Category Archives: Fairy
Etymology: “Rising from the Sea,” Aphros “Sea Foam”
Other Names and Epithets: Αφροδιτη, Acraea, Amathusia, Ambologera (”She who Postpones Old Age”), Anadyomene, Antheia, Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), Aphrodite en kopois (“Aphrodite of the Gardens”), Chryse (mythology), Cytherea, Lady of Cythera, Despoina, Aphrodite Pandemos, Aphrodite Ourania or Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), Aphrodite Benetrix (Married Love), Aphrodite Porne (Erotic Love), Pandemos, Urania, Lady of Cyprus, Philommeidḗs (“Smile-Loving” or “Laughter-Loving”), Eleemon (“The Merciful”), Genetyllis (“Mother”), Potnia (“Mistress”), Enoplios (“Armed”), Morpho (“Shapely”), Melainis (“Black One”), Skotia (“Dark One”), Androphonos (“Killer of Men”), Anosia (“Unholy”), Tymborychos (“Gravedigger”), Aphrodite Pontia (“Of the Deep Sea”), and Aphrodite Euploia (“Of the Fair Voyage”)
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, specifically sexual love, beauty, desire and fertility. With an irresistible charm and beauty, Aphrodite is used to getting her way as many a mortal and god sought her favor. For those who spurned her, Aphrodite could be vindictive like many a Greek deity’s reputation for pettiness. Aphrodite is without a doubt, one of the best-known Olympian goddesses. In more modern times, Aphrodite is still seen one of many feminine icons from mythology who continues to feature in Western literature and arts.
Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart is Venus and their myths become very intertwined over the millennia to the point that their names are often interchangeable in Aphrodite’s myths.
Animal: Dolphin, Dove, Ducks, Geese, Heron, Ram, Sparrow, Swan, Tortoise
Colors: Blue, Green, Scarlet, White, Gold
Day of the Week: Friday
Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, Pearl
Month: April, February, July
Patron of: Love, Lovers, Prostitutes
Plant: Apple, Lime Tree, Mandrake, Myrtle, Myrrh, Palm, Pomegranate, Poppy, Rose
Sphere of Influence: Love in all of its forms, physical, sensual, passion, relationships
Symbols: Girdle, Golden Apples, Scallop Shells, Mirror, the Ocean, Chocolate
Aphrodite Areia – Helmet, Lance, Shield, Sword, Victory
Aphrodite Pandemos – Ram
Aphrodite Urania – Tortoise for Domestic Modesty and Chastity
In Classic Greek art, Aphrodite is often depicted as a blue-eyed, golden-haired woman with pale skin. For the Greeks, she was the very ideal of beauty. Statues of Aphrodite depict her as the height of Grecian physical beauty. At first, there was nothing to distinguish Aphrodite from other statues of goddesses, not until around the 5th century B.C.E. Statues of Aphrodite from Cyrene and Esquiline in the 1st century B.C.E. were called Aphrodite Kallipygos or “Aphrodite with a Beautiful Derriere.”
Classical art and sculpture from the 5th century B.C.E. will show Aphrodite as fully clothed, once the 1st century B.C.E. comes, do nude statues of Aphrodite appear. The most famous of the Aphrodite sculptures was carved by Praxieteles. It is during the Hellenistic era of Greece that the first nude statue of Aphrodite, the Venus de Milo appears in the 2nd century B.C.E.
Aphrodite is often shown accompanied with her son Eros, also a god of love.
What’s In A Name
We know the first part of Aphrodite’s name, aphros means sea foam or foam and alludes to her birth from the ocean when Uranus’ gentiles were thrown in the sea by his son Cronus. There were early attempts by scholars to link Aphrodite’s name to a Greek or Indo-European origin. Given the strong connections of Aphrodite to the Middle East and likely of Semitic origin.
Nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted the etymology of “sea form” for the first part of Aphrodite’s name have tried to connect the second part of the name “-odite” to mean either “wanderer” or “brite.” As there’s disagreements, some scholars have even gone so far as to link Aphrodite’s name to the Assyrian barīrītu, the name of a female demon found in Babylonian texts. Others have tried for the Etruscan word of “eproni” for “lord” making the last part of Aphrodite’s name an honorific. The name continues to be debated as to what the correct translation and etymology for Aphrodite’s name is.
The epithets of Urania for Heavenly Dweller and Pandemos for “Of all the people” likely try to connect her as a goddess of universal love and everyone. In his Symposium, Plato argues that the epitaphs of Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos are two separate deities.
There is a lot of evidence and discussions that Aphrodite very strongly began as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar or the Phoenician Astarte and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart.
Pausanias records that the first people to worship Aphrodite were the Assyrians and then the people of Cyprus, followed by the Phoenicians at Ascalon. From there, Aphrodite’s cult and worship spread throughout most of Greece.
Looking at the epitaph of Aphrodite Ourania shows a connection to Inanna as the Queen of Heaven. Early art and literature that describes Aphrodite is very similar to Inanna. Like Inanna, Aprodite was worshiped as a war goddess, at least in the second century B.C.E. Pausanias makes mention where in Sparta, she is worshipped as Aphrodite Areia, meaning “warlike.” Pausanias also records that early statues in Sparta and Cythera show Aprodite bearing arms. Modern scholars use this connection of Aphrodite with her Middle Eastern origins. It makes sense when ancient Grecian culture once stretched as far as where modern Turkey and Syria are today.
Doves – One of Aphrodite’s symbols, the dove is also connected to Ishtar as one of her symbols. Scholars have noted that the Greek word for dove is “peristera” is likely comes from the Semitic phrase of “perah Istar” meaning “bird of Ishtar.” How interesting. Doves appear in a lot of ancient Greek art for pottery, reliefs, and sculptures depicting Aphrodite.
At one point, early comparative scholars have tried to link Aprodite with Eos, the Greek goddess of the Dawn. It works and relies on linking to the Proto-Indo European Dawn goddess of Haéusōs who is then linked to the Greek Eos, the Latin Aurora and the Sanskrit Ushas.
Both Aphrodite and Eos are known for their erotic beauty and sexuality. They have both had relationships with mortal lovers (as have a good number of Greek deities). Add in, that both goddesses are associated with the colors of red, white, and gold. The myth of Aphrodite rising from the sea has a similarity to the Rigvedic myth of Indra defeating Vrtra and freeing Ushas. Which then brings the last comparison of Aphrodite and the Indo-European goddess Haéusōs both having a parentage that links them to of a sky deity.
Maybe, but it is the alternative mythological and etymological link when the Middle Eastern connection isn’t accepted. Plus, the whole Proto-Indo-European language is largely theoretical with many modern scholars leaning towards the Mesopotamian connections.
As a goddess of love, beauty and sexual desires, Aphrodite was and still is worshiped by a wide variety of people from nearly every walk of life. For ancient Greece, this is the everyday people up to the higher, ruling class
As a very sensual goddess of love, particularly sexual love and beauty, Aphrodite’s priestesses were known to engage in sexual activities themselves as part of worshiping her. It should be noted that this didn’t make them prostitutes, it was part of the job description for priestess of Aphrodite. If you’re seeing every woman as a goddess to held sacred, cherished, respected and worshiped, you’re not far from worshiping Aphrodite or any goddess or god of love. It is going to get carnal.
As such, Aphrodite had several shrines and temples dedicated to her. Her main temples and cults were to be found in Cythera and Cyprus.
Gynaikonomoi – If it hasn’t been noticed before, women in many Greek and even Roman myths aren’t treated well, whether goddess or mortal. The Gynaikonomoi or Magistrates in Charge of Women are mentioned in the 1st century C.E. Sparta.
Marriage – Pausanias records the practice of the mothers of brides sacrificing to a wooden image known as Aphrodite Hera, an epitaph of either goddess connecting the ideals of love and marriage. Pausanias goes on to mention a seated statue of Aphrodite Morpho or the “The Fair Shaped Aphrodite” that had a veil on her head and chains on her feet. Lovely. This statuary clearly meant to connect the role of brides and a woman’s place in a marriage with her duties with wives being faithful to husbands.
Prostitutes – Yes, Aphrodite is the patron goddess of prostitutes. The city of Corinth was known for the high number of prostitutes and courtesans. With Corinth also being one of Aphrodite’s main cult centers with a major temple, it led to early scholars believing in the concept of “sacred prostitution” in Greco-Roman cultures with nearby islands of Cyprus and Cythera and even Sicily being associated with prostitution. There are records of many dedications to Aphrodite found in poetry and pottery by courtesans that have been found. Plus, you add in that Aphrodite’s Mesopotamian counterpart Inanna is also associated with prostitution. While the idea of “sacred prostitution” persists in some schools of thought, the idea is getting discarded more and more.
Amathus – This is one of Aphrodite’s centers of worship on the island of Cyprus.
Corinth – On mainland Greece, this city was one of Aphrodite’ centers of worship.
Cyprus – Aphrodite’s center of worship was clearly on this island as evidenced by the numerous sanctuaries dedicated to this goddess. Aphrodite would be called Cyprian for her connection to this island as her birthplace.
Cythera – Another island where Aphrodite’s worship was prominent. It had been a Minoan colony at one point. Some myths will place Aphrodite’s birth as being here, giving her the epitaph of Cytherea. The island was certainly a stopping point for the trade route between Crete and Peloponesus which in turn could mean that the myths might have evidence of how Aphrodite’s cult came from the Middle East to Greece.
Pandemos – This the oldest of Aphrodite’s cult-sites that dates back to 230 B.C.E. Here, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Pandemos or “Aphrodite who is Common to all the People.” This Aphrodite was associated with the hero Theseus and worshipers of Aphrodite Pandemos sought out her blessings for uniting the people of Athens. Not just for personal relationships, but political connections too. The cult of Aphrodite Pandemos is very likely led to the formation of democracy.
This city located on Cyprus is the location for one of Aphrodite’s most well-known temples, especially in the ancient world. It is thought that the rites dedicated to Aphrodite were a blend of oriental and Aegean influences that could ultimately trace their origins to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte. Archeological studies have shown that the cult of Aphrodite dates back to the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1200 B.C.E. and continue uninterrupted up to the Late Roman Era towards the 4th century C.E. There are suggestions that Aphrodite’s worship could possibly go back to the Chalcolithic Era. Female figurines and charms have been found dating to the third millennium and religious sanctuaries called temenos were well established before the construction of any Late Bronze Age structures.
Prior to this, Pausanias thought Aphrodite’s cult was introduced from Syria and of Phoenician origin. Prior to more modern Archeology, people that that Aphrodite’s worship and cult dated back before Homer’s time of around 700 B.C.E. with mention of Aphrodite’s altar in the Odyssey.
Paphos is also the location that the Greeks say where Aphrodite landed when she arrived at Cyprus when she rose out of the sea. An oracle was also to found here in Paphos. The Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia was a pilgrimage destination for her followers. The city gains its name from Paphos, the son of Pygmalion and Galatea.
During this era of classical Greek history that many are familiar with, the Greeks began to identify Aphrodite with the Egyptian goddesses of Hathor and Isis. Aphrodite would become the patron goddess of the Lagid queens. As was Egyptian custom, Queen Arsinoe II was claimed to be the mortal incarnation of Aphrodite.
Aphrodite’s worship spread to the city of Alexandria with many temples dedicated to her that could be found around the city. The cult of Adonis was introduced to the city by Queen Arisone II. The Tessarakonteres galley had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite with a marble statue. Another temple dedicated to Aphrodite Hathor would be established in the second century B.C.E. at Philae. Statuettes of Aphrodite would become very common for people to do personal devotions during the Ptolemaic era in Egypt and last through when it came under Roman rule.
The Romans readily adopted and identified Aphrodite with their own goddess Venus who was originally a goddess of agriculture, fertility, vegetation, and Spring. This would become official in the third century B.C.E. when the cult of Venus Erycina is introduced to Rome by way of the Grecian sanctuary for Aphrodite on Mount Eryx in Sicily. From here, the iconography and imagery of Aphrodite along with her myths would be attached to Venus.
Further cementing this adaptation is that Aphrodite was revered as the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Greek myths and the Romans hailed him as the ancestor to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. With this connection, Venus as Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Roman nation became prominent. The Greek worship of Aphrodite began to emphasis more and more her connection to the city of Troy and Aeneas. More and more Roman influences and elements began to connect Aphrodite as more maternal and militaristic and more connected to the bureaucracy that Aphrodite became a divine guardian of numerous magistrates.
Parentage and Family
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born from the dismembered genitals of Uranus after Cronus cut them off. She rose up from the sea where they landed after being thrown.
Sometimes the primordial sea goddess Thalassa is given as Aphrodite’s mother in the myth with Uranus.
According to Homer’s Iliad, Zeus and Dione are her parents.
As a result of mixed parentage, depending on if you go by Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite is going have several siblings.
Aeacus, Angelos, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Charities, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai, or the Titans, the Cyclopes, the Meliae, the Erinyes (Furies), the Giants, the Hekatonkheires
Hephaestus – Husband and god of Smithing and Volcanoes.
With Adonis, Aphrodite is the mother of Beroe and Golgos.
With the god Ares, Aphrodite is the mother of: the Erotes: Anteros, Eros, Himeros and Pothos (though sometimes Pothos is listed as Eros’ son). Other children of theirs are: Phobos, Deimos, Phlegyas, Harmonia and Adrestia.
In early myth, Anteros was originally born from the sea alongside Aphrodite, later on, he comes her son by Ares.
With Butes, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Meligounis, and a number of unnamed daughters.
With Dionysus, Aphrodite is the mother of Hymenaios, Iacchus, and the Charities (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia)
With the god Hermes, Aphrodite is the mother of the androgynous deity Hermaphroditus.
With Phaethon, Aphrodite is the mother of Astynous.
With the god Poseidon, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Rhodus and Herophilus.
With the mortal Prince Anchises, Aphrodite is the mother of Aeneas
Peitho has no father is given for him.
Priapus – either the gods Adonis, Ares or Dionysus is their father.
Aphrodite is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Also called Aphrodisia, as the name implies, this was a festival held in Aphrodite’s honor and was celebrated in many places around Greece during midsummer. It was a festival involved substances believed or known to cause sexual arousal and desire. This festival was most notably in Athens and Cornith.
In Athens, Aphrodisia would be celebrated in the month of Hekatombaion to celebrate Aphrodite’s rule in the unification of Attica. In the old Grecian calendar, the month of Hekatombaion corresponded with the month of July and was the first month of the year.
The priests of Aphrodite would purify the Temple of Aphrodite Pandemos with the blood of a dove that had been sacrificed. The altars would than be anointed and the statues of Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Peitho would be carried down to be ritually bathed.
This is another festival that honored Aphrodite in Athens. Not much is known about this festival.
The fourth day of every month was also held sacred to Aphrodite.
Attendants Of Aphrodite
Charities – The Graces in Roman mythology, this group of goddesses were known to accompany Aphrodite. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Abundance.”) They were worshiped as goddesses in Greek long before the arrival of Aphrodite.
Erotes – Aphrodite’s many sons who all presided over a different aspect of love.
Eros – Is the primary son who most people think of as accompanying Aphrodite. Most people are familiar with his Roman name of Cupid. By either name, Eros is the god of lust and sexual desire. Eros is described as one of four original primeval forces born at the beginning of time in Hesiod’s Theogony. After the birth of Aphrodite, Eros joins Himeros to become one of her companions.
Harmonia – A minor goddess of harmony. She is Aphrodite’s daughter with Ares, she is sometimes seen accompanying her.
Hebe – The goddess of youth, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe sometimes accompanied Aphrodite.
Horae – The Hours, they are the daughters of Zeus and Themis. Their names are Eunomia (“Good Order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”).
In Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” the goddess is described as riding in a chariot that is pulled by sparrows.
Aphrodite isn’t just a Love Goddess, the sexual acts associated with her, Aphrodite’s attributes extend to the fertility of animals and vegetation, not just humans. In the story of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, the version of the story found in the Iliad has Aphrodite returning to Cyprus so she can renew her virginity in Spring. Something she apparently does after each liaison. Some even suggest so far as to identify Aphrodite as a Mother Goddess as she gives birth to the crops each year. However, I think that domain is well and thoroughly covered with Demeter and Persephone. Though given the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, Mother Goddess and fertility still easily fits.
Pomegranates are thought to be associated with Aphrodite as the red seeds symbolized sexuality. An interesting side note, Greek women sometimes used pomegranates as a form of birth control.
Venus – When equating Aphrodite with the Roman goddess Venus, the poet Lucretius calls Aphrodite as a Genetrix for her creation and creative role in the world.
Plus, the aspects of Aphrodite as a fertility goddess really fit when under Roman influence and they have identified many of Aphrodite’s myths to their goddess and are busy tacking on Venus’ aspects to her Grecian counterpart.
This is the domain that Aphrodite is really known for, Love, all kinds of love. The many epitaphs that Aphrodite has denote which form of love she presides over.
Aphrodite Benetrix – Married Love
Aphrodite Porne – Erotic Love
Aphrodite Urania – Heavenly Aphrodite, Spiritual Love, the kind that is unconditional and all of creation.
That’s just a few of the names that cover the many types of love that Aphrodite presided over. In addition, Aphrodite had numerous sons, most notably Eros who would accompany her and who represented the different types of love.
Birth Of A Goddess
There are a couple different origin stories for Aphrodite.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus and the severed member was thrown into the ocean. As the ocean began to churn and foam, Aphrodite rose up out of the waves. With Zephyr’s help, this Wind God blew the young goddess towards the island of Cyprus where flowers sprang up from her footsteps as she stepped on land. There, Aphrodite was welcomed by the Charities. From there, Aphrodite was dressed and taken to Mount Olympus to be presented to the other gods.
Other variations have Aphrodite arriving at Cythera. Seafood is known as aphrodisiacs as they are seen related to Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.
It is for the places of Cyprus and Cythera, that Aphrodite is also known by the names of Kypris and Cytherea.
It has been pointed out that Hesiod’s Theogony is likely pulled from the Hittite epic “The Song of Kumarbi” where Kumarbi overthrows his father, Anu the sky god by biting off his genitals and thus becoming pregnant to give birth to Ishtar and Teshub.
Homer, in his Iliad, however, says that Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. A note here is that Dione’s name is possibly a feminine form to Dios and Dion, both alternative names for Zeus and that both Zeus and Dione had a cult center in Dodona. Hesiod names Dione an Oceanid in his Theogony.
Marriage To Hephaestus
Following the genealogy with Zeus, he feared that the other gods would fight each other over who would get to marry Aphrodite.
Figuring himself wise and clever, Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus, the Smithing god. Imagine Hephaestus’ surprise, him the least comely of the gods and disabled. Elated, Hephaestus put all his efforts and skills in smithing to create the most exquisite jewels that he could for his bride. He even made a girdle of finely wrought gold with magic woven into it for Aphrodite.
While Hephaestus was happy with his marriage, Aphrodite wasn’t too pleased with the arrangement. She would have greatly preferred someone far more attractive and like many of the gods, she does have her affairs and dalliances.
Strophion – This is what Hephaestus will have crafted for Aphrodite, translations into English will call it a girdle. As lovely as this magic girdle is, whenever Aphrodite wore it, no one was able to resist her charms and was already irresistible to many. It’s been commented that Hera sometimes borrowed Aphrodite’s magic strophion from time to time.
The other name I have come across for this girdle or belt is cestus, which in Rome, a cestus is a set of armored leather gloves worn by boxers. That could be a translation error though as Aphrodite’s strophion was called “keston himanta” or (kestos himas) and that might be the source of confusion.
A final bit to note, is that this style of strophia were also used in depictions for the Middle Eastern goddesses Astarte and Ishtar.
Folklore – Instead of Zeus handing Aphrodite off in marriage, it is Hera who does so. In this one, Hephaestus made a golden throne for his mother Hera. When Hera sat down on the throne, it trapped her, and Hephaestus refused to release her until Hera agreed to give Aphrodite to him in marriage. Pleased that his mother agreed to the marriage, Hephaestus then gods to make his bride to be some jewelry, including the strophion that is often translated to mean girdle.
There are a few versions of Aphrodite’s marriage and who Hephaestus is actually married to.
Iliad – Aphrodite is the unmarried consort to Ares. Hephaestus’ wife is Charis, one of the Charities.
Odyssey – Book Eight is where the blind singer Demodocus describes Aphrodite as the wife to Hephaestus when the story of Aphrodite and Ares’ Affair is related.
Theogony – Aphrodite is unmarried, Hephaestus’ wife is Aglaea, the youngest of the Charities.
Aphrodite & Pandora
From Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus tasks Aphrodite to create Pandora, as the first woman to punish mankind after Prometheus’ stealing fire and gifting it to humans. Aphrodite makes Pandora to be both physically beautiful and sexually attractive so men will fall for her and lead to opening the box by which to release evils upon the world. Aphrodite’s attendants of Peitho, the Charities and the Horae contribute by gifting Pandora with gold and jewelry to be even more attractive.
Love Affair With Adonis
This is perhaps the most famous of Aphrodite’s affairs with a mortal by the name of Adonis.
Accordiing to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Adonis is the son of Myrrha who was cursed by Aphrodite and turned into a Myrrh tree. Depending on the version of the story, either Myrrh’s father takes an axe to split open the tree or nine months later the tree burst, splitting open with Adonis being born.
Aphrodite found the infant and takes him down to the Underworld hidden in a chest to be entrusted into Persephone’s keeping. When Persephone discover a baby in the chest, she falls in love with the infant and takes care of him.
Later, Aphrodite returns to check in and discovers that Adonis has grown up to become remarkably handsome. By this time, Persephone is also rather attached to Adonis as well and what ensues is a custody battle of who gets Adonis.
Zeus took the matter into his own hands, in which he put the muse Calliope to arbitrate. She divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend one third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis comes to love Aphrodite more. It doesn’t help that Aphrodite cheated by wearing her magic girdle to cause Adonis to spend more time with her.
When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. This wild boar is actually Ares in a jealous rage. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was either transformed into the anemone flower or wherever Adonis’ blood fell, a red anemone flower sprung up.
Another account says that in her search for Adonis, that Aphrodite’s feet became cut and pierced by thorns and that the blood from her feet is what turned into the Anemone flowers.
A slight variation holds that Aphrodite acted as a surrogate mother to Adonis.
Sometimes the boar is sent by Artemis in retaliation for Aphrodite killing Hippolytus. Other times, it’s Apollo who is the boar that kills Adonis. Or that Dionysus carried Adonis away.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon. In the Canaanite language, Adon means lord and the names of Adonis and Adon appear to have a very solid linguistic connection.
Sumerian Connection – Another connection is that of the story of Inanna and Dumuzid.
Vegetation God – Some accounts will say that Adonis wasn’t mortal, that he was a deity in his own right and that this myth explains his death and rebirth each year for Summer and Winter as Zeus stepped in at this point saying that Adonis must spend the summers with Aphrodite and the winters with Persephone in the Underworld.
With this connection in mind, it’s been noted that Adonis’ cult had underworld tones of life and rebirth. From this, Aphrodite became connected with the dead in Delphi.
Aphrodite & Dionysus
Aphrodite is known to have numerous affairs. Depending on the account read, depends on if, with this story if it is either Dionysus, Hermes, Adonis or even Zeus himself who Aphrodite comes to bear the son Priapus with.
Generally, Dionysus is given as the father of Priapus with Aphrodite. As the story goes, following the events of the Trojan War, Hera was angry with Aphrodite’s interference when all the other gods were forbidden to be there by Zeus.
While pregnant with Priapus, Hera applied a potion to Aphrodite’s stomach as the goddess was sleeping. This was to ensure the child would be born deformed and monstrous looking. When Aphrodite gave birth to Priapus, she was horrified by the sight of an infant with a large, permanently erect gentile, potbelly, and large tongue. Aphrodite left the infant out on a hillside to die of exposure. However, a huntsman found the infant and raised them.
Later, Priapus would discover his powers a deity and the ability to cause vegetation to grow.
Aphrodite & Hermes
First, a little bit of history. There was at one point, a male version of Aphrodite known as Aproditus. This is a male version of Aphrodite who was worshiped within the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. Aphroditus would be shown in art as having the dress and body of a woman while sporting a beard. He would be shown lifting up his dress to show his genitals, thought to be an apotropaic symbol or warding off evil. Eventually, Aphroditus’ popularity would fade away and the feminine form of Aphrodite would prevail.
Hermaphroditus – Also called Hermaphroditos. With so many gods having affairs with the fair and lovely Aphrodite, it isn’t too much of a surprise that she would also haven one with Hermes. The child that they had was a very handsome and beautiful boy of the name Hermaphroditus. A naiad by the name of Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphoditus and in a rare twist, she tried to rape him. When Hermaphroditus tries to fight off Salmacis, the naiad prays to the gods that they should become one. The gods answer, it’s not clear which one or ones answer and Salmacis and Hermaphroditus fuse into one intersex being. Horrified by what happened to him, Hermaphroditus called on his parents, Hermes and Aphrodite to curse the fountain so that others who entered it’s waters would have the same thing happen to them.
Traces of Aphroditus’ cult are found within Hermaphroditus’ story.
Love Affair With Ares
This story is told in the Odyssey, Book Eight by the blind singer Demodocus. This is also a story that probably began as a folk tale among the Greeks.
The Sun-god Helios had spotted the two gods, Ares and Aphrodite in a tryst in the halls of Hephaestus. Helios went to inform Hephaestus of his wife’s affair who then decided to try and catch the two in the act. Being the master smith and craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus created a finely woven and nearly invisible net to ensnare the two in. Waiting for the right moment, he succeeded in trapping both Ares and Aphrodite within the net.
Wanting to make sure the two were properly shamed and punished, Hephaestus called the other Olympian gods to come. All the goddesses declined to come, not wanting to be scandalized while all the gods did come and gawked. Some commenting to the beauty of Aphrodite and other stating they’d gladly trade places with Ares. In versions of the story, the gods agreed on Hephaestus’ right to be angry and in others, they didn’t care. In the end, when released, an embarrassed Ares returned to his home in Thrace and Aphrodite went to the city of Paphos on Cyprus where she would bathe in the sea to renew her virginity with the help of the Charities. It wouldn’t take Hephaestus long to forgive Aphrodite her affair as he missed her.
Elaborating on this story, a later addition, Ares had the youth Alectryon guarding the door to warn when Helios came by as he would no doubt inform Hephaestus of the affair. However, Alectryon fell asleep and Helios discovered the two’s affair. Ares, embarrassed and infuriated at being caught, turned Alectryon into a rooster and it’s that add-on to the story of Ares and Aphrodite’s affair that roosters always crow, announcing the rising of the sun in the morning.
Variation – A version of the story found in Homer’s Odyssey has Hephaestus refusing to release the lovers unless Zeus returned the bridal gifts. Zeus staunchly refused as he felt that Hephaestus shouldn’t have made the affair so public. Though in the Odyssey, Poseidon does agree to play Hephaestus’ price to release both Ares and Aphrodite.
From their affair, Ares and Aphrodite became the parents of several minor deities: Eros, Arethousa, Harmonia, Phobos, Deimos and Adrestia. Both Eros and Arethousa’s tended to have attributes more in align with Aphrodite. Adrestia tended to be more like her father Ares.
Aphrodite & Poseidon
It makes sense, that this story takes place right after Aphrodite’s affair with Ares. Poseidon fell in love with Aphrodite and there must have been a fling for there is one daughter, Rhode and a son, Herophilus who is attributed to Poseidon as being the father.
Aphrodite & Pygmalion
The myth of Pygmalion has its first mention in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek writer Philostephanus of Cyrene. The myth has a full accounting later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Pygmalion was a sculptor from the island of Cyprus who refused to marry any woman as he found them to all be immoral. Very well, Pygmalion sets about carving an ivory statue of Aphrodite that was so life-like that he fell in love with it.
So, in love with the statue, Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite to bring the statue to live so he could marry it. Aphrodite heard the sculptor’s prayers and brought the statue to life, naming her Galatea. From their union, Galatea and Pygmalion had two children, Paphos, a son and from whom the capital of Cyprus would be named for, and a daughter Metharme as mentioned by Pseudo-Apollodorus.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
In this story, Aphrodite helped Hippomenes, a youth who desired to marry the maiden Atalanta. The catch was, Atalanta refused to marry any man unless they could beat her in a footrace, and she had the habit of beheading those who lost.
In comes Aphrodite give Hippomenes three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides with the instructions to toss them before Atalanta as they raced. Doing as instructed, Hippomenes tossed the apples down in Atalanta’s path. Each time Atalanta bent down to pick up another golden apple, it would give Hippomenes more of a lead, allowing him to win the race and thus marry Atalanta.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story continues. Because Hippomenes forgot to give thanks to Aphrodite after words, she causes the two to become so infatuated with each other while in the Temple of Cybele. The two desecrated Cybele’s temple by having sex in it and an angry Cybele turned Hippomenes and Atalanta into lions.
Sometimes it is Zeus who punishes the two mortals. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
As it is Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the mention of Cybele, there’s a clear Roman influence on the second part of the story.
Aphrodite & Typhon – Pisces
Typhon, a monstrous god, attacked the Gods when they were down by the Nile River. In some retellings of the story, the Gods where there in exile or that just happens to be where they were at for one of their many battles with Typhon. In either eventuality, Aphrodite and her son Eros were among the gods along the Nile River’s banks when Typhon appeared to do battle. While Zeus and a couple of other gods fought it out with Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros had leapt into the river, changing into a pair of fish so they could make their escape. In other accounts of the story, Aphrodite and Eros tied themselves together with a rope so they wouldn’t get separated.
Another account of this story places the riverbank that the gods were walking along as being the Euphrates River and not the Nile River. There is also a very similar story found in a Manilius’ five-volume poetic work Astronomica in which the fish that become the constellation of Pisces carried Aphrodite and Eros away to safety.
Keeping with the Euphrates River connection, when an egg fell into this river, a pair of fish pushed it to the shore where doves then sat on the egg to hatch it. When it hatched, Aphrodite came out of the egg. In a show of gratitude, the goddess placed the fish up into the sky to become the constellation Pisces. Through these connections of the myth, Pisces is also known as “Venus et Cupido,” “Venus Syria cum Cupidine,” Venus cum Adone,” “Dione,” and “Veneris Mater.”
Eros & Psyche
Psyche happened to be an extraordinarily beautiful princess. This brought about the anger and jealousy of Aphrodite when people turned their attention to Psyche and worshiped her. Aphrodite enlisted the aid of her son Eros to help punish Psyche.
The idea is that Eros would cause Psyche to fall in love with the worst and most vilest creature on the earth possible. Instead of doing as his mother bid, Eros fell in love with Psyche and took her home. He instructed Psyche that she was to never look upon his face.
All is well for awhile until Psyche goes home to visit family and her sisters convince her to break Eros’ command and look upon his face. Psyche does this and hurt, angry, Eros flies away leaving poor Psyche behind.
Psyche beseeches Aphrodite for help with finding her lost love. Knowing who it is that Psyche is looking for, Aphrodite sets out a series of nearly impossible tasks for Psyche to do. Eventually Eros discovers what’s happening and as he can’t bear to see Psyche’s suffering, returns. The two are married with all the gods attending.
This story is an early model for the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast.
A Goddess Scorned
Many of the Greek gods have a reputation for being very fickle. Just as often as they favor mortals, they can also punish them too.
By the stories, Aphrodite is no different and she could be very gracious with those mortals whom she favored. For those mortals who didn’t fawn upon Aphrodite the attention and worship she felt she was owed, Aphrodite could be very vindictive.
Aegialeia – The wife of Diomedes, she was cursed by Aphrodite after Diomedes had wounded the goddess during the Trojan War. Aegialia was cursed with promiscuity and she had several lovers, among them Hippolytus. Now it could be, that Aegialeia was angry with Diomedes as she heard rumors, he was returning home with a Trojan woman and this was to get back at an unfaithful husband. When Aegialeia threatened Diomedes’ life, he took off for Italy.
Clio – When the Muse derided Aphrodite’s love for Adonis, Aphrodite caused Clio to fall in love with Pierus of Magnesia and they had a son, Hyacinth.
Eos – Aphrodite cursed Eos, the goddess of the Dawn to be forever, perpetually in love with an insatiable sexual desire after Eos had slept with Ares, god of war. Guess no one else was allowed to have Aphrodite’s sweetheart.
Glaucus of Corinth – He angered Aphrodite when he refused to let his chariot horses mate, as to do so would slow their speed down. Aphrodite bided her time and when the Funeral Games for King Pelias happened, the goddess caused Glaucus’ horses to go mad and tear him apart during the chariot race.
Halia – She is a sea nymph who bore six sons with Poseidon. When Halia’s sons refused to let Aphrodite land on their shore, Aphrodite drove them all insane, causing them to rape their mother, Halia. Poseidon buried his six sons within the island’s sea caves.
Hippolytus – The son of Theseus, he worshipped only Artemis, the goddess of virginity and hunting. Because Hippolytus refused any sexual intercourse, this upset Aphrodite who saw him as being very prideful. As a result, Aphrodite caused Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother to fall in love with him. Understandably so, Hippolytus refuses Phaedra’s advances. Phaedra however, is so distraught that she kills herself but not before leaving a note for Theseus, telling him that she committed suicide because Hippolytus tried to rape her.
This upsets Theseus who prays to Poseidon to kill Hippolytus for his actions. Poseidon answers by sending a wild bull to scare Hippolytus’ horses and smash the chariot so that he falls to his death along a seaside cliff. In the end, Artemis finally gets wind of what happened and goes to seek her own revenge against Aphrodite, which in some stories, is sending a wild boar to kill Adonis.
Leucippus – The grandson of Bellerophon, it is never clear what caused Aphrodit’e anger in this story. Only that the goddess caused Leucippus to fall in love with his sister. The sister was already betrothed to another and the betrothed found out about the incestuous relationship that Leucippus and his sister were having, went to inform their father Xanthius. Father Xanthius shows up at his daughter’s bed chamber and discovers his son, Leucippus there. As it’s dark, a fight ensues where the daughter is killed trying to escape and Leucippus kills his father as he doesn’t recognize who it is at first. Once he realizes what happened, Leucippus leaves to go be part of the colonizing of Crete and Asia Minor.
Myrrha – I covered this myth earlier in the story of Adonis. Myrrha’s mother, Queen Cenchreis of Cyprus had bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite. In response, Aphrodite cursed Myrrha to fall in love with her father, King Cinyras who slept with her unknowingly. Eventually Myrrha turned into the myrrh tree and gave birth to Adonis.
It doesn’t end there, Aphrodite continued her wrath against Queen Cenchreis and King Cinyras’ other three daughters, Braesia, Laogora, Orsedice to sleep with some foreigners and they ended up dying in Egypt.
Narcissus – One account has Aphrodite cursing Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection after he refused to worship her.
Pasiphae – In one version, for the birth of the birth of the minotaur, Pasiphae had failed to make the appropriate offerings to Venus (Aphrodite), as a result, the goddess caused her to fall in love with the white bull meant as an offering to Zeus.
Alternatively, the curse comes because Pasiphae is the daughter of Helio and this is Aphrodite getting back at him for exposing her affair with Ares.
Polyphonte – Was a young woman and another devote to Artemis who chose a life of virginity instead of marriage and children. Aphrodite cursed Polyphonte to fall in love with a bear. Her resulting monstrous humanoid bear children, Agrius and Oreius who were cannibals. Zeus got involved this time and turned Polyphonte and her children into birds of ill omen; owls and a vulture.
Propoetides – He and his daughters were from the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. They had failed to worship Aphrodite appropriately and she caused them to become the first prostitutes. It should be noted that this is a story found in Ovid’ Metamorphoses.
Tanais – The son of Lysippe and Berossos, he was a devote to Ares, fully committed to war. This upset Aphrodite as Tanais neglected love and marriage. The goddess cursed Tanais to fall in love with his mother Lysippe. As he refused to give up his chastity, Tanais threw himself into the Amazonius river, which after words was renamed to the Tanais river.
The Women of Lemnos – Because these ladies refused to offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, she cursed all of them to have a horrible stench. We’re talking bad, to the point that their husbands refused to have sex with them. The husbands went and had sex with their Thracian slave-girls instead. This angered the Lemnos Women, and they murdered all the men and their slaves on their island. Later, when Jason and the Argonauts show up, these women are just starved for a man’s affections, that with Aphrodite’s approval, she allows for the Lemnos Women to have sex with Jason and his crew whereby they can repopulate the island. From there on out, the Lemnos Women never failed to appease Aphrodite.
The Judgement Of Paris
The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who would become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited accept Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron was in charge of the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed Eris to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and no hard feelings, Eris proposed a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the hapless mortal Paris is called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War. This causes Athena and Hera to side with the Greeks in the ensuing war.
Divine Set Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned on by Zeus and Themis. There’s only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and its seen as a prequel to Homer’s the Iliad and explains how the events came about.
Some scholars look at Aphrodite’s connection to Mesopotamia with the War Goddess Ishtar as an explanation for the start of the Trojan War, saying that Aphrodite instigated it by manipulating Paris with a promise to marry Helen.
Aphrodite has a prominent and active role in Homer’s Iliad. In Book III, Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus after a one-on-one duel to settle the matter. Aphrodite also appears to Helen in the form of an old woman, trying to persuade her to have sex with Paris. However, Helen recognizes Aphrodite by her eyes, neck, and breasts. Helen entreats with Aphrodite as an equal and the goddess rebukes Helen, threatening her. Not wanting a god’s wrath, Helen obeys Aphrodite’s command to lay with Paris.
In Book XIV of the Iliad, Aphrodite loans her kestos himas or magic girdle to Hera so she can seduce Zeus as he had forbidden the other gods to stay involved in the Trojan War at this point. While Zeus is distracted by Hera’s advances, Poseidon is aiding the Greek forces to be able to take the beach to invade Troy. Then in Book XXI, Aphrodite returns to the war to carry Ares away off the field of battle after he’s been wounded.
Anchises – He was a shepherd prince who lived on Mount Ida, whom Aphrodite fell in love with after Zeus convinced Eros to hit her with one of his arrows. After all, with Aphrodite being the goddess of love, it’s her fault that Zeus has so many affairs and is constantly on the outs with Hera.
Aphrodite pretended to be a mortal woman in order to marry Anchises. When Anchises saw Aphrodite, he asked if she was said goddess, saying he would build her an alter if she would only bless him and his family. Aphrodite lied, saying she was a princess from Phrygia. She explains how she came to understand the Trojan language due to a Trojan nursemaid as a child. How she had been snatched away by Hermes while dancing for a celebration to honor Artemis. The disguised goddess tells Anchises to take her to his parents.
From there, the two are married or Anchises so overcome with lust, couples with the goddess-princess. After their union does Aphrodite reveal who she really is, saying she will bare Aenease a son who will become the demigod Aeneas. As Anchises didn’t keep quiet about who the mother of his son was, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and either blinds or kills him outright.
There are a couple of slight versions to this story such as Aphrodite allowed for Anchises to be able to flee the city of Troy.
Aeneas – Trojan Hero and son of Aphrodite with Anchises. In book V of Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite rescues her son from Diomedes in battle. Diomedes, recognizing Aphrodite and viewing her as a weak goddess, spears her, nicking her wrist. When Aphrodite rides back to Mount Olympus in Ares’ borrowed chariot, Zeus tells the goddess that her specialty is love, not war as he mocks her for getting hurt.
Aeneas features in Virgil’s Aeneid to be Rome’s first hero and an ancestor to Romulus and Remus.
Note: It has been commented that the scene of Aphrodite and Zeus has similarities in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Ishtar laments to her mother Antu after Gilgamesh rejects her advances and is in turn, rebuked by her father Anu.
With Aphrodite’s birth and arrival from the ocean, some people have worshiped Aphrodite as a sea goddess. Several types of waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans would become associated with Aphrodite. Naturally, seashells are associated with Aphrodite. Sea food is considered an aphrodisiac due to this lovely goddess’ connection to the briny deeps.
As a sea goddess, Aphrodite protects those who travel the seas. This earned her the epitaphs of Aphrodite Pontia or Aphrodite of the Deep Sea and Aphrodite Euploia or Aphrodite of the Fair Voyage. The planet Venus that Aphrodite is associated with, served as navigational aid for ancient mariners as they plied the seas.
With the previously mentioned Mesopotamian connection to the goddesses of Astarte and Ishtar, Aphrodite may have arrived first as a goddess of War in ancient Greece. She was honored as such in Cyprus, Laconia, Sparta, and Thebes to name a few places. In Sparta, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), showing her connection to the god Ares.
Eventually, the war aspects of Aphrodite would be dropped, and the role left to Athena and Ares.
Early Christianity readily adapted many pagan symbols and icons to their religion. With Aphrodite/Venus, her symbolisms were given to Eve, prostitutes, and some female saints such as the Virgin Mary.
The story of Aphrodite’s birth became a metaphor for baptism. There is a Coptic stele dating from the sixth century C.E. where a female orant is wearing Aphrodite’s conch shell to show she has been recently baptized. Throughout the Middle Ages, folktales regarding Aphrodite/Venus remained popular.
In the fifth century C.E. North Africa, Fulgentius of Ruspe found mosaics of Aphrodite that he proceeded to interpret as a symbol for the sin of Lust, how Aphrodite’s nudeness meant that “the sin of lust is never cloaked” and that her swimming represented how all lust suffers a “shipwreck”. Fulgentius even argued how the symbols of doves and conch shells were symbols of copulation and that the symbol of roses represented the fleetingness of lust, that it has momentary pleasures that are soon gone.
Then we have Isidore of Seville who interpreted Aphrodite as a symbol of marital procreative sex, declaring how the story of Aprodite’s birth represents that sex can only be holy with the presence of semen, blood and heat for the purposes of procreation. Isidore also held that Eros/Cupid is a demon of fornication.
Venusberg – Dating from the Late Middle Ages, the Venusberg mythology would become popular in European folklore. The “Mountain of Venus” is a subterranean realm ruled by Venus and a folktale archetype for visiting the Otherworld. The most familiar appearance of Venusberg is in the German Tannhäuser legend in the 16th century.
Variations to this myth are the mortal lover being carried away to the realm of faerie by a fairy queen. Popular legends include Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
In modern Paganism such as the Church of Aphrodite, Hellenismos, and Wicca, either Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart, Venus are goddess often invoked for casting love spells and love rituals. Aphrodite is often used in charms for making aphrodisiacs, philters, and love potions.
Astarte – Canaanite & Phoenician Goddess
A goddess of love and war worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity. Astarte was identified by the Hebrews as Ashtoreth.
Hathor – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian Cow Goddess Hathor is frequently identified with Aphrodite.
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it with any gods whose people they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love and beauty is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus.
Inanna – Mesopotamian Goddess
Also known as Ishtar, she is the goddess of love, war and sexuality. She is known as the Queen of Heaven.
Isis – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian goddess of the moon, healing, magic and life who protected women and children. During the Hellenistic Grecian era, she was equated with Aphrodite.
Turan – Etruscan Goddess
The Etruscan goddess of beauty, love, and fertility. She was the patron goddess of the city Velch. She has been identified with the Roman Venus and Grecian Aphrodite.
Venus – Roman Goddess
As the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite is often confused with or identified with the Roman deity of Venus, also a Goddess of Love. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Venus with Aphrodite. While both deities are Goddesses of Love, there are differences in the Roman myths and the Greek myths.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that they would virtually become one and the same. And that’s the tradition passed down through the centuries and has become accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Just as Aphrodite is often accompanied by her son Eros, so too is Venus accompanied by her son Cupid.
Other Names and Epithets: Ἔρις , “The Lady of Sorrow,” “Defender of the People”
Eris is the Greek goddess of strife and discord. She is often thought of as a younger sister to Ares and accompanies him into battle. True to the meaning of her name, Eris loves nothing more than to cause chaos and trouble, giving her a reputation for being sinister and mean-spirited.
Animal: Hissing Snake
Patron of: Discordians or Erisians
Plant: African Blackwood
Sphere of Influence: Chaos, Conflicts, Strife, Struggles
Symbols: Golden Apple of Discord
Eris is described as being a beautiful young woman with pale skin, black wings and carrying a golden apple that she tosses into battle from Ares’ chariot that she rides in.
Parentage and Family
Three different sets of parentage are given for Eris.
Erebus – Primordial God of Darkness is given as Eris’ father in Hyginus’ works.
Nyx – Goddess of night is given as Eris’ mother. Sometimes Nyx is the only parent listed for Eris.
In the third parentage mentioned, often a later addition:
Zeus – King of the Olympian Gods is Eris’ father.
Hera – Queen of the Olympian Gods is Eris’ mother.
Aeacus, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai, Thanatos, Hypnos, the Keres, Hemera, Aether, Moros, Apate, Furies, Oneiroi, Nemesis, Geras, Eleos, Philotes, Oizys, Momus
Ares – Given that Eris would often ride with Ares into battle on his chariot, it is sometimes assumed that they are consorts.
The truth is, they’re just really good friends and siblings who love the chaos of the battlefield.
Where Eris is the daughter of Hera and Zeus, the sister to Ares, she has the following children:
Strife – A son. This has to be a translation into English from Greek. Like maybe there’s a masculine pronunciation to Eris. This is the name found in Homer’s Iliad.
Where Eris is the daughter of Nyx, she has the following children:
Algea (“Sorrow”), Amphillogiai (“Disputes”), Androctasiai (“Manslaughter”), Ate (“Ruin”), Dysnomia (“Lawlessness”), Horkos (“Oath”), Hysminai (“Fighting”), Lethe (“Forgetfulness”), Limos (“Famine”), Makhai (“Battle”), Neikea (“Quarreling”), Phonoi (“Murder”), Ponos (“Labor”), and Pseudologoi (“Lies”)
Goddess Of Strife
Eris is known for accompanying her brother Ares into battle and tossing her golden apple of discord to incite chaos on the field of battle. Eris’ son, Strife is also known to come along for the ride as well.
Representing the way conflicts and arguments grow, Eris starts off being small but will grow as time passes until her head reaches the heavens and she hurls out the bitterness of resentments, conflicts, and strife upon people.
You Called Her A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being. In Eris’ case, it would be easy to see why they make that connection.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Mother Of Cacodaemons
Where Nyx is listed as her mother, Eris is the mother of numerous Cacodaemons, who are personifications of all the ills and evils that plague mankind.
In Hesiod’s Works and Days, it is mentioned that the fifth day of the month is a day to be careful, for that is when the Cacodaemons are out and about, angry. It is on the fifth day that the Erinyes assist Horkos on plaguing those who bare false oaths.
Pandora’s Jar – Yes, a jar, not a box. We can thank Erasmus of Rotterdam for that mistranslation with the Latin.
When Prometheus gave humans fire, Zeus decided an equally fitting gift of a jar holding all the evils and ills of the world was good. It’s suggested and hinted that these ills and evils were Eris’ offspring awaiting within to be released when Pandora opened the jar to go out and plague mankind. Only Elpis or Hope remained in the jar at Zeus’ bidding.
Works & Days – By Hesiod, in this book we learn that there are two different goddesses by the name Eris in Greek mythology. The first Eris tends to foment the evils of war and battle, she is thought of as cruel. She really revels in the chaos of war.
The second Eris is the oldest daughter of Nyx. This Eris is far kinder and tends to be associated more with strife in terms of struggling to toil, make ends meet, planting and the day to day struggles of daily living. I’m reminded of a Buddhist saying that there is suffering in life when looking at this second Eris.
Theogony – In this book of Hesiod’s, Eris, the daughter of Nyx is not thought of so kindly as she had been in Works & Days when her children and what they are personifications of are mentioned.
Mistaken Identify – Homer’s Iliad makes mention of Eris, as the sister of Ares. She is one of the few deities who wasn’t invited to the big wedding of Cadmus to Harmonia in Boeotia. Homer is also the source for referring to Eris as the “Defender of the People.” Well that’s a little odd and it likely has to do with Homer confusing Eris with Enyo, a battle goddess.
Eris is known for tossing her golden apple of discord among a group of people to incite chaos. If the apple is thrown among friends, their friendships end; among enemies, war breaks out.
The best known story is during the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, after Eris wasn’t invited, she tossed her golden apple among the gods as the main prize for who was the most beautiful, thus setting off the events for the Trojan War.
In literature, the golden apple or apple of discord is that core or crux of an argument, that while it starts off small, can leads to larger problems or disputes.
Aesop Fable 534
In this fable, Hercules is heading on his merry way when he spots something laying on the ground. A closer examination shows that it appears to be an apple. Herakles takes his club and decides to smash the apple.
As soon as Herakles strikes it, the apple swells to twice its size. He strikes it again and the apple grows again, so that it is blocking the way.
Dumbfounded, Herakles stands there, dropping his club. Athena happens along and tells Herakles not to be so surprised. This apple was only put there to confuse him by Aporia (Contentiousness) and Eris. If he were to leave the apple alone, it would remain small. But if he insists on fighting it, then the apple will swell in size.
Polytechnos & Aedon
In this story, the couple Polytechnos and Aedon declared that they loved each other more than Hera and Zeus. This declaration attracted the attention of Hera who became angry and sent Eris to stir up trouble between them.
Polytechnos was finishing off a chariot board and Aedon was working on some embroidery. Eris shows up and tells them that “Whosoever finishes their task last will have to present the other with a female servant.
Aedon, with Hera’s help, finishes first. Polytechnos is not happy with loosing and goes to Aedon’s sister, Chelidonis with the pretense that Aedon wants to see her. On the way back home, Polytechnos rapes Chelidonis and then dresses her up as a slave with the command to be silent. He then presents Chelidonis to Aedon.
At some point, Chelidonis speaks up, lamenting her fate and is overheard by Aedon who realizes this is her sister. Why exactly she didn’t realize this sooner, I don’t know.
The two conspire together and Polytechnos’ son, Itys is murdered, chopped up and served as dinner to his father.
Aedon and Chelidonis then flee back to their father. Polytechnos shows up soon after, angry. With things getting quickly out of hand, Zeus steps in, changing everyone into birds to end the matter.
It’s a story noted to be similar to that of Philomela and Procne found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Both stories are a study in word play, explaining how different animals came to be.
Typhon & Zeus
In this story, Zeus finds himself having to battle the monstrous giant Typhon, husband to Echidna, the mother of monsters.
Typhon or Typhoeus is described as a serpentine monster that breathes fire. Zeus fought him using his thunder bolts and aegis.
Eventually Zeus would defeat Typhon and trap him under Mount Etna. Echidna would be allowed to live along with her monstrous children. In Grecian myths, this is how Mount Etna became a volcano. In other versions of the myth, the gods Hermes and Pan would come to Zeus’ aid.
In Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, Eris is described as accompanying Typhon into battle whereas Nike, the minor goddess of Victory, accompanies Zeus into battle.
The Judgement Of Paris
This is perhaps the best-known source for Eris’ myth and story. The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who will become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited accept Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron was in charge of the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed her to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and no hard feelings, a beauty contest was proposed between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the hapless mortal Paris is called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War.
Divine Set Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned on by Zeus and Themis. There’s only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and it’s seen as a prequel to Homer’s The Iliad and explains how the events came about.
Eris gets the blame for starting the Trojan War even though Zeus and Themis had planned on it from the beginning. They just weren’t going to get their hands dirty.
In battle, Eris rode alongside Ares and Enyo on the side of the Trojans. It is in this famous, epic ten-year war that Eris becomes known as the “Lady of Sorrow.”
During one battle, Eris fought on the side of Aeneas, Aphrodite’s son, defending him. The rest of the time, Eris wandered the battlefield, reveling in the chaos of it all, spreading bloodshed wherever she went.
It has been noted that this classic fairy tale draws inspiration from the story of The Judgement of Paris. Just like Eris, the wicked fairy of Sleeping Beauty takes grievances with not being invited to the princess’ christening and places a curse upon the infant.
In the late 1950’s, Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, under the pen names of “Malaclypse the Younger” and “Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst,” wrote the Principia Discordia. The concept of Eris established in the Principia Discordia gets used and expanded upon further in the science fiction The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. The ideas in this book series have caused many people to call themselves Discordians or Erisians. In turn, this led to the Discordian Religion.
In Discordian teachings, Eris is the main goddess and she has a much softer outlook on the world than her darker Grecian origins. In the Principia Discordia, Eris’ parents are either what’s given in Greek legend or she’s the daughter of the Void. For me, I have to say this is likely the Eris who is the daughter of Nyx showing up here.
Eris is the Goddess of Disorder and Being, her sister Aneris is the goddess of Order and Non-Being. Their brother is Spirituality.
Among Discordians, Eris not being invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis is known as the Original Snub.
Essentially, Discordian religion and philosophy teaches that the only truth is chaos. That order and disorder are at best, temporary states. No matter how much people may try to order the world around them, it is still all chaotic.
It puts me to mind Chaos Theory, that what seems random at first, will eventually show having a pattern and the Mendelbrot set being an equation that determines how to figure out that pattern.
As Morticia Addams in the movie said, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”
Spiders, Why’d There Have To Be Spiders?
It’s either that or someone screaming incoherently before torching down their entire house just to kill it.
Fun and amusing, given how many people are arachnophobic, there is a genus of spiders named after Eris.
Eris is the second largest Dwarf Planet in the Solar System out in the Kuiper Belt. It was discovered in January 2005 by Mike Brown at the Palomar Observatory. It initially received the designations of 2003 UB313, 136199 Eris and the name Xena, after the popular TV series: “Xena: Warrior Princess.” In 2006, it was officially named Eris and has a moon called Dysnomia, after one of Eris’ daughters. Given the actress who played Xena and what Dysnomia means for Lawless, it still works out.
Eris’ discovery, true to her namesake, disrupted and challenged the way in which Planets are classified. It was thought at first it would be the tenth planet in the Solar System. After a series of measurements and calculations, Eris would be classified as a Dwarf Planet alongside Pluto, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake.
So, what makes a Planet versus a Dwarf Planet? In short, a Planet in the classical sense is that it’s relatively round, and able to make a clear orbit around the Sun without another celestial body in its orbit that competes. Whereas a Dwarf Planet doesn’t have a clear orbit and has other celestial objects in its same orbit.
Apep – Egyptian God
An ancient Egyptian god of chaos represented as a giant serpent. He constantly fought against his counterpart, Ma’at, the goddess of light, truth and order.
Discordia – Roman Goddess
She is very simply the Roman version of Eris.
Kali – Hindi Demon
There are two Kali. The first is the goddess who destroys evil to protect the innocent. The second is the Kali demon who is male and the source of all evil.
Lucifer – Christianity
In terms of fomenting trouble and conflicts, temptations, and other problems, some have been daring enough to equate the Christian devil or Lucifer with Eris, particularly the darker aspect of her.
The Morrigan – Celtic Goddess
Eris has been equated with this Celtic goddess when it comes to chaos and conflicts on the field of battle.
Loki – Norse God
If we’re talking tricksters that lean into the darker aspect, causing disruptions wherever they go, then Eris has been equated with this deity.
Set – Egyptian God
Another Egyptian deity associated with deserts, disorder, foreigners, storms, and violence. Unlike Apep, Set is seen more benignly as he is the reconciled fighter where he sails with Ra on his solar boat to fight off Apep, the chaos serpent.
If Eris is the goddess of chaos and strife, then there must be a polar opposite. This honor falls to Harmonia, the goddess of peace, with her Roman counterpart being Concordia.
If Harmonia is the goddess of peace, then there must be a polar opposite. This honor falls to Eris, often cited as the goddess of chaos with her Roman counterpart being Discordia.
Etymology: “Jealously” or “Passion”
Also known as: Adaon, Aedín, Aideen, Echraidhe (“Horse Rider”), Éadaoin (modern Irish), Edain, Etaoin, Éadaoin
Epithets: Bé Find (“Fair Woman”), Shining-One
Etain is a figure from Irish mythology, her story involves a lot of unwanted transformations from a jealous Fuamnach and different suitors trying to win her. Etain is noted for her extreme beauty among the fae or sidhe. She is best known as the heroine found in the “Tochmarc Étaíne” or “The Wooing of Etain.”
Animal: Butterfly, Dragonfly, Fly, Horse, Swan, Worm
Sphere of Influence: Beauty, Healing, Irish Sovereignty, Music, Rebirth, Transformation, Transmigration of Souls
Parentage and Family
The lineage for Etain can get confusing. When seeing that Etain and the name’s many variant spellings could be the names of other characters, then it could be a matter of which Etain are we talking about?
Ailill – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Ailil, king of Ulaid is Etain’s father.
Etar – In the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (“The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel), Etar is Etain’s father.
Eochaid Feidlech – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Eochaid is the High King, he is Etain’s mortal husband whom she marries after being reincarnated. In the Dindsenchas poem, Rath Eas, Eochaid’s last name is given as Airem.
Midir – In the Wooing of Etain, this is Etain’s husband when she was in Tir na Nog.
Ailill Angubae – By some accounts of Etain’s story, she was really in love with Ailill, Eochaid’s brother. Not to be confused with the Ailill, King of Ulaid, who is her father.
Dian Ceacht – Etain’s daughter when she is married to Oghma.
Étaín Óg – Etain the Younger, she is Etain’s daughter when married to Eochaid Feidlech. Etain Og will go on to marry Cormac, the King of Ulster and have a daughter by the name of Mess Buachalla. Mess Buachalla will go on to marry High King Eterscel and be the mother of Conaire Mor.
Oghma – The Irish god of Writing, in some version, he is Etain’s husband.
Tochmarc Étaíne – The Wooing Of Etain
This is one of the oldest stories found in Irish mythology. There is another story that mentions Etain, the “Togail Bruidne Dá Derga” or “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.”
For now, we’re going to cover: “The Wooing of Etain.” It begins not with Etain, but with Midir and his first wife, Fuamnach. They were happily married and raised among their own children, Oengus or Aengus Óg (a Love god, some sources try to say he’s a sun god too) as a foster son.
For a little further context and background, Oengus is the son of Dagda, Midir’s brother. So really, Midir and Fuamnach are raising their nephew.
Like all children, Oengus grew up and moved out on his own. Midir decided one day that he would go visit his nephew. While visiting, an incident happened, involving some holly and Midir was blinded in one eye.
Even though Oengus heal’s Midir’s eye, Midir still seeks compensation for the injury that occured while visiting as a guest. As Oengus is the God of Love, he gets his Uncle the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland and Fairy, Etain. On seeing her, Midir is instantly in love and he takes her home with him.
It should come as no surprise, that once the two are home, that Midir’s wife, Fuamnach is angry, jealous even. How dare her husband bring home another woman, even if said woman is either a mistress or second bride and this is allowable, it’s the jealously and anger of a far more beautiful woman getting her husband’s attention.
Rather than take out her ire on Midir for this insult, Fuamnach takes it out on Etain. Fuamnach is a powerful sorceress in her own right. An enraged, Fuamnach conspired to cast a series of dark spells on Etain. The first one turns Etain into a pool of water. Another spell turns Etain into a worm or snake. Then finally into either a butterfly or dragonfly.
Changed to this new form, Etain’s wings hold the power that water that dropped from her wings would cure disease and the humming of her wings was soothing to those who heard it. Even in this strange new form,
Depending on the story told, Midir either does or doesn’t recognizes Etain. Regardless of which way the story goes, Midir spends all of his time with his butterfly companion and eschews the company of other women.
This only further enrages Fuamnach who sees that the two lovers are still together. This time, she conjured up a great gale of wind that drove Etain out of Midir’s house and to be lost at sea.
Etain is lost for seven years being buffeted about by the sea winds before at long last finding her way back to shore where she lands on Óengus’ clothing. Óengus does recognize that the butterfly is Etain. As he and Midir are currently feuding with each other, Instead of returning Etain, Óengus makes a small portable butterfly house that he carries around with him.
Eventually Fuamnach learns that Etain is with Óengus and she sends another wind that once more blows Etain out to sea to be lost for another seven years.
That is a long time to be lost at sea, not just once, but twice. Exhausted by her ordeal, Etain finds herself coming to rest on the roof of a house where people were gathered, enjoying a feast.
Drawn by the warmth from within, Etain flew closer to the sounds of merriment. However, in her state of exhaustion, she flew into goblet of wine and was promptly drunk up by Etar, the wife of a wealthy Ulster chieftain.
This is how Etar becomes pregnant with a reborn or reincarnated Etain. The catch being, that as with all reincarnations, a person doesn’t remember who they had been in a previous life. So, a newly reborn Etain grows up as the daughter of a wealthy chieftain.
The Tochmarc Étaine notes that some one thousand and twelve years have passed since Etain’s first birth back in Tir Na Nog, Fairy Land. Just as she had been before, Etain was once again the most lovely and beautiful woman in all of Ireland. The gifts of love, generosity and kindness were all held to be hers.
One day, Etain is out with her handmaidens at a well when they spot a man on horseback coming their way. This man is Eochaid, the king of Ireland. As soon as Eochaid lays eyes on Etain, he is immediately taken with her and asks Etain to be his Queen.
Naturally Etain is flattered and this is an opportunity. Love or not. Power or not. Etain agrees to marry Eochaid and a wedding follows soon after.
Complicating matters, Eochaid’s brother, Ailill Angubae has also in love with Etain and he pins away for her. As he is dying, Ailill confesses his love to Etain. To save him, Etain agrees to sleep with Ailill.
Enter Midir back into the story, who casts a spell on Ailill so that he falls asleep and misses his tryst with Etain. When Etain does go to meet up with Ailill, she does find a man who looks like Ailill, but it’s not, it’s Midir in disguise. Thrice Etain tries to meet up with Ailill and keeps meeting up with the imposter, Midir who finally reveals himself to her on the last time.
Midir tells Etain of her previous life in Fairy as his wife, trying to get Etain to return with him. For Etain, this is a problem, she’s been reborn as a mortal and is married to Eochaid. She won’t leave her current husband unless Eochaid allows her to.
The good thing that comes out of this encounter is that Ailill is no longer pinning away and dying for lack of love over Etain.
A goal and mission in mind, Midir sets out to meet Eochaid. Coming as himself, Midir offers to play a boardgame called fidchell. As other versions of this story say that it’s chess that the two play.
For the first game, Midir makes an offer of fifty horses as the stakes. Eochaid accepts and wins with Midir graciously offered prize. Midir now challenges Eochaid to another game, with higher stakes and wins again.
At some point in the game playing, Eochaid’s foster-father warns him that Midir is a being of great power and to be careful. As Midir is letting Eochaid win, the two keep on playing and with each win, Eochaid has Midir perform another task, ranging from clearing forests, reclaiming land from bogs, building causeways over said bogs.
These series of tasks are said to fit with the idea of the Tuatha De Danann that Midir belongs to as earth deities. Eventually, Midir grows tired of letting Eochaid win and challenges him to a last game of fidchell with the stakes to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins and he claims an embrace and kiss from Etain.
This is more than what Eochaid is willing to allow. Eochaid agrees to Midir’s claim, that in a month’s time he can come claim Etain. As these stories go, Eochaid didn’t have any intention of letting Etain return to her former husband. Etain was his. On the day that Eochaid was to honor the agreement, he had all of his warriors waiting at his castle. These warriors formed circles around the castle with the intent to keep Midir from reclaiming his wife.
As if he were air or invisible, Midir passed through all the encircling warriors without slaying a one or shedding blood. Soon, Midir comes to the room where Eochaid and Etain await within. Midir proclaims that he is there for that which is his.
Seeing that he can’t renege on the deal after all and must agree, Eochaid says that Midir may have a kiss from Etain’s lips. Eochaid reluctantly allows Etain to go to Midir and the two kiss, transforming into a pair of swans and they fly out, away from the castle and back towards their fairy home of Tir na Nog.
Not wanting to lose Etain, Eochaid and his men set off for the fairy mound of Bri Leith where Midir is said to dwell. The men begin digging and Midir appears before Eochaid, telling him that his wife will be returned to him the next day.
On the morrow, Eochaid returns and there are fifty women, all appearing as Etain. An old hag tells Eochaid to pick out his wife. Eochaid does so and Midir later reveals that Etain had been pregnant when he took her. That the woman he took was in fact their daughter. Eochaid is horrified by the fact that he’s slept with his daughter who is no pregnant. This baby, who is also a girl is laid out in the woods to be exposed. Before death can claim the infant, a herdsman finds the baby and raises her to become the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.
Variations – There are a few different versions to Etain’s story. Some that focus solely on just Etain and what happened to her exclusively. Other versions will explain the whole set up of what led up Midir marrying Etain and thus, better explain why Fuamnach is jealous and maybe not so much jealous, but angry.
Version 1 – This story focuses on Etain being the second wife to Midir with Fuamnach being jealous. Here, Fuamnach enlists the aid of her friends to turn Etain into a pool of water. This causes Midir to becomes worried and he goes searching for his missing wife. To stay one step ahead of him, Fuamnach then turns Etain into a worm and then a fly.
As a fly, Etain flies down Fuamnach’s throat, causing her to become pregnant. Etain is reborn, this time, she’s mortal and doesn’t remember her previous life. Once she grows up, Etain marries the king Eochaid. Only it’s not Eochaid that Etain loves, it’s his brother Ailill, as if that wouldn’t cause more than a few problems.
To make it more complicated, Etain eventually meets Midir again and suddenly remembers who she had been. Just like before Midir wins Etain in a game of chess with Eodaid.
I rather find this version extremely problematic as it’s suggesting Etain wouldn’t know her own father? Assuming Midir still remained married to Fuamnach. Further, if Midir and Fuamnach are fairies and Etain is reborn as their daughter, shouldn’t she be a fairy too? Not mortal? Not to mention the extreme ewww with Midir now wanting someone who’s his daughter.
Just no. No.
It’s this version of the story with Fuamnach becoming Etain’s mother and seeing that Etain’s name means jealously; it makes me think that there may be an allegory or symbolism for the stages of jealousy or passion that Fuamnach is working through with her husband Midir.
Other Versions: There’s numerous versions to Etain’s story, some have her remembering her life in fairy when she meets Midir. Others have her not remembering her life at all and agreeing to leave with Midir if her mortal husband agrees as she thinks this is something that won’t happen.
A lot of these other versions for Etain’s story often simplify their retellings in that they often leave out how Midir and Etain meet, just that they do, the who episode of Alill pinning away for Etain is left off and the final episode where Eochaid tries to get Etain back and unknowingly, is given his daughter.
A couple episodes from the Tochmarc Etaine are repeated in this poem. Eochaid Airenn’s winning Etain back from Midir is in the Rath Esa poem. Midir’s abduction of Etain is referenced in the Rath Cruachan.
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel
In the main story for the Wooing of Etain, the Tochmarc Etaine, she is described as being very beautiful. However, no description is given anywhere of her. That changes in the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga where Etain encounters King Echu in Bri Leith.
In this text, she is described in a lot of lengthy detail from the comb she’s using to her clothing in lot of green, silver and golds. Her hair is described as being a red gold, skin white as snow, rosy cheeks, unnaturally blue eyes and curved body like the waves of sea foam. The narrator goes to great lengths to try describing what Etain looks like as the fairest of them all, there is a final quote that goes: “Lovely anyone until Étain. Beautiful anyone until Étain.” That such beauty could only mean that Etain was clearly of the sidhe.
Grecian Comparison – Hellen of Troy
The first story of Etain, the Wooing of Etain says that she’s very beautiful, comparable even to Helen of Troy. Where whole cities of Greece go to war with each other her. Etain has a jealous first wife takes out their wrath on her, a former spouse waiting for over a thousand years to reclaim her, and when she’s reborn, her mortal husband trying to keep her from the fairy husband to take her back.
The entire story for Etain reflects an older time when these older stories were likely passed on orally before getting written. So Etain’s story has had plenty of time to be altered and change and the role of the Goddess or Queen who gets to choose is altered and she is no longer in control of her destiny and is just a prize to be won.
An important note brought up about this story, while it doesn’t feature Etain in the first part of it, is to bear in mind that this story is an allegory for Ireland’s history. Etain’s role in the narrative becomes clearer when seeing her as the Goddess of the Land who gets to choose her consort to ensure the prosperity of the land.
A similar motif for this Celtic belief that the Goddess gets to choose her consort is seen in Arthurian Legend for the story of Guinevere, Lancelot and King Arthur with the whole love triangle happening there. Granted that story is a much later addition to Arthurian Legend, it’s an inserted story to narrative to explain the Goddess or Woman’s right to choose whom she loves and marries.
All the figures featured in the story likely represent different clans and geographical localities. Seeing Etain as a Sovereign Goddess of the Land, who she chooses to couple with are whom she deemed as the best ruling clans for the welfare of Ireland.
Lack Of Agency – At a knee-jerk first glance response, I don’t like the story of the Wooing of Etain. Why is Etain punished by Fuamnach for marrying Midir? For that matter, why does Midir get to be the one rewarded for cheating on his wife and marrying a younger woman, loose her and then get her back after waiting patiently for Etain to be reborn?
That here, we have Etain a woman who is just passed around as a prize to be won with barely any say in the matter of what happens to her. If the focus is given soley to Midir as the hero, of course, the entire story makes sense for his journey of loss and recovering his love and wife. Then poor Eochaid who gets to pick his wife and loses her to Midir, who takes back the woman who is rightfully his.
Without the Historical Allegory angle, the entire story feels maddening. No wonder there are later rewritings of the story that want give an image of two lovers who loose and find each other again. To give more agency to Etain’s actions and the series of unfortunate circumstances that befall her.
Etain is forced to a series of unwanted transformations by a jealous lover, ranging from worm to butterfly, to swan and even a pool of water. Including the worm and then changing to a fly, sounds like the larval state of an insect, either as a nymph, meaning the larval form of a dragonfly or caterpillar to a butterfly.
Looking at these stories symbolically, Etain’s transformations from a worm to a fly, only to be swallowed later by a woman and reborn as a child can all be seen as the different stages of life.
Soul or Spirit – In a lot of Celtic folklore, flies or butterflies are often seen as being the souls of the deceased, even if it’s just a metaphor. It makes sense if Etain’s changing to a worm, than a fly or butterfly is merely a symbolic way of describing the spirit’s transformation and more easily explaining the transition from one life to another. Or maybe Fuamnach actually killed Etain, tossing her body into a pool of water?
Celtic Numerology – More of a minor note, the number seven is used for the number of years that Etain is lost at sea a mystical number. In this case, it is a number meaning a spiritual awakening.
That’s undeniable with all the transformations that Etain undergoes once she falls afoul of Fuamnach’s magic, going from a pool of water, to a worm, to a fly or butterfly, swallowed and reborn as a mortal woman.
What’s In A Name
Given the nature of Etain’s story and the meaning of her name: “Jealousy” or “Passion.” I think it sheds an important light to the significance of Etain’s story and the proper framework to look at it in.
Bé Find – Meaning “Fair Woman,” this is a name that Midir gives to Etain in Tochmarc Etaine. It comes from a poem found within the larger saga called: “A Bé Find In Ragha Lium” is likely from a much older, unrelated source and was just stuck in the saga at a later time.
Eadaoin – As Eadaoin, she is noted as being a sidhe and one of the Tuatha De Dannan who is associated with poetry and inspiration. With this spelling, Etain is noted as having a different husband, either Midir or Oghma depending on the source used. This could just merely mean Etain or Eadaoin was a common enough name that there is more than one person in the Irish Mythological Cycles who has this name. As they’re all sidhe, that makes it even more difficult to keep them all straight.
Echraide – Meaning “Horse Rider,” this is a name that has been attached to Etain and is meant to link her with horse deities such as the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Shining-One – An epitaph of “Shining-One” or claiming that’s what Etain’s name means, tend to come from more modern sources that want to connect her to be a Sun Goddess or a fairy. As far as a strong, scholarly bent goes, it doesn’t really work.
Some sources, often the more modern Pagan paths will place Etain as a goddess. Depending on the lineage you follow, if Oghma for example, she is a goddess of poetry and inspiration. Yet another source will list her as a Love or War goddess?
Some of the sources that link Etain to different deific roles seem tentative.
Horse Goddess – One of Etain’s epitaphs is Echraide, meaning “Horse Rider,” which would mean she’s a Horse Goddess, much like the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Sun Goddess – T. F. O’Rahilly is who identified Etain as a Sun Goddess. Several New Age and modern Pagan groups have adopted her as such. When Oengus is identified as a Sun God, this connection makes sense if Etain is seen as his daughter.
Goddess of the Land – This I would readily accept given the nature of Etain’s story as an allegory for Ireland’s history and a Goddess marrying whom she wants that will bring prosperity to the land.
Love Goddess – This really works best for more modern interpretations of Etain’s story; especially when keeping in mind her story as an allegory and for those seeking to reclaim her role as a deity with her own agency who chooses her lovers. Plus, the connection seems to come more strongly with Midir’s fostering of Aengus Óg who is a Love God.
Sovereign Goddess – This is an important aspect of Etain, especially if you want her story to make sense as a deity who choose her consort for the prosperity and welfare of the land.
Triple Goddess – In New Age and Wiccan practices, Etain is often seen as a Triple Goddess
Other Aspects – Furthering this, due to the forced transformations, some will claim Etain as a Goddess of Transformation and Rebirth, a Moon Goddess.
Well yes, most versions of Etain’s story acknowledge her as a fairy, specially one of the Sidhe and certainly of the Tuatha de Danann. An imagery not at all unlike the Tolkien Elves in his Middle Earth series.
The account that has some men coming across an extremely beautiful woman beside a spring see them agreeing that such beauty was only possible of the sidhe.
That seems to be the sentiment of some authors, scholars and modern Pagans.
Wiccan, New Age & Modern Paganism
I think it’s important to note, that myths and stories do change with time. Much of the story that so many know with Etain has been colored through the lens of Christianity and with some regards, a patriarchy, resulting in a story about a woman who appears to have little agency and control over her own fate and destiny.
In the pursuit of adjusting Etain back to her perceived mythological roots and giving her significance and relevance, to better be the actor in her own story, some modern Pagan traditions will claim that Etain’s name means “Shining One” and place her as a Triple Goddess who represents the Sun, Water and Horses.
Understanding Etain’s story will certainly make it easier to interpret her as needed. I think sticking to what’s known and concrete from her legends is the most useful.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Also Known As or Spelled: Slenderman, Slendy, Fear Dubh (or, The Dark Man; Scottish) Takkenmann (Branch Man; Dutch), Der Großmann or Der Grosse Mann, Der Grossman (the Tall Man; German), Der Ritter (the Knight), Thief of the Gods, Thief of Kuk
The figure of Slender Man is relatively new in the Urban Folklore landscape, making it a 21st century Boogyman. This being’s first appearance was on June 10th of 2009, having been created by Eric Knudsen, using the name “Victor Surge” in the Something Awful forum for a photoshop contest. The idea had been to create an Urban Legend so believable it would take on a life of its own, which it certainly has.
Much of the early photos and videos showcasing Slender Man claim to be “found footage” much in the style of a movie like the Blair Witch Project. Knudsen has claimed a number of sources for inspiration into Slender Man’s creation. Most notable of which seem to be the Tall Man from the 1979 movie Phantasm, survival horror video games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Zack Parson and William S. Burroughs.
Slender Man is often shown as an unnaturally tall and thin man wearing a suit with equally long thin arms and featureless face. The Slender Man is often shown having several tentacles extending from its back.
Exactly what powers Slender Man has, varies a bit with these numerous stories and narratives that seems to have taken the internet by storm. Many of stories will show Slender Man preferring the forests and abandoned locations.
Many will say it can teleport or “slender walk,” an effect that distorts how a person views and sees Slender Man as it approaches its victims. Other stories have the presence of Slender Man causing paranoia, delusions and nightmares as it stalks its victims. In some of the stories, adults are driven insane by Slender Man’s influence, becoming “Proxies” who work for this entity. The web series Marble Hornets are who originated the idea of the Proxies, though sometimes they were people already violently insane and didn’t need much of a push. This video series also has Slender Man’s presence able to distort any video or audio recordings. Other stories say that just researching and investigating the Slender Man draws its attention. Slender Man also seems to hold some sort of either hypnosis or mind-control on its victims. It seems to have invisibility or selective enough invisibility in who it lets see them.
A term used on-line for scary stories, the concept of Slender Man went viral with many people creating their own takes and adding to the mythology. There have been many different stories since its creation involving Slender Man with numerous videos and pictures all claiming to “evidence” of this mysterious being. Many of the stories have Slender Man stalking, terrorizing and abducting people, especially children.
Despite having only been around a few years, Slender Man’s immediate popularity has seen it become used and reference in various media from literature, art to video games and T.V. Naturally YouTube is one such source of people finding and watching “found footage” style videos claiming Slender Man sightings and evidence. Rather than use graphic violence and splatter horror, the stories of Slender Man work more to try and invoke a psychological scare, leaving much of exactly what Slender Man is a mystery or vague as to what happens to victims. Early stories involving Slender Man have it impaling victims on tree branches, removing organs and replacing them back in the body bagged up. Such stories don’t hold fear for long than if the victims just vanish without a trace.
Slender Man Folklore & “History”
As Slender Man became more popular and people began adding to its mythos, the reality and fantasy of this being quickly became distorted.
Brazilian Cave Paintings – This one claims that cave paintings were found in the Serr da Capivara National Park in the Northeast of Brazil dating to around 9,000 B.C.E. The paintings supposedly show a strange, elongated figure leading a child by the hand.
Der Grossman – Meaning “Tall Man,” this is part of the made-up history by “Thoreau Up”, set in 16th century Germany that shows photographs of wood cuts showing an early Slender Man. These woodcuts are credited to Hans Freckenberg who called the figure Der Ritter (“The Knight”).
Further legends attached to this have stories of children seeing this entity or fairy in the Black Forest before disappearing. Bad children who went into the forest at night would be pursued by Der Grossman who wouldn’t let up until it either caught the children or the children confessed of their wrong doings to parents.
One story claimed to be from 1702 is that of a father telling of his son Lars who has been taken. The only thing they had found was a strange piece of black cloth, somehow softer and thicker than cotton. That Lars came into his room screaming of how the angel, Der Grossman was outside his room. Lars continued his story of having gone to one of the groves near the village where he found one of the cows dead, hanging from a tree. The story ends with the father saying they have to find Lars and his family must all leave before they are killed too.
Egyptian Hieroglyphs – Another claim for ancient “archaeological” evidence of Slender Man comes with Hieroglyphs dating from 3,100 B.C.E. with references during Pharaoh Wazner’s reign. The only problem with the mention of a tomb for the Pharoah, is that Wazner is known only from inscriptions on the Palermo Stone from Egypt’s fifth dynasty and that speculation posits that Wazner may be a mythical ruler and likely fictional himself. So, I’m doubting any tomb hieroglyphs showing Wazner and Slender Man meeting up.
English Lore – The Tree Man is an English myth that appears to describe a tall, slender figure with numerous appendages that stick out of the body like tree branches. This Tree Man is used as a boogey man by parents to scare children into behaving. In addition to stories about this Tree Man are the disappearances of a number of children.
Romanian Tale – There is an alleged Romanian folktale about twin sisters Sorina and Stela who were led out into the woods one day with their mother. The twins could see Der Grossman nearby, dressed as a nobleman with boneless arms. The mother fell under Der Grossman’s influence and told her daughter Stela to take a knife and carve a circle on the ground that Sorina was to then lay in so she could be cut open. Stela refused and ran home to hide under a bed.
When the father returned home, Stela told him of what happened. Hearing the tale, the father set off immediately into the forest to find the mother and Sorina. Falling asleep, Stela was awakened later to a knock at the door and a voice calling for her to open the door, it was her father. When the Stela refused, the voice called again to open the door, it was her mother.
Refusing to answer the door still, this time it burst open and Stela’s mother came in, holding the severed head of Sorina in one hand and the father’s head in the other hand. When Stela cried out why, the mother replied it was that there was no reward for goodness in the world, nothing but cold steel teeth and fire for everyone. That it is coming for you now.
It is then the Der Grossman slid out from the fireplace and clutched Stela to his burning self, ending her life.
That does make for a rather gruesome tale.
Photographs – There’s an interesting assortment of altered photographs that claim to be images of Slender Man that date from the early 1900’s from the US, UK and Russia, linking it to the disappearances of children. Photos and Videos from the 1990’s and after all claim further evidences and proof of Slender Man as various people continue to add to the mythos.
The Rake – While not Slender Man itself, newer stories have been adding stories of this figure to accompany Slender Man on its stalking of terror, instilling fear into those who see it.
There’s been a few other characters added who seem similar to Slender Man or aid him, but these seem more like “up the ante” characters to keep the suspense and fear going.
Slender Man Panic
For all that Slender Man is a modern, Urban Legend and story, it crossed the line from fantasy to reality when a couple girls in 2014 attempted to murder a fellow 12-year old girl in Waukesha, Wisconsin. If you hadn’t heard of Slender Man before then, people knew about him now. A panic ensued as parents tried to better monitor what their children were looking at on-line and knew the difference between fantasy and reality.
Clearly a well written and crafted story takes on a life of its own.
Modern Folklore & Urban Legend
An interesting take I found on this, is from Professor Shira Chess. In her book: “Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology,” Professor Chess discusses how Slender Man is like the folklore regarding fairies. For just like fairies, the Slender Man is an otherworldly being whose motives are alien and therefore difficult to understand. Like the fairies, Slender Man is vague in appearance and often takes on the expectations of a victim’s fears. Again, just like the fairies, the Slender Man too lives in the forests and kidnaps children. It’s an interesting connection and observation.
One thing seems clear, the stories of Slender Man have spread much like other Urban Legends have and achieved a folkloric quality in the digital age where people have been able to take and adapt the mythos to suit their needs. It’s that vagueness of the Slender Man stories where you don’t know what it is or wants, that has made the stories of Slender Man so malleable with details that are easy to adapt to anytime and place that suits the storyteller’s needs.
That’s what makes any urban legend successful or appealing. Their ability to be told anywhere, that it could happen here, in this very town, very location, at any time. Even better, is when the people hearing the story don’t know the urban legend’s origins and how it got started. Humans by our very natures are hard wired for storytelling. The simplicity of urban legends makes them easy to pass on as they’re a story told by third and fourth-hand accounts that keep the story going to the point that no one knows where it started.
With the Internet, it’s easy to fake photos, videos and news reports. Making Slender Man seem all the more real and plausible for a less discerning reader. Even with people knowing how to find and track the origins of Slender Man’s origins, there’s another group who just won’t look further and appear to accept the photo and video evidences as authentic. Maybe for a good scare or the susceptibility to want to believe.
Where many monsters in mythology and folklore represent an aspect of the human psyche, however dark. Professor Chess has commented that Slender Man can be seen as a metaphor for “helplessness, power differentials, and anonymous forces,” and as ever, as always, the fear of the unknown, things beyond people’s control. Given the narrative for much of the Slender Man mythos, that seems very likely.
Like any fear, such a being only has as much power as you give it. It’s been commented how this day and age of the Internet has allowed for such stories like Slender Man’s to go viral. As with any good, well written horror story, enjoy it. Just be careful of what you create and how far you let that fear go to feed it.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Etymology – Scottish & Irish – “a boorish old man”, Modern Scottish Gaelic – “old man”
In the Scottish Gaelic language, the word breaks down to “bod”, meaning “penis” and its suffix “’ –ach”, that translates to mean “someone who has a penis.”
Pronunciation: ˈbōdək, ˈbäd-
Historically, the word and name Bodach comes from the Scottish Gaelic term for an “old man” referring to a mature person. It had once been used as a derogatory term to refer to peasants and farmers (bothach) by the warrior class of the Scots. In more modern times, the term is used more affectionately then its former derogatory intent.
In Irish, the word bodach also means a churl or clown, referring to someone who was an old or churlish person, serf or peasant. There are some children’s stories where the word bodach is translated as curmudgeon or the name Nod is used in its place.
In time, the word bodach found its way into the English language by the British, who used the word to refer to a mythological being or spirit much like a goblin, bugbear or bogeyman. Here the bodaich is used as a cautionary story for keeping misbehaving children in line. Behave or else the bodach will come down the chimney to take you away!
There are certain regions of Wales and Scotland where the term bodach is used for a type of imp or fairy. Frequently, this is one of the more mischievous, shape-shifting types.
Omen Of Death
In Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), a much more formidable form of the bodach as the bodach glas (the Dark Grey Man) is a harbinger of death.
While not used very often, bodaich do appear from time to time in literature. The bodach has altered a bit of its appearance into modern literature. In Dungeons &Dragons, the name has a minor spelling change to bodak and becomes an undead entity, largely black in color. The same description of black, shadowy creatures is used in Dean Koontz Odd series where they appear at different sites just before a disaster takes place. The same type of shadowy creatures appears in the movie “The Eye.” Even W. B. Yeats make mention of a bodach in his prose The Hour-Glass where a bodach appears to the character, the Fool and attempts to trick him out his money with a riddle.