Category Archives: Christmas
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.
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 who brings 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 turn Rudolph’s story into the 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 become 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 clergy 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.
Etymology: Originating in the Old Norse, Þórr or þunraz, meaning: “Thunder.”
Alternate Spelling: Þórr (Old Norse), ðunor (Old English), Thorr, Thunor, Thonar, Donar (Old High German/ Teutonic), Donner, Thur, Thunar (Old Saxon), Thuner (Old Frisian) or Thunaer
Other Names and Epithets: Thor is known by a number of names and epithets in Norse mythology, poetry and literature.
Tor, Ásabragr (Asabrag, Æsir-Lord), Ása-Þórr (Asa-Thor Æsir-Thor), Atli (The Terrible), Björn (Bjorn, Biorn Bear), Einriði (Eindriði, The One who Rides Alone, The One who Rules Alone), Ennilangr (Ennilang, The One with the Wide Forehead), Harðhugaðr (Hardhugadr, Strong Spirit, Powerful Soul, Fierce Ego, Brave Heart), Harðvéurr (Hardveur The Strong Archer), Hlóriði (Hlórriði, The Loud Rider, The Loud Weather-God), Öku-Þor (Oku-Thor, Ukko-Thor, Cart Thor, Driving Thor), Rymr (Rym, Noise), Sönnungr (Sonnung, The True One), Véþormr (Vethorm, Protector of the Shrine), Véuðr (Véuðr, Véoðr, Veud, Veod), Véurr (Veur, Guard of the Shrine, Hallower), Vingþórr (Vingthor, Battle-Thor, Hallower), The Thunderer and many others
Thor, the Germanic god of Thunder is found in many Germanic mythologies such as the Teutonic and Norse mythos! Much as I love the Marvel version, what follows will be the proper mythological versions of the legend.
Among the Norse, Thor was a very popular deity who even surpassed the worship of his father Odin. As a god of thunder, strength and war, Thor protected both gods and mortals against evil.
Animal: Beetle, Goat
Day of the Week: Thursday
Patron of: Farmers, Sailors, Common Man, Warriors
Sphere of Influence: War, Protection of Mankind, Sky, Rain, Strength, Fertility, Hallowing, Healing, Thunder, Lightning, Storms
Symbols: Hammer, Swastika
Not the Marvel comic character of Thor who is blonde and muscular.
In Norse mythology, Thor is described as a large man with red hair and beard that gives off sparks when he’s angry. Further, he is described as having a wide forehead and fierce looking eyes. Thor is also known for not being very smart and having an insatiable appetite, he however, is always dressed for battle.
Another important aspect to Thor is that he is known for being able to change his size. Due to how hot and heavy he is, Thor is unable to cross the Bifrost bridge. He has to wade through the Northern Sea and enter Asgard the long route.
While Thor is known to be overly hasty in his judgments, is a reliable friend and battle companion who will have people’s backs.
What’s In A Name? – Syno-Dieities!
For one, the Romans, as they did with many other cultures that they encountered would equate their gods with those, whom they had in many cases, just conquered. In the case of Thor, while the Norse may not have ever been fully conquered, the Romans saw their god, Jupiter, a god of lightning and thunder in Thor. If the Romans weren’t equating Thor with Jupiter, they were equating Thor with Hercules. Other Indo-European gods equated with Thor have been the Celtic god Taranis, the Baltic Perkunas, the Estonian Taara, the Finno-Ugric Tiermes and Tordöm or Torum, the Slavic Perun and even the Hindu god Indra.
There were several Germanic cultures with incredibly similar mythologies throughout Europe at the time. So many of the deities were often extremely similar in function and myths. The Anglo-Saxons knew Thor by the name of Thunor. In Old English, Thor is known as Þunor where it becomes Donar in the Old High German or Teutonic mythos. Donar is thought to originate from the Common Germanic word Þunraz, meaning “thunder.”
During the Viking Age, many personal names using some form of Thor began to appear and be recorded with increasing frequency. It’s thought that the increased usage for the name Thor was in direct response to the growing Christian religion and resistance to it.
Donar – This is the South German or Teutonic name for Thor. The first record of this name was found on a piece of jewelry dating from the 7th century C.E. during the Migration Period of the Germanic people.
Donar Oak – In the 8th century C.E., there is an account how the Christian missionary, Saint Boniface knocked down an oak tree dedicated to “Jove” in Hesse, Germany.
Indra – A Hindu god, many have pointed towards both Thor and Indra having red hair and Scholars have compared the slaying of Vrita, a demon serpent by Indra with Thor’s battle with Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent.
Thunor – this is the Anglo-Saxon storm god and name for Thor.
Germanic Origins & Worship
Thor finds his roots in the Proto-Indo-European religion. He is a very prominent god who is mentioned many times throughout the history of the Germanic peoples from the Bronze Age, to the times of Roman occupation, to their expansions during their Migration Period, to seeing the height of his popularity during the Viking Age and persisting even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia.
Even into modern times, Thor is still found in the rural folklore in many Germanic regions. Many Nordic personal and place names often contained Thor’s name.
A hypothesis put forward by Georges Dumézil for the old Indo-European religion says that Thor represented strength when comparing him to the Hindu god Indra. However, it’s noted that many of Indra’s functions have been taken over by Odin.
Scholars have taken note of Thor’s association with fertility, especially as seen in later folklore where Thor is referred to as Sami Hora galles, the “Good-man Thor.” The equation is made as peasants seeing the side-effects of Thor’s aerial battles in the heaven that bring rain. Which makes sense when seeing Thor as a storm god, fertility would be a side-effect. Further proof is pointed in Thor’s marriage to Sif of whom not much is known about, but may very well be a memory for the divine marriage between the primary Sky God and Earth Goddess.
I’m not sure how much I agree with, but when you’ve got people wanting to connect everything, okay….
What is more practical and pointed out is Thor’s primary and principle function as the god of the second class, common man. Archaeological evidence points towards a three-tiered social hierarchy among the Norse. The first being the nobility and rulers, second being the warriors and the third being the farmers, commoners and everyone else. Thor was primarily the god of warriors and due to his being a storm god, easily stood for the farmers and commoners. As a result, Thor became the most important of the Norse gods, especially during the Viking Age as the lines between the second and third classes began to blur as social changes among the Germanic peoples.
Odin, who was the principle god for the first class appealing to the nobles, rulers, outcasts and anyone who was considered elite. Odin was often seen at odds with Thor as seen in many of the Eddas. One episode has Odin taunting Thor how Odin’s warriors are the nobles who fall in battle and that the thralls who fall in battle belong to Thor. Another episode has Odin blessing a favored hero of his, Starkaðr. For every blessing that Odin would impart, Thor gave a matching curse for Starkaðr.
This is an example of place names containing the name for Thor, but later forgotten as Christianity replaced the older Pagan religions.
In Kentish royal legends from about the 11th century C.E., there is a story of a reeve of Ecgberht of Kent known as Thunor. He was seen as being so wicked that he was swallowed up by the earth at a place known as þunores hlæwe or “Thunor’s Mound.
Thor’s hall of Bilskirnir is found in the region of Thrudheim (or spelt Thruthheim and Þrúðheimr), meaning: “Land of Strength.” Another place known as Þrúðvangr is mentioned as one of Thor’s abodes.
One of Thor’s temples located in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, here, there is a statue showing Thor wielding a mace with Odin and “Fricco” standing to his right. Uppsala was replaced by a Christian church in 1080 C.E. Priests were appointed to each of the gods who offered up sacrifices. Sacrifices to Thor were only made during times of famine and plague.
Parentage and Family
Odin – Not just Thor’s father, Odin is also The All Father in Norse Mythology
Jord – Mother and Earth Goddess
Sometimes, Thor is said to the son of either Fjorgynn, also an Earth Goddess or Hlodyn.
Frigg – Thor is sometimes portrayed as Frigg’s stepson.
Sif – Wife, a fertility goddess
Jarnsaxa – “Iron Cutlass,” A Jötunn and Thor’s Mistress. I guess that means Thor was in a polyamory relationship.
Thor is the oldest of several brothers.
Baldr, Höðr, Víðarr, Váli, Hermóðr, Heimdallr, Bragi, Týr
Thrud – Also spelled as Þrúðr. She is likely a Valkyrie. Thor’s daughter with Sif
Magni – Thor’s son with Járnsaxa
Modi – Thor’s son with an unknown mother.
Ullr – Thor is the stepfather to this god of hunting.
Attendants of Thor
Thialfi – Not only Thor’s servant, but the messenger for the gods.
Þjálfi and Röskva – A pair of mortals, brother and sister who accompanied Thor as they ride around in his chariot.
Aesir Versus Vanir
The Aesir gods and Vanir gods of Norse mythology were two different tribes of gods who at first fought each other then started working together.
Thor belongs to the Aesir tribe of gods.
Thursday – Eight Days A Week!
In Western culture, the fourth day of the week is called Thursday or Thor’s Day, named after and for Thor himself. In Old English, this name is Thunresdaeg or Thunor’s Day. In German, the name of this day was known as Þonares dagaz or Donnerstag, meaning: Donar’s Day. Others believe the name of Thursday derives from Jupiter Tanarus, the Thundering Jupiter. In this case it’s taking the name of a Celtic deity and attaching them to a Roman god.
Interpretatio Germanica – This was a practice used during the time of the Romans when the Germanic people adopted the Roman weekly calendar and simply replaced the names of the Roman gods with their own. It easily explains how the Roman calendar and Dies Iovis, “Day of Jupiter” becomes Thursday, “Thor’s Day.”
God Of Thunder & Lightning
Thor is best known as a god of the sky and thunder among the Norse. Since thunder & lightning often mean rain, Thor is also the god of agriculture and fertility.
The 19th century scholar Jacob Grimm wrote how a number of phrases in the Germanic languages refer to Thor. Phrases such as: Thorsvarme meaning “Thor’s Warm” in Norwegian used to describe lightning; godgubben åfar meaning “The good old fellow is taking a ride” in Sweden along with tordön, meaning: “Thor’s rumble” or “Thor’s thunder” to describe when it thunders. According to Montelius, thunderbolts were known as Thorsviggar.
In Scandinavia, there is a folk belief that lightning will frighten away trolls and jötnar. This is likely a reflection of Thor’s pen chance for fighting giants. The evidence for a lack of trolls and ettins in Scandinavia is given that it is due to Thor’s accuracy and proficiency with his lightning strikes.
Once upon a time, this symbol was a protective religious symbol. While many who are already familiar with the history of this symbol are familiar with the sun or solar wheel. The swastika was also associated with Thor as this symbol was thought to represent Mjollnir or lightning.
As a protective sigil, it had been worn by women and archaeological searches have found the swastika depicted on many women’s graves. It’s thought to have been used by warriors too as it represented Thor’s lightning and used alternatively with a hammer symbol when going into battle. The symbol has been found on many memorial stones throughout Scandinavia next to inscriptions for Thor and a sword was found with an image of the swastika on the pommel. This symbol appears in many places on many Germanic artifacts dating from the Migration Period and Viking Ages.
God Of Craftsmanship
As a god of craftsmanship, it also made him the common man’s god from farmers to sailors.
God Of Healing
A Canterbury Charm dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription calling upon Thor to heal a wound by banishing a þurs or thurs.
In the Elder Futhark, the rune ᚦ or Thurs may have likely referred to dark magic or an evil spirit often called trolls or nisse.
God Of Protection & Strength
For the Germanic peoples, Thor represented the very archetype of the loyal and honorable warrior that warriors would aspire to. He was the defender of Asgard and the Aesir gods, protecting them from the jotuns, their enemies.
Going hand in hand with his role as protector is Thor’s great strength. Without his strength, power or even courage, Thor would not have been able to do his job as a protector of the gods, Asgard and Midgard. Sure Odin and Loki have the brains, it was often Thor with his brawn leading the way to muscle past faceless hordes of jotuns, ogres and trolls to defend everyone while the brains of the operations got their plans working.
A Kvinneby amulet dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription invoking protection from both Thor and his hammer.
As a weather god, Thor would also protect sailors traveling over the seas.
I find it interesting that Thor specifically is a deity noted for hallowing, that is to make something or someplace sanctified, sacred or holy. I suppose any deity can and do so, just not so explicitly like this.
As many called on Thor for protection and defense, for comfort, it does make a certain sense that he does bless items and places. A number of runic inscriptions found at many archeological sites all testify this. Even weddings were blessed by Thor as seen in the use of a hammer placed on a bride’s lap during marriage ceremonies. Early Icelandic farmers were known to call upon Thor to bless their plot of land before they built or planted crops.
Often Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir was used for blessing and hallowing just as often as he would use it to destroy. So, if he is seen as having the power to banish or destroy, having the power for just the opposite of hallowing is a given.
Interesting, some sources cite December fifth or even December 25th as the day for Thor’s birth. Imagine that, the same day for Saint Nicholas’ Day (December fifth) and Christmas (December 25th).
Mjollnir – Thor’s Hammer
Meaning “Destroyer” or “Crusher,” Mjollnir is represented as a stylized hammer. Whenever Thor threw Mjollnir, lightning would flash. The hammer would return to Thor’s hand after being thrown, a move symbolic of lightning. The myths describing Mjollnir say it could crush mountains. Mjollnir was crafted for Thor by the dwarven brothers Sindri and Brokkr.
In addition, Mjollnir held another power, that of returning the dead to life. In connection to Thor’s association to fertility and life, there was an old Nordic tradition of placing a hammer in a bride’s lap at her wedding and that of raising a hammer over a newborn.
Mjollnir’s Origins – Loki, the Norse god of trickery was in a rather mischievous mood, deciding it would be a good idea to cut off all of Sif’s hair. With Sif being Thor’s wife, the might god of thunder was not amused one bit. He swore to break every bone in Loki’s body to defend Sif’s honor and Loki pleaded with Thor to let him go to the caves of the dwarves to see if they could help fix the problem of Sif having no hair.
Loki went to the dwarven home where he implored the dwarf, Ivaldi to fashion some new hair for Sif. Ivaldi’s sons crafted a wig composed of the finest strands of gold. In addition, the dwarves made two other gifts, a ship that could easily fold down into a person’s pocket and would always have wind to move it and a magnificent, yet deadly spear.
Seeing these, Loki made a wager with two dwarven brothers, Sindri and Brokkr, betting his own head that the brothers couldn’t craft three gifts of their own for the gods that would be greater than what Ivaldi’s sons had crafted.
As the brothers began working at their forge, Loki shape-shifted into a fly as he attempted to interrupt their work to try and win the bet. While crafting the last gift, a hammer, Loki succeeded at interrupting the brothers enough that the handle of the hammer was too short. Despite this, the hammer was still considered the best of all of the gifts created and it was presented to Thor as he was the only one capable of welding it.
Holy Symbol – This major symbol of Thor’s has appeared in a many archaeological sites in iron, silver and other metal. Hammer shaped amulets were worn as necklaces by worshipers and followers of Thor, even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia as a means of defiance to the incoming religion. Both crosses and hammer shapes have been found side by side at archeological and burial sites.
Megingjard – Belt Of Strength
Meaning “Strength Increaser,” this is another of Thor’s mystical items and regalia. This belt doubled his already considerable strength while wearing it.
Járngreipr – Iron Gloves
These gloves were given to Thor by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd. These gloves were needed when Thor wielded Mjollnir.
An unbreakable staff provided by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd.
Thor rode around the heavens in a chariot pulled by two goats. These goats’ names are: Tanngnjostr (Teeth-Grinder) & Tanngrisnir (Teeth-Barer or Gap-Tooth.) Thor would kill and eat these goats, after which, they would be resurrected by placing their bones back within their hides. The Old English expression of: þunnorad (“thunder ride”) is likely an allusion to Thor riding around in his chariot.
Thor Versus Giants
The giants or Jotun lived in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology. The Jotun of were the main enemies of Thor whom he would strike down by hitting them on the head. While many of the dealings between the gods and Jotun were often civil, the fights and battles were frequent. Thor would lead the charge against the Jotun as he rode his chariot and swinging around his mighty hammer. The lightning and thunder seen during storms were believed to be Thor fighting the Jotun on behalf of the mortal realm of Midgard.
In Norse mythology, the jotun represented the forces of chaos, destruction and entropy that would destroy all of Midgard and the Cosmos if Thor and the other gods didn’t keep them in check.
Half-Giant – Well… more like three-quarters giant really. It seems a little odd that for all that Thor is the protector of the Aesir and Asgard, that Thor is three-quarters giant himself. Odin, his father is a half-giant and his mother, Jord is a giant herself. Despite that lineage, it doesn’t stop Thor or any of the other gods from getting along and standing against the jotuns.
Thor Versus Geirrod – In this story, Loki had been flying around in the form of a falcon when got captured by the jotun, Geirrod. The jotun refused to release Loki unless he could find a way to get Thor to come to his court. Thor did agree, thinking that this would be a peaceful invitation and came without his hammer, Mjollnir.
Along the way, Thor stopped at the home of a friendly female jotun by the name of Grid. She warned Thor how Geirrod really intended to kill Thor. Grid loaned Thor her unbreakable staff, Gríðarvölr.
Finally arriving at Geirrod’s court, Thor was taken to a room where he sat in the only chair present. When Thor sat, the chair began to raise towards the ceiling. Just as Thor was about to be crushed to death, he braced Grid’s staff against the ceiling and pushed his way back to the floor. There were two loud cracks and screams that followed. When Thor looked to see the source, he saw Geirrod’s two daughter laying there in pain as Thor had broken their backs when forcing himself back to the floor as they had been lifting the chair.
Geirrod rushed into the room in a rage, throwing a molten iron rod at Thor. Undaunted, Thor caught the rod easily and Geirrod in a panic, hid behind a pillar. When Thor threw the rod at the pillar, it not only pierced the pillar, but continued through to impale Geirrod, killing him.
The Sun, The Moon & Freyja – One such story has Asgard, the home of the Norse gods getting damaged during a war between the gods. One of the Jotun offered to help rebuild the walls for Asgard, vowing to get it done in a short span of time. The gods accepted this offer, believing it would be an impossible task. The gods promised the Jotun a reward of the sun, the moon and the hand of Freyja in marriage. This Jotun nearly finished the task in the stated time period. However, to prevent having to fulfill the gods end of the bargain, Thor killed the Jotun.
Defeated By Utgard-Loki
This is a story that has two parts to it, beginning easily enough one winter when the jotun were causing huge blocks of ice to fall from the sky down into Midgard into people’s homes and causing vast amounts of snow to cover the fields to prevent planting any crops. As the defender and champion of humanity, Thor journeyed to the realm of Jotuneim with Loki and a couple of other companions.
Part One – Thor Versus Skrymir – In this first part, Thor and Loki met the Jotun known as Skrymir. This giant was so immense, that Thor and his companions mistook him for a hill. There was an oddly shaped mansion that the group found and decided to sleep in for the night. In the morning the group discovered that this mansion was actually one of Skrymir’s gloves. When the group awoke n the morning, they realized what they had taken for a hill was actually the giant, Skyrimir still asleep. Thor tried to crush in the Jotun’s skull with his hammer, Mjollnir. In response, Skrymir merely brushed the blow away as if it were nothing but a fly or leaf.
Despite the efforts of Thor to murder Skyrimir in his sleep, when the giant awoke, he offered to lead the group on their way to Utgard, a city of the jotun.
Part Two – Visiting Utgard – Skrymir led the group to the jotun city of Utgard where the group lost sight of Skrymir and was greeted by a group of jotun, including the king himself, Utgard-Loki. Given the general animosity between the gods and jotun, it’s no surprise that Thor, Loki and their other companions were not welcomed, unless of course they could complete a series of seemingly impossible challenges.
Loki was challenged and lost an eating contest when his opponent not only ate all the meat, but the bones and plate itself. Thialfi, one of the companions with the group, lost a series of three footraces.
It now fell to Thor to fulfill three challenges. As Thor boasted he could drink anyone under the table, a large drinking horn was brought to him with the challenge to finish it all in one gulp. After taking three huge swallows, Thor had only managed to drain the horn a few inches.
With the next challenge, Thor boasted his immense strength and Utgard-Loki challenged Thor to pick up a cat off the ground. After three attempts at moving the cat, Thor was only able to succeed at moving one paw.
Enraged by this, Thor accepted the last challenge of a wrestling match with anyone willing to match strength with him. The only one who would, was an old, frail looking woman. Thinking this would be easy, once again Thor was met with defeat at the hands of a feeble opponent who easily bested the mighty god, bringing him to his knees.
After this, Utgard-Loki declared the contests over and allowed the gods to stay the night and rest before returning home in the morning.
Come daylight, Utgard-Loki led the group out of Jotunheim. Once they were well past the borders, Utgard-Loki revealed himself to have been the giant, Skrymir who lead them to the city. Utgard-Loki proceeded to reveal the secrets of all of the challenges that Thor and his companions undergone.
Loki had been competing with fire, that burns and consumes everything it touches. That Thialfi’s opponent was thought, whom no one can outrun. As to Thor, the drinking horn he had drunk from was connected to the ocean and that he had succeeded in lowering the sea levels. The cat that Thor had tried lifting was none other than Jormungand, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world. As for the old woman, she was Age itself whom no one can defeat. That no matter how fiercely and bravely Thor fought her, even he would fall to her.
Angry at being tricked, Thor raised his hammer Mjollnir only to have the king of giants and his city vanish into thin air.
Thor Versus Hrungnir – One day Odin was out wandering near Jotunheim when he meets the jotun, Hrungnir. Odin challenged the jotun to a horse race back to Asgard. While Odin still won the match, he invited the jotun, Hrungnir to stay for dinner. During the dinner, Hrungnir gets drunk and boasts about how he could destroy Asgard and keep the goddesses as his concubines, including Thor’s own wife, Sif.
Needless to say, Thor didn’t take too well to this boasting and challenged Hrungnir to a fight. The jotun agreed and as Hrungnir had brought no weapons, they went back down to meet up near Jotunheim.
Before getting there, the other jotuns crafted a huge clay figure, some 30 miles high and 10 miles wide whom they brought to life. This clay figure would be Hrungnir’s right-hand man during the upcoming fight.
When Thor arrived, he was unfazed by seeing Hrungnir’s massive clay figure fighting beside him. Using his own trickery, Thor sent his own servant to keep the clay figure busy while Thor battled Hrungnir. When Hrungnir threw a giant whetstone, Thor responded with hurling his hammer, Mjollnir that broke the stone in half before continuing through to smash in Hrungnir’s head.
The Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Thor and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð.
Alvíssmál – In this poem, Thor manages to trick the dwarf, Alviss. When the story starts, Thor meets the dwarf, Alviss who is talking about marriage. Finding the dwarf to be ugly and repulsive, Thor comes to realize that it is own daughter, Thrud who is to be married. Further angered, Thor learns that this marriage was arranged by the other gods while he was away. Alviss however, must still seek Thor’s consent.
In order to get Thor’s permission, Alviss must tell Thor all about the worlds that he has visited. It becomes a rather long question and answer session as Alviss goes into detail about the terrains, different languages of various races and a goodly amount of cosmology.
This long question and answer session is nothing more than a delay tactic by Thor. While Thor comments that he has never met anyone with more wisdom, he has succeeded in delaying Alviss long enough that when the Sun rises, it turns him to stone. Now Thor’s daughter won’t be marrying someone he doesn’t approve. Of course, Thor could have made it easier by simply denying Alviss’ request, but it might have been more problems.
Grímnismál – In this poem, Odin is disguised as Grimnir wherein he is tortured, starved and thirsty. In this state, Grimnir tells a young Agnar about the cosmology of Norse believes, that Thor lives in Þrúðheimr and every day, Thor wades through the rivers Körmt and Örmt and the two Kerlaugar. At the base of the world tree, Yggdrasil, Thor sits as a judge.
Hárbarðsljóð – In this poem, Thor is the central figure. After having traveled “from the east,” Thor comes to an inlet where he tries to get a ride from a ferryman by the name of Hárbarðr (Odin in disguise). The ferryman shouts at Thor from the inlet, being rude and obnoxious. Thor takes this all-in stride at first, keeping his cool. As Hárbarðr becomes more and more aggressive, the two eventually fall into a flyting match.
Flyting? Epic Rap Battles way back in the day. As the match continues, it is revealed that Thor has killed several jötnar (giants) in the east and berserk women in Hlesy (the Danish island of Læsø). Thor loses the match to Hárbarðr and finds himself forced to walk.
It should be noted that the name of Hárbarðr or Harbard means Greybeard.
Hymiskviða – In this poem, Thor is the central character. After the gods have been out hunting and finished eating their prey, they begin to drink. As they drink, the gods decide to “shake the twigs” and interpret what is said. The gods then decide that they will find some cauldron’s at Ægir’s home. Thor gets to Ægir’s home and tells the other god how he needs to prepare a feast for the gods. Annoyed by this, Ægir informs Thor that he and the other gods will need to bring him a suitable cauldron in which to brew some ale in. Searching to no avail, Thor and the other gods are unable to locate such a cauldron. Tyr tells Thor that there may be a proper cauldron to use at Hymir’s place over east in Élivágar.
Stabling his goats, Thor and Tyr head to Hymir’s hall for a large enough cauldron to meet Ægir’s demands. When they arrive, Tyr see his nine-hundred-headed grandmother and his gold-clad mother who welcomes the two with a drinking horn. Hymir comes in and he’s not happy to see Thor. Tyr’s mother helps with finding a large enough cauldron for Ægir’s need for brewing. Thor in the meantime, eats a huge meal consisting of two oxen (while the others only have one) and then falls asleep.
In the morning, Thor awakens and tells Hymir that he wants to go fishing, intending to catch a lot of fish, but he will need bait. Hymir has Thor get bait from his pasture. Thor does so, going out and rips the head off of Hymir’s best ox. I can see why Hymir isn’t happy with seeing Thor.
There’s a break in the poem and it picks up with Thor and Hymir out at sea in a boat, fishing. Hymir manages to catch a few whales. Thor goes and baits his line with the head of the ox and when he throws it out, it is Jörmungandr, the monstrous sea serpent that takes the bait. Undaunted, Thor pulls the serpent up and slams Jörmungandr’s head with his hammer. Jörmungandr lets out a mighty shriek.
There is another break in the poem. However, other sources have commented that what is likely to have happened, is that Hymir cut the line holding Jörmungandr and he slipped back down into the ocean. This incident is also probably the source of the enmity between Thor and Jörmungandr at Ragnarok when the two kill each other.
The poem picks back up with Hymir completely unhappy and quiet as the two row back to shore. Back at shore, Hymir tells Thor to help him carry one of the whales back to his farm. Thor’s response is to pick up the boat, whales and all to carry them back to the farm.
Back at the farm, Thor smashes a crystal goblet that he throws at Hymir’s head at the suggestion of Tyr’s mother. Thor and Tyr are given the cauldron that they came looking for and while Tyr is unable to lift it, Thor is able to at least roll it along.
After leaving Hymir’s place and getting some distance from the farm, Thor and Tyr are attacked by an army of multi-headed creatures all led by Hymir. Thor kills all of the attacking creatures and presumably Hymir. One of Thor’s goats ends up lame, however Thor and Tyr are successful at bringing back a large enough cauldron for Ægir who is able to brew enough ale for everyone. Clearly the feast is enough of a success that the gods return every winter to Ægir’s place for more ale.
Hyndluljóð – In this poem, Freyja offers the jötunn woman, Hyndla a blót or sacrifice to Thor so that she can be protected. The comment is made that Thor doesn’t care much for jötunn women. Which begs the question of why make the offer? Unless because it was Freyja making the offering, knowing that Thor would honor it?
Lokasenna – In this poem, Loki enters a flyting match the gods in Ægir’s hall. Thor isn’t present for this incident. Towards the end of the poem, as things get more heated, the attention is turned towards Sif, Thor’s wife and Loki makes a bold claim to have slept with her. Beyla, a servant of Freyr’s, interrupt and announces that since the mountains are shaking, it must mean that Thor is on his way home. Beyla continues with how Thor will bring an end to the argument. Loki responds with more insults.
Thor does arrive and tell Loki to keep quiet or else he’ll rip off Loki’s head using his hammer. Loki taunts Thor, asking why he is so angry, he won’t be in any mood to fight the wolf, Fenrir after it eats Odin. All this is about the events of Ragnarok that have been foretold. Thor again tells Loki to keep quiet with a threat to throw the trickster god so far into the sky he would never come back down.
Not daunted in the least, Loki tells Thor how he shouldn’t be bragging about his time in the east as the mighty Thor had once cowered in fear inside the thumb of a glove. Once more Thor tells Loki to keep silent with threats to break every bone in his body. Loki continues the taunts, saying he still intends to live, throwing in references to when Thor had met Útgarða-Loki.
Thor gives a fourth and final demand to Loki for silence or else he would send Loki to Hel. At this, Loki ceases his taunts saying that he will leave the hall, knowing that Thor does indeed strike. The segment of the poem containing Thor ends here, but continues on.
Skírnismál – In this poem, Freyr’s messenger, Skirnir threatens the lovely Gerðr with whom Freyr is in love with. Skirnir’s many threats and curses include those of having Thor, Freyr and Odin himself be angry with her if she doesn’t return Freyr’s advances. I would hope that Gerðr held her ground and said no.
Þrymskviða – Also known as the Lay of Trym, this comedic poem features Thor as a central figure. Thor awakens one morning to discover that his hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Thor confides in Loki about the missing hammer and that no one knows it’s missing. The two then head to Freyja’s hall to find the missing Mjöllnir. Thor asks Freyja if he can borrow her feathered cloak to which she agrees. At this, Loki takes off with the feathered cloak.
Loki heads to Jötunheimr where the jotunn, Þrymr is making collars for his dogs and trimming the manes of his horses. When Þrymr sees Loki, he asks what is happening among the Æsir and elves and why it is that Loki is alone in Jötunheimr. Loki replies by telling Þrymr how Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Þrymr admits to having taken Mjöllnir and hiding it some eight leagues beneath the earth where Thor will never get it back unless the goddess Freyja is brought to him to be his wife. Loki takes off again, flying back to the Æsir court with Freyja’s cloak.
Thor enquires with Loki if he was successful. Loki tells of what he has found out, that Þrymr took Thor’s hammer and will only give it back if Freyja is brought to Þrymr to be his wife. At this news, Thor and Loki return to Freyja to tell her of the news that she is to be a bride to Þrymr. Angry, Freyja flat out refuses, causing the halls of the Æsir to shake and for her famous necklace, Brísingamen to fall off.
The gods and goddess hold a meeting to debate the matter of Þrymr’s demands. The god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that instead of Freyja, that Thor should dress as the bride as a way to get Thor’s hammer back. Thor balks at the idea and Loki seconds Heimdallr’s idea, saying it will be the only that Thor can get his hammer back. For without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade Asgard. Relenting, Thor agrees to dress as a bride, taking Freyja’s place. Dressing as a maid to the disguised Thor, Loki goes with Thor down to Jötunheimr.
After arriving in Jötunheimr, Þrymr commands the jötnar of his hall to make the place presentable for Freyja has arrived to be his bride. Þrymr then tells how of all of his treasured animals and objects, that Freyja was the one missing piece to all of his wealth.
Disguised, Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and all of his jötnar. At the feast, Thor consumes a large amount of food and mead, something that is at odds with Þrymr’s impressions of Freyja. Loki, feigning the part of a shrewd maid, tells Þrymr how that is because Freyja had not eaten anything for eight days in her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr decides that he wants to kiss his bride and when he lifts “Freyja’s” veil, fierce looking eyes stare back at him. Again, Loki says that this is because Freyja hasn’t slept either during the past eight nights.
A poor sister of the jötnar arrives, calling for the bridal gift from Freyja if she cares anything at all for the jötnar. The jötnar then bring out Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir in order to sanctify the bride as they lay it on “Freyja’s” lap. Þrymr and Freyja will be handfasted by the goddess Var. When Thor sees his hammer, he grabs hold of Mjöllnir and proceeds to beat all of the jötnar with it. Thor even kills the poor sister of the jötnar. Thus, Thor gets his hammer back.
Völuspá – In this poem, a dead völva tells the history of the universe and the future Odin in disguise about the death of Thor. The völva foretells how Thor will battle with the Midgard serpent during the great mythical battle known as Ragnarok. How after slaying the serpent, Thor will only be able to take nine steps before dying from the serpent’s venom.
After the battle, the sky turns black before fire envelops the world, the stars vanishing, flames dancing across the sky, steam rising and the world becoming covered in water before it raises again, once more green and fertile.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
In the Prose Edda, Thor is a prince of Troy, the son of King Memnon by Troana, the daughter of Priam. In this account, Thor is also known as Tror who is to have married the prophetess Sibyl, identified with Sif. It continues that Thor was raised in Thrace by the chieftain Lorikus whom Thor later kills and takes on the title: King of Thrace. Like later Marvel versions of Thor, this version of Thor also has blonde hair.
Snorri Sturluson explains how the name of the Aesir gods means: “men from Asia” and that Asgard was an “Asian City” that is, Troy. Given that Troy is located anciently in Tyrkland (Turkey) and is part of Asia Minor, that explanation works. So Asialand or Scythia is where Thor is to have founded a new city by the name of Asgard. Odin in this version is a descendant of Thor by twelve generations, who leads an expedition across Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
So, if Snorri can play around with Thor’s mythology, so can Marvel comics.
This is another of Snorri Sturluson’s books, written in the 13th century C.E. Statues attributed to Thor are found mentioned in a number of different sagas. Namely the Ynglinga saga, Hákonar saga góða, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, and Óláfs saga Helga sagas. In the Ynglinga saga, Thor is described as having been a pagan priest who was given by Odin, another powerful, magic using chieftain to the East, a place in the mythical place of Þrúðvangr, that is now Sweden. A number of popular names for Thor likely originate from the Ynglinga.
Ragnarok – Twilight of the Gods
The final end game of the Norse Gods, this not exactly a happy time as a good many of the gods end up dying.
Jormungand – On the day of Ragnarok, Thor would kill the Midgard Serpent known as Jormungand and then die in turn from the serpent’s poison. Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi would inherit the hammer. Though just how they would split it between them is unknown.
Norse Versus Christianity
Dating from the 800’s C.E., there’s a story how a bunch of priests of Thor had shown up at a Christian monastery of monks. Apparently, word had gotten around and the priests of Thor weren’t happy with how the monks their God were transgressing on Thor’s territory.
The priests of Thor were considering wiping out all of the monks, but knew if they did that, more monks and followers of Christianity would soon arrive.
Thor’s priests then decided on a pretty clever plan, let the gods fight it out for who would be the supreme deity. Thor’s priests were very confident that Thor would show up, leaving the Christian monks to have their God show up. The monks declined the challenge.
It’s an interesting story of people so certain in the reality of their faith and deities.
Old Saxon Baptismal Vow
This codex dating from the 9th century C.E. has the names of three Old Saxon gods, UUôden (Old Saxon “Wodan”), Saxnôte, and Thunaer, listed as demons to be renounced by the Germanic pagans converting to Christianity.
This is a specific breed of fox found in Iceland. The name translates to “Thor of the Holt” and receives the name due to their red coats.
Thorwiggar – Thor’s Wedges
In Swedish folklore, these are smooth, wedge-shaped stones that were thrown by Thor at a troll.
In a similar vein, meteorites are considered memorials to Thor due to how heavy they are.
On the Swedish island of Gotland, this is the name of a beetle named after the god Thor. It is believed that when this beetle is found upside down, that a person can gain Thor’s favor by flipping the beetle back over.
Unfortunately, in other parts of Sweden, this beetle has become demonized with the Christinization of Europe as seen in the name of Thordedjefvul and Thordyfvel, both of which mean “Thor-Devil.”
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”