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Agdistis

agdistisOther names: ΑΓΔΙΣΤΙΣ, Ἄγδιστις

Etymology – Of Mount Agdistis

Agdistis is a hermaphroditic deity who originates in Anatolian mythology. They would later be introduced and imported into the Greek and Roman myths, where they would, like a good many other local deities, become absorbed by a more popular deity.

Very simply, from what little is known from the mythological evidence, Agdistis as a hermaphrodite themselves, is the goddess of hermaphrodites and eunuchs, a goddess of healing, benevolent in nature and who’s sacred plant is the Almond tree.

Parentage and Family

Parents

Cybele – Like too many Greek stories, Zeus can’t keep his pants zipped and rapes some goddess or mortal woman, if he doesn’t seduce them.

Papas – The best I could find for this, is that the name Papas is a Greek surname meaning Priest. So perhaps one of Cybele’s priest is the parent of Agdistis. Again, by rape or seduction from Zeus, in Greek mythology.

Pausanias Version – The Sky-God Zeus and Earth-Mother Gaia are mentioned as the parents of Agdistis. Though some have noted that Ouranos should be listed as the father and not Zeus. Given the reputation that Zeus has in the mythologies, it seems like everyone is trying to make a connection, no matter how it comes across.

Children

Attis – By way of the river nymph Nanna impregnating herself with an almond seed.

Epithet Of Cybele

The name Agdistis is generally taken as an epithet of Cybele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother Goddess of Rome.

In addition is the theory passed around by scholars that Agdistis may just be part of a continuous line of androgynous deities out of Anatolia. Some of the names are Andistis, the name of a potentially ancient Phrygian deity and Adamma that dates to the Kizzuwatna kingdom during the 2nd millennia B.C.E.

Cults Of Agdistis

This shouldn’t be too surprising Agdistis would have her own worshipers and followers before getting absorbed into the larger myth associated with Cybele.

While some like Hesychius and Strabo make the case for Agdistis being another name that Cybele is known as in their place of worship in Pessinus; there are a number of ancient inscriptions that clearly show the two gods as being separate. Some have been found in Mithymna and Paros.

As an Anatolian goddess, Agdistis’ cults and worship could be found in Attica, Egypt, Lesbos, Panticapeum, Piraeus and Rhamnus at different points in history between 250 B.C.E. and 3 B.C.E.

Agdistis’ shrine in the Philadelphia found in Asia Minor held a strict code of conduct and behavior. Interestingly enough, in other places like Sardis, inscriptions have been found that forbad the priests of Zeus from participating in Agdistis’ mysteries. Not surprising given the nature of some of the stories that would later become connected between the two.

Goddess Of Healing!

There is apparently supposed to be some evidence found among ancient inscriptions that Agdistis may have really been a goddess of healing and one who was good natured before any later myths do drastic changes to her nature.

Mount Agdistis

As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.

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.

Strange Deity In A Strange Land

Most people are familiar with Agdistis’ part in the Greek and Roman myths when she has become combined and subsumed with the myths of Cybele and Attis.

Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.

Agdistis is a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that with Agdistis being a hermaphrodite, they held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.

There a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as the gods were imported into Greece and then Rome and many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just under another name.

There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth, promising to make him immortal.

How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with is mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.

Mythological Hijacking

Getting absorbed into the greater whole and myths involving Cybele and Attis has meant a lot of changes and not necessarily for the better. The stories now turn this once benevolent goddess of healing into some sort of sex crazed monster that the other gods couldn’t handle. And when Agdistis gives birth or is part of siring a son, Attis, they’re so driven by lust and jealousy they drive their own offspring into madness and suicide. That, is not a happy way to end things.

The Greek Myths

 Dionysus & Agdistis – With Agdistis being a hermaphrodite, the other deities of Mount Olympus couldn’t handle the huge sexual appetite that a being like Agdistis is perceive to have.

The solution? Make Agdistis single gender like the other gods.

Dionysus or Liber makes a potion that they mix in with Agdistis’ drink so they pass out asleep. It is then that Dionysus ties Agdistis’ genitals to a tree or sometimes their own foot. This way, when Agdistis jumps up from their sleep, they rip off their own genitals.

From Agdistis’ spilled blood that hit the earth, an almond tree is to have sprung up. The nymph Nana, the daughter of the river god Sangarius is said to have picked some of the almonds and either eats them or when laying them on her lap, becomes pregnant and gives birth to the god Attis.

Attis & Agdistis

The story continues, when Attis grew up, he was considered extremely handsome and Agdistis fell in love with him. Their own child and in many ways creepy. Attis’ adoptive relatives had plans for the youth to marry the daughter of the King of Pessinus. Other, slight variations to this story have the King punishing Attis with marriage to his daughter for the incestuous affair with his mother.

In either event, when the two are making their marriage vows and ceremony, Agdistis appears and causes all of the wedding guests to become mad. Both Attis and the King wind up castrating themselves. The Princess cuts off her own breasts. As a result of the self-inflicted wounds, Attis dies and a suddenly grieving Agdistis pleads with Zeus to restore Attis to life. Zeus intercedes with the promise that Attis won’t die and will be reborn.

Incidentally, a hill or mountain by the same name of Agdistis in Phrygia is where Attis is believed to have been buried.

Other variations to this story have both Agdistis and the goddess Cybele falling in love with Attis.

The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. She later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby Attis was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.

Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.

In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This of course created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.

Other Versions Of The Story

In one version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and later addition to Cybele’s myth.

A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis birth.

Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.

It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There have been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis appears to be a later addition by the Romans. At the same time, myths are evolving and changing and shouldn’t stay completely stagnant.

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Zmej

Zmej

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.

Romanian Similarities

 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.

Bulgarian Folklore

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.

Romanian Folklore

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.

Serbian Folklore

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.

Slovenia Folklore

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.

Aždaja

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.

Lamya

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.

Zwarte Piet

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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.

Controversy

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.

Caricaturing

 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.