Category Archives: Cannibalism
Etymology – The Altar (Latin), Incense Burner or Censer (Greek – Thymiaterion)
Also known as: θυτήριον, θυμιατήριον, Thymiaterion (Greek), Ara Centauri (Roman), Focus, Lar, and Ignitabulum, Thuribulum (Latin),
Ara is the name of a constellation in both Greek and Roman mythology that represents the altar that sacrifices to the gods were made on. The Milky Way galaxy was said to represent smoke rising up from the offerings on the altar. It is a southern constellation that lays between the Scorpius and Triangulum Australe constellations along the southern horizon on the Northern Hemisphere.
The constellation known as Ara is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Ara was noted as being close to the horizon by Aratus in 270 B.C.E. Bradley Schaefer, a professor of astronomy, has commented that the ancient star gazers must have been able to see as far south on the southern hemisphere for where Zeta Arae lays, in order to pick out an alter constellation. The stars comprising of Ara used to be part of the Centaurus and Lupus constellations until the astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille created the Ara constellation during the mid-eighteenth century. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is one of the smaller constellations, ranking 63rd in size.
Constellations bordering with Ara are: Apus, Corona Australis, Norma, Pavo, Scorpius, Telescopium, and Triangulum Australe. The best time to spot Ara is during July in the Northern Hemisphere.
The stars for Ara are found in Dōng Fāng Qīng Lóng or the Azure Dragon of the East. In modern Chinese, Ara is known as Tiān Tán Zuò (天壇座), meaning: “the heaven altar constellation.”
Guī – Five of the stars (most likely Epsilon, Gamma, Delta, Eta, and Zeta Arae) in Ara form a tortoise that lived in the river formed by the Milky Way. Since tortoises are land animals, this likely a turtle as they were a prized delicacy. Another turtle found in Chinese astronomy is Bie who is located on the banks of the Milky Way in the Corona Australis.
Chǔ – Three stars (most likely Sigma, Alpha, and Beta Arae) in Ara form a pestle that is seen as pounding rice and separating the husks into a basket, Ji that is found in Sagittarius. Sometimes Chǔ is placed within the constellation Telescopium and depicted by the stars Alpha and Zeta Telescopii.
In Christian astronomy, Ara represents the altar that Noah built to make sacrifices to God on after the great flood.
In Greek myth, Ara represents the altar that Zeus and the other Greek gods swore their oaths of allegiance on before they went to war against the Titans to overthrow Cronus. This particular altar that the gods swore on is held to have been built by the Cyclopes.
It should be noted that Cronus was one of twelve Titans who had also usurped his own father, Uranus, the previous ruler.
What comes around, goes around. A prophecy was given that Cronus would suffer the same fate of being displaced by one of his own children. To prevent this from happening, Cronus swallowed all of his children whole as they were born. These children being: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon who would all go on to be the Olympic gods.
When Rhea, Cronus’ wife gave birth to her youngest son, Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete and gave Cronus a stone, telling him that this was Zeus. Duped, Cronus swallowed the stone. Later, when Zeus had grown up, he managed to get Cronus to vomit up his siblings. Cronus’ children swore vengeance and to help Zeus overthrow Cronus and the other Titans.
The war lasted many years and had come to a standstill at one point and Gaia, goddess of the Earth and spouse to Uranus instructed Zeus to free the ugly, deformed kin of the Titans. These kin were the Hecatoncheires (hundred-handed giants) and the one-eyed Cyclopes who sorely wanted revenge against Cronus for having been imprisoned down in Tartarus.
Making his way down to the depths of the underworld of Tartarus, Zeus freed the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes, asking them to join his side against Cronus and the other Titans. In gratitude for their freedom, the Cyclopes created a helmet of darkness for Hades, Poseidon’s trident and thunderbolts for Zeus.
Victory didn’t take long after, bringing a ten-year war to an end. Zeus would become the god of the sky, ruling over the other gods from Mount Olympus, Poseidon would become the gods of the sea and Hades would become the god of the underworld.
To commemorate their victory over the Titans, Zeus placed the alter up into the heavens to become the constellation Ara.
Alternatively, Ara has been seen to represent the altar of King Lycaon of Arcadia. Yes, that Lycaon, who held a feast for the gods and dished up one of his sons, Nyctimus as the main course.
Why? Because Lycaon wanted to test Zeus to see if he was omnipotent. Okay dude, not a good idea, this sort of thing with testing and challenging the gods is called Hubris. It is never a good idea to anger the gods.
Needless to say, Zeus was not amused by this affront and turns Lycaon into a wolf (represented by the constellation of Lupus) before killing Lycaon’s other sons with lightning. As for Nyctimus, Zeus restored the child back to life.
Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. This would really anger Zeus as Arcas is his son by way of an affair with Callisto, who happens to be Lycaon’s only daughter.
In terms of predicting the weather forecast, it was said by the Greek poet Aratus, that if sailors saw the constellation of Ara, it meant that there would be wind blowing in from the south.
Other weather forecasting held that if the Ara constellation was the only visible constellation in a cloudy night sky, that there would be a storm coming.
The Romans called Ara by the name of Ara Centauri as it represented the altar that Centaurus used when sacrificing the wolf, Lupus.
In this version of the myth, Centaurus is shown in the night sky as carrying the wolf, Lupus to sacrifice on the altar, Ara.
Altar To The Gods, Hearths & Oaths
A more minor bit of lore, is that the Ara constellation represents the actual altar that people would burn incense on to show respect for Zeus.
Out of all the constellations for Ptolemy and other ancient Greek Astronomers to point out, why an Altar? It’s clearly important to the ancient Greeks. Many heroes in the Greek & Roman mythologies made sacrifices to different deities, so it does make sense that something so important would find a place of note in the heavens.
It is very likely that this is just a smaller constellation taken from a larger whole that tells a story narrated out in the night sky, much like the constellations for the story of Perseus and Andromeda or the three constellations that make up the Argo Navis for the story of Jason and the Argonauts.
Usually I want to roll my eyes when I come across an article while researching for a bit of mythology that gets too long winded about the etymology of a word and seems to try and make far too many linguistic connections.
This time it seems to bear some strong merit.
The interesting tidbit I came across is how the Latin word altar was adopted into the Old English word altar as a derivative from the plural noun “altaria”, meaning: “burnt offerings” and likely from the verb “adolere” meaning: “burn up.”
This word connection and etymology has been linked to Hestia, the goddess of the Hearth. The center of the home. That the description of Ara with the smoke from the Altar is that of smoke rising from the hearth of Greek and Roman homes.
More significant is that the Altar was the place where people would swear their oaths. Further etymology games and connections have brought up that the Greek word for oath is horkos and where the modern word exorcise, meaning: “’to bind by an oath” or “to drive out evil spirits” as seen in the Greek word of exorkizein (ex – out and horkos – oath). That seems to make sense in the story of the Titanomachy when Zeus swears an oath on the altar to kill his father and over throw the other Titans. Thus, making way for a new era ruled by the Olympian gods
Making a jump to Roman mythology, you have Orcus, a god of the underworld and punisher of broken oaths. There wouldn’t be this aspect to a deity unless it wasn’t considered important. Again, comes the linking of the Roman Orcus to the Greek orkos or horkos, meaning to swear and the variations of exorkezein, “to bind by an oath,” orkizein ‘to make to swear’, from the word orkos, ‘an oath.”
Continued word etymology has me looking at how the root orkos is very similar to the Greek erkhos or serkos, meaning: “an enclosure, hedge or fence” and is a cognate to the Latin “sarcire” meaning: “to patch or mend” with similar words of sark “make restitution,” sartoruis and sarcire, “to mend or repair.”
It used to be that your word was your bond and that giving one’s word or oath really meant something. Nowadays it feels like you need to have it in writing with the possibility of needing to take people to court if they don’t fulfill any contractual agreements of significant importance.
The constellation of Ara, along with 18 other constellations of: Aquila, Centaurus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hercules, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Serpens, Sextans, Triangulum Australe, and Vulpecula.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Stars of Ara
Alpha Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tchou or Choo, meaning “pestle.” Is the second brightest in the Ara constellation.
Beta Arae – This is the brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Gamma Arae – Is a blue-hued supergiant star thought to be 12.5 to 25 times bigger than the Earth’s own Sun.
Mu Arae – Is a sun-like star that has four known exo-planets orbiting it.
Delta Arae – Also known in Chinese as Tseen Yin, meaning “the Dark Sky.”
Zeta Arae – This is the third brightest star in the Ara constellation.
Named for the distinct “stingray” shape, this Nebula is located roughly 18,000 light years away from the Earth. As of 2010, this is the youngest known planetary nebula found within Ara. While smaller than many other planetary nebulae that have been discovered so far, the Stingray Nebula is still 130 times larger than our solar system. The light for this nebula was first observed in 1987. It is a planetary nebula some 18,000 light years away from the Earth.
Water Lily Nebula
Also, catalogued as IRAS 16594-4656, this is a pre-planetary nebula found within the Ara constellation that is in the process of forming planets. It was first discovered by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Westerlund 1 (Ara Cluster)
This is a compact cluster of relatively young (a few million years old) stars located some 12,100 to 16,000 light years from Earth. Westerlund 1 is named after the Swedish astronomer, Bengt Westerlund who first discovered it in 1961.
Also Spelled/Called: Siats
This is one of those, where I read the name along with the basic description and it got me excited about a new piece of mythology!
The biggest problem is that this may not even be correct information and there has been enough people passing this information around the internet as being authentic without doubling checking their sources. Much of the newer information out there refers to the dinosaur species inspired by this legend which follows at the end of this post.
So, what do we have?
Basically, the Siats are a monstrous humanoid described as being a cannibalistic clown who kidnaps children and eats them. Female versions of Siats are known as Bapet and their breasts are filled with milk that is poisonous to human children. The Bapet is known for kidnapping human children to suckle and kill with her poisonous milk before eating them.
The Siats supposedly originate in Eastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado from the Ute tribe. Like a good many bogeyman figures, tales of Siats and Bapets are probably told by Ute parents to their children to scare them into not straying too far away from the village and tribe.
Killing A Siat Or Bapet
The only method known for killing these monsters is the use of an obsidian arrow. Much like werewolves and silver, I imagine any item made of obsidian would be enough, not just an arrow to harm the Siats and Bapets.
Evil Clowns & Coulrophobia
Normally clowns are generally benign; seeking to make people laugh with their antics and comedy routines. When it comes to the horror genre and dark comedy, there is a strong tendency to take the ordinary, safe and familiar and subvert it so it becomes monstrous and scary.
In Europe, the use of Evil Clowns in literature has been around for a while. More modern and familiar uses of evil clowns are seen in the Harlequin, the King’s fool, Mr. Punch, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and Stephen King’s novel of “It.”
Coulrophobia – This is often seen with children who have a strong a dislike of the make-up that exaggerates the facial features. Such individuals and children suffer the effects known as Uncanny Valley where something that looks to be human doesn’t look quite right creates a feeling of dread or revulsion in some people.
Signs Of Our Times – Another observation put forward is that Clowns, like their Jester and Fool counterparts in Medieval Times as one who can make satirical comments, biting remarks and other criticisms while not having to fear any retribution.
In that light, any evil clowns would be symbolic and commentary of the late 20th century and early 21st century with the air of uncertainty, especially with the growing wealth gaps, poverty and lack of opportunities, as many people would be drawn to such a seemingly dark outsider who can speak of the truths to the ills of society.
Urban Legends – The stories of evil or Phantom Clowns have been around for a while, the first mention of them in real-life is from May 1981 when children in Brookline, Massachusetts said that some men dressed as clowns tried to lure them into a van.
Native American Clown Societies
There are several clown societies in many different Native American tribes and cultures. These clowns often have a sacred role as a trickster in their religious ceremonies. Often these sacred clowns in their rituals and behavior would pass on traditions, reinforce taboos and could make necessary critical commentary without fear of any reprisals.
Cherokee – There are the booger dances.
Pueblo – The Zuni clown society, a person into the Ne’wekwe order with the ritual of filth-eating where mud is smeared on the body for the clown performance. Other aspects of this performance involves sporting with mud or excrement, smearing or daubing it, drinking and pouring it onto each other.
Sioux – In the Lakota tribes, the Heyoka is a sacred Clown character, someone who lives outside of the constraints of normal societal roles. They are a “backwards clown” who does everything in reverse, acting as a boundary crosser who questions why different traditions and taboos hold.
Given the sacred and ritual nature of clowns and clown societies among the many Native American tribes, it seems out of place for the Siats if they are given any credence.
Jurassic World here we come!
About the only good that comes from the prolific spread for Siats is that their name has been given to a new species of Dinosaur, specifically a genus of megaraptors dating from the Late Cretaceous period. Their remains have been found in Utah. The Siats megaraptor is one of the largest theropods found in North America.
Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)
It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.
Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent
In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes.
The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.
The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.
While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.
You Called Him A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.
National And Folk Heroes
A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:
Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”
Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.
In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.
It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.
Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore
In these Eastern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.
Polish And Belarussian Folklore
In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.
As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.
Russian And Ukrainian Folklore
Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.
Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.
Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.
Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.
The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.
The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.
There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.
Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.
Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.
Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.
While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
There’s a lot of ancient Basque mythology that didn’t survive the arrival of Christianity between the 4th and 12th centuries C.E. Most of what is known and has survived is from the study of place names and the scant historical references of pagan rituals practiced by the Basques.
In Basque mythology, Tartalo is a giant, cyclops being much like the one-eyed giants of Greco-Roman mythology. In Biscay, he is known as Alarabi. Depending on the story of Tartalo being told, he may be described as being a hunter or a shepherd who lives up in the mountains. Sometimes he is described as a monstrous animal or spirit.
Like many giants, Tartalo is known for being incredibly strong and fearsome. He makes his home in the mountain caves where he will catch young people in order to eat them. Aside from humans, Tartalo will also eat sheep.
The Greek Connection
There is speculation that the name Tartalo may be related to the Greek name for the underworld of Tartaros. Which could make sense as caves in many folklore and legends around the world are entry ways to the underworld and Tartalo is known for living in them. There’s also a chance that it is coincidence for the similarity of the Basque and Greek words without any actual linguistic connection.
One of the stories related to Tartalo seems to be inspired by and come from the Odyssey. Further, Wentworth Webster seems to feel there is an element of Celtic themes in the stories of Tartalo, as seen in a talking ring he will offer his victims. In many of the stories, Tartalo is often beaten by being outwitted and trickery.
In one legend, two brothers were out hunting up in the moutains when a storm rolled in. They decided to take shelter in a cave in order to wait out the rain. Unknown to the brothers, this particular cave belong Tartalo.
Shortly after, Tartalo returned with his flock of sheep, also seeking to get out of the rain and storm. On seeing the two brothers Tartalo called out: “Bat gaurko eta bestea biharko!” Which translates into English as: “One for today and the other for tomorrow!”
Tartalo proceeded to roll a huge stone in front of the cave in order to trap the brothers. The night, Tartalo took the eldest brother and skewered him on a spit to roast over his fire before eating him. His grisly meal done, Tartalo went to sleep.
If you ask me, in both versions of the story, this is where Tartalo made a mistake. He should have caged the younger brother or tied him up. But, even if he had done so, there would still be a portion of the story where the younger brother manages to escape his bonds.
While Tartalo is sleeping, the youngest brother steals Tartalos’ ring and then proceeds to take the roasting spit and jams it into Tartalo’s eye, blinding him. Screaming and in a rage, Tartalo starts flailing about, searching for the boy.
The youngest brother hid himself among Tartalo’s sheep and used a sheep skin to make it more effective. Either way, hiding from Tartalo now wasn’t hard to do with the now blinded giant.
Morning finally arrives and Tartalo decides to remove the huge stone from his cave entrance. He has the idea that as he would call his sheep out for the day, that’s when he would catch the younger brother. Tartalo stood at the entrance of the cave, his legs spread apart, making it so that the only way out from the cave was underneath him.
Variation Including Tartalo’s Ring
The younger brother was still wearing the sheep skin and knelt down to all fours, hoping to still elude the giant. The plan worked, that is until, in the versions of the story where the ring is involved, it started calling out: “Hemen nago, hemen nago!” The English translation of this phrase being: “Here I am, here I am!”
Hearing the ring, Tartalo took off in hot pursuit of the younger brother. The younger brother found he was unable to take off the ring once he had it on to escape the giant. When he got to the edge of a cliff, there in desperation, he cut off his own finger and threw it over the edge of the cliff. Still chasing after the sound of his ring, Tartalo fell off the cliff to his death.
Variation Without Tartalo’s Ring
As mentioned before, the younger brother was still wearing the sheep skin and knelt down to all fours, hoping to still elude the giant. The plan worked until Tartalo realized the younger brother was getting away. The giant chased after him, following the sound of the younger brother’s footsteps.
The younger brother came to a Well where he proceeded to leap in and swim to his safety. Tartalo on the other hand, could not swim and he ended up drowning when he tried to follow the younger brother in.