A friend of mine asked if I could help clarify what was meant by a passage about Frau Perchta, and in particular, the name of one of the wee people that followed in her procession in a particular story. Of course, most of the versions of the story we could find were scarce on details, but the tale goes basically like this: Perchta is proceeding through town and this man sees the trail of poor children behind her, and as the last passes by, exclaims, “O du armes Zodawascherl.” She informs the man that, for naming the child, his reward shall be good fortune. Yes, that’s disappointingly the extent of the detail in most of the surviving versions of the tale, especially those that have been translated into English.
My friend wanted to know if Zodawascherl is a name or whether it is a word that has some significant meaning.
Zodawascherl is not so archaic as you might guess.
It’s comprised of two roots, the first is Zod- and the second is -wasch. The second half of the word, taken by itself, means literally “little washer,” in the same way that adding “-l” to any name adds the concept “little” or “dear” Franz -> Franzl, Hans -> Hansl, Greta -> Gretl. Sometimes, as with the tale Hansel and Gretel, “-el” is added to aid pronunciation, but this latter spelling is (in my limited experience) only common in English translations.
The first half of the compound word has been more difficult to track down, and probably is archaic. The Germans love their kennings, even to this day, so deciphering the meaning will be a bit of a challenge. In Modern English, I tend to expect compound words to be made of components that refer to each other. In most other Germanic languages, this not necessarily the rule: compound word components complement each other to make a whole picture. So, as English speakers, we might expect “Zoda” to tell us something about how or what the “little washer” washes.
The author of this page offers a completely unsubstantiated meaning of the name, which is “ragged little mite.”
I think that’s certainly in the spirit of the name. Let’s see if we can do better.
The best two matches I can find in Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch (1997), hastily corroborated by a glance at the entry for Proto-Germanic tadôn from The Germanic Lexicon Project, are:
die Zotte (OHG Zotta, Zotto, from Proto-Germanic tadôn), meaning an unorganized tuft or lock of hair.
die Zotte (Low german Teute, Tute) “Bottle-spout”
It seems to me from the context of the myth, that if either of these is correct it is likely to be “tuft of hair,” which would allow us to translate the name as “little scruff-washer.” However, it is possible that the name could instead mean “little bottle-washer,” which is plausible because myth-makers love puns: this could mean that the little one washes bottles, or that he washes only with a bottle (instead of a basin, bucket, or more ample-sized water vessel.)
It seems equally plausible that Zod- comes from some other root word. I need some context.
I went looking for the original myths, and while I’m not sure that I really found them, I did find this 2005 OCR-scan of a 1913 paper, “Perht Holda und verwandte Gestalten, Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Religionsgeschichte, by Dr. Viktor Wachnitius.
In the section on Lower Austria, there is some information about Zodawascherl. It seems that tradition holds that Perchta has 13 children that follow her in her hunt. 12 of them are obviously ghostly, demonic, dead, or otherwise otherworldly. One of them is more like a real child, but is unable to join the children in the villages that the hunt passes through. In his sadness, he cries constantly. He collects his tears with… A JUG.
So, I’m going to go with “you poor little bottle-washer.” You can put the page through Google Translate if you like.
Start reading after searching for “Zodawascherl” and you will find a very rough translation.