First, a bit of background on Notburga (pronounced Note-boor-ga). She was born in Rattenberg, a small town east of Innsbruck, around 1265 to a couple of hatmakers, and proved to be an extraordinarily intelligent and competent woman. She hired herself out as a serving maid to King Heinrich I up on “Rottenburg” Castle, and beyond her duties she looked out for the poor in the area, bringing them leftovers from the castle meals. When Heinrich II took the throne, his wife was not so keen on Notburga’s presence. The official line is that Ottilia didn’t like the poor being fed, but I suspect it had more to do with her feeling that her power was somehow threatened. Notburga was let go from her job, and found a new one on a farm in nearby Eben, on Lake Achensee (which is redundant, but I’ve seen it often written this way for English readers), where her one condition was that she be allowed to stop working at the first peals of the evening church bell.
One miracle attributed to Notburga involves an occurrence during the harvest. A storm was approaching, and the farmer demanded that his laborers stay at work until all the grain was brought in. When the church bell rang, Notburga stopped, and when confronted by her employer, she threw her sickle into the air, where it hung on a sunbeam.
At some point after the death of Ottilie, Heinrich II, suffering from general disarray and a feud with his brother, asked Notburga to return to the castle (of course he did), where she brought everything back into order. Later, close to death, she expressed the wish that her body be put into an unmanned wagon pulled by two oxen, and that where the oxen stop, she should be buried. This being done, the oxen took her across the Inn River, up the mountain and back to Eben, where they finally stopped in front of the village church.
Notburga’s remains quickly became such a popular pilgrimage destination that the church had to rebuild twice in the next 200 years to accommodate the increased visitor count. She has never been canonised, but the Vatican officially made allowance for her to be revered, which makes her a de facto saint.
Now, there are few different things going on here at once. Old legends around the Rofan Mountains and Lake Achensee tell of the “white ladies”, and Notburga von Rattenberg is in a way one of these, although an historical Christian figure as well. Or, put another way, she was given some other-worldly attributes after her death.
The oxen ride predates Notburga by at least 1500 years — in Greek mythology, the Phoenician prince Cadmus was instructed by the Oracle at Delphi to follow a certain cow and build the town of Thebes on the spot where she lay down.
In “Philosophie, Religion und Alterthum” by Georg Friedrich Daumer, Campe Verlag, 1833, in a chapter discussing Count Hubert of Calw (available via google books, translation by the blogauthor):
This last journey appears in many other legends, for example in those of St. Gundhildis and of Notburga of Rattenberg… the river crossing is important in mythology and appears also in the following Swiss legend: ‘The building tools were carried by a pair of yoked oxen and where the animals stopped would determine the place where the church would be built. They crossed the river and came to a stop at the place where St. Stephen’s Church was erected’ … This holy ritual is also found in India. When one wishes to build a pagoda, the place will be determined through the sacred cow; where she lies down at night is the place decided upon by the deity.
The “sickle miracle” might be borrowing from the sickle’s pre-Christian symbolisation of fertility and harvest, the crescent moon. It may be a leap in logic to say this but I suspect that Notburga, being an intelligent and resourceful woman, helped not only the poor of Rattenberg but possibly women as well — pregnancy killed a lot of women back then, and anyone with some good midwife skills (including surgery) could go a long way. It would have been very easy for the Church to turn her into the Patron Saint of Agriculture, with that sharp blade in her hand. But she also sounds like an early champion of farmworkers’ rights, with her insistence that work stop with the sound of the bell. I can well imagine a woman told to get back to work and throwing her sickle into the air — and the shock of hearing about it keeping the story alive, in one form or another, for a while. She may have been the talk of the region, standing up to The Man like that, as well as the one that people sought for help when none was to be found elsewhere. Her insistence on sharing food — hers and the court’s — with the local poor in defiance of authority points to a kind of Christian socialism (was she a late-mediaeval version of “community organizer”?)
And it may be another leap in logic to connect her reverence with the Germanic deity Frau Perchta (or Hertha), whose responsibilities included ushering the souls of dead children to the otherworld. Hertha in turn is a variation on the Germanic Frau Hölle (or Holda), who is the protectress of children while having none of her own. What I think we have here is a strong and able woman, revered long after her death for great works among the people (the nature of which the Catholic Church at the time could not recognise), being elevated in a way that conveniently took a little of the life out of the old beliefs which were still floating around.