpine hills and flowing through the Bavarian countryside, as well as the Upper Palatinate, is the Germanic legend of one avian house spirit in particular known as, Erdhenne.

What makes Erdhenne an interesting feature in folklore is that this spirit is both tied to the social landscape and into the ritual form. While domesticated fowl have been used in various rituals around the world, it is because of the sacred importance of the bird itself and the people that it lives close to. There are three tiers to ritual form and function. The first is reserved for the priestly class, the second function belongs to warriors, and the third encompasses everyone else. Hearth cult practices that are employed to increase fertility around a homestead and hearth are acts performed in the third function of the ritual structure. Chickens are also incorporated into the first two classes as well, religiously, however, Erdhenne is especially tied to the third. Seasonal rites and festivities that are meant to welcome Spring or drive away the cold winter months in which nothing grows are classic examples of third function ritual as well. In this way, folklore and the traditions surrounding a particular landscape become reflective elements built into hearth rituals.

Agricultural influences were of the utmost importance to early people who relied on the success of crops and the health of their family and livestock. Spirits of the homestead and hearth were both welcomed and necessary, perhaps bringing warnings of danger or serving as unseen protectors. Erdhenne, like other Germanic house spirits (referred to sometimes as cofgods) had a presence that was actively felt throughout the hearth and farmhouse. While cofgods are traditionally thought of as spirits who are centered inside of the home only, Erdhenne is one that extends itself to the land surrounding it as well. Clucking loudly, its presence was announced. Erdhenne would then sometimes answer questions from the landowner by a series of sounds that were meant to further elaborate on forthcoming dangers.

A gray hen

Erdhenne is first, and foremost, a spirit that interacts with the living. If it is seen, rather than heard, it is said that Erdhenne is foretelling the death, or great illness, of the person it presents itself to. Its form is ashen gray and it looks somewhat bedraggled. Interestingly, this is not the only time in history that a chicken is said to bridge the gap as a threshold associated with the living and the dead as they relate to household affairs. In the fifth century B.C., Themistocles, while observing fighting chickens, laments how they were not fighting on behalf of their household gods or ancestors, but were rather fighting only to fight. This he found to be rather peculiar behavior. The early Romans carried chickens with them on their way to battle and observed them as well as other birds for divination purposes. As mentioned above, this places chickens in ritualistic functions, however, in this case, they would fall into the first and second classes, respectively, as they were being utilized by priests and warriors. Like Erdhenne, the sounds and activities made by the chickens could indicate success or warning. Some Heathens continue to utilize the practice of avian auguries today. Further, birds like Odin’s ravens serve in a place of prominence and significance in European lore and mythology, including being messengers, which makes them a sought after and widely popular symbol of diviners and laypeople alike.

In the example of Odin’s ravens, Huginn whose name is attributed with thought and Muninn whose name is associated with memory, in Germanic mythology, carry with them two distinctive traits that feature into a hearth environment. People often retain some sense of remembrance, especially in a home that includes making offerings to their ancestors, and a nostalgic thought process when they encounter a familiar smell that may have filled their childhood homes. It seems appropriate that the names of the ravens carry connotations that can be related to hearth and homespun traditions. Throughout Indo-European cultures exists threads of commonalities that provide anchor points for understanding early people and the landscape in which they worked and dwelt. Erdhenne provides one such an example as to how ritual, day to day life, and overall social thought processes were easily, naturally, entwined with each other.

Hens and roosters continue to feature into popular folk art motifs the world over, dating back centuries, signifying their documented importance. They line hearths in porcelain, wood, and clay. Decorated eggs in Europe, such as those that incorporate the intricate designs of pysanki, are well known early displays of the importance of chickens, and continue to be reflections of a European Pre-Christian past that have survived into a modern era.

The decorative eggs of the Pennsylvania Dutch traditional folklore

Germanic folklore is rife with stories that bring to life a rich climate of ancient beliefs that can be utilized by modern Heathens. Myths containing connotations associated with ritual, fertility, hearth praxis, and worldview serve as part of a comprehensive foundation from which a person can both relate to the past while building towards developing their own set of hearth practices. These elements include an impressive array of meaningful and artistic symbols found in folktales. The Pennsylvania Dutch often include depictions of domestic livestock, especially chickens, into their craft works. Whether someone is looking to place a new ritual element into their hearth, or adding a bit of folklore decor to their home environment, Erdhenne brings a historical and relevant option to consider for incorporation.

 


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