Category Archives: Chocolate
Etymology: “Rising from the Sea,” Aphros “Sea Foam”
Other Names and Epithets: Αφροδιτη, Acraea, Amathusia, Ambologera (”She who Postpones Old Age”), Anadyomene, Antheia, Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), Aphrodite en kopois (“Aphrodite of the Gardens”), Chryse (mythology), Cytherea, Lady of Cythera, Despoina, Aphrodite Pandemos, Aphrodite Ourania or Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), Aphrodite Benetrix (Married Love), Aphrodite Porne (Erotic Love), Pandemos, Urania, Lady of Cyprus, Philommeidḗs (“Smile-Loving” or “Laughter-Loving”), Eleemon (“The Merciful”), Genetyllis (“Mother”), Potnia (“Mistress”), Enoplios (“Armed”), Morpho (“Shapely”), Melainis (“Black One”), Skotia (“Dark One”), Androphonos (“Killer of Men”), Anosia (“Unholy”), Tymborychos (“Gravedigger”), Aphrodite Pontia (“Of the Deep Sea”), and Aphrodite Euploia (“Of the Fair Voyage”)
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, specifically sexual love, beauty, desire and fertility. With an irresistible charm and beauty, Aphrodite is used to getting her way as many a mortal and god sought her favor. For those who spurned her, Aphrodite could be vindictive like many a Greek deity’s reputation for pettiness. Aphrodite is without a doubt, one of the best-known Olympian goddesses. In more modern times, Aphrodite is still seen one of many feminine icons from mythology who continues to feature in Western literature and arts.
Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart is Venus and their myths become very intertwined over the millennia to the point that their names are often interchangeable in Aphrodite’s myths.
Animal: Dolphin, Dove, Ducks, Geese, Heron, Ram, Sparrow, Swan, Tortoise
Colors: Blue, Green, Scarlet, White, Gold
Day of the Week: Friday
Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, Pearl
Month: April, February, July
Patron of: Love, Lovers, Prostitutes
Plant: Apple, Lime Tree, Mandrake, Myrtle, Myrrh, Palm, Pomegranate, Poppy, Rose
Sphere of Influence: Love in all of its forms, physical, sensual, passion, relationships
Symbols: Girdle, Golden Apples, Scallop Shells, Mirror, the Ocean, Chocolate
Aphrodite Areia – Helmet, Lance, Shield, Sword, Victory
Aphrodite Pandemos – Ram
Aphrodite Urania – Tortoise for Domestic Modesty and Chastity
In Classic Greek art, Aphrodite is often depicted as a blue-eyed, golden-haired woman with pale skin. For the Greeks, she was the very ideal of beauty. Statues of Aphrodite depict her as the height of Grecian physical beauty. At first, there was nothing to distinguish Aphrodite from other statues of goddesses, not until around the 5th century B.C.E. Statues of Aphrodite from Cyrene and Esquiline in the 1st century B.C.E. were called Aphrodite Kallipygos or “Aphrodite with a Beautiful Derriere.”
Classical art and sculpture from the 5th century B.C.E. will show Aphrodite as fully clothed, once the 1st century B.C.E. comes, do nude statues of Aphrodite appear. The most famous of the Aphrodite sculptures was carved by Praxieteles. It is during the Hellenistic era of Greece that the first nude statue of Aphrodite, the Venus de Milo appears in the 2nd century B.C.E.
Aphrodite is often shown accompanied with her son Eros, also a god of love.
What’s In A Name
We know the first part of Aphrodite’s name, aphros means sea foam or foam and alludes to her birth from the ocean when Uranus’ gentiles were thrown in the sea by his son Cronus. There were early attempts by scholars to link Aphrodite’s name to a Greek or Indo-European origin. Given the strong connections of Aphrodite to the Middle East and likely of Semitic origin.
Nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted the etymology of “sea form” for the first part of Aphrodite’s name have tried to connect the second part of the name “-odite” to mean either “wanderer” or “brite.” As there’s disagreements, some scholars have even gone so far as to link Aphrodite’s name to the Assyrian barīrītu, the name of a female demon found in Babylonian texts. Others have tried for the Etruscan word of “eproni” for “lord” making the last part of Aphrodite’s name an honorific. The name continues to be debated as to what the correct translation and etymology for Aphrodite’s name is.
The epithets of Urania for Heavenly Dweller and Pandemos for “Of all the people” likely try to connect her as a goddess of universal love and everyone. In his Symposium, Plato argues that the epitaphs of Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos are two separate deities.
There is a lot of evidence and discussions that Aphrodite very strongly began as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar or the Phoenician Astarte and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart.
Pausanias records that the first people to worship Aphrodite were the Assyrians and then the people of Cyprus, followed by the Phoenicians at Ascalon. From there, Aphrodite’s cult and worship spread throughout most of Greece.
Looking at the epitaph of Aphrodite Ourania shows a connection to Inanna as the Queen of Heaven. Early art and literature that describes Aphrodite is very similar to Inanna. Like Inanna, Aprodite was worshiped as a war goddess, at least in the second century B.C.E. Pausanias makes mention where in Sparta, she is worshipped as Aphrodite Areia, meaning “warlike.” Pausanias also records that early statues in Sparta and Cythera show Aprodite bearing arms. Modern scholars use this connection of Aphrodite with her Middle Eastern origins. It makes sense when ancient Grecian culture once stretched as far as where modern Turkey and Syria are today.
Doves – One of Aphrodite’s symbols, the dove is also connected to Ishtar as one of her symbols. Scholars have noted that the Greek word for dove is “peristera” is likely comes from the Semitic phrase of “perah Istar” meaning “bird of Ishtar.” How interesting. Doves appear in a lot of ancient Greek art for pottery, reliefs, and sculptures depicting Aphrodite.
At one point, early comparative scholars have tried to link Aprodite with Eos, the Greek goddess of the Dawn. It works and relies on linking to the Proto-Indo European Dawn goddess of Haéusōs who is then linked to the Greek Eos, the Latin Aurora and the Sanskrit Ushas.
Both Aphrodite and Eos are known for their erotic beauty and sexuality. They have both had relationships with mortal lovers (as have a good number of Greek deities). Add in, that both goddesses are associated with the colors of red, white, and gold. The myth of Aphrodite rising from the sea has a similarity to the Rigvedic myth of Indra defeating Vrtra and freeing Ushas. Which then brings the last comparison of Aphrodite and the Indo-European goddess Haéusōs both having a parentage that links them to of a sky deity.
Maybe, but it is the alternative mythological and etymological link when the Middle Eastern connection isn’t accepted. Plus, the whole Proto-Indo-European language is largely theoretical with many modern scholars leaning towards the Mesopotamian connections.
As a goddess of love, beauty and sexual desires, Aphrodite was and still is worshiped by a wide variety of people from nearly every walk of life. For ancient Greece, this is the everyday people up to the higher, ruling class
As a very sensual goddess of love, particularly sexual love and beauty, Aphrodite’s priestesses were known to engage in sexual activities themselves as part of worshiping her. It should be noted that this didn’t make them prostitutes, it was part of the job description for priestess of Aphrodite. If you’re seeing every woman as a goddess to held sacred, cherished, respected and worshiped, you’re not far from worshiping Aphrodite or any goddess or god of love. It is going to get carnal.
As such, Aphrodite had several shrines and temples dedicated to her. Her main temples and cults were to be found in Cythera and Cyprus.
Gynaikonomoi – If it hasn’t been noticed before, women in many Greek and even Roman myths aren’t treated well, whether goddess or mortal. The Gynaikonomoi or Magistrates in Charge of Women are mentioned in the 1st century C.E. Sparta.
Marriage – Pausanias records the practice of the mothers of brides sacrificing to a wooden image known as Aphrodite Hera, an epitaph of either goddess connecting the ideals of love and marriage. Pausanias goes on to mention a seated statue of Aphrodite Morpho or the “The Fair Shaped Aphrodite” that had a veil on her head and chains on her feet. Lovely. This statuary clearly meant to connect the role of brides and a woman’s place in a marriage with her duties with wives being faithful to husbands.
Prostitutes – Yes, Aphrodite is the patron goddess of prostitutes. The city of Corinth was known for the high number of prostitutes and courtesans. With Corinth also being one of Aphrodite’s main cult centers with a major temple, it led to early scholars believing in the concept of “sacred prostitution” in Greco-Roman cultures with nearby islands of Cyprus and Cythera and even Sicily being associated with prostitution. There are records of many dedications to Aphrodite found in poetry and pottery by courtesans that have been found. Plus, you add in that Aphrodite’s Mesopotamian counterpart Inanna is also associated with prostitution. While the idea of “sacred prostitution” persists in some schools of thought, the idea is getting discarded more and more.
Amathus – This is one of Aphrodite’s centers of worship on the island of Cyprus.
Corinth – On mainland Greece, this city was one of Aphrodite’ centers of worship.
Cyprus – Aphrodite’s center of worship was clearly on this island as evidenced by the numerous sanctuaries dedicated to this goddess. Aphrodite would be called Cyprian for her connection to this island as her birthplace.
Cythera – Another island where Aphrodite’s worship was prominent. It had been a Minoan colony at one point. Some myths will place Aphrodite’s birth as being here, giving her the epitaph of Cytherea. The island was certainly a stopping point for the trade route between Crete and Peloponesus which in turn could mean that the myths might have evidence of how Aphrodite’s cult came from the Middle East to Greece.
Pandemos – This the oldest of Aphrodite’s cult-sites that dates back to 230 B.C.E. Here, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Pandemos or “Aphrodite who is Common to all the People.” This Aphrodite was associated with the hero Theseus and worshipers of Aphrodite Pandemos sought out her blessings for uniting the people of Athens. Not just for personal relationships, but political connections too. The cult of Aphrodite Pandemos is very likely led to the formation of democracy.
This city located on Cyprus is the location for one of Aphrodite’s most well-known temples, especially in the ancient world. It is thought that the rites dedicated to Aphrodite were a blend of oriental and Aegean influences that could ultimately trace their origins to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte. Archeological studies have shown that the cult of Aphrodite dates back to the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1200 B.C.E. and continue uninterrupted up to the Late Roman Era towards the 4th century C.E. There are suggestions that Aphrodite’s worship could possibly go back to the Chalcolithic Era. Female figurines and charms have been found dating to the third millennium and religious sanctuaries called temenos were well established before the construction of any Late Bronze Age structures.
Prior to this, Pausanias thought Aphrodite’s cult was introduced from Syria and of Phoenician origin. Prior to more modern Archeology, people that that Aphrodite’s worship and cult dated back before Homer’s time of around 700 B.C.E. with mention of Aphrodite’s altar in the Odyssey.
Paphos is also the location that the Greeks say where Aphrodite landed when she arrived at Cyprus when she rose out of the sea. An oracle was also to found here in Paphos. The Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia was a pilgrimage destination for her followers. The city gains its name from Paphos, the son of Pygmalion and Galatea.
During this era of classical Greek history that many are familiar with, the Greeks began to identify Aphrodite with the Egyptian goddesses of Hathor and Isis. Aphrodite would become the patron goddess of the Lagid queens. As was Egyptian custom, Queen Arsinoe II was claimed to be the mortal incarnation of Aphrodite.
Aphrodite’s worship spread to the city of Alexandria with many temples dedicated to her that could be found around the city. The cult of Adonis was introduced to the city by Queen Arisone II. The Tessarakonteres galley had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite with a marble statue. Another temple dedicated to Aphrodite Hathor would be established in the second century B.C.E. at Philae. Statuettes of Aphrodite would become very common for people to do personal devotions during the Ptolemaic era in Egypt and last through when it came under Roman rule.
The Romans readily adopted and identified Aphrodite with their own goddess Venus who was originally a goddess of agriculture, fertility, vegetation, and Spring. This would become official in the third century B.C.E. when the cult of Venus Erycina is introduced to Rome by way of the Grecian sanctuary for Aphrodite on Mount Eryx in Sicily. From here, the iconography and imagery of Aphrodite along with her myths would be attached to Venus.
Further cementing this adaptation is that Aphrodite was revered as the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Greek myths and the Romans hailed him as the ancestor to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. With this connection, Venus as Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Roman nation became prominent. The Greek worship of Aphrodite began to emphasis more and more her connection to the city of Troy and Aeneas. More and more Roman influences and elements began to connect Aphrodite as more maternal and militaristic and more connected to the bureaucracy that Aphrodite became a divine guardian of numerous magistrates.
Parentage and Family
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born from the dismembered genitals of Uranus after Cronus cut them off. She rose up from the sea where they landed after being thrown.
Sometimes the primordial sea goddess Thalassa is given as Aphrodite’s mother in the myth with Uranus.
According to Homer’s Iliad, Zeus and Dione are her parents.
As a result of mixed parentage, depending on if you go by Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite is going have several siblings.
Aeacus, Angelos, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Charities, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai, or the Titans, the Cyclopes, the Meliae, the Erinyes (Furies), the Giants, the Hekatonkheires
Hephaestus – Husband and god of Smithing and Volcanoes.
With Adonis, Aphrodite is the mother of Beroe and Golgos.
With the god Ares, Aphrodite is the mother of: the Erotes: Anteros, Eros, Himeros and Pothos (though sometimes Pothos is listed as Eros’ son). Other children of theirs are: Phobos, Deimos, Phlegyas, Harmonia and Adrestia.
In early myth, Anteros was originally born from the sea alongside Aphrodite, later on, he comes her son by Ares.
With Butes, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Meligounis, and a number of unnamed daughters.
With Dionysus, Aphrodite is the mother of Hymenaios, Iacchus, and the Charities (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia)
With the god Hermes, Aphrodite is the mother of the androgynous deity Hermaphroditus.
With Phaethon, Aphrodite is the mother of Astynous.
With the god Poseidon, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Rhodus and Herophilus.
With the mortal Prince Anchises, Aphrodite is the mother of Aeneas
Peitho has no father is given for him.
Priapus – either the gods Adonis, Ares or Dionysus is their father.
Aphrodite is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Also called Aphrodisia, as the name implies, this was a festival held in Aphrodite’s honor and was celebrated in many places around Greece during midsummer. It was a festival involved substances believed or known to cause sexual arousal and desire. This festival was most notably in Athens and Cornith.
In Athens, Aphrodisia would be celebrated in the month of Hekatombaion to celebrate Aphrodite’s rule in the unification of Attica. In the old Grecian calendar, the month of Hekatombaion corresponded with the month of July and was the first month of the year.
The priests of Aphrodite would purify the Temple of Aphrodite Pandemos with the blood of a dove that had been sacrificed. The altars would than be anointed and the statues of Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Peitho would be carried down to be ritually bathed.
This is another festival that honored Aphrodite in Athens. Not much is known about this festival.
The fourth day of every month was also held sacred to Aphrodite.
Attendants Of Aphrodite
Charities – The Graces in Roman mythology, this group of goddesses were known to accompany Aphrodite. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Abundance.”) They were worshiped as goddesses in Greek long before the arrival of Aphrodite.
Erotes – Aphrodite’s many sons who all presided over a different aspect of love.
Eros – Is the primary son who most people think of as accompanying Aphrodite. Most people are familiar with his Roman name of Cupid. By either name, Eros is the god of lust and sexual desire. Eros is described as one of four original primeval forces born at the beginning of time in Hesiod’s Theogony. After the birth of Aphrodite, Eros joins Himeros to become one of her companions.
Harmonia – A minor goddess of harmony. She is Aphrodite’s daughter with Ares, she is sometimes seen accompanying her.
Hebe – The goddess of youth, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe sometimes accompanied Aphrodite.
Horae – The Hours, they are the daughters of Zeus and Themis. Their names are Eunomia (“Good Order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”).
In Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” the goddess is described as riding in a chariot that is pulled by sparrows.
Aphrodite isn’t just a Love Goddess, the sexual acts associated with her, Aphrodite’s attributes extend to the fertility of animals and vegetation, not just humans. In the story of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, the version of the story found in the Iliad has Aphrodite returning to Cyprus so she can renew her virginity in Spring. Something she apparently does after each liaison. Some even suggest so far as to identify Aphrodite as a Mother Goddess as she gives birth to the crops each year. However, I think that domain is well and thoroughly covered with Demeter and Persephone. Though given the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, Mother Goddess and fertility still easily fits.
Pomegranates are thought to be associated with Aphrodite as the red seeds symbolized sexuality. An interesting side note, Greek women sometimes used pomegranates as a form of birth control.
Venus – When equating Aphrodite with the Roman goddess Venus, the poet Lucretius calls Aphrodite as a Genetrix for her creation and creative role in the world.
Plus, the aspects of Aphrodite as a fertility goddess really fit when under Roman influence and they have identified many of Aphrodite’s myths to their goddess and are busy tacking on Venus’ aspects to her Grecian counterpart.
This is the domain that Aphrodite is really known for, Love, all kinds of love. The many epitaphs that Aphrodite has denote which form of love she presides over.
Aphrodite Benetrix – Married Love
Aphrodite Porne – Erotic Love
Aphrodite Urania – Heavenly Aphrodite, Spiritual Love, the kind that is unconditional and all of creation.
That’s just a few of the names that cover the many types of love that Aphrodite presided over. In addition, Aphrodite had numerous sons, most notably Eros who would accompany her and who represented the different types of love.
Birth Of A Goddess
There are a couple different origin stories for Aphrodite.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus and the severed member was thrown into the ocean. As the ocean began to churn and foam, Aphrodite rose up out of the waves. With Zephyr’s help, this Wind God blew the young goddess towards the island of Cyprus where flowers sprang up from her footsteps as she stepped on land. There, Aphrodite was welcomed by the Charities. From there, Aphrodite was dressed and taken to Mount Olympus to be presented to the other gods.
Other variations have Aphrodite arriving at Cythera. Seafood is known as aphrodisiacs as they are seen related to Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.
It is for the places of Cyprus and Cythera, that Aphrodite is also known by the names of Kypris and Cytherea.
It has been pointed out that Hesiod’s Theogony is likely pulled from the Hittite epic “The Song of Kumarbi” where Kumarbi overthrows his father, Anu the sky god by biting off his genitals and thus becoming pregnant to give birth to Ishtar and Teshub.
Homer, in his Iliad, however, says that Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. A note here is that Dione’s name is possibly a feminine form to Dios and Dion, both alternative names for Zeus and that both Zeus and Dione had a cult center in Dodona. Hesiod names Dione an Oceanid in his Theogony.
Marriage To Hephaestus
Following the genealogy with Zeus, he feared that the other gods would fight each other over who would get to marry Aphrodite.
Figuring himself wise and clever, Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus, the Smithing god. Imagine Hephaestus’ surprise, him the least comely of the gods and disabled. Elated, Hephaestus put all his efforts and skills in smithing to create the most exquisite jewels that he could for his bride. He even made a girdle of finely wrought gold with magic woven into it for Aphrodite.
While Hephaestus was happy with his marriage, Aphrodite wasn’t too pleased with the arrangement. She would have greatly preferred someone far more attractive and like many of the gods, she does have her affairs and dalliances.
Strophion – This is what Hephaestus will have crafted for Aphrodite, translations into English will call it a girdle. As lovely as this magic girdle is, whenever Aphrodite wore it, no one was able to resist her charms and was already irresistible to many. It’s been commented that Hera sometimes borrowed Aphrodite’s magic strophion from time to time.
The other name I have come across for this girdle or belt is cestus, which in Rome, a cestus is a set of armored leather gloves worn by boxers. That could be a translation error though as Aphrodite’s strophion was called “keston himanta” or (kestos himas) and that might be the source of confusion.
A final bit to note, is that this style of strophia were also used in depictions for the Middle Eastern goddesses Astarte and Ishtar.
Folklore – Instead of Zeus handing Aphrodite off in marriage, it is Hera who does so. In this one, Hephaestus made a golden throne for his mother Hera. When Hera sat down on the throne, it trapped her, and Hephaestus refused to release her until Hera agreed to give Aphrodite to him in marriage. Pleased that his mother agreed to the marriage, Hephaestus then gods to make his bride to be some jewelry, including the strophion that is often translated to mean girdle.
There are a few versions of Aphrodite’s marriage and who Hephaestus is actually married to.
Iliad – Aphrodite is the unmarried consort to Ares. Hephaestus’ wife is Charis, one of the Charities.
Odyssey – Book Eight is where the blind singer Demodocus describes Aphrodite as the wife to Hephaestus when the story of Aphrodite and Ares’ Affair is related.
Theogony – Aphrodite is unmarried, Hephaestus’ wife is Aglaea, the youngest of the Charities.
Aphrodite & Pandora
From Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus tasks Aphrodite to create Pandora, as the first woman to punish mankind after Prometheus’ stealing fire and gifting it to humans. Aphrodite makes Pandora to be both physically beautiful and sexually attractive so men will fall for her and lead to opening the box by which to release evils upon the world. Aphrodite’s attendants of Peitho, the Charities and the Horae contribute by gifting Pandora with gold and jewelry to be even more attractive.
Love Affair With Adonis
This is perhaps the most famous of Aphrodite’s affairs with a mortal by the name of Adonis.
Accordiing to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Adonis is the son of Myrrha who was cursed by Aphrodite and turned into a Myrrh tree. Depending on the version of the story, either Myrrh’s father takes an axe to split open the tree or nine months later the tree burst, splitting open with Adonis being born.
Aphrodite found the infant and takes him down to the Underworld hidden in a chest to be entrusted into Persephone’s keeping. When Persephone discover a baby in the chest, she falls in love with the infant and takes care of him.
Later, Aphrodite returns to check in and discovers that Adonis has grown up to become remarkably handsome. By this time, Persephone is also rather attached to Adonis as well and what ensues is a custody battle of who gets Adonis.
Zeus took the matter into his own hands, in which he put the muse Calliope to arbitrate. She divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend one third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis comes to love Aphrodite more. It doesn’t help that Aphrodite cheated by wearing her magic girdle to cause Adonis to spend more time with her.
When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. This wild boar is actually Ares in a jealous rage. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was either transformed into the anemone flower or wherever Adonis’ blood fell, a red anemone flower sprung up.
Another account says that in her search for Adonis, that Aphrodite’s feet became cut and pierced by thorns and that the blood from her feet is what turned into the Anemone flowers.
A slight variation holds that Aphrodite acted as a surrogate mother to Adonis.
Sometimes the boar is sent by Artemis in retaliation for Aphrodite killing Hippolytus. Other times, it’s Apollo who is the boar that kills Adonis. Or that Dionysus carried Adonis away.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon. In the Canaanite language, Adon means lord and the names of Adonis and Adon appear to have a very solid linguistic connection.
Sumerian Connection – Another connection is that of the story of Inanna and Dumuzid.
Vegetation God – Some accounts will say that Adonis wasn’t mortal, that he was a deity in his own right and that this myth explains his death and rebirth each year for Summer and Winter as Zeus stepped in at this point saying that Adonis must spend the summers with Aphrodite and the winters with Persephone in the Underworld.
With this connection in mind, it’s been noted that Adonis’ cult had underworld tones of life and rebirth. From this, Aphrodite became connected with the dead in Delphi.
Aphrodite & Dionysus
Aphrodite is known to have numerous affairs. Depending on the account read, depends on if, with this story if it is either Dionysus, Hermes, Adonis or even Zeus himself who Aphrodite comes to bear the son Priapus with.
Generally, Dionysus is given as the father of Priapus with Aphrodite. As the story goes, following the events of the Trojan War, Hera was angry with Aphrodite’s interference when all the other gods were forbidden to be there by Zeus.
While pregnant with Priapus, Hera applied a potion to Aphrodite’s stomach as the goddess was sleeping. This was to ensure the child would be born deformed and monstrous looking. When Aphrodite gave birth to Priapus, she was horrified by the sight of an infant with a large, permanently erect gentile, potbelly, and large tongue. Aphrodite left the infant out on a hillside to die of exposure. However, a huntsman found the infant and raised them.
Later, Priapus would discover his powers a deity and the ability to cause vegetation to grow.
Aphrodite & Hermes
First, a little bit of history. There was at one point, a male version of Aphrodite known as Aproditus. This is a male version of Aphrodite who was worshiped within the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. Aphroditus would be shown in art as having the dress and body of a woman while sporting a beard. He would be shown lifting up his dress to show his genitals, thought to be an apotropaic symbol or warding off evil. Eventually, Aphroditus’ popularity would fade away and the feminine form of Aphrodite would prevail.
Hermaphroditus – Also called Hermaphroditos. With so many gods having affairs with the fair and lovely Aphrodite, it isn’t too much of a surprise that she would also haven one with Hermes. The child that they had was a very handsome and beautiful boy of the name Hermaphroditus. A naiad by the name of Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphoditus and in a rare twist, she tried to rape him. When Hermaphroditus tries to fight off Salmacis, the naiad prays to the gods that they should become one. The gods answer, it’s not clear which one or ones answer and Salmacis and Hermaphroditus fuse into one intersex being. Horrified by what happened to him, Hermaphroditus called on his parents, Hermes and Aphrodite to curse the fountain so that others who entered it’s waters would have the same thing happen to them.
Traces of Aphroditus’ cult are found within Hermaphroditus’ story.
Love Affair With Ares
This story is told in the Odyssey, Book Eight by the blind singer Demodocus. This is also a story that probably began as a folk tale among the Greeks.
The Sun-god Helios had spotted the two gods, Ares and Aphrodite in a tryst in the halls of Hephaestus. Helios went to inform Hephaestus of his wife’s affair who then decided to try and catch the two in the act. Being the master smith and craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus created a finely woven and nearly invisible net to ensnare the two in. Waiting for the right moment, he succeeded in trapping both Ares and Aphrodite within the net.
Wanting to make sure the two were properly shamed and punished, Hephaestus called the other Olympian gods to come. All the goddesses declined to come, not wanting to be scandalized while all the gods did come and gawked. Some commenting to the beauty of Aphrodite and other stating they’d gladly trade places with Ares. In versions of the story, the gods agreed on Hephaestus’ right to be angry and in others, they didn’t care. In the end, when released, an embarrassed Ares returned to his home in Thrace and Aphrodite went to the city of Paphos on Cyprus where she would bathe in the sea to renew her virginity with the help of the Charities. It wouldn’t take Hephaestus long to forgive Aphrodite her affair as he missed her.
Elaborating on this story, a later addition, Ares had the youth Alectryon guarding the door to warn when Helios came by as he would no doubt inform Hephaestus of the affair. However, Alectryon fell asleep and Helios discovered the two’s affair. Ares, embarrassed and infuriated at being caught, turned Alectryon into a rooster and it’s that add-on to the story of Ares and Aphrodite’s affair that roosters always crow, announcing the rising of the sun in the morning.
Variation – A version of the story found in Homer’s Odyssey has Hephaestus refusing to release the lovers unless Zeus returned the bridal gifts. Zeus staunchly refused as he felt that Hephaestus shouldn’t have made the affair so public. Though in the Odyssey, Poseidon does agree to play Hephaestus’ price to release both Ares and Aphrodite.
From their affair, Ares and Aphrodite became the parents of several minor deities: Eros, Arethousa, Harmonia, Phobos, Deimos and Adrestia. Both Eros and Arethousa’s tended to have attributes more in align with Aphrodite. Adrestia tended to be more like her father Ares.
Aphrodite & Poseidon
It makes sense, that this story takes place right after Aphrodite’s affair with Ares. Poseidon fell in love with Aphrodite and there must have been a fling for there is one daughter, Rhode and a son, Herophilus who is attributed to Poseidon as being the father.
Aphrodite & Pygmalion
The myth of Pygmalion has its first mention in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek writer Philostephanus of Cyrene. The myth has a full accounting later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Pygmalion was a sculptor from the island of Cyprus who refused to marry any woman as he found them to all be immoral. Very well, Pygmalion sets about carving an ivory statue of Aphrodite that was so life-like that he fell in love with it.
So, in love with the statue, Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite to bring the statue to live so he could marry it. Aphrodite heard the sculptor’s prayers and brought the statue to life, naming her Galatea. From their union, Galatea and Pygmalion had two children, Paphos, a son and from whom the capital of Cyprus would be named for, and a daughter Metharme as mentioned by Pseudo-Apollodorus.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
In this story, Aphrodite helped Hippomenes, a youth who desired to marry the maiden Atalanta. The catch was, Atalanta refused to marry any man unless they could beat her in a footrace, and she had the habit of beheading those who lost.
In comes Aphrodite give Hippomenes three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides with the instructions to toss them before Atalanta as they raced. Doing as instructed, Hippomenes tossed the apples down in Atalanta’s path. Each time Atalanta bent down to pick up another golden apple, it would give Hippomenes more of a lead, allowing him to win the race and thus marry Atalanta.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story continues. Because Hippomenes forgot to give thanks to Aphrodite after words, she causes the two to become so infatuated with each other while in the Temple of Cybele. The two desecrated Cybele’s temple by having sex in it and an angry Cybele turned Hippomenes and Atalanta into lions.
Sometimes it is Zeus who punishes the two mortals. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
As it is Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the mention of Cybele, there’s a clear Roman influence on the second part of the story.
Aphrodite & Typhon – Pisces
Typhon, a monstrous god, attacked the Gods when they were down by the Nile River. In some retellings of the story, the Gods where there in exile or that just happens to be where they were at for one of their many battles with Typhon. In either eventuality, Aphrodite and her son Eros were among the gods along the Nile River’s banks when Typhon appeared to do battle. While Zeus and a couple of other gods fought it out with Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros had leapt into the river, changing into a pair of fish so they could make their escape. In other accounts of the story, Aphrodite and Eros tied themselves together with a rope so they wouldn’t get separated.
Another account of this story places the riverbank that the gods were walking along as being the Euphrates River and not the Nile River. There is also a very similar story found in a Manilius’ five-volume poetic work Astronomica in which the fish that become the constellation of Pisces carried Aphrodite and Eros away to safety.
Keeping with the Euphrates River connection, when an egg fell into this river, a pair of fish pushed it to the shore where doves then sat on the egg to hatch it. When it hatched, Aphrodite came out of the egg. In a show of gratitude, the goddess placed the fish up into the sky to become the constellation Pisces. Through these connections of the myth, Pisces is also known as “Venus et Cupido,” “Venus Syria cum Cupidine,” Venus cum Adone,” “Dione,” and “Veneris Mater.”
Eros & Psyche
Psyche happened to be an extraordinarily beautiful princess. This brought about the anger and jealousy of Aphrodite when people turned their attention to Psyche and worshiped her. Aphrodite enlisted the aid of her son Eros to help punish Psyche.
The idea is that Eros would cause Psyche to fall in love with the worst and most vilest creature on the earth possible. Instead of doing as his mother bid, Eros fell in love with Psyche and took her home. He instructed Psyche that she was to never look upon his face.
All is well for awhile until Psyche goes home to visit family and her sisters convince her to break Eros’ command and look upon his face. Psyche does this and hurt, angry, Eros flies away leaving poor Psyche behind.
Psyche beseeches Aphrodite for help with finding her lost love. Knowing who it is that Psyche is looking for, Aphrodite sets out a series of nearly impossible tasks for Psyche to do. Eventually Eros discovers what’s happening and as he can’t bear to see Psyche’s suffering, returns. The two are married with all the gods attending.
This story is an early model for the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast.
A Goddess Scorned
Many of the Greek gods have a reputation for being very fickle. Just as often as they favor mortals, they can also punish them too.
By the stories, Aphrodite is no different and she could be very gracious with those mortals whom she favored. For those mortals who didn’t fawn upon Aphrodite the attention and worship she felt she was owed, Aphrodite could be very vindictive.
Aegialeia – The wife of Diomedes, she was cursed by Aphrodite after Diomedes had wounded the goddess during the Trojan War. Aegialia was cursed with promiscuity and she had several lovers, among them Hippolytus. Now it could be, that Aegialeia was angry with Diomedes as she heard rumors, he was returning home with a Trojan woman and this was to get back at an unfaithful husband. When Aegialeia threatened Diomedes’ life, he took off for Italy.
Clio – When the Muse derided Aphrodite’s love for Adonis, Aphrodite caused Clio to fall in love with Pierus of Magnesia and they had a son, Hyacinth.
Eos – Aphrodite cursed Eos, the goddess of the Dawn to be forever, perpetually in love with an insatiable sexual desire after Eos had slept with Ares, god of war. Guess no one else was allowed to have Aphrodite’s sweetheart.
Glaucus of Corinth – He angered Aphrodite when he refused to let his chariot horses mate, as to do so would slow their speed down. Aphrodite bided her time and when the Funeral Games for King Pelias happened, the goddess caused Glaucus’ horses to go mad and tear him apart during the chariot race.
Halia – She is a sea nymph who bore six sons with Poseidon. When Halia’s sons refused to let Aphrodite land on their shore, Aphrodite drove them all insane, causing them to rape their mother, Halia. Poseidon buried his six sons within the island’s sea caves.
Hippolytus – The son of Theseus, he worshipped only Artemis, the goddess of virginity and hunting. Because Hippolytus refused any sexual intercourse, this upset Aphrodite who saw him as being very prideful. As a result, Aphrodite caused Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother to fall in love with him. Understandably so, Hippolytus refuses Phaedra’s advances. Phaedra however, is so distraught that she kills herself but not before leaving a note for Theseus, telling him that she committed suicide because Hippolytus tried to rape her.
This upsets Theseus who prays to Poseidon to kill Hippolytus for his actions. Poseidon answers by sending a wild bull to scare Hippolytus’ horses and smash the chariot so that he falls to his death along a seaside cliff. In the end, Artemis finally gets wind of what happened and goes to seek her own revenge against Aphrodite, which in some stories, is sending a wild boar to kill Adonis.
Leucippus – The grandson of Bellerophon, it is never clear what caused Aphrodit’e anger in this story. Only that the goddess caused Leucippus to fall in love with his sister. The sister was already betrothed to another and the betrothed found out about the incestuous relationship that Leucippus and his sister were having, went to inform their father Xanthius. Father Xanthius shows up at his daughter’s bed chamber and discovers his son, Leucippus there. As it’s dark, a fight ensues where the daughter is killed trying to escape and Leucippus kills his father as he doesn’t recognize who it is at first. Once he realizes what happened, Leucippus leaves to go be part of the colonizing of Crete and Asia Minor.
Myrrha – I covered this myth earlier in the story of Adonis. Myrrha’s mother, Queen Cenchreis of Cyprus had bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite. In response, Aphrodite cursed Myrrha to fall in love with her father, King Cinyras who slept with her unknowingly. Eventually Myrrha turned into the myrrh tree and gave birth to Adonis.
It doesn’t end there, Aphrodite continued her wrath against Queen Cenchreis and King Cinyras’ other three daughters, Braesia, Laogora, Orsedice to sleep with some foreigners and they ended up dying in Egypt.
Narcissus – One account has Aphrodite cursing Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection after he refused to worship her.
Pasiphae – In one version, for the birth of the birth of the minotaur, Pasiphae had failed to make the appropriate offerings to Venus (Aphrodite), as a result, the goddess caused her to fall in love with the white bull meant as an offering to Zeus.
Alternatively, the curse comes because Pasiphae is the daughter of Helio and this is Aphrodite getting back at him for exposing her affair with Ares.
Polyphonte – Was a young woman and another devote to Artemis who chose a life of virginity instead of marriage and children. Aphrodite cursed Polyphonte to fall in love with a bear. Her resulting monstrous humanoid bear children, Agrius and Oreius who were cannibals. Zeus got involved this time and turned Polyphonte and her children into birds of ill omen; owls and a vulture.
Propoetides – He and his daughters were from the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. They had failed to worship Aphrodite appropriately and she caused them to become the first prostitutes. It should be noted that this is a story found in Ovid’ Metamorphoses.
Tanais – The son of Lysippe and Berossos, he was a devote to Ares, fully committed to war. This upset Aphrodite as Tanais neglected love and marriage. The goddess cursed Tanais to fall in love with his mother Lysippe. As he refused to give up his chastity, Tanais threw himself into the Amazonius river, which after words was renamed to the Tanais river.
The Women of Lemnos – Because these ladies refused to offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, she cursed all of them to have a horrible stench. We’re talking bad, to the point that their husbands refused to have sex with them. The husbands went and had sex with their Thracian slave-girls instead. This angered the Lemnos Women, and they murdered all the men and their slaves on their island. Later, when Jason and the Argonauts show up, these women are just starved for a man’s affections, that with Aphrodite’s approval, she allows for the Lemnos Women to have sex with Jason and his crew whereby they can repopulate the island. From there on out, the Lemnos Women never failed to appease Aphrodite.
The Judgement Of Paris
The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who would become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited accept Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron was in charge of the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed Eris to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and no hard feelings, Eris proposed a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the hapless mortal Paris is called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War. This causes Athena and Hera to side with the Greeks in the ensuing war.
Divine Set Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned on by Zeus and Themis. There’s only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and its seen as a prequel to Homer’s the Iliad and explains how the events came about.
Some scholars look at Aphrodite’s connection to Mesopotamia with the War Goddess Ishtar as an explanation for the start of the Trojan War, saying that Aphrodite instigated it by manipulating Paris with a promise to marry Helen.
Aphrodite has a prominent and active role in Homer’s Iliad. In Book III, Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus after a one-on-one duel to settle the matter. Aphrodite also appears to Helen in the form of an old woman, trying to persuade her to have sex with Paris. However, Helen recognizes Aphrodite by her eyes, neck, and breasts. Helen entreats with Aphrodite as an equal and the goddess rebukes Helen, threatening her. Not wanting a god’s wrath, Helen obeys Aphrodite’s command to lay with Paris.
In Book XIV of the Iliad, Aphrodite loans her kestos himas or magic girdle to Hera so she can seduce Zeus as he had forbidden the other gods to stay involved in the Trojan War at this point. While Zeus is distracted by Hera’s advances, Poseidon is aiding the Greek forces to be able to take the beach to invade Troy. Then in Book XXI, Aphrodite returns to the war to carry Ares away off the field of battle after he’s been wounded.
Anchises – He was a shepherd prince who lived on Mount Ida, whom Aphrodite fell in love with after Zeus convinced Eros to hit her with one of his arrows. After all, with Aphrodite being the goddess of love, it’s her fault that Zeus has so many affairs and is constantly on the outs with Hera.
Aphrodite pretended to be a mortal woman in order to marry Anchises. When Anchises saw Aphrodite, he asked if she was said goddess, saying he would build her an alter if she would only bless him and his family. Aphrodite lied, saying she was a princess from Phrygia. She explains how she came to understand the Trojan language due to a Trojan nursemaid as a child. How she had been snatched away by Hermes while dancing for a celebration to honor Artemis. The disguised goddess tells Anchises to take her to his parents.
From there, the two are married or Anchises so overcome with lust, couples with the goddess-princess. After their union does Aphrodite reveal who she really is, saying she will bare Aenease a son who will become the demigod Aeneas. As Anchises didn’t keep quiet about who the mother of his son was, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and either blinds or kills him outright.
There are a couple of slight versions to this story such as Aphrodite allowed for Anchises to be able to flee the city of Troy.
Aeneas – Trojan Hero and son of Aphrodite with Anchises. In book V of Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite rescues her son from Diomedes in battle. Diomedes, recognizing Aphrodite and viewing her as a weak goddess, spears her, nicking her wrist. When Aphrodite rides back to Mount Olympus in Ares’ borrowed chariot, Zeus tells the goddess that her specialty is love, not war as he mocks her for getting hurt.
Aeneas features in Virgil’s Aeneid to be Rome’s first hero and an ancestor to Romulus and Remus.
Note: It has been commented that the scene of Aphrodite and Zeus has similarities in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Ishtar laments to her mother Antu after Gilgamesh rejects her advances and is in turn, rebuked by her father Anu.
With Aphrodite’s birth and arrival from the ocean, some people have worshiped Aphrodite as a sea goddess. Several types of waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans would become associated with Aphrodite. Naturally, seashells are associated with Aphrodite. Sea food is considered an aphrodisiac due to this lovely goddess’ connection to the briny deeps.
As a sea goddess, Aphrodite protects those who travel the seas. This earned her the epitaphs of Aphrodite Pontia or Aphrodite of the Deep Sea and Aphrodite Euploia or Aphrodite of the Fair Voyage. The planet Venus that Aphrodite is associated with, served as navigational aid for ancient mariners as they plied the seas.
With the previously mentioned Mesopotamian connection to the goddesses of Astarte and Ishtar, Aphrodite may have arrived first as a goddess of War in ancient Greece. She was honored as such in Cyprus, Laconia, Sparta, and Thebes to name a few places. In Sparta, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), showing her connection to the god Ares.
Eventually, the war aspects of Aphrodite would be dropped, and the role left to Athena and Ares.
Early Christianity readily adapted many pagan symbols and icons to their religion. With Aphrodite/Venus, her symbolisms were given to Eve, prostitutes, and some female saints such as the Virgin Mary.
The story of Aphrodite’s birth became a metaphor for baptism. There is a Coptic stele dating from the sixth century C.E. where a female orant is wearing Aphrodite’s conch shell to show she has been recently baptized. Throughout the Middle Ages, folktales regarding Aphrodite/Venus remained popular.
In the fifth century C.E. North Africa, Fulgentius of Ruspe found mosaics of Aphrodite that he proceeded to interpret as a symbol for the sin of Lust, how Aphrodite’s nudeness meant that “the sin of lust is never cloaked” and that her swimming represented how all lust suffers a “shipwreck”. Fulgentius even argued how the symbols of doves and conch shells were symbols of copulation and that the symbol of roses represented the fleetingness of lust, that it has momentary pleasures that are soon gone.
Then we have Isidore of Seville who interpreted Aphrodite as a symbol of marital procreative sex, declaring how the story of Aprodite’s birth represents that sex can only be holy with the presence of semen, blood and heat for the purposes of procreation. Isidore also held that Eros/Cupid is a demon of fornication.
Venusberg – Dating from the Late Middle Ages, the Venusberg mythology would become popular in European folklore. The “Mountain of Venus” is a subterranean realm ruled by Venus and a folktale archetype for visiting the Otherworld. The most familiar appearance of Venusberg is in the German Tannhäuser legend in the 16th century.
Variations to this myth are the mortal lover being carried away to the realm of faerie by a fairy queen. Popular legends include Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
In modern Paganism such as the Church of Aphrodite, Hellenismos, and Wicca, either Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart, Venus are goddess often invoked for casting love spells and love rituals. Aphrodite is often used in charms for making aphrodisiacs, philters, and love potions.
Astarte – Canaanite & Phoenician Goddess
A goddess of love and war worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity. Astarte was identified by the Hebrews as Ashtoreth.
Hathor – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian Cow Goddess Hathor is frequently identified with Aphrodite.
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it with any gods whose people they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love and beauty is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus.
Inanna – Mesopotamian Goddess
Also known as Ishtar, she is the goddess of love, war and sexuality. She is known as the Queen of Heaven.
Isis – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian goddess of the moon, healing, magic and life who protected women and children. During the Hellenistic Grecian era, she was equated with Aphrodite.
Turan – Etruscan Goddess
The Etruscan goddess of beauty, love, and fertility. She was the patron goddess of the city Velch. She has been identified with the Roman Venus and Grecian Aphrodite.
Venus – Roman Goddess
As the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite is often confused with or identified with the Roman deity of Venus, also a Goddess of Love. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Venus with Aphrodite. While both deities are Goddesses of Love, there are differences in the Roman myths and the Greek myths.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that they would virtually become one and the same. And that’s the tradition passed down through the centuries and has become accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Just as Aphrodite is often accompanied by her son Eros, so too is Venus accompanied by her son Cupid.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Aguara is a South American Fox god who is responsible for giving the carob tree as a source of food for people. Effectively, he is a god of chocolate. Can’t go wrong there!
Or can it?
I do have to wonder about whoever did the initial writing down and researching for Aguara. A lot appears to be continued repetition and the result of bad research with a no one who knows enough about the subject to say “Hey! That’s incorrect!”
Most of the websites that give anything about Aguara, place him among Native American Deity lists. And that works when those sites in question include gods from North America down to South America. Other sites seem to be repeating bad information citing Aguara as a North American god.
Carob Tree Vs Cacao Tree
First off, Carob Trees are found in the Mediterranean, over there in Europe. They do have an edible seed pod that is used as a vegan alternative to cacao or chocolate. It is not as flavorful as chocolate, but given how much refined sugars are found in chocolate today or if you’re allergic to chocolate, it’s a good choice.
Second, Cacao Trees are found in South America and it is from the cacao beans that we get our chocolate.
Now, it is highly possible, that when European Explorers landed in the area, that they called the Cacao Trees by what they were most familiar with back home, Carob.
Properly, the animal referred to as Aguara isn’t a fox, though it does looks like a large red fox with long legs suited for and adapted to the grasslands it calls home in South America, especially its major habitat areas found in Brazil. They represent the tallest of the canine family and are in a genus of their own distinct from dogs, wolves, foxes and even jackals.
This is the tribe often listed as whose pantheon of gods that Aguara would belong to.
Curious, I went to look this up. I didn’t find much on who the Tunpa were supposed to be. Just what seems to be more listings of various Native American tribes.
I did come up with a book called “Magic: A Sociological Study” by Hutton Webster from the Standford University Press, 1948. In it, the word tunpa refers to “superhuman” power. With a capital T, Tunpa can also refer to certain dead people who possess superhuman powers.
One site did mention the Chiriguano tribe found in South America from the Andes, Argentina and Boliva. Incidentally, the Chiriguano along with the Chané are those South American tribes mentioned in “Magic: A Sociological Study” that use the word tunpa.
My list of information for Tunpa also included mention of a warrior who took up the name when leading others into battle.
So we seem to be getting closer to a connection for Aguara’s South American origins. By the time I got done with looking up everything, I have to wonder about Aguara’s authenticity given the amount of poor research and repetitive re-listing the same information found among numerous websites.