Category Archives: Compassion
Also Called: An (Sumerian), Anum, Ilu
Epitaphs: “The Father,” “Father of the Gods,” “King of the Gods”
Etymology: “Heaven” Sumerian “One on High”
In Mesopotamian mythology, Anu is a god of the sky and heavens, he was lord of the constellations and the king of the gods, spirits and demons. Anu was worshiped primarily by the Sumerians, but also among the Akkadians and Babylonians. In Sumer, Anu is known as An and his worship dates back to at least 3,000 B.C.E. and is one of the oldest gods in the Mesopotamian myths.
Patron of: Kings, Aristocrats
Planet: Saturn, Uranus
Sphere of Influence: Law, Order, Justice, Weather, Rain, Sky
Symbols: Horned Cap
In art, Anu is often shown wearing a horned headdress or helmet that symbolized his strength. Anu is sometimes shown as being seated in his throne. Early art shows him as a bull and later on that a bull is his companion animal.
What’s In A Name
Being a primordial god and one of the earliest, it can be difficult to pinpoint when exactly Anu or An appears as a deity. Part of what makes it difficult is that the sign for “An” can be read in several different ways. As a title and for the sky itself. In the third millennium B.C.E., the first attestations of An as a deity appear on the Fara god-list with his name appearing more frequently later on.
In Sumerian, An’s name is never written down denote the usage of his name as a divine being or god. In Akkadian, as Anu, his name is read as dAN, leading to being read as da-nu, da-num, and an-nu.
There are a couple of temples dedicated to Anu found in Uruk and Assur. The Eanna in Uruk was dedicated to Anu and his consort Antu or Anatum. Sometimes this consort is given as Inana or Ishtar who was worshiped with Anu.
During the Achaemenid and Seleucid eras, Anu was worshipped at the Res temple with Antu.
Both the Mesopotamian cities of Der and Uruk held the title as “the City of Anu.” In the city of Lagas, there was a temple dedicated to Anu or An by Gudea. Later, Ur-Namma would build a garde and shrine for Anu in Ur. That was also a “seat” for Anu in the main temple in Babylon, Esagil. Offerings to Anu were given in Nippur, Sippar and Kish. In Assur, there was a doubled temple dedicated for both Anu and Adad.
This is the abode and the level of heaven that Anu resides in as mentioned in the Akkadian-Babylonian epic called the Atrahasis that recounts the Great Flood myth.
This third heaven is also the highest of the three heavens and is made of a reddish luludānitu stone. Other scholars have put forward that the floor or ground of this heaven is made of that color stone.
The Third Heaven that Anu resides in is thought to be located towards the northern pole found within the Draco constellation.
The earliest of the Mesopotamian texts make no mention of Anu’s origins. He just is and it isn’t until the third millennium B.C.E. that we find Sumerian texts that there is mention of Anu or An and his consort Uraš who give birth to the other gods.
Over the next few millennia of Mesopotamian culture, different cultures and eras would assign a different consort to Anu along with his stepping back to allow another deity to take over rulership of the gods.
In later texts such as the Enuma Elis, Anu is given as the son of Anšar, the Sky and Kišar, the Earth. If we go by the lineage with Tiamat, Anu would properly be one of the Igigi, the third and fourth generation of gods.
Parentage & Family
Apsu – Primordial god of Fresh Water
Tiamat – Primordial Goddess of the Oceans and Abyssal Deeps
Alalu – Anu’s father in Hurrian and Hittite religion and mythology.
In Sumerian religion, the sea goddess Nammu is given as Anu’s mother.
Anšar (the Sky) and Kišar (the Earth) in East Semitic religions and mythos.
Aside note has that though there are different goddesses mentioned as Anu’s wife, the name she goes by varies from one Mesopotamian culture to another and which era of history the story was written down.
Antu – An East Semitic goddess, she is also called Antum, Anatum, Uras (early Sumerian), she is a creation goddess and wife of Anu. In Akkadian, the name Antu is merely the feminine form of Anu.
Ishtar – Also called Innina, later myths would place Ishtar as being Anu’s wife.
Ki – Earth goddess, sister and consort to An in later Sumerian myths.
Nammu – A water goddess and consort to Anu in Neo-Sumerian myths. In Sumerian religion, Nammu is instead Anu’s mother.
As an all-father figure, Anu is the father of many gods, spirits, and demons. Depending on the text, depends on which gods are stated to be Anu’ children directly.
With Ki, the goddess of the earth, they give birth to the Anunnaki (“the offspring of Anu”), a group of 50 gods who are the most powerful pantheon of gods in Mesopotamian myths.
With Nammu, Anu is the father of Enki/Ea and Ningikuga.
With Uras, Anu is the father of Ninsuna, the mother of the legendary Gilgamesh.
Inscriptions found at Lagas give Baba, Gatumdug and Ningirsu as Anu’s children.
Adad, Enlil, Girra, Nanna/Sin, Nergal and Šara are some who are listed as sons.
Inana/Ištar, Nanaya, Nidaba, Ninisinna, Ninkarrak, Ninmug, Ninnibru, Ninsumun, Nungal and Nusku are some who are listed as daughters.
Anammelech – Going by the Hebrew Bible, she is a lunar goddess worshiped in Assyria and Mesopotamian religion. Her name means “Daughter of Anu” and is thought to be his daughter.
Kumarbi – Anu’s son in Hurrian and Hittite mythology and religion.
Asag – A demon so monstrous, his presence would cause fish to boil in the rivers.
Lamashtu – A Demoness who preyed on infants
Utukki – Seven evil demons
Enki – Is one of Anu’s notable children, a god of wisdom, intelligence, magic, trickery, fertility and creation to name a few of Enki’s attributes.
Sebitti – In Akkadian and Babylonian traditions, the Sebitti are a group of seven minor war gods who follow Erra into battle. Depending on which tradition and myth is being retold, is if the Sebitti are seen as good or evil. I would say evil, given that in one version of the myths, Erra is a plague god, while in others texts he is a war god. The Sebitti are given various powers and fates that allow them to help Erra in killing over populous people and animals.
Attendants Of Ani
Ilabrat – He is an attendant and minister of state to Anu.
The Bull Of Heaven
As An, he dates back to 3,000 B.C.E. in Sumerian history. During this time, An was depicted as a great bull. Later, An would become separated into two distinct beings, the god An and the Bull of Heaven. The sound of thunder was thought to be caused by An in his bull form as he moved across the heavens or sky.
An’s holy city was Uruk or Erech along the southern region of Mesopotamia known for herding and grazing lands. There are several bovine images found in the area that appear to suggest An being part of a pastoral pantheon.
Dingir – In Sumerian, this cuneiform represented by an eight-pointed star meant “god” or “goddess” when used in punctuation. By itself, it is the Sumerian word for “sky.”
As a god of the sky, the Sumerians saw rain that fell as being Anu’s seed coming down to impregnate his consort Uraš or Ki, the Earth, depending on which era of text we are referring to and who’s given as his current wife. The Akkadians have Antu, a feminine form of Anu as his consort. They believed that the clouds were Antu’s breasts and that rain falling was her milk.
King Of The Gods!
Seen as the King of the Gods, King of the Igigi, Anu ruled over the other gods.
This status also associated Anu as the god of Kings whom he favored and not the common people. So, unless you were legit royalty, don’t expect any divine favors.
At the same time, Anu is considered to be very benevolent and his compassion for all creation caused him to retreat further and higher up into the heavens where he was distant from all creation, humankind, and the other gods. Over time, Anu would be worshiped less and less with his name becoming synonymous with the sky.
Only Anu’s son, Enlil could gain access to him, relaying messages. Eventually, he would be prayed to less and less, Anu was still seen as the power behind the throne so to speak. Even as Enlil in turn became ruler of the gods, he too would take on more and more of Anu’s qualities of compassion and benevolence. The same with Marduk, when he takes over the role of King of the Gods and assumes Anu’s position and thus power, gains these qualities over time.
With the passage of time, Anu would fade further to the background, retreating to the Heavens and leaving the matters of governing and ruling to Marduk and the younger generations of gods, the Igigi.
Clearly one of the few times where power isn’t going to corrupt.
Tablet of Destinies
This clay tablet is a legal document written in cuniform with cylinder seals that Anu carried with him as a sign of his divine authority. This tablet would be passed on in turn to Enlil and Marduk in turn as they each assumed rulership.
Tiamat is to have bestowed this tablet on Kingu when she made him the head of her army. A couple of other Mesopotamian poems have where the tablet is stolen by Anzu, but the tablet is always returned to Enlil.
Truth, Justice And The Sumerian Way!
One of Anu’s roles as head of the pantheon is that of Judge. Anu would judge those who had committed various crimes.
Anu’s word was law. In terms of a comic book, he would be considered a Reality Warper, that whatever he spoke or decreed, to become real. He delegated the functions, roles, and status of the other gods.
Anûtu – The elevating of status among the gods to leadership was even called anûtu or the “Anu Power” or “Heavenly Power.” An example of this is seen in the Enuma Elis when Marduk becomes the ruler of the gods after Enlil by their saying “Your word is Anu!”
A Partial List Of Anu’s Decrees
As King of the Gods, Anu hits a point where he often has a cameo role in a greater myth where he dispenses with divine wisdom, judgment, and punishments.
- The divine Bull of Heaven is sent on Ishtar’s behalf to go after Gilgamesh.
- Anu decrees that either Gilgamesh or Enkidu are to die for killing Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven.
- Kakka is sent to Kurnugi to inform Ereshkigal to send a messenger to return with a gift.
- It is Anu who creates a whirlwind and flood to rile up Tiamat.
- When the griffin-like monster Anzu steals the Tablet of Destinies from Enlil to hide on a mountaintop, it is Anu who orders the other gods to bring back the tablet.
Lord Of The Constellations
Ruling the heavens has its perks, one of which is there is an army of stars that Anu could command to destroy his foes and evildoers.
Calendar – Closely related, Anu is also the lord of the Calendar. A fact that makes sense is when many early cultures and civilizations used the movement of the heavens to track the seasons.
Draco – Anu has been identified with the Draco constellation. I’d think with the Bull of Heaven epitaph, he would be identified with Taurus.
Kishru – These shooting stars are reputed to have great strength.
In Sumerian beliefs, Anu formed a triad or holy trinity with Enlil (God of the Air and the Earth) and Enki (God of Water). This division of power could easily reflect the importance each of these deities held in their patron city and show the pantheons of different city-states merging into a more unified whole. Anu represented the “transcendental” and obscure, Enlil represented the “transcendent” and Enkil represented the “immanent” aspects of this divine triad.
Mesopotamian theology also divided the sky into three regions that the sun passed through. A northern, middle, and southern region. In Babylonian cosmology, the Way of Anu covered the equator and much of the classical zodiacs. The Way of Enlil covered the northern sky and the Way of Ea covered the southern sky. In Akkadian cosmology, Anu, Enlil, and Ea (Enki) are credited with creating the universe.
This an ancient epic creation poem was written in the 18th century B.C.E. when the city of Babylon becomes the political capital of Mesopotamia. It’s largely written to show Marduk’s birth, many of his heroic deeds, and how Anu stepped down from being King of the Gods to Ea (Enki) who in turn steps down to allow Marduk, in a relatively peaceful succession for the transfer of power to become the king and head of the pantheon.
The Enuma Elish begins at the start of time when the universe is nothing more than chaos with freshwater represented by Apsu and saltwater (or the abyss) represented by Tiamat, a dragoness. The male and female principles, are not unlike the concept seen in the Japanese Yin & Yang. The joining of these two primordial deities would see the creation of all the other gods and other beings. Their most notable children are Lachmu and Lachamu, protective deities, and Anshar and Kishar who go on to sire the other gods and goddesses, known as the Anunnaki. The other children of Apsu and Tiamat are giant sea serpents, dragons, snakes, storm demons, fish-men, scorpion-men
While Tiamat loved all her children, Apsu on the other hand didn’t care for them, saying they were too noisy, keeping him up all night, and unable to get any work done during the day. Apsu’s response to this problem was to kill his children, specifically the younger, Igigi deities.
A horrified Tiamat told her eldest son, Enki (later version its Ea) of what Apsu has planned. Enki decided that the best plan for dealing with this was to capture and put Apsu into a deep sleep and then kill him. From Apsu’s corpse, Enki then creates his home, the earth, and the marshy region of Eridu.
Kingu, one of Tiamat and Apsu’s sons, soon to consort to Tiamat is upset and goes to report what happened. This further horrifies Tiamat who wasn’t expecting Enki to just up and kill Apsu. As a result, she decided to wage war on her own children. The mighty Tiamat raises up an army of chaos consisting of twelve monsters: Bašmu, “Venomous Snake,” Ušumgallu, “Great Dragon,” Mušmahhu, “Exalted Serpent,” Mušhuššu, “Furious Snake,” Lahmu, the “Hairy One,” Ugallu, the “Big Weather-Beast,” Uridimmu, “Mad Lion,” Girtablullû, “Scorpion-Man,” Umu dabrutu, “Violent Storms,” Kulullû, “Fish-Man,” and Kusarikku, “Bull-Man” who are all led by Kingu (Quingu) as the general of this army.
This has Enki and the other gods worried about what to do. At first, Anu says he will try to speak with Tiamat to resolve the problem. When Anu fails diplomatically to resolve the problem, that is when Marduk steps forward, saying he will lead everyone in this war. Marduk has one condition, that is that he be named as the new king of the pantheon. Enki agrees and Marduk leads the Anunnaki to battle.
Marduk prepares his weapons consisting of bow and arrows, a mace, lightning as he is a storm god, flames, and a net. Gathering up the four winds, Marduk encircles and nets the mighty Tiamat to prevent her from escaping him. New winds are created by Marduk such as whirlwinds and tornadoes. As he is a storm god, Marduk brings down a fierce flood of rain. It’s a battle between a storm god and a primordial goddess of chaos and the sea, it’s epic as Marduk rides in his storm-chariot pulled by four horses who have poison in their mouths. Spellcasting and an herbal antidote as Marduk faces off against one of the mightiest dragons known in mythology.
After Marduk finally slays Tiamat with an arrow to her stomach, he then goes after Tiamat’s son, Kingu who oversaw the army and wears the Tablet of Destiny over his chest. Marduk makes short work of Kingu in single combat, claiming the tablets and establishing himself as the new head of the pantheon.
This is a lot of power that Marduk has now accumulated, and he sets about to create the universe. But didn’t that already exist? He’s at least making a new one as Marduk takes the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse to create the heavens and the earth, completing the work started by Enki. From Tiamat’s eyes, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow. With the creation of the heavens, Anu, Enlil and Ea each take their roles and stations.
With Kingu’s blood, Marduk mixes it with the earth to create the first humans who would be the servants of the Igigi (the younger Mesopotamian gods). The creation of humans would allow the gods the leisure time and the time to focus on higher purposes, taking care of human needs as humanity basically did the grunt work. All humans would need to do is respect and give heed to the will of the gods living in Eridu with Marduk ruling overall as a benevolent god.
That doesn’t sound like it will end well and I’m sure there’s another story concerning that.
Side Note: Early versions of this story have Anu, later replaced by Enlil and then in the last version, it is Marduk who gets the promise from the other gods about becoming head of the pantheon.
Marduk’s version dates from the first dynasty of the Babylonians, whereas the other versions are much older. Even then, depending on the version of the creation myth, it is solely Marduk involved in all of it and there’s no mention of Enki at all. Scholars who look at when the Enuma Elish was written generally believe that it represents political and religious propaganda meant to justify and install Marduk as the head of the Babylonian pantheon as the city-state rose to political power in the region.
As for Apsu, the Enuma Elish is the first time he’s treated as a deity. Before, he’s just a concept, what they called the fresh water found beneath the earth in the aquifers.
Adapa And The Food Of Life
This story dates from the Kassite Period between 1595 to 1155 B.C.E., after the fall of Babylon.
In this myth, Enki (Ea) creates the first man Adapa, endowing him with great wisdom and intelligence but not immortality. Adapa is aware of his own pending mortality yet resolves to serve his king in Eridu.
One day, Adapa heads out to sea in his boat for some fishing only to have the South Wind blow him back ashore. An enraged Adapa breaks the wings of the South Wind and returns home. After some seven days have passed, Anu begins to wonder why the South Wind isn’t blowing and asks his right-hand man, Ilabrat what the cause is. Ilabrat replies that it is because Adapa, the priest of Enki (Ea) has broken the South Wind’s wings.
Anu demands that Adapa be summoned before him to explain himself. Enki, fearing Anu’s wrath on his son, instructs Adapa on how to behave when he arrives in the heavens. How he should greet the gatekeepers Tammuz and Gishida. That when he arrives, Adapa should refuse to eat or drink anything, warning his son how Anu is angry and that anything offered is likely to be the food of death or poisoned.
The time comes and Adapa arrives at the gates of heaven and is received in by Anu. Following the advice of his father, Adapa does as instructed and when Anu listens to Adapa’s story of what happened, he has the Food and Water of Life brought in, expecting he will be able to give Adapa the gift of immortality when Enki has refused to do so.
When Adapa refuses the gift of immortality, Anu becomes confused and inquires of Adapa why he is refusing this gift.
Unfortunately, the second and third tablets that this story is written on have been broken and we don’t have the full account.
What we can surmise of what we do have, is that Adapa does tell Anu of the advice that Enki gave him. For this, Anu becomes angry and seeks to punish Enki.
It is clear that knew Enki knew Adapa was going to be offered immortality and had purposefully prevented this from happening. That this gift was something that could only be offered once because when Adapa refuses, there is no second chance given.
Scholars have noted similarities between the story of Adapa and the Food of Life and that of the Fall of Man in Genesis. Notably between Enki’s reasoning and that of God or Yahweh that Adam and Eve would be cast out from the Garden of Eden for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil before they can eat of the Tree of Life.
It appears clear that Enki didn’t want humans to become like the gods as that would upset the natural order and that he would need to keep Adapa mortal in order to keep him in his place.
The Akkadian epic does seem to fill in the gap here. It tells how humans were created with mortality by the will of the gods. Enki sees Anu as upsetting what’s supposed to be the natural order. But Anu makes the offer to Adapa out of compassion, feeling that it was wrong for Enki to have created Adapa wise and intelligent enough to be aware of his own mortality while unable to do anything about it to escape death.
These aspects of Anu trying to bring compassion and understanding were to also be seen in the Enuma Elish in the versions where Anu is trying diplomacy to end the war with Tiamat.
Erra And Išum
An eighth century B.C.E. Akkadian epic poem; Anu gives the Sebettu to the plague god Erra to help him massacre the humans when they become too numerous and noisy.
Epic Of Gilgamesh
This is a Sumerian myth and the second oldest known religious text. There are numerous Akkadian copies of this epic from the late 2,000 B.C.E. that have been found. The prologue of this epic is the source of what’s known about the Sumerian creation story. How in the beginning, there was only Nammu, a primeval sea goddess. Nammu gives birth to An, the sky and Ki, the earth. An and Ki give birth to the god Enlil. It is Enlil who separate the heaven from the earth, An and Ki. Enlil goes on to rule over the earth as his domain with An ruling over the sky.
It is in the Epic of Gilgamesh that Anu and the Bull of Heaven are seen as separate beings when Ishtar petitions him to release the Bull to punish Gilgamesh for refusing to marry her. Of course when the Bull is sent after Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, the Bull is slain.
Inanna And Ebih
This is a 184-line poem written by the Akkadian poetess Enheduanna.
The poem tells of Inanna, An’s granddaughter who petitions An to allow her to destroy Mount Ebih. An tries to warn Inanna not to attack the mountain, but she does so and destroys it in the process.
Inanna Takes Command Of Heaven
This is another poem that only survives in fragments. What has been translated tells of Inanna’s conquering the Eanna temple in Uruk. Inanna is lamenting to her brother Utu how the Eanna temple isn’t under their influence and that she wants to claim it. Fragments of the poem detail Inanna’s difficulties with traveling through a marshland and some fishermen telling her the best route to take. Eventually Inanna reaches the temple where An is surprised by her arrogance. An however does concede control of the temple to Inanna saying she has won it.
The poem ends extoling on Inanna’s greatness. It is thought the poem represents a transfer of power between the priests of An to those of Inanna.
The story, “The Kingship of Heaven,” begins with how Alalu, the King of Heaven ruled for seven years and then is overthrown by Anu, who in turn rules for seven years before being overthrown by Kumarbi. This time, Kumarbi when he attacks his father Anu, he bites off his genitals and when he spits it out, there were three new gods. Kumarbi is deposed of by his own son Teshub in time.
When Anu is overthrown, Kumarbi banishes Anu to the underworld, along with his allies, the old gods. The Hittites would equate these gods with the Anunnaki.
Grecian scholars have noted a similarity of this story of Kumarbi overthrowing Anu with Cronus overthrowing Uranous and eventually their own sons Teshub and Zeus overthrowing them.
Amurru – Amorite God
Depending on your source, Amurru is a patron god of the Mesopotamian city Ninab. He was a god of the steppes, the mountain, and a storm god. Some sources will equate Amurru with Anu while other sources will place him as Anu’s son.
Caelus – Roman God
A primordial Roman god of the sky who has been equated with Anu.
El – Canaanite God
The supreme god in Canaanite beliefs who symbol is also a bull. The ancient Canaanites clearly equated El with Anu as the two share many of the same attributes such as being a ruler of the gods and the ability to make decrees that only he could make.
Jupiter – Roman God
The ruler of the Roman pantheon, he too has been equated with Anu.
Shamem – Canaanite God
Like Anu, Shamem is the personification of the sky. Shamem however does not appear in any Canaanite myths.
Uranus – Greek God
Anu is equated with Uranus, a primordial Greek God of the Heavens who with Gaia would father and originate all creation. Also known as Ouranos.
Zeus – Greek God
Similarities between Anu and Zeus have been noted in some of their myths. Namely were in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Ishtar goes before Anu after being rejected by Gilgamesh and complains to her mother Antu. The scene seems to echo what’s found in the Iliad where Aphrodite flees to Mount Olympus after being wounded by Diomedes while trying to save her son Aeneas. Here, Aphrodite cries to her mother Dione, is mocked by Athena, and is rebuked by Zeus for her actions, how she is the goddess of love, not war. The chapter in the Iliad that Dione appears in is the only time, the rest of the time, Zeus’ consort is named Hera. Where Antu is a feminine form of Anu, Dione is the feminine of Zeus.
It’s an interesting connection and observation.
Etymology: “Bull Calf of the Sun,” “Calf of the Sun” or “Solar Calf”
Also known as: Bel (“Lord,” Akkadian), Bel-Marduk, Murdoch
Other Spellings: 𒀭𒀫𒌓 (Cuniform), dAMAR.UTU, Amar utu k (Sumerian), Μαρδοχαῖος, Mardochaios (Greek), מְרֹדַךְ, Mərōdaḵ (Masoretic Hebrew), Merōḏaḵ (Tiberian), Marōdak (Septuagint), Merodach (Biblical Hebrew), Martuk
In Mesopotamian mythology, Marduk is a fertility and storm deity of Babylon. He is known for defeating the dragon goddess Tiamat and becoming the Leader of the Babylonian pantheon.
Marduk came to prominence as the patron deity of the city of Babylon during the rule of Hammruabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty of the Amorites in the 18th century B.C.E. when Babylon became the political center of the Euphrates valley. Marduk’s full acceptance as the head of the Babylonian pantheon would be completed by the last half of the second millennium B.C.E.
Animal: Dogs, Horse, Mušḫuššu (Snake-Dragon)
Element: Air, Water
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Judgement, Storms, Vegetation
Symbols: Hoe, Spade
In what surviving art and texts we have, Marduk is shown as being human dressed in royal robes decorated with stars. Marduk is often accompanied by his snake-dragon that he got from the god Tishpak.
When shown riding in his war chariot, Marduk carries his other emblems of a scepter, arrows, bow, spear, net and lightning bolt.
What’s In A Name?
To start, there is some controversy over the translation of Marduk’s name. There is the Sumerian dAMAR.UD that translates as: “calf of the sun/sun-god.” Then comes the suggestion that this spelling should call for the translation of: “calf of the storm,” “the son of the storm, and “maker of storms.” The latter translation is often rejected due to a lack of evidence with Marduk’s role as a storm god. Accepting this interpretation of the name nixes any connection to Marduk as a solar deity.
The Akkadian spelling for Marduk’s name is AMAR.UTU that translates to mean MERI.DUG. The name is translated to mean “Solar Calf.” In the Hebrew Torah, his name is spelled as Merodach and the Greek spelling of his name is given as Mardochaios.
Marduk’s name is thought to derive from the phrase: amar-Utu meaning: “Bull Calf of the Sun God Utu.” This naming convention could easily be an indicator of early genealogy. Or, it’s an indicator of cultural ties to the city of Sippar, whose main deity was Utu, a Sun God. The city of Sippar dates to the third millennium B.C.E.
The Encyclopedia of Religion comments that the name Marduk was likely pronounced as Marutuk.
Esagila – “Temple whose top is raised” or “Proud/Honored Temple.” While Marduk would come to claim prominence throughout most of Mesopotamia, his primary temple is Esagila, located in Babylon. This is the famous ziggurat that’s described by Herodotus.
Etemenanki – “Temple that is the foundation of Heavens and Earth” A ziggurat with Marduk’s shrine located at the top. This may be the temple that inspired the “Tower of Babel.”
Cult of Marduk – As the patron god of Babylon, this city was the main location for Marduk’s worship. The rise and popularity of this religion venerating Marduk is tied closely with the rise of Babylon as a strong political power and capital of the Mesopotamian empire. To the degree that many other deities were subsumed and seen as aspects and epitaphs of Marduk. Outside of Babylon, Marduk was worshipped in Borsippa, Nippur, and Sippar.
In the Assyrian period of Babylonian history, Aššur becomes the head of the pantheon and Marduk takes on a symbolic role of Babylon’s resistance to Assyrian rule. The cult of Aššur would compete with the cult of Marduk. In the Assyrian version of the Enūma Eliš, it is Aššur who becomes the head of the pantheon, not Marduk.
The Marduk Prophecy also shows the conflicts of this change of power as Marduk’s statue is continually “taken captive” until finally the resulting destruction of Babylon and Esagila with the different shifts of power in the region.
This is a very important aspect of the ancient world beliefs and Mesopotamia is no different. Within the temple of Esagila there was a golden statue of Marduk. This statue wasn’t just dedicated to Marduk, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that statue to actually be the god himself. Seen in the Marduk Prophecy, if the statue of the god wasn’t present, then he wasn’t in his temple or there to protect his city-state and all sorts of calamities and problems would happen.
Originating during the rule of the Kassites, a new king wishing to see his rule as legitimate, needed to “take the hands of Marduk,” symbolizing the king’s submission and accepting the will and guidance of the god.
In 485 B.C.E., the Persian king Xerxes attacked the city of Babylon and there is no mention of Marduk’s statue. The same goes when Alexander the Great conquers Babylon in 331 B.C.E., there’s no mention of the statue. This lack of evidence and records leads many scholars to believe and agree that Marduk’s statue disappearance from history means that it has, in all likelihood been destroyed.
Without a statue, the Babylonian religion and worship of Marduk declined.
This was the ancient New Year’s festival that the Sumerians and Mesopotamian cultures celebrated. This festival occurred sometime during March and April, marking the planting of barley. This festival was presided over by Nabu and Marduk to such a degree, that a text known as the Akitu Chronicle documents a time when the festival couldn’t be observed as Marduk (his physical statue, thus him) wasn’t present in the city of Babylon. Without the statue to carry through the city out to a small house outside the city walls, the people thought that disaster would soon befall them if the patron god wasn’t there to stop the forces of chaos.
Every year at the Akitu House located outside the city, the Enuma Elish would be recited for the New Year’s festival. There was also involved a ritual slapping of the king. Gotta’ stay humble, I guess.
Parentage and Family
Anu – Grandfather and the original head of the Mesopotamian pantheon before other deities arrive on the scene.
Ea – The previous head and leader of the gods before stepping down. Known as Enki in Sumerian. Ea was the creator god, associated with the fresh, life-giving waters.
Damkina – A Fertility and Mother goddess originally known as Ninhursag.
Sarpanitu – Also spelled Zarpanitu. She is a Mother and Fertility Goddess
Nanaya – She is sometimes given as Marduk’s wife in the myths.
Nabu – Son and god of literature, scribes and wisdom. Nabu was originally Marduk’s first minister before being identified as his son.
Birth Of A Legend
For as old and ancient as the Mesopotamian mythologies are, it makes sense that we might not know that much about them. To a point.
Marduk goes from obscurity with almost nobody knowing anything about him in the third millennium B.C.E. to the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon in Babylon in the first millennium B.C.E.
By the time the Enuma Elish is written, Marduk’s original nature has already been altered and obscured. As now, he’s a deity linked to the attributes of judgment, magic, vegetation, and water. He is now identified as the son of Ea and Damkina.
As the politics of Babylon and the whole of the Euphrates Valley ramped up, Marduk’s attributes and aspects begin to alter as he would be placed as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, especially for his patron city-state of Babylon.
Once Babylon becomes the capital of Mesopotamia, Marduk who was currently just a patron deity of the city now ascends to become the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon and a supreme deity, ruling or presiding over everything else. Explaining this power shift of head honcho, head god and the transfer of power from Ea to Marduk, the Enûma Elish gets written, showing a peaceful abdication of power as Ea steps down and concedes rulership to his son.
There are a couple little snags later on, such as the revival of the god Enlil’s worship to Marduk, reflecting a real-world, historical rise of the cult of Enlil during Kassite control in Babylon between 1570 B.C.E. to 1157 B.C.E. The worship of Marduk and thus, his triumph over Enlil returns at the end of this era of Kassite control.
The other snag to Marduk’s popularity and his being the supreme deity comes during 1000 B.C.E. when the deity Aššur up north in Assyria gains popularity and worship. Down in the southern parts of the region, Marduk is still the head deity. The history of these events is reflected in the Marduk Prophecy.
This ancient epic creation poem was written in the 18th century B.C.E. when the city of Babylon becomes the political capital of Mesopotamia. It’s largely written to show Marduk’s birth, many of his heroic deeds and how Ea (Enki) steps down to allow Marduk, in a relatively peaceful transfer of power to become the king and head of the pantheon.
The Enuma Elish begins at the start of time when the universe is nothing more than chaos with freshwater represented by Apsu and saltwater represented by Tiamat, a dragoness. The male and female principles, not unlike the concept seen in the Japanese Yin & Yang. The joining of these two primordial deities would see the creation of all the other gods, known as the Anunnaki.
While Tiamat loved all her children, Apsu, on the other hand, didn’t care for them, saying they were too noisy, keeping him up all night and unable to get any work done during the day. Apsu’s response to this problem was to kill his children.
A horrified Tiamat told her eldest son, Enki of what Apsu planned. Enki decided that the best plan for dealing with this was to put Apsu into a deep sleep and then kill him. From Apsu’s corpse, Enki then creates his home, the earth and the marshy region of Eridu.
This further horrifies Tiamat who wasn’t expecting for Enki to just up and kill Apsu. As a result, she decided to wage war on her own children. The mighty Tiamat raises up an army of chaos and sets Kingu (Quingu) as the general of this army and her new consort.
This has Enki and the other gods worried about what to do. That is, until Marduk steps forward, saying he will lead everyone in this war. Marduk has one condition, that is that he be named as the new king of the pantheon. Enki agrees and Marduk leads the Anunnaki to battle.
Marduk prepares his weapons consisting of bow and arrows, a mace, lightning as he is a storm god, flames and a net. Gathering up the four winds, Marduk encircles and nets the mighty Tiamat to prevent her from escaping him. New winds are created by Marduk such as whirlwinds and tornadoes. As he is a storm god, Marduk brings down a fierce flood of rain. It’s a battle between a storm god and a primordial goddess of chaos and the sea, it’s epic as Marduk rides in his storm-chariot pulled by four horses who have poison in their mouths. Spellcasting and an herbal antidote as Marduk faces off against one of the mightiest dragons known in mythology.
After Marduk finally slays Tiamat with an arrow to her stomach, he then goes after Tiamat’s son, Kingu who oversaw the army and wears the Tablets of Destiny over his chest. Marduk makes short work of Kingu in single combat, claiming the tablets and establishing himself as the new head of the pantheon.
This is a lot of power that Marduk has now accumulated and he sets about to create the universe. But didn’t that already exist? He’s at least making a new one as Marduk takes the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse to create the heavens and the earth, completing the work started by Enki. From Tiamat’s eyes, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow.
With Kingu’s blood, Marduk mixes it with the earth to create the first humans. The creation of humans would allow the gods the leisure time and the time to focus on higher purposes, taking care of human needs as humanity basically did the grunt work. All humans would need to do is respect and give heed to the will of the gods living in Eridu with Marduk ruling overall as a benevolent god.
That doesn’t sound like it will end well and I’m sure there’s another story concerning that.
Side Note: Depending on the version of the creation myth, it is solely Marduk involved in all of it and there’s no mention of Enki.
Further, knowing that this is a revision of the original myths, I’m curious about what the originals may have been.
Eridu – The First City
Yes, there really is a historical site for an ancient city of this name. Eridu is the oldest city built by the Mesopotamians around 5400 B.C.E. Depending on who you ask, it may be the oldest city in the world. In the Babylonian texts, namely Enuma Elish, it is a holy city where all the other gods lived a life of leisure.
This city was originally the city-state for the god Enki who is later known as Ea by the Akkadians. For modern times, it was first excavated by John George Taylor in 1855. Later, archeological discoveries found that the city was ultimately abandoned around 600 B.C.E. due to a change in climate as the water became more salinized from all the constant irrigation.
As seen later, in the Marduk Prophecy, with the Enuma Elish, the story here likely reflects on the transition from Eridu to Babylon as it became the political and religious center of the Euphrates valley and a cultural shift as the newer city becomes more prominent over the older city of Eridu.
Revisionist History – Scholars have noted that the city of Eridu is founded in the 5th millennium B.C.E. and that Marduk ascends to head of the Mesopotamian pantheon in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. That is a lot of time to have passed. It clearly marks that someone decided to rewrite the myths to favor Marduk when his popularity and the importance of Babylon as a political center become prominent.
Marduk is a god of fertility and vegetation and thus, agriculture. The triangular spade or hoe that Marduk is shown with in some art represents his role and power over fertility and vegetation.
The roles and aspects of Marduk being a Spring, Storm and Solar god also blend in with this function. However, making these connections relies on accepting certain etymological interpretations for Marduk’s name.
As a patron god, Marduk, not just King of the gods, also presided over the city of Babylon. The importance of a patron deity is shown in the Marduk Prophecy where Babylon has fallen to chaos and disarray when Marduk’s statue and thus the god himself leaves and order is later restored when King Nebuchadnezzar returns Marduk’s statue to the city.
Not the Original Patron – This was a fun little fact to come across. Before Marduk became the patron god of Babylon, that honor belonged to Inanna, goddess of sexuality and warfare. She would still be a prominent and important goddess throughout the Mesopotamian culture.
Marduk’s role as Patron, also places him prominently as a protector deity. Aside from the Akitu Chronicles and the Marduk Prophecy, there are two other texts: “The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi” and “The Wrath of Erra” that highlight just how vital having one’s patron deity present was, not just for the city, but for the individual as well.
The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi – Also called the “Let me praise the Lord of Wisdom” or “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” it is often classified as “Wisdom Literature.” This text is a long treatise some four tablets long with 120 lines each. that details the amount of suffering that Tabu-utu-bel, a city official of Nippur goes through because Marduk isn’t close enough to help as he is too far away for any meaningful help. Biblical scholars have compared this text with the Book of Job for the themes of suffering when one’s God seems absent.
The Wrath of Erra – This is another text, in which the war god, Erra (Irra or Nergal) grows bored and decides the only way to cure his boredom is to attack Babylon. The other gods try to persuade Erra that this is a bad idea and don’t do it. Undaunted, Erra heads off to Babylon anyways. Once there, Erra convinces Marduk that his clothes are shabby and perhaps he should go about getting some new threads. Marduk says he’s much too busy to take of this matter and Erra convinces Marduk that he’ll watch over the city. Off Marduk goes and Erra takes advantage of the opportunity to proceed with destroying the city and killing civilians. Depending on the source translated from, either the other gods stop Erra’s path of destruction or he’s halted when Marduk finally returns with his fancy new duds. Regardless, the story ends with giving praise to Erra, the god of war for sparing a part of the city so people could rebuild.
The idea of having a protector and patron god of one’s city was very strong among the Babylonians. This was their whole city and personal identity that in 485 B.C.E. the Persian king Xerxes had Marduk’s statue destroyed when he sacked the city. Eventually, with the sands of time, Babylon is deserted and left to ruin and people have forgotten about worshiping Marduk.
King Of The Gods
As head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, Marduk takes on a lot of aspects. In some cases, this is taking over the role of other gods who had previously been the head of the pantheon. Such aspects that Marduk comes to preside over are justice, compassion, mercy, healing, regeneration, magic.
A “snake-dragon, mušḫuššu is Marduk’s sacred animal that he got from the god Tishpak. The mušḫuššu is depicted on the city walls of Babylon.
If you ask me this is a lot of titles and epitaphs to be known by. We get this list from two different sources, “The Seven Tablets of Creation” that Leonard W. King studied in 1902 to reconstruct from fragments a list of names. Then there is the “King’s List” that Franz Bohl studied in 1936. Finally, we get to 1958, when Richard Litke compared and noticed similarities with Marduk’s name between the two lists of An (Anum, a deity list) and Enuma Elish.
These names demonstrate the level of prominence that Marduk held within the Babylonian pantheon. These fifty names of Marduk are found and documented in the Enûma Elish and the Anum.
Why 50? – The number 50 was originally associated with the god Enlil, the former head of the pantheon. So this is just part of showing the transfer of power from Enlil to Marduk.
Asalluhi – As Marduk came to prominence, he took over the role and identity of Asalluhi, the son of Ea and god of incantations and magic. With both Asalluhi and Marduk becoming equated as the same entity, Asalluhi’s name survives as one of Marduk’s many names and epitaphs. Some commentary has noted that equating or syncretizing Marduk and Asalluhi together is a means to create a stronger tie to the god Ea and the city of Eridu as Ea was not part of the original pantheon.
Bel – Meaning “Lord,” this is the name that Marduk would eventually be known by, making him a god of order and destiny.
He is normally referred to as Bel “Lord”, also bel rabim “great lord”, bêl bêlim “lord of lords”, ab-kal ilâni bêl terêti “leader of the gods”, aklu bêl terieti “the wise, lord of oracles”, muballit mîte “reviver of the dead”, etc.
The Marduk Prophecy
This is an interesting text, not so much as it’s telling prophecies, but more about being a history around the movement of Marduk’s cult as they follow Marduk’s statue from Babylon. This text was found at the House of the Exorcist in Assur and dates from 713 to 612 B.C.E. It appears to be similar to another set of texts, the Shulgi prophecy.
It begins with Marduk’s statue getting stolen by Mursilis I of Hatti in 1531 B.C.E. The god Marduk is described as visiting the land of Assyria. Then, when a Tukulti-Ninurta I overthrows Kashtiliash IV in 1225 B.C.E., Marduk’s statue is taken Assur and then Elam as Kudur-nahhunte sacks the city in 1160 B.C.E.
Each time, Marduk is described as willingly heading off to visit these places. Which makes sense when you remember that this far back, a statue of a deity… hence an idol was the actual deity in question, not just a representation.
The way Marduk’s travels are told, they are allegories of the history involved. The first couple of journeys that Marduk takes are fairly favorable. When it comes to the city-state of Elam, that’s a whole other matter as the other gods following after Marduk, likely shows the changing climate of the region as they abandon Babylon due to famine and pestilence.
There’s also a familiar theme as Marduk prophecies that he will return again to Babylon with a new king will rise to power bringing about redemption and salvation to the city, taking it back from the Elamites and restoring the Ekursagila temple. Where the Marduk Prophecy is concerned, King Nabu-kudurri-uṣur (Nebuchadnezzar), who reigned from 1125 to 1103 B.C.E. is accepted as being the king who returns Marduk’s statue to Babylon and is victorious over the Elamites.
The main importance of the Marduk Prophecy text is to highlight the necessity of the patron deity staying in Babylon. Each time that the Marduk statue (Marduk himself) is abducted, chaos falls on the city of Babylon while the places where the statue resides, prosper.
Like some epic game of football where the opposing team comes and steals the home team’s mascot to weaken their morale.
No! Say it isn’t so!
Remember the previously mentioned King Nebuchadnezzar? It’s been noted that the dates of when the Marduk Prophecy (1 millennium B.C.E.) and even the Enuma Elish both date to around the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule and reign between 1125-1103 B.C.E. It makes him look good for restoring order (his defeat of the Elamites and bringing Marduk’s statue back) that he’s the prophesied king come to do Marduk’s will.
Jupiter – Roman
With Marduk’s position and role as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the Romans equated him with Jupiter, the head of their pantheon.
Zeus – Greek
With Marduk’s position and role as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the Greeks equated him with Zeus, the head of their pantheon.
Bel – Babylonian
Yes, Bel is previously mentioned earlier as one of Marduk’s fifty names.
He is mentioned as being a separate deity here as in the 1 millennium B.C.E., by the time we get to this era of history, as a title, Bel is the name that other deities Enlil and Dumuzid, not just Marduk have been known by.
Taken separately, Bel holds all the titles and aspects that Enlil did. To the point that Bel eventually becomes a god of order and destiny. Even Greek historians mentioned Bel in their writings. As a separate deity, Bel was the god of order and destiny. Both Marduk and Bel’s cults were similar, so it’s not hard to see how Bel becomes absorbed and an epitaph for Marduk.
Bel and the Dragon – This is a Jewish story and apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel in which the Babylonians offer a substantial amount of food and wine every day to an idol of Bel. This vast quantity of food seemingly, miraculously disappears each night. This is enough to convince the Persian king Cyrus the Great that the idol is alive, and he tells Daniel this.
Daniel being a wise man and rather smart knows this isn’t the case. Afterall Daniel says it’s clay on the inside and bronze outside. It likely has never eaten anything. To prove this, Daniel discreetly covers the floor of the temple with ash.
Both Daniel and Cyrus leave for the night. When they return in the morning, Daniel is able to point out the footprints left behind, thus proving that it is the seventy priests of Bel who are eating the food, not the idol.
Some scholars point out that the name Bel is derived from the Semitic word “Baal” that has the same meaning of “Lord.” There are several places within the Bible where Bel is mentioned, this more than likely referencing Marduk. The Hebrew version of Marduk’s name, Merodach is found in many places in the Bible as a surname for non-Israeli kings.
Continuing this trend for Biblical Connections, Marduk and a couple other Mesopotamian and Canaanite deities are made mention of in the Torah or Old Testament.
Thanks to Cyrus the Great of Persia, when he captured Babylon, he reversed the policies of the previous ruler by calling for the rebuilding of temples and reinstating religions that had been destroyed or banned before.
Where the Bible (Torah) is concerned, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple to Yahweh. Cyrus records inspiration for this as coming from Marduk. The bible will say that it is Yahweh who inspired Cyrus.
The “Cyrus Cylinder” found in 1879 at Babylon records the following: “Marduk, the great Lord, established as his fate for me a magnanimous heart of one who loves Babylon, and I daily attended to his worship… I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [in Babylon], to their places; and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings… at the command of Marduk.”
In the Book of Ezra 5:13 this event is recorded: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God.”
The Book of Isaiah is where Yahweh is given credit for inspiring Cyrus.
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city
and set my exiles free” (Isaiah 45:13)
The connections don’t end there, Biblical scholars see a similar theme with Marduk’s slaying Tiamat with the Canaanite story of Baal slaying Tannin and notably Yahweh’s defeating the giant sea monster Leviathan in Psalm 74: 13-14 or a future time in Isaiah 27:1.
The previously mentioned Etemenanki temple is thought to be the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. Babylon’s destruction is prophesied in the book of Jeremiah (50:2).
Who do you accept? It’s a matter of two different religions, cultures and perspectives. Of course, it’s easy, after the fact, to say there was divine intervention and that it is all prophesied.
According to Zecharia Sitchin, the claim is made that the great battle between Tiamat and Marduk is symbolic for the creation of our solar system’s asteroid belt. Sitchin writes that this asteroid belt was once a planet that the Sumerians called Tiamat. Due to an impact, the planet was destroyed, creating the “Great Band” or asteroid belt. The planetary impact responsible is that of the planet Nibiru, associated with the god Marduk.
Babylonian Astronomy, Astrology & Zodiac
I will call bunk on Sitchin’s ideas.
When you look at the word Nibiru in the Akkadian language, it refers to a crossing or transition points like with rivers. In Babylonian astronomy, Nibiru came to refer to the Equinox, notably, the Autumn Equinox. In their star lore, the term nibiru can refer to any crossing. Tracking the movement of the stars and planets in the heavens as they appear from Earth. The star or planet associated with Marduk is the one we know modernly as Jupiter.
For the Babylonians, the Autumn Equinox occurred in the month of Tisritum, roughly coinciding with between September and October. If we’re following the Greek Zodiac, then the constellation of Libra is prominent. A further fun fact, depending on the time of the year and the location of the planet Mercury, it could sometimes be called Nibiru.
Some of it is confusing. Mainly it’s understanding how to read and interpret what the Babylonians meant when tracking the night sky.
It should come as no surprise, that as old as the Mesopotamian cultures and religions are, that they would have mapped out the night sky to mark the turning of the seasons, creating a calendar. Many of these early constellations and zodiacs were adopted by the later Greeks who incorporated the constellations into their own mythology.
In Babylonian beliefs, it is Marduk who creates the astrological calendar and mapped out the different signs of the Zodiac. Marduk would be identified with the planet Jupiter, who of course is later equated with the Greek Zeus and renamed for the Roman deity Jupiter as all three are heads of their respective pantheons.
Cetus – Greek Mythology & Constellation
While many are familiar with the constellation’s connection to the Grecian story of Andromeda and Perseus in its role as the giant sea monster sent by Poseidon to destroy the coast of Aethiopia.
The constellation of Cetus has been identified with Tiamat, the dragon goddess of Chaos. Marking Tiamat’s story one of many that the Greeks likely inherited from the Mesopotamians and retold for their legends.
Other names: Amphictyonis, Sito (“She of the Grain,”) Thesmophoros (“Law Bringer”)
Other Names and Epithets: Achaea, Achaiva (“Sorrowing,”) Aganippe (“the Mare who Destroys Mercifully”, “Night-Mare,”) Anesidora (“Sender of Gifts,”) Antaea, Chloe (“the Green Shoot,” Chthonia (“In the Ground,”) “Corn-Mother,” Daduchos (“Torch Bearer,”) Demeter Lousia, “the Bathed Demeter”, Demeter Erinys, Demeter Melaine “Black Demeter,” Despoina (“Mistress of the House,”) Epipole, Erinys (“Implacable,”) Europa (“Broad Face or Eyes,”) Kidaria, Lusia (“Bathing,”) Malophoros (“Apple-Bearer” or “Sheep-Bearer,”) “Mistress of the Labyrinth,” “Mother-Earth,” Potnia “Mistress,” Thermasia (“Warmth,”) “Green,” “The Giver of Gifts,” “The Bearer of Food,” and “Great Mother.”
When paired with Persephone, she and Demeter are called: “the Older” and “the Younger” in Eleusis, Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, the Thesmophoroi or “the Legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia. “The Queens” in Mycenaean Pylos.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: Earth Mother
It’s generally agreed that the second part to Demeter’s name, “meter” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning mother.
Now, the first part to Demeter’s name, De originates as Da, becoming Ge in Attic and then De in Doric. Making it that Demeter means “Mother Earth.” The root word of De has also been linked to the name Deo, from the Cretan word for emmer, spelt, rye and other grains. In this respect, Demeter is the giver of food. Another alternative from Proto-Indo-European etymology is that De is derived from Despoina and Potnia where Des- means house or dome, making in this case, Demeter mean “mother of the house.”
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Olympian goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She specializes in the cultivation of grains and is a fertility goddess. In addition, Demeter ruled over the cycles of life and death as well. Demeter is an ancient goddess whose worship predates the Greeks. Both Demeter and her daughter Persephone were the central figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Animal: Horse, Pig, Snake
Colors: Black, Green
Patron of: Agriculture, Harvest
Plant: Grains, Wheat, Barley, Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Growth, Seasonal Cycles, Harvest, Sacred Law
Symbols: Cornucopia, Scepter, Wheat, Torch, Bread
Early Greek Depictions
Found in Pylos, there is a set of Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets that dates from between 1400 to 1200 C.E. that depicts “two mistresses and the king” that are thought to possibly be Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter is described as a blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain.
Demeter doesn’t often appear in art before the 6th century B.C.E. Demeter is often associated with imagery of the harvest, flowers, fruit, grain and sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone where they are both wearing crowns and hold a torch and scepter or stalks of grain. Another scene that Demeter is shown in is that of Athena’ birth. Sometimes Demeter is shown sitting alone wearing a wreath of braided ears of grain.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. During the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens is when Demeter’s worship came to Eleusis.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
There were two sets of observances or celebrations for the Eleusinian Mysteries that would be held every five years.
The Lesser Mysteries would be held the 20th Anthesterion (roughly coinciding with February 28th) and take place over a span of week
The Greater or Eleusinian Mysteries would occur during the 15th-21st of Boedromion (September 28th to October 4th).
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
Amphictyony – An ancient ruin site, this is likely the oldest cult center for Demeter in Anthele along the coast of Malis, Thessaly. For those interest in history, this is near Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans fought the invading Persians. After the “First Sacred War,” this Amphictyony became known as the Delphic Amphictyony. Basically a meeting place for many local Greek tribes and cities to come gather to maintain temples to the gods, festivals and work out any disputes and problems.
Megara – Temples to Demeter were called Megara and would be built in groves with neighboring towns nearby.
Mysia – The goddess Demeter worshiped here had a seven-day festival held at Pellene, Arcadia.
Sacrifices To Demeter – These would consist of pigs, bulls, cows, honey cakes, and fruit.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” an epitaph of Poseidon. Eileithyia’s myth and cult would come to be absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted, and Demeter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess. The date can vary, if the festival were held in Athens, it would during the 11th-13 Pyanepsion, roughly coinciding with October 23rd-25th.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Thesmophoros – “Giver of Customs” or “Legislator” is a name and epitaph that links Demeter to the goddess Themis, which derives from the word thesmos, the unwritten law.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor, and Triptolemus
Iasion – Demeter manages to lure Iasion away during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia.
Poseidon – The Arcadian cult and myths link Demeter and Poseidon together. In this respect, Demeter is then equated with the Minoan Great Goddess, Cybele.
She is the second child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Amphitheus I – Her son by Triptolemus.
Arion – A magical speaking horse, her son by Poseidon.
Chrysothemis & Eubuleus – Her children by Karmanor.
Despoina – Her daughter by Poseidon.
Dmia – Her daughter by Oceanus.
Iacchus – Her son by Zeus. Due to the similarity of his name with Bacchus, he is sometimes identified as being Dionysus.
Persephone – Goddess of Fertility and Queen of the Underworld, her daughter by Zeus.
Philomelus – her son by Iasion.
Ploutos – Also spelled Plutus, her son by Iasion.
While Demeter may just very well indeed predate Grecian culture, she is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians vary. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Demeter and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophecy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronous that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronous eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia.
There is a ten-year-long war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Demeter and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Demeter & Zeus
Zeus as we know, King of the Gods, fathered many children with many goddesses and mortal woman alike and usually by rape.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus rapes his sister Demeter, resulting in Kore, Persephone.
By one account, Demeter becomes a fourth wife to Zeus and in their union, they have a daughter by the name of Kore (Persephone).
With the information from the Homeric Hymn and Zeus’ reputation, that would be an awful lot of wives if he married everyone he’s to have raped.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone. Plus, this is also a story involving her mother Demeter and her role in it and the primary story told in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires are known.
This doesn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this is love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. During her search, Demeter found herself in the palace of Celeus, King of Eleusis in Attica. Demeter took the guise of an old woman, calling herself Doso and asked the King for shelter. Celeus took the old woman in and had her nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons.
Now, from a goddess’ perspective, she planned to reward Celeus’ kindness by gifting his son Demophon immortality. To grant the gift of immortality, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia and laid him down in the hearth fire with the intention to burn away his mortality. Mom, Queen Metanira walks in and see her baby laying in the fire and understandably freaks out, screaming. Demeter decided against this idea and instead taught the older boy, Triptolemus the knowledge of agriculture. From this, this is how humankind learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually, Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranates, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Version 3 – Some versions of the story place the episode where Demeter goes to Celeus’ kingdom to hide in sorrow after she learns just who abducted Persephone. Regardless of if its Helios or Hecate who tells her the news.
This placement in the narrative often fits when the impression of Demeter as a Fertility goddess is wanted to be given and that in her despair or out of spite, sets the world on a path to barrenness and winter.
Side Note – Sometimes the characters of Demephon and Triptolemus are seen as being the same person, especially Triptolemus.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when Ascalaphus is released, Demter turns him into an owl.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility. In this case, the wealth of corn or grain springing forth from the ground every year and the promise of renewal it brings with it.
This is perhaps the biggest aspect about Demeter. As an Earth Goddess and Goddess of the Harvest, this is Demeter’s biggest role in her gifting mankind with the knowledge of agriculture, especially for grains and cereals. Without the advent of agriculture, humans would still largely be hunter-gatherers moving about and never having settled in any place to build cities and all the rest that follows.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
This strong connection of grain and rebirth or renewal is what ties Demeter so closely to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Hesiod, there are prayers to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter to help ensure that the crops will be full and strong.
Secrets Of Agriculture – In the larger story of “The Rape of Persephone,” there is a shorter episode that occurs. During Demeter’s search for her missing daughter, the goddesses’ wanderings took her to the kingdom of Eleusis in Attica where King Celeus ruled. While there, seeking shelter in the guise of an old woman, Demeter, after deciding to not gift immortality to the young son, Demophan, the goddess instead taught the knowledge of agriculture to the older son, Triptolemus. In this way, this is how humankind learned the knowledge of how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Now, there a few different versions to this myth and other figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus will be who learned the secrets of agriculture. Fair enough.
Without the knowledge of agriculture, humankind would have continued to be nomadic, hunter-gathers. With Demeter’s influence, humankind is able to settle and stay in one place to begin building up their cities and civilizations. This fits with one of Demeter’s names: Thesmophoros as “Law Bringer” and laying out the planning and laws of society.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
Like her daughter, Demeter is also closely connected to the Ancient Greeks beliefs about the changing of the seasons, especially as seen in the story: “The Rape of Persephone.” That Spring and Summer are when Persephone has returned to the Living World to be with her mother Demeter and that Fall and Winter come when Persephone descends back down to the Underworld to be with her husband Hades for the rest of the year.
Sure okay, makes sense I guess.
The more simplified Greek versions would have it that Demeter is responsible for the fertility of the earth and that she causes it to be winter out of grief and spite because her daughter Persephone isn’t with her. Add to that so many people wanting to give stories about how fickle and petty the Greek Gods could be, this just seems to fit the Pantheon’s MO, nobody is questioning the story?
Yay! I love mankind so much! I’m going to teach them agriculture and how to harvest! Boo! Hiss! You took my daughter! I’m going to punish the very mortals I claim to love so much by making the earth barren and winter!
That really doesn’t make sense!
Fertility Goddess – That’s because you have to remember that Persephone is a chthonic fertility goddess. The earth can grow again, and Spring comes when Persephone has ascended to the Living World.
The fertility function is something that the Greeks really seem to have forgotten and which role and function they attached to Demeter. That way, a version of the story where Demeter is the fertility goddess, it’s out of spite and grief that Demeter causes winter and refuses to allow anything to grow.
Harvest Goddess – Yeah! Everyone remembers this aspect about Demeter. Afterall, she taught mankind the secrets of agriculture! This is Demeter’s domain and better fits the dual roles that she and Persephone share.
Alright kiddos, Persephone’s going back to the Underworld to be with Hades again, better bring in those crops and harvest like I told you! It’s gonna’ be awhile and we don’t need any empty bellies or people dying while we wait for Persephone to come back.
Fall comes, and this is where Demeter’s role comes in. As plants become dormant or die, now is the time for harvesting, to make sure there enough food has been stored and gathered for the long winter months until Persephone and Spring returns. The first loaf of bread is thought to have been sacrificed to Demeter.
As a goddess of the Harvest, this domain ties closely to Demeter’s role as a goddess of Agriculture, having taught humankind it’s knowledge so they can grow enough food.
To keep with the version of the story where Demeter makes it Winter out of spite or grief because her daughter has been abducted seems contradictory. Especially if Demeter is one of the few Greek Gods who is considered closest to humankind and understands the most about grief and loss.
Just by the very meaning of Demeter’s name, “Earth Mother,” we know she is a mother goddess. Not necessarily a “Great Mother Goddess” as the Romans would identify Cybele and Rhea with.
As a mother goddess, Demeter is seen as the most compassionate and closest to humankind of all of the Greek Gods for she is the one who understands the most about grief and loss. It’s her gifts of abundance and the harvest yields that nurture and sustain humans through the long winter months.
This is another plant besides grains that is strongly associated with Demeter. Her emblem is that of a bright red poppy flower growing among the barley. Theocritus wrote of Demeter being a poppy goddess, that she held poppies and sheaves of grain in both of her hands. In Gazi, Minoa, there is a clay statuette that was found of a goddess wearing seed capsules on her diadem. The idea has put forward that a Great Mother Goddess, under the names of Rhea and Demeter introduced the poppy with her cult in Cretan.
Healing A Poor Man’s Son – An episode often set during Demeter’s search for her daughter, the goddess comes across a poor, old man who is out gathering firewood. He invites the goddess to his home, likely not knowing who she is, and offers to share a meal with her. This would be the law of hospitality among the Greeks known as Xenia.
When Demeter told the old man about her search for her missing daughter, he wished Demeter success and said that he understood her grief and suffering for his own son lay dying. Taking compassion, Demeter decided to go with the old man to his home. She stopped once to gather some poppies and when they arrived, Demeter went straight to the boy’s bedside, kissing him on the cheek. At once, the boy’s sickly pallor left him, and he was restored to health.
As to the poppies, I assume the story intended some healing use and connection. Poppies are a source of opium from which morphine is derived. There is a history of poppies being used medicinally, mainly for diarrhea and pain, chest colds, coughs and pneumonia. So, a Greek audience likely knew very well what Demeter intended to use the poppies for.
Poppy seeds are also used in preparations for bread and confections. Not likely an immediate use of drug abuse.
Goddess Of Marriage
As a goddess of marriage, Demeter is venerated at the celebration of Thesmophoria. It’s an interesting connection and one that makes sense if one remembers that it wasn’t unusual for mothers to be kept out of the loop as to whom their daughter would marry when the father is making the arrangements.
Of course, this future husband was likely someone easily two if not three times the girl’s age and she would find herself torn from her birth home and leaving to live with her husband, most likely in another town and province.
Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter would resonate with many women in ancient Greece. Taking from the stance of Demeter as responsible for fertility, she, unlike many women was able to do something that others couldn’t. That was to defy Zeus’ will by holding the world hostage until he agrees to release Persephone back to Demeter, even if only for part of the year.
It may have been a partial victory, but a victory all the same for Demeter. Many mothers probably hoped to be able to do something similar. Or say, a daughter could return to visit her maternal family, things would never return to the way they were before. But just for a little while, they could.
Demeter & Iasion
Iasion is noteworthy as he is considered the only consort Demeter took by choice rather getting raped or forced by another person. Iasion is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Elektra.
During the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter spotted Iasion and fell in love. She managed to lure Iasion away from all the other partygoers. The two would head out to a field near Crete where they would have a tryst. Demeter would later give birth to twins: Ploutos (or Plutus) who is known for bestowing wealth and plenty on people and Philomelos who would become the patron of plowing.
Zeus would become jealous of Iasion and kill him with a thunderbolt. By one account, Zeus didn’t think it appropriate that a Goddess would consort with a mortal. But it’s okay if he does it? Got it.
Ploutos & Philomelos
In a case of sibling rivalry, Philomelos was envious of Ploutos great wealth. Rather than re-enact a biblical scene worthy of Cain and Abel, Philomelos bought a pair of oxen and invented the plow so he could earn a living tilling the earth. This so impressed Demeter, that she placed Philomelos up into the heavens to become the constellation Bootes.
Demeter & Poseidon
Well sure and why not? Demeter is the Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon is the God of Water. That’s a good match and they’re consenting adults and gods.
Mycenaen Greek – This is Bronze Age Greece, there is a script known as Linear B found in Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos where both Demeter and Poseidon’s names appear. Poseidon is given the epitaph of E-ne-si-da-o-ne “earth-shaker” and Demeter’s name is given si-to-po-ti-ni-ja. In these inscriptions, Poseidon’s title and epitaph E-ne-si-da-o-ne (Enesidaon) links him as a King of the Underworld and gives him a chthonic nature.
Touching back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are tablets found in Pylos that mention sacrificial goods for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” or “to the Two Queens and King.” It’s agreed that the Two Queens very likely refer to Demeter and Persephone or its later precursor goddesses who are not associated with Poseidon later.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” whom we just mentioned is Poseidon. Her cult and worship would survive within the Eleusinian Mysteries. Plus, we see where local deities’ worship get absorbed and conflated with a more popular, well-known deity.
Arcadia – We’re still in Bronze Age Greece! Here, Demeter and Poseidon Hippios or Horse Poseidon give birth to a daughter, Despoina, who is a goddess in her own right before some of the myths confuse her with Persephone or make her an epitaph of Demeter.
In this myth, Poseidon is a river spirit of the Underworld, appearing as a horse. In this form, Poseidon pursues Demeter, who is also in horse form. Demeter hid among the horses of King Onkios. Due to her divinity, Demeter couldn’t remain hidden for long and Poseidon caught up with her and forced himself on her. When the two gods copulate, Demeter gives birth to a goddess who is also in horse or mare form. This is a myth that sounds very similar to another one between Poseidon and Athena and more accurately, Philyra and Cronos when Chiron is born. The horse motif is very common in norther-European myths and folklore.
As a mare-goddess, Demeter is known first as Demeter Erinys due to her fury with Poseidon for forcing himself on her. She becomes Demeter Lousia, “the bathed Demeter” after washing away her anger in the River Ladon. There’s something to be said for this as you can’t hold onto your anger forever, you must let it go or otherwise it consumes you.
The whole myth of pairing up Demeter and Poseidon is to connect Demeter as a Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon as a God of Water with their connection over nature. Despoina is the daughter who results from their union and whose name could not be spoken outside of the Arcadian Mysteries. Demeter and Poseidon also have another child, a horse by the name of Arion who is noted being able to speak, being immortal, really swift and for having a black mane and tail.
The effigy or imagery of Demeter worshiped in Arcadia depicts her as a gorgon or medusa-like with a horse’s head and snake hair while holding a dove and dolphin that likely represented her power over air and water. Close to the Arcadian city of Phigaleia, there is Mt. Elaios where a cave held sacred to Demeter is found. Here, an image of Demeter Melaine is seated showing the goddess dressed in black with a horse’s head and snake hair. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, when the statue caught fire and was destroyed, the Phigalians failed to make a new statue for Demeter, eventually leading to neglecting her sacrifices and festivals, the land became barren.
Demeter & Ascaelabus
I assume this is an episode set during when Demeter is searching for her daughter. When Demeter stopped at one point to kneel by a spring to quench her thirst, a man by the name of Ascaelabus began laughing when he heard the sound of Demeter’s gulping. Angry and embarrassed, Demeter turned the man into a lizard for his rudeness.
Demeter & Triopas
Considered the father of the Thessalians, Triopas was cursed by Demeter after he destroyed one of her temples. In retaliation, Demeter sent a huge serpent to kill Triopas. Even in death, Demeter wasn’t finished and she set Triopas up among the heavens as a constellation where the serpent could forever torment him.
Demeter & Erysichthon
Erysichthon was a Thessalian hero who decided to build himself a palace. Unfortunately for Erysichthon, the grove of trees he chose were sacred to Demeter. As Erysichthon set about to cut down the trees, Demeter came in disguise as a priestess by the name of Nikippe to try and warn Erysichthon not to cut the trees.
Nikippe is also the name of a nymph who lived in the grove. So when Erysichthon ignores the warning and chops down the tree, killing Nikippe, Demeter became very wroth and cursed Erysichthon with an insatiable hunger.
The more that Erysichthon ate, the thinner he became. In addition, when he had spent all of his money to try and sate his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon turned to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery.
Luckily for Mestra, she was a mistress of Poseidon and he granted the powers of shape-shifting into animals. Using this ability, Mestra would be able to escape slavery every time her father sold her.
In New Age, Pagan and Wiccan practices, Demeter is often seen as the Mother aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Persephone representing the Maiden and Hecate the Crone.
Virgo Zodiac Constellation
The constellation of Virgo is the sixth sign of twelve that form the classical Greek Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from August 23 to September 22. Virgo is often depicted as a Winged Maiden holding a stalk or sheaf of wheat or some other grain in her hand. This figure is sometimes identified with that of Demeter, most notably by Marcus Manilus in his Astronomicon in 1st century Rome.
Ceres – Roman Goddess
Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherhood and equated with Demeter. Similarly, Ceres has a daughter by the name of Proserpina is also abducted by Pluto down to the Underworld to become Queen of the Dead. The biggest difference in the myth is that Pluto is struck by an arrow from Cupid after his mother Venus told him to do. This is what causes the God of the Dead to fall madly in love with Proserpina. The other difference is that Cere’s celebrations and festivals come during the Spring while Demeter is venerated in Fall with the Harvest.
Cybele – Phrygian & Roman Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who equate Demeter with her mother, Rhea, a Titaness, mother of the gods who is also a goddess of the earth and fertility. As I previously mentioned with the name of Antaea, that epitaph could be applied to Demeter, Cybele and Rhea equally. It works if you’re just seeing all the gods as different aspects of the divine and not making any distinction. It’s possible that’s just remnants of an older belief and religion that the Greeks replaced with their own.
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
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. Not just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus as 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”
I also found where the Oxford English Dictionary says that a double or triple is used to indicate “derision or derisive laughter” and that this likely goes back to the late 12th century and was certainly in usage during the 16th century. Plus it’s noted that a single “ho” or “ha” would mean surprise as in success or taunting someone.
I kind of find the “ho, ho, ho!” as derisive difficult to label Santa Claus with. However, if we’re looking at his antics to break into houses and leave presents and his merry, jolly outlook as he delights in bringing holiday cheer to everyone or avoids getting shot off of someone’s trailer because all they can see is a venison locker filled up with eight tiny reindeer; then I can see the mischievous side of Santa with narrowly escaping children trying to stay up for Santa, trying to catch him or any other holiday shenanigans.
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.
Christkindel – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children in 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.
Hans Trapp – A terrifying scarecrow who accompanies Saint Nicholas in the French regions of Alsace.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Knecht Ruprecht – A figure similar to Belsnickel in Germany known for giving gifts or doling out punishments.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became canon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would later 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 out that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North America 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, and the imagery from Pagan ones were 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 many holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia-old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, it’s 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 also saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give to others and charity, spending time with family, and spending less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who has go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities, and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Also known as: 布袋, 笑佛 (Laughing Buddha), Hasne Buddha (Nepal), 胖佛 (Fat Buddha), Hotei (“cloth bag”) Japanese, Hotei-Osho (Japanese), Bo Dai or Bố Đại (Vietnamese), Hangul (Korean), Pu-Tai, Wagon Priest, Budai Luohan
Etymology: Laughing Buddha, Fat Buddha, Cloth Sack
In Chinese folklore, Budai is a Buddhist deity who has been integrated into Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto religions. The historical Budai lived during the 10th century C.E.
In art, Budai is often shown as being a very fat, bald man wearing a robe, either wearing or carrying prayer beads and has a huge belly; seen as the symbol of abundance, contentment, happiness, luck and generosity. He carries a large linen bag holding a number of precious things, even children on his back. This same bag is the source of Budai’s name. Sometimes Budai is shown sitting in a cart being pulled by boys where he is known as the Wagon Priest.
With his nickname of the Laughing Buddha, Budai is frequently shown smiling or laughing. Budai’s image is often confused with that of Gautama Buddha with Westerners, where he gets the name of the Fat Buddha. In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei and is one of the Seven Lucky Gods or Shichi Fukujin.
Budai Statues & Depictions
As already said, Budai is nearly always shown carrying a sack that is filled with a number of precious things such as rice plants, candy for children, food and the sadness of the world.
In Buddhist temples throughout China, statues of Budai are placed in the front part of the entrance halls. Budai is frequently shown as a stough, smiling or laughing man wearing a robe that is unable to cover his large belly. This large belly represents happiness, good luck and abundance. Some Budai statues will have small children gathered around at his feet. Another common feature of Budai statues is a begging bowl, that clearly shows him to be a Buddhist.
Because of Budai’s great association with happiness and wealth, statues of Budai can be found in many businesses and homes in China and Japan.
I Kuan Tao – Budai statues are a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines. Here, Budai is known by his Sanskrit name of Maitreya.
Budai represents the teachings of contentment, generosity, wisdom and kind-heartedness. He is also associated with luck and abundance.
Budai is the guardian and protector of children, the weak and poor. As a wandering monk, Budai is known to take sadness from people and bring them happiness.
Chinese history holds that Budai had been an eccentric Chan monk who lived during the late Liang dynasty. He had been a native of Zhejiang or Fenghua and his Buddhist name was Qieci, meaning: “Promise This.” Budai or Qieci was regarded as a man of good and loving character.
In Buddhism, the term Buddha means: “one who is awake,” as in awakened to enlightenment. There have been many figures in Buddhism who have all been revered as Buddhas. The Chan school of Buddhism teaches that all beings possess a Buddha nature within them and thus, already enlightened, they just have yet to realize it.
A few Buddhist traditions view Budai as an incarnation of Buddha or a bodhisattva.
Angida Arhat – One of the original Eighteen Arhats, meaning one who is worth or a perfected person, much like the Saints of Western Culture. In the Sakyamuni Buddhism, there is a legend wherein Angida is a talented Indian snake catcher would catch venomous snakes, thereby preventing them from biting travelers. Angida would remove the snake’s venomous fangs before releasing them. Due to these acts of kindness, Angida was able to attain bodhi or nirvana. In Chinese art, Angiha is sometimes depicted as Budhai; being rotund, mirthful and carrying a bag.
Gautama Buddha – The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived during the 6th century B.C.E. in India, Nepal and much of southeast Asia. Here, Gautama is shown as being tall and slender in appearance. Whereas in China and other areas, Budai is consistently shown as being short and rotund. Both of these descriptions have been noted as being the idealized imagery of the different religions, cultural and folkloric traditions of the countries and regions after the two monks’ deaths. Many Westerners too, often confuse Budai with Gautama and Budai often does get equated or replace Gautama.
Maitreya – The Future Buddha
Budai is identified or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. In China, Budai’s image is often the main used to depict Maitreya. Among the Japanese, Maitreya is known as Miroku. There is a Buddhist hymn that Budai is to have spoken at his death that identifies him with Maitreya:
Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
Other times they do not recognize him.
Mi-Lo-Fo – As Hotei, Budai is often confused with the Buddhist deity known as Mi-lo-Fo.
Pu-Tai – A Chinese monk that Budai came to be associated with, who due to their good nature, was seen as the incarnation for the bodhisattva or future Buddha, Maitreya. Due to how Pu-Tai is also portrayed with having a large, rotund belly, its easy to see how he came to be known as the Laughing Buddha and connected to Budai.
Chan, Seon And Zen
Chan is Chinese, Seon is Korean and Zen is Japanese, all three are the same philosophy.
The following koan, or short story is often told about Budai. One day, Budai was out traveling, giving candy to poor children. He would only a penny from any monks or lay practitioners he met with. One day, a monk approaches Budai and asks: “What is the meaning of Zen?” (Or Chan or Seon). Budai responded by dropping his bag. The monk continued with his questions. “How does one realize Zen?” At that, Budai picked up his bag and continued on his way.
Budai is greatly admired for his congenial and jovial attitude, along with his generosity and philosophy of contentment.
One of the most persistent and popular beliefs is that of rubbing the statues of Budai to bring wealth, good luck and even prosperity.
Japanese Religion & Folklore
In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei who was a Buddhist monk that lived during the 16th century. Like Budai, Hotei is still greatly associated with laughter and being called the Laughing Buddha. Chinese legend holds that Hotei had been a real person, whose name was Kaishi. While the date of his birth is unknown, Hotei death is given as being March 916. The Japanese began to believe in Hotei during the Edo era. Hotei was once a Zen priest who appearance and actions didn’t go along with his fellow Zen priests. He always looked like he was up to mischief and never had a permanent place to sleep. Hotei had no desire to be a Zen Master or to gather a following of disciples. He was known for walking the streets with a sack full of candy, fruits and doughnuts that he would give out to children. His bag would also hold the fortunes for those who believe in him. Among the Chinese, he is nicknamed: Cho-Tei-Shi or Ho-Tei-Shi, which means “bag of old clothes.”
According to Japanese legend, before Zen Buddhism came to the islands, another Buddhist philosophy of questionable aesthetics was prevalent. This philosophy originated with the priest Miroku. Miroku was the patron of those who couldn’t be saved by the beliefs of Buddha. Later, Hotei’s arrival was seen and accepted by the Japanese as a second Miroku.
Laughter – This is Hotei’s essence and teachings, he used laughter to impart wisdom. This was not the laughter of laughing at jokes or making fun of others. Hotei would laugh at himself and laugh for the mere celebration of life and existence, for the joy of life. Hotei has no other philosophy, scriptures, dogmas, ideologies or any other precepts to teach. Hotei’s laughter is considered a form of meditation, to experience the joy of living and to just be living and being present in the moment.
People would gather around Hotei as at first, they thought he was mad with how often he laugh and his laugh was known for being infectious in that others would soon laugh along with him. Such was Hotei’s laughter that people would cease to be judgmental or ask questions about enlightened. People would wait for Hotei and his laughter as they found it to have a purifying quality to it that would impart a deep sense of well-being.
One story about Hotei has a villager finding him sitting beneath a tree with his eyes closed. When the villager asked why Hotei wasn’t smiling or laughing, Hotei answered that he was preparing, preparing himself for laughter as he needed go within, forget the world without and recharge himself with rest. Once he was well rested, Hotei would be ready to laugh again.
Thailand Religion & Folklore
Phra Sangkajai – Also spelled Phra Sangkachai. Budai is sometimes equated with the monk Phra Sangkajai. Both Budai and Phra Sangkajai can be found Thai and Chinese temples. Though Phra Sangkajai can be found more often in Thai temples and Budai in Chinese temples. While very similar in appearance, Phra Sangkajai is distinguished from Budai in that he has a thin trace of hair while Budai is bald. Their styles of dress are also different, Phra Sangkajai is dressed in robes folded across one shoulder, with the other bare. Budai’s robes are clearly a Chinese style that covers both of his arms and front part of his upper body uncovered.
Phra Sangkajai is credited with composing the Madhupinadika Sutra. Buddha is said to have praised Phra Sangkajai for his excellence and understanding with explaining the more sophisticated dharma in easy and correct, understandable manners.
A folk story about Phra Sangkajai tells how he was so handsome, that a man once wanted to marry Phra Sangkajai and take him for a wife. To avoid this situation, Phra Sangkajai changed his appearance to that of a fat monk. Another story tells how Phra Sangkajai was found to be so attractive, that both men and angels would compare him to the Buddha. Phra Sangkajai considered this inappropriate, changed his body so he would be rather fat.
First off, Yiguandao is a folk religion out of China that got started around the late 19th century.
In many Yiguandao shrines, statues of Budai or Maitreya as he is known can be found. In Yiguandao, Maitreya represents a number of teachings such as: contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kind-heartedness. It is believed that Maitreya will succeed Gautama Buddha as the next Buddha and help people to realize their own spiritual essence within that connects everyone.
Shichi Fukujin – Seven Lucky Gods
In Japan, the Seven Lucky Gods or Seven Gods of Fortune, known as Shichi Fukujin are believed to granters of good luck and fortune. The Shichi Fukujin are often depicted in Japanese art and engravings known as netsuke. While many of the Shichi Fukujin are believed to be mythical in nature, one Shichi Fukujin is a known historical figure. Over the course of Japan’s history, the Shichi Fukujin became more associated with specific professions and aspects. Many of these same gods also originate from different countries and religions such as Hinduism and India to Chinese Buddhism and Taoism before coming to Japan. There are also seven Shichi Fukujin as seven in Japan is a lucky number.
While the gods had been worshipped for over a thousand years, mainly by merchants, they were first collectively called the Shichi Fukujin in 1420 C.E. It’s believed the Buddhist priest Tenkai arranged and selected these deities after talking with the shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa. The selection was based on the following virtues of: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity.
Benzaiten – Often claimed as the only female deity among the Shichi Fukujin, Benzaiten originates in Hinduism where she had been the goddess Saraswati. Other names for Benzaiten are: Benten, Bentensama and Benzaitennyo. When she was adopted into Buddhism, Benzaiten became the associated with talent, beauty and music. Benzaiten is the patron of artists, writers, dancers and geishas. She is often seen as an intelligent, beautiful woman standing before a Torri, carrying a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute-style instrument and is accompanied by a white snake.
Bishamonten – A god originating in Hinduism where he had been the god Kubera and Vaisravana before becoming Bishamonten in Japanese culture. Bishamonten is the god of fortune in war and battles. He is also associated with authority and dignity, the protector of those who follow the rules and hold themselves accordingly. He is the protector of holy sites and other important places. Bishamonten is the patron of fighters and is often shown dressed in armor and helmet, carrying a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right hand to battle evil spirits. Bishamonten is also shown with a hoop of fire.
Daikokuten – The god of commerce and prosperity. He was also known as the patron of cooks, farmers, bankers and protected crops. Daikokuten was known too for hunting demons. There is a legend of how Daikokuten hung a sacred talisman from a tree branch in his garden to use as a trap for catching a demon. Daikokuten is often depicted with short legs, perpetual smile and wearing a hat on his head and often carrying a bag full of valuables.
Ebisu – The only purely Japanese god in the group, he is the god of prosperity, wealth in business, abundance in crops, cereals and food. Ebisu is the patron of fishermen and he is often dressed as a fisherman carrying a fishing rod in his right hand and the left holding a fish. Ebisu’s figure can often be found in restaurants where fish is served or in kitchens.
Fukurokuju – Originating in China, Fukurokuju is believed to have once been a hermit who lived during the Song dynasty. Fukurokuju is seen as the reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu. As a god, Fukurokuju is the god of wisom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness. In addition, he is thought to be one of the Chinese philosophers who could live without eating and was able to resurrect the dead. Fukurokuju is noted for having a head that is almost the same size as his body. He is often shown dressed in traditional Chinese attire, carrying a cane in one hand and a scroll containing historical writings. Fukurokuju is often shown being accompanied by a turtle, crow or deer, all animals that represent a long life. With a strong love for chess, Fukurokuju is also the patron of chess players. Fukurokuju, along with Jurojin both overlap with their origins with the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. Due to this overlapping, Fukurokuju’s position as one of the Shichi Fukujin is sometimes given to the goddess Kichijoten in the Butsuzozu compendium.
Hotei – This is the Japanese name for Budai. As Hotei, he is the god of fortune, the guardian of children, happiness, laughter, popularity and the patron of diviners and barmen. Hotei is often shown as a fat, smiling bald man with a curly mustache. Because he is so fat, Hotei is often shown as being half naked as his clothes aren’t quite big enough to cover his large belly.
Jurojin – Like Fukurokujin, he has his origins in the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. He is the god of the elderly and longevity in the Japanese Buddhist mythology. Jurojin is believed to be based on a real person, he was very tall, 1.82 meters with a very long head, much like Fukurokuju. Aside from his elongated skull, Jurojin is also shown to have a long white beard and rides a deer and is sometimes accompanied by a crane and tortoise, all animals that represent a long life. Jurojin is sometimes shown sitting under a peach tree, another symbol of long life. In one hand, he holds a cane, in the other he holds either a book or scroll containing the wisdom of the world. Jurojin is known to enjoy rice and wine and has a rather cheerful disposition. Finally, Jurojin is an incarnation of the southern polestar.
Kichijoten – Also known as Kisshoten or Kisshoutennyo. Kichijoten was adopted into Buddhism from the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Kichijoten is shown holding a Nyoihoju gem in her hand. The Butsuzozu compendium from 1783 lists and has Kichijoten replace Fukurokuju as one of the seven Shichi Fukujin. By this accounting, Daikoku is portrayed as being feminine and all three of the Hindu Tridevi goddesses are seen represented among the Shichi Fukujin.