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Father Time

Also Known As: Cronos, Saturn

Essentially Father Time is the personification of time, especially the concept of time that moves ever forward.

Depictions

The 18th century sees the formal introduction of the figure of Father Time that many are familiar with as an elderly man with a long flowing beard dressed in robes and carrying a scythe. Sometimes he is shown with wings or carrying an hourglass or other timekeeping device. An Egyptian influence to the image of Father Time is that some depictions show him with a snake in his mouth, said snake being a symbol of eternity.

Renaissance Influence – Both the wings and hourglass are additions from the early Renaissance era.

Ancient History

The origins of Father Time seem mysterious at first glance as if he might be a more modern convention. However, there are a couple of mythological origins.

Cronos – The Greeks associated their word for time, chronos with Cronos, the god of agriculture who incidentally carries a scythe or sickle for harvesting. For the cyclical nature of the year and agriculture, it’s easy to see who the two words chronos and Cronos would become intertwined and nearly synonymous.

Saturn – As typical of many of their deities, the Romans equated Cronos with the god Saturn who also carries a scythe. Saturn was represented as an old man who sometimes got around with the aid of a crutch. With Saturn, he is also associated with wealth and renewal.

Hourglass

The hourglass and other time devices that Father Time is shown with represent the constant progression and march of time, representing the forces of entropy and how eventually everything eventually comes to an end.

It’s not all doom and gloom, time does represent wisdom, especially the wisdom that comes from age and living life. Another thing that is notable, is that an hourglass can be turned over, representing the ability to start over or a new generation coming in.

Scythe

Or sickle, it is a harvester’s tool and is a symbol of the renewal of time as seen in the wheel of the year and cycles of life for birth, growth, and death.

Death’s Age-Old Companion

It’s notable how the imagery for both Father Time and the Grim Reaper are very similar in appearance. Both wear a robe and both carry a scythe. One just happens to be an old man while the other is a skeleton. Despite how similar the two look with certain details, they are not the same being.

New Year’s Day

Certain cartoons and editorials, most notably Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, will show Father Time as the Old Year welcoming in the Baby New Year as part of the neverending progression of years and time. In this role, Father Time will be wearing a sash showing the date of the old year on it.

Baby New Year – If Father Time is based on Cronos and Saturn, who is the Baby New Year based on? A couple sources dared to venture that this is Dionysus, in his role as a Dying and Reborn deity for the crops and harvest season.

The Legendary Council Of Guardians

In recent years, the figure of Father Time may appear alongside other legendary figures such as Mother Nature, Sandman, Cupid, and a few others.

Disney’s The Santa Clause trilogy is notable for the figure of Father Time to appear in the latter two movies.

Belsnickel

Pronunciation: Belsh-nickel

Etymology: Due to the homophone or same sounding words, it is a portmanteau of German belzen/pelzen (to wallop or beat) or possibly bels/pels (fur) and nickel for Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, “bels or pels” meaning fur

Also called: Bell Sniggle, Bellzebub, Belschnickel, Belzeniggl, Belznickel, Black Pit, Buzebergt, Christmas Woman, Drapp, Gumphinkel, Hans Muff, Hanstrapp, Knecht Ruprecht, Kriskinkle, Pelzebock, Pelsnichol, Pelznickel, Pelznikel, Rumpelklas, Schmutzli, Stoppklos, Xmas Woman

The character of Belsnickel is another character from German and Pennsylvania Dutch cultures who appears during the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions. Belsnickel is even known to make appearances in some communities of Santa Catarina, Brazil.

In more recent times, Belsnickel is more friendly, much like the Zwarte Piet tradition of the Netherlands and not as scary as the seemingly darker figure of Krampus. Though Belsnickel will still come to punish misbehaving children while rewarding those who are well behaved.

Descriptions

It can vary slightly what Belsnickel looks like. One source says they wear a black mask and carries a large black sack who then announces his arrival by knocking on windows or doors before bedtime on Christmas night. The family is expected of course to let Belsnickel in so he can hand out toys and gifts to good children and hickory switches to the misbehaving ones accordingly.

Other descriptions of Belsnickel say he’s filthy and dressed up in rags or furs. Clothing is often tattered or in some cases, a woman’s garb. Additional features will include a blackface, intended to be soot to show he’s dirty or he’s wearing a mask, bell, whip, and his pockets full of candy or nuts to pass out to good children. Sometimes Belsnickel will be more animal-like with horns and have a long tongue much like various images of Krampus. Another version of Belsnickel says they are a slender figure dressed in white who slips through keyholes in order to leave their gifts.

Bringing The Holiday Spirit!

The character of Belsnickel hails from the Palatine region of Germany along the Rhine, Saarland, and Odenwald area where he is sometimes a companion of Saint Nicholas. Alternatively, Belsnickel may arrive on his own, independent of Saint Nicholas.

When the American colonies were first established by the Puritans in the 1700s, they had banned the celebrations of Christmas as they felt them to be too pagan, taking away from the focus of honoring and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Plus, celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness, and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.

Not yet.

One step on the way to helping with that is the arrival of German and Swiss immigrants, bringing with them their traditions and celebrations. Settling in the Pennsylvania area, the image of Belsnickel helped to bring many of the Christmas traditions with family and friends gathering, singing, eating, and exchanging gifts. The Puritan colonies to the north didn’t pay much attention to what was happening south of them.

Today, many of these celebrations still continue in the Pennsylvania Dutch communities with some of these traditions extending as far west as Indiana.

Belsnickel Day?

This one can vary. In some places, Belsnickel will arrive a couple weeks before Christmas or he arrives on Christmas Eve to pass out his goodies or punishments. Often, an older, male member of the family, either father or uncle will come dressed up as Belsnickel. The first hints of Belsnickel’s arrival are heard by his tapping on the windows and then knocking at the door. Any frightened children who run away are gathered up by the parents and lined up so they can be questioned by Belsnickel if they’ve been good, to recite poems, a bible passage, or do a simple math equation.

After that, Belsnickel would spread or toss out various treats on the floor for the children to get. Any child too eager and excited or greedy would be hit by Belsnickel’s switch to remind them to be good.

Santa’s Companion?

Belsnickel doesn’t accompany Saint Nicholas, he will appear either the night before Saint Nicholas’ Day or Christmas Eve or sometime in the one to two weeks before Christmas to hand out his gifts and treats or dish out punishments.

Other companions of Saint Nicholas such as Zwart Piete and Knecht Ruprecht are known to accompany Saint Nicholas.

Knecht Ruprecht – Belsnickel has also been identified as just another name for this gift giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a child injury.

Crime & Punishment

Receiving punishment from Belsnickel is comparably far tamer than one from Krampus. Belsnickel is known for handing out switches to naughty children as a reminder to be good.

Ominous Threat – There are versions of Belsnickel’s myth that say he will drag unruly children off into the forest for their behavior. Exactly what he does, is never specified.

“Belsnicking”

Also called Klausentreiben , this activity is similar to mummery, in the 19th century, people would go out, getting drunk as they vandalized the city and played pranks. This will occur on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day, much like Krampusnacht where there is a parade or procession ringing bells.

On the South Shore of Nova Scotia, Canada, people will dress in multiple layers of clothing with scarves covering their faces when they go out Belsnickling. They would be given food and drink until people could guess who it was before the revelers moved onto the next house.

Perchta

Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)

Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter

Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.

This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?

To answer that, we start at the beginning.

Attributes

Animal: Goose, Swan

Day of the Week: Friday

Element: Water

Month: January

Plant: Birch

Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving

Symbols: Staff, Knife,

Time: Night

What’s In A Name?

The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.

Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.

Depictions

Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.

Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.

Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.

Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.

Middle Ages

The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.

As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.

In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”

Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.

Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.

Alpine Goddess

In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.

Dual Goddess

Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.

Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.

Protector Of Women & Children

In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.

Goddess Of Nature

In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.

It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.

Weaver Goddess

In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.

During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.

The Wild Hunt

The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.

Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.

According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.

Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.

Christian Influences

The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.

Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.

Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman

During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.

Perchten

These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.

Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.

Other Perchten names are:

Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.

Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.

Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.

Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.

Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.

Heimchen

Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.

For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.

Raunachte

This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.

Perchtenlauf

This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.

For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.

Krampuslauf

The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.

Twelfth Night

Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.

In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.

In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.

A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.

Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

Berchtoldstag

Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.

Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.

Fastnacht

Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.

Urglaawe

This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.

In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.

Syno-Deities & Figures

Freyja – Norse

Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.

Frigg – Norse

The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.

Holda – Germanic

The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.

La Befana – Italy

The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.

Saint Lucy – Germany

A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.

Weisse Frauen

A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.

Jólabókaflóð

Pronunciation: yo-la-bok-a-flot

The Yule Book Flood or Christmas Book Flood

A fun holiday tradition that Iceland has, is the gifting of books for Christmas.

Starting after WWII in 1944 comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. Where many European countries were closing themselves off in order to rebuild their economies, it meant that not as many exports were happening.

For Iceland, paper was a lot easier to get imported, leading to books being the most common item that people could gift. It further helps that Iceland has strong literary roots solidly dating back to the 10th century and possibly the 800’s when the first Nordic peoples settled the land, bringing with them the Runes that they believed to come from the Gods. Add to it the Icelandic Sagas beginning first as an oral tradition before getting written down appearing between the 12th and 15th centuries, makes for a very strong literary heritage.

The Journal of Books is distributed to households in Iceland for free and marks the kickoff of the Christmas season. This annual release of new books in the months before December is when Icelanders will buy books and then gift them on Christmas Eve when people will cozy up inside with hot chocolate.

Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!

Abzu

Etymology: Deep Ocean, ab meaning “ocean,” zu meaning “to know” or “deep”

Other names: Absu, Apsu (Akkadian), Apzu  (Assyro-Babylonian), Engur (Sumerian), Apsu-Rushtu (Babylonian), Nun (Sumerian), Aphson  (Babylonian), Apason (Akkadian), Ἀπασών (Apasṓn in Greek)

Epitaphs: God of Sweet Waters, The Heavenly Oceans of Wisdom

Abzu or Apsu is a primordial god in Mesopotamian mythology. Before this, the name Abzu is the name given for freshwater found in underground aquifers. All freshwater from lakes to springs, rivers, wells and other sources were all held as coming from the abzu. This water, due to being freshwater, was held with religious reverence by the ancient Akkadians and Sumerians.

More modern theology and thought tend to see that if Tiamat is a dragon, then Abzu must be a dragon as well. The mixing of the salt and sweet or freshwater is a metaphor for the two getting it on and sparking off all of creation.

Family

Spouse

Tiamat – In the Babylonian Epic, she is the consort to Abzu.

Children

Anu – The god of the sky in Sumerian mythology.

Kingu – One of Kingu’s sons, he leads Tiamat’s armies as well as becomes her consort after Abzu’s death.

Lachmu and Lachamu – The first pair of gods born. From them, all of the other gods within the Mesopotamian pantheon come.

Monstrous Children & Demon – After the death of Apsu, Tiamat creates a host of monstrous children, among whom dragons and serpents are but a few.

Grandchildren

Anšar and Kišar – Through Lachmu and Lachamu.

Igigi – Ultimately the second and third generation of gods.

Water

An important note is that water, freshwater, or sweet water as the ancient Mesopotamian cultures called it was held in high religious regards for its powers of fertility and granting life. All sources of freshwater, from lakes to springs, to wells and rivers were all believed to originate from abzu, the vast ocean of water beneath the land.

In both Akkadian and Sumerian mythologies and beliefs, abzu is the primeval sea below the underworld or Kur and the earth or Ma above. Much as the Greeks and Romans had the river Styx to cross to get to the underworld, in Mesopotamian lore, there is the river Hubur that abzu was connected to in order to reach Kur.

Holy Water Tanks – Some tanks holding holy water outside the temple courtyards in Babylon and Assyria were called abzu. These tanks are similar to the washing pools and baptismal fonts of Islamic and Christian churches where ritual or religious washing is performed.

Babylonian Myth

It is only in the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish that Abzu is described as a god and not the name for the primordial waters found beneath the earth.

Enuma Elish

The Enuma Elish was found in the library of Assurbanipal, dating from about 630 B.C.E. Though the text is thought to be some 500 years older.

This is an ancient epic creation poem written in the 18th century B.C.E. (1700 to 2000 B.C.E. are other estimated guesses) when the city of Babylon becomes the political capital of Mesopotamia. It’s largely written to show Marduk’s birth, many of his heroic deeds, and how Ea (Enki) steps down to allow Marduk, in a relatively peaceful transfer of power to become the king and head of the pantheon.

The Enuma Elish begins at the start of a time when the universe is nothing more than chaos with freshwater represented by Apsu and saltwater (or the abyss) represented by Tiamat, a dragoness. The male and female principles, not unlike the concept seen in the Japanese Yin & Yang. The joining of these two primordial deities would see the creation of all the other gods and other beings. Their most notable children are Lachmu and Lachamu along with others who become the other gods and goddesses, known as the Anunnaki. The other children of Apsu and Tiamat are giant sea serpents, dragons, snakes, storm demons, fish-men, scorpion-men

While Tiamat loved all her children, Apsu on the other hand didn’t care for them, saying they were too noisy, keeping him up all night, and unable to get any work done during the day. After consulting with his advisor Mummu, Apsu planned to kill his children, specifically the younger, Igigi deities.

A horrified Tiamat told her eldest son, Enki (later version its Ea) of what Apsu and Mummu has planned. Apsu’s plan for killing off all of his children was with a flood. Learning this, Enki decided that the best plan for dealing with this was to capture and put Apsu into a deep sleep and then kill him. From Apsu’s corpse, Enki then creates his home, the earth, and the marshy region of Eridu.

Kingu, one of Tiamat and Apsu’s sons, soon to be the new consort to Tiamat is upset and goes to report what happened. This further horrifies Tiamat who wasn’t expecting for Enki to just up and kill Apsu. As a result, she decided to wage war on her own children. The mighty Tiamat raised up an army of chaos consisting of twelve monsters: Bašmu, “Venomous Snake,” Ušumgallu, “Great Dragon,” Mušmahhu, “Exalted Serpent,” Mušhuššu, “Furious Snake,” Lahmu, the “Hairy One,” Ugallu, the “Big Weather-Beast,” Uridimmu, “Mad Lion,” Girtablullû, “Scorpion-Man,” Umu dabrutu, “Violent Storms,” Kulullû, “Fish-Man,” and Kusarikku, “Bull-Man” who are all led by Kingu (Quingu) as the general of this army.

This has Enki and the other gods worried about what to do. That is, until Marduk steps forward, saying he will lead everyone in this war. Marduk has one condition, that is that he be named as the new king of the pantheon. Enki agrees and Marduk leads the Anunnaki to battle.

Marduk prepares his weapons consisting of bow and arrows, a mace, lightning as he is a storm god, flames, and a net. Gathering up the four winds, Marduk encircles and nets the mighty Tiamat to prevent her from escaping him. New winds are created by Marduk such as whirlwinds and tornadoes. As he is a storm god, Marduk brings down a fierce flood of rain. It’s a battle between a storm god and a primordial goddess of chaos and the sea, it’s epic as Marduk rides in his storm-chariot pulled by four horses who have poison in their mouths. Spellcasting and an herbal antidote as Marduk faces off against one of the mightiest dragons known in mythology.

After Marduk finally slays Tiamat with an arrow to her stomach, he then goes after Tiamat’s son, Kingu who oversaw the army and wears the Tablets of Destiny over his chest. Marduk makes short work of Kingu in single combat, claiming the tablets and establishing himself as the new head of the pantheon.

This is a lot of power that Marduk has now accumulated, and he sets about to create the universe. But didn’t that already exist? He’s at least making a new one as Marduk takes the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse to create the heavens and the earth, completing the work started by Enki. From Tiamat’s eyes, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow.

With Kingu’s blood, Marduk mixes it with the earth to create the first humans who would be the servants of the Igigi (the younger Mesopotamian gods). The creation of humans would allow the gods the leisure time and the time to focus on higher purposes, taking care of human needs as humanity basically did the grunt work. All humans would need to do is respect and give heed to the will of the gods living in Eridu with Marduk ruling overall as a benevolent god.

That doesn’t sound like it will end well and I’m sure there’s another story concerning that.

Side Note: Early versions of this story have Anu, later replaced by Enlil and then in the last version, it is Marduk who gets the promise from the other gods about becoming head of the pantheon.

Marduk’s version dates from the first dynasty of the Babylonians, whereas the other versions are much older. Even then, depending on the version of the creation myth, it is solely Marduk involved in all of it and there’s no mention of Enki at all. Scholars who look at when the Enuma Elish was written generally believe that it represents political and religious propaganda meant to justify and install Marduk as the head of the Babylonian pantheon as the city-state rose to political power in the region.

Sumerian Mythology

In Sumer, Enki’s temple in the city of Eridu was known as E2-Abzu, the House of the Cosmic Waters. It was located at the edge of a swamp, a place called an abzu. Enki was believed to have lived in the abzu long before humans were created. Enki’s wife, Damgalnuna and his mother, Nammu, along with Isimud his advisor, and several others all lived in the abzu.

Nun – Egyptian Deity

Considered to be the oldest of the Egyptian gods, Nun was the father of Ra, the Sun god. Nun is the waters of chaos and creation from which Ra-Atum created all life. Nun was also responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile River.

Leppalúði

Etymology: From Icelandic leppur (“rags”) and lúði (“oaf”)

In Icelandic folklore, Leppalúði is currently the third husband of the fearsome ogress or trolless, Grýla. Both Leppalúði and Grýla are known for being cannibals, eating children. Leppalúði is often mentioned in conjunction with his wife, Grýla as a means by parents to frighten their children into good behavior.

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði, and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Family

Spouse

Grýla – A cannibal ogress or troll, Grýla is the fierce, infamous wife of Leppalúði

Children

Some stories hold that Leppalúði and Grýla have had many children together, one count says that there are as many as twenty children.

JólasveinarnirThe Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Over time and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift-giving and will leave either a gift of sweets or a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.

JólakötturinnThe Yule Cat, is more Grýla’s monstrous giant pet black cat. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!

Twins – The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still young enough to need a crib.

Laziness

Most of Leppalúði’s fierce reputation comes from his association and marriage to Grýla and the Jólasveinarnir who go out hunting misbehaving children to eat. If it wasn’t for them, Leppalúði is likely to have died of starvation long ago due to his laziness and that he frequently stays home.

Erchitu

Also Known As: Boe Muliache in Lula and Mamoiada, Voe Corros in Benetutti, Voe Mulinu in Ollolai, Voe Travianu in Orgosolo, Voe Corros de Attalzu (“the Steel-Horned Ox”)

Hailing from the island of Sardinia, west of Italy, comes the legend of the Erchitu. This tormented creature is a man who committed a severe wrong or sin and as a result, suffers a painful transformation into a huge white ox with large horns during the nights of the full moon.

There are a couple local stories of the discovery of an Erchitu when someone thought they had caught a wild or wandering white ox, bring it home to their barn and in the morning, when they come to check on their new cattle, find instead a man crying.

Description

During the nights of the full moon, the afflicted person transforms into a huge white ox with large steel horns. One feature to distinguish this white ox from others is their weeping human-like eyes.

Sometimes, the Erchitu can be found followed by devils or fairies who set two lit candles on the Erchitu’s horns as they prod it along with hot skewers.

Devils or not, the Erchitu can be found mindlessly roaming through towns and the countryside.

Werecows!

“It seemed so innocent when Bossy bite my hand…”

  • Flippy T. Fishhead

While the Erchitu has a lot appearance-wise that’s similar to the cursed versions of werewolves and lycanthropes, the reality is that the Erchitu curses themselves when a man commits any grievous and serious deed. Usually, this crime is homicide.

Morality Tail

Much like the stories of werewolves, the stories of Erchitu are an allegory of the idea of guilt that isn’t governed by human laws. That a person becomes a beast as this straddles what separates humans from other animals. The ideas of instinct and reason, evil and good. That a human being will feel remorse and guilt, they will know that you don’t murder, cheat or break any of the social contracts with fellow humans. The person who does is little better than an animal and thus, an animal they become.

In Sardinian mythology, where the old Pagan beliefs have blended with Christian beliefs, the ox is a symbol of submission, and the yoke is symbolic of sin. So, when a person commits a grievous offense, an ox they become, driven by instinct and controlled by their sins.

Death Omen

When transformed, the Erchitu is known to roam the country of Sardinia. Where it would stop, notably in front of a house, the Erchitu will bellow three times, with this roar capable of being heard by everyone living in the country. The master of the house would then be fated to die within the year of the Erchitu’s bellowing.

Breaking The Curse!

There are a couple of different ways that an afflicted Erchitu can break free of their curse, but they must find someone who is brave and strong, who is capable of blowing out the candles in one breath. Or this person needs to be able to cut off the horns with a precise shot.

If you knew how heartless, greedy, and selfish a person is, it’s easy to say they brought this curse on themselves, so why break it?

Obviously, there are people far better than I am.

The other method that a person can do is to perform a ritual, called “imbrussinadura” where they roll all over the ground in front of three churches or they roll over the ground in front of a cemetery. At this point, the person returns to their human form and is unable to remember anything of their time as an Erchitu.

This method is thought to have strong roots in ancient pagan rituals that were used to free a person from possession, a ritual that involved precise protocols of making three turns, early morning, afternoon, and night. That this rolling over would reverse negative energy back to positive again.

Vampire Pumpkins & Watermelons

This is an interesting one. According to the beliefs of the Romani living in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, any fruit or inanimate object left outside during a full moon becomes a vampire. The proof of this impending change is the appearance of blood, even a single drop on the skin of the pumpkin or watermelon.

Description

A vampire pumpkin or watermelon is going to look indistinguishable from the original plant. Though you know it has changed or is about to change if there is the appearance of blood on the fruit in question.

Legend

According to the account recorded by the ethnologist, Tatomir Vukanović, there is a belief that vampire fruit is similar to any inanimate object left outside during the night of a full moon will become a vampire. The only known source for Vukanović’s account is in his journal when he was in Serbia between 1933 and 1948.

Vukanović writes how the Gypsies (properly, they are known as Romani) who live in Kosovo, believe in vampiric plants and that Pumpkins and Watermelons are the two plants specifically to wary of that have this change. This vampiric change in the two happens only when they are fighting each other.

Exactly how and why they are fighting each other isn’t made clear. Just that they do.

Vampiric Transformation

In Podrima and Prizrenski Podgar, the vampiric transformation only happens when pumpkins and watermelons have been kept for more than ten days. After ten days, the pumpkins and melons begin to stir and make a “brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!” noise as they shake.

Sometimes, a trace of blood can be found on the pumpkin or watermelon and that is how you know for sure that the plant has become a vampire. These pumpkins and melons then begin to roll around, going to people’s homes, stables, and rooms at night.

Christmas – In the village of Pirani, it was believed that any pumpkin kept after Christmas would become a vampire.

Another tradition among the Lešani holds that a pumpkin becomes a vampire when it’s used as a siphon, ripened, and dried without becoming opened after three years.

Yes, there’s a certain danger from this vampire pumpkin or melon showing up, but it is believed that they couldn’t do a lot of harm. Not in terms of draining blood, a vampire pumpkin isn’t likely to have teeth. But they can drain a person’s life or psychic energy, leaving them with a weakened aura and feeling ill or fatigued. Still, it’s a vampire and people tended to be wary of these vampiric plants anyways as this source of damage is much slower.

Destroying The Vampire!

Stake it!

More like boiling it. The Romani destroy their vampire veggies by tossing them into a pot of boiling water. Then the water is poured out. Next, the plant is smashed to pieces or scrubbed with a broom. Now the plant is thrown away and the broom burned.

Possible Reality Behind The Myths

While this sounds preposterous and ridiculous. There is an explanation for why this belief persisted and originated.

It’s possible the Romani of Serbia were joking with Vukanović when they told him the story while he was compiling his research notes for his book, “The Vampire.”

It’s also possible that this legend and superstition arose as a means for people to avoid eating rotten food.

Watermelons are known for having a red sap or “blood” that appears on their rind when they’ve aged and been sitting around for a while.

Pop Culture

The idea and use of vampire pumpkins and watermelons have made their way into the literature.  Notably Terry Pratchett’s “Carpe Jugulum” was written in 1998. The Bunnicula children’s series has vampire vegetables. The webcomic Digger makes use of vampire squashes, even pop culture books on vampires will mention vampire pumpkins.

Santa Muerte

Also Known As: Our Lady of the Holy Death, Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of Shadows”), Lady of Night, Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), la Dama Poderosa (“the Powerful Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), la Niña Blanca (“the White Girl”), la Hermana Blanca (“the White Sister”), la Flaquita (“Skinny Lady”), La Flaca (“The Skinny Woman”), la Huesuda (“Bony Lady”), la Madrina (“the Godmother”), Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), la Niña Bonita (“the Pretty Girl”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death” or “Most Saintly Death”), Santa Sebastiana (“Saint Sebastienne”), Doña Bella Sebastiana (“Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”), Virgin of the Incarcerated

Etymology: “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”

Santa Muerte is a folk Saint who is worshipped and venerated throughout much of Mexico and several places within the United States, most notably along the southern border. Many followers of Santa Muerte seek out her favor for love, prosperity, good health, healing, safe travels, and protection from several things such as assault, gun violence, violent death, and witchcraft.

Warning – As a result of Santa Muerte’s associations with the criminal element such as the drug cartels, the worship, and veneration of Santa Muerte is very controversial, especially by the Catholic Church and several Protestant dominations that don’t acknowledge or see her as cannon. There is a strong reaction of condemnation by the Catholic and other Christian sects to see her veneration as blasphemous and even satanic.

Attributes

Animal: Owl

Color: Black, Red, White

Month: November

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing, Justice, Love, Prosperity, Protection, Safety in the Afterlife, Resurrection

Symbols: Globe, Scale of Justice, Hourglass, Oil Lamp, Scythe

Depictions

Santa Muerta is often shown as a female skeleton dressed in robes carrying a scythe and a globe. Exactly how she will look and be dressed is up to the individual as the robe can end up being any color. Additionally, there are several other symbols and objects Santa Muerte can be shown with.

Some devotees of Santa Muerte also believe that her image should not be displayed alongside other Saints and Deities as she is jealous and there’s likely to be problems.

Though other devotees will have personal shrines and alter where Santa Muerte sits right alongside other Saints and images of Jesus.

Globe – The globe represents the earth and Santa Muerte’s, death’s dominion and power over the earth. For in death, everyone returns to the earth and with the resurrections and reincarnation, are likely to emerge from later.

Hourglass – This one simply represents our time upon this mortal coil before it’s time to shuffle off. It is also the belief that death is not the end with the ideas of reincarnation and being able to start over. When time is up, flip the hourglass over. It is also a symbol of patience and to wait along with Santa Muerte’s power over time and other worlds and realms.

Lamp – This symbolizes intelligence and spirit, the ability to light one’s way through the darkness, especially that of ignorance and doubt.

Owl – The owl represents Santa Muerte’s ability to navigate the dark places of life and her wisdom she can bestow. Like many bird symbols, the owl is also a messenger. The owl is also associated with Mesoamerican death gods like Mictlantecuhtli, serving as one more connection of Santa Muerte to Aztec roots with Mictecacihuatl as a continuation of her worship.

Robe – The color of robe or garments that Santa Muerte is dressed often has symbolic meaning for what the worshiper and devotee is petitioning her for. Amber or Dark Yellow represents health or money, Black represents protection from black magic, negative magic or power, Blue represents wisdom and knowledge, Brown is used for invoking spirits, Gold represents money, success and prosperity, Green represents justice and legal matters and unity with loved ones, Purple represents the need for opening paths, Red represents love and passion, and White represents loyalty, cleansing and purity. Lastly, there is Rainbow-Colored robe, wearing this, she is called the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red and green. With this robe, Gold is for wealth, silver for luck, copper for lifting negative spirits, blue is for spirituality, purple for changing negative to positive, red is for love and passion and green is for justice.

Scales – These represent equity and balancing out for justice and equality. For all people are equal in death.

Scythe – The scythe symbolizes the cutting of negative energies and influences. In the role as a harvest tool, the scythe also represents hope and prosperity. This symbol also connects Santa Muerte most strongly with the Grim Reaper of Western culture. Much like the Fates in Greek mythology, the scythe can also cut the thread of one’s life for when it’s time to die. The long handle allows for her influence to be anywhere.

Worship

Followers and worshipers of Santa Muerta can be found throughout Mexico, Central America, and mainly the southwestern areas of the United States. Cults for Santa Muerte are one of the fastest-growing new religions growing in the Americas.

Most of Santa Muerte’s followers are neo-pagans and Catholics and former Catholics who venerate this folk saint and deity. This means a person doesn’t have to exclusively be one religion or another to seek her favor and protection.

Put bluntly, everyone, rich and poor alike is equal in death, and in this regard, Santa Muerte plays no favorites. Everyone eventually dies, it’s just part of life.

Many seeking Santa Muerte’s favor and miracles due to the strong Catholic influence, will offer up prayers and light votive candles, often of different colors depending on their need.

Side Note: This is also part of why the Catholic church sees blasphemy with Santa Muerte, catholic style prayers, votive candles, and rosaries are used in prayers and rites with this folk saint.

Votive Candles – black candles are lit for protection and vengeance, brown candles are for wisdom, gold candles are for financial matters, green candles are for crime and justice, purple candles are for healing, red candles for love and passion, and white candles for gratitude and consecration.

It should be noted that black votive candles are not often found in public shrines due to the strong association with “black magic” and the negative aspects of witchcraft. These votive candles are likely to be used in private. It doesn’t help that drug traffickers and criminals twist the worshiping of Santa Muerte around to hide and protect their activities. More benign uses for lighting the candle such as spell reversals, protection and removing negative energies are uses for this votive.

Temples – The first or earliest known temple for Santa Muerte is the Shrine of Most Holy Death in Mexico City. It was founded by Enriqueta Romero.

Shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte can be found in several places: the home, stores, gas stations, roadside just about anywhere.

Alters – As more temples and shrines to Santa Muerte have sprung up, it’s not uncommon to see one or more images of her and to see offerings of cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, water, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies, and candles left there to try and gain her favor and protection.

Festivals – There is a festival day on August 15th for Santa Muerta. Though many have noted she can also be worshiped on November 1st & 2nd alongside La Dia de Los Muertos celebrations.

It should be noted that November 1st is the anniversary of when the alter to Santa Muerte was first constructed in Tepito where she is seen as the Patron Saint of that city.

Whereas Dia de Los Muertos is more associated with the skeletal figure of La Carina.

“Cult Of Crisis” – Anthropologists studying the rapid rise and popularity of Santa Muerte have called it this as they note how a large number of followers, worshipers, and devotees are mainly of the urban working poor, those who are younger from teens to early ’30s, especially women who live in areas where crime rates and poverty are high. Though members of more influential socio-economic status and law enforcement are known to seek Santa Muerte’s blessings and protection as well.

We are talking extreme economic and social hardships, were those most likely to turn any entity or deity outside of the main, local religion. Where they are already likely to be overlooked, forgotten, where there appears to be no hope.

Controversy – Criminal Associations

Much of what makes Santa Muerte so controversial is that many of her devotees are often criminals, thieves, gang members, and cartels. She has even become a popular Saint to venerate even in prison. Many of them will pray to Santa Muerte for protection from gun violence and violent death.

It makes sense if the ordinary people trying to live their lives, run a business, take care of families seem more whom Santa Muerte would protect.

This association came to be in 1998 when a notorious gangster by the name of Daniel Arizmendi López was arrested and a shrine to Santa Muerte was discovered in his home. March of 2009, the Mexican army went so far as to destroy some 40 roadside shrines to Santa Muerte. In March of 2012, the Sonora State Investigative Police arrested eight people for murder who had intended human sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The sensationalism from the news media is what firmly associated Santa Muerte with violence and crimes, notably in the Mexican popular consciousness.

It’s hard to say if life is imitating art or if art is imitating life. There are those who claim a connection back to Aztec beliefs with human sacrifices and connecting them to Santa Muerte. So, any gentler, benevolent side is harder to see or accept.

Authorities have linked prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling, and homicides to the worship of Santa Muerte. There are just as many law enforcement and military personnel to pray to Santa Muerte as there are criminals.

Duality – That many criminal organizations and cartels claim religious authority around her and messianic prophesies have created two versions of Santa Muerte. “The Black Lady” who has the darker, negative aspects of black magic and human sacrifices is associated with her to cover and hide illicit activities.

Then “The White Lady” is the more the healer, nurturer, and protector from the violence that crimes bring that regular people call upon.

This duality of Santa Muerte’s means she will grant favors to anyone who asks and who prays to her regularly. Many people believe if you cut a deal with Santa Muerte and fail to uphold your end, she will take away a loved one even take your life.

Catholic Church – The Vatican has condemned any worship and veneration of Santa Muerte in Mexico. They see it as blasphemous and satanic. As long as there continue to be strong associations of Santa Muerte with criminals and drug running, any attempts to get people to see the lighter side of this entity will be an uphill battle.

It’s not just the Catholic Church, but other Protestant sects in Christianity have strong, adverse reactions to seeing satanism and devil-worshiping with Santa Muerte. Calling her an idol, that it’s all backward superstition, trickery, and black magic.

Which, from the Western, Christian mindset, seeing an entity that’s skeletal in appearance is very unsettling and scary. It’s an image far worse than that of the Grim Reaper for many. It just doesn’t sit well with many.

It’s a very strong “Nope!” from them.

Modern Saint?

It seems a bit odd at first, but that’s a Christian mindset and upbringing to see the worship of a deity or saint of death as odd, unusual, weird, and why!?!

For many though, it is obvious that Santa Muerte is merely the modern worship of the ancient Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. This provides an important understanding of why so many would venerate the modern image of Santa Muerte.

For some, the worship of Mictecacihuatl never went away. She just went underground, only to resurface later as Santa Muerte. The more modern image really does lean on that of the Grim Reaper when she’s shown holding a scythe and robes.

The primary thought is likely defiance to the Catholic Church, especially if many feel the church hasn’t protected them from the violence found in numerous places where gangs and cartels are found. It should be noted that a large number of the poor and destitute with a strong leaning towards women are the most likely to turn to Santa Muerte to worship her and seek her protection and favor.

That aside, the worshiping of Santa Muerte begins around the mid-20th century and peaks about the mid-1990s where many prayers and rites were done privately in one’s home. The earliest documentation for Santa Muerte’s worship is in the 1940s among the working class. Starting in 2001, with the introduction of Santa Muerte’s shrine in Mexico City, her worship has taken off in the 21st century with estimates of some 10-20 million worshipers throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States.

Santa Muerte has become Mexico’s second most popular saint after Saint Jude and is close to rivaling Mexico’s national patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Goddess & Patron Saint Of Death

The majority of Santa Muerte’s devotees pray to her for protection, financial well-being, healing, and safe passage to the afterlife.

Goddess & Saint Of Protection

As I have previously mentioned, many people will seek out Santa Muerte’s favor for protection, especially from violence and violent death. This tends to include many people from marginalized groups, not just minorities, women, but those who are also LGBQT+. Protection from violence, hate disease, and surprisingly, even seeking love.

Saint Of Love

The Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos, also known as Church of Santa Muerte, are known for providing same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Psychopomp

One source I came across said that Santa Muerte was originally a male figure. That makes sense as her image does look very similar to the Western figure of the Grim Reaper and Ankou with the robes and scythe.

When you’re praying to Santa Muerte for a safe delivery and passage to the afterlife, that’s a lot of what a psychopomp does. They deliver or escort the recently deceased to the afterlife, wherever it is that a soul will go.

As no one lives forever, Santa Muerte’s presence is a reminder that death should be greeted as a friend and not something to be feared.

Syno-Deities

Grim Reaper – In her role as a psychopomp, Santa Muerte easily has parallels to this entity and not just similar appearances of skeletal, scythe and robes.

Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and Santa Muerte. So much so, that there are many will say that the two are merely one and the same goddess, that as Santa Muerte, this is Mictecacihuatl’s continued worship into the modern, present day.

Rey Pascual – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Guatemala.

San La Muerte – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Paraguay.

Mictecacihuatl

Pronunciation: Mikt-eyk-as-see-wahl or Misk-tesk-ei-siev-alth

Alternate Spelling: Mictlantecihuatl

Also Known As: Lady of the Dead, Queen of Mictlan

Etymology: Lady of the Dead (Nahuatl)

Mictecacihuatl is the Aztec goddess of the dead and Mictlantecuhtli‘s wife. Together the two rule over the nine layers of the Aztec Underworld and it’s nine rivers. Compared to her husband, Mictecacihuatl doesn’t have much for stories and myths surrounding her. But that could be if we’re just seeing male and female half of the same divine concept with similar, overlapping functions and roles.

Attributes

Animal: Bat, Dog, Owl, Spider

Direction: North

Element: Earth

Month: Tititl (Aztec), November

Patron of: Death, the Dead

Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)

Planet: Pluto

Sphere of Influence: Death, Resurrection

Symbols: Bones, Skeletons

Aztec Depictions

Mictecacihuatl is described as wearing a skirt made of snakes, sagging breasts, skull face and clawed feet for digging her way through the earth. She is also shown as being flayed, having no flesh on her body and her mouth open to swallow the stars during the day so that they become invisible. Mictecacihuatl can also be shown as a beautiful woman wearing traditional Aztec clothing and the skull face being more ritualistically painted on.

What’s In A Name

As previously mentioned, Mictecacihuatl’s name translates to “Lady of the Dead” in the Nahuatl language.

Family

Parents – Unknown, it is believed that when Mictlantecuhtli was born, that her parents sacrificed the infant.

SpouseMictlantecuhtli, the Lord of Mictlan.

Aztec Cosmology

Suns – This is a big one in Aztec Cosmology, the Aztecs believed in a cycle of suns or periods of creation. The fourth sun ended with a great deluge or flood that drowned everyone and that the current age is the fifth sun.

There were a number of different paradises or afterlives in Aztec belief. The manner of a person’s death would determine which of these paradises they got to enter. Any person who failed to get into these paradises would find themselves destined for Mictlan.

Fairly common in many world beliefs, the Aztecs divided the cosmos into three parts. The Heavens or Ilhuicac at the top with the Earth or Tlalticpac, being the land of the living found in the middle. Mictlan, the Underworld would be found below.

Depending on the manner of one’s death, would depend on which after life a person to. Mictlan was pretty much seen as the place for all souls who couldn’t get into one of the paradises.

Cosmic Origins

In the Aztec Creation story, there were Ometecuhtli and his wife Omecihuatl who bore four children Xipe Totec, Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, and Huitzilopochtli.

And…. Nothing really happens for about 600 years, so the four children decide that they will set about creating the universe. That of course includes creating the Sun, the first man and woman, maize, and calendar. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the Lord and Lady of Death would be created last.

Deific Origins

Mictecacihuatl’s origins are a bit gruesome. When Mictecacihuat was a baby, she was sacrificed and it is there in the Underworld of Mictlan, that she quickly grew to adulthood and married Mictlantecuhtli and from there, would rule over the Underworld with him.

Keeper Of Bones – Resurrection

One of Mictecacihuatl’s functions within Aztec religion is that she kept watch over the bones of the dead. For the Aztecs, skeletons and bones were symbols of abundance, fertility, and health. You couldn’t have one without the other.

Both Mictecacihuatl and Mictlantecuhtli collect bones so that the other Aztec gods might bring them back to life. The mixing up of all of these various bones is also what allows for the creation of new races.

Lord Of The Underworld – Mictlan

With the Christian mindset, the Underworld, any Underworld does not sound like a happy fun place to be or go.

Not quite in Aztec beliefs, most everyone who died, went to Mictlan. When a person died, they would be buried with grave goods that they would carry with them on their travels to Mictlan. These goods would be offered up to Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl.

As the newly dead started their journey to Mictlan, they would be accompanied by a small dog who guided them. Mictlan was known to be located somewhere far to the North. Much like in other world myths and beliefs, the Realm of the Dead is pretty much just neutral, not necessarily evil. Mictlan is divided into nine different levels or layers that the dead must travel through and a series of tests they must do on a four-year journey down to Mictlan. We are talking having to run from various monsters, icy blasts known as the “winds of obsidian,” traverse a mountain range where the mountains crash into each other, and to cross the nine rivers of blood guarded by jaguars. Once the soul arrived, they would dissolve, vanishing forever.

Home Sweet Home – While Mictlan is divided into nine different levels, Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live in the last few levels. One legend holds that there is a place of white flowers that was forever dark and served as home to the gods of death.

The actual house or dwelling place that Mictlantecutli and Mictecacihuatl live at in the Mictlan is reputed to have no windows.

Vaticanus Codex – In this Colonial codex, Mictlantecutli is identified and labelled by the Spanish as “the Lord of the Underworld, Tzitzimitl” and equated with the Christian Lucifer.

Mictlampa

This is the name the Aztecs used for the northern direction associated with Mictlanteculhtli. The northern direction is where the Aztecs believed the land of the dead to be. This would be a region of the earth that was a dark, barren and cold place that was eternally still and quiet. Which makes sense for the Artic. Sometimes, Mictlanteculhtli could be associated with the south, just as equally likely if one were to make it to Antarctica, that’s pretty cold and lifeless the further inland you get.

Souls Of The Dead

The Aztecs recognized three types of souls and Mictlantecutli governed over all of them.

  1. People who died of normal deaths as in old age and disease
  • People who died heroic deaths such as in battle, sacrifices and childbirth
  • People who died non-heroic deaths, accidents and suicides

While this sounds like every soul ends up in Mictlan, a soul could end up in another place. For example, if someone died violently drowning or lighting, they would end up in Tlalocan (a realm in the Heavens), for the Tlaloc, the water god.

Deific Offerings

Like many cultures, the Aztecs buried their dead with offerings for the afterlife, namely for Mictlantecuhtl and Mictlantecutli. These items would be offerings of food and various ceremonial or precious items.

Cempasúchil – Also called Flor de Muertos and Marigold, specifically Mexican Marigold in English, these flowers are held sacred to Mictlantecuhtl. These orange & yellow blossom’s scent is thought to be able to wake the souls of the dead and bring them back for a Dia De los Muertos in autumn. Many alters, graveyards and decorations would be festooned with these flowers. The Mexican Marigold is a familiar wild flower that grows in many places of central Mexico.

Aztec Calendar

In the Aztec Calendar, Mictecacihuatl was honored and celebrated throughout the ninth month, a 20-day period that roughly corresponds to the Gregorian calendar of late July and early August. When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in 1519, Mictecacihuatl’s corresponding holiday of Hueymiccaylhuitl was moved forward to October 31st to November 2nd to correspond with the Catholic observance of All Saint’s Day.

Hueymiccaylhuitl

An Aztec holiday, the “Great Feast of the Dead” was celebrated for the recently deceased and to help them on their journey to Mictlan. Hueymiccaylhuitl would be celebrated in the Aztec month of Tititl where an impersonator or stand-in for the god Mictlantecuhtli would be sacrificed.

When someone died, the Aztecs would cremate the remains. It was believed that the soul would than undertake a four-year journey to Mictlan through the various levels of the Underworld and needing to pass a series of trials. Those who succeeded would make it to the lowest levels of Mictlan.

Hueymiccaylhuitl was also celebrated as an annual celebration as it was believed the dead could return to the lands of the living and visit. Plus, it was a way for the living to help those on their journey as the living could communicate with the deceased souls.

When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, bringing Catholicism with them, the traditions of Hueymiccaylhuitl transformed, becoming known as Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Families still leave offerings of food and goods for the dead to take with them on their journey.

Under more modern and current celebrations and influence from the Catholic church, Día de los Muertos coincides with All Saints’ Day or Feast of All Saints on November 1st. It is a celebration that combines imagery from Aztec beliefs with an air of carnival and festivities with families gathering at cemeteries to share a picnic meal with deceased loved ones and sugar skulls in the image of Mictlantecuhtli.

Month-Long Celebration

Mictecacihuatl had a month-long celebration for her. However, not much is known about it and all Archaeologists and historians know for certain is that there was song and dancing, incense burnt and very likely blood sacrifices.

Dia Los Muertes

Mictecacihuatl not only has presided over the older Aztec celebrations for the dead but continues to watch over the contemporary festivals of Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead. Celebrations and observances for this holiday start on the evening of October 31st, coinciding with the holidays of Halloween and Samhain. In Mexican tradition, families will hold graveside vigils with deceased loved ones. Then on November 1st and 2nd, the dead are said to awaken and celebrate with their living family and friends.

Santa Muerte – Mexico

A female deity, early images of her started off as male. Santa Muerte is a folk saint whose worship and popularity have been increasing since the start of the 21st century in Mexico and has been spreading. Devotees of Santa Muerte may or may not be disenfranchised with the Catholic Religion and many turn to her for healing, protection, and a safe passage to the afterlife.