Category Archives: Family
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
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.
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: Maaui-Tikitiki (Maori/New Zealand)
Alternate Spellings: Māui
Epithets: Maui-Tikitiki “Maui the Top-Knot,” Maui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga “Maui the Top-Knot of Taranga,” Maui-Potiki “Maui the Last Born”
In Polynesian mythology, Maui is either a trickster demigod or god and in some stories, a mere mortal man. Most of his stories and exploits are best known from the Hawaiian and Maori legends though many other Polynesian cultures such as Mangarevan, Tahitian and Tongan have their own stories regarding this trickster hero. Among the Samoans, Maui is known as Ti’iTi’i. Many of the stories involving Maui make note of him being the youngest son, thus while small, he was extremely strong for his size.
Maui is sometimes described as being ugly, quick to respond as well as quick-witted covered in tattoos. Lucky for humans, for all that Maui is known for having some vicious practical jokes, he works to help people and not the Gods.
Parentage and Family
In the Hawaiian Kumulipo, Maui is the son of Akalana and Hina-a-ke-ahi (or just Hina, a goddess).
In another Hawaiian legend, Maui’s father is given as Ru.
In the Mangarevan myths, Maui is the son of Ataraga (Father) and Uaega (Mother).
In the Maori myths, Maui is the son of Makeatutara (Father) and Taranga (Mother).
Tangaroa – This Maori god of the sea is sometimes mentioned as being Maui’s father with his mother being a mortal woman.
Akalana and Hina had four sons: Maui-Mua, Maui-Waena (or Maui-Hope), Maui-Ki’iki’i and Maui-a-Kalana.
In the Mangarevan myths, Ataraga has eight sons all named Maui: Maui-mua, Maui-muri, Maui-toere-mataroa, Tumei-hauhia, Maui-tikitiki-toga, Maui-matavaru, Maui-taha, Maui-roto. It is Maui matavaru or eight-eyed who is the culture hero.
In the Maori myths, Maui has four brothers: Maui-Taha, Maui-Roto, Maui-Pae and Maui-Waho.
Hinakealohaila – She is the wife to Maui-a-Kalana in Hawaiian legends.
Nanamaoa – The son of Maui-a-Kalana and Hinakealohaila in Hawaiian legends.
This is the name of Maui’s great, big fish-hook. In the Hawaiian legends, it is baited with the wing of an Alae, the sacred or pet bird of Hina. This fish-hook was created from the jawbone of an ancestor of Maui’s, usually given as being his grandmother.
Maui’s Fish-Hook can be seen in the night-sky in the same constellation recognized by Western Culture as Scorpio.
While yes, there is an island called Maui in Hawaii, it is not named for the trickster Maui. Legend holds that the island is named for the son of Hawai’iloa, a great navigator who discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Each of the islands of Kaua’i, O’ahu, and Maui are named after one of Hawai’iloa’s sons.
These were a group of heroic trickster demigods in Hawaiian legends. All kupua are shape-shifters who took the forms of either humans or various elements in nature, often an animal. Many kupua are rather malevolent and vindictive. Maui appears to be one of the more beneficial and gentler kupua in comparison.
Pulling Up The Islands
There are many variations to the story of Maui using his fish-hook to pull up all eight of the Hawaiian Islands.
Version 1 – Maui had gone out fishing one day with his brother. In typical sibling rivalry, the brother wouldn’t share any of his bait with Maui. Ever the resourceful one, Maui punched his own nose and used his own blood as bait to fish. He succeeded in bringing in hauls so large, that they would become the Hawaiian Islands. Not just Hawaii, but all the Polynesian Islands were pulled up in this way.
Version 2 – Maui had gone out fishing with his brothers. While out there, Maui caught his hook on the ocean floor. Maui then told his brothers he had caught a large fish and to start paddling as hard and as fast as they can. The brothers never noticed the island rising up behind them out of the ocean. Maui of course, proceeds to do this several more times, pulling up all the Hawaiian Islands.
Version 3 – This is perhaps the more interesting version of the stories. Maui planted his fish-hook at Hamakua with the intent to pull up Pimoe, the god of fish. Maui warned his brothers not to look back as they paddled their boats or this venture would fail. Hina, shape-shifted into a bailing-gourd and Maui, not realizing it was his mother, took hold of the gourd and put it in front of his seat. Now suddenly, there appeared before them, an extremely beautiful woman and all of Maui’s brothers looked back out of curiosity. Having looked back, Hina in her disguise disappeared and the line breaks, causing all of the islands that Maui was trying to unite into one giant island falls apart and he is unable to catch Pimoe.
The Theft Of Fire
Version 1 – In order to steal fire for the people of the islands, Maui transformed himself into the guise of a hawk so he could get closer the Earth-Mother. To this day, the hawk’s feathers are brown in memory of Maui being burned by the flames when he brought the gift of fire.
Version 2 – In this story, Maui and his brother would go out fishing every day. Every morning they would always see a bunch of Kiawe trees smoking and flames coming up out of them. Hovering above all this were some vultures, also known as mud hens or ‘alae.
Maui and his brothers constantly tried to sneak up on the vultures, thinking they were responsible for the fire. However, just before getting close enough, there would be a noise that scared them all off.
Maui came up with the idea of creating a dummy that looked like him and placed in the canoe. Now Maui had his brothers take the dummy with them as they would go one direction and Maui would come from the other as they tried to sneak up on the vultures.
Maui snuck up on the bird and grabbed it by the neck, forcing it to tell him the secrets of fire. The vulture, an ‘alae told Maui to take and rub two maia peels together. When nothing happened, Maui nearly choked the bird to death, telling it to tell the truth. Finally the bird said to rub to Ti leaf stalks together. Nothing happened this time and Maui once more choked the bird who said to rub two dry kiawe sticks together.
This time, Maui had success with creating fire. He took the flaming stick and pressed it against the ‘alae’s forehead, making their head red and bald to remind it and other ‘alae’s thereafter of their selfish act.
Slowing Down The Sun
Version 1 – In this story, Maui’s mother, Hina complained about how the sun moved too quickly through the sky, that she barely had time to get her kapa, bark cloth dry. Hina wasn’t the only one, many people hurried to get their work such as planting, cooking or making clothing done in the few hours of daylight. There just wasn’t time with how fast the Sun moved.
Deciding to help his mother and the other people, Maui hid behind a big rock at the highest peak on the island known as Haleakala, the “House Of The Sun.” When the Sun passed by overhead, Maui quickly threw a rope, made from his sister’s hair with his magic hook tied to the end and lassoed the Sun’s rays with it. Some legends have Maui using a net to trap the Sun. The Sun demanded to be let go and Maui would only do so if the Sun would promise to move slower through the day so people could get their work done. Some versions of the story have Maui beating the Sun with his jawbone until it agreed to move slower. Added to this, Maui took one look at the sky and decided it hung too low. With a shove and heave, Maui pushed the sky up higher.
Version 2 – In this telling of the story, Hina sends Maui to a big wiliwili tree where he finds his old, blind grandmother laying out bananas. Ever mischievous, Maui starts stealing bananas from his grandmother, one by one until she catches him in the act. Maui tells his Grandmother about his mother’s complaints and sending him out to the tree. After hearing the story, Grandmother decides to help him with making a rope. Maui then sits by the tree, waiting until the Sun passes by overhead and he lassos it, forcing it to agree to slow it’s progress across the sky.
Version 3 – Very similar to the story in Version 2, Maui decides to slow down the sun after a man by the name of Moemoe taunts him and says it can’t be done. Just to prove him wrong, Maui sets off to slow down the sun much like he did earlier with finding his grandmother and getting her help. After Maui slows down the sun, he chases after Moemoe and beats him soundly.
Lifting The Sky
While a similar story of Maui lifting the sky is told in his quest to slow down the sun, there is another expanded version of this story.
After a while, as Maui was looking around, he could see that the sky was far too low to the ground and that people were unable to stand up straight. Being Maui, if he didn’t like a thing, he went about changing it. As it just so happened to be, the sky was sinking or lowering and would have made living on the earth impossible for humans.
Maui proceeded to travel to the town of Lahaina, to enlist his father into helping him lift the sky. There, Maui laid himself on the ground and then bracing himself, pushed the sky upwards with all of his considerable strength.
At the signal, Maui’s father, Ru also began pushing with all his might, aiding his son in getting the sky up high enough so people could stand upright. So there you have it, another of Maui’s deeds done.
Variations – In other retellings of this story, Maui lifts up the sky when he comes across a girl complaining how the sky was too low and that she couldn’t do her chores. Like any guy seeking to impress a girl, Maui decided to push up the sky for her.
Yet another variation is that Maui was busy making an earth oven when his poker got stuck up in the sky. To get his poker unstuck and to keep it from getting stuck again, Maui simply pushed the sky up higher. Again, this was all part of impressing a girl.
Defeating The Long Eel
Still one more legend of Maui’s to cover in Hawaiian mythology!
After Maui finished pulling up all of the islands with his Fish-Hook, he decided to start exploring them to find out what all was there. Traveling to each of the islands, Maui discovered that they were all inhabitable. There were houses, but no one living in them, no one in the whole of all the islands.
Taking ideas from the layout and build of the houses, Maui returned home and built a new house for himself in the style of what he had seen on the islands. Finished, Maui then sought out Hinakealohaila (or just Hina, not to be confused with his mother) to marry.
Time passed and Hina went down to a nearby river bank to get some water. While down there, Hina ran into the Long Eel Tuna, who just so happened to decide that striking Hina and covering her in slime was somehow a good idea.
Hina ran back home, but didn’t tell Maui of what transpired. Or at least, not yet.
The next day, Hina went back down to the riverbank and the same thing happened. The Long Eel Tuna hitting and covering her with slime again. This time, when she returned home, Hina told Maui about what happened.
Angry, Maui headed down to the river. Once down there, Maui laid out a number of traps designed to lure the Long Eel Tuna out of hiding. When the Eel Tuna emerged, Mauil used his stone axe to kill them. It seems that the Long Eel Tuna had been causing many people in the village problems. Thanks now to Maui, everyone would be safe.
In this mythology cycle, the Maui known as Maui the Eight-Eyed is the hero, born from his mother’s navel and raised by his grandfather, Te Rupe. This Maui has a magic staff called Atua-Tane and a hatchet called Iraiapatapata. Like the Hawaiian and Maori legends, Maui still pulls up the islands from the sea and ties up the sun with locks of hair to slow it down or hold in place.
The legend of Maui among the Maori is a long epic.
The Birth Of Maui
Maui was born the son of Taranga and Makeatutara. Considered a miraculous birth, Makeatutara had taken her premature baby and threw it into the ocean wrapped in locks of hair from her topknot. Hence, Maui is known as Maui-Tikitiki-A-Taranga. Fortunately for the infant Maui, ocean spirits found him and wrapping him in seaweed, took him to Tama-Nui-Te-Ra (or Rangi), a divine ancestor who raised the child.
It is Maori tradition, that any baby prematurely born is buried with special incantations and ceremonies least the spirit of the unborn child become a malicious spirit as they had never known any joy or happiness in life. Given what happens later in the stories with Maui, this may be why they bury the baby with rites and ceremonies instead of tossing them into the ocean. It would certainly explain all the mean spirited tricks and deeds that Maui performs.
Reuniting With His Family
Once Maui was a child and no longer a premature infant, he left the sea, going search of his mother and family. When Maui found his mother’s house, he discovered four other older brothers: Maui-Taha, Maui-Roto, Maui-Pae and Maui-Waho.
Understandably, the brothers were all leery of this new comer. Maui won them all over by performing many tricks such as transforming into a number of different birds. The brothers were greatly impressed and accepted Maui.
As for his mother, Maui introduced himself to Taranga when everyone was gathered for some dancing and celebrating. Maui sat down behind his brothers, when Taranga called for her children, she discovered a fifth unknown child among her sons. Maui soon proved he was Taranga’s son and he was accepted into the family.
At first, some of Maui’s brothers were jealous. They were put at easy by the eldest brother telling them how they should let Maui be counted among them, that in days of peace, they should be generous to others by helping to improve the welfare of others and that in times of war, that’s only when disputes should be settled with violence. The speech worked and Maui was finally welcomed home.
Maui Finding His Father
Though Maui stayed with his mother and his brothers, each morning, his mother Taranga would disappear. None of Maui’s older brothers seemed concerned about their mother’s disappearance each morning. This bothered Maui who wondered where Taranga would go each morning before they woke.
When nightfall came again, Taranga returned to her children, they all went to sleep as before on other nights in their house. This time, Maui stayed awake so that when everyone else had fallen asleep, he stole Taranga’s clothing and hid them. Then Maui went and hid himself in the crevice of a window above the doorway so that when morning came, he could see where it was that his mother went.
After what seemed like forever, morning finally came and Taranga awoke. Upon finding she was naked, Taranga began frantically looking for her clothes, finally she gave up and began pulling off pieces of siding from the house to cover herself. Covered, she now ran outside.
Watching from his hiding spot, Maui watched as his mother reach down to some tufts of grass, revealing a hole that she disappeared into and pulling close behind her. Curious, Maui came out of his hiding spot and ran to the spot where the grass had been pulled up. Sure enough, he found the opening to a cave descending deep into the earth, to the Underworld in fact.
Covering the hole again, Maui returned to the house and woke up his brothers. He asked them about where it is that their father and mother went during the day. The older brothers answered that they didn’t know. They taunted Maui saying he shouldn’t worry or bother and that Rangi, the god of the sky was their father.
Little Maui responded how he had been brought up differently from his brothers, having been tossed to the sea. That he had never been nursed by their mother and how he longed to find where it was that she and father went to during the day.
Surprised by the response, Maui’s brothers encouraged to try and find their parents. Maui said that he would go and demonstrated to them his ability to turn into a bird. It was only with the kereru or wood pigeon shape that his brothers were impressed. The ability to shapeshift was something that only a skilled magician with a lot magic could perform and Maui delighted in his being the youngest brother, able to do something the others couldn’t.
Bidding farewell to his brothers, Maui took off in pigeon form to seek after his parents. Long Maui flew off into the forest and down to the cave his mother had disappeared into. Eventually, Maui came to a place where he saw many people gathered in a grove of trees. Among these people, Maui spotted his mother seated by whom he could only assume to be his father.
Still in bird form, Maui descended to a lower branch where he could pick off some berries growing. These berries, Maui dropped down to his father on the head with. Some of the other people at the gathering asked if the bird had dropped the berry and Maui’s father, Makeatutara insisted the berry had only fallen by chance.
Once more, Maui plucked more berries and threw them down hard at both of his parents. As Maui’s parents cried out, the other people gathered there, looked up to the tree and seeing only a pigeon sitting there cooing, began to throw stones at the bird. All the stones missed and it was when Maui’s father threw a stone at the bird that he hit the pigeon, but only because Maui allowed it.
The pigeon fell to the ground and when the others ran up to it, it turned into a man. The others were taken aback for the eyes of the young man who now stood before them were red and fierce looking. Talking amongst themselves, the others discussed if the man standing before them was a god like Rangi and Papa-Tu-A-Nuku. Finally Taranga spoke up and said the man looked like someone knew and repeated the story of Maui’s premature birth everyone to hear.
Taranga then asked the man, Maui who he was and where he came from. When she asked Maui, if he was her child Maui-Tikitiki-O-Taranga, he answered yes and Taranga welcomed him where she seemed to prophesy that he would visit his ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po and conquer death.
Now a man, Maui’s father Makeatutara took him down to the river to be baptized in order to cleanse and purify his son. As luck would have it, Makeatutara made a mistake during the ceremony with incantations, having skipped over parts and forgotten them. This mistake was an ill omen that would eventually lead to the death of Maui. The gods would be sure to punish this forgetfulness with Maui’s eventual death.
In the meantime, however, Maui returned to his brothers to tell them he had found their parents and how to find them too.
Maui Getting Bloodthirsty
After returning to his brothers, Maui ended up slaying and carrying away his first victim, the daughter of Maru-Te-Whare-Aitu. Not long after, Maui proceeded to destroy the crops of Maru-Te-Whare-Aitu, causing them to all wither.
Maui Gaining His Jaw-Bone Weapon
His first war raid done, Maui once more visited his parents. While with them, he noticed how the other people would be carrying away some food as if it were being taken to someone.
When he asked for who, they informed Maui it was for an ancestress, Muri-Ranga-Whenua, an old chief. Maui responded with saying that he would take the food to her.
In typical trickster fashion, Maui didn’t take any of the food to Muri-Ranga-Whenua. Instead he set them to the side, hiding them away. Eventually Muri-Ranga-Whenua wondered why her food wasn’t coming and suspecting that something was up, she wandered down the path, sniffing.
Finally smelling something coming, Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s stomach began to enlarge as she got ready to devour Maui as soon as he came close enough. Maui went up wind of the old chief so she couldn’t find him. Turning westward, Muri-Ranga-Whenua finally smelled someone close to her, realizing it was a human.
Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s stomach shrunk back to normal size and she greeted Maui as one of her descendants. Her next question was why Maui wasn’t bring her food. Maui answered that he was seeking for Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s jaw-bone to use as a weapon. The old chief consented and gave Maui the bone.
Holding Back The Sun
Similar to the story found in the Hawaiian cycle, Maui for his next quest, takes the jaw-bone of an ancestor, Muri-Ranga-Whenua to use as a weapon. He uses this jaw-bone to ensnare the Sun so it will be forced to move slower throughout the day, thus making the days longer. With the aid of his brothers, Maui lassoes the Sun and beats them soundly until the Sun agrees to move slower.
Variation – Sometimes a net is mentioned as what Maui used to catch the Sun before Maui and his brother beat the Sun senseless with his magic jawbone to the point it could limp slowly now across the sky.
Gone Fishing – Part 1
Somewhere along the line, Maui got married and had a number of wives and children to boot. When Maui and his brothers returned from the feat of Holding back and slowing down the sun, he heard the complaints of his family and how they had no fish to eat.
Maui assured his wives and children not to fret, he would soon take care of this trivial matter and they would soon enough have food to eat. He then took his jaw-bone and fashioned it into a fish-hook.
When Maui’s brother headed out to go fishing, Maui jumped in the canoe. His brothers yelled for Maui to get out of the boat, claiming that his constant use of magic would cause problems. Eventually Maui got out of the canoe seeing as his brothers refused to take him.
Determined, Maui just waited until it was night when he went back to the beach and his brothers’ canoe. This time he hid in the bottom, under some boards. When his brothers came at dawn, they headed out to sea, none the wiser that Maui was hidden on board.
Once they were well at sea, Maui came out of his hiding spot. Seeing him, his brothers commented that they had better return to shore. Using his magic, Maui stretched out the distance from the shore to the boat that when his brothers looked for land, it was out of view.
Maui told his brothers that they should let him come with, at the very least he could be able to bail water out of the canoe for them. The brothers consented and they paddled on towards their fishing spot. Maui wasn’t content and told his brothers to paddle out further before dropping anchor, which spot would be far out of view of land.
Far out on the open ocean, the brothers now began to fish and soon, easily they had their canoe filled with fish in no time.
Pulling Up The Islands – Part 2
Continuing from Gone Fishing, this story is similar to the previously mentioned Hawaiian story of Pulling Up The Islands. Now that the brothers had filled the canoe, they wanted to return, but not Maui who now wanted a turn at fishing.
The North Island – Maui’s brothers wanted to know where he got a fishing-hook from, to which he told them never mind. When he asked to borrow of their bait, his brothers refused. With no other recourse, Maui made a fist and struck his own nose, using his own blood for bait.
With that and using incantations, Maui managed to snag the porch of a carved house on the sea bed floor and pulled up not just the house with his superhuman strength, but an entire island. Witht his much land pulled up, the canoe became grounded.
With the newly pulled up land and the haul of fish that had been caught, Maui went to go make an offering of thanks to the gods. He instructed his brothers to wait until her returned before eating or cutting up any of the fish, that everyone would get a fair share.
While Maui went to get a priest to bless, consecrate and purify the land, his brothers went ahead and started to cut up the fish that were also pulled up. These fish began to writhe in agony and in their throes, the mountains, cliffs and valleys of the island were formed. It’s been said if the brothers had waited for Maui to make his offerings, the island would have all been level plains and forest, making it easy for people to traverse it. The Maori call this land Te Ika-a-Maaui, the Fish of Maui or Hahau-Whenua, it is the North Island of New Zealand.
The South Island – By Maori tradition, Maui’s canoe becomes the South Island. The Banks Peninsula is said to be where Maui place his foot to support himself as he pulled in his fish haul. The island is known as Te Waipounamu or Te Waka-A-Maui, the canoe of Maui.
The Secret Of Fire
The secret for the creation of fire had been lost and Maui decided to remedy that situation. Of course, if Maui didn’t have it in his head to pull the stunt of putting out all of the fires for the cooking houses in the village, there would still be fire. But no, Maui puts them all out and then calls out, saying he’s hungry and getting someone to come cook up some food for him and there’s no fire to be had, anywhere.
When Maui’s mother heard there was no fire, she implored the servants to seek out Mahu-Ika to see if she would send more fire. The servants refused, no matter how Maui’s mother and others insisted they go.
Finally, Maui spoke up and said that he would go and get more fire. In order to do so, he needed to know which way to go. His parents informed Maui which path he should go, that he should let Mahu-Ika know who he was and that he shouldn’t perform any of his tricks as too often, his tricks brought harm and injury to others.
Yes, they’re on to you Maui!
Of course, Maui assured his folks he was only interested in bringing fire, he wasn’t going to do anything else, he’d go and come back right away. Honest!
So off he goes, in search of Mahu-Ika, the goddess of fire and his ancestor. When Maui found Mahu-Ika, he was filled with wonder and awe, all he could do was stare before he finally spoke up asking her where the fire was, he had come to get some.
Mahu-Ika got up and asked who Maui was. At first, Maui wouldn’t tell Mahu-Ika was, making her do a quessing game of which country he was from and which direction he had come. Finally, when Mahu-Ika asked Maui if he had come on the wind, he said yes and she recognized him as one of her descendants.
Mahu-Ika proceeded to pull out a fingernail from which fire flowed out. This she gave to Maui who was amazed by the feat. Maui took the fingernail away with him and when he was out of sight, he promptly put the fire out.
Maui returned to Mahu-Ika saying that the fire she had given him had gone out and to give him another. Once more, Mahu-Ika pulled one of her fingernails out, producing fire to give to Maui once more.
Maui managed to keep this antic up of coming back to Mahu-Ika saying the fire had gone out until he had gotten her to pull out all of the nails from her hands and feet save for the nail of her big toe. Nine times and Mahu-Ika finally catches on that Maui might be playing tricks on her.
Angry, Mahu-Ika pulled the last nail out and slamming it on the ground, she told Maui that he now had all the fire as everything around them began to catch fire. Maui made a mad dash to escape with the fire quickly gaining. Maui changed himself into an eagle (or hawk) to be fast enough to escape.
Even as an eagle, his flight wasn’t enough and the fire was about to consume Maui; he called on his ancestors Tawhiri-Ma-Tea and Whatitiri-Matakatak to send rain. The ancestors answered and soon there was a heavy rain. Mahu-Ika was nearly killed in the resulting downpour before she could hide. Maui however, in his eagle form was scorched, resulting in black-tipped wings. Mahu-Ika saved some of her fire by placing it in the wood of trees.
When Maui returned from this latest stunt, his parents tried to warn him about trying to trick his ancestors and that he deserved what he got. They concluded the speech that things would end badly and likely in his death if he didn’t stop his behavior. Maui taunted his parents, saying what did he care, he planned to continue. With that, Maui went off to seek out his next round of mischief.
Variation – A little simpler, Maui gained the secrets of fire by stealing a hen from heaven as fire was believed to be guarded by a celestial chicken.
Turning Irawaru Into A Dog
Shortly after his theft of fire, Maui went out fishing with his brother in law, Irawaru who had married Maui’s younger sister Hinauri, Maui as per his luck, had only caught one fish while Irawaru was catching plenty of fish. Fuming his poor luck, Maui lost his cool when Irawaru’s line got tangled with his. The classic two fishermen tugging on their respective lines, each in the opposite direction.
The two began arguing about how it was their fish on the line and to let go. Finally Irawaru relented and let go of his line enough that Maui was able to pull up on his end. Once the line was pulled up, Maui saw that the fish caught was indeed on Irawaru’s line and that it was his line entangled with the other.
Mad, Maui said they should return to shore and the two began paddling. Once back to shore, Maui had Irawaru lift up the canoe to his back as part of pulling it in. No sooner had Irawaru gotten the canoe up onto this back than Maui jumped on it, forcing the whole weight down on his brother-in-law, nearly killing him.
Nearly dead, Maui continued to trample Irawaru’s body, twisting and forming him through the use of magic into a dog. Maui completed the job by force feeding Irawaru some dung.
That done, Maui went back to the village, acting like nothing had happened. It’s then, that Maui’s little sister Hinauri on seeing him, ran up to asked where her husband Irawaru was. Maui responded with that he had left Irawaru back with the canoe. Well how come the two of them didn’t return together? Oh, well that’s because Irawaru wanted Hinauri’s help with bringing back the fish. So you had better hurry and if you don’t see him, just call out “Mo-i, mo-i, mo-i.”
Hinauri hurried down to the beach looking for her husband. Not seeing him, she called Irawaru’s name and when there was no response, then she called as Maui had told her to with the “Mo-i, mo-i, mo-i.”
Irawaru, now in his dog form, recognized his wife and barked back. He followed her all the way back to the village wagging his tail. Seeing what had happened to her husband, Hinauri became very distraught with grief to the point that she threw herself into the sea.
As to Maui, that antic seems rather petty to have done, but no different from say the Greek gods taking it out on mortals. Maui was now at a point that he found it best to leave the village and once more return to the Underworld where his parents lived.
Variation – Sometimes the story of Maui turning Irawaru into a dog is told that they were on their way to another village not far away. As they were headed on the return trip home, Maui had asked Irawaru to carry some food for them. Irawaru said there was no need to, they had just eaten a meal and it was only a short ways home.
This angered Maui and he used his magic to make the journey home take longer than it should have. As they continued to walk on the seemingly endless road, both Maui and Irawaru grew tired and hungry.
As they sat down, Maui pulled the food he had brought for himself after all and proceeded to eat right in front of Irawaru.
If it had been me, I would have left it at that.
Not Maui, after finishing his meal and not offering anything to Irawaru, Maui asked his brother-in-law to clean and dress his hair. Irawaru supposed that was harmless enough and did the job for Maui. When he had finished, Maui offered to clean and dress Irawaru’s hair for him. Thinking nothing of it, Irawaru allowed Maui to do so. Maui put Irawaru into an enchanted sleep and with further magic, changed Irawaru into a dog.
Either way, in Maori legends, Irawaru is the progenitor of all dogs.
The Death Of Maui
Version 1 – In this version of Maui’s death, people got tired of all his antics and decided to kill him. As a result, Maui’s blood is what creates rainbows and is responsible for the color of shrimp.
But that’s not a very exiting end for a hero and trouble maker.
Version 2: The Quest for Immortality! – This one is more exciting and noteworthy.
Following the events of a botched baptismal ceremony, Maui takes it on himself to go win immortality for humankind. Maui’s father, Makeatutara tries to dissuade him of the notion, that he will fail and that someone will kill him.
Of course, since Maui’s last antics involved turning Irawaru into a dog, he’s looking to leave the village anyways. He’s certainly gotten more than enough people upset with him, Maui heads off for the Underworld where his parents are at.
After staying with his folks for some time, Maui’s father, Makeatutara makes mention of how they have heard of Maui’s deeds up in the living world, but being down here in the Underworld, he’s sure to be defeated at some point. Makeatutara is also remembering the botched baptismal ceremony, knowing that Maui will come to a bad end.
Maui scoffs at this notion of someone defeating him, who after all would do that? Makeatutara says it would be Maui’s ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the goddess of the Night. Undaunted, Maui boasts of his many previous deeds with pulling up the islands and slowing down the sun, saying that it won’t be possible to beat him.
Makeatutara relents and tells Maui to go find his ancestress who lives far on the horizon. After asking what she looks like, Makeatutara told Maui his ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po looks human but with greenstones for eyes and sea kelp hair, barracuda mouth and that the red flashing of light came from her.
Unfazed, Maui set off towards the west with companions towards the home of Hine-Nui-Te-Po. In some versions of the stories, these companions of Maui are birds such as the tomtit, robin, warbler and fantail. In other versions, these companions are Maui’s brothers.
Eventually, Maui finds Hine-Nui-Te-Po asleep with her legs spread apart. Maui and his companions were quick to note rows of sharp obsidian and greenstones between Hine’s legs.
Maui now informed the others of his master plan, telling his companions not to laugh and to save it for after. Maui planned to enter Hine-Nui-Te-Po’s vagina, in a reverse birth process and to exit out her mouth. This, according to Maui was to gain him immortality.
Maui’s companions tried to dissuade him, saying he would be killed. Maui was again undaunted, insisting if his friends did laugh, waking Hini-Nui-Te-Po, then yes, he would die, but if he successfully passed through her, he would live and that she would be the one to die.
This of course is where the companions just shut up and let Maui do his thing as he readied himself, tying a rope that held his battle club around his waist and thrusting off his clothes. Ready, Maui began to climb in, very much the image of reverse birth as his companions did their best not to laugh.
As it happens with these type of stories, the one task you’re not supposed to do, happens and one of the companions couldn’t hold it in anymore and began laughing. One version of the story says it’s the fantail who begins laughing and wakes Hine-Nui-Te-Po who opens her eyes and quickly closes her legs tight, cutting Maui in half.
Instead of immortality, Maui becomes the first person to die, bringing death to the world. Hine-Nui-Te-Po maintained her post as the Goddess of the Underworld the portal to which all humans must pass through on death.
Variation – When Maui set off to gain immortality for humankind, he did so by changing into a worm in order to enter the vagina of Hine-Nui-Te-Po and leaving through her mouth. This stunt didn’t work out so well as Hine-Nui-Te-Po crushed Maui in her sleep with the obsidian teeth in her vagina.
Maui And Rohe
We’re not quite done with Maui! In a few stories, Maui is married to the goddess Rohe whom he ends up mistreating in some rather cruel and unusual means.
What happens, is that Maui wished to trade faces with Rohe as she is very beautiful and he on the other hand is rather ugly.
Rohe refused to trade faces and when she was asleep, Maui used an incantation to make the trade and switch for faces. When Rohe woke up and realized what happened, she left the living world and departed for the Underworld, becoming the Goddess of Death.
Good one Maui.
In Samoan mythology, the character of Ti’iti’i is very similar to that of Maui. Many of the stories are similar to those of Maui from other Polynesian cultures. One striking similiarity is the story of Ti’iti’i’s theft of fire from the earthquake god, Mafui’e. In this story, Ti’iti’i breaks off one of Mafui’e’s arms, forcing them to reveal the secret of fire and how to rub sticks together for friction to create it.
For the Samoans, the loss of Mafui’e’s arm means that he is unable to create even bigger earthquakes.
Among the Tahitians, Maui was a prophet or priest who later becomes deified.
He had once been at a sacred place known as a marae busy with some task or other. When the sun began to set before he was finished, Maui grabbed hold of the sun’s rays and halted the movement of the sun so he could complete his task.
Maui became known as Ao-ao-ma-ra’i-a after he discovered fire and passed on his knowledge to others to create it by the use of friction with wood. Before this, people would eat their food raw.
As a final bit of lore, Maui is the one responsible for earthquakes.
Among the Tongans, the Maui stories tell how he pulled up the Tongan islands from the depths of the ocean, starting first with Lofanga, then the other Ha’apai islands and finishing up with Vava’u. That task finished, Maui lived on the island of Tonga. The village of Houma located on the main island of Tongatapu is noted for being the place where Maui’s fish-hook got caught.
In these stories, Maui has two sons: Maui-Atalanga, the eldest and Maui-Kisikisi, the younger. In other sources, there are listed three Maui brothers: Maui-Motu’a (old Maui), Maui-Atalanga and Maui-Kisikisi (dragonfly Maui). It is Maui-Atlanga who discovered the secret of fire and taught others how to cook with it. Maui-Motu, like Atlas from Greek mythos, holds the earth up on his shoulders. Whenever Maui-Motu starts to nod off, he causes earthquakes and people will stomp the ground in order to wake him up. The god, Hikule’o who rules the underworld of Pulotu is Maui-Motu’s youngest son.
Maui-Kisikis is known for being a trickster. He gained the name of Maui-Fusi-Fonua or Maui Land Puller after Maui-Kisikisi begged for a magic fish-hook from an old fisherman by the name of Tongafusifonua. The old man would only allow the fish-hook to be taken on the condition that Maui be able to find it in his collection of hooks. Tongafusifonua’s wife, Tavatava told Maui the secret of how to find the hook and Maui was able to succeed at picking it out from all the other hooks. With this hook, Maui-Kisikisi was able to pull up the coral islands from the bottom of the sea as these volcanic islands were believed to have fallen from the heavens.
Movie Time – Moana!
So of course, the movie came out in 2016, featuring the famous Maui of Polynesian mythology. Since I was curious, I of course wanted to know how much of the mythology and stories that the movie gets right.
It is of course, a new story and the Maui seen in the movie pulls and combines many of the aspects of him found primarily in Hawaiian and Maori legends. Much of which is confirmed during the song: “You’re Welcome” and a quick montage of all of Maui’s deeds that he’s done that have earned him a new tattoo to commemorate the event.
The character of Te Fiti in her darker aspect as Te Ka was originally referred to as Te Po, based on the Maori goddess Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the goddess of night, death and the underworld. Others have noted a strong similarity between Te Ka and the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele.
Interestingly, while the movie was being developed and written, it incorporates the history of Polynesian people as voyagers who just abruptly ceased and then a thousand years later, start sailing again. Why? No one knows. However, the story of Moana certainly provides an interesting what if story to it.
Etymology – “Youth,” “Flower of Youth” or “Prime of Life”
Other Names and Epithets: Ἡβη, Basileia (Princess), Dia, Ganymeda, Juventas (Roman)
Hebe is the goddess of Youth in Greek mythology. She had also been the cup bearer to the gods before being replaced by the youth, Ganymede. In Pindar’s Nemean Odes, he notes how Hebe is one of the most beautiful goddesses in Olympus.
Animal: Chicken, Eagle
Patron of: Sinners, Former Prisoners and Slaves, Young Brides
Plant: Ivy, Lettuce
Sphere of Influence: Youth, Vitality, Forgiveness
Symbols: Chalice, Fountain of Youth, Wings
In Grecian art, Hebe is frequently shown as a young woman wearing a crown of flowers and a sleeveless dress or partially nude. Many ancient vases show Hebe in either her role as cup-bearer or as Heracles’ bride. Occasionally, Hebe is shown to have wings like Iris or Nike.
There is a lost, though famous statue of Hebe made of gold and ivory that was sculpted by Naucydes during the 5th century B.C.E.
Hebe was worshiped in Phlious and Sicyon. There she was known by the name of Dia. They would pardon or forgive supplicants who came to her temple to pay respects and reverence.
Kissotomoi – Also known as Ivy-Cutters, this was a yearly festival held in secret dedicated to Hebe as Dia.
Hebe was also worshiped in Athens where she had an alter near an alter dedicated to Heracles in the Cynosarges.
Parentage and Family
Zeus – King of the Olympian Gods is Hebe’s father.
Hera – Queen of the Olympian Gods is Hebe’s mother.
Another version for Hebe’s parentage is that her mother, Hera became pregnant when she ate some lettuce while dining with the god Apollo.
Some sources list only a couple of siblings for Hebe, namely Ares and Eileithyia. Regardless of how many siblings that Hebe is noted to have, she was regarded as being the youngest of all of the Olympian gods residing on Mount Olympus.
Aeacus, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Ersa, Helen of Troy, Heracles, Hephaestus, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai
In some of the myths, Hebe is the wife of the Greek hero Hercules after he became deified. It’s also kind of wrong given they’re half siblings.
With Heracles, Hebe bore two children, Alexiares and Anicetus.
Cup-Bearer To The Gods
As cup-bearer to the gods on Mount Olympus, Hebe’s duties were to fill the gods’ chalices with the nectar of the gods, that would keep them all youthful and invigorated. In addition to the nectar, Hebe also served the ambrosia.
Some stories have Hebe being replaced by Ganymede to become the cup-bearer to the gods, other stories have where the youth is just one of two cup-bearers.
Most people seem to be familiar with the story of Hebe having been clumsy and either accidentally having a wardrobe malfunction or spilling the nectar. Either way, Apollo or Zeus fired Hebe on the spot and replaced with Ganymede.
Another version has Hebe leaving her post as cup-bearer to the gods when she marries Heracles and that’s why Ganymede ultimately takes over the divine position as cup-bearer.
Goddess Of Beauty
Sometimes, albeit briefly and in passing, Hebe is mentioned as a goddess of Beauty. For this, I can see Hebe sometimes being mentioned as one of Aphrodite, the goddess of love’s attendants.
Goddess Of Pardons & Forgiveness
As previously mentioned under worship, Hebe was the goddess of pardoning. In Hebe’s sanctuary in Phlius, she had a grove where freed prisoners would hang their former chains before going to live a free life.
Goddess Of Youth
This function pretty much goes hand in hand with Hebe’s role as cup-bearer for she was responsible for the vitality of youth and bestowing it on the other gods with dispensing and filling their cups with the nectar of the gods.
Fountain of Youth – In Greek myths, the fabled Fountain of Youth is a fountain from which the waters that flowed would keep one youth forever or restore one’s youth. As the goddess of Youth, Hebe guarded over these waters and they could only be found and used by her.
Young Brides – As Hebe’s mother is Hera, the goddess of marriage, as her daughter, Hebe is a handmaiden to Hera and the goddess of young brides. Other goddesses that Hebe would accompany for overseeing weddings are: Aphrodite, the Charities or Graces and Harmonia.
Spring – As a goddess of Youth, Hebe is sometimes seen as a goddess of the springtime.
Immortality – According to Euphronios in his writings, Hebe as a goddess of Youth is also the goddess of Immortality. Many have often pointed out over the years, what good is immortality if you don’t also have the strength, vitality and youth to go with it?
There’s a metaphor, from the Bacchylides where receiving the Basileia (“the Princess”) of heaven, one could gain or win immortality.
Granting Youth – When Heracles nephew, Iolaus grew old, he prayed to Hebe to be young again before he went off to fight Eurystheus. Hebe granted Iolaus’ request on Heracles’ behalf for the day. This episode is shown in Euripidies’ play Heracleidae.
In Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, there is an episode where after Hebe grants this guerdon or boon, that Themis, the goddess of Justice says to grant it this once is fair. After which there was a great discussion among that other gods and it was agreed not to allow any further gifts of restored youth.
Marriage To Heracles
When Heracles became deified and ascended to Mount Olympus, there was a marriage between the mighty hero and Hebe. This marriage was held to try and reconcile the problems between the mighty hero and Hera, Hebe’s mother.
Ancient Greek Traditions & Responsibilities
Aside from being the cup-bearer, Hebe would also help her mother, Hera when preparing her chariot. She has also been known to draw the bath for Ares after a battle.
It seems a bit odd at first some of these other servant-like tasks that Hebe held. She was the youngest of all of the Olympian gods and her role reflects the ancient Greek custom where the daughter helps and assists around the house and serving guests.
Previously mentioned, Ganymedes served as Hebe’s male counterpart in her role as being cup-bearer to the gods.
As the goddess of youth, Hebe’s counter was Geras, the goddess or personification of Old Age.
Hebe is sometimes seen as being the counterpart or similar to Pandeia, the daughter of the moon goddess Selene.
Juventas – Roman Goddess
The Romans are very famous for taking and equating their gods with those of the Greeks or flat out renaming them. It is no different with Hebe, her Roman name and counterpart is Juventas.
In Rome, Juventas held a temple on the Capitol and Terminus long before there was one built for Jupiter. There was another temple for Juventas at the Circus Maximus.
The Month of June – This story is found more in the Roman myths as there’s a minor spat and disagreement over which goddess gave their name to the month of June, Juno or Juventas. It’s a minor footnote of a story as Juventas has a discussion with her husband, Hercules about wanting only her honor and acknowledgment for the month of June. Most people default to assuming Juno gave her name for the month of June.
Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)
It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.
Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent
In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes. Also, among the Southern Slavic countries, the Zmej appears more as an anthropomorphic draconic of fishlike humanoid.
The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.
The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.
While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.
You Called Him 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.
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.
Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.
National And Folk Heroes
A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:
Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”
Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.
In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.
It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.
Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore
In these Southern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.
Polish And Belarussian Folklore
In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.
As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.
Russian And Ukrainian Folklore
Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.
Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.
Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.
Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.
The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.
The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.
There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.
Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.
Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.
Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.
While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.