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Alternative Spellings: 狐狸精, 狐, きつね
Alternative Names: Kitsune-Tsuki
Hailing from the island nation of Japan or Nihon comes the mystical and mischievous kitsune! Stories of fox spirits or kitsune are rather common and popular and feature in a good number of manga, anime, and video games. So much so they have even become a popular staple even in Western literature and stories. The mystical, shape-shifting kitsune are seen as akin and like the stories of European faeries. One can usually tell if they’re dealing with a kitsune spirit or yokai rather than an ordinary fox by the number of tails that they have. The number of tails can denote a kitsune’s age and thus the wisdom and magical powers they’re reputed to possess.
What’s In A Name
The Japanese or Nihonjin word for fox is kitsune. Now, depending on how the word is used and the context in which it is used, with emphasis on the syllables and vowels, kitsune can refer to an ordinary animal or the supernatural fox entity.
A fun thing to discover and note is that the usage of the word spirit, when it comes from an Eastern meaning, refers to a state of knowledge or enlightenment. When we look at Japan, they have a lot of stories about animals and even objects that when they gain a certain age, become sentient and powerful. Some will become yokai or monsters and others are more benevolent. Focusing on the fox spirits, there are two types of kitsune, the myobu or the celestial fox who are associated with Inari or there are the nogitsune, the wild foxes are far more unpredictable and malicious in their tricks and antics.
For the ordinary animal, there is the Red Fox and the Hondo Kitsune found in Japan and both lend a paw and inspiration to the spirit, mystical foxes.
While it is easy enough to give a fairly direct translation of kitsune into English, there is more to the word. Some of the etymological suggestions for the word seem contradictory among various scholars. Nozaki says that kitsune is an onomatopoeia for the sound that a fox makes when it cries seen in the word “kitsu” and that the last part “ne” is an affix for an honorific. In this respect, kitsu is an archaic word for a fox’s cry and modern Japanese words used are kon kon or gon gon. Interestingly enough, I have found that kitsu also means “come here.”
Other etymologies are from Myogoki in 1268 who says that kitsune comes from the words “tsune” or “always” and “ki” or “yellow.” Arai Hakuseki in Toga, 1717 says that “ki” means “stench” and “tsu” is a possessive part and “ne” as in “inu” for “dog.” Then there is Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777-1887) who agrees about “ki” meaning “yellow,” “tsu” is still a possessive part and “ne” is from neko, for cat.
In the numerous folktales told of kitsune, these are foxes that are intelligent and hold great magical or mystical powers. This power only increases as the fox gets older. When a kitsune becomes old enough, sometimes 50 years of age, other stories say 100 years, a kitsune gains or learns the ability to transform into a human. Frequently, it is a female kitsune who will transform into a young human woman. In this guise, the kitsune is sometimes portrayed as a lover or wife until she is discovered and the kitsune runs away back to the wilds in its fox form. Other times the kitsune acts as a protector or guardian. Because of the kitsune’s power and abilities, some people would make offerings to them much like they would deities.
Fox Tails – One way to gauge how old and thus powerful a kitsune is, is to count the number of tails. The more tails, the more powerful a kitsune will be. Fortunately, this power tops out at nine tails, but that is still a formidable being to encounter. Other folktales say that a kitsune gains one tail for every hundred years of life until they’ve reached 1,000 years of age. Other stories say that a kitsune gains their extra tails from Inari for their deeds and actions. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, they are believed to have its fur turn silver, white, or gold. These kyubi no kitsune or nine-tailed foxes are particularly powerful in that they can hear and see anything happening around the world. These foxes are also known for their infinite wisdom.
Illusions – Kitsune can create illusions that are incredibly realistic. As an offshoot of this power, other sources have tried to say the kitsune ability to bend reality, drive people mad, take on various shapes, or create a second moon. These may just be an extent to how realistic kitsune illusions can be.
Kitsune-Bi – Or foxfire, this is the ability of kitsune to create fire from their tails or to breathe fire. This foxfire has also been compared to will-o-wisps.
Hoshi no tama – This is similar to the kitsune-bi or foxfire. Some depictions of kitsune show them carrying around a white ball or hoshi no tama (star ball). These star balls are often glowing with foxfire. When in its fox form, a kitsune will keep or carry this star ball around in their mouth. When they’re in the guise of a human, this star ball may take the form of a jewel or piece of jewelry. There is a belief that this star ball holds part of the kitsune’s power or when the star ball is described as a pearl, a part of the kitsune’s soul and that the kitsune will die if they are separated too long from their jewel. Those who can get hold of a kitsune’s hoshi no tama can potentially get a favor from the kitsune.
Kitsune-ken – Translated as fox-fist, this refers to a kitsune’s power over humans. There is a game similar to rock, paper, and scissors, however, these three hand positions signify a fox, hunter, and village headman. The headman beats the hunter, the hunter beats the fox, and the fox beats the headman.
Shapeshifters – Aside from an increased number of tails, depending on the story, after a kitsune has reached the age 50 or 100, they are able to shapeshift into a human. Often, they will change into the form of a beautiful young woman or an old man.
Mirrors & Shadows – There is a limit to this shapeshifting, a fox will need to place reeds, a broad leaf or skull over their head to shapeshift. Another limit in folk tales is to look for the fox tail that a disguised kitsune will try to hide and other stories hold that looking at a person’s shadow will reveal if they’re a shapeshifted kitsune or not. Sometimes a shapeshifted kitsune’s true form will be revealed if they look into a mirror or other reflective surface.
Kitsune-gao – Or fox-faced, this is in reference to human women who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones. These facial features are considered attractive, and some stories hold that this is a sign of a fox in human form.
Tricksters – With their use of shapeshifting and illusions, it’s easy to see how kitsune are known for their mischievous natures and playing tricks on people. The more benevolent kitsune are prone to pranks and tricks on those that need to be taken down a notch while more malevolent kitsune are going to have more harmful tricks that they pull.
Like the Fae of Ireland, kitsune will keep a promise or oath given, seeking to repay any favor or debt that is owed. A kitsune may even go so far as to guard a particular individual or household and so long as they’re treated with respect, they will benefit their chosen companions.
Vampire Foxes – Some stories will depict kitsune-like vampires or succubus & incubuses who feed on the life energy or spirit of humans, most often through sex. These could be stories that are actually Kumiho or Huli jing.
Dogs – Kitsune are believed to have a fear and hatred of dogs even in their human guises. Some transformed kitsune will become so frightened that they will change back to their fox form to escape.
Food – I’m not sure if I would call this a weakness. Kitsune are known for having a fondness for deep-fried tofu which can be seen in the number of Japanese dishes that have deep-fried tofu and names such as Kitsune Udon and Inari zushi. Any dish that has red beans and deep-fried tofu is sure to be a favorite of a mischievous kitsune.
Old Fashion Speech – Some folklore suggests that kitsune only have interactions with humans every hundred years and for this reason, they have antiquated, outdated speech. Close to this is that kitsune have certain words that they have trouble pronouncing certain words. One of these words is “moshi,” so many Japanese have taken to answering their doors and phones with the greeting “moshi moshi!” to make sure a potential guess isn’t a kitsune.
As popular and old as the numerous legends and folklore of kitsune in Japan are, many scholars believe that all these stories likely trace their origins back to China, Korea, and possibly even India. The earliest collection of stories that we have were written down in the 11th-century manuscript, the Konjaku Monogatari, with stories hailing from China, India, and Japan.
Chinese folklore has stories of fox spirits known as Huli Jing and in Korea, there is the Kumiho both have strong similarities to the Japanese kitsune. There are similarities in the stories of these fox spirits with those from Japan, however, those attributes are negative ones.
There are some scholars who disagree on the origins of kitsune, whether that’s China and Korea or if they’re solely Japanese in origin. The Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki sees the kitsune as being held in a positive light in the 4th century C.E. and the negative traits from China and Korea are later additions.
Some scholars say that the kitsune can trace their origins to India where the fox has a role as a trickster in Indian spirituality. In this respect, the kitsune is compared to the Ruksasha. The Chinese story of the “White Ghost Tiger” of China as an enemy of the Chinese fox is likely a translation from India that the fox and Ruksasha have. The kitsune powers of illusion also have in common with the illusion powers of Ruksasha. Lastly, we see a connection between the Ruksasha’s tendency to devour humans has been compared to the vampiric traits seen with the huli jing and kumiho that are associated with kitsune.
Nozaki says that in the 16th-century book of records, Nihon Ryakki, foxes and humans have lived in close proximity to each other in ancient Japan. The Inari scholar Karen Smyers takes note that foxes being portrayed as seductresses have a connection to fox myths in Buddhism and were then introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese folklore.
Kami Or Yokai?
Depending on the source, kitsune can be classified as either a kami or a yokai. The name yokai is a broad general term and category for a good number of various supernatural monsters and spirits within Japanese mythology. The word Kami refers to the deities, any divine being, and spirits that are considered holy. Given the nature of kitsune and that not all of them will be divine and can be more negative in their antics, such as the nogitsune, it is easy to why the term yokai applies more to the mischievous shape-shifting kitsune. With the term kami, depending on the inflection or with a lowercase spelling, the word kami refers to a lesser spirit.
Are You A Good Fox Or A Bad Fox?
Within Japanese mythology and folklore, there are said to be thirteen types of kitsune, all of which correspond to different element such as celestial, wind, spirit, darkness, fire, earth, river, ocean, forest, mountain, thunder, sound, and time. In broad terms, these various kitsune can be divided into two groups of zenko (good) and nogitsune (bad) kitsune.
Kyubi no Kitsune – The nine-tailed foxes that many people will think of as kitsune. These are kitsune who have lived over a thousand years, gaining infinite wisdom. The kyubi no kitsune’s fur is often either silver, white or gold from their extreme age and they have the ability to see and hear anything happening around the world.
Myobu – The celestial fox, they are associated and aligned with the goddess Inari.
Ninko – They are an invisible fox spirit that people can perceive and only once it possesses them.
Yako – Translating to “field fox.” They are also known as Nogitsune. These kitsune are considered dangerous in that their tricks and mischievousness are more malevolent.
Zenko – These kitsune are considered good or benevolent and helpful. Most of the zenko kitsune will be aligned with the goddess Inari.
Also spelled as kitsune-tsuki, translates to fox possession. With kitsunetsuki, what happens, is a fox spirit will possess someone, who is always a young woman. The fox spirit is believed to enter through either beneath the fingernails or her breasts. A woman’s facial expressions are believed to have changed, becoming more fox-like. Other beliefs are that a person who was illiterate could gain the ability to read. A victim of kitsunetsuki will have a craving for rice or sweet red beans, become listless, restless and have an aversion to eye contact.
All kitsune can possess a person according to folklore, though they will only do so if someone agrees and lets them.
Japanese Witchcraft – Those who force a fox possession are those of a hereditary fox employee or tsukimono-suji. This does take us a step in the direction of looking at superstition. In Japan, a familiar would be the source of a person’s magical power. While nearly any animal could be a witch’s familiar, foxes and snakes are the most noted. There for a familiar acting as a tsukemono or “possessing being” would be used to explain a sudden illness, floods, and any number of misfortunes that could be attributed to evil spirits.
Insanity – With the hereditary fox possession, this would have explained mental illness, especially where it is hereditary. The victim of kitsunetsuki would frequently be treated cruelly in an effort of trying to drive out the possessing spirit. A victim would be taken to an Inari shrine in hopes that a priest would be able to perform an exorcism. If such a priest could not be found, then people would either beat or burn the victim in the hopes to drive out the fox spirit. There are some cases where an entire family could be ostracized if someone was believed to be kitsunetsuki.
Records of fox possession date from the Heian era and continue until the 20th century as a common diagnosis for insanity. Diagnosis’ of kitsunetsuki is specific to Japanese culture like clinical lycanthropy among Westerners. Stories of fox possession can still appear in tabloid media and other forums.
I say that as it puts me to the mind of fairy gold, where a person is paid in gold by a fae, and in the morning, the gold coins have turned to leaves and twigs.
The same thing happens with kitsune. Any payment or reward that involves money from a kitsune is going turn out to be the same thing. Pieces of paper, leaves, twigs, stones, and other similar junk items under an illusion. A kitsune sincere in their rewards and not tricking a human is more likely to offer intangible rewards such as protection, knowledge, and a long life.
As previously mentioned, the kitsune known as zenko are associated with the Shinto kami known as Inari, a deity of rice and such association has only reinforced the kitsune’s connection to the supernatural. These kitsune serve as Inari’s messengers and there are times that Inari themself is depicted as a fox. These kitsune also worship Inari and can be found in shrines and cemeteries. Devotees to Inari will also leave offerings of fried tofu and udon in offering for the fox spirits who they might petition to aid and protect against the nogitsune. The zenko or Inari kitsune can be identified by the red bibs that they were and that they cannot bring harm to humans. These kitsune will be white in color and seen as a good omen. In the same vein, black foxes and nine-tailed kitsune are also regarded as good omens. There is some speculation among folklorists on if there was another Shinto fox deity that existed prior to Inari and his association with kitsune.
Better known as fusui in Japan, it is believed that a statue of a fox is able to repel evil kimon or energy that comes from the northeast. There are many Inari shrines, notable is the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto where there large numbers of kitsune statues.
In the Buddhist religion, the goddess Dakiniten is seen as Inari’s female aspect. Dakiniten is often shown as a female boddhisattva riding a flying white fox as she wields a sword.
This is an old card game whose name translates to either “Ghost” or “Monster Cards” that people would play during the Edo period in the 19th century. Players would try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that collect and showcase different, various monsters. At any rate, one such obake karuta has a picture of a kitsune on it.
The Kitsune’s Hoshi no Tama
This is a 12th-century story where a man was able to gain a kitsune’s favor after taking their hoshi no tama or star ball. The kitsune pleaded with the man who ignored them. After a bit, the fox told the man that star ball wouldn’t do them any good and that if the man didn’t give him the star ball back, he would have a terrible enemy. However, if the man gave the star ball back, the kitsune promised to be a protector deity. The man gave the star ball back and the fox did indeed save his life by guiding the man past a band of robbers.
This is the name of a popular figure in folklore and kabuki plays, they always cast a fox’s shadow, even in their human form.
Lovers & Wives
It should come as no surprise that with kitsune being known to primarily shapeshift into beautiful women, they also frequently take on the roles of lovers or seductresses and wives. In many of these stories, sometimes a young man will unknowingly marry a kitsune, eventually, he learns of her real nature and she is forced to flee, reverting back to her fox form.
Sometimes the man will wake up finding himself in a fox den or some other place far from home, filthy and dirty. Other stories have the fox wife bearing the man children who inherit the kitsune abilities. There are several historical Japanese reputed to have been born of a kitsune mother. One such figure is the astrologer and magician Abe no Seimei.
Kitsune Wedding – When rain falls from a clear sky, this is called a kitsune no yomeiri or the kitsune’s wedding. There is a folktale where a kitsune wedding is described as happening in just such conditions. The events are considered good omens and the kitsune seek retribution on any who are uninvited.
For the versions of the kitsune reported to be a type of energy vampire or succubae/incubi, this makes sense for them to go this route in order to get close to their prey and feed.
This story concerns a historical person by the name of Koan who had been staying in the home of one of his devotees. As Koan entered the bathhouse, he scaled his foot after the water had been drawn too hot. Yelping in pain, Koan fled the bathhouse naked and the people present who saw him were astonished to see fur covering much of his body and a fox’s tail. Koan transformed into a fox in front of everyone into an elderly fox before running away.
An Old Fox Tale
This story is one of the oldest surviving kitsune tales that date to C.E. 545. It is found in the Nihon Ryouiki or “Japanese Ghost Stories” collection. There are many numerous stories of kitsune appearing to a human man as a woman and then her fox nature is revealed that she must flee and run away. This story is slightly different from how it ends.
A man by the name of Ono who lived on the island of Mino, spent years longing for his ideal image of feminine beauty. One evening, Ono met a beautiful woman out on a moor and married her after proposing to her on the spot and detailing all the ways in which he would take care of her. At the time of the birth of their son, Ono’s dog also gave birth to a pup. As the pup grew, it became more and more hostile to the woman. She begged Ono to kill the pup, but he refused. One day, the dog attacked the woman so aggressively that she became frightened, transforming into a kitsune with nine tails who to lept over a fence as she fled.
Ono called after the fox that “You may be a fox! But you are the mother of my son and I love you! Come back when you please, you will always be welcome!”
So, the fox did, every evening she would return to sleep in Ono’s arms and then leave in the morning.
In this story, it is noted there is an old etymology for kitsune with kitsu-ne meaning “come and sleep,” and ki-tsune meaning “always comes.” Which I find interesting depending on the emphasis for the syllables.
Kitsune Versus Tanuki Rivalries
The tanuki or raccoon dogs of Japan are another notable trickster, and they share a lot of traits in common with kitsune such as shapeshifting. There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover. A kitsune is often more snobbish and someone said to have a triangular, foxlike or kitsune-face is given as a compliment. In comparison, the tanuki is regarded as clumsier or a bit of a slop and to say that someone is tanuki-faced, having a more squarish or round face is to say they’re silly.
I find it interesting to learn that when you take the kanji for kitsune (狐) and the kanji for tanuki (狸) and put them together to form 狐狸, this reads as kori and is a metaphor for a “sly person.” Then, when you place the kanji for dog or inu (狗) between those kanji, you get the word kokkuri (狐狗狸), which is the name for a Japanese divination game much like the party atmosphere use of Ouija boards.
There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover.
Other Fox Spirits
Hồ ly tinh – This is the name for the Vietnamese fox spirit.
Hulijing – These more dangerous fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from China.
Komihu – These fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from Korea.
Reynard the Fox – The familiar fox trickster from Western literature. Reynard is the name of the fox in the French The Beast Epic. The name Reynard is often the stock name for a fox character.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. Not just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus as rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
I also found where the Oxford English Dictionary says that a double or triple is used to indicate “derision or derisive laughter” and that this likely goes back to the late 12th century and was certainly in usage during the 16th century. Plus it’s noted that a single “ho” or “ha” would mean surprise as in success or taunting someone.
I kind of find the “ho, ho, ho!” as derisive difficult to label Santa Claus with. However, if we’re looking at his antics to break into houses and leave presents and his merry, jolly outlook as he delights in bringing holiday cheer to everyone or avoids getting shot off of someone’s trailer because all they can see is a venison locker filled up with eight tiny reindeer; then I can see the mischievous side of Santa with narrowly escaping children trying to stay up for Santa, trying to catch him or any other holiday shenanigans.
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkindel – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children in Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Hans Trapp – A terrifying scarecrow who accompanies Saint Nicholas in the French regions of Alsace.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Knecht Ruprecht – A figure similar to Belsnickel in Germany known for giving gifts or doling out punishments.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became canon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would later take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point out that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North America during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness, and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower-class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, and the imagery from Pagan ones were replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of many holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia-old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, it’s easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century also saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give to others and charity, spending time with family, and spending less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who has go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities, and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Other 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, as is extrapolated from the mythological evidence and what little is known, Agdistis as a hermaphrodite themselves, they are the deity of hermaphrodites and eunuchs, a deity of healing, benevolent in nature and who’s sacred plant is the Almond tree.
Parentage and Family
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 priests 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.
Attis – By way of the river nymph Nana 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 forbade 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.
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 are 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 gods were imported into Greece and then Rome. Add to this, many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name, particularly with Rome’s penchant for expansion and conquering.
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 Attis, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with his 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.
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.
I have to add in the double standards that it’s okay for Pan and the numerous satyrs to be sex-crazed or how about the numerous love affairs that Zeus is credited with? The only thing I can comment on is that this is an ancient people and their different cultures who are long since gone, even though we have their stories.
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 perceived 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 eat 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.
Hermaphrodite Versus Intersex
The entire story of Agditis reflects people’s limited understanding and dates back several thousands of years ago. It reflects an era of a lack of medical understanding and cognitive and religious biases that people wanted to enforce.
If you came here looking for justification for persisting to use the outdated and older term of Hermaphrodite for today’s usage. Well no. With an increased and better understanding of Medical Science and biology of just what is happening and going on, the proper term to use is Intersex. No two cases will be exactly alike and there’s a lot going on with why it happens.
People are fallible and often, no amount of current, improved, better understanding of Medical Science and Facts will change a viewpoint. Worse, is when a person double downs on their cognitive and religious biases. The equivalent of hands over the ears, screaming “la la la! I can’t hear you!” and they don’t want to budge on what they learned as being true, right, and correct.
Hermaphrodite gets used in the ancient myths, especially those of Greek and Roman stories to reflect the time era, and what was understood and it’s an effort to try and present the myths as found. Hey, look what I found in the dustbin of mythology, and sometimes, it just isn’t pretty of what happens, was believed and justified.
Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)
It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.
Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent
In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes. Also, among the Southern Slavic countries, the Zmej appears more as an anthropomorphic draconic of fishlike humanoid.
The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.
The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.
While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.
You Called Him A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.
National And Folk Heroes
A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:
Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”
Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.
Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.
In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.
It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.
Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore
In these Southern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.
Polish And Belarussian Folklore
In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.
As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.
Russian And Ukrainian Folklore
Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.
Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.
Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.
Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.
The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.
The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.
There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.
Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.
Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.
Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.
While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.
In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.