Category Archives: American
The holiday season has arrived whether that’s Christmas, Yule, or another Winter Solstice festival. One familiar sight around this time will more than likely be the red & white candy canes adorning trees, stockings, and as a general treat given out.
Christianity has been quick to assign Christian symbolisms to candy canes as has been done with a good many other Christmas decorations and symbols that frequently have a pagan origin to them.
There are a few stories that have sprung up since the 20th century regarding the origins of candy canes and a Christian connection. While these stories are quaint, there are no facts or records to back them up.
Indiana Candymaker – First Story
This story says that a candymaker from Indiana, U.S. decided to make a candy that would witness or testify of Jesus Christ. The J symbol for Jesus’ initial “J” or represents the cane of the Shepherds in the fields going to the manger in Bethlehem to see the newborn Christ. The white is for his virgin birth and his purity. Then three red stripes represent the scourging Jesus suffers when people are healed. There is a large red stripe to represent the blood shed by Christ in paying for people’s sins and their eternal salvation.
To do this, this nameless candymaker took a stick of white hard candy and formed the cane, added the red stripes, and before the candy hardened, twisted it to the “J” or cane shape.
Debunked – This one lacks any documentation. Surely, we’d have a record of who this candymaker was if we knew his home state and why he made the candy cane, to begin with.
Persecuted Christians – Second Story
This story says that candy canes were made during a time when Christians were being persecuted and that this cane-shaped candy served as a means by which to recognize each other.
Debunked – This story is easily refuted as the earliest that candy canes are mentioned is the latter part of the 17th century, when much of Europe is Christian. By this time, only those needing a secret means to recognize each other are non-Christians. Nor does this story mention which era of time Christians were being persecuted.
German Origin – Third Story
This story says that in 1670, the choirmaster in Cologne, Germany is the creator of the candy cane. Frustrated as many teachers and parents are when you have restless children who get a case of giggles and wiggles and are unable to stay still or quiet. In this case, choir boys get restless and noisy during long sermons. So the choirmaster hit on an idea and found a local candymaker for some treats. While looking at some white candy sticks, the choirmaster pondered if he would be allowed to give the boys sweets. That’s when the choirmaster asked the candymaker about bending the sticks into a cane shape as he would use the candy as a means for teaching. The white represents the purity of Christ, the cane hook for the story of the shepherds who came to find the infant Jesus at the manger.
Debunked – Aside from sounding authoritative because it’s “church history,” again, like the story of the candymaker from Indiana, there are no records of this happening.
What Can Be Verified
The above stories are largely quaint anecdotes and the earliest records for any of them are from the mid-20th century, the 1900s. The earliest mention of candy canes is in 1866 with the short story “Tom Luther’s Stockings” in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine. Their first-time association of them with Christmas comes in 1874. This is some two hundred years after the candy cane was to have been invented and popularized with the festive holiday season.
We have documentation of candy sugar sticks with colored stripes starting in 1844. The mention and evidence of the “J-shaped” candy canes with red stripes don’t come until the beginning of the 20th century. The evidence for this comes from Christmas cards printed before 1900 depicting plain white canes. Not until after, do the striped canes begin to appear on Christmas cards.
The best that can be guessed at is that some unknown person did come up with the idea of bending the cane sugar sticks into their familiar “J-shape” to represent a shepherd’s crook and to make it easier to hang on a Christmas tree for decoration. While it’s a good guess, that’s all it is.
German Immigrant – In 1847, it is believed that the immigrant August Imgard in Ohio, U.S.A. is the first person credited in America who decorated a Christmas tree using candy canes.
Famous Candy Company
Though indirect, this story is verifiable for the religious connection. The owner of the Famous Candy Company, Bob McCormack in 1919 did begin the process of bending candy canes into their J-shape, a process that needed to be done manually and resulted in limited quantities due to the amount of labor needed.
It’s McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest who came up with the means to automate the bending process for candy canes. Hence the Keller Machine. So yeah, there’s the Christian connection for those looking for it.
The Famous Candy Company would become Mills-McCormack Candy Company and then Bobs Candies.
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Also Known As: Angel of Death, Death, The Reaper, The Grim Spectre of Death, der Tod (German), Kosač (Slavic), La Muerte (Latin), La Mort (Latin), La Calaca (in Mexico), Pietje de Dood (Dutch), Smrt (Slavic)
“Only two things are certain in life, death and taxes.”
- Benjamin Franklin
In the modern, Western mindset, the Grim Reaper is either a personification of Death, an angel, spirit, or psychopomp who comes to take the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife.
Since the earliest times, there are numerous stories showing death being a part of life. Even modern literature and media will show that death happens and that the figure of the Grim Reaper is frequently one who’s there to guide people on to the next life.
One can rightfully argue that the concept and personification of the Grim Reaper have existed for a very long time. Even before their modern appearance, numerous cultures have some variation of a Death deity or psychopomp. Prominent deities are the Greek Thanatos, God of Death, and more recently from Brittany, France the Ankou who bears a striking resemblance to the modern Grim Reaper, it’s easy to see them as both the same entity doing the same job.
From European history, it’s easy to see a personification of Death taking on the skeletal visage they have during the fourteenth century when the Black Death plague is sweeping through, with so many people dying and bodies piling up. Artists would paint images of skeletons with weapons or scythes, riding on white horses through the streets with wagons full of bodies. From all of this would eventually come the dark figure dressed in black robes and carrying a scythe.
As for the name “Grim Reaper,” that wouldn’t come until 1847 when the name “Grim” was a popular name for Death that can be traced to the thirteenth century.
The Grim Reaper is often described as a skeleton dressed in black robes with a hood pulled up and carrying a scythe. In Europe, the Grim Reaper or Death may be dressed in white, a traditional color worn during funerals in some cultures.
During the Medieval Ages, the Grim Reaper was thought of as a decaying corpse before becoming the more familiar skeletal figure.
The Grim Reaper is a familiar figure who appears in numerous media and literature and can appear as either his familiar robed figure or as an ordinary person, male or female going about doing their job.
Scythe – It should go without saying, the scythe represents a harvester’s tool for bringing in the grain. So does the scythe representing harvesting a person’s soul or spirit when they did. Depending on the story, the Grim Reaper doesn’t have to use their scythe, just their mere presence and arrival is enough to signify that a person’s time has come.
Hourglass – Some depictions of the Grim Reaper have them with an hourglass representing the ticking off the sands of time and moment of death.
White Horse – When connected as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Grim Reaper or Death as they are then known is seen riding a white horse or possibly, riding in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Regardless of the description of the Grim Reaper that you go by or calling them Death, the Angel of Death, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife.
While researching the Grim Reaper, I came across numerous articles that break down and go into all the myriad personifications of Death around the world, either as a deity, angel, or psychopomp. Including dozens of examples of the Grim Reaper in modern media where they are still a very active figure who is simply doing their job.
Or the “Dance of Death” is a medieval French allegory for how death unites everyone, regardless of age or social status in life. The Danse Macabre has been shown in various forms of the arts beginning as theatre plays and poems, wall paintings, and drawings. The majority of these come from the 15th century, an era of numerous famines, plagues, and wars. All things that people associated with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The imagery invoked is Death summoning the spirits of the dead to come and dance along their graves. The more commonly used figures would be the pope, a king, the young, old, and the laborer to remind the audience watching that death is an inevitable part of life and the Danse would highlight those too attached to worldly possessions.
The French believed the Grim Reaper would arise every year in the local cemetery at midnight, the Witching Hour. The Grim Reaper would then play a fiddle, summoning all the skeletons and ghosts of the dead to come dance until dawn, and the rising sun would force them back to their graves. This belief inspired Henri Casalis’ poem “Danse Macabre” which would be made into a musical piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.
Kalan Goañv – A Breton festival occurring on October 31st and similar to Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou, a figure similar to the Grim Reaper with milk, cider, and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders where offerings for the dead can be left.
Looking at the Grim Reaper through the lens of Christianity, the Grim Reaper is the angel of death sent by God to do his bidding. This is the angel who is to have smote some 185,000 Assyrians in their camp. The same destroying angel who killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Just about any time that an angel of death or destroying angels is mentioned, there’s a connection made to the Grim Reaper. With this connection, the Grim Reaper’s name is Azrael. The Talmud will connect him to Samael. In Eastern Orthodox beliefs, Death is one of the three enemies of humanity, with the other two being sin and the devil.
Getting into the Biblical Book of Revelation, particularly in chapter six, there are four horsemen who appear, each signaling another sign of the end of the world and Judgement Day. The four horsemen are said to be Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death. It is the figure of Death, the only one outright named, riding a pale horse that has many connecting the imagery of the Grim Reaper. Many modern depictions of the horseman Death will show him being dressed and looking like the Grim Reaper too.
In the Major Arcana of the tarot cards, death is one of the cards that can turn up. Depending on the specific deck in use, the death card may depict the familiar robed figure of the Grim Reaper.
The modern imagery of the Grim Reaper and how he or she appears varies wildly depending on the media in which the figure appears. From the traditional skeletal figure dressed in robes with a scythe to a very ordinary-looking human woman or man just doing their job. But they almost always appear in some capacity to release the soul of the recently deceased and guide them to the afterlife. For some characters, they’re ready to go, for others they are scared and don’t want to go and try to find a way to cheat death, claiming a false death, one more chance, unfinished business before some stories have the character realize they can’t beat the inevitable and that it’s time.
Playing Games With Death – This has been a popular motif used and spoofed in many media and literature. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman first brought this concept in his 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal” where a medieval knight plays a game of chess against Death. Since then, many movies and shows have spoofed or made use of this idea later. One of my personal favorites is in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – This is a song from 1976 by Blue Oyster Cult found on their album Agents of Fortune. The lyrics to the song encourage listeners to not fear death, but rather instead to see it as symbolizing eternal love. Author Stephen King found inspiration from it for his novel The Stand and the song features in the opening of the 1994 miniseries adaptation and again in the end of the fifth episode for the 2020-2021 miniseries adaptation. Plus, if you want a song with more cowbell, this is for you.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – In the 1988 movie, Baron Munchausen is constantly being pursued by Death, shown as a skeletal angel with raven wings and wielding a scythe and hourglass. At the end of the film, Death takes Munchausen’s soul with Munchausen is given a lavish funeral where Munchausen then boldly states that this was “one of the many times I faced Death” before the movie finally comes to an end.
The Sandman – This graphic novel series and recent Netflix adaptation show Death as an immortal and one of Morpheus’ siblings. In the comics, she is shown as a Goth Girl and in the live-action, she is dressed casually. The episode featuring Death shows her appearing to a person at the time of their death and guiding them on.
I could keep going on with all the various appearances of Death or the Grim Reaper. Suffice to say they are still a rather active figure and one who is truly timeless whose motifs will always fascinate people and seek to explore.
Father Time’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 in certain details, they are not the same being.
Syno-Deities & Entities
As a psychopomp and representation of Death, the Grim Reaper has numerous counterparts around the world. Many of the more European-based figures will certainly share similarities in their depictions while other cultures are likely to have different appearances. They do share in common, either being the guide to the afterlife or the one that greets spirits on arrival.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Ankou – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.
Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.
Azrael – The Angel of Death in Jewish traditions. More accurately, they are the Angel of Light and Darkness from the Talmud.
Azrail – The Angel of Death in Islamic beliefs. He, along with many angels under him will guide and take souls to the afterlife.
Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the seashore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears whenever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come too close. The crew of this boat is said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.
Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Grim Reaper due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.
Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.
Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.
Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.
The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán means “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.
In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.
Giltinė – The Lithuanian personification of Death. She was depicted as an ugly, old woman with a long blue nose and poisonous tongue.
Gwyn ap Nudd – The Welsh god of the Dead, in some later folklore, he leads the Wild Hunt, especially on Halloween to guide and take wayward souls to the afterlife in Arawn.
Hel – In Norse mythology from Scandinavia, she is the goddess of the Dead and rules over a realm with the same name.
Hermes – This is the Greek god sometimes known to guide souls down to the Underworld where Charon, the Ferryman would receive them for the next part of the journey to Hades.
La Calavera Catrina – A popular figure to see in Mexican culture and during Dia De Los Muertos.
Jeoseungsaja – Or Saja is the Korean version of the Grimm Reaper who escorts souls to the afterlife.
Magere Hein – Also known as Pietje de Dood, this is the personification of Death in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Maweth – In Hebraic scriptures, Death or Maweth is the personification of either the angel of death or a devil.
Memitim – A name for a class of angels in biblical lore that presides over those dying whom a Guardian Angel was no longer protecting.
Mercury – The Roman version of the Grecian Hermes, he too is a psychopomp that guides souls to Avernus, a crater in Italy thought to be the entrance to the underworld.
Mictecacihuatl – The Aztec goddess of death
Mictlantecutli – The Aztec god of death
Morana – The Slavic goddess of winter, death, and rebirth.
Mot – The Canaanite personification and god of Death.
Omolu – The Brazilian spirits known to bring death, disease, and even healing.
Pesta – Meaning the “plague hag,” in Scandinavia, during the Black Plague, she was depicted as an old woman wearing a black hood. Pesta would come into town carrying either a rake or broom. If she brought the rake, it meant some people would survive the plague. If she brought the broom, it meant that everyone would die.
Samael – This the name for another angel in Jewish tradition who does the Lord’s bidding as his executioner.
San La Muerte – A similar figure found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.
San Pascualito – A folk saint of Death found in Guatemala and Mexico.
Śmierć – This figure of Death is female and comes from Poland where instead of dressing in black like the Grim Reaper, they dress in white.
Shinigami – These are the Japanese gods of Death.
Thanatos – The Greek god of Death.
Valkyries – The “choosers of the slain” and warrior maidens in Norse mythology, they would escort the souls of the dead with half going to Odin’s realm in Valhalla and the other half going to Freya’s Hall of Folkvangr.
Yama – The Hindu god of death, as well as the judge of souls in the afterlife.
Yanluo – From Chinese mythology, Yanluo is the god of the dead and ruler of Di Yu.
And if I have done nothing else, let death be greeted as an old friend instead of something to be feared…
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.
It can vary slightly what Belsnickel looks like. One source says they wear a black mask and carries a large black sack and then announces their 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.
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.
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 doing 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.
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 childhood 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.
Also called Klausentreiben , this activity is similar to mummery, in the 19th century, people would go out, and get 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.
Also Called: Black-Eyed Kids
Warning – It is said that Black-Eyed Children only approach those that already know about them. If you don’t want to risk that one of these entities approaches you, don’t read further.
That said, stories surrounding Black-Eyed children is an interesting American Urban Legend that begins in 1996. Most of the stories and encounters seem to fit in the same vein as ghost stories that get passed on with no real hard evidence or proof. After all, any adult can have an unsettling encounter with a child and then later claim it as a black-eyed child.
For the most part, Black-Eyed children are going to look like ordinary human children typically between the ages of 6 and 16. What sets them apart from regular children is that Black-eyed children have pale skin and black eyes, as in the whole eye is black. We are talking about the white of the eyes, known as the sclera, not just the pupils are black. In some stories, people say these “children” have talon-like feet.
These “children” are often encountered trying to hitchhike, beg or approach the doorsteps of a home where an adult is at. For some encounters, the children appear to stand very still, they’re dressed in outdated clothing or they’re very persistent in the need to come into the house or to get a ride home.
Those who report having seen these “children,” claim feelings of dread.
The Urban Legend
1996 is when we get the first tabloid coverage of Black-Eyed children. These tabloid stories would claim that sightings of these unsettling children date back to the 1980’s with some stories claiming as far back as the 1950’s.
The first such stories were written by Brian Bethel, a Texas reporter on a “ghost-related mailing list.” Bethel tells of encountering two black-eyed children in Abilene, Texas 1996. He had been out late one night and had stopped in a parking lot near a movie theater. As he was busy in his car writing a check, that is when two young boys approached his car. It wasn’t until he rolled down his window to talk to them that Bethel felt an immediate sense of fear that he couldn’t explain.
Apparently, the boys wanted to see a movie but had forgotten their money. Could Bethel please give them a ride? What was unnerving for Bethel is the assurances from the older boy that they were just two kids and didn’t have a gun. Bethel noted that the movie the two wanted to see had already started and that by the time he could have gotten them home and back, the movie would be almost over.
Bethel notes in his story how when he broke eye contact with the kids, his fear became overwhelming and that after he broke eye contact that the eyes of the kids turned completely black. How the older boy started to get upset with Bethel’s excuses of not letting them get in the car to give them a ride. That he eventually tore out of the parking lot.
Bethel then says that a second person also had a similar encounter in Portland, Oregon. As for this second encounter, there isn’t much to report that I could find.
In 2012, Bethel would go on to tell his story on the reality T.V. series, “Monsters and Mysteries in America.” There is also a follow-up article that Bethel wrote for the Abilene Reporter-News where he maintains his encounters happened.
Black Eyed Kids – Movie
In 2012, there was a Kickstarter that successfully funded the “Black-Eyed Kids” horror movie.
The following years after, 2013 would see MSN run an episode on Weekly Strange about black-eyed children. And September of 2014 would see the British tabloid, the Daily Star would run a series of three front-page stories with people claiming to have seen these children. Of course, this was all connected to the sale of a haunted pub in Staffordshire.
I Wanna Know, I Wanna Know!
That really depends on who you ask. For some, the black-eyed children are a form of a ghost sighting, they might be aliens, demons, or maybe even vampires.
It’s part of what can make it hard to classify Black-Eyed children. They definitely are a paranormal encounter. Most certainly a Cryptid when they’re that hard to classify. Though after a post a few months back, I might say a Tulpa or Thoughtform if new encounters with these things happen after someone has learned about them. It might explain some claims of people having sleep-paralysis attacks and nightmares. As I’ve said before in another post for Slenderman, be careful what you feed these things. For the most part, they’re just unsettling and meant to cause fear.
Stranger danger with some unknown kids? Who wants to be that adult letting them into your car or house and then something happens? Sorry kid, do I know you? Don’t be pulling that Black-Eyed Kid or Children of the Corn routine on me. Yes, it is human nature to help, but if it’s the creepy vibes, drive away, shut the door. Better yet, offer to call the police, social services, or their parents to come help.
Also Called: Goat Man
The Goatman is a figure from American Urban Folklore. It is often described as being humanoid in appearance with a goat head. It is infamous for stalking Fletchertown Road in Prince George’s County where it attacks people in cars with an axe.
The main sightings and legends of Goatman are from the state of Maryland with a few other states claiming their own Goatman cryptid. In Maryland, the Governor’s Bridge Road, Lottsford Road and Fletchertown Road in Prince George’s County along with the Glenn Dale Hospital have all become places that people claim to have seen the Goatman. The Goatman is blamed for the deaths of many pets and from time to time, hikers along with harassing people in cars or more accurately, terrorizing people in their cars with an axe. Especially on any hot spot roads claimed to be lover’s lanes.
The Goatman is a cryptid whose stomping grounds are Prince George’s County. After a number of dogs went missing or died, the Goatman was held responsible despite the evidence of passing trains being the cause.
Despite, the Goatman is popular among students and often there is graffiti reading: “Goatman was here” that can be found in various places. Even local law enforcement receives several calls claiming sightings of this creature. Most calls and reports are likely to be pranks that perpetuate this Urban Myth and Legend. The 1970’s saw a large number of sightings in Bowie.
Description: The accounts can vary, but most descriptions of the Goatman say that it is a humanoid with a relatively human face and body covered in hair. Other descriptions state that the Goatman resembles the fauns of Greek mythology with the upper body of a human and the lower body being that of a goat. Accounts vary with the creature being between four to twelve feet tall with most accounts placing a Goatman sighting at about six to eight feet tall. When riled up, the Goatman makes a high-pitched squealing sound.
Stories circulate that the Goatman makes his home somewhere in the forested, northwest region of Prince George’s County close to Bowie living in a makeshift shelter. From time to time, the Goatman comes out to kill a stray dog or beat on random cars with an axe.
Mad Science – One variation to the birth of this Urban Legend is that the Goatman was once a scientist who worked at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. There had been an experiment with goats that backfired, and the hapless scientist mutated into a half man, half goat monster who began to attack cars in the area.
Crazed Hermit – This variation to the legend places the Goatman as a crazy hermit living in the woods. He could often be spotted walking alone at night on Fletchertown Road.
Goat Herder – This variation sees this legend as an angry goat herder who went berserk on discovering that some teens killed several of his goats.
Barry Pearson, a folklorist from the University of Maryland, says the Goatman legends began long ago…
The first reports for the Maryland Goatman began in August 1957 in Upper Marlboroa and Forestville of Prince George’s County. A young couple were spending an evening at a popular lover’s make-out spot, just off the road at dusk. They were interrupted by a loud banging on their car hood. The couple looked up to see a large hairy horned beast wielding a double-bladed axe. The creature ran into the woods shortly after.
A few nights later, another couple living nearby reported seeing a hairy wild-man rummaging through their trash. The Upper Marlboro Fire Department and local hunters organized a search for this mysterious creature to no avail. More sightings would come in the following weeks, but eventually the authorities would declare it all a hoax.
Some few years later, another young couple in their car, near Zug Road in Huntington would report having seen a similar creature staring at them from the woods. The creature was described as having a tall, ragged animal with human features.
The Goatman legend would continue throughout the 1960’s with Teenagers being warned against parking in the woods at night lest they have an encounter with the ax-weilding Goatman. Sightings and claims of encounters would continue.
The Goatman would begin to gain popularity in 1971. More accurately, the first story to feature the Goatman was on October 27th, 1971 in the Bowie area of Prince George’s County News. An article written by Karen Hosler used information found in the University of Maryland Folklore Archives that mention the Goatman and some ghost stories centered around Fletchertown Road. Later, Karen Hosler would write another article titled: “Residents Fear Goatman Lives: Dog Found Decapitated in Old Bowie.” This article would relate the story of a family searching for their missing puppy, Ginger. Unfortunately, Ginger would be found days later near Fletchertown Road decapitated.
To sensationalize the article, the Goatman was connected to the story with a group of teenage girls claiming they had heard strange noises and had seen a large creature the night that Ginger vanished. Nor did it help that the article reported how sightings of a large animal-like creature walking on hind legs were increasing for Fletchertown Road.
Increasing Goatman’s notoriety, the Washington Post would run an article on November 30th titled “A Legendary Figure Haunts Remote Pr. George’s Woods.” The article goes into detailing the men who found Ginger. The article continues with local police commenting how they’re getting more sightings of Goatman. How teenagers perpetuate and keep Goatman legends going by repeating stories of this creature attacking people in their cars, especially on the local lover’s lane. Of which, Fletchertown Road is one of them.
Other Goatman-esque Cryptids
The legend of the Goatman has become very widespread through the U.S., reaching a number of states that all claim some variation of the Goatman legend or at least a giant, hairy Bigfoot cryptid.
Old Alton Bridge, Texas
Also known as Goatman’s Bridge, this has been a location for many sightings of this cryptid in Texas. The bridge connects Denton and Copper Canyon. The Goatman of this region is known to wander the surrounding forest.
The origins of this story are tragic. As the tale goes, there had been a black goat farmer who lived with is family on the north side of the bridge. He was well liked and known for his honesty and dependable-ness. Locals began to call the farmer the Goatman and he posted a sign on the bridge reading: “This way to the Goatman.” The success of a black farmer brought the ire of the local Klansmen who showed up at the farmer’s home, kidnapping him and hanging him from the Old Alton Bridge. When they looked to see if the farmer had died, he was gone. The Klansmen panicked and returned to the farmer’s home to murder his wife and children.
This Goatman legend continues with locals warning how if you want to see the Goatman, park your car on the bridge, turn off the lights and honk the horn three times and he will appear. Like any ghost story, people tell stories of being touched, grabbed and having rocks thrown at them.
The “Goat Man Of Texas” legend tells the story of how the Goatman of Marshall and Denton, Texas is essentially sex crazed and goes after anyone, man, woman or beast for sex.
Lake Worth Monster, Texas
Another Goatman urban legend and cryptid from Texas. In July of 1969, people began to believe in and report some half-goat, half-man creature with fur and scales. This Goatman has been known to jump on cars denting them, to throw tires at people, of which a group of ten witnesses testified to that event.
A Tommy Burson reported that this goatman cryptid jumped on his car after leaping from a tree and causing an 18-ince long scar on the side of the vehicle. Burson uses this scar as proof his story and the local police investigated the matter.
It is after Burson’s report, the next night that people report a similar creature hurling a tire from a bluff over a group of people. Debrah Grabee claims possesion the only photograph taken by Allen Plaster who took it in October 1969 during the thrown tire incident.
Pope Lick Monster
A Goat-Sheepman found in the state of Kentucky. It is believed to live beneath a Norfolk Southern Railroad trestle over Floyd’s Fork Creek, Louisville. Claims for sightings of this cryptid began in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Where the Goatman of Maryland could described more as a satyr, the Goatman of Kentucky has a fur covered body like a human and goat head. The earliest versions of this legend hold it responsible for cattle mutilations while in later stories, it is a foul tempered beast that seeks only to be left alone and other legends say that the screams of the Goatman are in imitation of the train that passes through its territory that extends to the Jefferson Memorial Forest to the South.
The trestle over the Pope Lick Creek is unfortunately a hotspot for many teens who will dare each other to cross the trestle that rises some 90 feet in the air and spans over 700 feet. Due to the lack of sound carrying in the area, many people don’t hear the on coming train in time and have either been struck by the train or jumped to their death.
Proctor Valley Monster
Not so much a Goatman, but more like some deranged cow-like animal that stands seven feet tall. This creature is blamed for numerous cattle mutilations.
I came across one version of a Goatman who appears in Australian urbans who appears to help people who have gotten lost or lead them to water.
Or Big Foot, many people tend to categorize sightings of Goatman in the same vein as this legendary cryptid. Especially with height comparisons of six to seven feet tall, humanoid and hairy as all get out.
Also known as the White Thing is a cryptid found in West Virginia folklore that is often described as a being bear-like or canine in appearance with goat or sheep horns. If people are looking at the goatman as a cryptid with the horns, Sheepsquatch also comes to mind.
This is a cryptid found in the small town of Waterford, Pennsylvania during the 1970’s. It too has been called Goatman given the descriptions. This creature was often seen running across roads into farm fields.
Part Urban Legend, part Ghost Story, the Goatman of Washington County, Wisconsin appears to date back to mid-nineteenth century. The story goes that a Civil War veteran was traveling along Hogsback Road with his new bride when the wagon they were in broke an axle. The veteran got out to go look for help. While she waited, the bride heard the sound of sniffing and growling outside the wagon. When the bride looked out, she was terrified of a dark, hairy creature with the body and head of a goat that walked upright like a man. She hid within the wagon until the creature was gone. The bride went running off in the direction her husband had gone. She followed muddy footprints until she came across his bloody body hanging from a tree with hoof prints all around the base.
Urban legends continue today warning travelers along Hogsback Road to be wary as the Goatman preys on unsuspecting drivers.
Urban Legend Vs Mythology
The cryptid and Urban Legend known as the Goatman is not completely unique. When we go back far enough into mythology, we can see that other cultures have had their own versions of a Goatman or Goat Deity.
Bocánach – A type of goblin or spirit described as being hairy humanoids with goat heads in Irish mythology known for haunting battlefields.
Glaistig – Hailing from Scottish mythology, the Glaistig is a ghost who appears in the form of a woman with the lower half of a goat, much like satyrs. Depending on the story she appears in, determines if she’s good or bad. Sometimes she lures men in with song and dance in order to drink their blood. Other stories have her throwing stones at people.
Naigamesa – Either a Deer or Goat-Headed deity of fertility worshiped in India among both Jain and Hindu beliefs. Naigamesa is a protector of children in Jainism while in Hinduism, he is feared and worshipped to ward off evil.
Pan – A goat deity of fertility worshiped in ancient Greece. Early depictions of Pan show him as a black goat with later descriptions giving him the familiar half-man, half-goat appearance.
Ptah – An Egyptian gods worshiped in Mendes. Ptah is a creator and fertility deity depicted with the body of a human and goat head. Male goats were sacred to the Mendesian mystery cult where they were involved in fertility rituals.
Púca – A spirit or fairy found in Celtic/Irish Folklore. The Púca are known tricksters and shapeshifters. One of the forms they would take is that of a goat.
Satyr & Fauns – These are the most notable and immediate that come to mind with half-man, half-goat creatures from Roman and Greek myth, respectively. With this claim and connection for Goatman, the earliest sightings can then go back to 520 B.C.E.
Folklorist Barry Pearson thinks that the inspiration for Goatman comes from students studying Greek mythology and the stories of Satyrs and the god Pan who is half goat, half human.
Yang Jing – This is a somewhat obscure Chinese Goat God whom mountain villages would offer sacrifices to, to ensure and protect their livestock and harvest.
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas, are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half-human, half-goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity in the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity, and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns, and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
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 if 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. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who 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.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
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). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal-masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
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.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous-looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. 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 reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who 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. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Also known as: Black Mass, Shadow Beings, Shadow Figure, Shadow Men
The appearance of Shadow People seems to be an offshoot of the Boogeyman. Instead of parents using the Boogeyman to frighten children into good behavior, the appearance of Shadow People appears more tied to, just as the name says, a dark, shadowy figure or mass where something might be. Appearing at the foot of the bed, in a corner of the room, in the closet. Wherever a darkened shadow appears, and the imagination fills in the blanks. For the believers, this extends to possibly seeing something from the corner of your eye with nothing there when you turn your head to look.
Researchers of the Paranormal and Supernatural have latched onto the idea of Shadow People as inter-dimensional beings or aliens. This tends to go into a lot of potentially pseudo-scientific ideas of what they could be and explanations. In terms of modern folklore and Urban Legends, it’s certainly a way to expand upon the classifications of potential ghosts and spirits, along with what they might really be.
A Shadow Person is essentially nothing more than a dark, shadowy figure that is vaguely humanoid in appearance or just a formless mass, sometimes it has tendrils, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually there are no other discernible features, though in some cases, red eyes have been noted.
Further descriptions mention where there is one main tall shadowy figure with numerous smaller hooded shadow figures. Reports say these types of Shadow People are not see-through. That this type is more prone to be drawn towards an individual than a particular place.
As the stories and accounts of Shadow People persist and grow, the descriptions begin to really vary. Ranging from small, child-sized figures, to tall with a jack-o-lantern head, and those of a tall figure wearing a hat.
Some of the sightings of Shadow People are reported to be mainly in Rhode Island and North Carolina in the United States. Some people claim they have been attacked physically with scratches and burns. Others will tell how they have been choked or attacked in their sleep during a sleep paralysis attack.
The Hat Man – This type of specific Shadow Being is described by some people as wearing a top hat and suit. This one is generally seen as being more demonic or evil in nature. This being was identified by the author Heidi Hollis who says that this being and others like it are trying to build an army for the dark side.
It is also strongly likely that the appearance of this Shadow Man is influenced by pop culture in terms of movies like the Nightmare on Elm Street series and the perpetuation of Urban Legends and similar stories.
Guardian Spirit – Some forum sites dedicated to the Paranormal & Supernatural Phenomenon will claim that a Shadow Person could be a guardian angel or spirit watching over a person. Given how often so many of the reports and stories have a negative view of Shadow People, this is not really likely.
There are claims that Shadow People have existed for thousands of years, found in every culture and religion. Which only makes sense with stories of spectral, shadowy beings and shades. The use of the term Shadow People would be more modern and expand the ways in which such entities of folklore and mythology are classified.
One story pointed out is “Le Horla” (“The Horla”), written in 1887 by French author Guy de Maupassant. In this story, shadow beings live on milk and water, they bedevil the human mind and stalk the unwary.
The specific term of “Shadow People” first appears on September 21st, 1953 as the title to a radio drama from the “Hall of Fantasy” broadcast on Chicago’s WGN-AM station. Later, on April 12th 2001, the late-night radio show, Coast to Coast AM would bring back and modernize a belief in Shadow People. On the show, the host, Art Bell interviewed a Native American elder by the name of Thunder Strikes, also known as Harley “Swift Deer” Reagan. Listeners to the show were encouraged to submit drawings of Shadow People and those drawings, in turn, were posted to the show’s website.
Later that year, in October 2001, author and researcher Heidi Hollis published her first book, “The Secret War,” where she goes into more information on Shadow People. The book details Shadow People having many traits that cross over to folklore with the Nightmare attacks and imagery of ghostly or spectral figures. Hollis goes on to say that Shadow People may be related to the alien entities of Greys and Reptilians. Hollis details how Shadow People don’t like to be spotted and as such, she does provide several means by which to decrease encounters with these beings.
Master your fear and don’t let it control you, focus on positive thoughts, hold your ground, use the name of Jesus to repel them, keep a light on and bless your room or house.
Side note: Given the whole alien Reptilians and the conspiracy theory around them, I do find much of what Hollis says, suspect. Plus, the name of “Hall of Fantasy” for the radio drama, gives the whole Shadow People as real, as being just made up. Especially if anyone is trying to assign them any significant power.
Most will agree that ghosts are spirits of the deceased who have not moved on for any number of reasons. Most ghosts often have descriptions of appearing as balls of light, being misty white, and having a distinctively human form to them, such as clothing, facial features, and other details that can be described.
This Arabic entity has been suggested for what Shadow People might really be, especially if you are leaning towards Shadow People being demonic in nature. The Jinn are usually invisible to humans, but some descriptions say when they do appear, it is that of black smoke that may or may not have a vaguely humanoid outline.
If Shadow People aren’t the ghosts of the deceased, their ethereal and incorporeal natures do say that they belong to the broader category of Spirits. As to what type of spirit, it’s hard to say. Some speculate that Shadow People may be a type of demon. What is it that they want, other than to frighten people, remains unknown.
Native American Spirits – Taking the “Hall of Fantasy” interview with elder Thunder Strikes or Harley “Swift Deer” Reagan, I can see, while researching Shadow People, that some of the sites I looked at concluding that Shadow People are Native American in origin. When looking at the Hat Man Shadow, his description fits just enough to suggest the Stovepipe Hat Bigfoot from the Tall Man Spirit in Lakota lore. It’s also easy to see a connection to the Urban Legends of Slender Man.
In some of the older Lakota lore, they have stories of bad spirits or giants that once wandered the Earth. They had become prideful and arrogant to the point that they challenged the thunder and lost to it. These stories lend themselves to the Tall Man Spirit and if we’re looking at more than one entity, they could account for some of the Shadow People stories and sightings that people claim.
Also known as Egregores or Tulpas. Whether intentional or not, the negative thoughts and energy can or could create and manifest an entity identified as a Shadow Person. A strong enough belief and enough people believing can also cause manifestations. Especially if people believe, want to believe, say they saw something, jumping the “me too” bandwagon. This would explain easily why there’s an increase in the number of people claiming to see Shadow People or just having another term of what to call previously known folklore and mythological figures.
This certainly leans more into Pseudo-Science. After all, mainstream science acknowledges and speculates about there being more than three dimensions to as many as 10 spacetime dimensions and how the laws of physics would work differently in those dimensions where these different dimensions interact. Add in too, psychics claiming they can sense the vibrational frequency of these other dimensions and beings.
In Paranormal studies, the idea then is that these beings who live in other dimensions can sometimes, partially cross over, interact or be seen. That how we might perceive these beings who live in these other dimensions is as shadows.
Ufology & Aliens
Some people claim that Shadow People might be aliens, extraterrestrial beings abducting people. Those who claim to be the victims of the alien grays say these beings can pass through walls, closed windows and have advanced technology that enables them to appear and disappear quickly.
Fear Is The Mind Killer
I will not fear.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
The existence of Shadow People seems to thrive on a fear of the unknown. These entities show up and hang around, feeding off the fear and dread they cause by their unsettling appearance.
Anywhere with strong negative associations and energy could easily attract the presence and sightings of Shadow People. It’s only in movies, video games, and books that such entities get to have any “extra powers” or abilities.
Even if a case got chalked up to an overactive imagination, human beings are pattern seekers, we’re prone to letting the mind fill in the blanks on vague shapes and patterns, putting a recognizable form or image to something. This tendency is called Pareidolia, to think we saw something out of the corner of our eye and then to fill in the blanks on what it might be.
Possible Reality Behind The Myth
Overactive Imaginations – To shine a light on things, figuratively and literally, you do have to rule out possible overactive imaginations involved. I know I’m repeating myself, human beings are prone to pattern-seeking and if we see a vague human outline in the shadows, we are likely to fill in the blanks to see something that isn’t there.
I know that explanation puts a damper on many people who claim to have seen Shadow People or study the paranormal and believe.
Apply a little bit of the Scientific Method here. Is it the active imagination of a child who is having trouble going to sleep at night? Everybody loves a good ghost story and stories of encounters with Shadow People tend to be remarkably similar. As such, these accounts can also be very anecdotal and subjective with no real good way to verify them.
Hallucinations – Are you sleep deprived and not getting enough sleep? Is there a particular substance or drug that was taken known to cause hallucinations? Mental Illness?
Electromagnetic Fields – There are theories that in the right conditions, electromagnetic fields can mess with human perceptions, causing both audio and visual hallucinations. It could allow for people to believe they saw any manner of things from ghosts, to spirits, aliens, fairies, Elvis.
Any old buildings with substandard wiring, power plants nearby, a place with strong magnetic fields? Researchers have been able to recreate in laboratories the experiences that people have had with such hallucinations, including those of seeing Shadow People.
Rule out the possible causes before whatever remains, no matter how improbable is taken as the truth.
Pareidolia – I’ve mentioned it before, humans are wired and have a tendency to see patterns, mostly faces and other human characteristics.
Sleep Paralysis Attacks – This can be frightening for those who have experienced one. It is when you wake or have a lucid dream and are unable to move while sleeping, especially during REM sleep. Some people will claim terrifying images of dark, shadowy beings surrounding them, in the room or trying to attack them.
From the folkloric view, the description of a Shadow Person trying to choke or suffocate someone in their sleep matches the classic Nightmare and Hagging Attacks.
Sleep Walking – This is close on the heels of the Sleep Paralysis Attacks, only instead of being paralyzed, the person sleeping is getting up and moving around. Some sleepwalkers report dreams where they’ve seen shadowy figures or beings as they move around the house.
Substance Abuse – Is the person using drugs known for causing hallucinations?
Mental Illness – I’m not trying to make light of this, is it possible that a person claiming to see Shadow People prone to seizures and other mental health issues such as delusions or hallucinations?
Substance Abuse and Mental Illness can be why some of the descriptions of Shadow People are inconsistent.
For small children, night lights work wonders and don’t underestimate the power of a favorite stuffed animal or other toy to comfort them as they sleep. If it is an overactive imagination at work, many children will outgrow this stage or learn to control it so this overactive imagination isn’t getting the better of them.
If there is an entity there, like the Boogeyman, such entities tend to only be able to feed a fear, again something children grow out of or once you confront it, it goes away.
A Dream Catcher; try hanging one above the bed where you sleep. Especially if you know you are prone to sleep paralysis attacks and nightmares. Depending on your religious affiliation, prayers, crystals and other protective charms can be effective.
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.