Category Archives: African
Alternate Spellings: Κηφεύς Kepheús (Greek)
Pronunciation: sē-ˌfyüs or sē-fē-əs
In Greek mythology, Cepheus is the name of two rulers for Aethiopia; a grandfather and grandson. Regarding the more famous story for Perseus; his freeing Andromeda and constellation, it is the grandson, King Cepheus, the son of Agenor who is the more well known.
The constellation representing Cepheus is often portrayed as a monarch sitting on his throne with his arms held up and his feet pointing towards the north pole. In the night sky, Cepheus is found to the west of the Cassiopeia constellation where it appears to be circling the pole star every night.
Story Of Perseus
In Greek story of Perseus, Cepheus was the king of Acrisios or Aethiopia, the husband of Queen Cassiopeia and the father to Andromeda. For the Greeks, Cepheus is known as the father of the Royal Family.
The story begins when Cassiopea started bragging about how Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids. This kind of attitude of extreme arrogance and pride, especially when a person claims being better than the gods, creates what’s known as hubris.
Offended by Cassiopeia’s remarks, the Nereids approached Poseidon and complained, asking him to punish this mortal woman. Poseidon agreed and he sent a flood as well as the sea monster Cetus (or Kraken) to destroy the coastline of Aethiopia.
After consulting with the oracle of Ammon (identified by the Greeks with Zeus,) located at an oasis near Siwa in the Libyan desert, Cepheus was told that he would be able to end the destruction of his country by giving up his daughter Andromeda in sacrifice to Cetus. At the urging of his people, Cepheus had Andromeda chained to a rock by the sea to await her fate.
Luck was with Andromeda, for the hero Perseus was flying by on the Pegasus and on seeing her, he flew down to ask her why she was bound to the rocks. Andromeda told her story to the hero Perseus.
After hearing the story, Perseus went to Cepheus, saying he could save Andromeda from the sea monster and that in return, he wanted her hand in marriage. Cepheus told Perseus that he could have what he wanted.
At that, Perseus then, depending on the accounts given, pulled his sword and found a weak spot in the scales of the sea monster Cetus or he used the severed head of Medusa to turn the monster to stone.
In either event, the monster was slain, Perseus saved Andromeda and a grateful Cepheus and Cassiopeia welcomed them to a feast where the two were married.
The story doesn’t completely end there as it seems Andromeda had also been promised to her uncle Phineus to marry. This wouldn’t have been disputed or contested if Phineus had been the one to save Andromeda and slay Cetus himself. So Phineus picked a fight with Perseus about his right to marry Andromeda at the wedding.
After slaying a Gorgon and a Sea Monster, a mere mortal man is no challenge for Perseus who once again pulls out Medusa’s head and turns Phineus to stone. Given variations of the story, sometimes this is when Cepheus and Cassiopeia are also turned to stone when they accidentally look at the gorgon’s severed head. With Phineus now dead, Andromeda accompanies Perseus back to his home Tiryns in Argos where they eventually founded the Perseid dynasty.
Some accounts give that Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters. Others place this count a little differently saying its seven children all together, six sons and one daughter. Most accounts agree that the eldest son, Perses founds his own kingdom and becomes the ancestor to the kings of Persia. A variation to this account is that Perses was adopted by his grandfather Cepheus and named heir to the throne.
Eventually, years later, as the major figures of the storied died and passed away, the goddess Athena placed Cepheus and the others up into the heavens as constellations to immortalize and commemorate this story.
In another account, because Cepheus was descended from one of Zeus’ lovers, the nymph Io, that earned him a place in the night sky.
Further, it is the god Poseidon who places both Cepheus and Cassiopeia up into heavens to become constellation.
Hyginus’ Account – By his account, Cepheus’ brother is Agenor who confronts Perseus as he was the one to whom Andromeda had been promised in marriage. So, this is who Perseus ends up killing instead of Phineus.
Aethiopia or Ethiopia?
The accounts can vary and much of this owes to some lack of clarity among the ancient Greek Scholars and Historians. Homer is the first to have used the term Aethiopia in his Iliad and Odyssey. Greek historian Herodotus uses the name Aethiopia to describe all of the inhabited lands south of Egypt. The name also features in Greek mythology, where it is sometimes associated with a kingdom said to be seated at Joppa, (what would be modern day Tel-Aviv) or it is placed elsewhere in Asia Minor such as Lybia, Lydia, the Zagros Mountains and even India.
Modern day Ethopia is located on the horn of Africa and has some tentative ties to the legend of Andromeda. The Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived around 300 BCE called Egypt’s Kushite dynasty the “Aethiopian dynasty.” And with the translation of the Hebrew Bible or Torah into Greek around 200 BCE, the Hebrew usage of “Kush” and Kushite” became the Greek “Aethiopia” and “Aethiopians.” This again changes later to the modern English use of “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopians” with the arrival of the King James Bible.
Given the way that Countries, Empires, Kingdoms and Nations rise and fall, expand and shrink, it’s very well possible that both Aethiopia and Ethiopia are one and the same and that modern-day Tel-Aviv once known as Joppa (Jaffa) may have once been part of Ethiopia. Some sources cite Joppa as having been a city of Phoenicia. There is a lot of history that has been lost to the sands of time that can only be guessed at and speculated upon.
Descendant Of Poseidon
Sometimes the genealogies of Greek characters can get a bit confusing depending on when and who is giving the story.
Regarding the King Cepheus from the story of Perseus and Andromeda, he is sometimes said to be the son of Belus, a king of Egypt and son of the god Poseidon. Or, Cepheus would be listed as the son of Phoenix.
Where Belus’ is given as the father, Cepheus then had Anchinoe as his mother and that Danaus, Aegyptus and Phineus are his brothers.
Iasid Cepheus – This is another name Cepheus is known as, referencing his Argive ancestry and connection to King Iasus of Argus, the father of Io.
The constellation known as Cepheus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. The constellation of Cepheus is one of the oldest ones identified by the ancient Greeks in the night sky. Also of note is that the stars that comprise the Cepheus constellation aren’t very bright.
The Cepheus constellation is found on the northern hemisphere where it can most likely be seen during autumn evenings, along with several other constellations named after characters in the myth of Perseus. Because of its northern location, Cepheus is only visible north of the 40° south latitude line and for observers farther south it lies below the horizon. It is 27th largest constellation found in the night sky. Bordering constellations to Cepheus are: Cygnus, Lacerta, Cassiopeia, Camelopardalis, Draco and Ursa Minor.
In Arab astronomy, the image of a shepherd with his dog and sheep are seen in this constellation.
In modern Chinese, the constellation is known as Xiān Wáng Zuò, “The Immortal King.”
The stars of Cepheus are found in two areas of the night sky, the Purple Forbidden Enclosure (Zǐ Wēi Yuán, also called the Central Palace) and the Black Tortoise of the North (Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ). Part of the eastern wall forming the Purple Palace Enclosure passed through Cepheus coming from the Draco constellation to Cassiopeia. Which stars made up this wall is uncertain though.
Tiangou – Also known as Gouxing, the “Hook Star.” The stars Alpha, Eta, Theta, Xi, Iota, and Omicron Cephei form this asterism. This asterism was associated with omens portending earthquakes.
Wudineizuo – This was a group of five stars in the northern part of the Cepheus constellation that bordered with Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis. These five stars represented the seats of the five celestial emperors. These emperors are the deified rulers for the five directions of North, South, East, West and the Center. It’s unknown which of these five stars represented this asterism.
Zaofu – Also spelt as Zhaofu or Tsao Fu. The stars Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Mu, and Nu Cephei formed this constellation. It is named for a famous charioteer of emperor Mu Wang who lived approximately 950 B.C.E.
The constellation of Cepheus, along with eight other constellations of: Andromeda, Auriga, Cassiopeia, Cetus, Lacerta, Pegasus, Perseus and Triangulum.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Perseus.
Stars of Cepheus
Alpha Cephei – Also known as Alderamin from the Arabic phrase “að-ðirā‘ al-yamīn,” meaning: “the right arm.” This is the brightest star within the Cepheus constellation that is some 49 light years away from the earth. This star still will become the pole star in another 5,500 years. The last time that Alpha Cephei had been the pole star was about 18,000 B.C.E.
Beta Cephei – Also known as Alfirk from the Arabic word “al-firqah,” meaning: “the flock.” It is the second brightest star within the Cepheus constellation. It is a triple star that is a class of stars known as Beta Cephei variable stars and is located some 690 light years away from the earth.
Delta Cephei – Also known as Alrediph or Al Radif meaning “the follower.” It is a double star of a yellow and blue star, this star is a prototype star of a class of stars known as Cepheid variable stars or Cepheids. These are pulsating variable stars that can vary in size over a period of hours, days and years. The constellation of Cepheus has many such stars like this. Delta Cephei is some 891 light years away from the earth.
Gamma Cephei – Also known as Alrai, Er Rai and Errai from the Arabic word “ar-rā‘ī” meaning: “the shepherd.” The star Beta Ophiuchi found within the Ophiuchus constellation is sometimes called Alrai, but is more often called “Cebalrai,” the shepherd’s dog. The first confirmed exo-planet was found near Gamma Cephei in 1989 that then got retracted and later reconfirmed in 2002 after more evidence and studies were done. This is a double star like Delta Cephei and is located some 45 light years from the earth. Due to the precession of equinoxes, Gamma Cephei will replace the star Polaris, Alpha Canis Minoris as the north pole star around 3,000 C.E.
Eta Cephei – Also known as Al Kidr, this star is an orange giant that is located some 45 light years away from the earth.
Mu Cephei – Also known as the Garnet Star or Herschel’s Garnet Star, it is a red supergiant that is estimated to be about 2,400 light years away from the earth. This star was discovered by William Herschell in 1781 who described it as being: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star ο Ceti.” It is to date, the largest known star within the Milky Way galaxy.
Xi Cephei – Also known as Kurhah, Alkirdah, Alkurhah or Al Kirduh, it is a triple star of which all three are dwarf stars.
The Cepheus constellation is the location of the quasar 6C B0014+8120 and has an ultra-massive black hole that is reported to be some 40 billion solar masses. This is about 10,000 times more massive than the central black hole found in the Milky Way, making it the most massive black hole known.
Also known as S 155, this nebula is dim and diffuse bright nebula within a larger nebula.
The Fireworks Galaxy
Also known as NGC 6946, this is a spiral galaxy that has had ten supernovae observed within it so far. This galaxy was first discovered by William Herschel in September 1798. It is some 22 million light years away from the earth and lays along the border between Cepheus and Cygnus.
Also known as NGC 738, this is an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. This cluster is about 7,000 light years away and the stars found within are less than five million years old, making the Wizard Nebula a young open cluster.
Others Named Cepheus
There are a couple of others named Cepheus in Greek mythology.
- There is a King Cepheus of Tegea. He was the son of Aleus from Arcadia and either Neaera or Cleobule. He had four brothers: Amphidamas, Lycurgus of Arcadia, Auge and Alcidice. This Cepheus would go on to sire twenty sons (at least one named Aeropus) and at least three daughters (Aerope, Antinoe and Sterope). He noted too as the founder of Caphyae. Cepheus and his brother, Amphidamas would later sail with Jason as an Argonaut. During Heracles’ campaign against Hippocoon, Cepheus and his sons allied with the Heracles. Depending on the version of this story told, Cepheus either lost all of his sons or seventeen of his sons and was himself killed during the campaign.
- Cepheus is also the name of one of the people involved in the Calydonian Hunt.
Other Names – “the Brain Sucker”
In the Zulu mythology of South Africa, Mamlambo is a large serpentine river goddess as well as a goddess of beer. In some legends, Mamlambo appears during lightning storms.
For the Xhosa of South Africa, the Mamlambo is a giant river snake that will bring good fortune to the one who can claim it. Witch doctors are believed to use Mamlambo to extract revenge on their enemies.
Goddess Of Beer!
Yes, beer. This aquatic, serpentine deity is also known for brewing beer. This is a job that women in many Southeast African tribes do.
Mamlambo’s myth entered the realm of cryptozoology in 1997 when various South African newspapers began reporting sightings of a “giant reptile” monster in the Mzintlava River (also known as the Umzimhlava River) near Mount Ayliff in South Africa. The reports also mention how between 7-9 people and even a number of animals were all killed by this monster by dragging its victims underwater and drowning them. After which, the Mamlambo would suck out the blood and brains of the victims, earning it the name of “the Brain Sucker.”
There are a few different accounts what Mamlambo is to look like.
One version has the creature being some 20 meters (67 feet) long, with the torso of a horse and lower body of a fish, short legs and neck of a snake. That it also shone green at night. Some have commented that this description fits that of a Mosasaur, a variety of giant marine reptiles that went extinct with the dinosaurs.
A slight variation to this description says the Mamlambo is half-fish, half-horse with short stumpy legs, crocodilian body and the head and neck of a snake. This version of the description also says the Mamlambo has a hypnotic gaze that it uses to lure its victims to a watery grave. Much like crocodiles do, the Mamlambo is able to leave the water to snag its potential victims that come to close to the water. The Mamlambo is also believed to glow an eerie bioluminescent green when it is dark.
Possible Reality Behind The Myths
In April of 1997, there had nine bodies found in the Mzintlava River. According to local police, all of the bodies had been in the water for a long time, long enough for scavengers such as crabs to come and eat the soft parts of the heads and necks. When the bodies were pulled from the water, river crabs were still clinging to the bodies. The local villagers on the other hand insist that these mutilations are the result of the Mamlambo eating people’s faces and then sucking out their brains.
Another idea put forward is that the Mamlambo may be an elasmosaur-like animal an ancient type of archaeocete from the cetacean evolutionary branch. Basically, a member of the whale family before whale legs became flippers.
Brosno Dragon – Or Brosnya, is a Russian Lake Monster that some have described as being a mutant beaver or a giant pike that’s around 100-150 years old.
Dobhar-Chú – A cryptid from Irish folklore described as being a water hound and known for dragging victims to a watery death.
Each-Uisge – A Scottish shape-shifting water horse, that much like the Irish Kelpie is known for drowning victims.
Glashtyn – Or Cabyll-Ushtey, it is a shape-shifting goblin that inhabits of the waterways in Manx, one of it’s favored forms is that of a horse.
Kelpie – A water horse, this is another creature from Irish folklore known for its shape-shifting abilities and drowning victims.
Lau – A dinosaur-like lake monster with tentacles from Sudan.
Loch Ness Monster – A similar aquatic and serpentine creature found in Scotland.
Mahamba – A reptilian cryptid from the Congo, it is often described as being similar to a giant crocodile or thought to be a fresh water living fossil mosasaur.
Mokele-Mbembe – A famous reptilian cryptid from the Congo described as looking a sauropod and herbivore in nature.
The Mamlambo has indeed featured on an episode of the SyFy channel’s Destination Truth.
Also called: Dyok, Jo-Uk, Joagh, Joghi, jok, Joogi, Jouk, Jok Odudu, Ju-Ok, Juong, Jwok or Nyikang
Etymology: Creator, Jok Odudu – “god of birth”
Juok is the main Creator God of the Shilluk, Dinka, Nuer and other tribes along the upper areas of the Nile river. It is generally believed that Juok controls the destinies of all living creatures. The legendary Shilluk king, Nyikang is often seen as being Juok’s earthly representative or avatar much like the Egyptian pharaohs were often seen as the living god Ra in earthly form.
God Of Creation
Creating Mankind – According to stories, Juok created or molded all of the people from the earth. While busy with creation, Juok wandered the earth. In the land of the white folk, Juok found a pure white earth or sand in which to create the first whites. In the land of Egypt, Juok made the red or brown people from the mud of the Nile river. When Juok finally came to the land of the Shilluks, he found some black earth in which to create black people from. Eventually, Juok gave people sex organs so they could reproduce themselves without his help.
Creating All Things – In this story, Juok created several different creatures such as the elephant, buffalo, lion, crocodile, dog and finally the first humans, a boy and girl. Juok wasn’t too happy with the humans he had created and told the dog to get of them. Proving to be man’s best friend, the dog instead raised and took care of the children until they grew up.
When Juok had finished with all of his creations, he started to divide up the land as to where each would live and providing each with weapons to defend or attack. Juok saw that the humans were still alive and decided he would wait until the last to deal with them. This way, he hoped, there would be no more land or weapons to give out.
The dog, figuring this out, told the man to tell Juok that they were the elephant, buffalo and lion. That way, when Juok came to pass out weapons, he gave them all spears.
When the real animals showed up for their weapons, there were no spears left. Juok then gave the elephant tusks, the buffalo horns, the lion claws and the crocodile teeth. The man used the spears he was given to drive and ward off the animals and took the best land for himself.
The Origins Of Death – In the beginning, death was not a permanent thing. For when people died, they would be dead for three days before returning to life. Juok decided to make death a permanent thing by throwing a rock into a river.
The dog who had previously helped men, told the people to work together and pull the rock out of the river. The people, however ignored the dog’s advice. So the dog tried himself to remove the rock. In his efforts, he was only able to break off a large piece of the rock and brought it home. As a result, humans have much longer lives than they otherwise would have.
I would say, looking at these last two stories, Juok doesn’t seem all that nice of a deity.
As Nyikang, he was a legendary king who became deified at death. He is often invoked as an intermediary for the gods.
Tribes such as the Acholi and Lango see Jok as a local and ancestral spirit.
Other tribes like the Alur of Uganda and Zaire saw the world as being full of spirits or Jok/Djok. For them, their ancestors manifested as snakes or large rocks. Whenever there was a drought, the Alur would sacrifice a black goat to Jok in order to bring rain.
I came across a few of the gods or ancestral deities for the Shilluk people. However, the information is sparse enough, I decided to combine all the deities into one article in order to expand this post. Plus, it feels more worthwhile writing it up.
First up is that Shilluk is a corruption of the word Chollo, so a lot of my research did center around looking up Shilluk and not just Chollo.
The Shilluk or Chollo people are a large, native or Luo Nilotic people living along the Nile River of modern, Southern Sudan.
Legend and traditions hold that sometime during the 15th century C.E., Nyikango, the mythical ancestor and founder of the Shilluk or Chollo nation had an argument with Dimo and other Luo groups in a place known as Bahr el Ghazel.
Taking a group of his closest family and friends, Nykango led them northwards up along the Nile in rafts and canoes until they found the place of Otango Dirum to settle. Through the use of war and diplomacy, Nykango managed to conquer over time the entire area of Otango Dirum. For each of the tribes, Nykango granted a name and ritual they were to perform. Legends and tradition hold that Nykango’s son, Dak was the most influential in establishing the Shilluk Kingdom.
Today though, the Shilluk as a nation is recognized by the Sudanese state as only part of native administrations. Since 1837, the Shilluk have never truly free except for a brief period from 1881 and 1898 during the Mahdiya. The Shilluk still have a common territory, language, tribal authority they listen to and their customs and traditions they hold to.
Diang is a cow goddess, she lived along the west bank of the Nile river. She is seen as the wife of the first human Omara that had been sent by the Creator God, Juok.
Diang and Omara have a son, Okwa who grows up and marries the crocodile goddess Nyakaya.
In Shilluk religion and beliefs, this shows a connection of the three major elements of life. Men or humans for the sky, cattle for the earth and crocodiles for water.
Juok is known by a number of other names: Jo-Uk, Joagh, Joghi, jok, Joogi, Jouk, Jok Odudu, Ju-Ok, or Jwok
He is the main Creator God of the Shilluk and other tribes along the upper areas of the Nile river. It is generally believed that Juok controls the destinies of all living creatures. The legendary Shilluk king, Nyikang is often seen as being Juok’s earthly representative or avatar much like the Egyptian pharaohs were often seen as the living god Ra in earthly form. Other tribes such as the Acholi and Lango use the name Jok to refer to local or ancestor spirits.
A crocodile goddess, she is the wife of Okwa and the mother of Nyikang.
Also known as Nyakango.
He is a fertility god and the mythical ancestor from whom all the kings of the Shilluk are descended from. Being an immortal and the avatar of Juok, Nyikang is believed not to have died, but instead, to have vanished in a whirlwind. The later kings of the Shilluk are seen as the reincarnations of Nyikang. The vitality and well-being of the tribe is closely connected to the health of Nyikang.
The son of Omara and Diang, he is the husband of Nyakaya and the father of Nyikang.
The husband of Diang, he is the first man in the mythology of the Shilluk. Omara and Diang fathered Okwa who would eventually found the lineage of Nyikang.
Etymology – hippopotamus
Mali is the name of a shape-shifting, monstrous and carnivorous hippopotamus responsible for the destruction and eating entire fields of rice.
Among the Mali and Songhay people, the hero, Fara Maka is the one who finally defeats this monster after numerous attempts. In his first attempt, Fara Maka tries throwing spears to no affect, as the spears would disintegrate or melt on contact with Mali’s skin.
In Fara Maka’s next attempt, he is joined by fellow hunter, Karadigi who set his pack of 120 black dogs on the raging monster. Karadigi’s pack were all eaten in short order by Mali.
At last, Fara Maka decided to consult with his wife, Nana Miriam. She cast a spell of paralysis on Mali. With the monster unable to move, Fara Maka was now able to destroy this monstrous hippopotamus.
In some versions of this stories, the crops eaten were Fara Maka’s. When he had failed at killing Mali, Fara Maka’s wife, Nana Miriam used the spell of paralysis to defeat the monster.
The Niger River
The third longest river on the African continent after the Nile and Congo rivers. This river is the location for where the confrontations with Mali and Fara Maka take place in traditions and legends.
Also known and spelled as: Zin, Zin Kibaru or Zin-Kibaru
Etymology – It has been suggested that the name Zin probably comes from the Arabic Djinn.
Zinkibaru is the name of the water spirit from Songhay folklore that the hero Fara Maka does battle with. As a water spirit, Zinkibaru is the blind Master of Fish who resides in the Niger River.
Zinkibaru owned a magic guitar that he used to enchant and command the creatures of the river. He commanded the fish to eat Fara Maka’s rice plants. In retaliation, Fara Maka sought out Zinkibaru to fight him. In the end, Fara Maka won and claimed the spirit’s guitar for his own; thus gaining control of the river creatures.
Also called: Faran Maka, Faran Maka Bote
Among the Songhay people of Africa, Fara Maka is a significant culture hero. He is described as being a giant of a man who fished and grew rice for a living. Stories about Fara Maka have him using his long beard to catch fish and to eat at least one hippopotamus a day. As a result of his divine heritage, Fara Maka also had magical powers.
The Songhay are able to trace their origins back to the 8th century B.C.E. when Aliman Dia came to the Niger River. Aliman Dia had iron weapons that enabled him to overpower the people living there along the river. Namely the sorko or fishers and the gow or hunters. By uniting the different villages in the area, Aliman Dia founded the first Songhay dynasty.
Aliman Dia’s descendants ruled until around the 15th century when the Sonni replaced them.
Parentage and Family
Fara Maka’s father was a mortal man by the name of Nisili Bote, a fisherman by trade.
His mother’s name is Maka, a river spirit. As a result, this is whom Fara got his mystical and divine heritage from.
This one is a bit odd, Fara Maka found a girl in a termite mound who gave birth to his two children.
Among the Mali people, Fara Maka or Fara Maka’s wife’s name is Nana Miriam.
Fara Maka is the father of Wango and Weikare. Not a whole lot else is known about them other than their children in turn become the sorko of the Songhay tribe.
The most significant story involving Fara Maka is that of his battle with the water spirit Zinkibaru for control of the Niger River.
Zinkibaru has caused the fish to eat Fara Maka’s rice crops. In response to this, Fara Maka fought the water spirit and in the process, won a magical guitar from it.
After his battle with the river spirit Zinkibaru, Fara Maka soon got too overconfident with his abilities and victory. This angered Dongo, the god of lightning and thunder. Dongo displayed his anger towards Fara by burning many Songhay villages and people.
Eventually Dongo cooled down enough and summoned Fara to him. Dongo demanded that Fara humble himself in order to stop the attacks on the villages by offering up music, praise-poems and animal sacrifices. Dongo further told Faran that if he would organize these festivals, that he, Dongo would enter into the bodies of the dancers for a spiritual ecstasy and help all those living along the Niger River.
Songhay Possession Ceremony
After Dongo’s forced meeting with Fara Maka, the first Songhay Possession Ceremony was held. Even today in modern era, this ceremony is still performed. The most important people of the Songhay Possession Troupe are the Sorko, the praise-singers to the spirits. The Sorko are direct descendants of Fara Maka Bote, keeping alive the traditions, folklore and religion of the Songhay.
Among the people of Mali, Fara Maka is a hero who slew a monstrous hippopotamus known as Mali.
Mali had eaten all of Fara Maka’s crops. Fara Maka tried to kill the monster hippo using his spear and sending out as many 120 black hounds to attack the beast. Fara Maka failed and was eaten in the process by some accounts. His wife, Nana Miriam used a spell to paralyze the monster Mali and finally defeating it.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of 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. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Among the Kabyle people of Algeria on the African Continent, Achimi is a Buffalo god. He is the son of Itherther and Thamuatz, the first creatures living on earth. Between Achimi and his father Itherther, they helped in the first humans’ development of hunting and eating meat.
Achimi was known for being wild and adventurous. So much so, that Achimi eventually left his parents to go out on his own.
In his wanderings, Achimi came across a village that had been built by the first humans. The humans of this village nearly got him
At some point during his escape from the villagers, a bee told Achimi how it would be a much better and easier life for him to be domesticated by humans as they would care and provide for him and protect him from predators such as lions.
A slight variation to this is that instead of a bee, it is an ant who tells Achimi all about how to have the easy life. All Achimi has to do is be domesticated by humans and he’ll have it made. Sure it will be short, but it will be comfortable.
But if he wants a long life and one full of freedom, the Achimi needs to avoid getting caught by the humans and domesticated. The downside being, that there would be times that Achimi would go hungry.
Stubborn as ever in his youth, Achimi refused the “advice” of the bee (or the ant) and went off in his own ways, bound and determined to maintain a life of freedom and independence.
Eventually Achimi returned to where his herd roamed. In his absence, his father and mother had had another calf, a younger sister to Achimi. This enraged Achimi and he challenged his father for dominance of the herd. His father ousted, Achimi proceed to mate with his mother and sister. Back to the other variation of this story with the ant, it had told Achimi he could take over the herd, usurping his father and mating with his mother and sister.
Time moves on and Achimi mated with his mom and sister to create a herd of buffalo. And, as time does, Achimi got old and a time came that the herd was cold, hungry and experiencing a lot of suffering. Remembering what the bee (or ant) had told him, Achimi decided to lead his herd to where the village was and allowed the humans there to tame and domesticate them, living an easy and short life from then on.
I’m sure such a story seems great from the human perspective, domestication and herding of cattle for an easy source of food.