Category Archives: Children

Snegurochka

Snegurochka

Pronounciation: sne-gur-osh-ka

Other names: Snegurka, Snow Maiden, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow

Etymology: Sneg (Russian) Snow; Snow Maiden, Snowy, Snow Girl, Snowflake, Snow Princess, Niègette, Miss Snow

The character of Snegurochka is a figure found in Russian fairy tales. She is prominently known as being Ded Moroz’s granddaughter and accompanies him at New Year’s to deliver gifts.

Parentage

Father – Ded Moroz (Father Frost), later he becomes her grandfather.

Mother – Mother Spring or Spring of Beauty. Sometimes, in later stories, the Snow Queen is Snegurochka’s mother.

Soviet Era & New Year’s

Christmas Traditions? – Before the Soviet prohibition on celebrating Christmas, figurines depicting Snegurochka would be used to decorate the Christmas tree. Russian nesting dolls would also feature Snegurochka and her appearance can appear on various items as decoration.

In 1935, when the Soviet government decided to introduce Ded Moroz as the wintertime gift giver for New Year’s, Snegurochka also found herself reintroduced at this time as his granddaughter and accompanies him to deliver gifts.

As Ded Moroz’s granddaughter, Snegurochka dresses in a long silver-blue gown with a furry cap to keep warm. Alternately, she may be seen wearing a snow-flake crown. In this respect, Snegurochka is uniquely Russian as not very many other winter celebratory characters will have a female companion.

Once Upon A Time….

Snegurochka is relatively new to the scene as far as any myths are concerned. She makes her first appearance in Russian folklore and fairytales during the 19th century.

A few people will claim that Snegurochka’s roots and origins lay within Slavic pagan beliefs and mythology.

Despite being relatively new, there are several fairytales, stories and even plays showcasing Snegurochka’s origins.

Spring Ritual – There is mention that in some areas of Russia, there is a spring-time ritual that involves drowning a straw figure in a river or to burn it in a fire to symbolize the turning of the seasons from Winter to Spring.

Snegurka

This folktale was collected and published by Alexander Afanayev in his second volume of “The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs.” In this tome, Afanayev makes mention of a similar German figure by the name of Schneekind, “The Snow Child.” Andrew Lang called this story “Snowflake” and included it in his “The Pink Fairy Book,” published in 1897.

In the story of Snegurka, there is are childless Russian peasants who make a snow doll that comes to life. The magical child grows quickly and one day, some girls invite her to go for a walk with them into the woods. This particular day is St. John’s Day and as per tradition, the girls make a small fire that they take turns jumping over. When Snegurka’s turn comes, she evaporates into a cloud of mist when she gets halfway over the flames.

The Snow Maiden (Spring Fairytale)

This is another version of story, in this one, Snegurochka is the daughter of Ded Moroz and Spring the Beauty. This version was made into a play by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and music by Tchaikovsky in 1973.

In this story, Snegurochka longs for the companionship of humans. There is a shepherd boy by the name of Lel whom she is fond of. Due to her frozen heart, Snegurochka is unable to truly love him. Eventually, Mother Spring took pity on Snegurochka and softened her heart by giving her a spring wreath or garland to wear that she would be able to love. Once Snegurochka really fell in love with Lel, she melted.

Other Variations

I’ve come across a couple of variations that seek to combine the two above stories into one, longer version. One change is that Father Frost is secretly watching the couple as they create their snow daughter and brings her to life to their delight. Later, when the Spring celebrations are coming, Snegurka wants to go and she is warned by Father Frost to be careful of the warm sunlight and fires. In the village at the celebrations, she meets a young man whom she falls in love with and when she runs out to greet him, she melts on stepping into a bright, sunny patch.

Morozko (Grandfather Frost)

Also known as Old Man Winter, this story tells of a young girl who is sent out into the cold one night by her stepmother. Instead of freezing to death, the young girl is given gifts and warm furs and clothing by Morozko after she is courteous and shows him respect.

The young girl in this story isn’t Snegurochka, but worth noting due to similarities and any slim chance of inspiration for other stories involving her.

Other Retellings, Ballets and Movies

There is a story “The Little People of the Snow” written by the American poet William Cullen Bryant in 1864. In this story, the Snow-Maiden befriends a mortal girl by the name of Eva. When Eva comes to Snow-Maiden’s homeland, she is horrified when Eva freezes to death in her sleep.

“The Snow-Maiden: A Legend of the Alps,” was written in 1876 by an unknown author. In this story, a man traveling through the mountains falls in love with the Snow Maiden named Niègette. When he brings her down to the valley, intending to marry her, she melts reaching the warmer areas.

The composer Ludwig Minkus and Balletmaster Marius Petipa created a ballet of Snegurochka titled: “The Daughter of the Snows” for an Imperial Ballet in 1878. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov adapted the story of Snegurochka into the opera “The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale” in 1880 thereabouts.

In 1886, Emilia, Lady Dilke wrote the story “The Secret” wherein Snow Maiden kills her lover by freezing him with her gaze. Other plays have included “The Christmas Chain” by Lilian Pearson in 1921 and “Queen Christmas: A Pageant Play” by Carolyn Wells in 1922.

An animated movie of Snegurochka was made in 1952 and a later live-action movie in 1969. The author, Ruth Sanderson has a retelling called “The Snow Princess” where instead of dying, she becomes mortal to marry Lel. Even as late as 2012, a ballad fairy tale called “Snegurocka” was written by Svetlana Makarovic.

Hometown Heroine

Kostroma – In the fairytale that first mentions Snegurochka, this is where she originated. It helps that this is the hometown to Alexander Ostrovsky. As a child, his nanny inspired him with various stories and fairy tales. Ostrovsky’s former home has since become a museum. Further, the love that Kostroma has for Snegurochka is seen every year at New Year’s when the whole city decorates and again in March for a two-day celebration attributed to Snegurochka’s birthday.

Veliky Ustug – Later, when she becomes associated with Ded Moroz, Snegurochka moved here as part of the winter, New Year’s traditions. Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians to travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet. Snegurochka can also be found helping out her Grandfather and engaging with visitors.

Other Similar Winter Entities

Schneekind

The Snow Child, mentioned briefly earlier, this is a Germanic story about a boy made of snow who eventually melts. There are a number of various versions to this story, one where an unfaithful wife tells her returning husband that the child she has is the result of having swallowed a snowflake. The husband is angry and when the boy is old enough, he takes the boy with him and sells him into slavery. When the husband returns home, he tells the wife that the child melted in the heat. Other variations of this story will have the children be magical in nature to their snowy origins.

The Snow Queen

Written by Hans Christian Anderson, this story has some similarities to Snegurochka and became very popular with Soviet animators in the 1950’s. In Russian, the Snow Queen is called Snezhnaya Koroleva.

Yuki Onna

This is this Japanese snow maiden who, much like Morozko, can be very deadly to anyone unfortunate to be caught out in a blizzard. She appears as a calm, pale woman who will sing to people lost in the cold, lulling to them to sleep before she takes their life with her cold, deadly breath. That sounds a lot like hypothermia. At least with being asleep, their death is painless?

Ded Moroz

Ded Moroz

Pronunciation: Djet m-aw rohz

Other names: Dzyed Maróz (Ukrainian), Did Moróz (Russian), Dédushka Moróz (Serbian), Deda Mraz (Bulgarian), Dyado Mraz (Slovenian), Dedek Mraz (Russian), Morozko (Russian), Grandfather Frost, King Frost, Father Frost, Ice King

Etymology: Grandfather Frost

Ah Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas…. That magical time of the year with Christmas and Yuletide celebrations. When we jump over to the Russian and Slavic celebrations for Winter, there is Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost who will be bringing gifts.

Just who is Ded Moroz? Let’s see…

To start, Ded Moroz is described as an elderly looking man with a long, flowing white beard who wears a long red, blue or white fur coat and round fur hat and boots. He carries with him a long magical staff and rides along with an evergreen tree in a sled or troika pulled by three white horses.

Much like his American and other European counterparts, Ded Moroz is known for bringing presents to good children. Unlike Santa Claus who brings his gifts on December 25th or Sinterklaas who arrives on December 6th, Ded Moroz brings his gifts on New Year’s Eve.

Other little factoids about Ded Moroz include that his birthday is on November 18th, this coincides with when the first frost arrives on the ground in Veliky Ustyug, Russia. Many sources will also place Ded Moroz’s age at around 2,000 years old.

Slavic Paganism

Ded Moroz appears to have a strong connection to Eastern Slavic Paganism before spreading out into Russian beliefs and culture. Here, Ded Moroz is the Wizard of Winter and a snow demon who personifies Russian winters.

In folklore, Ded Moroz is originally Morozko, a powerful blacksmith and hero known for freezing water to become frost. As a force of nature, Morozko isn’t necessarily evil, he is known to help those who show him proper respect and giving gifts, plus he can be devastating to those who are rude, disrespectful and otherwise mean-spirited.

Slightly different origins place Morozko as a god of frost and ice who’s married to the harsh, unforgiving Winter. As a deity, he could freeze people and the countryside in a moment’s notice. With the Russian Orthodox Church, there was an attempt to label Morozko as a demon. Later fairy tales would soften Morozko’s image to be an elderly old man who could be more benevolent and not quite as harsh.

You Called Him A Demon!

Before we freak out, the Slavic use of referring to entities as demons is very similar to the Greeks usage of the term daimon when referring to a spirit or a minor local deity, or force of nature. As more of the Slavic countries and Russia became Christianized, the term demon would take on more negative associations.

I should throw in at this point, a note that scholars and historians do have some disputes about the exact origins of Ded Moroz. He does appear to be derived from a Slavic deity of Winter and to be the personification of cold and frost.

I’ll touch on it more, further down; there was a period of religious prohibition during the Soviet era and the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be settled on the nature and role that Ded Moroz has. He goes from scary demon to a figure that can now allow for some of the religious traditions to come back, even if they’re claimed to be pagan in origin.

However, myths and legends do evolve, grow and change. The very image of Ded Moroz that many people have, especially in Russia does come out of the Soviet era. Why ruin a good thing that people love?

Morozko (Grandfather Frost)

Or Old Man Winter

This is the main story and source for Ded Moroz and is also the origin for his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It is a Russian fairy tale first collected by Alexander Afanasyey for his Russian Fairy Tales collection and then is included in “The Yellow Fairy Book” compiled by Andrew Lang in 1894 as “The Story of King Frost.”

The story begins with a stepmother who dislikes her good-natured stepdaughter who is always good and kind and always having to hear about it. Of course, the stepmother loves her own daughter and dotes on her whim and desires.

As is the nature of these type of stories, the stepmother tells the father to send the stepdaughter away, so she didn’t have to see or hear her again. The man begs his wife to reconsider and she is unrelenting about getting rid of the stepdaughter. So, the man, the father takes his daughter out on their sled, out to the woods before giving the girl a kiss and abandoning her there.

Realizing her lot and fate, the sobbing girl sits down next to a tree. She isn’t sitting there long before she hears a crackling noise and looks up to see that King Frost is standing there.

In a stern voice, King Frost snaps out doesn’t the girl know who he is? He is King Frost, king of the red-noses.

The girl says “All hail” to King Frost and then she asks if he is here to take her.

King Frost asks if she is warm enough. The girl answers, saying she is warm enough despite the fact that she is shivering fiercely.

The King repeated his question, stepping closer and the girl insisted that she was still warm.

At this, King Frost takes pity on the poor girl and wraps her in furs to keep warm. He goes further with covering her in blankets and giving her gifts of gems and lastly, a sleigh pulled by six white horses.

In the morning, the stepmother tells the man that he should go out and retrieve his daughter’s body for burial. To the stepmother’s surprise and shock, the man returns with a chest filled with gems and his still-living daughter, more beautiful than before with the splendid furs and her silver and gold dress.

Wanting the same for her own daughter, the stepmother tells the man to take her daughter out to the same spot where the stepdaughter had been left. The man did as he was bid, taking the stepmother’s daughter out and leaving her there.

As soon as the man left, the daughter sulked as she sat down by a tree. Just as before, it wasn’t long until King Frost appeared.

Just as before, King Frost asked the daughter if she was warm. Unlike the stepdaughter who had been respectful with her words, the daughter was rude, calling him a blind fool, of course she was cold, her hands and feet are nearly frozen.

Angered by this girl’s words, King Frost snapped his fingers and froze the girl to death.

Of course, the stepmother expected her own daughter to return just as the stepdaughter had, loaded with wealth and finery. That clearly wasn’t what happened when the man went out to retrieve her and brought back only the daughter’s cold, lifeless body.

It just shows, it pays to always be polite and respectful as you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.

Moroz – Red Nose

This is a poem connected to Ded Moroz written by Nikolai Nekrasov. The story found within this poem highlights a dark aspect to Ded Moroz’s character as it depicts him killing a peasant woman and orphaning her children.

Other darker aspects to Ded Moroz as a wizard of winter would have him kidnap children and he would only be willing to return them when parents offered him up gifts.

Orthodox Influence

Within the Christian Orthodox Church, the character of Ded Moroz has changed over the years. Most notably during the 19th century with different plays featuring him. The two most notable plays are Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka and a similarly named play by Rimsky-Korsakov.

The Russian Revolution

1917 saw the Bolshevik Revolution. More forward a few years into the 1920’s with the formation of the Soviet Union and Government, we see that many Christmas traditions were discouraged as they were considered to be too religious in nature and materialistic. Especially Saint Nicholas, who had been Russia’s patron saint, his feast day of December 6th were done away with.

It doesn’t help that Ded Moroz was declared to be “an ally of the priest and kulak” as Russia tried to remove many religious elements. Other sources give the history that Ded Moroz was seen as too childish and not acceptable.

This isn’t just Christmas that got banned by the Soviet Government, this is a prohibition on any religious holidays, observances and celebrations.

Soviet Santa – An Alternative

Luckily a complete banning of the holiday spirits wouldn’t last long. I’m sure there are many children psychologists and just even psychologists in general who can extrapolate much better than I can about the importance of play, the use of imagination and human spirit. If you crush it completely, we’re going to have problems.

Seeing a need and importance for some type of holiday seasonal celebration, Ded Moroz would take on his more familiar image thanks in part to a letter written by Pavel Postyshey on December 28th of 1935. Pavel stated that the origins for the Christmas traditions pre-dated actual Christianity and that it would be beneficial to bring back these traditions for the sake of the children.

Now, instead of arriving on Christmas Day, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka would arrive on New Year’s or Novy God, bringing presents to leave under an evergreen tree. This change provided an alternative to the American Santa Claus and one seen as a secular celebration by the Soviet Union.

Letters To Ded Moroz

Much like how Santa Claus will receive letters from children, Ded Moroz will receive his share of letters from numerous children requesting gifts. Millions of letters over the years from all across Russia and around the world have been addressed to Ded Moroz.

Veliky Ustyug

Where Santa makes his home in the North Pole, Ded Moroz does hang his hat and call home?

To answer that, in 1998, it was declared that the town of Veliky Ustyug, in Vologda Oblast is Ded Moroz’s home. Since then, Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians who travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet.

Ded Moroz spends his summers reading letters from children all over the country in preparation for the New Year’s Tree on January 1st.

Ded Moroz’s Granddaughter

Snihurónka or the Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter who often accompanies him. She is shown wearing a long silver-blue dress or robes and a fur-lined cap to keep warm.

Ded Moroz is often shown being accompanied by his granddaughter, Snihurónka. She’s noteworthy as numerous other, familiar Winter figures don’t have a female companion.

Holiday Twins & Counterparts

So, what are the difference between Santa Claus and Ded Moroz?

We know there are differences, after all, Santa Claus arrives Christmas Eve and Ded Moroz arrives on New Year’s; both bringing presents. Santa Claus classically dresses all in red, especially in America and Ded Moroz is known for dressing in not just red, he will also dress in blue or even white, much like how a Russian noble would be expected to dress. They certainly look like cultural syno-entities and cultural twins (given the history, that’s how Ded Moroz got his start.) Santa Claus is known for being short and rotund and Ded Moroz is tall and thin. Russian children will affectionately call Ded Moroz, “Ded Moroz the Red Nose.”

Other notable differences between the two is that Santa Claus will enter a home coming down the chimney and leaving his gifts in a stocking. Whereas, Ded Moroz will enter in through the front door and leave his gifts under the New Year’s Tree.

Cultural Bridges

During the 1990’s, the character of Santa Claus began to make his way into the Russian Federation as more and more influences of Western culture made their way through the previous Soviet Union.

There have been efforts to show cultural goodwill by having Santa Claus (or his various counterparts) and Ded Moroz (sometimes his Belarus counterpart Dzied Maroz) has one-on-one meetings or friendly competitions.

December of 1997 saw the creation of ‘Christmas Without Borders” where Ded Moroz and Santa Claus met a bridge crossing the Narva River between Estonia and Russia. The whole point was to spread goodwill and increase cooperation between the two countries and neighboring border towns. I wasn’t able to determine if this started a new tradition and continued or if it just petered off after a few years.

The early 21st century saw a resurgence for the character of Ded Moroz and his granddaughter, Snegurochka where they arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts, often showing up at children’s parties. Much like Saint Nicholas who battles Krampus in some of the Germanic countries, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will face off with Baba Yaga who wants to steal the presents.

Of course, there are a few will say that Ded Moroz is really Santa Claus’ grandfather. That works too given how long the two have been around and who’s mythologies are older.

Tracking Ded Moroz On His Nightly Runs

Where Santa has NORAD tracking his nightly flight, Ded Moroz has GLONASS tracking his run on New Year’s. This began in November of 2009 when the Russian Federation offered to compete with NORAD.

Alright! May the best Present-Giver win!

What’s In A Name – Regional Variations

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of the countries that formed after sought to move away a Soviet heritage by reclaiming their own regional heritages and roots. This means that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will frequently have a different, variant name or change altogether as each country seeks their ancient traditions or move forward to something different.

Armenia – Dzmer Pap, meaning “Grandfather Winter,” his granddaughter is known as Dzyunanushik, meaning “Snow Sweetie” or Snow Anush. They have been part of Armenia traditions for some 160 years since the Russo-Persian War. Both wear red, blue or white winter coats. They make an appearance for both Christmas and New Year’s with bringing gifts. Children are expected to sing songs or recite poems before getting their gifts.

Azerbaijan – Saxta Baba, meaning “Grandfather Frost,” his granddaughter is known as Qar Qizi meaning “Snow Girl.” Saxta Baba brings gifts during New Year’s. Qar Qizi isn’t usually seen.

Bashkir and Tatar – Qis Babay, which means “Winter Old Man.”

Belarus – Dzied Maroz, he replaced Sviatv Mikalai who was more local, but had been disapproved of due to being Christian. Dzied Maroz’ makes his home in the Bialowieza Forest.

Bulgaria – Dyado Koleda or Grandfather Koleda is often equated with Santa Claus and appears alongside Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost. Dyado Mraz was popular during the Communist rule but has since fallen by the wayside since 1989 as Dyado Koleda began to gain more popularity.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Ayaz Ata is the name for Ded Moroz.

Nenets – Yamal Iri, which means “Grandfather of Yamal.”

Poland – Poland didn’t have a version of Ded Moroz and during the communist era, there were efforts to try and introduce Dziadek Mróz as historically speaking, Communists didn’t want religion and view Saint Nicholas as being too religious in nature. It’s fairly obviously that Dziadek Mróz was meant to create a culture link and tie to Russia.

Romania – In 1948, a Communist party gained power and Christmas celebrations were done away with. Mos Cracium (Father Christmas) was replaced with Mos Gerila (Old Man Frosty), the Romanian name for Ded Moroz who would now bring gifts on December 31st for the New Years. Anyone paying attention, knows that New Year’s celebrations begin on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, when King Mihai I abdicated the throne in 1947.

Sakha Republic – Chys Khan, meaning “Master of Cold” and Khaarchana (Snow Maiden).

Slovenia – In this country, Ded Moroz’s name translates to Dedek Mraz. He is a slender man who wears a grey leather coat trimmed with fur inside and out and who wears round dormouse fur cap. This image of Dedek Mraz is based on pictures by Maksim Gaspari in 1952. Dedek Mraz’s home is located on Mount Triglay, the highest peak in both Slovenia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990’s when Communism ended, Miklavž (Saint Nicholas) who arrives on December 6th and Božicek (Christmas Man) who arrives on December 24th, Christmas Eve began making an appearance in Slovenia. Some Slovenian families in the 1940’s would have the Christkind (Jezušcek or “Little Jesus”) who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. It varies by family in regard to their political and religious views, current culture will show all three of Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus as friends. The attributes of each will also get mixed with the others.

Tajikistan – Boboi Barfi, meaning “Grandfather Snow” and Snegurochka is known as Barfak, meaning “Snowball.” There was an effort briefly on December 11th of 2013 to do away with the state televised celebrations of Boboi Barfi, Barfak and the New Year’s. That lasted all of about a day and the next day, the televised broadcasting plans were back on.

Ukraine – With the current conflicts with Russia, as early as 2014, there have been efforts to replace Ded Moroz with Sviatyi Mykolai (Saint Nicholas) and well, Sviatyi Mykolai is more popular in Western Ukraine.

Yakut – Chys Khaan, meaning “Master of Cold.”

Yugoslavia – The socialist Yugoslavia that comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, has a character by the name of Grandfather Frost. In Bosnian, this name is Djed Mraz or Djeda Mraz, in Croatian, this name is Djed Mraz, in Macedonian, the name is Dedo Mraz, the Serbian name is Deda Mraz and the Slovenian name is Dedek Mraz.

For a bit of a history lesson here, in Croatia, Djed Mraz was viewed as a communist figure and the character of Djed Božicnjak or Grandfather Christmas is introduced. It’s taken a while for Djed Božicnjak to replace Djed Mraz and then, not completely. After 1999, both Djed Mraz and Djed Božicnjak have become synonymous. Some families still have Djed Mraz arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts. Thanks to some historical Austrian influence in parts of Croatia, children will get gifts on December 6th brought by Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) who is accompanied by Krampus. More religious families will have the baby Jesus (Isusek, Mali Isus or Kriskindl) who brings gifts on Christmas. Getting into some areas of Dalmatia, it is Sveta Lucija (Saint Lucy) who brings gifts.

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga

Alternate Spelling: Баба Яга (Russian)

Other names: Baba Cloanta (“Old Hag with Broken Teeth,” Romanian), Baba Jaga (Czech, Slovak, Polish), Baba Jaha, Baba-Jahinia, Baba Roga, Baba Ruta, Baba Yaha, Baba Yaga Kostianaya Noga (“bone legs”), Babcia (“grandmother” Polish), Babushka (Russian), Baka (Croatian), Boba (Lithuanian), Jezi-Baba, Yaga-Baba, Bobbe Yakhne (Yiddish), Ježibaba (Czech & Slovak), Vasorrú (“iron-nosed”)

Etymology: Baba means an elderly woman or grandmother, Yaga is uncertain, but may likely come the words: “jeza” meaning: horror, shudder or chill, “jezinka” for an evil wood nymph or dryad, “jeze” meaning: witch, “jedza” another word meaning: witch, fury or evil woman and lastly, “jeza” meaning: anger or disease and illness.

At its heart, the stories of Baba Yaga are used in Russian and Slavic folklore as a legendary bogeyman type monster to scare little children into behaving. Depending on your source, there is either just the one, terrifying Baba Yaga or there are several.

What’s In A Name?

In the Slavic languages, Baba Yaga’s name is understood to be composed of two parts. The first part of her name, Baba is generally understood to mean an elderly woman or grandmother. The second part of her name, Yaga is thought to be from a Proto-Slavic word “eg” and likely related to a Lithuanian word of “ingis” meaning: lazybones or sluggard. Other suggested words are the Old Norse word of “ekki” meaning pain and the Old English word of “inca” for doubt, scruple, grievance, and quarrel. Yaga might also derive from the feminine name of “Jadwiga.”

A Sergei V. Rjabchikov suggests that Yaga derives from the word Aga meaning: “Fiery” or “cauldron” saying that it refers to a solar deity of the Scythians and Sarmatians. Mainly as the suggestion connects Aga as a cognate to the Sanskrit word “agni” meaning: “fire” which is also the name of a fire god. Other cognate words that get linked are the Russian word “ogon” for fire and the Ossetic word “ag” for cauldron. Another scholar, Alexander Afanasyey proposes the ides of a proto-Slavic word “ož” and the Sanskrit word ahi for serpent may be a source for where the word Yaga comes from.

The earliest references to Baba Yaga, or “Yaga-Baba” is found in the “Of the Russe Common Wealth” by Giles Fletcher, the Elder. As “Yaga-Baba” she is found in the section for Permyaks, Samoyeds and Lopars where a Finno-Ugric influence is suggested.

Depending on the region and local dialect, Baba Yaga is known by slightly different names. In the Czech, Slovak and Polish regions, she’s called Baba Jaga, though Jezibaba is also used. In the Slovene language, the name is reversed to Jaga Baba. Where the term Jaga is concerned, there are numerous variations from different Slavic languages that connect it to the word jeza meaning: “horror,” “shudder,” and “chill.” There is the Slovian word jeza for “anger” and then the Old Czech word of jeze for “witch” or any legendary evil female being. The modern Czech word of jezinka refers to any evil nymph or dryad.

In Belarussia, Bulgarian, Russia and Ukraine, the names Baba Yaga and Baba Jaga are both used. Belarusia and Ukraine both have variant spellings of Baba Yaha and Baba Jaha. In the South Slavic languages of Bosnia Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, she is known as Baba Roga. Finally, the Romanians, even though they’re not Slavic, know of her as Baba Cloanta, which roughly translates to “the Old Hag with Broken Teeth.”

Suffice to say, Baba is well known, revered, respected and feared. So much so, that some will say that Baba is the Devil’s own Grandmother. In Russian, Baba can sometimes get used as pejorative for women and men who are seen as unmanly, too timid and lack character. In the Polish language, the term Baba is also a pejorative as it can refer to a particularly nasty or ugly woman.

Description

The descriptions of Baba Yaga vary from region to region. Most are very similar in that she is a small, ugly old woman who’s very fierce or an ogress. Consistent details include mentioning her long nose and long teeth, long bony legs. Whichever details let a person know how hideous to look upon that Baba Yaga is and there’s no mistaking her for anyone else. She is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a hut in the forest. Where most witches of folklore are said to ride brooms, Baba Yaga is known for flying around in a mortar & pestle, using a broom made of silver birch to sweep away any traces of her passage. Much like the Wild Hunt, a host of spirits followed after Baba, these are most likely the spirits of her victims.

Aging: Baba Yaga is said to age one year for every question that she is asked, which, given that, could explain why she is often reluctant to help any who cross paths with her. With a tea made from a special blend of blue roses, Baba Yaga is able to undo the effects of this aging.

Chicken Hut: Baba’s Chicken Hut is notable as it walks and moves around chicken legs. The hut will move when Baba recites a specific rhyme. The keyhole to the door is a mouth full of sharp teeth. Sometimes this door will open with the following phrase: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” When the house has roosted for the day, a fence with the skulls of Baba’s victims surrounds the hut.

Mortar & Pestle: Where most witches use a broom to fly around on, Baba rides around in a giant mortar & pestle, the same mortar & pestle that she can use to grind the bones of her victims then and there.

Servants: Baba will often be served by invisible servants inside her hut. If any ask about the servants, Baba is known to kill them.

Three Riders: Usually found in the Russian folklore, Baba can be associated with three riders, each of whom rides a different colored horse. White is the Day; Red is the Sun and Black is the Night. If any ask about who the riders are, Baba will explain who they are.

Hungarian Folklore

In the folklore and tales from Hungary, Baba Yaga began as a fairy, a good fairy. With the procession of time, she becomes a witch, one who drives a hard bargain and threatens to eat those who fail to uphold their ends of agreements.

Polish Folklore

Many Polish stories featuring witches often name them Baba Jaga. Much like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretal, these Baba Jaga sometimes live in Gingerbread huts. When Baba Jaga’s hut isn’t described as being made of Gingerbread, it will be described as having only one chicken leg it moves around on.

Baba Jaga also flies around on a mop instead of a broom or in a flying mortar and pestle. She is further described wearing a black and red striped cloth that hails from Swietokrzyskie Mountains. For those wanting a bit of further trivia, this cloth is a symbol of the Kielce region and has a connection with a legendary witches sabbath on the Lysa Gora mountain.

Russian Folklore

This is the folklore that I at least was familiar with and knew Baba Yaga to hail from. It is these tales that the fearsome Baba Yaga flies through the air in flying mortar and pestle. The stories where the protagonists will discover Baba’s House that walks or dances on giant chicken legs. A house surrounded by a fence made of human bones with skulls on the posts. The keyhole of the front door is a mouth full of teeth.

Slavic Folklore

In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is often the antagonist of many tales. Often, she is sought by other characters who come seeking her for wisdom. Rarer is when Baba will offer guidance to wayward travelers and souls.

Dark Nature Spirit

There have been numerous, various folklore and tales about Baba Yaga over the years. Her tales often show her as a dangerous antagonist while other times she is just a tad more benevolent where she will help out others on their quests while devouring others instead. Given the location of where Baba Yaga is likely encountered most, it is out in the dark forests where she would easily represent the more wild, unknown and unpredictable force of nature.

In some stories, like Vasilissa the Beautiful, the heroine likely crosses over into the Otherworld when she is tasked by her stepsisters to go and get more light from Baba Yaga. Later traditions say that when meeting with Baba Yaga, one needs to prepare themselves spiritually and have a proper purity of spirit in order to survive an encounter with her.

Faerie – The Hungarian connection of Baba Yaga as a fairy really seems to fit given that the fae operates by rules. Baba Yaga strikes a bargain with Vasilissa the Beautiful who comes to get some fire from her in exchange for some labor. The old crone can’t hurt or eat Vasilissa so long as she full-fills her tasks and gets everything done. In the end, because Vasilissa has the aid and blessing of her mother, Baba Yaga sends the girl away. Just as many fae are known to have a trickster side to them, Baba Yaga displays hers, however dark with the skull she gives Vasilissa that burns up her stepfamily in flames. One can also argue that’s Baba Yaga acting as a bit of a dark fairy godmother to Vasilissa to aid her like that. But a bargain’s a bargain and many fairy gifts do often come with a price that’s up to the recipient to decide if that was a curse or blessing.

Good Witch Or Bad Witch? – Whether Baba Yaga will be helpful or try to eat someone really depends on the story told of her and what era of folklore for ancient or more modern. The ancient stories really home in on her dangerous nature and that she does eat people. More modern stories that feature Baba Yaga will still show her dangerous side, but as someone who’s mellowed with time, she seems to take on a more helpful nature.

More Than One? – As a supernatural being, some stories will mention a trio of sisters or witches who are all Baba Yaga, much like the idea of three fates? The good news is, that when Baba is encountered as three individuals, they’re much more likely to be benign and helpful.

Family – Some folktales will mention Baba Yaga having a daughter, sometimes she is given the name, Marinka.

Similar Folkloric Figures

There’s a number of other figures from myth and folklore of Europe that may have some cultural influence from the Eastern Slavic people’s beliefs or just the fact that similar ideas and concepts will pop up no matter what.

Baba Korizma – Serbian

Baba Pehtra – Slovenian

Baba Roga – From Croatia and Bosnia, she is used to scare children into behaving. The name Roga suggests that she has horns.

Babice – Serbian

Chlungeri – Switzerland

Gorska Maika – The Forest Mother of Bulgaria.

Gvozdenzuba – Meaning “Iron Tooth,” Serbian

Holda – Or Holle from Germany

Jezibaba –Western Slavic, she is very similar in function to Baba Yaga, though her appearance and specific stories differ from the Eastern Slavic stories.

Mama Padurii – Forest Mother, Romanian

Perchta – Alpine region

Sumska Majka – The Forest Mother, Serbian

Ancient Slavic Earth Goddess

 That’s very likely possibility given the strong connections of her as a fairy in Hungarian folklore and her connection as a dark, wild and unpredictable force of nature. She could be connected to an ancient matriarchal religion. Some sources have said that the Baba part of her name connects her as being female and that there could very well be a male counterpart to her.

There are also scholars who suggest that Baba Yaga is influenced by the Eastern Slavic people’s contact with the Finno-Ugric and Siberian people. The Finnish stories have an ogress by the name of Syöjätär who is the source of diseases and in stories, she often takes the role of a wicked mother. Contrasting with Syöjätär is Akka, a female fertility spirit or deity found in Estonian, Finnish and Sami mythology and shamanism.

The first distinct references to Baba Yaga or Iaga Baba appear in 1755 with Mikhail V. Lomonosov’s Rossiiskaia Grammatika (Russian Grammar). In this book, Baba Yaga is mentioned a couple times alongside other Slavic figures and traditions. The second mention has her in a list of Slavic deities and their assigned, roman syno-deities.

Feminist Icon

It’s no wonder, after looking into the folklore and mythology behind Baba Yaga, that in many Wiccan and Modern Pagan practices and even those who aren’t would seek to reclaim and take Baba Yaga back as a feminist icon. When incoming Christianity couldn’t tame Baba Yaga, they vilified her.

After all, centuries of persecution by Christian beliefs and she has endured in the imaginations and of those who examine her stories; see the quintessential, untamed wild old woman who does as she pleases with no one to tell her otherwise. Baba Yaga is a fierce, dark force of magic, who when approached with caution, can help or destroy.

Triple Goddess

In New Age and Wiccan practices, Baba Yaga fits very easily with the role of the Crone.

Baba Yaga In Folklore

There are a lot of stories in Slavic and Russian folklore that feature Baba Yaga, so much so, she is considered a stock character by authors of modern Russian fairy tales. There are whole articles and commentary that go into exploring Baba Yaga’s role and place in folklore as sometimes, she’s not always an antagonist or even protagonist, she’s a feature or obstacle that the heroes must overcome and get past on their journey. Is she a threat? Does she really prove helpful as a dark and dangerous fairy godmother or guide?

She does seem to come off as a trickster figure, one who can often be bested and outwitted by use of trickery and using her own sense of propriety and rules for manners and etiquette to escape her.

With her continued use in more modern, contemporary literature and media, Baba Yaga’s nature at times, depending on the needs of the narrative and author, her demeanor can soften, though she’ll remind people she can still be very dangerous.

Vasilissa The Beautiful

This is perhaps the most well-known story with Baba Yaga that was recorded by Alexander Afanasyeye in 1862. It begins as any story does, with a merchant who had married for twelve years before he and his wife were able to conceive and have a baby, a little girl whom he called Vasilissa the Beautiful.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and the mother became ill when Vasilissa was eight years old. Before she died, Vasilissa’s mother called her daughter to her bedside where she presented her Vasilissa with a small wooden doll. The mother explained that she was dying and that she was leaving her this little doll. She was not to show anyone this doll and to always be sure to carry it with her everywhere she went. If ever she had any sorrow or threat to her, Vasilissa was to go to a corner and take the doll from her pocket, giving it an offering of food or drink. Once it had drunk or eaten, Vasilissa would then able to tell the doll her troubles and it would aid her or give advice on what to do. With that, the mother kissed Vasilissa on the head and died soon after.

That first day, Vasilissa grieved for her mother’s loss. So much so, that when night finally came, she couldn’t sleep. As she lay there in her bed, Vasilissa remembered the tiny doll and pulled it out from her pocket. Then she found a small piece of bread and something to drink, these Vasillisa placed before the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead, and I am lonely for her.”

The doll came to life, its eyes glowing as it ate a bit of bread and took a sip of drink. When the doll had finished, it told Vasilissa not to cry, that grief can be at its strongest during the night. That she should lay down and try to sleep for in the morning things would be better. Vasilissa did as the doll advised her and went to sleep and found that in the morning, her grief as not as deep and sorrowful as before.

After a period of mourning, Vasilissa’s father decided that it was right to marry again. Being a merchant, it wasn’t difficult for him to find and attract a suitable wife given his status with having a fine house, horses and his charity for giving to the poor. The merchant found a widow close to his own age with two daughters and thought that she would make for a good foster mother to his own little Vasilissa.

Such was not the case, as many of these stories show, the widow was a cruel and cold-hearted woman who only wanted the merchant’s wealth. Nor, did the widow harbor any love for Vasilissa.

Take a page right out of Cinderella, the widow and her two daughters envied and hated Vasilissa for her good looks and gave her all manner of tasks and errands to run in an effort to try and were Vasilissa out. Despite this, Vasilissa persisted, never complaining of what happened to her.

The key to Vasilissa’s success and enduring where others might have failed, is that she still had the little doll. Every night, while everyone else slept, Vasilissa would bring out the doll, while locking her door, she would feed the little doll. After the doll had eaten and drunk a little, Vasilissa would tell the doll of her troubles and the work her stepmother would task her to do.

After the doll came to life and listened to the girl’s plea, it would comfort Vasilissa and send her off to sleep. While she slept, the doll would perform all of the tasks set before Vasilissa and get all of her work and chores are done for the next day. This wouldn’t leave much left come the next morning for Vasilissa to do besides rest and play.

Time passed and Vasilissa grew up, becoming a beautiful young woman of marrying age. All the young, would-be suitors in the village came knocking, seeking out Vasilissa’s hand in marriage. None of the young men ever had an eye for the stepmother’s two daughters. This angered the stepmother to the point of being enraged. The stepmother would tell every young man who arrived at their door that the youngest would never be wed before the older ones. When the young man left, the stepmother would then beat and berate Vasilissa.

More time passed and Vasilissa’s father, the merchant left for a business trip. Barely was the father gone when no sooner did the stepmother have the house sold and packed everything up so they could move to the far side of the village near the dark forest. While the stepsisters worked indoors, the stepmother would task Vasilissa with more errands that would take her out into the dark woods.

The plot thickens!

The stepmother it seems was well aware that out in this dark forest, in a small clearing, Baba Yaga’s hut could be found. The stepmother had high hopes that Vasilissa would encounter the old witch that was known to eat people. She hoped that with each errand, it would be Vasilissa’s last as she would get eaten. Such was not to be, for the little doll of Vasilissa’s would guide her to where the berries and flowers grew and kept her well away from Baba Yaga’s hut.

One night, the stepmother brought all three girls together and tasked each of them with a job. To one of her daughters, they were to knit a piece of lace. The second daughter was to knit a pair of hose. As for Vasilissa, she was to spin a basket of flax. The tasks given out; the stepmother proceeded to put out all of the fires except for one candle before then heading off to sleep.

The girls worked for hours. The older of the girls eventually got up and went to straighten the wick on the lone candle. Instead of straightening the wick, the girl “accidentally” put the candle out. Now the girls panicked, for what would they do without any light to work by? The only house close enough to get a light from was that of Baba Yaga’s. The two daughters of the stepmother bade that Vasilissa be the one to go out and get the much-needed fire as she knew the nearby forest better. Nor, would the girls allow Vasilissa to return to the house without any light or flame.

Out a distraught Vasilissa went and sat on the front steps of the house. She pulled the small doll from her pocket and some food from the other. As she gave the food to the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little and listen to my sorrow. I must go out to the hut of Baba Yaga in the dark forest to get some fire and I fear that she will eat. Tell me! What shall I do?”

The doll came to life, eyes glowing as it ate. When it had finished, the doll replied that Vasilissa should not fear, to go to where she had been sent and that while he was with her, no harm would come to her from the witch. Hearing those words, Vasilissa placed the doll back in her pocket and headed out into the forest.

After a time, walking through the dark forest, Vasilissa soon heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground and shortly after, a white horse and rider dressed all in white passed by her. Soon as rider and horse were gone, it became twilight.

Vasilissa continued further on and again, she heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground as presently, another horse and rider passed by her. This horse and rider were blood-red and once they had gone, the sun arose.

On, Vasilissa continued her journey within the Dark Forest and it became very clear that she was now lost and there was no longer a path to follow. Nor, was there any food for Vasilissa to take out and bring the little doll to life to ask for help or advice.

Finally, as the evening came, Vasilissa found herself standing before a green lawn where a peculiar hut stood on chicken legs. Around the hut, a wall made of human bones with skull atop each post. It was a very unsettling sight for Vasilissa to take in.

While standing there, Vasilissa once more heard the sound of horse hooves and sure enough, a third horse and rider thundered into view. This time horse and rider were all in black. As horse and rider pounded the ground up to the gate to the hut, they disappeared, and night fell upon the forest as everything became dark.

The only place not dark within the forest was the lawn as all the eyes of the skulls on the wall lit up, illuminating the place. Vasilissa didn’t have long to stare for a loud noise boomed from the forest as trees groaned and shift. The source of the noise was Baba Yaga flying in riding in a large mortar with a pestle steering it. As Baba Yaga moved through the forest, behind her, she swept her trail clear with a broom.

Up to the gate, Baba Yaga flew and stopped, reciting the following: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.”

With those words, the hut turned on its chicken legs, facing towards Baba Yaga and stood waiting. Before going in, Baba Yaga sniffed the air and cried out that she smelled someone present and asked he was there.

In fear, Vasilissa stepped out, bowing low before Baba Yaga. “It is only me, Vasilissa, grandmother.” And explained how the daughters of her stepmother bid her come to borrow some fire as it had gone out at home.

Baba Yaga knew of whom Vasilissa spoke off and bargained that if she gave her some fire, that she was to stay a while and work for it. If Vasilissa didn’t, then Baba Yaga would eat her. The bargain struck, Baba Yaga with Vasilissa following behind, entered the hut.

Once they were inside, Baba Yaga sat down on her stove and stretched out her skinny, bony legs as she spoke: “Go and fetch the table and place everything in the oven on it. I’m hungry!”

Hearing this, Vasilissa hurried and pulled out from the oven, enough cooked meat for three big men. Then Vasilissa brought out from the cellar, honey and red wine. All of this Baba Yaga ate and drank with gusto, leaving only a small bit of cabbage soup, a crust of bread and a bit of pork for Vasilissa to eat.

Her hunger satiated, Baba Yaga grew tired and went to lay down on the stove. Before falling asleep, she instructed Vasilissa that on the morrow, when she left, that Vasilissa was to clean the yard, sweep the floors and cook her supper. Vasilissa was then to take a quarter measure of wheat from Baba’s storehouse and pick out all of the black grains and wild peas. Failure to accomplish all of this would see Vasilissa eaten by Baba.

Now Baba Yaga turned over, facing towards the wall and promptly fell asleep as evidenced by the snores. Scared, Vasilissa went to a corner and took out her tiny doll from her pocket. She fed it a bit of bread and a little bit of cabbage soup that she had saved. Then, bursting into tears, Vasilissa told the doll to eat a little and drink a little and then told it how she was in the house of Baba Yaga, that the old witch had given her a difficult task and if she did not complete it all, that Baba Yaga would eat her. What was she to do?

The little doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate the bread and drank the soup before it responded, telling Vasilissa not to be afraid. To say her prayers and go to sleep, that things would look clearer in the morning. Trusting her little doll, Vasilissa did as she was told and went to sleep.

The next morning, Vasilissa awoke early while it was yet dark. Peering out the window, she the skulls on the wall glowing still. As she continued to watch, Vasilissa saw a man dressed all in white ride away on a white horse ran past and as they pounded by, it became light. The glowing eyes of the skulls went out with the light. Baba Yaga went out to the yard and whistled for her giant iron mortar and pestle that came. Climbing in, Baba Yaga flew away. Shortly after she left, a man dressed all in red riding an equally red horse appeared, signaling fully the arrival of dawn.

Alone now, Vasilissa looked about the hut as she took in everything that had to be cleaned and all that she was tasked to do. As she turned attention back to the yard, Vasilissa was astonished to find the yard already clean along with the floors of the house when she looked back inside. Looking around, Vasilissa spotted her little doll sitting in the storehouse as it picked the last of the black grains and wild peas out from a quarter measure of wheat.

Vasilissa took up the little doll in arms to thank it. That now all she had to do was cook Baba Yaga’s supper. The little doll bid her to that task which Vasilissa did after the doll went back to her pocket. Laying out the table for supper and getting the meal ready, Vasilissa needed only to rest and wait the rest of the day.

As she waited, Vasilissa heard the sound of horse’s hooves and soon saw a rider all in black on a black horse ride up the gate and disappear. Once the black rider vanished, it became night and the eyes of the skulls began to glow. Not long after that, the forest began to shake and branches tremble as Baba Yaga flew back to hut.

On entering her hut, Baba Yaga looked around, sniffing the air. Baba Yaga then asked the girl if she had done all that was asked of her or was Baba Yaga going to get to eat her? Vasilissa replied for her to look.

Baba Yaga looked around the hut and yard. Try as she might, Baba Yaga was unable to find anything amiss which angered the old witch. Still, the tasks were done, and Baba Yaga clapped her hands together, calling for her faithful servants to take her wheat. Instantly, three pairs of hands appeared and hauled away the measure of wheat.

Then Baba Yaga sat down at the table as Vasilissa placed before her all the food that she had cooked along with kvass, honey and red wine. Baba Yaga ate with much gusto, enough for four men. Finished, Baba Yaga stretched out her bony legs on the stove and told Vasilissa that tomorrow, she was to the same as she had done today and in addition, that she was to take a half-measure of poppy seeds from the storehouse and clean them, one by one. It seems that someone mixed earth with the seeds to cause old Baba Yaga some mischief. With that, Baba Yaga turned over towards the wall and began to snore.

Just as she had the night before, Vasilissa crept to a corner to pull out her little doll. She once more placed a small bit of food before the doll to ask its advice. Like always, the doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate. Finished, the doll replied for Vasilissa not to worry, to say her prayers as she had before and to sleep. Vasilissa did as she was bid and went to sleep.

The next morning, Vasilissa awoke to the sound of Baba Yaga’s whistling. Vasilissa got up and ran to the window, just in time to see the old witch take off in her giant mortar and pestle. Just as she had seen the day before, the man in red appeared on his horse, riding away to signal the dawn. Like the previous morning too, as Vasilissa looked around, she saw that all of the tasks had been accomplished by her doll and all that remained was to cook the supper.

Vasilissa had everything for dinner prepared and ready on the table when the man in black on his horse return to signal nighttime and Baba Yaga’s arrival. Baba Yaga came into her hut, peering around, seeing for herself that all the tasks and supper were accomplished. Angry, Baba Yaga clapped her hands, calling for her servants to come take the poppy seeds. Again, three pairs of hands appeared to take the measure of poppy seeds away.

Baba Yaga sat down at the table devouring the meal with the zeal and gusto of five men. Vasilissa stood nearby, quietly waiting as the old witch ate. The quietness annoyed Baba Yaga who snapped at the girl, asking why she stood there as if she were dumb.

Vasilissa replied that she didn’t dare speak, but if she was allowed, could she ask grandmother some questions.

Baba Yaga allowed it, cautioning Vasilissa to remember that not every question had good answers and that knowing too much could lead a person to prematurely growing old.

Vasilissa then inquired, asking about the white rider. Baba Yaga said that was her servant, Bright Day. Then Vasilissa asked about the red rider to which Baba Yaga responded that was her servant, the Red Sun. Lastly, Vasilissa asked about the black rider and Baba Yaga replied that was her servant, the Dark Night. That none of her servants couldn’t harm Vasilissa.

Going silent, Vasilissa sat there and Baba Yaga wanted the girl to ask more questions. Why not ask more? What about the three pairs of hands? Vasilissa answered that three questions were enough and that she did not want to grow old too soon if she knew too much.

Old Baba Yaga laughed and said that well for her if she had asked about the hands, they would have appeared and seized Vasilissa to carry away to become Baba Yaga’s next meal. Now that Vasilissa had asked her questions, Baba Yaga wanted to ask questions of her own.

Namely, how was it that Vasilissa had been able to accomplish all the tasks in the short time allotted. Frightened, Vasilissa nearly brought out her doll, but thought better of it in time, replying instead that she had the blessing of her dead mother helped her.

Enraged, Baba Yaga told Vasilissa to get out of her house, she would have no one in her house who bore a blessing to cross her threshold. As Vasilissa got up to leave, running from the house, Baba Yaga grabbed a skull from a post on her wall and threw it at the girl. Saying that she was to take the skull, that’s what the stepmother’s daughters had sent her for.

Grabbing up the skull, Vasilissa placed it on the end of a stick and carried it with her out of the forest, running as fast as she could. She ran until morning when the glow of the skull dimmed just as Vasilissa exited the edge of the forest before her stepmother’s house.

Surely, by now, Vasilissa thought, the sisters would have found another light. Vasilissa thought to throw the skull into the hedge, but it spoke saying not to throw it away, to take it to her stepmother. Vasilissa picked up the skull again and carried it with her to the house.

In all the time that Vasilissa had been gone, the stepmother and daughters had had no fire or light for all of the house. Whenever they would strike flint and steel, the tinder wouldn’t catch and any fire brought in from a neighbor’s would immediately out as soon as it crossed the threshold of the house. Such was the state of three to have no light or warmth for themselves or to cook food. This made it the first time that the presence of Vasilissa was ever welcomed for when she carried the skull across the threshold, it’s light did not go out.

The stepmother insisted on placing the skull in the best room on a candlestick. As the stepmother and her daughters admired it, the eyes of the skull began to glow red like coals. Whenever the three would look or go, the eyes of the skull would follow, growing larger and brighter until the eyes burned bright as a furnace, growing hotter and hotter so that the stepmother and her daughters burned to ashes. Only Vasilissa was spared this fate.

What every poor abused stepchild wants, freedom from the wicked stepparent and siblings.

The next morning, Vasilissa dug a hole and buried the skull and locked the door to the house. She then set out of the village where she went to live with an old woman who was childless. There, Vasilissa lived, waiting for her father’s return from his journey.

After a few days of nothing to do, Vasilissa asked the old woman for some flax to spin, that she could at least do. The old woman went out and got Vasilissa some flax of the best kind and Vasilissa sat down to spin. So fine was the thread, even and fine as hair, eventually there was enough to work with to weave. However, so fine was the thread that there was frame that could weave the thread.

As she had done before when needing help, Vasilissa took out her little doll and giving it food and drink, told it of her need for a frame to weave her thread on. As always, the little doll came to life, eating and drink and when it had finished, it instructed Vasilissa to bring it an old frame, an old basket and some hairs from a horse’s mane and that it would make the frame needed. Vasilissa did as she was instructed, getting all the items and bringing them back.

The next morning, Vasilissa found a frame suited for the needs of weaving her thread on. It would take Vasilissa several months work weaving, throughout the winter, until she had at last a piece of linen as fine that it could be passed like the thread it was made of through the eye of a needle. Spring came and Vasilissa bleached the linen, making it as white as snow. Vasilissa then bid the old woman take the linen to market and sell it for the money made would pay for her food and lodging. The old woman returned from the market, saying that no one would buy the linen and that no one would wear it except for the Tsar himself. That tomorrow, she would carry it to the Palace.

The next day came and the old woman carried it to the Palace, and she spent her time walking up and down the walkways of the Palace. Servants would come up and ask her what brought her to the Palace and the old woman would say nothing. Presently enough, the Tsar opened his window and called down to the old woman what she wanted.

The old woman replied that she had a marvelous piece of linen and that she would show it to no one but him. The Tsar bid the servants bring the old woman in who showed off the linen to him. The Tsar was so taken with the finery and beauty of the cloth that he asked the old woman what she wanted for it. The old woman replied that there was no price for it, it had been brought as a gift. So pleased was the Tsar that he couldn’t thank her enough and sent the old woman away with many gifts.

Numerous seamstresses were brought in to make shirts for the Tsar out of the marvelous cloth, but they found that when it was cut up, that none of them had skill to sew it. The Tsar found himself calling the old woman back, saying that if she knew how to spin such linen, surely, she would know how to sew shirts from it.

At this, the old woman confessed that it wasn’t her who wove the cloth, but her adopted daughter who had done so. The Tsar bid the old woman to bring the cloth back to her daughter to sew into shirts. Bringing the cloth home, Vasilissa replied that it was just as well that she be the one to sew the shirts as she made the cloth.

Vasilissa took the cloth and went to her room where she returned later with a dozen shirts for the Tsar. The old woman brought all of these back to the Tsar who was so delighted with the craftsmanship that he sent a servant to fetch Vasilissa and bring her back to the Palace.

For the Tsar, it was love at first sight when he saw Vasilissa enter his Palace. So beautiful was Vasilissa that the Tsar asked her to marry him. The two wed and shortly after, Vasilissa’s father returned from his journey and he and the old woman went to live with Vasilissa in the Palace. As for the little doll, Vasilissa kept it with her always in her pocket all her life.

Christianized Version –

There is a Christianized version of this story where, when Vasilissa is sent off to Baba Yaga and ends up being captured by the old witch, it is Baba Yaga’s servants, a cat, a dog, a gate and a tree that all help Vasilissa escape her fate as she had shown them each kindness. At the end of this story, Baba Yaga turns into a crow.

Baba Yaga And The Peasant Children

This is a story I came across that is very similar to the Christianized version of Vasilissa’s story above. It also, after I finished reading it, that it sounds a lot like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel. You go over to Poland and these Gingerbread dwelling witches are all over the place.

The story starts off with two children who have a cruel stepmother. One day, the stepmother decides she no longer wants the children and contrives a way to send them off into the forest to get lost and eaten by the infamous Baba Yaga.

The children do find their way into Baba Yaga’s clutches and while there, they are able to escape her cannibalistic nature first from a black cat who helps them as they had fed it when Baba Yaga wouldn’t. Secondly, the children are aided by the gate slamming shut on Baba to slow her down because the children had mended the gate when Baba Yaga had neglected it. Finally, the very trees of the forest aid the children in evading Baba Yaga due to how she had mistreated them. The children are able to get home safely where their father kicks out the stepmother and welcomes his children home.

Prince Danila-Govorila

This is another story involving Baba Yaga that I came across and it reads in many ways, like a modern horror story. In it, there is an old woman who’s a princess and she had two children, a son and daughter. Entering the story is an old witch, Baba Yaga who doesn’t want the woman or her children to be happy. She turns into a fox and appears before the woman, presenting her with a ring and tells her that the ring is for her son, that he will be rich and generous, and he can only marry the woman whose finger will also fit the ring.

The old woman or princess believes the fox has given her a blessed gift and bestows it on her son. Time goes by and the son grows up and he beings to look for the woman whose finger will fit the ring. He finds many women whom he likes and fancies, but none of them are able to wear the ring. At long last, the son, Danila laments to his sister Katerina how he is unable to find a wife as no one is able to wear the ring.

Katerina asks to see the ring and Danila pulls it out. As it’s a ring, Katerina does the most natural thing and tries it on. To both siblings’ astonishment, the ring fits and Danila declares that Katerina is meant to be his wife. This can’t be so Katerina cries out, that’s incest and against God’s will. But Danila is so elated he runs off dancing and singing.

Katerina goes outside to cry her misfortune and as she does so, some elderly woman pass by and ask her what the matter is. They listen to her story and tell Katerina not to worry. Make four dolls and places them in the corners of her room. When Danila calls her to marriage, she should go and when it’s time to go to the bedroom, take her time. That Katerina should put her faith and trust in God to work things out.

Katerina does as she’s advised with making the dolls and placing them. Soon after, she and her brother are married. That night, when Danila called her to bed, Katerina took her time with getting ready and heading to bed.

This is where it gets to sounding like a horror story, as Danila is calling for Katerina, the dolls come to life, calling out how Prince Danila is marrying his sister and taking her to bed, for the earth to open up and Katerina to fall inside.

The more Danila calls, the more the dolls cry out, the more the earth opens up beneath Katrina and she sinks down within it. Eventually Danila can’t hear Katerina responding and he rushes into the room where she was supposed to be getting ready for bed. Only he finds the dolls calling out for the earth to open up and sister fall inside and there’s no sign of his sister. Danila flies into a rage and chops off the heads of all the dolls.

Meanwhile, Katerina finds herself beneath the earth and eventually she comes across a small hut that stands on chicken legs. A voice calls out from within for the hut to: “stand as before, rear to the forest and face before me.” The chicken hut turns, and Katerina is greeted to the sight of a beautiful maiden sitting alone inside.

The maiden invites Katerina inside to visit for a while. The maiden warns Katerina that her mother is a witch and when she shows up, she needs to hide. However much this frightened Katerina and with nowhere else to go, she went inside to visit and talk with the maiden as she knitted and made a wedding towel.

I can see where this is going…

The maiden knows when her mother will return, and she turns Katerina into a needle that she hides in her broom. No sooner done, then in comes the old witch who declares that it smells of a Russian having been in the hut.

The maiden says that some passersby had come through, looking for water. When the old witch asks why the maiden didn’t hold them, the maiden says that they were too old and tough for the old witch’s teeth.

The old witch instructs the maiden to call people into the yard and to keep them there next time. Now she was going to head off and get some booty. The old witch leaves and the two girls resume their talking and laughing.

The old witch returns again, Katerina is turned into a needle once more before she enters the house and the maiden tells a story to her mother how she couldn’t detain and keep the people there.

Third times the charm and the old witch isn’t fooled, she takes off again, but doesn’t go far for just when the girls are back to their antics of laughing and talking, where Katerina will hide this time and what story to use, the old witch enters the hut, revealing herself to be Baba Yaga to the frightened Katerina.

Delighted that her daughter has finally caught dinner, Baba Yaga tries unsuccessfully to get Katerina to sit on a paddle to be placed in the oven. Katerina makes it difficult as she keeps moving her legs to keep from getting pushed in. Baba Yaga is angered and when she tries to push Katerina in, the maiden takes her opportunity and instead, shoves her mother into the oven.

As the two girls ran, Baba Yaga got free of the oven and chased after them. First, the maiden threw down her brush that turned into a marsh that Baba Yaga had difficulty crawling through. On the girls ran with Baba Yaga still giving chase. Now the maiden tossed down her comb and a dark, thick forest sprang up that slowed down the old witch, causing Baba Yaga to lose sight of the two for a time.

Eventually, she was nearly caught up with the girls and the maiden now threw down her towel which turned into a vast fiery lake. Baba Yaga tried to fly up over this fiery lake, no matter how high Baba Yaga flew, the heat of the lake got to her and she plunged to a fiery death.

The two girls made it back to the world above but didn’t have any idea of where they were at. As they sat to rest, catching their breath, a man came up to the two. Both Katerina and the maiden were very alike in appearance and the man knew that they both matched the description of the missing Prince’s sister and wife, Katerina.

Finding themselves getting brought before Prince Danila so he could figure out which was his sister, Katerina refused to speak a word. As they couldn’t get either girl to speak, the man who was a servant of Danila’s came up with a plan to have the Prince hide a bladder full of blood under an arm, he, the servant would come up and stab him and that would get the sister to speak and thus reveal herself.

The plan is put into motion, the Prince with blood bladder under his clothing comes back out. The servant goes to stab the Prince. The Prince falls down as if dead, Katerina cries out in fright and goes up to hold the body of her brother, only to find, surprise! He’s not dead. Danila hugs his sister and marries her off to a good man and he decides to marry the maiden as the ring he has fits her finger too.

And I find that ending very wow? All that work and Katerina and the maiden are both married off like property, the Prince is reward for…pretending to die and takes the friend who shows up seemingly out of nowhere.

However that’s not the scope of retelling these stories, just that they’re ones that feature Baba Yaga that I came across and showcase her as a very scary, unpredictable being, whom with a bit of luck, cunning, one’s own magic or minding manners when dealing with someone very old, they can survive an encounter with Baba Yaga.

More Stories

I could go on for quite a while trying to give quick run-through of all the different folktales involving Baba Yaga, there are just that many. It would be my luck to still miss one or two. She even continues into the present day with continued use in literature and media.

At the very least, I can try to mention some of these other stories. There is: “The Feather of Finist the Falcon,” this is one story where the hero meets up with three Baba Yagas. There is also “Teryoshechka”, “The Enchanted Princess,” “The Silver Saucer and the Red Apple,” “The Maiden Tsar,” “The Tale of the Three Royal Divas”, “Ivashka, The Priest’s Son,” “Baba Yaga and Zamoryshek,” “By Command of the Prince Daniel,” “Marya Moryevna,” “Realms of Copper, Silver and Gold,” “The Sea Tsar and Vasilisa the Wise,” and “Legless Knight and Blind Knight.”

Reality Behind The Myth

The description of Baba Yaga’s hut that stands on chicken legs, with no windows or doors, likely has a place in the local cultures of the Siberian region. Similarly built cabins and huts have been observed with the early hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia (namely the Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families. To keep wild animals from getting into food supplies while they have gone, they built cabins with no doors or windows up on supports from trees. From a distance, these supports with the tree roots still attached would look like chicken legs. The only access to these huts would be by way of a trap door.

Siberian Paganism

Smaller, similar constructs were used in the old Siberian pagan religion to hold figurines of their deities. The idea has put forth of a late matriarchy where a bone-carved doll dressed in rags is placed in a small cabin that the doll can barely fit in.

The last idea is a funeral tradition used for cremating the dead in huts built on poles. Russian archaeologists, Yefimenko and Tretyakov found small huts containing the cremated remains of corpses and circular fences places around them in 1948.

Orbona

Orbona

Pronunciation: /orˈboː.na/

 Etymology: orbh- (Indo-European) “to change allegiance or status”, orbus meaning: “bereft” or “childless”

When in Rome, there seems to be a deity for just about everything, including orphans. Enter Orbona, the goddess of children, especially orphans. Childless parents would call upon Orbona to bless them with children.

Worship

I’m not sure you could really call it worship. There is however enough significance for Orbona that she had an alter near the Lares Temple in Via Sacra. Here, parents who had lost a child or might be about to lose one to illness would call upon and invoke Orbona.

In Roman mythology, Orbona was the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless. She was also the goddess of children, especially orphans.

Fertility Goddess?

Well sure, but only after parents had lost their child and hoped to ensure the survival of future children or to be granted more children.

Protector Of Children

That makes sense. That was the whole point of why parents or would-be parents would call upon Orbona, to ensure the safety of their children or potential future children. She was seen as a guardian of children, especially orphans.

What’s In A Name?

It gets a little interesting looking into the origins and root meaning of Orbona and Orphan.

Credit is given to the Indo-European root word of “orbh-“ meaning: “to change allegiance or status.”

Okay… from here the definition continued with how the Greek “orphanos” is similar to the Czech word “robota” which means compulsory labor, drudgery, servitude and slave” Even an old Old High German word of “arabeit” meaning labor is connected to “orbh-.” How exciting and lovely.

That gives a whole new light of understanding to Victorian Era Britain and orphans getting sent to the Workhouses.

Yay?

Welcome To The Dark Side

As a goddess of Orphans, Orbona is seen as having a bit of a sinister side… after all, childhood diseases that can claim and rob you of your children.

Orbona is associated with a couple of other dark goddesses, Febris and Fortuna Mala who weren’t exactly that well-received or whose attention you didn’t want to attract.

Not exactly all sunshine and roses here…

Kappa

Kappa Mikey

Also Called: Gataro (“River Boy”), Kawako (“River Child”), Kawataro (“River Boy” or “River Tiger”), Komahiki (“Horse Puller”), Suiko (“Water Tiger”)

There are some eighty names for kappa depending on the region they’re found in. Next to the oni and tengu, kappa are some of the best known yokai found in Japan.

Some of these other names are: Dangame (“Soft-Shelled Turtle”), Enko (“monkey”), Gawappa, Kawappa, Kawaso (“otter”), Kogo, Mizuchi, Mizushi, and Suitengu.

 Etymology – “River-Child” from the words kawa for “river” and wappo, an inflection of waraba meaning “child.”

In the Shinto Religion of Japan, Kappa are mischievous water spirits or yokai who will pull young children and the unwary into the river and ponds where they live and drown them. Kappa are also known for attacking travelers and animals. Even today, many towns and villages keep signs out warning of the dangers of kappa near a river.

Some of the less deadly pranks that kappa will pull are passing gas loudly and looking up women’s kimonos. They will also steal crops, flat out kidnap children and rape women.

The kappa are curious about human culture, they are not mindlessly aggressive and many can be appealed or reasoned with as they do speak Japanese. Wisemen were known to befriend kappa and learn the art of setting bones from them. It’s thought that somehow, kappa were once wise monkeys.

Kappa will also sometimes challenge people to different tests of skill such as shogi or sumo wrestling. People have been known to befriend kappa by giving gifts and offerings, often of food and especially cucumbers.

The kappa are a major folkloric figure that people have reported seeing for centuries. They have remained a staple of literature and even the tourist industry in some towns will tell visitors to be wary of kappa and to be careful.

Suijin

In Shinto, the Kappa are viewed as one of many types of Suijin or water people or even water deities. Many of these water deities or spirits are often depicted as snakes, dragons, eels, fish, turtles and kappa. It is believed that belief in kappa can be traced back to China, though much of the kappa lore is native to Japan.

With the arrival of Chinese and Koreans during the 2nd century C.E. along with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, the imagery of kappa would be begin to take on these attributes.

While the name for the most powerful Suijin in Japan is Mizu no Kamisama or Goddess or God of Water, the kappa are more accurately referred to as Kawa no Kami or River Deity reflecting a less powerful status.

The offering of cucumbers to kappa may have come from a tradition of giving the year’s first crop of cucumbers and eggplants to the local river to either appease local water deities or hungry ghosts.

Festivals – There are still some festivals held in places, twice a year during the equinoxes to placate the kappa and ensure a good harvest. These festivals also mark the time of the year when the kappa travel down from the mountains to the rivers and back up.

Kappa Odori Dance – This is a sacred Shinto dance used to pray for abundant crops. Young boys dress up as kappa and jump and bounce around in time to the humorous music as it’s played.

Jozankei Hot Springs – A local spa near the Toyohiragawa River to the southwest of Sapporo. Named after the monk who found the place, the kappa are local guardian spirits. Some 23 kappa statues stand around the area. The Kappa Pool becomes very lively in early August during the Kappa Festival. A local legend holds that the story of the Kappa Buchi occurred here.

Ancient Origins?

Ainu Folklore – The Ainu are Japan’s earliest inhabitants who live mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The connection here is very tentative as some believe that the kappa come from Ainu folklore. There’s just not enough known of their mythology to really make a concrete connection. What does get cited is that near the main city Sapporo on Hokkaido is an area known as Jozankei where the legends for the “Great Kappa King” and the “Kappa Buchi Legend” can be found, though these stories are not likely to be of Ainu origin and mythology.

Nihon Shoki – Chronicles of Japan – One of Japan’s earliest and official records, it was compiled sometime around 720 C.E. It is the first text to refer to kappa where it is called Kawa no Kami or River Deity in this text.

Wakan Sansaizue – Kappa don’t really take on popularity until around Japan’s medieval era, during the Edo period. The Wakan Sansaizue is a 105-volume encyclopedia dating to about 1713 C.E. and is the first to depict a kappa.

Gazu Hyakkiyagyō – Or the “Night Procession of One Hundred Demons” is a four volume text that next shows and depicts kappa within it.

From here, the popularity of kappa in continues in the Edo Period, appearing in a serial called Kasshiyawa where the kappa called Kawataro. Another document is the Mimibukuro, a 10-volume text written by Negishi Yasumori.

Portuguese Monks – When Portuguese monks arrived in Japan during the 16th century, their appearance of cloaks that hung down in back like a kappa’s shell and their shaven heads resulting in a bald head crowned with hair known as a Capa for the Portuguese word for this hair style would easily become absorbed into Japan’s Kappa lore…. After all a homophone of words Kappa and Capa sound very alike.

Drowned Monkeys – Some legends will hold that the first kappa come from monkeys. Yanagida Kunio records a story where he notes that some regions of Japan referred to kappa as enko or monkeys.

There is a famous Buddhist story from China in which a group of monkeys tried to capture the moon’s reflection. For their trouble and efforts, the monkeys were drowned.

The Monkey King Versus The Water Demon – There are a number of tales for the Indian collection of Buddha stories called Jataka. Dating from the 3rd century B.C.E. India and Sri Lanka, the story in question features the monkey kingdom under attack from a monkey-eating water demon. The wise monkey king outwitted the demon with bamboo.

So, what’s the connection? In Sanskrit, the word Kapi translates to monkey. It’s possible that Kappa is a distorted form of Kapi. It would explain some of the descriptions of kappa being monkey-like is a carry over of this distortion. Further, there is a kapi jembawan, a monkey sage in Indonesian folklore based on the Dwarka kingdom where Lord Krishna ruled. The famous Hindi poet, Tulsidas who wrote the Ramayana some 500 years ago, uses the word kapi in place of the Vanara or monkey folk in the South who help Rama defeat Ravana.

If we’re looking at linguist connections, that could all hold up.

Description

Kappa look like child-sized humanoid turtles or more often monkeys with scaly limbs and thick tortoise shells. Some kappa are depicted with ape-like faces while others are more beaked. Skin coloration ranges from green to yellow and even blue.

The most distinguishing feature of kappa are the bowl or saucer-shaped depressions on the top of their heads called a sara (meaning “dish,” “bowl,” or “plate.”) When leaving the water, kappa makes sure that the sara is kept filled with water. The sara is surrounded with scraggly hair in a bobbed hair style known as okappa-atama. Should the kappa loose this water, it loses its strength and powers, possibly even dying in this weakened state if water isn’t refilled. Some kappa are reputed to have taken to wearing a metal plate or cap to cover their sara so the water doesn’t pour or dry out, thus weakening them.

Depending on the story, the arms of a kappa are said to be connected to each such, that the kappa can slide their arm from one side to the other. I can see that trick, the kappa is wearing a shell, pull one arm in and stuff it out the other arm hole, much like a person does when wearing a t-shirt. I’m sure it’s a simple enough illusion and magic trick to pull off.

Aquatic creatures who live in ponds and rivers, Kappa also possess webbed hands and feet. People have commented that Kappa smell like fish. Some of the legends involving kappa have them spending spring and summer down in the water during autumn and winter, heading up to the Yama-no-Kami (“Mountain Deities”) mountains. While kappa can be found throughout much of Japan, they’re often found in the Saga Prefecture.

Hyosube – This is the name for the kappa’s hairy cousin. The two are identical otherwise in terms of physical attributes and what they do. The biggest distinction of the two aside from hair, is that kappa are more prone to staying outside. The Hyosube are more likely to sneak into people’s homes to cause mischief, namely to take a bath. Being so hairsute, the hyosube are known to shed hair which is deadly to those who encounter it in Japanese folklore.

Shibaten – Also called Shibatengu, is a more turtle-like kappa where the kappa can be more ape or monkey like in appearance.

Diet

The kappa feed on a diet of blood and cucumbers.

Blood – Young children are told to be wary when playing near the water’s edge of ponds and rivers. Children are a kappa’s favored meal though they’re not above eating an adult.

Eww… so what makes humans so appealing to a kappa is a shirikodama that they will suck out of a person’s anus. Alrighty then.

And the shirikodama? Depending on the source and legend, that’s a mystical ball containing a person’s life force or soul that’s found near the anus, entrails, in the blood or liver.

Cucumbers – The only thing that kappa love more than small children. Its customary for some Japanese parents to write the names of their children or themselves on a cucumber and toss it into a pond or river where the kappa are believed to dwell.

Other Food Offerings – Cucumbers aren’t the only food item a kappa will accept. Offerings of eggplant, soba noodles, natto (fermented soybeans) and kabocha (winter squash) are accepted by kappa.

Powers

Being an aquatic yokai, it goes without saying that kappa are master swimmers with a vast knowledge of water and it’s importance.

Strength – Much of a kappa’s strength is tied to the waters of the pond or river it calls home. The water that a kappa keeps in the depression on its head is a source of its strength and even life.

Flatulence – I’m not sure that I would call this a power. Suffice to say that a kappa can use a particularly noxious gas attack in self-defense much like skunks do. A kappa is known to release this gas not just as a prank but to get someone like fishermen to let it go.

Flight – So those cucumbers offered to the kappa, not only do they eat the cucumbers, the kappa uses them to fly around on like dragonflies. Okay….

Weaknesses

So how does one manage to thwart and defeat a Kappa you might ask?

Arms – If we go off the idea that the arms of a kappa are connected to each other, they can be easily pulled off. If a person manages to get a kappa’s arm, they will perform a task in order to get it back. Assuming the arm can be reattached.

Challenges – Kappa aren’t mindlessly aggressive, and a person can reason with them. If they don’t have an offering of cucumbers to give, a person can try challenging the kappa. Most challenges usually take the form of feats of strength with wrestling matches.

One challenge found in a folktale sees a Farmer’s daughter get promised to a kappa in marriage in exchange for the yokai to irrigate his land. The daughter challenged the kappa to submerge several gourds in water. When the kappa failed at this task, the daughter was freed from the marital arrangement.

Fire – Being water creatures, it stands to reason that Kappa are held to be afraid of fire and loud noises. Some villages in Japan will have fireworks festivals each year to try and scare away spirits.

Land – Kappa can’t survive for long on the land and must always keep their heads wet, especially the sara filled with water.

Etiquette – That in mind, the kappa are overly found of etiquette, so if you bow deeply to them in greeting, they will bow as well, spilling the water from their sara. With this water spilled, the kappa loses its strength and any powers, becoming weakened and possibly die if this water isn’t refilled. It must be water from their home river or pond that is poured back in. If a human is the one who refills this water, it is believed that the kappa would the human in question for the rest of eternity.

Cucumbers – Offering the Kappa a nice tasty cucumber is sure to do the trick and placate them instead of trying to haul you into the river to drown.

Instead of offering the cucumber, a person would the vegetable themselves as a means of protection before swimming. Though some will say this is sure to guarantee an attack.

Miscellaneous – There’s a variety of other items that supposedly drive away kappa. These items include ginger, iron and sesame.

A Friend For Life

Those who have successfully befriended a kappa find that they truly have a friend for life. Kappa are known to help farmers in any number of ways such as irrigating fields. The kappa are very knowledgeable in the way of medicine and have been known to teach the art of bone setting to humans.

There are shrines to kappa that have been established, especially of a particularly helpful kappa. You could trick a kappa into service via the bowing and refilling the bowl on their head with water. He’s not likely to be so nice about the help he gives then.

The kappa, like the European Fae won’t break an oath as their sense of etiquette and decorum is such, they just won’t. So yeah, a human can trick a kappa into service and get one to swear an oath to them, the kappa’s sense of honor says they will follow it through to the end.

Japanese Expressions

There are a few expressions associated with kappa.

Kappa Maki – A cucumber sushi roll named for kappa.

“Kappa-no-kawa-nagare” – This phrase translates to “A kappa drowning in a river” is used to mean that even an expert can make mistakes.

“Kappa no He” – Much ado about nothing, the literal translation is water-imp fart. This is my new favorite.

Okappa – the bobbed hairstyles that look like those kappa sport.

Koppojutsu

This is a martial arts style invented by Kappa who will sometimes teach it to humans. The name of koppojutsu translates as “attacks against bones.” It is a hard-martial art compared to another, koshijutsu that is a soft-martial art that targets an opponent’s muscles.

Kappa-Buchi

The Kappa Pool is a legend found in the Jozankei region of Japan.

A young man was out fishing in a deep pool and he ended up falling in. He never surfaced. Some months later, as his father slept, the son came to him in a dream and told his father that he was living happily with the Kappa, that he even had a kappa wife and child. Shortly after, the pool came to be known as the Kappa Buchi.

Kappa Bashi

The Kappa bridge found in Tokyo used to be farmland that was surrounded by canals prone to flooding. During the late Edo period, a raincoat dealer, Kappaya Kihachi spent his entire fortune on building a better drainage system. The work proved more difficult than expect and taking longer to complete.

Falling into despair and about to give up, the man was visited by a kappa whose life he had saved many years before. The kappa had arrived to help and in no time at all, the new drainage system was completed. Further, the story goes that those who saw the kappa were blessed with good fortune. Shortly after, the Kappa Temple was built to honor and enshrine the kappa as a local deity.

Saiyuki – Journey West

When the Chinese epic of Journey to the West arrived in Japan, the character of Sha Wujing’s name is changed to Sangojo or Sagojo. Where Sha Wujing or Sandy is often depicted as a Water Buffalo or some kind of water demon, in Japan, he is frequently identified as a kappa.

Horses & Livestock & Monkeys!

Continuing a connection of Kappa to the Journey West story, in which kappa come from drown monkeys. In Chinese lore, monkeys are shown riding horses and in Journey West, the Jade Emperor appoints Monkey or Son Goku to a position of a Stable Hand or Protector of Horses.

This connection could explain a few different folktales and stories of kappa harassing people’s horse and cattle. There is a story recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in Kawachimura where a horse-stealing kappa was captured and forced to sign an agreement never to harm any people or steal from them again. The kappa even went so far as to swear he would get his fellow kappa to swear to the oath of leaving humans alone.

Of course, it could be too much of a stretch and horses were just one of many animals and objects that kappa would try to steal from humans.

Possible Reality Behind The Myths

Drowning – It’s likely stories of kappa developed as a means to scare and warn children from wandering too close to the water’s edge at any pond or river.

Kappa are even blamed for drowning deaths and signs are still posted near bodies of water that warn of kappa dangers.

Giant Salamanders – It makes sense, that inspiration for the kappa could come from the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki. It is a large, aggressive salamander that grow up to five feet in length that will grab its prey with powerful jaws.

Miscarriages & Leech Babies – Touching back on that idea of kappa rapping women. There is an 18th century Ukiyo-e picture by Utamaro showing a kappa rapping an ama diver while underwater. That’s a bit unpleasant. More relevant might be a belief found in Kunio Yanagita’s Tono Monogatari, in which women who were raped by kappa and became pregnant often had repulsive babies born. These babies, called Leech Babies, would be buried shortly after.

Sometimes these stillborn babies would be tossed into a river and children would be warned to stay away from the water’s edge to avoid seeing these dead babies. Sadly, sometimes a poor family might have tossed an unwanted baby into the river if they couldn’t afford to care for it.

It’s possible a woman might say she had been raped by a kappa in order to try and explain why a baby was born deformed and likely stillborn. It would provide a way of saving face to explain a stillborn and deformities. That’s my take after reading in Celtic folklore and comparing it the myths regarding Changelings and parents who have a child that dies of SIDs, you just say the fairies came and took your baby and that the one isn’t real. Because somewhere, your real baby is still alive.

Similar Folkloric Figures

There are a few other, similar figures found in other cultures from around the world that have been used to scare young children from straying too close to the water’s edge.

Kelpie – A fearsome water horse in Scottish folklore known to drown those who try to ride it.

Näkki – A water monster from Finnish folklore.

Neck – Also called Nix or Nixie, a similar shapeshifting creature to the Näkki, only from Germanic and Scandinavian folklore.

Shui Gui – Water Ghost or Water Monkey is a similar creature found in Chinese folklore.

Siyokoy – Found in the Philippin islands and known for kidnapping children. Their description is very similar to those of kappa.

Vodyanoy – A frog-like water spirit found in Slavic folklore.

Vodnik – A green humanoid spirit or creature found in western Slavic folklore, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

 

Jólakötturinn

Jólakötturinn

Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat

The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.

Description

The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.

The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.

Dark Ages – Autumn Wool

According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.

This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.

Jólasveinarnir

 The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.

The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

 

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

 

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

 

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

 

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

 

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon.

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

 

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

 

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

 

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

 

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

 

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

 

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

 

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

 

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

 

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

 

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.

 

Christmas Tradition

It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.

Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.

Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.

So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.

Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood

Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…

Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.

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

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Jólasveinar

Yule Lads

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.

Dimmuborgir

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.

Descriptions

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.

Family

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.

Christmas Associations

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.

Grýla

Grýla

Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”

Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.

The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”

Dimmuborgir

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

Descriptions

This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.

The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.

Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.

Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.

Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla  and Leppalúði having nineteen children.

Family

Spouses

Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.

 Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.

 Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.

Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third 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 than, 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 and still needing a crib.

Children

Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.

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

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

Dark Winter Spirits

This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are 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 character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.

Christmas Associations

Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.

It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”

In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.

A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.

The Onion

A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.

Oya

Oya

Pronunciation: Oh-Yah

Etymology: “She Tore”

Other Names and Epithets: Aido-Wedo, Ayaba Nikua (“Queen of Death”), Ayi Lo Da (“She Who Turns and Changes”), Ollá, Oya-Ajere (“Carrier of the Container of Fire”), Iya Yansan, Ọya-Iyansan (“Mother of Nine”), Oyá, Oiá, Yansá, Yansã, Yansan, lyá Mésàn, Iansá or Iansã, Lady of the Wind, Goddess of the Nine Skirts, Lady of War, Bearded Amazon, Thunder Maiden, Ayi Lo Da “She Who Turns & Changes”

Attributes

Animal: Antelope, Bats, Birds, especially Sparrows and Purple Martins, Deer, Insects, especially Dragonflies and Fireflies, Water Buffalo

Colors: Burgundy, Brown (Candomble), Orange, Pink (Candomble), Purple, Rainbow, Red (Candomble), White (Candomble), No Black

Day of the Week: Wednesday (Candomble), Friday

Elements: Air, Fire , Water

Feast Day: February 2nd and November 25th

Gemstones: Amethyst, Black opals, Bloodstone, Garnets, Labradorite, Red Stones, Tourmaline, Smokey Quartz

Herbs: Caimito, Chickweed, Comfrey, Cypress, Elecampane, Flamboyan, Grains of Paradise, Horehound, Peony, Pleurisy Roots, Royal Poinciana, Star Apple, Yucca

Incense: Geranium, Patchouli, Sandalwood

Metal: Copper

Month: February

Number: 9

Patron of: Change, Feminism

Sphere of Influence: Athletics, Businesses, Cemeteries, Change, Death, Lightning, Market Places, Rebirth, Storms, Tornadoes, Wind, Witchcraft

Symbols: axe, brightly colored cloth, balloons, broom, buffalo horns, copper, hoe, lightning, kites, graves, mattock, rake, shovel, spear, tornadoes, the sword or machete, masks, scythe, the flywhisk, weather vanes, whip, wind instruments, anything associated with the wind,

Taboo (Candomble): Palm Kernal Oil, Pork, Pumpkin, Ram, Smoke, Stingray, Mutton

Oya is a mother goddess and Orisha from Yoruban mythology found in Africa regions of Benin and Nigeria and in Latin America. In brief, she is the goddess or Orisha of many things such as: winds, lightnings, violent storms, death, cemeteries, rebirth and the market place.

Depictions Of Oya

Oya is often described as being a tall, regal and very beautiful, yet fierce warrior woman. She wears a skirt of nine different colors representing her nine children as she dances. When going into battle, Oya will wield two machetes. Sometimes Oya is shown with a dress or being bare from the waist up.

 Modern Day Worship

What’s interesting, is that Oya is a goddess or Orisha whose worship is still very much so active. There are several traditions that honor, venerate and worship Oya that include: Candomble, Folk Catholicism, Haitian Vodou, Oyotunji, Santeria, Trinidad Orisha and Umbanda to name a few.

Oya’s feast day is on February 2nd and another I found listed November 25th.

Offerings To Oya

Specifically, food offerings, Oya is said to enjoy sweet and dark colored foods and anything spicy. Such foods include the following: fish, fruit, plums, eggplant, figs, kola nuts, legumes, porridge, gin, grape wine, red wine, rum, chocolate pudding, purple grapes, rice, black beans, rain water, starfruit, shea or coconut butter, yams, black she goat, black hens, pigeons, rooster and guinea hens.

Such offerings can be left at the corner of an outdoor market or at the gates to a cemetery, particularly one marked by use of divination. Yes, do place the offerings in a trashcan with a prayer to Oya in thanks. She’ll know your intentions and you’ll keep from littering.

Non-food offerings can include coins, cloth and tobacco.

Orisha

Oya is a member of the Orisha, who are either a spirit or deity. In the Yoruban religion, a nature-based tradition, it is believed that the source of everything is called Olorun or Olodumare. The Orisha themselves are regarded as being different aspects of the main deity, Olorun-Olodumare.

With the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the worship of Oya was brought with the slaves and is now found throughout much of the southern U.S., Latin America and South America.

Parentage and Family

Father

Obatala is said to be Oya’s father.

Mother

Yemaya – The Great Sea Mother

Yemu – Or Yembo, with Obatala, she is the mother of Oya.

Consort

Shango – (Also spelled Chango), Orisha of Thunder, her second husband. Oya is sometime considered one of three of Shango’s wives along with Oshun and Oba.

Ogun – A powerful warrior and Orisha of metal working, rum and rum making. Oya was married to him first before leaving Ogun for Shango.

Siblings

Shango – Depending on the stories or tradition, Oya and Shango are brother and sister, not husband and wife.

Yemaya and Ochun are held to be Oya’s sisters.

Children

The nine tributaries of the Nile River that represent her stillborn children. These children are Egungun and four sets of twins.

The Ibeji – Twins whom Oya took in after their mother rejected them.

Ọya-Iyansan – “Mother Of Nine”

This is in reference to the Niger River known in Yoruba as Odo-Oya and its nine tributaries. Oya in her role as a Storm Goddess is seen as the queen and source of the Niger River. This connection of Oya with the Niger River comes from a story where Oya gave birth to nine stillborn children. As a result of this, Oya holds a lot of sadness from this, medical term would be Post-Partum Depression. Oya wears nine different colored scarves or skirts around her waist in honor and memory of these children.

Later, when Oshun (or Yemaya) rejects the twins, the Ibeji from her home, it is Oya who takes them in and raise the twins as her own children.

In Brazil, where Oya’s worship has traveled, she is the goddess of the Amazon River.

 Storm & Wind Goddess

One of the main things that Oya is known for is that of a Storm Goddess, including winds and lightning. Oya can manifest winds from a gentle breeze up to hurricane force level winds and tornadoes.

Harmattan – This is the name of the Dry Season in the West African subcontinent that happens towards the end of November and up to the middle of March. The Harmattan is characterized by a dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind that blows in from the Sahara Desert towards the Gulf of Guinea. Depending upon where one is at, is if the Harmattan wind is cold or hot. The amount of dust that can happen can create a haze and has been known to be the cause of flight cancellations in West Africa.

Oya & Shango – It should be noted that Shango is a god of thunder and that Oya stole or learned the secret of throwing lightning from him. Additionally, Oya would use Shango’s fear of the dead to keep in his place. During thunderstorms, both Oya and Shango ride out, destroying buildings and tearing up the landscape. Often the two are described as Oya being the lightning with Shango being the thunder that follows soon after.

Goddess Of Change & Fire

Closely related to her aspect as a Storm goddess, Oya is also the goddess of change as seen in both nature and life; which may or may not always be comfortable or pleasant to go through. Such changes that Oya is known to bring are not slow and gradual, they are fierce, quick and often seemingly destructive. This change and the ensuing chaos as seen in the tornadoes associated with Oya are needed for new growth and preventing stagnation.

Fire comes into play as it is often a trans-formative force of change and can be a result of lightning strikes.

As a goddess of change, Oya is not seen as being held by tradition, conventions or boundaries. As a boundary breaker, Oya is known for going hunting, something that had been forbidden to women in West Africa where she was first worshiped.

Goddess Of Cemeteries

As previously mentioned, Oya guarded the gates to cemeteries, most notably, she protected those graves marked with a cross.

Iku – Oya, along with Orunmila, are the only two Orisha who have defeated Iku, the force of death.

Psychopomp – Oya will escort the spirits of the dead to the cemetery’s threshold, though she does not reside within them herself. Other Orishas, Obba and Yewá are the ones who reside within a cemetery or graveyard’s boundaries.

Oya is regarded as holding the secrets and mysteries of death and rebirth, helping the newly deceased with their transitions from the living world to the world of the spirit. In worship, Oya represents the first and last breaths of life taken.

Ancestors – as a goddess of cemeteries, Oya also holds a connection with the ancestors.

Ira – The underworld, Oya entered into the lower realm of Ira in search of her husband Shango when she heard he had died.

Guardian of Stillborn/Unborn Children – As a mother who was unable to keep her own children as they were stillborn, Oya guards and protects the spirit of the unborn or stillborn children, taking them to herself as she guides them to the afterlife.

Illnesses – Oya is called up and invoked during times of a serious illness. Curiously, one source mentioned that Oya protects the lungs and nasal passages. Which makes sense as she is representative of the first and last breath that a person takes.

Goddess Of Markets

This is where Oya can be found, in the market places where businesses are conducted. Whether that place is in a Boardroom Meeting or on the street level, open market, Oya deals in the changing flow of fortunes made and lost. She is noted for being a very shrewd business woman who is also good with horses.

Warrior Queen

Oya did live many centuries ago where she was a princess of the Oyo clan and consort to Shango, the then ruling king. She was known then as an unbeatable warrior whose skills were unequaled. After her death, she became deified as an Orisha.

Oya’s favored weapons are a pair of machetes forged by her first husband, Ogun.

After becoming deified, Oya employs the wind, storms and tornadoes as her weapons along with raising the egun or spirits of the dead to fight as soldiers.

Feminism – As a goddess of female empowerment and a champion of women, Oya will mete justice on their behalf

Women often ask Oya to give them the ability to choose their words so that they speak persuasively and powerfully.

Huntress – Hunters and Chiefs will seek out Oya’s blessing when hunting or when selecting new, strong leaders.

Justice – Oya’s machetes represent the sword of truth, cutting quickly to the truth of the matter and dealing out matters of equality and custom. As an agent of change, Oya will cut through all injustices, deceits and dishonesty that’s in her path. She will speak only truths, even when they are hard to hear.

Protector Of Women – In her role as a warrior, Oya is known to be a strong and fierce protector of women. Oya also protects children and spouses. The newly deceased are often said to be her children whom she cares for as her own were stillborn.

Water Buffalo

The main animal that I found mentioned repeated as being sacred to Oya is the Water Buffalo. Such an animal is often her avatar or representative or it is Oya herself, having transformed or shape-shifted into this form.

Buffalo Horns – A set of buffalo horns rubbed with cam wood to make them red are placed on alters and shrines dedicated to Oya.

Antelope

Antelope Skin – This story reads a lot like the Celtic or Irish stories of selkies and seal maidens.

One story about Oya mentions that she had originally been an antelope who could take off her skin to transform into a beautiful woman. She would do this every five days when she came to the market in town; hiding her skin in the forest or under some bushes.

One day, Shango meets Oya in the market place and is immediately taken in by her beauty. So enamored of her was he, that Shango followed back to the forest where he saw Oya take her skin and transform back into an antelope.

The next time that Oya returned to market, Shango was hiding, watching for her to change into a woman and hide her skin. As soon as Oya went into the market, Shango came out of hiding to take the skin home where he hid it up in the roof rafters.

With out her skin, Oya became Shango’s wive and went home with him. It should be noted, that Shango has two other wives who became jealous of Oya and the attentions that Shango gave her. She had become his favorite after all.

When Oya bore twins, the other wives, Oshun and Oba told Oya where to find her antelope skin up in the rafters.

Just like the Irish stories, as soon as Oya regained her skin and donned it, turning into an antelope, she took off for the forest.

Spousal Conflict – Not every couple are always going to get along, so its not surprising to find a story of Oya and Shango getting into it and having a fight. Oya changed into an antelope and charged at Shango with her horns. Thinking quickly, Shango made a peace offering of Oya’s favorite food of akara, bean cakes, placing those before her. Pleased with the offering, Oya accepted Shango’s apology and peace offering by giving him her two horns. From then on, whenever he needed her help, Shango needed only to beat the two horns together and Oya would come.

A Stormy Affair – Oya, Shango & Ogun

Oya was first married to Ogun, an Orisha of War and Smithing. The two lived out in the forests together. Ogun was often away working in his smithy or at war, frequently leaving Oya alone.

This provided an opportunity for Shango who wanted to avenge his adopted father Obatala. It seems that Ogun had created some offense towards Obatala and was thus banished to the forest. The banishment wasn’t enough for Shango and he decided to go seduce Oya.

If you want to keep a fight going, this is one way to do it. With the affair and Oya leaving Ogun for Shango, a war broke out between the two.

These wars and fights are often seen in the thunderstorms and the two Orishas, Shango and Ogun continue to be at odds with each other. Obatala often has to come play moderator and impose a peace on them, that is, until the next storm breaks out.

To The Rescue – Saving Shango

Shango got himself into a lot of trouble and made more than a few enemies with his numerous affairs and seducing the wives of the other Orisha.

One night, when Shango was out dancing at a party, some Shango’s enemies managed to capture him and toss him into a jail. Going so far as to throw away the key too.

Later, when Oya is wondering why Shango didn’t return home, she had a vision in which she saw that Shango was being held captive. Oya called down a fierce storm and summoned a bolt of lightning to break the bars of the jail cell holding Shango.

Since then, Shango has always respected Oya’s abilities and skill as a warrior. However, it still doesn’t stop him always remaining faithful as a husband. He is however, careful not to ever make Oya mad.

Betrayal By A Ram

The story goes that Oya and the ram were once best friends. When the ram found out that there was a bounty on Oya’s head, it betrayed her.

When Olofi discovered this, he demanded that the ram be sacrificed. Hurt by her friend’s betrayal, Oya has since been unable to bear the sight of the ram. At the same time, Oya is unable to be in the same room with him being sacrificed as she still cares for him.

In ceremonies, when Oya is being consecrated, the ritual items for Shango, Inle and Yemaya are removed from the room. Likewise, when Shango, Inle or Yemaya are being consecrated, Oya’ ritual items are removed from the room. All of this is to pay respect to the fact that Shango, Inle and Yemaya’s favorite food is ram and they thus bear his scent on them. So the four not ever being in the same room during consecrations is out of respect and remembrance of the ram’s betrayal to Oya.

Oshun’s Fading

There is a story told, how Oshun’s essence or life was fading as people were beginning to concern themselves with other things instead of worshiping her.

As it was, Oya insisted to her husband Shango, to consult with the diloggun (a form of divination) for the first time in order to mark an ebo or sacrifice to Oshun, thereby, saving her. This sacrifice bonded the two in friendship.

Maman Brigitte – Haitian Goddess

Oya has been connected to Maman Brigitte as a syno-deity. Maman Brigitte is a Voodoo goddess or Loa who protects those graves within a cemetery marked with a cross. She is the wife to Ghede or Baron Samedi. Like Oya, she has been connected to the Catholic Saint Brigit.

Catholic Saints

There are a few different Saints that Oya has been equated to and it varies by the religion revering Oya.

Saint Barbara – The Saint whom Oya is equated to in the Candomble tradition. She is the patron saint of armourers, artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives. She has an old legend that connects her to lightning and mathematicians.

Saint Brigit – Not just the saint, the Celtic goddess Bridget of the same name. She is the patron saint of Ireland and babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, brewers, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, children with abusive fathers, children born into abusive unions, Clan Douglas, dairy workers, Florida, fugitives, Leinster, mariners, midwives, milk maids, nuns, poets, poor, poultry farmers, poultry raisers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travelers, and  watermen. That is quiet a lot if you ask me.

Saint Teresa – There’s like five or six different Saint Teresas, so I’m not sure which was meant with mentioning her. With the mention of a feast day of October 15th, Saint Teresa of Avila seems to have been who they were mentioning. She is the patron saint of Bodily illnesses, headaches, chess, lacemakers, laceworkers, loss of parents, people in need of grace, people in religious orders, people ridiculed for their piety, Požega, Croatia, sick people, sickness, Spain, and Talisay City, Cebu.

Virgin Mary – “Our Lady of La Candelaria” and “Virgin of Candelaria” as in the Virgin Mary of the Canary Islands, Spain and sometime connected with the Black Madonna.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus

Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)

That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.

The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?

A Santa By Any Other Name….

The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.

Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.

I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.

Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop 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, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. 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. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.

Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.

Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, 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. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.

Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.

Codifying A Legend

It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.

History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.

A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.

A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.

William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.

Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.

Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.

George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.

Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.

To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.

He’s Making A List!

One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.

Letters To Santa

This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.

The Spirit Of Giving

The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.

Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.

Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.

Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care

Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.

Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.

Cookies For Santa

An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.

Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.

Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.

Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.

Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.

Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.

Santa’s Laughter

“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:

“. . . a little round belly

    That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”

The North Pole

The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.

Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.

Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.

Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.

Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.

Santa’s Helpers

At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.

Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.

Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.

Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.

Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.

Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.

Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.

Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.

Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.

Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.

La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.

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.

Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”

Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.

Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.

Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.

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.

What About Mrs. Claus?

As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.

Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.

Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs

With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.

Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.

The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus

Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.

There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.

Shaman Santa!

With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.

Santa Controversy

It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The 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.

At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.

I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.

Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.

The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.

Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?

You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.

Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.

In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.

Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.

In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.