Category Archives: Fire
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.
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 Eastern 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.
Alternate Spellings: Shen-Nung
Also known as: 神農 (Traditional Chinese), 神农 (Simplified Chinese), Thần Nông
(Vietnamese), Hangul (신농 Korean), 神農 (Japanese), The Emperor of the Five Grains (Wǔgǔxiāndì), Shen-Nung, Sheng-Nong, Shen-Nong-Shi, Yan-Di, Yandi, Flame Emperor, Lord of the Burning Wind, Holy Plowman King
Pronunciation: shin nung
Etymology: Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman
In Chinese mythology, Shennong is one of several important deities who introduced and brought agriculture to the Chinese people. Shennong is one of the three noble ones known as the San-huang. In art, Shennong is sometimes depicted with the head of an ox or bull.
Shennong is credited with having invented the plow and teaching people agriculture and the cultivation of forests. In addition, Shennong also introduced the use of medicines and herbs.
Shennong is the second of three legendary Emperors of China and an important cultural hero. Tradition has him being born in the 28th century B.C.E. with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
What makes Shennong such an important hero is not only his introduction and use of agriculture but his identifying the use of hundreds of medical and poisonous plants that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He went about this by testing the effects of these plants on himself.
Chinese legends tell how Shennong had a transparent body that allowed him to see the effects that different plants and substances had on him. Another legend tells how during his research, Shennong poisoned himself a total of seventy-two times during the course of a single day. Fortunately, and Shennong credited his anecdotal tea preventing him from suffering any long-term complications or side-effects.
Tea, a discovery attributed to Shennong, was believed to act as an antidote to some seventy different herbs. Shennong traditionally held to have discovered tea and to have first tasted it sometime around 2437 B.C.E. when the burning leaves of a tea tree were lifted up by the hot air from a fire and fell into a cauldron of boiling water.
Another discovery attributed to Shennong is that of acupuncture. Further, stories of Shennong’s youth have him speaking after three days, walking within the week and that he could plow a field by the time he was three.
Depending on the version of the story told and the accounts given, Shennong died as a result of his testing the effects of plants on himself. One of his experiments didn’t agree with him when he ate a yellow flower from a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before Shennong had time to take his anecdotal tea.
This wouldn’t be the end for Shennong as he was given special honors and worshiped as the Medicine King and Father of Chinese Medicine.
God Of Agriculture & Medicine
When Shennong is worshipped and mentioned as a deity, he is the god of the burning wind and the patron of farmers, pharmacists, rice traders and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
As a god of agriculture, Shennong is one of many cultural heroes and deities credited with different, various inventions such as the axe, the hoe, the plow (both leisi and the plowshare), digging wells, irrigations, the use of boiled horse urine to store seeds, weekly farmers’ markets, the Chinese calendar, acupuncture, therapeutic use of taking pulse measurements, moxibustion and instituting the harvest thanksgiving ceremony of Zhaji Sacrificial Rite, later known as the Laji Rite.
Burning Wind – This term refers to the type of agriculture that is slash and burn. The ash from the resulting fire is then used to fertilize the fields.
Worship – As Shennong is often depicted as being ox-headed, the sacrifice and offerings of cattle is never acceptable. However, the sacrifice of pigs and sheep is acceptable. In addition, the use and offerings of fireworks and incense is used at Shennong’s statues, particularly on the lunar calendar for April 26th for his birthday. There are a number of temples and places dedicated to the commemoration of Shennong.
Divine Family – This part is rather tentative and relies on accepting Shennong as a defied human. A couple sources will list Shennong as having married a Sien-Tsang, the goddess of Weaving and Crafts. They had a son, Qi-Yu (alternatively Chi-Yu) a rain god and who is half bull like his father.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of pseudo-mythological and sage-like emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Shennong is counted as being part of this group and the second of their number to have once ruled over China.
The Flame Emperor
Or Yan di, the Chinese accounts can sometimes get confused as to who exactly the Yan Emperor is or was.
Some accounts of Shennong’s legend place him as a relative to the Yan Emperor. Other accounts place him as the first Yan Emperor and that Shennong appointed one of his ministers, Chi You who was also ox-headed with sharp horns, bronze forehead and iron skulled.
Another account has posited that the Flame Emperor was a title, held by the dynastic succession with Shennong holding the title of Yandi posthumously. The last Yan Emperor was defeated by Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) about 500 years later.
The Yan di were regarded as masters of fire and thus used fire in their names. The Yan di was also known as the Emperor of the South. With the Yan di defeat by the Huangdi, the title of Yan passed out of usage. Their descendants though intermarried with the Huangdi.
Shennong, along with Fuxi and the Yellow Emperor are credited with the creation of the Gugin.
The Yellow Emperor
Huangdi – Also known as “The Yellow Emperor,” was known to be a friend and fellow scholar with Shennong despite there being some 500 years’ distance between the two. Both Huangdi and Shennong are said to have shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality and making gold.
Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) – By the 8th Century C.E. historian Sima Zhen, Shennong is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and the ancestor or patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regard both Shennong and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors.
Aside from the Han, the Song Dynasty General Yue Fei also traced his lineage to Shennong.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is fairly difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty, a successor to Shennong is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologist trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Despite a lack of hard evidence, Shennong remains an important individual and even his clan share a prominent place in the history of China’s culture for mythology, popular culture and historical literature.
Shennong-shi – Shennong’s name can also refer to his people. The “shi” can mean both “clan” and “surname” as well as an honorific like “sir” or “mister.”
Sima Qian comments how the rulers directly following the Yellow Emperor were all of Shennong’s house or social group. Sima Zhen in his prologue for his Shiji says that Shennong’s surname was Jiang before going on to list all of his successors.
Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Remedies
The Chinese have a rich history and use of traditional remedies and herbs that dates back more than 5,000 years. With the use of oral history and stories by word of mouth, many of the stories attribute Shennong as the father of medicine. Like Shennong, Chinese people have tested the effects of different plants and herbs on themselves for their medicinal values over the millennia. These years of experimentation allowed for an increased understanding of pharmacology for the uses, dosages and toxicity of different herbal medicines.
Huainanzi – This is an older and more famous reference document. In it, before Shennong came along, people were constantly sick, starving, diseased and always suffering. When Shennong came along, he taught the people the art of agriculture and through his own research, the use of plants for medicine. Shennong did this feat by consuming hundreds of plants, testing them on himself. He is even said to have eaten some seventy poisons in one day.
Huang Ti Nei Ching – The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine – This book comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Ti who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Ti and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
I Ching – The Book of Changes, Shennong is mentioned in this book coming into power after the end of the house or reigning period of Paoxi (Fu Xi). He is mentioned here as having invented the bent-wood plow, a cut-wood rake and having taught these skills to other people. Shennong is also credited with establishing of noonday markets.
Lüshi Chunqiu – This document mentions the violence of the rise of Shennong’s house and its lasting for seventeen generations.
Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng – Also called: “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” or “The Classic of Herbal Medicine” and “Shen-nung Pen-tsao Ching.” This book on agriculture and medicinal plants is the most well-known work attributed to Shennong. Research has found and suggested that this book is a compilation of oral traditions dating to between 200 and 250 C.E. during the end of the Western Han Dynasty.
Unfortunately, the original book no longer exists, but it believed it was written in three volumes with some 365 entries. The books list numerous, different herbs said to be discovered by Shennong. As the earliest pharmacopoeia reference, there are hundreds of different medicines derived from various animals, minerals and plants.
The first volume included 120 herbs and drugs deemed to be harmless to humans as they were stimulants such as reishi, ginseng, jujube, the orange, Chinese cinnamon, Eucommia bark and liquorice root. All of these herbs were regarded as “noble” or “upper herbs.”
The second volume has 120 therapeutic entries intended to treat the sick. All of them though have toxic or potentially toxic effects. Entries include cucumber, ginger and peonies. All of these entries were considered to be “human,” “commoner” or “middle herbs.”
The last volume has 125 entries for those herbs and substances that have strong or violent effects on physiological functions and seen as poisonous. Entries in this volume include rhubarb, various pitted fruits and peaches. All of these herbs are considered “low herbs.”
Wu Shi Er Bing Fang – Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Diseases, this book is ultimately the first written treatise on herbal medicine that dates to between 1065-771 B.C.E. It was discovered in 1973 during that excavation of Ma Wang Dui’s tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. It beats out the Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng which is figured to have been written between 200 and 250 C.E.
Many places in China have connections to Shennong.
Shennongjia – This mountain range located in Hubei is where Shennong is to have climbed up a rattan ladder that turns into a vast forest.
Shennongding – “Shennong’s Peak” – This is the specific mountain that Shennong climbed up and down with his ladder.
Shennong Stream – Named for Shennong, this stream flows into the Yangtze River.
Shennong Temple – Located in Taiwan, Shennong is worshiped here under a number of different names such as King Yan, the God of Five Grains, Shennong the Great Emperor, the Ancestor of Farming, Great Emperor of Medicine, God of Earth, and the God of Fields.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Pleiades Star Lore Around The World
For many tribes in the African continent, the Pleiades mark the beginning of the agricultural season.
East Africa – In the Swahili language, the Pleiades are called: “kilimia” which means to “dig” or “cultivate.” The Pleiades appearance in the heavens is seen as being time to start digging or the arrival of rain.
North Africa – The Tuareg Berbers call the Pleiades by the name of: Cat ihed, pronounced as: shatt ihedd or Cat ahăḍ, pronounced as: shat ahadd. The name means “daughters of the night” in the Berber language. Other Berber tribes have called the Pleiades star cluster by other names such as: Amanar “the guide” and Tagemmunt “the group.”
The Tuareg Berber have a proverb that translates into English as:
“When the Pleiades fall, I wake up looking for my goatskin bag to drink. When the Pleiades rise, I wake up looking for a cloth to wear.”
It is a proverb that takes note of the changing of the seasons to prepare for the heat of summer and the colder weather that the rainy season brings.
South Africa – The Basotho call the Pleiades “Seleme se setshehadi” meaning the “female planter.” When the Pleiades leave the night sky around April, the Basotho’s tenth month, along with the appearance of the star Achernar marks the beginning of their cold season. Like many South African cultures, the Pleiades are associated with agriculture and plenty. The Khoikhoi tribe call the Pleiades by the name of Khuseti, the stars of rain or rain bearers.
The Pleiades star cluster is known by several names among many tribes.
Karatgurk – In the stories told by the Wurundjeri of Victoria, Australia, the Pleiades represent a group of seven sisters known as the Karatgurk. They were the first to hold the secrets of fire and each of the sisters carried live coals on the end of their digging stick. The sisters refused to share the coals with anyone and eventually were tricked into giving up the secret of fire to Crow who in turn brought the gift of fire to the rest of humanity. As to the sisters, they were taken up into the night sky where their glowing fire sticks became the stars of the Pleiades cluster.
Kidili – A moon god of the Mandjindja from Western Australia, he had tried to rape some of the first women on Earth. In retaliation, the lizard men, Wati-kutjara attacked and castrated him using a boomerang before leaving him to die in a watering hole. As for the women, they became the Pleiades star cluster.
Kungkarungkara – They are the ancestral women in the lore of the Pitjantjatjara tribe.
Makara – According to the Adnyamathanha tribe, the Makara (The Pleiades) are the wives of stars within the Orion constellation.
Napaltjarri – From Central Australia, they were seven sisters being chased by Jilbi Tjakamarra. He had attempted to use love magic on one of the sisters. She refused Jilbi’s advances and she and her sisters fled from him. They fled all the way to Uluru where they searched for honey ants. While there, the sisters again saw Jilbi and they went to Kurlunyalimpa and the other spirits of Uluru who transformed the sisters into stars. In response, Jilbi transformed himself into the Morning Star seen in Orion’s Belt where he continues to chase after the seven sisters.
The Seven Sisters And The Faithful Lovers – In this story of the Koori’s Dreamtime, the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters were a group of seven beautiful ice maidens. Their parents were huge mountain whose peaks were hidden by the clouds and an ice-cold stream who flowed from some snow covered hills. The Seven Sisters would wander the land, their long hair flowing out behind them like storm clouds. Their beauty was so great, that many men loved them, but the sisters were always cold in returning any affections.
One day, a man by the name of Wurrunnah, caught two of the sisters and forced them to live with him while the others continued on their journey home to the sky. Wurrunnah soon found that the sisters he caught were ice-maidens and took them to his camp fire in order to try and melt the ice off of them. This only served to put out his fire and dimming the brightness of the two sisters.
The two sisters were very lonely and sad by their captivity and every night, they would look up to the night sky where they could see their sisters calling for them. One day, Wurrunnah told the two sisters to go out and gather some pine bark. After a short trip, the two came to a big pine tree where they began with stripping the bark off of it.
As they stripped bark off the pine, whose totem was the same totem as the sisters, it began to extend upward towards the sky. The two sisters saw their opportunity and climbed up the tree to their home in the sky with their sisters. The two sisters never did regain their full brightness in the heavens and is why two of the Pleiades are dimmer than the others. The journey of the seven sisters is remembered every time it snows.
The Berai Berai Brothers And The Seven Sisters – Another story told of the Seven Sisters is that when they were on earth, of all the men in love with their beauty, the Berai Berai or two brothers were the most devoted. They always brought all the choicest catches from their hunts to the Sisters as an offering and token of their love. This love was not returned and when the Sisters wandered away, up to the mountains, the Berai Berai followed after them.
After the Sisters left for their journey to the sky, the Berai Berai mourned. A grave depression fell upon them that they eventually died. The spirits of the Dreamtime took pity on the brothers and placed them up in the sky, up where they could hear the Sisters sing. On clear nights, the Berai Berai can be seen, represented by the stars that form Orion’s Sword and Belt.
The name for this constellation in Lithuanian is Sietynas and Sietiņš in Latvian. Both of which have a root word: sietas meaning “a sieve.” In both Latvian and Lithuanian folk talks, the Pleiades constellation is shown as an inanimate object, a sieve that is stolen by the devil from the god of thunder or it is used to bring light rain by the thunder god’s wife and children. In some Lithuanian folk songs, Sietynas is depicted as a benevolent brother who helps orphaned girls to marry or he helps walk soldiers across fields.
Ben Raji Mythology
Living in western Nepal and northern India, the semi-nomadic Ban Raji refer to the Pleiades as the “Seven Sisters-In-Law and One Brother-In-Law” or “Hatai halyou daa salla.” For the Ban Raji, when the Pleiades rise up over the mountains at night, they see their ancient kinfolk. The timing for the appearance of the Pleiades over the Nepali mountains along the Kali River, marks when it is 8 p.m. local time.
Bronze Age And Celtic Mythology
In Bronze Age Europe, the Celts and possibly others may have associated the Pleiades with grief, mourning and funerals. At this period of time and history, the time of the Autumn Equinox and Solstice would have occurred around the time that the Pleiades star cluster rose in the eastern skyline as the sun set. The precession of the constellations over the centuries and millennia would have since changed for the timing of the Equinox and Solstice celebrations. This Solstice celebration is possibly a predecessor to the modern Halloween, Samhain and All Souls Day celebrations. While a good many Pagan and Wiccan sites are quick to point out such a connection, more secular sites don’t necessarily see a connection. What seems more plausible is that it does have connections as a Harvest Festival and the end of the harvest season before winter comes.
An artifact discovered in 1999 called the Nebra Sky Disc, due to where it was found in Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt in Germany, shows the Pleiades star cluster on it along with the Sun and Moon. Two golden arcs on the disk mark the solstices. It has been dated to somewhere around 1600 B.C.E. and part of the Bronze Age Unetice culture. Unlike the megaliths of much of Europe, the Nebra Sky Disc is a portable astronomical instrument.
Aztecs – The Aztecs based the beginning of year on the appearance of the Pleiades asterism when it rises in the east before the sun’s morning light became too bright. They called this star cluster by the name of Tianquiztli, meaning “marketplace.”
The Aztecs were very good astronomers and kept careful track of the heavens. Their calendar was based on a 52-year cycle. The Pleiades were carefully watched to make sure the world wouldn’t end. At the end of each 52-year cycle, the Aztecs held a religious ceremony to ensure the rebirth of the sun and continued movement of the heavens. The Aztecs strongly believed their ceremony would prevent demons of darkness from coming to the Earth and devouring mankind. For this, they offered up to the gods human sacrifices.
Mayan – During colonial times, the Pleiades were used to track the time by diving up the night.
An epic legend tells the story of the Pleiades star cluster. There had been a long standing feud between the heavenly twins Hun-Apu and Xbalanque and a giant named Zipacna. With the help of several other youth, the twins pretended that they were building a house. They started with digging a large hole in the ground. As they were digging, Zipacna came along and asked what they were doing.
The twins told Zipacna they were building a house but were having trouble with digging a hole for the foundation deep enough. Zipacna was persuaded to help and he went down into the hole. Once he was at the bottom of the hole, the twins and their helpers began to throw stones, dirt and tree trunks down on him. When the hole was completely filled in and everyone was certain that Zipacna must be dead, they continued to build a house over the spot marking his grave.
Unknown to the twins, Zipacna was still alive. Yes he had been knocked out by the weight of everything piled and thrown on him. Once he had regained consciousness, he lay there and waited, pretending to be dead until the house was completed.
With the house completed and everyone inside celebrating, Zipacna made his move. Throwing up his shoulders, Zipacna’s great strength allowed him fling the house up into the sky towards the heavens. There, the twins and everyone with them became the Pleiades, unable to get back down to the earth.
Monte Alto Culture – This also includes other cultures such as Takalik Abaj and Ujuxte who are known to have made early observatories. They used the Pleiades stars and Eta Draconis as references in the night sky. The Pleiades are called “The Seven Sisters” and thought to be where they originated from.
To the Chinese, the Pleiades are known as Mao, the Hairy Head of the White Tiger of the West. The Pleiades seem to be the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in the Annals of 2357 B.C.E. Aside from the name Mao, the Pleiades are also known as The Blossom Stars and Flower Stars.
The ancient Egyptians recorded seven stars within Pleiades. Some scholars believe that the seven chambers of the Great Pyramid represent the seven stars of Pleiades.
The goddess Hathor has an interesting take in her role and aspect as a Mother goddess for it was believed by the ancient Egyptians that “Seven Hathors” would appear at the birth of a new baby, foretelling his fate. The reason they’re mentioned is that during the Ptolemaic Period, when Egypt was under Greek rule, the Seven Hathors became identified with the Pleiades star cluster.
Aside from Hathor, the Pleiades also represented the goddess Net or Neith, the “Divine Mother and Lady of Heaven.”
French History And Literature
La Pléiade is a post-Renaissance literary movement that references the Pleiades constellation and seven poets from the Alexandrian period during the reign of Ptolemy II. The La Pléiade title has been used by two groups of poets from Toulouse during the beginning of the 14th century and another group founded by Pierre de Ronsard in 1553. Their goal was to promote the classical literature of Greek and Rome with translations rather a perceived, outdated use of Latin. While the group were not known for being innovators, they did provide the foundations of French Classicism.
The Pleiades were considered by some ancient Greek astronomers, such as Eudoxus of Cnidos to be a distinct constellation separate from Taurus. This asterism is mentioned of by Hesiod and Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey. The ancient Greek text Geoponica mentions the rising of the Pleiades cluster. The Greek temples of Hecatompedon, built in 550 B.C.E. and Parthenon, built in 438 B.C.E. are oriented to the rising of the Pleiades.
For the Greeks, the setting of the Pleiades around October and November was a time to bring their ships in to port and to plow and sow their lands. Hesiod makes mention of the Pleiades numerous times in his “Works and Days,” alluding to their importance as a time of stormy weather and planting. Greek sailors were known to consult the heavens for the appearance of the Pleiades before setting sail.
Orion And The Pleiades
The Greek story is perhaps the most well known to many Westerners about the Pleiades star cluster.
The Pleiades is a group of seven sisters whose father is the titan Atlas. As their story goes, the Pleiades were traveling with their mother Pleïone, through Boeotia when they encountered the Greek hero Orion. He expressed such a deep infatuation and interest in them that he relentlessly pursued the sisters and even their mother. And with their father Atlas now holding the earth up on his shoulders, this very likely encouraged Orion in his antics as he thought no one could stop him.
After running from Orion for seven years, the sisters became tired of such extreme harassment and pursuit. In their desperation, they appealed to Zeus who in response, placed them up in the heavens, specifically in the Taurus constellation where they would be protected by the mighty bull from Orion’s unwanted advances. In the accounts that include Pleïone being chased by Orion, she too is placed up in the heavens, this a further punishment for the titan Atlas to be separated from not only his wife, but daughters.
In the end, being placed up in the heavens doesn’t seem to have helped them much, for when Orion died, he too was immortalized up in the heavens as a constellation. He can be seen up there still chasing after the Pleiades.
Variations to this story say the Pleiades committed suicide after the death of their brother Hyas. Other versions say that when the sisters pleaded to the gods for mercy from Orion, they were changed first into doves and then later into stars.
If the Pleiades weren’t getting chased by Orion, then they became stars after committing suicide over the fate of their father Atlas. Or the loss of their siblings the Hyades and Hyas. After their death, the god Zeus placed the sisters up into the heavens to become the famous star cluster.
Companions Of Artemis
This version of the myth follows closely the more well-known story of the Pleiades being chased by Orion. The Pleiades were the companions of the virgin goddess Artemis. She wasn’t too happy with Orion when he came upon the Pleiades while playing. In his lust and infatuation, he chased the Pleiades. On their behalf, Artemis pleaded with Zeus to intervene and he did so by transforming the sisters into doves and then into stars, becoming out of reach of both Artemis and Orion. Zeus, not to be completely without compassion for his daughter, the path of the Moon passes between the Pleiades and Orion so that she has a chance to be reunited with her friends on a regular basis.
Contrarianism – Daughters Of An Amazon Queen
While many variations of the Greek myths regarding the Pleiades are similar, especially in regards to names and parentage; Theocritus’ Idylls, using references from Callimachus differs greatly from the more familiar myths. In the Idylls, the Pleiades are the daughters of an Amazon queen. Their names are: Coccymo, Glaucia, Lampado, Maia, Parthenia, Protis and Stonychia. The sisters are supposed to have created ritual dances and nighttime festivals.
Ancestors Of Dionysus
In Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, the Pleiades appeared as an omen of victory for Dionysus’ war against India. There is further mention that the pleiad Electra was the foster-mother of Harmonia, the grandmother of the Greek god Dionysus. And thus in a way, Electra can be seen as Dionysus’ ancestor.
Indian Astronomy And Mythology
The Pleiades are known by a number of different names such Karttikeya, Kṛttikā, Kārtikā, Kumara or Subrahmanya. In both Indian astronomy and Hindu astrology, the names Krttika and Kartika translate into English as: “the cutters.” Like the ancient Greeks, India has a number of different, varying and often conflicting stories of Kṛttikā.
Hindu Mythology – A story associated with this star cluster tells how the war-god Skanda was raised by six sisters known as Kṛttikā, making it so that one of his names he is known as is Kartikeya or “Son of the Kṛttikā.” Skanda or Kartikeya was born to Agni and Svāhā after the Kṛttikā had impersonated themselves as six of the seven wives of the Saptarshi in order to make love with Agni. When the Saptarshi learned of this incident, they began to doubt their wives’ chastity and divorced them. Since then, the wives were known as the Kṛttikā.
As the six Kṛttikā, they are seen as the mothers of Skanda, his six faces represent them. Slight variations to this say that Skanda developed his six faces in order to drink the milk from his six mothers.
Hindu Astrology – Kṛttikā is the third nakṣatras or lunar mansion out of twenty seven other naksatras. The Pleiades are known as the Star of Fire and one of the most prominent of nakshatras associated with anger and stubbornness. They are ruled by the Hindu god of war, Kartikeya. Another deity associated with Kṛttikā is Agni, a god of sacred fire. Additionally, it is ruled by the sun or Surya and has the symbols of a knife or spear. There is a Hindu tradition of naming children according to the naksatra they’re born under. Each naksatra will have four syllables associated with it that is used for that start of a child’s name.
Kumarasambhava – “The Birth of the War God”
In an epic poem written by Kalidasa from the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., the gods had wished for a god to born in order take on and kill the demon Taraka who had a geas or boon that he could only be killed by a son of Shiva.
The problem, is that Shiva was deep in his meditations and not at all interested to his wife Parvati. That is, at least not until Kama, the god of love struck Shiva with an arrow. Now, after having practice abstinence for so long, Shiva’s virility was incredibly potent and the other gods fear what would happen. So they took Shiva’s seed and dropped it into a fire. It is from this, that the god Skanda, whose name means: “Spurt of Semen.”
Tamil Mythology – The Pleiades are known as Karthigai, they were the six wives of six Rishis, represented by the stars of Ursa Major. The seventh was known as Arunthadhi, associated with the star Alcor. She is the wife of Vasistha, the seventh Rishi or Sage. He is associated with the star Alcyone. Another name of the Karthigai is Saptha Kanni, meaning the “Seven Virgins.”
A variation to this story is that the Krttika had all lived together up in the heavens. One day, Agni, the god of fire fell in love with the seven Karthigai or Krttika. In trying to forget his love for them, Agni wandered the forest until he met Svaha, the star Zeta Tauri.
Svaha was immediately infatuated with Agni and disguised herself as one of the Krttika in order to seduce him. Agni truly believed he had made love with one of the Krttika. Svaha became pregnant and gave birth to Skanda.
As soon as Skanda was born, rumors began to circulate that one of the wives of the Rishis was his mother. This caused the Rishis to divorce their wives. Of them all, only Arundhati remained married. The other Krttika went on to become the Pleiades.
The Pleiades are known as Lintang Kartika in Javanese, it is a name that is from the Sanskrit word Kṛttikā, one of the nakṣatras in Hindu astrology.
In Japan, the Pleiades star cluster is known as Subaru, meaning “coming together,” “cluster” or “united.” The name and image are also the same name for a car manufacturer, Subaru.
Another name for the Pleiades is Mutsuraboshi, meaning “six stars.” This name dates from the 8th century Kojiki and Manyosyu documents. The Pleiades have also been called the Hoki Boshi, meaning “dab of paint on the sky” or “brush stars.”
A story found among the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, tells the story of Dümur, the eldest son of Ligedaner who is the mother of all the stars. Ligedaner is identified as being the star Capella in the Auriga constellation, Dümur is identified as the star Antares and the youngest son is identified as Pleiades.
Ligedaner’s sons came down from the vault of Heaven to visit with her where she lived on the atoll Alinablab. While there, a contest was proposed that who ever was the first to reach a certain island somewhere out in the East would be named the King of Stars.
The contest was agreed to and the sons prepared themselves to take off to claim the title of King. Ligedaner asked Dümur to take her with him in his canoe. Dümur refused as he saw that his mother wanted to take as many things with her as she could and thereby slow down the canoe with its weight.
Ligedaner asked each of her sons in turn to take her with them in their canoes and each in turned refused. Until she got to her youngest son, Pleiades who finally accepted her request to go with him. Ligedaner had seven objects she was taking with her and as she got into the canoe, she instructed Pleiades where to load and place each object.
When they were finally loaded up, Pleiades took his place to start rowing. He was surprised to find that instead of being weighed and slowed down by all the objects, that his canoe shot out into the water with great ease nor did he have to use his oars. The seven objects it turned out, had been previously unknown sail rigging and with his canoe driven by the wind, it took no time at all to catch up with his brothers.
As Pleiades’ canoe caught up with Dümur’s canoe, Dümur demanded, on his rights as the first-born son that his youngest brother hand over his canoe to him. Dismayed, Pleiades complied with the demands. Ligedaner proceeded to play a rather mean trick on Dümur by turning the canoe around and then when she jumped with Pleiades into the sea, she took with her the yardarm. Together, Ligedaner and Pleiades swam on towards the island to the East.
Dümur found that in order to sail Pleiades’ canoe, he had to fasten the sail to his shoulders, causing him to become bent over. By the time Dümur reached the island, he found that his youngest brother Pleiades and Ligedaner had beaten him there already and that Pleiades now claimed the title of King of the Stars. Angry, Dümur desired to never see his brother Pleiades again. This separation fo Dümur and Pleiades can be seen in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere as when Pleiades rises in the East, Dümur (as the star Antares) sets in the West. The bent back of Dümur is also seen represented by the curved line formed by the stars outlining the bent body of Scorpius.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Etymology: “House of Horus (the Elder)”
Hathor is a Pre-Dynastic goddess who was very well known and like many of the Egyptian deities, she is still known by many in modern times. Hathor’s name may be a reference to her domain as a sky goddess and being the Celestial Cow and where too, the god Horus held his domain as well. Where Horus represented the living king, Hathor represented the living queen.
Other Names and Epithets: Athor, Athyr, Hat-Her, Hethert, Het-Hert (House or Womb Above), Het-Heru, Hwt-Hert, Hethara, Hetheru
Hathor is a goddess who is known by many titles. The first of her titles is: “the Great One of Many Names”
An example of a good many of her names and more properly, titles are:
“Lady to the Limit”, “Lady of Heaven”, “The One Who Shines as Gold”, “The Gold that is Hathor”, “Lady of the West”, “Divine (or Celestial) Cow”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “Lady of Gold”, “Lady of Greenstone and Malachite”, “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli”, “Mistress of Life”, “the Great Wild Cow”, “the Golden One”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Lady of Iunet” (Dendera), “Lady Of Denderah”, “Mistress of Qis”, “Lady of Punt”, “the Powerful One”, “Lady of the Southern Sycamore”, “Lady of the Turquoise”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Mother of Mothers”, “The Celestial Nurse”, “Lady of Drunkenness”, “the Eye of Ra”, “Lady of Amenity”, “the Dweller in the Great Land”, “Lady of Ta-Tchesert”, “the Dweller in his breast”, “Lady of the Vulva”, “the Beautiful Face in the Boat of Millions of Years”, “the Seat of Peace of the doer of truth”, “Dweller in the Boat of the favored ones”, “Lady of Stars”, “Sovereign of Stars”, “Hand of God”, “Great Menat”, “Mistress of the Desert”, “Sovereign of Imaau”, “Queen of Heaven”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “the Gentle Cow of Heaven”, “Lady of the House of Jubilation”, “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy”
Hathor’s roles have been many for the many millennia that she has been known and worshipped. Beyond being one of two of Egypt’s Cow Goddesses, Hathor has been known as a Sky Goddess, a Sun Goddess, a Moon Goddess, the Goddess of the East, and the Goddess of the West, Goddess of Moisture and Fertility, Agriculture, Motherhood, Goddess of the Cycle, Goddess of the Underworld, Mistress of the Necropolis, Goddess of the Dead, Goddess of Love and Beauty, Goddess of Music, Song, Dance, Drinking and Joy. She has been known as the patron Goddess of Women and Marriage.
Animal: Cow, Cobra, Falcon, Hippopotamus, Lioness, Snake
Colors: Red, Turquoise
Festivals: Aug 7th (New Years), Sept 17th, Festival of Het Heret – November 2nd
Gemstones: Emerald, Malachite, Lapis-Lazuli, Turquoise
Month: Third Month by the Egyptian Calendar, Hethara (as the Greeks called it) or Athyr. From September 17th to October 16th. This was the month of Inundation when the Nile River would flood.
Patron of: Sun, Universe, Children, Mothers, Miners, Musicians, Pharaohs
Planet: Sun and Moon
Plant: Myrtle, Rose, Sycamore
Sphere of Influence: Arts, Astrology, Beauty; Children, Childbirth, Dance, Family, Femininity, Fertility, Flowers, Foreign Lands, Joy, Love, Mining, Moisture, Moon, Motherhood, Music, Prosperity, Pregnancy, Sexuality, Sky, Song
Symbols: Cow, Cosmetics, Horns-and-Sundisk Headdress, Menat (a type of ritual necklace possibly used for percussive music), Mirrors; Sandalwood and Rose Incense; Sistrum (a type of rattle), Papyrus Reed
Early depictions of this goddess show her as being a cow with a sun disk between her horns or as a woman wearing the horns-and-sun disk headdress that may or may not have a symbol known as the uraeus on it. Sometimes when Hathor is shown as a cow, she is covered in stars. When depicting Hathor’s role as a fertility goddess and her powers of procreation, she is shown suckling a child.
An early depiction of Hathor and identifying her as a cow is likely from what is known as the Narmer Palette. And it seems Hathor absorbed and took over many of the roles as a fertility goddess from another cow goddess, Bat.
Sometimes Hathor would be shown as a hippopotamus, a falcon, cobra, goose, cat, malachite, sycamore fig or even as a lioness. These forms aren’t as common to Hathor as her more familiar shape of a woman or a cow.
When Hathor is shown as a cow, she is seen having beautifully painted eyes and is frequently a red color, the color of passion. Hathor, along with the dwarf god Bes are the only known Egyptian gods shown in portrait rather than in profile.
The depictions showing Hathor as a woman with a cow’s head are more common of later periods. Also more common to later periods is Hathor being shown with a twin set of feathers and a menat necklace. A number of ancient mirrors and sistras have been found showing a smiling, nude Hathor on them over the years. Hathor’s image of a woman with cow ears is often found on the top of stone columns in Egyptian temples.
An ancient Goddess and one of the main gods of Egypt, Hathor was worshipped for well over 3,000 years and during that time, she has taken on many personas and aspects. She is the Celestial Cow, the protector of women, the Queen of Egypt, a Goddess of Love, Children, Pregnancy, Dancing, Singing and Poetry.
The Egyptians were very fluid in their theology and how the gods were depicted. Different deities were known to merge for a specific reason or to emerge and split away, becoming their own entity. Given the thousands of years the Egyptian Dynasties lasted, its not surprising in many ways for the myths to be fluid and change with the times. It was no problem for the Egyptians who saw such myths as complimentary and not contradictory.
At different points in the continuing development of Egyptian mythology, Hathor has been equated and associated with a good many other Goddesses who are sometimes, if not often seen as just being different aspects of the same Goddess. Hathor has also been shown to be the mother, daughter and wife of Ra and to have later seen many of her roles taken over by Isis who becomes the mother of Horus.
Some of the Goddesses are: Sekhmet, Bastet, Beb and Isis.
Bastet – As the goddess Bastet, Hathor is seen to be more gentle and loving. Particularly when compared to the more harsher image of Sekhmet. Where Bast represented Lower Egypt, Hathor represented Upper Egypt.
Bat – Another primordial, pre-Dynastic cow goddess of fertility. Hathor seems to have absorbed the aspects and roles that this Goddess once held. Bat has also been linked to the Ba, an aspect of the soul and Hathor seems to have gained her associations as a Death Goddess from this connection. The sistrum, a rattle that was once a symbol of Bat also became one of Hathor’s symbols.
Hesat – She was seen as a manifestation of Hathor in earthly form. Like Hathor, Hesat is also regarded as the wife of Ra. As an earthly cow-goddess, milk was said to be the beer of Hesat and part of her link to Hathor. Hesat was also known as the wet-nurse to the gods.
Isis – In the later periods of Egyptian religion, most of Hathor’s roles and aspect have been picked up and taken over by the goddess Isis. As Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, now has Hathor’s headdress and sistrum symbol. There can often be confusion as to which goddess is meant to be shown. The difference though is that when Isis is shown with horns, she is also wearing the vulture headdress that is typical of another goddess Mut or she is wearing a multi-colored feathered dress.
Mehet-Weret – Her name means “Great Flood.” She seems to be another primordial cow goddess like Hathor and Bat. Hathor absorbed many of her myths, particularly from the creation story of being the mother of Ra, carrying him between her horns.
Nebethetepet – Her name means “Mistress of the Offering.” She was a manifestation of Hathor at Heliopolis where she was associated with the Sun-God Atum.
Saosis – A goddess who is often identified with Hathor. Her symbol was the acacia tree in which death and life were enclosed.
Sekhmet – A rather dark and fierce goddess of justice. This is a harsher side of Hathor that is usually tempered by the gentler image of Bastet.
Tefnut – A primal lioness goddess, she and Hathor share a similar story where they become estranged from Ra and wander off towards Nubia.
As previously mentioned with the goddess Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, the goddess Isis began to appear and to assume many of the roles and functions that Hathor once held. Where Hathor was once considered the mother of Horus, Isis took over this role along with being the mother of the Pharaohs.
Greek & Roman Connection!
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it to any that they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus.
Cults Of Hathor
Being an ancient, primordial deity, Hathor was worshipped in a good many Egyptian cities. Hathor was a patron of the cities of Iunet and Itjtawy. Temples could be found for her every where. The earliest temples and images for Hathor have been found drawn on rocks near Naqada and the Girez settlement. Both of these sites are located in the southern part of Upper Egypt and date back to the Predynastic era of about 4,000 B.C.E. Give or take a few years, this places Hathor around 6,000 years old.
Hathor’s cult thrived in Ta-Netjer (“Land of God”), modern day Dendera in Upper Egypt. Here she was worshipped as “Mistress of Dendra.” Dendra was also Hathor’s main temple, also known as the “Place of Intoxication.” So popular was Hathor’s worship that at one point her Dendera temple had as many as sixty-one priestesses. Hathor’s priests were both men and women, many of whom were capable dancers, musicians and singers. Priests of Hathor were also known for being oracles and midwives. It wasn’t unusual for people to go to her temples to have their dreams interpreted. The temple at Dendera along with the Temple of Deir el-Bahri clearly shows an indication of Hathor as a Sun Goddess. The temple of Dendera was also where Hathor’s cult was primarily found.
In the temple of Nefertari, found in Abu Simbel, Queen Nefertari is frequently shown as the goddess Hathor in many places. And Ramses II is shown in one sanctuary receiving milk from Hathor in her cow form. Not surprising as many of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt saw themselves as living gods.
Other temple sites dedicated to Hathor have been found in Deir el-Medina, West Bank, Luxor, another at Philae Island, Aswan, Timna valley, Israel, Inerty (Gebelein), Iunet (Dendera), Qis (Qusiya), Tpyhwt (Atfih), Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) and Iunu (On/Heliopolis). As Hathor-Sekhmet, she was the main goddess of Yamu (Kom el-Hisn).
Hathor had been worshipped in this land during the eleventh century B.C.E. as at this time, it was under Egyptian rule. Her holy city of Hazor or Tel Hazor was destroyed by Joshua as mentioned in the Jewish Torah or Christian’s Old Testament in Joshua 11:13, 21.
There were a good many places where Hathor was worshiped, not just Egypt and Nubia. Her worshippers could be found throughout all of Semitic West Asia, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, especially in the city of Byblos.
One thought for why Hathor’s worship is so widespread, even during the Predynastic Era is that she appears on the Narmer palette. Many scholars have put forward that idea that the goddess depicted isn’t Hathor, but another cow goddess named Bat or even possibly Narmer themselves.
The Five Gifts of Hathor – Initiation Into Hathor’s Cult
For those wishing entrance into Hathor’s cult, they would under go a ritual of initiation. This initiation ritual was known as “The Five Gifts of Hathor.” An initiate would be asked to name off the five things they were grateful for while looking at the digits of their left hand.
The idea is that the poor of Egypt who didn’t own their own lands, but would work for others in their fields would always be able to see their left hand while working. It was always visible to them as they reached out for the strands of grain to harvest and then cut the sheaths with the blade being held in their right hand.
With the naming of the five things a person was grateful for and identifying them with the fingers of their left hand, a person was always reminded of the good things in life and kept them the sins of ingratitude. Ingratitude was a sin that Egypts viewed as leading towards many others.
For the rich and more prosperous of Egypt, the Five Gifts were a way to keep them from envying others and what they had so that they could stay humble before the gods.
Parentage and Family
Hathor is said to be the daughter of the goddess Nut and the god Ra (or Re).
Given how fluid Egyptian mythology can be and the varying, ever changing roles that the gods played over the millennia and as one dynasty gave way to another, there are some accounts where Hathor is the Mother of Ra. Another account will place her as the Daughter of Ra.
This seems better understood when taking note of another primordial cow goddess, Mht wr who was the mother of Ra. Hathor took over her role and place in the creation story. Another explanation has been given that when Hathor is seen as the Daughter of Ra, it is when she is seen as part of the greater whole of the stars of heaven. The stars were known as the “Children of Ra.”
It’s thought that in Pre-Dynastic times and certainly Early Dynastic Egypt, Hathor was the consort to the “Bull of Amenti,” who had originally been the deity of the Necropolis.
In Hermopolis, Thoth is considered the husband of Hathor, with him; she is the mother to Ra-Horakhty, one of many composite deities in Egypti. This could be due to Hathor at one point absorbing the role and aspects of Seshat, the goddess of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Architecture who is also Thoth’s wife.
When the gods Ra and Amun merged in Egyptian mythology, Hathor becomes seen as the wife of the god Sobek, an aspect of Amen-Ra.
Hathor is more famously known to be the wife of Horus the Elder.
The siblings of Hathor are considered to be: Sekhmet, Bast, Ptah, Shu, Tefnut, Thoth and Serqet
With Horus (the Elder), Hathor is the mother of Ihy (or Ahy), a falcon-headed god who like his mother, becomes a god of music and dancing. He is also shown as carrying a sistrum as well.
Some slight confusion is another child of Hathor and Horus (the Elder) in his aspect as Horus- Behdety is Harsomptus or Hor-sema-tawy (Horus Uniter of the Two Lands).
Sometimes, Ihy is listed as being one and the same as Hor-sema-tawy.
Other children of Hathor are: Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef.
And with Hathor’s divine role as Mother of the Gods, she can claim all of the Egyptian gods as her children, including Ra who is both her father and son.
The Mother Of The Egyptian Pharaoh And Horus
The name Horus is a bit tricky as there is more than one god named Horus. This makes better sense when it is understood and known that Hathor was often considered the mother of the Egyptian pharaoh, who would stylize themselves as the “son of Hathor.”
Many of the Pharaohs would take on the name of Horus as an honorific at death. Plus the Egyptian Pharaohs also saw themselves as living gods who would become deified on death, reborn again when the next Pharaoh took the throne.
And what about the goddess Isis being the mother of Horus? It should be noted that yes, but this is Horus the Younger, a different Horus. There were a lot of deities named Horus, nearly as many as there were Pharaohs. Given that the Pharoahs of Egypt believed themselves to be a living god, that’s not surprising.
Mother Of Mothers And The Celestial Nurse
Hathor’s protection was invoked over children and pregnant women.
In addition to the above information about Hathor’s role as a midwife and protector of children, anytime a child was born in Egypt, it was believed that seven Hathors would appear as seven young women wearing cow horns and playing tambourines. They spoke with one voice, determining a child’s fate in life even to the hour of his or her death, much like the European Fairy Godmother and the three Fates found in Greek, Roman and even Norse mythology.
The Seven Hathors held an extremely great power of being able to alter destinies. They could replace a prince should he have been born with bad fortune with a child who was born with good fortune. The Seven Hathors’ responsibility was to protect the Dynasty and Nation of Egypt. For it was believed among the Egyptians that a person’s destiny and fortune would follow them throughout their life with not ability to change it.
The Seven Hathors seem to be connected to divination and to be the questioners to those souls headed to the after life in the Land of the West.
As goddesses in their own right, the Hathors were worshipped in seven cities. These are: Waset (Thebes), Iunu (On, Heliopolis), Aphroditopolis, Sinai, Momemphis, Herakleopolis, and Keset.
Additionally, found both within the tomb of Nefertari and in the Book of the Dead, these seven Hathors had their own names as follows:
• Lady of the Universe
• You from the Land of Silence
• You from Khemmis
• Bright Red
• Your name flourishes through Skill
Other alternatives names for the Seven Hathors have also been found on papyri. Some of these are:
• Lady of the House of Jubilation
• Mistress of the West
• Mistress of the East
• Ladies of the Sacred Land
During the Ptolemaic Period, when Egypt fell under Greek rule, the Seven Hathors became identified with the Pleiades star cluster.
Hand Of God – The Sistrum
Music was very important in the worship of Hathor who is sometimes shown carrying a sistrum, a type of rattle. This was an ancient musical instrument played by her priests and priestesses. The sistrum often had the face of Hathor on the handle at the joining part. There is thought to be sexual overtones connected with this instrument, particularly for fertility. Hathor’s titles of “Hand of God” and “Lady of the Vulva” seem to be connections to the design of the sistrum and her role in fertility.
The menat is another musical instrument sacred to Hathor. At first glance it looks like a necklace with a special counterweight. This counterweight piece is thought to be similar to fertility dolls found in ancient tombs which in this respect, represented wombs. The menat as an instrument would be held in the hands and rattled to make noise.
Both the Menat and Sistrum connect Hathor as a Goddess of Song and Dance. The ancient Egyptians believed that it is Hathor who first taught mankind how to sing and dance using her sacred instruments. The menat is also important as a symbol of rebirth.
There is a hymn to Hathor that goes:
“Thou art the Mistress of Jubilation, the Queen of the Dance, the Mistress of Music, the Queen of the Harp Playing, the Lady of the Choral Dance, the Queen of Wreath Weaving, the Mistress of Inebriety Without End.”
The Goddess Of Joy
Hathor was very popular among the ancient Egyptians. She was greatly revered by women in her role as wife, mother and lover. This led to a couple of Hathor’s titles as “Lady of the House of Jubilation” and “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy.”
Such was Hathor’s popularity that there were a lot more festivals dedicated in her honor than any other Egyptian god. Plus a good many children were named after Hathor than any other god. As previously mentioned, both women and men could be priestess of Hathor and not one gender or the other.
The Goddess Of Beauty
In addition to being a goddess of Love and Joy, Hathor was also the goddess of beauty and a patron of the cosmetic arts. As has been previously mentioned, many ancient mirrors showing a smiling, nude Hathor have been found over the years. In addition to Hathor’s image on mirrors, her likeness has been found too on cosmetic palettes. A traditional votive offering was two mirrors.
It must be remembered and noted that this did not mean or make Hathor vain and shallow. This beauty was a mark of Hathor’s own confidence.
Hathor was also closely connected to the fragrance of myrrh incense, which has a long history of being very precious and in ancient Egypt, it embodied all of the finer qualities of a woman. The Egyptians also used ground malachite in their eye makeup which they believed to have a protective property against eye infections.
It must be noted that ancient Egyptian mirrors were made of flat oval copper or bronze that has been polished with a wooden or possibly bone handle. This handle was often enough shaped into the form of the goddess Hathor. It is thought the shape of the mirror represents the Sun Disc symbol of Hathor’s.
Goddess of Moisture And Fertility
Aside from Motherhood and Children, Hathor also ensured the fertility of the land and enough water or moisture from the annual flooding of the Nile for Farmers to grow their crops. In addition to this, Hathor represented the erotic aspects of femininity and procreation. As a fertility goddess, Hathor represents the creative abilities found in all of nature.
As a Vegetation or Fertility Goddess, Hathor was seen as both a giver and taker of life. When spring arrived, the land became fertile, only be destroyed later by the harsh summer sun as the seasons changed.
Hathor’s connection to the annual flooding of the Nile River was also connected to women’s pregnancies with the breaking of the amniotic sac and that she would be about ready to go into labor soon.
Lady Of Greenstone And Malachite – Goddess of Mines
Along with the titles “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli” and “the Mistress of Turquoise”, Hathor represented the very edges of the desert where mines for these gemstones were found at.
There is a major temple site found in Edomite Seir, Timna for Hathor where copper was mined. This temple was constructed by Seti II. Other mining places are Serabit el-Khadim found on the south-west Sinai Peninsula where a lot of turquoise was mined. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of mining camps and a Temple of Hathor in this place.
Lady Of The West
In Thebes, Hathor was seen as the Goddess of the Dead with her title of “Lady of the West.” This title is associated with the sun god Ra and his descent into the Underworld when the sun sets on the western horizon.
Hathor’s image is sometimes found on funerary scenes where she is shown standing behind Osiris, welcoming the dead to their new home. Hathor’s image has also been depicted as a cow suckling the souls of the dead. It is thought that Hathor did this so souls could survive while their bodies were being mummified and make their journey to the Judgment Hall where their hearts would be weighed. Hathor could also be depicted in her cow form surround by tall papyrus reeds. In these images, she would be shown wearing a menat necklace, symbolizing rebirth.
Hathor’s image often appears on sarcophagi with Nut. Hathor appears on the tops of lids and Nut will be found under a lid.
In the cult of Osiris, the morally worthy were promised eternal life. At first, both men and women would become Osiris. By the time of the early Romans, women were identified with Hathor and men with Osiris.
Lady Of The Southern Sycamore
Continuing Hathor’s connection as a Goddess of the Dead, the sycamore tree was sacred to Hathor as she would give water to the dead from the branches of this tree and offer them food. The Sycamore was important as trees were not a common site in ancient Egypt and the shade provided by trees offered much needed protection and relief from the heat of the sun.
Other myths have Amentet, a daughter of Hathor as being the one who handed out water to the dead under a Sycamore tree.
One myth has Hathor using milk from a Sycamore tree to restore Horus’ eyesight as he had been blinded by Set.
Lady Of Stars And Sovereign Of Stars
A celestial goddess, Hathor symbolizes not just the Sun, but the Moon and stars, the entirety of the heavens and creation.
As the divine, celestial cow, Hathor along with another goddess Nut, represented the Milky Way during the third millennium B.C.E. when the both the Autumn and Spring equinoxes appeared to occur at the same spot on the Earth as the sun rose or set. The four legs of Hathor represented the pillars holding up the heavens over the earth.
It must be noted, that the ancient Egyptians viewed the Milky Way as a waterway across the heavens that the sun and moon gods sailed upon each day. They called it The Nile in the Sky. As a result of this and the name mehturt, Hathor was seen as responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Other interpretations or later myths will place Wadjet, a snake god as presenting the Milky Way and The Nile in the Sky.
One star in particular, Sothis (Sirius in more modern times) is significant. Originally, the star Sirius rose on the first day of the first month, known as Thuthi and Hethera by Grecian times. This marked a day of celebration for Hathor’s birth by her followers. The Nile River flooded at this time, providing a rejuvenation and growing for Egyptian farmers. During the time of the ancient Greeks, Hathor became the goddess of Hethara, the third month of the Egyptian calendar. The star Sothis would later be associated with the goddess Sopdet.
The Eye Of Ra – The Destruction of Mankind
This story has been found engraved on one of the shrines in Tutankhamen’s tomb and in “The Book of the Heavenly Cow.”
In this story, Hathor, as the Eye of Ra, turns into Sakhmet. How this came about is that Hathor’s father Ra, having grown old, was beginning to fall out of worship. Angry about this, Ra speaks to his daughter who turns into Sakhment and goes out to punish humanity.
As Sakhmet, she was very efficient and nearly wiped out everyone. Realizing that if she continued with killing everyone, there would be none left at all to worship the gods, Ra decided that there has been enough killing and tells her to stop. Only now she can’t quit, Sekhmet’s become so full of bloodlust.
Seeking the guidance of the ever-wise Thoth, he and Ra get large vats or barrels of beer that has been dyed and colored red to look like blood. In some versions of the story, they flood the land with the blood-red beer and in others; Thoth has a hallucinogenic like poppies put into the beer.
Regardless of the final version told, Sekhmet on seeing all this beer drinks it up, getting so drunk, she forgets about her reason for coming to the earth, her great blood lust and forgets all about killing anyone. When Sekhmet returns to Ra, he embraces her and Sekhmet turns back into Hathor. This is the Hathor that everyone knows of as being sweet loving, gentle and nurturing.
Another version of the story has it that this is how Hathor turns into Bast.
As Hathor-Sekhmet, we see Hathor take on a dual role in her aspect as a Sun Goddess. When she is Hathor, she represents the gentle spring Sun. When she is Sekhmet, she becomes a lioness and represents the scorching heat of the summer Sun. It has been noted how in the Zodiac, Taurus the Bull has a fixed sign in Spring and Leo the Lion has a fixed sign in Summer.
The symbolic importance of this story is that of the changing of the seasons from Spring to Summer. As summer comes to its height, so too does the danger of wildfires destroying crops and homes. Sekhmet returns to once more being gentle Hathor with the cooler autumn weather.
The color red is often symbolic of life and rebirth. The red beer again symbolizes the rejuvenation and regeneration of the Earth after the hot Summer weather and turn towards Autumn weather.
The Feast of Hathor
To commemorate this myth, the ancient Egyptians celebrated a yearly festival that marked the beginning of Egypt’s rainy season known as the Season of Inundation (Flooding). This was a time of the year when the glaring heat of the sun was finally stopped by the much needed life-bringing rains. The Feast or Festival was known for wild partying with sistrum music, dancing, love making and lots of beer.
The partying makes sense when realizing that the rise of the star Sothis (Sirius) marked the annual flooding of the Nile River on the Egyptian calendar. This would coincide with the end of August for Western Culture.
The myth of the annual flooding of the Nile would be later associated with Osiris.
New Years Festivities
As we’re on the subject, another popular and religious festival was celebrated on August 7th, the Egyptian New Year. The New Years also marked Hathor’s birthday. Hathor’s image would be taken from the temple and brought out to the rising Sun for the day. The New Years was a day of enjoyment, song and intoxication.
The Destruction of Mankind – Historical Context
This story has a historical context for the founding of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom when the Upper Egyptian pharaoh, Mentuhotep II took control of Lower Egypt. Before this, Lower Egypt had enjoyed a period of independence. Mentuhotep II’s forced unification resulted in a fierce bloody war that lasted for some twenty eight years before ending and peace resumed, when Mentuhotep III came to power. So the story of The Destruction of Mankind does look to be an analogy to this brutal period of Egyptian history.
The Distant Goddess
In this story, Hathor became angry with her father Ra. Maybe she remembered the events in The Destruction of Mankind. Another version of this story doesn’t state why Hathor got angry, she just does and decides she might have the earth covered again in the ocean and maybe return to even older primordial form of a serpent. Anyhow, angry, Hathor took off and wandered about, away from Egypt down towards Nubia.
A great sadness fell upon the land and Ra, missing his Eye and unable to do anything without it, sets out to try and get her back. Hathor by this time has turned into a deadly wild cat, killing anyone who comes near her. A slight variation to this has it that with Hathor turned into a lion, chaos swept the land with everything drying up and that’s why everyone and thing is dying.
As no one else was willing to go near an enraged Hathor, the god Thoth agreed to give a shot. In disguise, he managed to coax an angry goddess back to Egypt through the use of stories.
Once back in Egypt, Hathor bathed in the Nile River, returning to her calmer demeanor. As a result of her bathing, the waters of the river turned red from her cooling rage. With Hathor’s bathing, the Nile river overflowed and flooded the land, giving life giving waters to a parched land so Farmers could have their growing season.
Yeah, don’t make Hathor angry, you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
In some versions of this story, it is the goddess Tefnut who storms off in a fit of anger leaving Egypt and it’s the god Shu, not Thoth who sets off to bring her back.
Another telling of this story is that it is both Shu and Thoth who set off after Hathor, changing into lions to try and coax their sister back.
The Contendings Of Horus And Seth
Hathor only has a small part in this story. Her father, Ra had fallen into a bout of depression and Hathor, like any child, wanting to cheer up a parent, finds a way to do so. Taking off her clothing, Hathor dances nude around Ra’s throne. She keeps at it until he finally sits up and smiles at her antics.
Etymology – “bull demon king”
The character of Niu Mo Wang is a figure who features in the story of Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel written and published anonymously by Wu Cheng’en during the 16th century.
Niu Mo Wang is a yaoguai, similar to the Japanese Yokai and from where the term originates. In the story of Journey to the West, Niu Mo Wang is the Master of the “Mountain of Fire” (Huoyanshan) that burns constantly, causing a lot of dryness and an unbearable heat in a volcanic region that blocks the passage of Tang Sanzang and his troop.
The Monkey King, Sun Wu Kong tries to steal the magical bajiaoshan from Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ, better known in English translations as Princess Iron Fan, the wife of Niu Mo Wang. The bajiaoshan is a large palm-leaf fan capable of creating whirl-winds and would be capable of causing the volcanoes in the area to become inactive, allowing Tang Sanzang and company to pass through.
Here it gets a bit confusing, as when reading the accounts given under Niu Mo Wang, Sun Wu Kong is able to defeat the Bull King with the help of a Buddhist deity, Nezha. When looking at entries under Princess Iron Fan, Sun Wu Kong is able to trick her into giving him the fan or to outright steal it.
Sun Wu Kong is able to help Tang Sanzang and his friends get past the volcanoes of Niu Mo Wang’s territory and the fan is returned. Again, in the account under Princess Iron Fan, Niu Mo Wang tricks Sun Wu Kong into giving the fan back by being the pig Zhu Bajie.
It’s mentioned that Niu Mo Wang and Tiě shàn gōngzhǔ have a son named Hong Haier, “Red Child.”
Alternate Spelling: Haji Piruz
Also called: Khawja Piruz
Etymology: The word Hajji (or Haji) is a title or honorific, much like in the English language when using “Sir” or “Mister” to address someone. It is unrelated to the Islamic word “Haajhi” or “Hajj”. The name or word Firuz/Piruz means victory. Khawja means “Master”.
The character of Hajji Firuz is a familiar and traditional figure who heralds Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He is often depicted as being covered in soot and wearing bright red clothing and felt hat. Hajji Firuz is also shown playing a tambourine as he sings: “Haji Firuz-e, sal-i-ye ruz-e.” Which translates as: “It is Hajji Firuz time, It happens one day in a year.” People of all ages gather around Hajji Firuz and his troupe of musicians to listen to as they play the drum, saz or kamancheh and dance through the streets announcing the New Year. It is an air of festivity not unlike that of Christian celebrations of Christmas.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Hajji Firuz’s role in the celebrations of the New Year a very likely connected to an ancient role of the Zoroastrian fire-keeper Mir-Norowzi. It would explain Hajji Firuz’s depictions and portrayals of being soot covered and wearing all red.
In the remnants of the Zoroastrian traditions, Mir-Norowzi was seen as a clownish or comical figure who would rule the municipality for the last five days of the year. As a temporary five-day king, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave household, taking with them the family’s blessing and abundance.
Fire In Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, red-dressed fire-keepers would be sent out by the white-dressed moghsor priests on the last Tuesday of the year with the duty to spread the word and news for the arrival of Nowruz and Spring. The fire-keeper’s other duty was to have people burn all of their old items in a purification ritual in the holy fires in order to renew their life, vitality and energies for the coming year. The fire-keeper’s face would become darkened, due to being so near the heat caused by the holy fires.
Comparing Hajji Firuz And Black Pete
For those familiar with the Christian Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Pete, they will know of the controversies surrounding the character of Black Pete being seen as racist with his black skin and being a slave to Santa and not always as a servant, friend or companion.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attack by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Just as Black Pete is paired up with Santa, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with an Amu Nowruz.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Santa and Black Pete with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting.
Just as Santa is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring with done dying and being replaced by the other or being reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
With Hajji Firuz, he seems to be connected to the role and tradition of the “Lord of Misrule,” a mock king who would be sacrificed at the year in the Sacaea (the Persian New Year celebrations). As previously mentioned, in Zoroastrian, this figure is Mir-Norowzi who functions as a proxy for an agricultural deity and parallels the story of Murdock who is slain by Tiamat and is later resurrected.
Such stories of a sacrificial king or god at Spring dying and then being reborn are fairly common in many countries and cultures. Many of the stories include the mythological figures of Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus.
Islamic scholar, Mehrdad Baliar has put forward the idea that the character of Hajji Firuz comes from surviving ceremonies and legends in the epic of Prince Siavash. These legends and ceremonies are also very likely to come from ancient Mesopotamian deities of agriculture and flocks such as Tammuz and the Sumerian Dumuzi.
Baliar has also put forward the idea that Hajji Firuz’s blackened face symbolizes his returning from the lands of the dead. That Firuz’s red clothing represents Siavash’s red blood and his return to life as a sacrificed deity. The spirit and air of joy and celebration is seen as typical of those who bring renewal, rejuvenation and blessings with them. Baliar continues that the name Siyawaxš may mean “black man” or “dark-faced man” and related to previously mentioned Mesopotamian ceremonies or the black masks worn for the Nowruz celebrations.