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Etymology: “Great One”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Taueret, Tauret, Taurt, Apet, Ipet, Ipy, Opet, Reret, Rertrertu, Thoueris (Greek), Thoeris (Greek), Toeris (Greek), Ta-uret (Greek)
Other Names and Epithets: “Lady of Heaven,” Nebetakhet “The Mistress of the Horizon,” “She Who Removes Water,” “Mistress of Pure Water,” “The One Who is in the Waters of Nun,” and “Lady of the Birth House”
In ancient Egypt or Khemet, Taweret is the hippopotamus goddess of fertility, protection, and childbirth. She was a rather popular goddess whose image could be found in homes on beds and pillows rather than in any formal temple. Because of her fearsome chimeric appearance, some sources and translations will refer to Taweret as a demon.
Color: Blue, Green
Gemstones: (Hippopotamus) Ivory, Turquoise
Patron of: Child, Mothers
Sphere of Influence: Childbirth, Fertility, Motherhood, Pregnancy, Protection
Symbols: Ivory Dagger, Sa symbol, Wand
Taweret is shown in Egyptian art as being a chimeric deity having the head and body of a hippopotamus, the arms and legs of a lion, a crocodile’s tail and human breasts, and swollen belly of someone pregnant. She wears a flat, cylindrical headdress called a modius that sits on top of her hair or wig. These chimeric aspects show Taweret being both a fertility goddess and a protective deity and how nature can be bountiful while dangerous at the same time if not properly respected. The images where Taweret is shown with a crocodile on her back represent her connection to Sobek.
Later images show Taweret with the sun disc that’s associated with the goddesses Hathor and Isis. Taweret is often shown holding a Sa amulet, a symbol for protection and it wasn’t just protective amulets, as a household deity, Taweret’s image could be found on a wide variety of objects. Household furniture from chairs to stools and headrests. Vessels holding liquid were made with Taweret’s image with openings on the nipples, thought to purify any liquid being poured out. These vessels were very popular during the New Kingdom era. Towards the Middle Kingdom era, apotropaic objects such as wands and knives would bear Taweret’s image during both funerary rituals and pregnancy and birthing rituals. These objects have been shown in tomb paintings.
What’s In A Name
Taweret’s name means either “She who is great” or “Great One” and is the type of name or epitaph given to a potentially dangerous deity or entity so as not to provoke their wrath.
Taweret is a domestic deity in that she usually didn’t have any temples dedicated to her. Instead, you could find images of her in people’s homes on beds and pillows.
However, statues of hippopotamus goddesses can be found in tombs and temples to help the deceased be successfully reborn into the afterlife. Plus, during the time of the Middle Kingdome between 2,055 and 1,650 B.C.E., Taweret became more prominent with her image appearing on more apotropaic objects, the most common being a “wand” or “knife” carved from hippopotamus ivory used in rituals for the birth and protection of infants. These same images would also appear on children’s feeding cups.
Interestingly enough, during the Middle Kingdom era, Taweret would also become a funerary deity and hippopotami images would appear alongside the marsh flora décor in tombs and temples. This imagery connects Taweret as a goddess of rebirth into the afterlife, not just earthly births.
During the New Kingdom (1,550 to 1,069 B.C.E.), Taweret along with other household deities would become even more prominent. Taweret’s image would appear on a number of household items. Despite the ruling of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten to alter Egypt from polytheism to henotheistic religion and a focus on the sun disc, Aten banned the worship of many deities, Taweret persisted due to her influence on daily life and her connection as a funerary deity.
During the Ptolemaic and Roman periods between 332 B.C.E. and 390 C.E., Taweret continued to have the main role in day-to-day Egyptian life. Either during the Late Period 664 B.C.E. to 332 B.C.E., a temple was built for Ipet, a similar hippopotamus goddess in Karnak. This temple was believed to be the place of the sun god, Amun-Re’s daily birth, and several goddesses like Taweret were connected to him as a divine mother.
Crete – In the Minoan religion of ancient Crete, Taweret is known as the Minoan Genius. All thanks to contact and trade of ideas with Levant who in turn, got them from Egypt. Taweret’s image continued to be used on protective amulets, though in a more Minoan style, and would find their way even to mainland Greece.
Levant – Taweret was adopted into Levantine religions, taking a maternal goddess role in their pantheon.
Nubia – Taweret even found favor with the Nubian empire and became part of their pantheon during the lat Middle Kingdom era in Egypt. Evidence has been found of Taweret appearing in royal rituals in Kerma, the capital of Nubia.
Parentage & Family
Given how fluid Egyptian myths can be, who’s related to who can vary by era.
Taweret has been paired up with a few different gods.
Aha – Or Bes, the dwarf god, Taweret is sometimes paired with him.
Apep – An Egyptian snake god of chaos who is sometimes paired with Taweret.
Seth – Or Set, according to Plutarch, is Taweret’s spouse.
Sobek – The crocodile god of chaos, Taweret is paired with him.
In Thebes, Taweret is regarded as the mother of Osiris and thus linked to the sky goddess Nut. Taweret is to have given birth to Osiris in Karnak.
Amun-Re in Ptolemaic traditions and accounts when he becomes the supreme god instead of Ra. Under this mythic tradition, numerous maternal goddesses were seen as Amun-Re’s divine mother. They were all just different names for the same Divine Mother.
The Egyptians were very fluid in their theology and how the gods were depicted. Different deities were known to merge for a specific reason or to emerge and split away, becoming their own entity. Given the thousands of years, the Egyptian Dynasties lasted, it’s not surprising in many ways for the myths to be fluid and change with the times. It was no problem for the Egyptians who saw such myths as complimentary and not contradictory.
At different points in the continuing development of Egyptian mythology, Taweret has had her roles become associated with other goddesses or have roles added. For the ancient Egyptians, they often saw their deities as just being different aspects of the same Goddess. Taweret goes from not just a goddess who protects children and the birth process but one who protects and purifies those moving to the afterlife. Which, makes sense, death being a form of rebirth to the next life and what comes after.
Other examples of this are the goddess of Isis, Hathor, and Mut all having protective roles and aspects that would later be absorbed by Taweret.
Egyptian Astronomy – The Mistress of the Horizon
Taweret’s image is often used to represent a northern constellation in the zodiacs where she is known as Nebetakhet (“The Mistress of the Horizon”). This same image can be found in many astronomical tomb paintings, even the Theban tombs of Tharwas, Senemut tomb, and the Pharoah Seti I in the Valley of the Kings. In this aspect, Taweret is thought to keep the heavens free of evil preventing those not worthy from passing by.
We see the image of the astral Taweret again, almost exclusively on the Sethian foreleg of a bull. This image later comes to represent the never-setting circumpolar constellations of Ursa Major and Draco and has associations with the Egyptian god of Chaos, Seth. The seven stars that line down Taweret’s form are from Ursa Minor.
In the Book of Day & Night, a mythological text dating from the Twentieth Dynasty (1186-1069 B.C.E.), it’s commented that this foreleg of Seth’s in the northern sky is tied down to two mooring posts of flint by gold chains. Isis in the form of a hippopotamus guards these posts.
This specific example of mentioning Isis and not Taweret is part of the fluidity of Egyptian cosmology and beliefs where the aspects of one goddess could be absorbed by another or split off for other deities.
The cosmic, astral imagery for Taweret is even found in later Ptolemaic and Roman eras such as the Book of Faiyum where Taweret is shown in her usual image with a crocodile on her back and a small upright crocodile in her right hand. Another section of Faiyum papyrus shows her near Lake Moeris. The Faiyum shows the solar journey that the sun god Ra takes with Lake Moeris being where the sun god is believed to descend during his nightly journey to the underworld of Amduat.
Taweret is represented in connection with Lake Moeris as a well-known constellation where she is a protective divine mother to Sobek-Re during his daily, solar journeys. In this respect, Taweret is like Neith the primary divine mother to Sobek. This aspect of Taweret is known as “Neith the Great, who protects her son.”
Protector of Pregnancy & Motherhood
This is perhaps Taweret’s best-known role as a goddess of protection. Her role and domain is over pregnancy and childbirth to ensure safe and healthy births. Magic by way of charms, amulets, and the use of special apotropaic wands and ivory-handled knives to ward off evil. 75% of all apotropaic wands have been found with Taweret’s image on them. Practitioners using these would draw a circle on the ground around the sleeping, expectant mother.
As a protective goddess of childbirth, Taweret would often be shown with the dwarf god, Bes who also has a similar protection role.
It should go without saying that pregnancy and childbirth were and still can be a dangerous time. Advanced as Egyptian medical knowledge was, they weren’t above invoking Taweret’s aid and help to ensure a successful birth with incantations that hoped and prayed for a son to carry on a patriarchal line for the household.
Metternich Stela – In this later myth, Isis tells Horus that he was raised by a “sow and a dwarf.” The sow refers to a female hippopotamus and thus Taweret while the dwarf is a reference to Bes.
The Death Of Osiris – Plutarch says that Taweret is a concubine of Set who changed her ways to become a follower of Horus and his order of law. This links Taweret to Isis as the goddess kept Set on a chain to control his forces of chaos. One version of this myth has Taweret holding Set down while Horus slays him.
Motherhood – Later myths quickly connect Taweret as a divine mother, namely the one who fiercely protects her children, much like lions and hippopotamuses are known to.
Pregnancy – Modern folk magic in Egypt still sees women who desire to become pregnant going to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to rub the belly of Taweret’s statue. To the point that a glass vitrine now shields the statue from the constant rubbing and wear. That doesn’t stop women from going to visit the statue in efforts and hopes of becoming pregnant.
The Sa symbol is the hieroglyph for protection and with Taweret, this protective amulet is used during pregnancy and childbirth to ensure the baby’s health and safety. Pregnant women frequently wore these Sa amulets or those with Taweret’s image on them.
Plutarch’s Notes – Plutarch mentions in his writings that in the central myth of Isis and Osiris, Taweret is a concubine to Seth, the god of chaos and murderer of Osiris. Taweret rebels against Seth in order to join Horus and his forces of order.
To the Egyptian mind, this one makes sense, as you’re born into the mortal life, so too do you undergo a similar rebirth into the afterlife with death. Who else will be there, none other than Taweret to act as a sort of psychopomp to purify the soul as you move on.
Taweret’s image would also be placed outside of temples dedicated to other Egyptian gods where it was believed she would protect and keep away harmful, chaotic spirits.
The Eye Of Ra
This story has been found engraved on one of the shrines in Tutankhamun’s tomb and in “The Book of the Heavenly Cow.”
In this story, Hathor, as the Eye of Ra, turns into Sakhmet. How this came about is that Hathor’s father Ra, having grown old, was beginning to fall out of worship. Angry about this, Ra speaks to his daughter who turns into Sakhment and goes out to punish humanity.
As Sakhmet, she was very efficient and nearly wiped out everyone. Realizing that if she continued killing everyone, there would be none left at all to worship the gods, Ra decided that there has been enough killing and told her to stop. Only now she can’t quit, Sekhmet’s become so full of bloodlust.
Seeking the guidance of the ever-wise Thoth, he and Ra get large vats or barrels of beer that have been dyed and colored red to look like blood. In some versions of the story, they flood the land with the blood-red beer, and in others; Thoth has a hallucinogenic like poppies put into the beer.
Regardless of the final version told, Sekhmet on seeing all this beer drinks it up, getting so drunk, she forgets about her reason for coming to the earth, her great blood lust, and forgets all about killing anyone. When Sekhmet returns to Ra, he embraces her and Sekhmet turns back into Taweret. Granted, the other version I have mentioned before sees Sekhmet turn back into Hathor.
With Taweret’s rise and popularity, this version and change of the story is meant to showcase Taweret’s role as a fertility goddess and one of renewal or rejuvenation. This version of the story is why Taweret has the epithet of “Mistress of Pure Water.” By taking the form of a giant hippopotamus that brings the flooding of the Nile River.
Mistress of Pure Water – Fertility Goddess
The above story places Taweret in a position as a goddess of fertility, which makes sense, she is already the goddess responsible for watching over the birth process. Since hippopotami are associated with the Nile River, it’s easy to equate them with the annual flooding that brings much-needed life, rejuvenation, and renewal, especially near Jabal al-Silsila. Just as Tawerret would bring rejuvenation and fertility, she was also associated with the harvest.
Another myth has the god Amun-Re as being born from Taweret as Ipet to ensure the cycle of renewal and regeneration.
Archeological finds have found that hippopotami lived in the Nile River long before the rise of dynastic Egypt around 3,000 B.C.E. Among the Egyptians, male hippopotami were viewed as dark, negative creatures allied with Set, the god of chaos. There would be royal hunting parties that would prove the divine power and might of the pharaoh.
As for female hippopotami, they were seen in a more favorable light as they were seen to represent Taweret. This frightful appearance was to frighten away any negative spirits that would harm a child, especially during labor and childbirth. Given the protective nature of female hippopotami with their young, they were easily adopted as protective symbols. Protective amulets with female hippopotami have been found dating back to between 3,000 to 2,686 B.C.E. up to the Ptolemaic and Roman eras between 332 B.C.E. and 390 C.E.
More Than One Hippo Goddess!?!
Taweret isn’t the only protective hippopotamus goddess. There is also Ipet, Reret, and Hedjet. Some scholars have put forward the idea that all these goddesses are merely different aspects of the same goddess as they’re all protective household goddesses.
We know already that Taweret means “Great One.” Ipet’s name means “the Nurse” and refers to her connection with birth, child rearing, and caretaking. Reret’s name means “the Sow” and it does connect to an erroneous classification of calling hippopotami as water pigs. Hedjet’s name means “the White One” and the meaning for this name isn’t clear. Depending on the source and era, all three goddesses were regarded as different names and aspects of Taweret or she absorbs them.
There is evidence of a hippopotamus goddesses’ cult during the time of the Old Kingdom between 2,686 and 2,181 B.C.E. found on Ancient Egyptian funerary papyrus known as the Pyramid Texts. Ipet is mentioned in Spell 269 of the Pyramid Texts of how the deceased Pharoah will suck on the goddess’ “white, dazzling, sweet milk” when he ascends to the heavens. Maternal goddesses, these hippopotami goddesses protected not just those of royal lineage but those of non-royal lineages as well.
Not To Be Confused With Ammit!
While Taweret and the other hippopotamus goddesses all share similar roles with protection, fertility, and childbirth. There is another hippopotamus goddess, Ammit who should not be confused with Taweret or her fellow hippopotamus goddesses. Why? Because Ammit is the only hippopotamus goddess who is destructive, she is known for eating the souls of the unjust before they go to the afterlife.
Hathor – An Egyptian goddess, it should come as no surprise that at some point in the ever-evolving and changing Egyptian cosmology, that at some point Taweret would be equated with Hathor or share, take over many of the same attributes and even a myth or two while we’re at it.
Mut – A mother goddess in ancient Egypt, married to Amun-Re and often equated with Taweret.
Persephone – A Greek goddess of fertility and the underworld, those attributes seem to be the most like Taweret.
Pronounced: BRIJ-id or BREE-id
Etymology: “Exalted” (Old Irish), “High”
Also Spelled: Brigit, Brid, Brig
Also Called: Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, Brigit, Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves, Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (melodious mouthed), Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles, Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy
Titles & Epitaphs: The Bright One, Fiery Arrow, Fire of the Forge, Fire of the Hearth, Fire of Inspiration, The Powerful One, The High One, Great Mother Goddess of Ireland, Lady of the Sacred Flame, Eternal Flame of Life, Flame of Inspiration, The Mistress of the Mantle
The goddess Brigid is an ancient Irish goddess who pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the daughter of the Dagda, Brigid’s influence was such that after Christianity’s arrival, she would be adopted as a Saint when Catholicism couldn’t wipe out the old beliefs.
It has to be noted that a lot of early Celtic, Irish history has been lost and what we do have that survives about Brigid is through the filter of Christianity.
Animal: Oxen, Boars, Serpents, Sheep, Domestic Animals
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow
Element: Fire, Water
Gem Stone: Agate, Amethyst, Carnelian, Fire Agate, Jasper
Metal: Brass, Copper, Gold, Iron, Silver
Month: February (“Mí na Féile Bride” or “The Month of the Festival of Brigit”)
Patron of: Arts & Crafts, Cattle, Domestic Animals, Smithing, Poetry, Healing, Medicine, Sacred Wells, Spring
Planet: Sun, Venus
Plant: Bay, Broom, Chamomile, Corn, Crocus, Dandelion, Heather, Oak, Oat, Pumpkin, Rosemary, Rushes, Sage, Shamrock, Snowdrop, Straw, Thyme, Trillium
Sphere of Influence: Agriculture, Divination, Domesticated Animals, all Feminine Arts, Fertility, Healing, the Hearth, Inspiration, Knowledge, Love, Martial Arts, Poetry, Prophecy, Protection, Smithing, Wisdom
Symbols: Brigid’s Cross, Corn Dolly
There are several aspects attributed to Brigid. Some of these are easily figured out from the myths and stories surrounding Brigid. Others do not appear to be so cut and dry as they vary based on individual Wiccan and modern Pagan traditions.
What’s In A Name
I’m sure there are more than a few who saw the title and immediately popped off how there are other spellings to the name Brigid. And they are correct. The spellings of Brigid, Brighid, and Brigit are all variations of the same name. Notably, the spelling of Brigit is the old Irish spelling with the others representing more modern spellings. A spelling reform in 1948 sees the name changed to a spelling of Brid.
It’s of interest and note the Proto Indo-European word “brgentih” (and I’ve likely got that spelling wrong still) that’s the feminine form of “bergonts” meaning “high.” This is similar to the Proto-Celtic word Briganti meaning “The High One.” This is taken to be a cognate of the ancient British goddess Brigantia. In Sanskrit, there is the word Brhati that also means “high” and is the epithet of the Hindi dawn goddess Ushas. This has caused the suggestion by the scholar Xavier Delamarre that Brigid could be a continuation of an Indo-European dawn goddess.
From there, you can see the potential of how this word has continued in various European languages, the first bit of evidence is pointed towards the Medieval Latin spelling of Brigit for its written form. This connection continues with all the modern English spellings of Bridget and Bridgit, the Austrian Bregenz, the Finnish Piritta, the French Brigitte, the Gallacian Braga and Bragança, the Gaulish Brigindu, the Great Britain Brigantia and Brigantis, the Italian Brigida, the Old High German Burgunt, the Scottish Brighde and Bride, the Swedish Birgitta, and the Welsh Ffraid, Braint or Breint.
The Sanas Cormaic or Cormac’s Glossary gives the name Breo Saighead that’s supposed to mean “fiery arrow.” This etymology is considered suspect by scholars today.
Epitaph Versus Proper Name
Further, one thing I found, focuses on the etymology of the root word or syllable “brig.” The name has been noted to appear in a lot of places with numerous, regional variations. When going back to the ancient Celts, this word “brig” is said evoke a sense of power with just the meaning of “Exalted” or “High.”
Noted too is that there are at least three goddesses with the variation of brig in their names. Brigindo in Gaul, Brigantia in Northern England, Brig of Ireland, and Bricta. This has caused some to come to the conclusion that all of these goddesses are the same one.
Parentage and Family
Father – The Dagda, an All-Father figure, King or Chief and Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Mother – Danu, the Mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Other sources will list the Morrigan as Brigid’s mother.
Cermait, Aengus, Aed, Bodb Derg, Brigid the healer, and Brigid the smith, Midir
Bres – A Fomorian, appointed King by Nuada in order to bring peace.
Tuireann – Another story places Brigid having married him.
Ruadán – Brigid’s son with Bres, he would later be killed by Goibniu.
Brian, Iuchar, and Irchaba – Brigid’s sons with Tuireann. These three sons slew Cian, the father of Lugh of the Long-Arm while transformed into a pig.
Tuatha Dé Danann
Or the people of Danu, they are considered the original inhabitants and gods of Ireland. It should be of little surprise that Brigid is from this lineage of deities. In some sources, Brigid is identified as being Danu herself.
Birth Of A Goddess
Brigid is an ancient goddess worshipped throughout much of Ireland. The few legends that survive, hold that Brigid was born at the exact moment of dawn. That Brigid rose up into the sky with the rising sun with rays of fire or light coming from her head. Wherever Brigid walked, flowers and shamrocks would grow. As an infant, Brigid was fed milk from a sacred cow of the Otherworld.
Otherworld – Liminal Boundaries
As a goddess of the dawn as that is the time of day that Brigid was born, she has a connection to the Otherworld. In the Celtic world, that is the land of Faery. Brigid also owned an apple orchard in the Otherworld and bees would bring her their nectar to the earth.
As a goddess and guardian of domesticated animals, the most common are cattle or oxen. The animals belonging to Brigid are said to cry out warnings. As a goddess of the land, when the land was in turmoil, Brigid’s sacred animals would keen for it.
Cirb – the “king of wethers,” one of the rams that belong to Brigid. The plain of Cirb is named after this ram.
Fea & Femen – These are two of the ox that Brigid is said to have. The Mag Fea, the plain of the River Barrow, and Mag Femin, the plain of the River Suir are both named after them. Other sources will name these oxen as being from Dil and are “radiant of beauty.”
Torc Triath – the “king of boars” also belongs to Brigid. The plain of Treithirne is named after this boar.
Goddess of Blacksmithing
The art of blacksmithing and forging metal has been held as a mystical art in many older cultures and religions. By today’s standards that doesn’t seem so mystical. It does still require a lot of strength, skill, and knowledge to shape and bend molten metal into various forms.
As a goddess of blacksmithing, this aspect of creation also extends itself to other crafts and arts.
Goddess & Protector Of The Hearth
Some have seen in the perpetual fires kept at Kildare, that this also connects Brigid as a goddess of the hearth. Much like the Roman Vestia and Greek Hestia who kept the hearth. The women of the household would keep the home fires going, going over it at night to seek out Brigid’s protection of the home.
With Brigid’s connection to her celebration at Imbolc, she is seen as a fertility goddess as this spring celebration held in February saw many livestock having given birth for the coming year. As a fertility goddess, Brigid is also a mother goddess who would protect mothers and babies.
It is also interesting to note, with Brigid’s name, we see one shortening of the name to Brid or Bride from which the English word for a bride, for marriage comes from. Certain stories out of Celtic lore strongly show the tie that a King has with the land. That there would need to be a marriage to the goddess of the land to ensure the strength and welfare of the kingdom.
The snake enters here as a symbol of regeneration and renewal, connecting her to Spring.
Goddess Of Healing
As a goddess of the arts and crafts and see in Saint Brigid of Kildare, the goddess Brigid is also a goddess of healing, who knows all the herbs and arts needed for healing.
Goddess Of Poetry & Wisdom
As a goddess who oversaw many numerous aspects of early Irish life, it’s little wonder that many people feel an affinity for Brigid. Even in Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 9th century C.E., Christian monks wrote how Brigid is “the goddess whom poets adored.” Lady Augusta Gregory also describes Brigit as a woman of poetry and whom poets worshiped.
There isn’t much known about how the ancient Celts and their beliefs. As a goddess of poetry, Brigid could easily be a goddess who oversaw the passing on of oral traditions and stories. Brigid could also be the goddess who inspires creativity much like the Greek muses.
Filid – This is a class of poets who are known and said to have worshiped Brigid.
Brigid – Deific Title
Back to Cormac’s Glossary, this source explains how Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. The book further explains that the name Brigid is a title that all Irish goddesses hold. It would explain the proliferation of the name Brigid and the numerous spelling variations as a personal name.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn
Also known as The Book of Invasions, this text chronicles the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their battles against the Fomorians and Firbolgs.
Cath Maige Tuired – During the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh, King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann lost his hand the battle against the Fomorians. As a result, by the Tuatha Dé Danann customs, Nuada wasn’t seen as a whole and could no longer lead.
As a final act with abdicating the throne and hoping to bring peace between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians, Nuada appointed Bres of the Fomorians king and Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann married Bres to seal the alliance.
Side note: During this era of Irish history, lineages were matrilineal, so it really is not as much of surrendering to the Fomorians as it appears.
Second Battle of Moytura – Brigid and Bres’ union would result in a son, Ruadan who later on is killed by Goibniu. When Ruadán died, Brigid began keening, a combination of singing and wailing as she mourned her son’s death. Keening is the Irish custom among women to wail and mourn the loss of their relatives.
Brigid is also noted for the invention of a whistle used for traveling at night.
Either as a goddess or as a saint, many holy wells throughout Ireland were held sacred by Brigid. A practice is known as Well dressing, where rags would be tied off on trees next to trees were the means by which to petition Brigid for healing from her sacred wells or to honor her.
Places, where the water came up from the earth, were seen as portals to the Otherworld and the source of Brigid’s power of divining and prophecy.
Wishing Wells – Water is symbolic of wisdom and healing. There was a custom born from the belief that Brigid would reward any offering to her. Offerings of coins would be tossed into her wells. This custom would become the custom of wishing wells and tossing a penny into a fountain of water.
Brigid’s Well in County Clare – Located near the Cliffs of Moher, this well is located at a church and is near the church’s cemetery.
Brigid’s Well in Kildare – Perhaps the most well-known of Brigid’s wells, the waters of this well were believed to heal any ailments or wounds.
Also called a triskele, this is a three or four-armed cross that is made from rushes or straw. It is an ancient symbol that would be set over doors and windows to protect the home from harm. One tradition says this cross will protect the home from fire.
Also known as Candlemas and called Latha Fheill in Gaelic, this is Brigid’s feast day that is held either February 1st or 2nd, it is a festival that celebrates the first day of Spring within Irish tradition and marked the beginning of the year. Brigid’s connection to the element of fire and as a Sun goddess shows her connection with this celebration. In the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and Eastern Orthodox Church, this day is known as Saint Brigid’s Day.
Modern Observances of this day outside of modern Paganism and Wicca often know February 2nd to coincide with Groundhog’s Day, the day when the groundhog comes out and sees its shadow or not will predict a longer or shorter winter. In the Carmina Gadelica, a snake coming out of a mound on Latha Fheill to predict a longer or shorter winter.
On this day, people are known to create the Brigid’s Cross for the protection of the home. A dolly made out of straw or corn that represents Brigid is invited into the house by the matriarchy of the family. This dolly is dressed in white and placed in a basket to bless the house. Offerings of loaves of bread, milk, and a candle are left out. A cake known as a bairin or breac would be baked by farmer’s wives as they invited the neighbors over to enjoy the festivities of a long winter over and the arrival of Spring.
Farmers were known to give gifts of butter and buttermilk to their less fortunate neighbors. Other farmers will kill some of their sheep livestock to send the meat to those in need. Brigid herself, either as a goddess or Saint was known to travel around the countryside on the eve of Imbolc, blessing the people and their livestock.
Scottish Story – In this story, Brigid as Bride is kidnapped by Beira, the Queen of Winter. Bride was held prisoner on the mountain Ben Nevis. In order to free Bride, a spell would need to be cast, a spell that would take three days from the month of August. Freed, Bride the goddess of the sun is now able to bring back the sun and light and thus Spring.
It has been noted that Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. There’s a strong suggestion that Brigid may have been revered as a triple goddess. Even in modern Wicca and Neo-Paganism, she is a goddess often identified with the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. In this aspect, Brigid is worshiped alongside Cernunnos in many traditions. It has also been commented that as a triple goddess, it could account for there being so many local goddesses who may have happened to share the same name.
Darlughdacha – Dr. Mary Condren has suggested that Darlughdacha may have been the original name for the goddess Brigid, that Brigid as the “Exalted One” is a title.
The name Darlughdacha appears again when Brigid is Christianized as Saint Brigid. Here Darlughdacha is a very close friend and companion of Saint Brigid, even so far as to share the same bed.
Hmm… very interesting. This Darlughdacha becomes the abbess of Kildare after the first Saint Brigid’s death. For it was custom that the abbess of Kildare would take the name Brigid when taking up that role.
Saint Brigid – Catholic Saint
If you can’t beat them, join them! Plus, you can’t discuss the goddess Brigid without talking about her survival as a Saint. Given the name Brigid and its many variations, there may indeed have been a real person who would become the Catholic saint. Though given all of the similar attributes that this ancient Irish goddess and Saint have, Saint Brigid is easily an adaptation by the Catholic Church, where if they couldn’t get people to stop worshiping Brigid. There is even a feast day held on February 1st that corresponds with a pagan festival of Imbolc. In the end, one and the same being.
Mortal Origins – When held as separate from her divine origins, Saint Brigid is said to be the daughter of the druid, Dubthach. Her father brought Brigid from the Isle of Iona, the “Druid’s Isle” to Ireland.
Saint Patrick – Most people know of Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland and the story of his driving out the snakes. What most may not be familiar with, is that Saint Brigid is considered a contemporary to him, sharing equal status with him as Ireland’s Patron Saint.
Saint Brigid of Kildare – This is the title that Saint Brigid is often known by. She is associated with the eternal sacred flames attended to by nineteen nuns in her sanctuary of Kildare, Ireland. These nineteen nuns would tend the sacred fires of Kildare for nineteen days with Brigid herself, being the one who kept the fire going on the twentieth day. The site for Kildare was chosen due to its elevation above a grove of oaks. Oaks were held to be so sacred that no weapons were permitted near them. Kildare was reported by Giraldus Cambrensis and others to be surrounded by a hedge that could drive men insane who tried to cross it or to become crippled or die. This tending to a sacred flame is not unlike the Greek goddess Hestia or the Roman Vesta who also tended the hearth and sacred flames.
With what appears to be a strong survival of a Celtic tradition of vestal priestesses, these women were trained and then would go throughout the land to attend various sacred wells, groves, hills, and caves. This was originally thirty years of service where they would then be allowed to leave and marry. This thirty-year period was divided into the first ten years in training, the next ten years practicing their duties and responsibilities. The last ten years would be spent training and teaching others. This wasn’t just keeping a sacred fire going, this was a study of the sciences and healing arts and possibly the laws of the state.
An interesting note is that Kildare comes from the words “Cill Dara,” meaning the Church of the Oak. The area around it was known as Civitas Brigitae or “The City of Brigid.” The abbess of Kildare was seen as the reincarnation of Saint Brigid and would take her name on investiture. The sacred flames of Kildare would burn continually until 1132 C.E. when Dermot MacMurrough decided to have a relative invested as the abbess. Due to politics, Dermot’s army overran the convent to rape the current abbess and discredit them. Kildare wouldn’t be the same after that, losing much of the power it held and King Henry VIII finally had the sacred flames put out during the Reformation.
Law Giver – During Kildare’s heyday, when the saint Herself reigned, Brigid went from being a Mother Goddess to a Lawgiver, much like the Roman Minerva. During this time, when laws were written and then codified by Christianity, it is Brigid herself who made sure that the rights of women were upheld. Before, these laws had been committed to memory by oral traditions.
The Lives of the Saints – In this text, Saint Brigid is placed as the midwife to Mary and was thus present at Jesus’ birth. Saint Brigid places three drops of water on the infant Jesus’ head. It comes across pretty clear that this is a Christian adaptation of Celtic myth with the birth of the Sun and the three drops representing wisdom.
The stories continue with Saint Brigid being a foster mother to Jesus. Fostering was a common practice among the Celts. When Herod comes to kill all the male infants, Saint Brigid is there to save Jesus from death. From this story, Saint Brigid wears a headdress of candles to light their way to safety.
These stories have earned Saint Brigid the titles of “The Mary of Ireland” and Muime Chriosd, “Foster Mother of Christ.” This is interesting to note as in Celtic society were held in high regard, much like the Italian custom of godparents.
The Two Lepers – There are many stories of Brigid’s miracles and healing. This popular story involves two lepers who arrived at Kildare seeking healing. Brigid informed them that they should bathe each until their skin healed.
When the first leper was healed, they felt revulsion towards the other and refused to touch them or bathe them. Angry, Brigid caused the first leper’s disease to return. Then she took her cloak and placed it over the second leper, instantly healing them.
Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas – An excluded book from the “standard” Bibles, Thomas claims that a web was woven to protect an infant Jesus from harm. Something that is in keeping with Saint Brigid’s deific connections to domestic arts such as weaving wool from her lambs.
Athena – Greek Goddess
A Greek goddess of war, wisdom and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Brigindo – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess of healing, crafts, and fertility, Brigindo has been equated as a continental cognate to Brigid.
Brigantia – British Goddess
A British goddess during the Roman occupation of Britain, she is a personification of the Brigantes in Northern England and Wexford Ireland. While there are plenty of attempts to link the two as the same goddess, there’s just enough evidence to show that Brigid and Brigantia are two separate and distinct goddesses.
Brigantia is seen as the patroness of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. This connection sees some scholars linking Brigantia to the Roman Minerva and Greek Athena.
Bricta – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess; it has been suggested this name is more a title and belongs to Sirona, a goddess of healing. The name or title of Bricta has been connected to Brig and thus Brigid.
Maman Brigitte – Haitian Goddess
Saint Brigid has been connected to Maman Brigitte as a syno-deity. Maman Brigitte is a Voodoo goddess or Loa who protects those graves within a cemetery marked with a cross. She is the wife to Ghede or Baron Samedi.
Minerva – Roman Goddess
A Roman goddess of war, wisdom, and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Oya – Yoruban Goddess
A mother goddess who is a patroness of many aspects such as winds, lightnings, violent storms, death, cemeteries, rebirth and the market place. It is Oya’s role as a Warrior Queen as a protector of women and justice that there connects her to Brigid and Saint Brigid the strongest.
Sulis – Romano-British
A local Celtic Solar goddess of Bath or Somerset. She is a goddess of the healing spring found there. Sulis has been equated with Brigid.
Other names: Amphictyonis, Sito (“She of the Grain,”) Thesmophoros (“Law Bringer”)
Other Names and Epithets: Achaea, Achaiva (“Sorrowing,”) Aganippe (“the Mare who Destroys Mercifully”, “Night-Mare,”) Anesidora (“Sender of Gifts,”) Antaea, Chloe (“the Green Shoot,” Chthonia (“In the Ground,”) “Corn-Mother,” Daduchos (“Torch Bearer,”) Demeter Lousia, “the Bathed Demeter”, Demeter Erinys, Demeter Melaine “Black Demeter,” Despoina (“Mistress of the House,”) Epipole, Erinys (“Implacable,”) Europa (“Broad Face or Eyes,”) Kidaria, Lusia (“Bathing,”) Malophoros (“Apple-Bearer” or “Sheep-Bearer,”) “Mistress of the Labyrinth,” “Mother-Earth,” Potnia “Mistress,” Thermasia (“Warmth,”) “Green,” “The Giver of Gifts,” “The Bearer of Food,” and “Great Mother.”
When paired with Persephone, she and Demeter are called: “the Older” and “the Younger” in Eleusis, Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, the Thesmophoroi or “the Legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia. “The Queens” in Mycenaean Pylos.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: Earth Mother
It’s generally agreed that the second part to Demeter’s name, “meter” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning mother.
Now, the first part to Demeter’s name, De originates as Da, becoming Ge in Attic and then De in Doric. Making it that Demeter means “Mother Earth.” The root word of De has also been linked to the name Deo, from the Cretan word for emmer, spelt, rye and other grains. In this respect, Demeter is the giver of food. Another alternative from Proto-Indo-European etymology is that De is derived from Despoina and Potnia where Des- means house or dome, making in this case, Demeter mean “mother of the house.”
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Olympian goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She specializes in the cultivation of grains and is a fertility goddess. In addition, Demeter ruled over the cycles of life and death as well. Demeter is an ancient goddess whose worship predates the Greeks. Both Demeter and her daughter Persephone were the central figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Animal: Horse, Pig, Snake
Colors: Black, Green
Patron of: Agriculture, Harvest
Plant: Grains, Wheat, Barley, Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Growth, Seasonal Cycles, Harvest, Sacred Law
Symbols: Cornucopia, Scepter, Wheat, Torch, Bread
Early Greek Depictions
Found in Pylos, there is a set of Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets that dates from between 1400 to 1200 C.E. that depicts “two mistresses and the king” that are thought to possibly be Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter is described as a blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain.
Demeter doesn’t often appear in art before the 6th century B.C.E. Demeter is often associated with imagery of the harvest, flowers, fruit, grain and sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone where they are both wearing crowns and hold a torch and scepter or stalks of grain. Another scene that Demeter is shown in is that of Athena’ birth. Sometimes Demeter is shown sitting alone wearing a wreath of braided ears of grain.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. During the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens is when Demeter’s worship came to Eleusis.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
There were two sets of observances or celebrations for the Eleusinian Mysteries that would be held every five years.
The Lesser Mysteries would be held the 20th Anthesterion (roughly coinciding with February 28th) and take place over a span of week
The Greater or Eleusinian Mysteries would occur during the 15th-21st of Boedromion (September 28th to October 4th).
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
Amphictyony – An ancient ruin site, this is likely the oldest cult center for Demeter in Anthele along the coast of Malis, Thessaly. For those interest in history, this is near Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans fought the invading Persians. After the “First Sacred War,” this Amphictyony became known as the Delphic Amphictyony. Basically a meeting place for many local Greek tribes and cities to come gather to maintain temples to the gods, festivals and work out any disputes and problems.
Megara – Temples to Demeter were called Megara and would be built in groves with neighboring towns nearby.
Mysia – The goddess Demeter worshiped here had a seven-day festival held at Pellene, Arcadia.
Sacrifices To Demeter – These would consist of pigs, bulls, cows, honey cakes, and fruit.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” an epitaph of Poseidon. Eileithyia’s myth and cult would come to be absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted, and Demeter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess. The date can vary, if the festival were held in Athens, it would during the 11th-13 Pyanepsion, roughly coinciding with October 23rd-25th.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Thesmophoros – “Giver of Customs” or “Legislator” is a name and epitaph that links Demeter to the goddess Themis, which derives from the word thesmos, the unwritten law.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor, and Triptolemus
Iasion – Demeter manages to lure Iasion away during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia.
Poseidon – The Arcadian cult and myths link Demeter and Poseidon together. In this respect, Demeter is then equated with the Minoan Great Goddess, Cybele.
She is the second child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Amphitheus I – Her son by Triptolemus.
Arion – A magical speaking horse, her son by Poseidon.
Chrysothemis & Eubuleus – Her children by Karmanor.
Despoina – Her daughter by Poseidon.
Dmia – Her daughter by Oceanus.
Iacchus – Her son by Zeus. Due to the similarity of his name with Bacchus, he is sometimes identified as being Dionysus.
Persephone – Goddess of Fertility and Queen of the Underworld, her daughter by Zeus.
Philomelus – her son by Iasion.
Ploutos – Also spelled Plutus, her son by Iasion.
While Demeter may just very well indeed predate Grecian culture, she is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians vary. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Demeter and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophecy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronous that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronous eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia.
There is a ten-year-long war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Demeter and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Demeter & Zeus
Zeus as we know, King of the Gods, fathered many children with many goddesses and mortal woman alike and usually by rape.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus rapes his sister Demeter, resulting in Kore, Persephone.
By one account, Demeter becomes a fourth wife to Zeus and in their union, they have a daughter by the name of Kore (Persephone).
With the information from the Homeric Hymn and Zeus’ reputation, that would be an awful lot of wives if he married everyone he’s to have raped.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone. Plus, this is also a story involving her mother Demeter and her role in it and the primary story told in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires are known.
This doesn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this is love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. During her search, Demeter found herself in the palace of Celeus, King of Eleusis in Attica. Demeter took the guise of an old woman, calling herself Doso and asked the King for shelter. Celeus took the old woman in and had her nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons.
Now, from a goddess’ perspective, she planned to reward Celeus’ kindness by gifting his son Demophon immortality. To grant the gift of immortality, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia and laid him down in the hearth fire with the intention to burn away his mortality. Mom, Queen Metanira walks in and see her baby laying in the fire and understandably freaks out, screaming. Demeter decided against this idea and instead taught the older boy, Triptolemus the knowledge of agriculture. From this, this is how humankind learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually, Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranates, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Version 3 – Some versions of the story place the episode where Demeter goes to Celeus’ kingdom to hide in sorrow after she learns just who abducted Persephone. Regardless of if its Helios or Hecate who tells her the news.
This placement in the narrative often fits when the impression of Demeter as a Fertility goddess is wanted to be given and that in her despair or out of spite, sets the world on a path to barrenness and winter.
Side Note – Sometimes the characters of Demephon and Triptolemus are seen as being the same person, especially Triptolemus.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when Ascalaphus is released, Demter turns him into an owl.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility. In this case, the wealth of corn or grain springing forth from the ground every year and the promise of renewal it brings with it.
This is perhaps the biggest aspect about Demeter. As an Earth Goddess and Goddess of the Harvest, this is Demeter’s biggest role in her gifting mankind with the knowledge of agriculture, especially for grains and cereals. Without the advent of agriculture, humans would still largely be hunter-gatherers moving about and never having settled in any place to build cities and all the rest that follows.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
This strong connection of grain and rebirth or renewal is what ties Demeter so closely to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Hesiod, there are prayers to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter to help ensure that the crops will be full and strong.
Secrets Of Agriculture – In the larger story of “The Rape of Persephone,” there is a shorter episode that occurs. During Demeter’s search for her missing daughter, the goddesses’ wanderings took her to the kingdom of Eleusis in Attica where King Celeus ruled. While there, seeking shelter in the guise of an old woman, Demeter, after deciding to not gift immortality to the young son, Demophan, the goddess instead taught the knowledge of agriculture to the older son, Triptolemus. In this way, this is how humankind learned the knowledge of how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Now, there a few different versions to this myth and other figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus will be who learned the secrets of agriculture. Fair enough.
Without the knowledge of agriculture, humankind would have continued to be nomadic, hunter-gathers. With Demeter’s influence, humankind is able to settle and stay in one place to begin building up their cities and civilizations. This fits with one of Demeter’s names: Thesmophoros as “Law Bringer” and laying out the planning and laws of society.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
Like her daughter, Demeter is also closely connected to the Ancient Greeks beliefs about the changing of the seasons, especially as seen in the story: “The Rape of Persephone.” That Spring and Summer are when Persephone has returned to the Living World to be with her mother Demeter and that Fall and Winter come when Persephone descends back down to the Underworld to be with her husband Hades for the rest of the year.
Sure okay, makes sense I guess.
The more simplified Greek versions would have it that Demeter is responsible for the fertility of the earth and that she causes it to be winter out of grief and spite because her daughter Persephone isn’t with her. Add to that so many people wanting to give stories about how fickle and petty the Greek Gods could be, this just seems to fit the Pantheon’s MO, nobody is questioning the story?
Yay! I love mankind so much! I’m going to teach them agriculture and how to harvest! Boo! Hiss! You took my daughter! I’m going to punish the very mortals I claim to love so much by making the earth barren and winter!
That really doesn’t make sense!
Fertility Goddess – That’s because you have to remember that Persephone is a chthonic fertility goddess. The earth can grow again, and Spring comes when Persephone has ascended to the Living World.
The fertility function is something that the Greeks really seem to have forgotten and which role and function they attached to Demeter. That way, a version of the story where Demeter is the fertility goddess, it’s out of spite and grief that Demeter causes winter and refuses to allow anything to grow.
Harvest Goddess – Yeah! Everyone remembers this aspect about Demeter. Afterall, she taught mankind the secrets of agriculture! This is Demeter’s domain and better fits the dual roles that she and Persephone share.
Alright kiddos, Persephone’s going back to the Underworld to be with Hades again, better bring in those crops and harvest like I told you! It’s gonna’ be awhile and we don’t need any empty bellies or people dying while we wait for Persephone to come back.
Fall comes, and this is where Demeter’s role comes in. As plants become dormant or die, now is the time for harvesting, to make sure there enough food has been stored and gathered for the long winter months until Persephone and Spring returns. The first loaf of bread is thought to have been sacrificed to Demeter.
As a goddess of the Harvest, this domain ties closely to Demeter’s role as a goddess of Agriculture, having taught humankind it’s knowledge so they can grow enough food.
To keep with the version of the story where Demeter makes it Winter out of spite or grief because her daughter has been abducted seems contradictory. Especially if Demeter is one of the few Greek Gods who is considered closest to humankind and understands the most about grief and loss.
Just by the very meaning of Demeter’s name, “Earth Mother,” we know she is a mother goddess. Not necessarily a “Great Mother Goddess” as the Romans would identify Cybele and Rhea with.
As a mother goddess, Demeter is seen as the most compassionate and closest to humankind of all of the Greek Gods for she is the one who understands the most about grief and loss. It’s her gifts of abundance and the harvest yields that nurture and sustain humans through the long winter months.
This is another plant besides grains that is strongly associated with Demeter. Her emblem is that of a bright red poppy flower growing among the barley. Theocritus wrote of Demeter being a poppy goddess, that she held poppies and sheaves of grain in both of her hands. In Gazi, Minoa, there is a clay statuette that was found of a goddess wearing seed capsules on her diadem. The idea has put forward that a Great Mother Goddess, under the names of Rhea and Demeter introduced the poppy with her cult in Cretan.
Healing A Poor Man’s Son – An episode often set during Demeter’s search for her daughter, the goddess comes across a poor, old man who is out gathering firewood. He invites the goddess to his home, likely not knowing who she is, and offers to share a meal with her. This would be the law of hospitality among the Greeks known as Xenia.
When Demeter told the old man about her search for her missing daughter, he wished Demeter success and said that he understood her grief and suffering for his own son lay dying. Taking compassion, Demeter decided to go with the old man to his home. She stopped once to gather some poppies and when they arrived, Demeter went straight to the boy’s bedside, kissing him on the cheek. At once, the boy’s sickly pallor left him, and he was restored to health.
As to the poppies, I assume the story intended some healing use and connection. Poppies are a source of opium from which morphine is derived. There is a history of poppies being used medicinally, mainly for diarrhea and pain, chest colds, coughs and pneumonia. So, a Greek audience likely knew very well what Demeter intended to use the poppies for.
Poppy seeds are also used in preparations for bread and confections. Not likely an immediate use of drug abuse.
Goddess Of Marriage
As a goddess of marriage, Demeter is venerated at the celebration of Thesmophoria. It’s an interesting connection and one that makes sense if one remembers that it wasn’t unusual for mothers to be kept out of the loop as to whom their daughter would marry when the father is making the arrangements.
Of course, this future husband was likely someone easily two if not three times the girl’s age and she would find herself torn from her birth home and leaving to live with her husband, most likely in another town and province.
Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter would resonate with many women in ancient Greece. Taking from the stance of Demeter as responsible for fertility, she, unlike many women was able to do something that others couldn’t. That was to defy Zeus’ will by holding the world hostage until he agrees to release Persephone back to Demeter, even if only for part of the year.
It may have been a partial victory, but a victory all the same for Demeter. Many mothers probably hoped to be able to do something similar. Or say, a daughter could return to visit her maternal family, things would never return to the way they were before. But just for a little while, they could.
Demeter & Iasion
Iasion is noteworthy as he is considered the only consort Demeter took by choice rather getting raped or forced by another person. Iasion is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Elektra.
During the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter spotted Iasion and fell in love. She managed to lure Iasion away from all the other partygoers. The two would head out to a field near Crete where they would have a tryst. Demeter would later give birth to twins: Ploutos (or Plutus) who is known for bestowing wealth and plenty on people and Philomelos who would become the patron of plowing.
Zeus would become jealous of Iasion and kill him with a thunderbolt. By one account, Zeus didn’t think it appropriate that a Goddess would consort with a mortal. But it’s okay if he does it? Got it.
Ploutos & Philomelos
In a case of sibling rivalry, Philomelos was envious of Ploutos great wealth. Rather than re-enact a biblical scene worthy of Cain and Abel, Philomelos bought a pair of oxen and invented the plow so he could earn a living tilling the earth. This so impressed Demeter, that she placed Philomelos up into the heavens to become the constellation Bootes.
Demeter & Poseidon
Well sure and why not? Demeter is the Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon is the God of Water. That’s a good match and they’re consenting adults and gods.
Mycenaen Greek – This is Bronze Age Greece, there is a script known as Linear B found in Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos where both Demeter and Poseidon’s names appear. Poseidon is given the epitaph of E-ne-si-da-o-ne “earth-shaker” and Demeter’s name is given si-to-po-ti-ni-ja. In these inscriptions, Poseidon’s title and epitaph E-ne-si-da-o-ne (Enesidaon) links him as a King of the Underworld and gives him a chthonic nature.
Touching back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are tablets found in Pylos that mention sacrificial goods for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” or “to the Two Queens and King.” It’s agreed that the Two Queens very likely refer to Demeter and Persephone or its later precursor goddesses who are not associated with Poseidon later.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” whom we just mentioned is Poseidon. Her cult and worship would survive within the Eleusinian Mysteries. Plus, we see where local deities’ worship get absorbed and conflated with a more popular, well-known deity.
Arcadia – We’re still in Bronze Age Greece! Here, Demeter and Poseidon Hippios or Horse Poseidon give birth to a daughter, Despoina, who is a goddess in her own right before some of the myths confuse her with Persephone or make her an epitaph of Demeter.
In this myth, Poseidon is a river spirit of the Underworld, appearing as a horse. In this form, Poseidon pursues Demeter, who is also in horse form. Demeter hid among the horses of King Onkios. Due to her divinity, Demeter couldn’t remain hidden for long and Poseidon caught up with her and forced himself on her. When the two gods copulate, Demeter gives birth to a goddess who is also in horse or mare form. This is a myth that sounds very similar to another one between Poseidon and Athena and more accurately, Philyra and Cronos when Chiron is born. The horse motif is very common in norther-European myths and folklore.
As a mare-goddess, Demeter is known first as Demeter Erinys due to her fury with Poseidon for forcing himself on her. She becomes Demeter Lousia, “the bathed Demeter” after washing away her anger in the River Ladon. There’s something to be said for this as you can’t hold onto your anger forever, you must let it go or otherwise it consumes you.
The whole myth of pairing up Demeter and Poseidon is to connect Demeter as a Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon as a God of Water with their connection over nature. Despoina is the daughter who results from their union and whose name could not be spoken outside of the Arcadian Mysteries. Demeter and Poseidon also have another child, a horse by the name of Arion who is noted being able to speak, being immortal, really swift and for having a black mane and tail.
The effigy or imagery of Demeter worshiped in Arcadia depicts her as a gorgon or medusa-like with a horse’s head and snake hair while holding a dove and dolphin that likely represented her power over air and water. Close to the Arcadian city of Phigaleia, there is Mt. Elaios where a cave held sacred to Demeter is found. Here, an image of Demeter Melaine is seated showing the goddess dressed in black with a horse’s head and snake hair. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, when the statue caught fire and was destroyed, the Phigalians failed to make a new statue for Demeter, eventually leading to neglecting her sacrifices and festivals, the land became barren.
Demeter & Ascaelabus
I assume this is an episode set during when Demeter is searching for her daughter. When Demeter stopped at one point to kneel by a spring to quench her thirst, a man by the name of Ascaelabus began laughing when he heard the sound of Demeter’s gulping. Angry and embarrassed, Demeter turned the man into a lizard for his rudeness.
Demeter & Triopas
Considered the father of the Thessalians, Triopas was cursed by Demeter after he destroyed one of her temples. In retaliation, Demeter sent a huge serpent to kill Triopas. Even in death, Demeter wasn’t finished and she set Triopas up among the heavens as a constellation where the serpent could forever torment him.
Demeter & Erysichthon
Erysichthon was a Thessalian hero who decided to build himself a palace. Unfortunately for Erysichthon, the grove of trees he chose were sacred to Demeter. As Erysichthon set about to cut down the trees, Demeter came in disguise as a priestess by the name of Nikippe to try and warn Erysichthon not to cut the trees.
Nikippe is also the name of a nymph who lived in the grove. So when Erysichthon ignores the warning and chops down the tree, killing Nikippe, Demeter became very wroth and cursed Erysichthon with an insatiable hunger.
The more that Erysichthon ate, the thinner he became. In addition, when he had spent all of his money to try and sate his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon turned to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery.
Luckily for Mestra, she was a mistress of Poseidon and he granted the powers of shape-shifting into animals. Using this ability, Mestra would be able to escape slavery every time her father sold her.
In New Age, Pagan and Wiccan practices, Demeter is often seen as the Mother aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Persephone representing the Maiden and Hecate the Crone.
Virgo Zodiac Constellation
The constellation of Virgo is the sixth sign of twelve that form the classical Greek Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from August 23 to September 22. Virgo is often depicted as a Winged Maiden holding a stalk or sheaf of wheat or some other grain in her hand. This figure is sometimes identified with that of Demeter, most notably by Marcus Manilus in his Astronomicon in 1st century Rome.
Ceres – Roman Goddess
Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherhood and equated with Demeter. Similarly, Ceres has a daughter by the name of Proserpina is also abducted by Pluto down to the Underworld to become Queen of the Dead. The biggest difference in the myth is that Pluto is struck by an arrow from Cupid after his mother Venus told him to do. This is what causes the God of the Dead to fall madly in love with Proserpina. The other difference is that Cere’s celebrations and festivals come during the Spring while Demeter is venerated in Fall with the Harvest.
Cybele – Phrygian & Roman Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who equate Demeter with her mother, Rhea, a Titaness, mother of the gods who is also a goddess of the earth and fertility. As I previously mentioned with the name of Antaea, that epitaph could be applied to Demeter, Cybele and Rhea equally. It works if you’re just seeing all the gods as different aspects of the divine and not making any distinction. It’s possible that’s just remnants of an older belief and religion that the Greeks replaced with their own.
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
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.
Cybele Part 2
Attis & Cybele
This story is one of the major myths involving Cybele and they often include her relationship with Attis, a youthful consort to the goddess. Attis is noted too as being the name of a Phrygian deity. Further, Attis doesn’t become a part of the myth with Cybele until the Roman poet Catullus references him with Cybele as Magna Mater and as the name of the head priest for the Galli. Additionally, pine cones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
Attis – As a Phrygian deity, Attis is the god of vegetation, his death and resurrection is symbolic of the death and rebirth of vegetation and the harvest with each winter and spring. The name Attis in Phyrgia was a common name and one used for priests. In the myths linking Attis with Cybele as her consort; wherever Cybele’s worship spread, Attis’ worship went as well.
Imagery portraying Attis has been found at a number of Greek sites. Whenever Attis is shown with Cybele, he is shown as a younger, lesser deity to her. He is possibly even one of her priestly attendants. During the mid-2nd century B.C.E., various letters from the king of Pergamum to Cybele’s shrine in Pessinos all address the chief priest as “Attis.” So deity or priest tends to be a matter of personal interpretation with the myths of Attis.
Attis was Cybele’s young lover who had devoted himself to the goddess. He had a made a promise that he would always be faithful. As fate would have it, Attis in time fell in love with a nymph by the name of Sagaritis (or Sagaris) and they decided to marry. When Cybele learned of this marriage, she burst in on the marriage ceremony, inflicting Attis with madness and sending the other guests into a panic.
In his maddened state, Attis fled for the mountains. There, he stopped under a pine tree and proceeded to mutilate himself to the point of castrating himself and bleeding to death there beneath the pine tree.
When Cybele found her lover, the young Attis dead, she mourned her actions and deeply regretted them. She pleaded with the god Jupiter to restore Attis to life. Jupiter vowed that that pine tree would remain sacred and like the tree, Attis would live again. The blood that Attis shed is said to have become the first violets.
In the versions of the myths where Maeon is Cybele’s father – Maeon kills Attis, the baby whom he sires after committing incest with his daughter. Cybele manages, in this myth to restore Attis back to life.
Pausanias’ Version – Another story of Attis, this time with Agdistis as another name for Cybele follows much of the same story as previously mentioned. Only now, when the baby, Attis is born, he is left exposed and a ram comes, standing guard over the child. As the baby grew, his beauty became ever more apparent as more than human. Agdistis saw Attis and fell in love with him.
When Attis finally came of age, he was sent to Pessinos, a city in Phrygia to wed the King’s daughter. After the marriage ceremony was completed, Agdistis appeared, causing Attis, driving him mad in her jealously to the point of cutting off his own genitals. The madness was such, it effected other nearby, that even the king cut off his own genitals.
Shocked, Agdistis sought amends for what she had done and begged Zeus to restore Attis to life so that he would be reborn.
Ovid’s Version – In this one, Attis had fallen in love with Cybele who wanted to keep the boy at her shrine as a guardian. She commanded Attis to always be a boy. Attis declared in kind that if he lied, let the lover he cheated be his last.
As happens with these kinds of stories, Attis does cheat with the Nymph Sagaritis (or Sagaris). Her tree is cut down by Cybele, killing her the Nymph. Attis in response goes mad and hallucinates that the roof to his bedroom is collapsing on him. Attis runs towards Mount Dindymus where he calls out for Cybele to save him.
Hacking away at his own body with a sharp stone, Attis continues to cry out to Cybele that she take his blood as punishment and cuts off his genitals as that is what has caused him to cheat on Cybele.
Ultimately, this story of Attis’ self-mutilation and castration is the basis for the Galli, Cybele’s priest to castrate themselves as a show of devotion to the goddess.
Cybele & Dionysus
Similar to the story of Attis & Cybele, is the story of Dionysus & Cybele. The earliest reference to this myth in Greek mythos is around the 1st century B.C.E. in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
Like Attis, Cybele also cures Dionysus of his madness. Considering she’s the one who caused Attis’ madness, I would hope she would cure it too.
Both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cult shared many similarities. As foreign deities worshiped among the Greeks, both gods would arrive in chariots drawn by large exotic cats. Dionysus would come in his chariot pulled by tigers whereas Cybele’s chariot was drawn by lions. Both deities would be accompanied to the fanfare of wild, raucous music and a parade of exotic foreigners and lower class citizens of Greek society.
For the Hellenic Greeks, these two gods held wild temperaments that didn’t sit well with many affluent Greeks and were thus, warily worshiped.
Due to the similarities of both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cults, in Athens, by the end of the 1st century B.C.E., the two cults were often combined.
Cybele & Sabazios
Sabazios is the Phrygian version to the Greek Dionysus. Under Greek influence, the name Sabazios is often used as an epithet for Dionysus and the two’s myths have become very intertwined.
Further Greek influences have Cybele equated with Rhea. By Phrygian traditions, Cybele is the mother of Sabazios. When Cybele is equated with Rhea, she is the nurse-maid and tutor to a young Dionysus after his mother Hera rejects him.
Orgia – It is thought that the Orgia, the Orgiastic cult of Dionysos-Sabazios may have originated with Cybele. When Sabazios had been wandering in his madness, he made his way to Cybele in Phrygia where she purified him and taught him the initiation rite for the Orgia. Sabazios is to have received his thyrsus and panther-drawn chariot while he went throughout all of Thrace to spread the Orgia. The Orgia certainly seems to have become associated with the celebrations of Cybele as the Great Mother or Mountain Mother in the writings of Strabo or as Euripides makes mention of in his play Bacchae.
As Nurse-Maid – In a story very similar to Dionysus’ being rejected by his mother Hera, it is Cybele, identified as Rhea and Grandmother to Dionysus who takes up the infant to care for him much like she did her own son Zeus. The god Hermes, tells Cybele how Dionysus will become a god later when he’s grown to manhood. Cybele’s priests the Korybantes use their loud drumming and chanting to drown out the cries of the infant in order to prevent Hera’s wrath from finding him to finish what she had started with trying to kill Dionysus when she cast him out. The story of Dionysus’ youth with Cybele continues with him grabbing lions for the Mother Goddess to hitch up to her chariots and later acquiring a lion-drawn chariot of his own.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
These two were turned into lions in myth by either Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex with one of their temples. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
Cybele was also especially noted for being a bee goddess.
Mother Of The Mountain – Goddess Of Mountains And Fortresses
As a goddess of mountains, cities and forts, Cybele’s crown was seen to take the form of a city wall, showing her role as a guardian and protector of Anatolian cities.
There is an inscription of “Matar Kubileya” found at a Phrygian rock shrine dating from the 6th century B.C.E. It is often translated to: “Mother of the Mountain.” It is a name that is consistent with Cybele and a number of other tutelary goddess who are all seen as “mother” and connected to a specific Anatolian mountain or other locations. In this sense, Cybele is seen as a goddess born from stone.
Cybele’s connection and association with hawks, lions and the mountainous regions of Anatolia show her role as a mother of the land in its wild, uninhabited state. She holds the power to rule, moderate or soften the unbridled power and ferocity of nature and to reign it in for the use of civilization.
Idaea – Mountain Goddess & Nymph
Cybele is often connected with Mount Ida in Anatolia where there is an ancient site of worship. Idaea is the name of the local mountain goddess or nymph who resided here. Where many goddess get absorbed into each, the name of one deity, Idaea in this case will become an epithet to the more well-known deity.
Goddess Of Nature And Fertility
As an ancient fertility goddess, Cybele’s worship is believed to have covered from Anatolia to Greece during the Archaic period, roughly 800 to 500 B.C.E and then into the Hellenistic era of 300 to 50 B.C.E.
Lions and sometimes leopards were shown to either side of Cybele to depict her strength.
Cybele is typically seen as a guardian and protector over all of a nature and a goddess of unbridled sex.
Along with Artemis, Cybele is seen as the “Great Huntress” and patron goddess and protector of the Amazons.
Magna Mātēr – The Great Mother
The Romans revered and knew Cyble as Magna Mātēr or the Great Mother, Rome’s protector. They also knew her as Magna Mātēr deorum Idaea, the great Idaean mother of the gods. It is a similar title to the Greek title for Cybele of Mētēr Theon Idaia, Mother of the Gods from Mount Ida. In the early 5th century B.C.E., she was known as Kubelē. In Pindar, she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother.” Cybele’s worship among the Greeks saw her easily identified and equated with the Minoan-Greek Goddess Rhea and the grain-goddess Demeter.
As Magna Mātēr, Cybele was symbolized by a throne and lions. She held a frame drum. A bowl used for scrying. A burning torch was also used to symbolize her bull-god husband Attis in his resurrection. For some like Lucretius, Magna Mater represented the world order. Her imagery hold overhead represented the Earth, thought to “hang in the air.” As the mother of all, the lions pulling her chariot represent the offspring’s duty of parental obedience. Magna Mater is seen as un-created and separate from and independent of all of her creations.
Under Imperial Rome, Magna Mater represented Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout its empire. Emperor Augustus, like many of Rome’s leading families, claimed Trojan ancestry and a connection to Magna Mater. His spouse, empress Livia was seen as the earthly equivalent and representation of Magna Mater. Statuary of Magna Mater has Livia’s likeness.
While there are not a lot of documents or myths that survive regarding Cybele, it has been suggested that her Phrygian name of Mātēr indicated a role as a mediator between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, the civilized world and the untamed wilds, the living and the dead. The Imperial Magna Mater protected Rome’s cities and its agriculture. Ovid mentions how barren the earth was before Magna Mater’s arrival. The stories and legend of Magna Mater’s arrival to Rome are used to promote and exemplify its principles and Trojan ancestry.
Megalesia – Festival To Magna Mātēr
Also known as the Megalensia or Megalenses Ludi; under the Roman calendar, Cybele’s Spring festival of Megalesia was celebrated from April 4th to April 10th, a period of six days. This festival celebrated Cybele’s arrival in Rome along with the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. This festival and the whole month of April were celebrated with an air of rejoicing and lavish feasts.
Exactly how the festival was celebrated is uncertain. What is known is that there were many religiously themed plays, games and activities. There are descriptions of mummery, war dancers wielding shields and knives and a lot of drumming and flute playing. As to the games, slaves were not allowed to participate. On the first day of Megalesia, there would be a feast held. These feasts were known for being very lavish and the Roman Senate passed a law limiting the amount that could be spent on these feasts. On April 10th, Cybele’s image would be publicly paraded to the Circus Maximus, chariot races would be held in her honor. A statue dedicated to Magna Mater with her seat on a lion’s back stood at the side of the race track barrier line.
Hilaria – Holy Week
In addition to the Megalesia festival, there is also a week-long festival known as Holy Week that starts from March 15th, also known as the Ides of March. That really gives a new meaning to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he’s told to beware the Ides of March. The entire festival is meant to have an air of celebration for the arrival of Spring and the Vernal Equinox.
The festival itself seems to have been established by Claudius as a means of claiming and honoring Trojan ancestry. As a result, the festival very likely grew and expanded over time as a celebration for the death and resurrection of Attis.
The Reed Entered – Also known as Canna Intrat, from the 15th to the end of the month, there is festival for Cybele and Attis that starts on the 15th or Ides, with Attis’ birth and his being left along the reed bank of the Sangarius river in Phrygia before either shepherds or Cybele find him. People known as Cannophores will carry away the reeds. During this time, there is a nine-day period of abstinence from eating bread, fish, pomegranates, pork, quinces and likely wine. Only milk was allowed to be drunk during this period.
The Tree Enters – Also known as Arbor Intrat, March 22nd marks the date of Attis’ death under a pine tree. It is observed. People known as Dendrophores or “Tree Bearers,” after sacrificing a ram, will cut down a tree and carry it to Magna Mater’s temple for a mourning period of three days.
Tubilustrium – March 23rd, this is an old, archaic holiday for the Roman god Mars. The tree has now been laid to rest in Magna Mater’s temple. Mars’ priest, the Salii will do a traditional beating of their shields accompanied by trumpets and other loud music from the Corybantes. Overall, this is a day of mourning.
The Day of Blood – Also known as Sanguis, Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis March 24th. The rites can only be described as frenzied as mourners and devotees whip or scourge themselves in order to sprinkle the alters and Attis’ effigy with their blood. Some of the rites involve castration and the tree is buried, symbolizing Attis’ placing within his tomb. This day was also to honor Bellona, a war goddess. Her priests were known as the Bellonarii and practiced mutilation along with using hallucinogenic plants.
The Day of Joy – Also known as Hilaria, on the Roman Calendar this marks the Vernal Equinox. It takes place on March 25th and celebrates Attis’ resurrection. It must be noted that is a day of celebration and not the previous mournful tones and rites. I’m also not the only one to have noted a similarity to the Christian association of Jesus’ resurrection.
Day of Rest – Also known as Requietio, March 26th. What can we say? Partying is hard work.
The Washing – Also known as Lavatio, March 27th. This is when Cybele’s sacred stone, the Pessinos’ black meteor is taken from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena along a stream called Almo. This stream is a tributary to the Tiber river. Here, the stone would be bathed by a priest. The return trip back to the temple would be conducted by torchlight. It’s noted by Ovid as being an innovation by Augustus.
Initium Caiani – March 28th. This particular part of the festival is found on the Calendar of Philocalus. It is likely an initiation ceremony that was held at the Vatican sanctuary for the mysteries of Magna Mater and Attis.
Pine cones are symbols of Cybele and the related myth of Attis. They are believed to have been worn by Cybele’s priests and followers as one of her symbols. As a protective symbol, a pine cone would be affixed to the top of a pole and placed out in vineyards to protect the crops. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A type of hand drum or tambourine, the tympanon was used by the Greeks to denote worship in a foreign cult or religion. Of the foreign deities the Greek adopted, only Cybele is ever shown holding the tympanon. On the cuirass of Ceasar Augustus’ Prima Porta statue, Cybele’s tympanon is shown lying at the goddess Tellus’ feet.
The Trojan War
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas.
The Trojan War was a major and significant war among the Greeks. Many deities got themselves involved. Cybele was one of many such gods to do so. When Prince Aeneas was attacked by Turnus, leading the Rutulians, Cybele prevented Turnus from setting fire to the Trojan fleet by turning all of the ships into nymphs.
Virgil’s Aeneid – As Berecyntian Cybele, she is the mother of Jupiter and the protector of prince Aeneas. Cybele gave the Trojans her sacred tree to use for building their ships. Cybele then pleaded with Jupiter to make the resulting ships indestructible. Aeneas and his men are able to flee Troy, heading for Italy, where Rome would be founded. Once the they arrived in Italy, the ships all turned into sea nymphs or Oceanids.
Yes, you read that correctly. During the early Roman Imperial era, the poet Manilius introduces Cybele into classic Greco-Roman zodiac. It upsets the balance as there’s already twelve zodiac houses represented by a corresponding constellation. Each of which is ruled by a different deity, the Twelve Olympians in Greek and the Di Consentes in Rome. Manilius places Cybele as a co-ruler with Jupiter over Leo the Lion, which is noted for being in direct opposition to Juno who rules Aquarius.
Some modern scholars have taken note of how, as Leo rises over the horizon, that Taurus the Bull sets. Symbolically, this is seen as the lion dominating or defeating the bull. The idea then gets put forth that the celebrations of Megalensia includes this symbolism with lions attacking bulls. As a Spring festival, the date for the celebration of Megalensia is around April 12th when farmers would dig in their vineyards to break up the soil and sow their crops. This would also be when farmers would castrate their cattle and other livestock.
It has been suggested by some scholars that Cybele’s name can be traced to that of Kubaba, a deified queen who ruled during the Kish Dynasty of Sumer. Kubaba was worshipped at Carchemish and would later be Hellenized to the name of Kybebe. Kubaba was also known to the Hittites and Hurrians in the region. There isn’t enough etymological evidence to support this. However the names Kubaba and Matar do seem to have become closely associated. Such as the genital mutilations that are found both within Cybele’s and Kybebe’s cults. Much like many other localized mountain goddesses in Anatolia, who are called “mother” and among many who would become identified with Cybele.
Christianity And The Book Of Revelation
Of interest, is that the author of the Book of Revelations, identified by modern scholars as John of Patmos is likely to have been referring to Cybele when he mentions “the mother of harlots who rides the Beast.”
Christianity – Kept to a nutshell, the early Christians, once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, began to view and regard Cybele’s cult as evil, even demonic. Under Emperor Valentinian II in the 4th century C.E., he officially banned the worship of Cybele and the goddess followers and devotees fell under a lot of hate and persecution. Under the rule of Justinian, objects of worship for Cybele and her temples were destroyed and eventually by the 6th century C.E., Cybele’s cult seems to have vanished.
It has been noted by others how the Basilica of the Vatican is apparently the same exact spot for where Cybele’s Temple once stood and that Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same place where Attis was once worshiped. Some will even go so far as to suggest that revering the Virgin Mary is merely another aspect of worshiping Cybele and many other ancient Mother Goddesses.
Montanism – Christianity – Also known as New Prophecy – Now I do find it fascinating that around 100 C.E. a former Galli priest of Cybele by the name of Montanus formed a Christian sect that worked to oppose Pauline Christianity.
In Pauline Christianity, those who followed the teachings of the Apostle Paul, it held a major influence into the formation of Christianity in terms of scriptural interpretations, cannon and dogma.
Montanus’ sect was considered very heretical to the Catholic Church and would eventually see all of its followers excommunicated.
In brief, Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of god and that women could also be bishops and presbyters. Where much of early Christian theology diminished the power and presence of women within religion, Montanus’ sought to keep it.
It’s also interesting to note a rather prominent example of a Pagan religion that Christianity and former followers of other religions attempting to adopt and add in their beliefs. Like Montanus equating Jesus with Attis and the celebrating of Easter with the resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week, the days between Good Friday and Easter is also the same period that Hilaria, observing and celebrating Attis’ resurrection was held.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Just as Cybele is the Great Mother of the Roman Pantheon, Rhea, her Grecian counterpart is the Great Mother of the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Cybele with Rhea.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Like Cybele, Rhea can help in easing the pain of childbirth and soothe the pain and difficulties that come with menstruation.
Demeter – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and make an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Pronounced: koo l-ah
In Mesopotamian mythology, Kulla is the god of bricks and construction, the divine builder. He was responsible for the restoration of temples as well.
Enki And The World Order
The earliest mention of Kulla is from this Sumerian myth in the first dynasty of Isin. In this story, Enki puts Kulla in charge of the pickaxe and brick-mold.
Kulla was created by Ea when he pinched off a piece of clay from the primeval ocean. This part of the story is mentioned in part of the ritual used for restoring a temple, when the god Anu created the heavens.
Kulla, along with Mušdam, the divine architect would be invoked at the start of any construction when the foundation of a building was being laid out.
Laying The Foundation
The proper time to begin laying down the foundation of a house is at sunrise. At this time, a basin of holy water is set up in which silver, gold, juniper, syrup, ghee and press oil are placed within. A ritual arrangement for the gods Ea, Shamash and Asalluhi is done followed up by a sacrifice.
For this, an adagurru-container is set up and then another ritual arrangement for the god is done. A ram is sacrificed over the foundation trench and syrup, beer, wine, oil and oil of the highest quality is poured out in libation over and into the foundations.
The incantation for the Laying of the Foundation is as follows:
“Kulla the Brick God) Lord of Foundation and Wall – oh you! X, son of X, who is building this house, by your command, by your word may he prosper! Because you are merciful, I have turned to you, because you are merciful, I seek you! The house he has built may last for a long time. This evil of the house […], you avert death, loss and evil deed from this house. At your sublime command, which cannot be altered, and by your firm consent, which cannot be changed, may X, son of X, live, prosper and sing your praises.”
The first two X’s refers to the name of who is heading the construction and building of the house. The second two X’s refer to the future owner of the house that’s being built.
The translation of the cuneiform is also not complete and there’s been good guesses to what is meant and how it should translate.
As the incantation is given, the following items will be scattered in the foundation trenches or in between gaps of the first layer of bricks before the foundation is laid. These items are: arsuppu-grain, garden-pea, wheat, grain at its highest growth, emmer, seed of all kinds, silver, gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, juniper, juniper seed, the fragrant plant sumlalu, fragrant balluku-wood, sweet reed, a white cloth, a black cloth, a linen cloth and a red cloth.
Once this is done, the invoker then leaves the site. The idea is that the evil or negative energy in having disturbed the ground for building the house is taken removed. At this time, the house will gain a protective deity and a protective genius and that the proprietor or owner of the house will grow old as in have a good, long life.
Restoring A Temple
The ritual used for restoring a temple is described as needing a favorable day when the foundation is opened for laying down bricks. Offerings to Kulla were set up using a censor of juniper, the libation of fine beer, scattering pressed-out sesame, cedar resin, cypress oil, honey, milk, wine, an assortment of stone, silver, gold and various aromatics are also given to the River god. A ram was also sacrificed and its blood poured into the foundation.
Once the construction of a building was finished, both Kulla and Mušdam would then be banished in a rather elaborate incantation series of rituals. I find it interesting that it is mentioned Kulla is exorcised like some unwanted spirit and that these rituals were part of a curriculum that exorcists learned.
It was very important that at the completion of any construction to prevent Kulla’s presence from requiring that any further building be done and needed construction elsewhere was neglected.
Exorcising Kulla From A Newly Built House
One version of this exorcism of Kulla has him driven away where he is unceremoniously loaded up onto a boat and banished to the netherworld. Afterwards, the construction crew were forbidden from entering the newly constructed building for a period of three days. The tablets, 14 in total, seven on the right side and seven on the left are thrown into the river.
The incantation for this exorcism of Kulla is as follows:
“Kulla, you are torn out, driven away and expelled. Kulla, you are conjured by heaven and you are conjured by the netherworld, you are conjured by Ea and Marduk, you are conjured by Duri and Dari, you are conjured by Lahma and Lahama, you are conjured by Alala and Belili, you are conjured by the gods residing in heaven, you are conjured by the gods residing in the netherworld! You are conjured by the Apsû, you are conjured by the gods residing on the Sacred Mount! You shall be torn out, you shall go away, you shall depart, you shall withdraw, you shall move out! I conjure you by Ekur and Gar – you shall never return!”
An alternative to this is that Kull and Mušdam would be thanked for their help and asked to depart the completed construction site.