I know I’ve been writing about spring lately, but we’re buried in about a foot of snow here in Asheville, NC, so it seemed a good time to write about snow deities from around the world. Some of them are not officially responsible for winter. For example, Ullr, who comes to us from Norse mythology, is actually the god of skiing and bow-hunting. Nevertheless, he is treated as a de facto snow god on ski slopes around the world. According to one avid skier from Colorado, “When there is a lack of snow, [skiers] pray to Ullr. When it starts dumping snow, everyone claims that Ullr must be happy.”
Although Ullr comes to us as a male god, many of our winter deities are female. There is Yuki-onna, the beautiful snow spirit from the Japanese tradition. She appears on snowy nights, floating above the snow, in her white kimono. She leaves no footprints and can be seen only because of her long dark hair and blue lips. From the Greek pantheon, we have Boreas, god of the north wind and cold winter air. His daughter, Chione, is the snow nymph. Chione was the mother of Eumolpos, her son with Poseidon. Eumolpos eventually became a priest of Demeter, goddess of the harvest.
Some of our snow goddesses live on through modern-day rituals. The ancient Slavic goddess of winter is now known as Marzanna, the Winter Witch or Frost Maiden. Straw representations of her are burned and then tossed into icy waters throughout Eastern Europe as a symbol of spring overpowering winter. Then, there is Cailleach Bheur, the Irish hag who rules over the winter months from Samhain (Nov. 1) to Beltane (May 1) before giving way to the summer goddess, Brighid. Famers in Scotland and Ireland have been known to make a corn dolly from the last sheaf of the grain harvest. The figure is tossed into the field of a farmer who is still working. The last farmer finished has to keep the dolly, and therefore house the hag, until the following spring.
Of all the wintery goddesses, I am particularly fond of Skaði (Skadi) from the Norse tradition and Poli’ahu from the Hawaiian tradition. As with all ancient legends, their stories have become a bit snow-covered through the ages, but here are a few tidbits from their tales to keep you warm on a cold winter’s day.
Skaði comes to us from the icy mists of Scandinavia, one of the colder, snowier parts of the world. Most of what we know about Norse mythology is contained in two manuscripts – the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda – which were written down/compiled in the 13th century.
Like Ullr, Skaði is not really a snow goddess, per se. She’s the goddess of skiing, bow-hunting, and the mountains. As such, she is usually depicted wearing skis and carrying a bow. She was the daughter of the giant, Þjazi (Thiazi). Þjazi was killed by the gods after he kidnapped Iðunn (Idunn), the goddess of apples and youth. Upon hearing of her father’s death, Skaði traveled to Asgard, a home of the gods, to demand retribution. The gods agreed that she could select a husband from among them, but her choice had to be made by looking only at their feet. She opted for a lovely pair of feet that she assumed belonged to Baldr, the gallant son of Odin and Frigg, but her guess was incorrect. The fair feet belonged to Njörðr (Njord). As the god of fishing, sea-faring, and crops, Njörðr lived by the sea which made their marriage geographically challenged from the outset. However, they reached an agreement: nine nights would be spent near the sea and three nights would be spent in the mountains. Neither was happy.
Hateful for me are the mountains, I was not long there, only nine nights. The howling of the wolves sounded ugly to me after the song of the swans. (Prose Edda: Gylfaginning)
Sleep I could not on the sea beds for the screeching of the bird. That gull wakes me when from the wide sea he comes each morning. (Prose Edda: Gylfaginning)
The marriage with Njörðr didn’t work out, but Skaði later married Odin, and together, they had many sons. To this day, people of the mountains remember the goddess who challenged the pantheon of gods in their own home. She protects the rugged, snowy environment of the high elevations and sends game to the highland hunters.
Poli’ahu is the great goddess of Mauna Kea on the northern side of the island of Hawaii. Poli’ahu and her three sisters were created by Kane, the male god of life and fertility. The four wise women lived near their sacred pond, which Kane provided for them as a source of bathing and drinking water. This pond, known as Lake Waiau, was named after the goddess-daughter, Waiau, who tended it. The third daughter, Lilinoe, was the goddess of fine rain. And the fourth daughter, Kahoupokane, was the goddess of kapa (a fabric made from native plant fibers).
Poli’ahu met, wooed, and married Aiwohikupua, the high chief of Kauai. After the nuptials, they returned to his island to set up their home. Soon, however, it became clear that a rival princess from the island of Maui had won the hand of Aiwohikupua in a game of konane. Aiwohikupua had no choice but to marry the Maui maiden. And Poli’ahu had no choice but to leave Kauai and her new husband. On the day Aiwohikupua was to re-wed, the ever-angry Poli’ahu tortured the couple by wrapping them in alternating waves of bone-chilling cold and extreme heat. The marriage never happened, and Poli’ahu remains alone, on the summit of Mauna Kea.
One tale, recorded more recently, has a happier ending and may provide a glimpse into another ancient legend that has been lost to the frosty mists of time. It goes something like this:
Poli’ahu spent her days near the lake at the summit of Mauna Kea. It was a beautiful place, and Poli’ahu had everything she could ever want, but she was alone. Ku-kahau-ula, the god of the sunrise and the pink snow, had seen Poli’ahu sitting on the banks of the cold clear lake and had fallen madly in love. Each morning, Ku-kahau-ula arrived in his red kapa cloak to woo Poli’ahu, but she was carefully guarded by the Mist, the Chilling Frost, the Hail, and the Fine Rain. They would pelt Ku with all their might, driving him back to the east from whence he came. Poli’ahu didn’t even know he existed.
One day, the merman of the lake saw a beautiful rainbow emanating from Ku’s cloak. The merman, finally comprehending the depth of Ku’s love, agreed to help him. He told Ku to conceal his red cloak and to approach Poli’ahu and the sacred lake in a slow and humble manner. This he did. When Ku finally came upon her, he enveloped Poli’ahu in his red cloak, and she was finally able to feel his warmth. To this day, Ku, god of the pink snow, appears each morning on the summit of Mauna Kea. The rest of the day, it is guarded by Poli’ahu, the beautiful snow goddess, who occasionally dons her gold kapa robe to melt the snows and feed the mountain streams.
As you might expect, Poli’ahu is the enemy of Pele, great goddess of fire and volcanoes. Apparently, Pele also loves sled-racing and is always seeking able competitors. Here is my version of their story:
One day, Poli’ahu and her sisters were racing their sleds down the slopes of Mauna Kea. A stranger of outstanding beauty suddenly appeared in their midst. She didn’t have a sled, so Poli’ahu loaned her one. The races continued, and Poli’ahu won the first race easily. The stranger was visibly displeased, so Poli’ahu exchanged sleds with her only to win handily the second time, too. By the third race, the stranger had tired of losing. She blocked Poli’ahu and her sled with streams of scorching lava and bursts of flame. Unable to hide her rage, Pele had revealed herself. Poli’ahu, completely stunned, quickly headed for her summit home, but Pele was not to be ignored. The mountains rumbled as the conflict raged between fire and snow. Rivers boiled over from the fiery rocks. Frozen rain fell in an attempt to quench the infernos. Eventually, the icy blizzards won, and the lava flows to hardened rock, but the two powerful goddesses continue their island battles to this day. Pele still rules Kilauea and Mauna Loa on the southern end of the island, but Poli’ahu, from the north, has kept Mauna Kea safe under her cloak of snow and ice.
As always, the ice will thaw, the winter Olympic games will end, and the spring flowers will bloom, but the stories of the goddesses are here to stay. Like the snow-women, who change shape as they melt, the tales and rituals of the goddesses will continue to morph over time. But they will always appear – there – on the snow-covered peaks and on the frosty pastures that dot the globe.
Sturlson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jesse L Byock. NY: Penguin Books. 2005. Print.
Konsella, Brittany Walker, “Ullr – Really the God of Snow?” Brittany’s Blog. Nov. 21, 2009. Web. Feb. 13, 2014. <http://14erskiers.com/brittanysblog/2009/11/ullr-really-the-god-of-snow/comment-page-1/#comment-1347>.
Mauna A Wakea. Na Maka o ka Aina. Web. Feb. 13, 2014. <http://www.mauna-a-wakea.info/maunakea/index.html>.
Westervelt, W.D. (Coll. and Trans.). Hawaiian Legends of the Volcanoes. (1916). Sacred Texts: Pacific. Downloaded Jan. 2002. Web. Feb. 13, 2014. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/pac/hlov/index.htm>.
Want to read more about Poli’ahu and Pele?