Category Archives: New Year
Etymology: Kore – “The Maiden” or “The Girl”, Persephone – pherein phonon, “to bring (or cause) death”, Destroy-Slay
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Περσεφόνη, Kore, Core, Cora, Nestis, Persephonê, Persephneia (Homeric), Persephoneiê, Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa, Pherepaha, Phersephatta, Pherrephatta, Juno Inferna, Auerna, and Stygia
Epithets: Goddess of the Underworld, Queen of the Underworld
Persephone has a number of epithets that show her dual role as a chthonic and vegetation goddess. In other words, a life and death goddess. The poetic names for Persephone display her role as a Queen of the Underworld with the power to bring forth life and to take it away back to the earth. Persephone’s name of Kore, shows her role as a vegetation goddess in Arcadia where she was worshiped as Despoinia, an ancient chthonic goddess.
As an Underworld goddess, Persephone is given euphemistic, friendly names as some people were afraid to draw her attention to them. It’s possible that names are also the names of an original, local goddess. Some of these names are: Despoina (Dems-potnia), “the Mistress” in Arcadia. This name means: “Mistress of the House.”
Other names are: Aristi Cthnia, “the Best Chthonic,” Hagne, “Pure,” this is the original name of a goddess of springs in Messenia. Melinda or Melinoia (from meli “Honey”) in her role as the wife of Hades in Hermione, the names: Melivial and Melitodes. “the Pure One”, “the Maiden,” and “the Venerable One” to give a few others.
The Orphic Hymn to Persephone identifies her as Praxidike, the Subterranean Queen, the Eumenides’ source or mother, fair-haired, whose frame proceeds from Zeus’ ineffable and secret seeds.”
In her role as a vegetation goddess, she was called: Kore, “the Maiden,” Kore Soteira, “the Savior Maiden” in Megalopolis, Neotera, “the Younger” in Eleusis, Kore of Demeter Hagne in Homeric Hymns and Kore Memagmeni, “the Mixed Daughter” or bread.
With her mother Demeter, they were called: The Goddesses, often as “the older” and “the younger” in Eleusis. Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, The Thesmophoroi or “the legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses, The two Demeters, The two Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia and Karpophoroi or “the bringers of fruit” in Tegea, Arcadia.
Persephone is known as the Queen of the Underworld and wife to Hades. She is best known for the story of her abduction by Hades from her mother Demeter and being brought down to the Underworld to marry him for the Greek explanation and story for the origin of the seasons.
Month: January, May
Patron of: the Underworld, Spring, Flowers, Vegetation
Plant: Flowers, Pomegranate, Seeds of Grain
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, New Growth
Symbols: Cornucopia, Torch
Early Greek Depictions
The earliest depictions of a goddess that can be identified with Persephone show her growing up out of the ground. This image is found on a plate from the Old-Palace period in Phaistos. This goddess is plant-like in appearance and she is surrounded by dancing girls and blossoming flowers. In Minoan ring of Isopata, there is a similar image of this plant-like goddess.
In Classical Greek art, Persephone is typically shown wearing a robe and carrying a sheaf of grain. Sometimes she is shown carrying a scepter and a small box. More often though, Persephone is shown being carried off to the Underworld by Hades. When Persephone is shown with her mother, it is Demeter who often carries the scepter and sheaf of grain. Persephone is then shown holding a four-tipped torch, the kind often used for the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Sometimes, Persephone is shown holding a pomegranate or even just a pomegranate seed, thus linking her to her marriage with Hades and the Underworld. Another symbol that Persephone could be shown with is a cornucopia or horn of plenty to represent her role as a fertility deity.
Grecian poet Homer describes Persephone as being a formidable, venerable and majestic princess of the underworld. Persephone would put into effect the curses of men onto the souls of the dead.
What’s In A Name
There are serveral different names that have been given for Persephone. In a Mycenean Greek or Linear B inscription tablet dating from 1400 to 1200 B.C.E., the name Preswa has been identified a Persa, the daughter of Oceanus with speculation that this could be Persephone.
In the Ionic (think Epic) Greek literature, Persephone is the name used to identify her. The Homeric poems uses the spelling of Persephneia. In Plato’s Cratylus, she is known as Pherepaha as “she is wise and touches that which is in motion.” With other Grecian dialects, the names of Periphona, Persephassa, Persephatta, Phersephassa and Kore have been used. All of these variations to spelling and even pronunciation, have suggested the idea that Persephone may originated before Greek culture did.
The name Persephatta has been thoughted to translate to: “female thresher of grain.” With “perso-“ being connected to the Sanskrit word “parsa” meaning: “sheaf of grain.” The second part of the name comes from a Proto-Indo European word meaning: “to strike.”
Nestis – There is a Classical period text attributed to Empedocles, who lived from 490 to 430 B.C.E. In this text, Empedocles is describing the correspondence between four gods and the classical elements of earth, wind, fire and water. The name Nestis, for water, is used as a euphemism as Persephone’s name is taboo.
She who must not be named. That makes sense as Persephone is a Queen of the Dead and you didn’t want to unnecessarily attract her attention. Given the taboo to Persephone’s name, she would also be called Kore or “the maiden.”
Though, given the text: “Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus. And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” I see that Hades gets mentioned by name. Given Persephone’s much older lineage, she must not have been a goddess whose name was taken lightly.
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.
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.
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 of ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
According to Homer, Groves sacred to Persephone were found on the far western edges of the earth, leading to the lower or Underworld. These Groves were known as the House of Persephone.
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.
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 Elesusinian 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 Dememter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess.
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.
Parentage and Family
It is generally given and accepted that the parents of Persephone are Zeus and Demeter.
Zeus and Styx – Apollodorus is who lists these two deities as being Persephone’s parents. In the rest of Apollodorus’ accounts, he gives story of Demeter being Persephone’s mother.
In the Arcadian mysteries and worship, Persephone-Kore, known there as Despoina, is the daughter of Poseidon Hippios and Demeter. She is then believed to have been raised by the Titan Anytus.
I would also note that at this time, despite her parentage, Persephone is not considered one of the twelve Olympian gods.
Hades, god of the Underworld, also her Uncle.
Zeus, In the Orphic tradition, there is a story of Zeus seducing his daughter.
The direct siblings of Persephone are: Aeacus, Amphitheus I, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Arion, Artemis, Athena, Chrysothemis, Despoina, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Eubuleus, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Philomelus, Plutus, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirai
In the Orphic tradition, Persephone with Zeus is the mother of Dionysus, Iacchus, Melinoe and Zagreus.
By Hades, Persephone is also the mother of the Furies or Erinyes.
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.
It seems prudent that this story gets mentioned first. When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, 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 were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also 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. 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.
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 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – 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 pomegranate, 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.
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.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
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.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Stockholm Syndrome – This is when a prisoner or someone being abused comes to identify with their captor, to the point of identifying with them and possibly helping them.
After my research into Persephone, the views of Persephone coming to just accept her fate or where Hades tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed, so she’s forced to come down to the Underworld part of the year don’t sit well with me.
It’s abusive and greatly diminishes Persephone’s agency to have versions of the stories where Zeus and Hades (or just Hades) conspire to have her abducted. That’s forced marriage, no one likes it. Plus, when you compare Persephone’s story to Hebe’s story with coming of age and marrying, they’re inconsistent.
Once Kore has married Hades, she changes her name to Persephone. This is used to signify Kore transitioning to being an adult. If this happened with other gods and goddesses, I’d say this is cultural. Just Kore to Persephone, no one else that I have researched so far in Greek Mythology.
The only other example I have is that of Hebe when she marries Hercules once she’s considered old enough. Unlike Kore/Persephone, Hebe never changes her name. The Eleusinian Mysteries do predate Grecian Culture. So maybe the name change is a remnant of that. Or trying to combine different local deities under one name.
The change of names definitely notes a change to Kore’s function with the Greek interpretation of the myths. She is no longer strictly a fertility goddess, she is now also Queen of the Underworld, ruling alongside Hades. That Kore/Persephone returns part of the year, makes her a goddess of life and death, resurrection deity like other deities such as Attis, Jesus, Osiris, Minoan Crete among others.
Knowing now that Persephone is an ancient chthonic goddess whose worship predates the Greeks, it shows strongly the influence of the Greeks and a more patriarchal religion imposing their views and versions on these stories.
After all, we have how many male dominated stories among the Grecian stories? How many people perceive the Greek pantheon being male dominated? No wonder Demeter is angry and no wonder we have so many stories where Hera takes out her frustrations on Zeus’ children.
You said earlier that Persephone is a chthonic goddess? Yes, I did, I was getting a bit ahead of myself there.
Now that we got the main story for Persephone out of the way, it’s easier to get into the rest of Persephone’s aspects as an ancient goddess who predates the Greeks and not just merely the daughter of Demeter, who gets married off to Hades against her will.
As said, an ancient chthonic deity worshiped by many agriculture cultures in ancient Greece. In this role, Persephone would receive the souls of the dead down into the earth. In return, Persephone would cause the fertility of the earth for there to be new growth.
Queen Of The Underworld – She Who Must Not Be Named
There is a tradition in Greek beliefs not to speak Persephone’s name. This dates to the Arcadian beliefs where Persephone is equated with another deity, Despoina who’s name could not be spoken except to those who had been initiated. As a goddess of death, Persephone is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Styx. Homer gave description of Persephone as capable of carrying out the curses of men upon the souls of the dead. In the Orphic traditions, Dionysus and Melinoe are said to be the children of Zeus and Persephone.
Goddess Of Fertility & Springtime
One of Persephone’s important roles is that of a fertility goddess. The very myth and story of Persephone’s abduction is the basis for the explanation of the annual growth of vegetation in spring and its subsequent dying in the fall. Her myth is comparable to other, often male gods of life and rebirth myths such as Attis, Adonis and Osiris.
Agriculture is an important aspect of life, for without a bountiful harvest, it can spell disaster come winter time. The Eleusinian mysteries emphasized this importance with Persephone’s return every year, that there would be the promise of new life and growth. A sort of immortality.
It’s unfortunate that this important aspect of Persephone seems to have been forgotten and overlooked, oftentimes simply relegating her to the of Hade’s wife and Queen of the Underworld.
Though perhaps it makes sense that in her dual role of Fertility goddess and Queen of the Underworld, where she is responsible for putting forth new life and growth everything spring and then come fall, it is destroyed with her departure back to the Underworld.
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.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
The more simplified Greek influences on Persephone’s story greatly diminish her role, reducing her to an almost non-person status who gets no say in what happens to her. She just goes with the flow, unable to change her fate. Ultimately, what we get, a watered-down version that is used by the Greeks to explain the changes of the seasons from Spring to Winter and back.
When you understand Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess, this isn’t Demeter in a mood, sad or angry that her daughter isn’t there and refuses to allow anything to grow. Doing it out of spite because her daughter married Hades and she’s mad with Zeus. As a fertility goddess, nothing can grow on the earth if Persephone isn’t there. Demeter knew this, the other gods, especially Zeus and Hades didn’t listen.
By assigning Persephone’s role as a fertility goddess to her mother Demeter, the story that is then told and passed on, makes it seem as if Demeter is the one acting out of spite and grief towards Zeus to neglect her duties or outright as a means of blackmail, to allow anything to grow on the earth until she gets her way. That is, the return of her daughter Persephone.
With that understanding, Zeus than, by allowing Hades to marry Kore, created the problem of winter. Not because Demeter is depressed and vengeful, refusing to allow anything to grow, but because without Kore, nothing can grow. Sure, Demeter is depressed. Sure, all children grow up and leave home. It would explain Hecate getting involved. The world above needs you as much as the underworld
Remembering Persephone’s dual role as a fertility goddess and a chthonic goddess, now her descent to the underworld and the subsequent winter makes sense. Winter becomes a fallow period in which the earth is asleep and plant life is dormant. It won’t be forever, for come Spring again, when Persephone returns, a new season of growth begins again.
Nearly all versions of Kore/Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld and her return have being tricked into or choosing to some pomegranate seeds.
Sometimes the number of seeds eaten seems to matter as that represents the number of months in the year that Persephone must return and stay in the Underworld. So, mentioning three to four seeds tend to represent the winter months in which she is with Hades.
In ancient mythology, to eat the food of one’s captor meant that one would have to return to that captor or country, especially anything from the Otherworld, Faerie or the Underworld. Persephone is doomed to return to the Underworld for a part of the year. The other part, she is allowed to remain with her mother, Demeter.
Remember, the seeds themselves are merely symbolic. Persephone in her original role is a chthonic deity and would have returned to the living world and back to the Underworld as part of her seasonal traveling in her role as a fertility goddess.
As a symbol, the pomegranate seeds, under the Greek versions of the myth are looking to explain the seasonal cycle of the year and why it is that Persephone must return for a part of the year to her husband Hades.
Touching back on what I commented earlier about Altered States of Minds and Stockholm Syndrome, continuing a narrative of Persephone being tricked into or choosing to eat the seeds seems to perpetuate an abusive ideal of taking away her agency.
Either an abusive husband who forced himself on her, rape. Or an overbearing mother who doesn’t want to let her little girl go and will throw a tantrum refusing to allow anything to grow if Persephone isn’t with her. Then Persephone, even if she’s but I want to stay with Hades, mom’s willing to starve the entire world for her pettiness. This interpretation just doesn’t work for me.
I have to look at ancient chthonic goddess who’s going to travel back and forth anyways. As she’s a goddess of the Underworld and Hades is also a god of the Underworld, they are a perfect match in heaven…. Well the Underworld and the pomegranates were the food of choice to join in holy matrimony. No forced coercion.
Persephone & Minthe
For being a rather important deity, Persephone doesn’t have too many stories regarding her as she seems to be relegated to being little more than Hades wife. So where Hera often took complaint to Zeus’ many lovers and affairs, Persephone only has one such story.
That would be with the nymph, Minthe who may have been a mistress or lover of Hades before he abducted Persephone. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone took exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turned the nymph into a plant of the same name.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
If we go by the Greek legends and stories, Persephone wasn’t always so loyal with Hades. She did take Adonis and Hermes as lovers at different points. Granted nothing came of these affairs.
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Persephone & Zeus
Sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G…. this is a story from the Orphic tradition. Zeus (yes, her father) comes and seduces Persephone in the guise of a serpent. From this union, she bares a son, Zagreus. Zeus put his son up on the throne of heaven only to have him attacked and torn apart by the Titans.
Zagreus’ heart is recovered, and the young god is reborn through Semele to become the god Dionysus or Sabazius. This is to be a second Dionysus and not to be confused with each other.
Another goddess, Melinoe is also reputed to have been born from the union of Persephone and Zeus.
Persephone & Adonis
In this story, both Aphrodite and Persephone fell in love with the same mortal named Adonis. Naturally he is a handsome youth and neither goddess could agree as to who deserved him more. Zeus took the matter into his own hands and divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend on third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis came to love Aphrodite more. When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was transformed into the anemone flower.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the story the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice from the dead. Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allows him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Persephone & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him. Before dying, Sisyphus had told his wife to just throw his body to be thrown out into a public square where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Persephone into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Persephone & Alcestis
Which takes us to Alcestis, married to King Admetos. He didn’t want to die either.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Alcestis can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
I always thought it was Prometheus who did this. There’s a rather obscure myth in which Persephone is credited with the creation of man or humankind using clay. There was then a dispute among the gods over who should get to claim humans. An agreement came with the god Cronus presiding as judge, that while living, humans would be subjects of Zeus (who initially gave the clay figures life and controls their fate) and Gaia (who provided the clay in the first place) and when they died, they would go to the Underworld to be with Persephone as she came up with the idea to begin with.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus. In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules freed both Theseus and Pirithous.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens Coronides, the daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
Proserpina – Roman Goddess
Among the ancient Romans, Persephone is known as Proserpina. Her mother is said to be the goddess Ceres. The Romans first heard of Persephone from the Aeolian and Dorian cities in Magna Graecia. It’s an error on the part of the Roman’s, believing the name Proserpine to be derived from the Latin word proserpere, meaning: “to shoot or creep forth” and is a verb related to the germination of plants.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Protector Of Marriage
In Locri, Proserpina is the protector of marriage. This role is usually Hera’s domain. There are votive plaques in Locri that show Persephone’s abduction and her marriage to Hades, serving as a symbol of the marital state. The children of Locri were dedicated to Proserpina and maidens would bring their peplos to be blessed before getting married.
Proserpina And Psyche
This story is from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a second century Roman novel. In it, Venus (Aphrodite) forces Psyche to perform a task for her. Psyche is instructed to deliver a box from Venus down to the Underworld, to Proserpina. It seems simple enough that Venus wants some beauty cream from Proserpina, enough for one day so she can dress up for the Deities’ Theatre later that evening. Except this task is just one of many harsh tasks that Venus has Psyche perform.
Off to the Underworld she goes, a talking tower informs Psyche how to gain entrance. First, she has to offer a cake to Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the gates of the Underworld. That done, she will be welcomed readily enough by Proserpina who will invite her to sit on a soft cushion and enjoy a feast. This she, Psyche must not do, she must instead sit on the ground and ask for some course bread. If she does that, Psyche can then tell Proserpina what she is there for. Once she has what she seeks, Psyche is to come straight back, giving the last cake to Cerberus so she can leave the Underworld. The final instructions are, that Psyche is not to look within the box. She must retrace her steps back to Venus straight away.
Following the instructions, Psyche is able to get the box filled with beauty cream to bring back to Venus. The return trip back up to the Living World goes smoothly enough. Only now, past the seeming difficult parts of the journey, curiosity gets the better of Psyche and she decides to open the box, reasoning that she can take a drop for herself to look even more beautiful for her lover, Eros.
When you get instructions from the Otherworldly Guides and Deities, it’s best to heed them. As soon as Psyche opened the box, to her surprise it’s filled with the stygian sleep of Pluto. The sleep of death and it at once envelops her. Psyche’s limbs go rigid and she falls to the earth, stiff as a corpse laying there. Luckily for her, Eros finds Psyche and wipes the sleep off her and restores it to the box.
Proserpina And Euphemea
When the nymph Euphemea stopped worshiping Diana, the goddess struck the nymph full of arrows. At the very last, Proserpina snatched her up, still alive to take down to the Underworld.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
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.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten who brings in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turn Rudolph’s story into the well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today, didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children become prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergy and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Alternate Spelling: Uncle Nowruz
Also called: Persian – عمو نوروز
Etymology: Uncle Nowruz or Uncle New Year.
The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of 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.
Naneh Sarma And Amu Nowruz
One thing I found of interest is learning about Amu Nowruz’s wife, Naneh Sarma. There’s a love story wherein they only meet each other once a year.
According to the one story found, every year, on the Spring Equinox, Mother Simorq flies down from Mount Qâf with Amu Nowruz, the Young Man Spring. Once Simorq has dropped off Amu Nowruz, he heads for a chestnut colored horse waiting for him. Amu Nowruz will then ride the horse out over the plains towards the city gates where he will meet Naneh Sarma, Grandmother Frost in her orchard just outside the city walls.
Amu Nowruz and Naneh Sarma were madly in love with each other and the first day of Spring, Naneh Sarma cleans her house and prepares for Amu Nowruz’ arrival. Naneh Sarma waits a long time for Amu Nowruz’s arrival. Long enough that she falls asleep.
By the time Amu Nowruz arrives, he finds Naneh Sarma fast asleep. Instead of waking her, Amu Nowruz leaves a flower he picked for Naneh Sarma on her lap. He then proceeds make himself a glass of tea and stoke the fire so it doesn’t die down. After all this, Amu Nowruz then heads on into the city, bringing Spring time with him.
Shortly after, Naneh Sarma wakes up and finds the flower that Amu Nowruz left and the other signs of his having been there. She weeps finding that her lover has come and gone again. Mother Simorq comes to Naneh Sarma to comfort and remind her that she will have to wait another year for Amu Nowruz’s arrival without falling asleep.
Mother Simorq then carries Naneh Sarma back up to Mount Qâf as she begins to melt. On the top of the Mountain, Mother Simorq lays Naneh Sarma down as she completely melts, knowing that if Naneh Sarma and Amu Nowruz should ever meet, the world would end.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Amu Nowruz’s role in the New Year’s celebration is one very similar to that of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas with the celebration of Christmas in that of one whom is bringing gifts. Depending on the country and the calendar used, Nowruz is celebrated close to the Spring or Vernal Equinox, often close to somewhere between March 19 to March 22.
Nowruz is Persian for “New Day,” marking the first day of the month Farvardin and the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar. The celebration of Nowruz has its roots in ancient Persian traditions of Zoroastrian religion. Some scholars suggest that the celebration may even be older and have roots in Mithraism. It has survived some 3,000 years and varies a bit in celebration from one country to another, especially among the Middle Eastern cultures, mainly Iranian.
Heralding the start of Nowruz, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him. Accompanying him is Amu Nowruz bringing and bearing gifts where Hajji Firuz is the one to demand and expect them.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessings, abundance and luck for the coming year.
Shahnameh – The Book Of Kings
The Shahnameh is an epic poem written by the Persian poet, Ferdowsi sometime between 977 and 1010 C.E.
What’s significant is that this poem dates the celebration of Nowruz to the reign of Jamshid, who in Zorastrian texts saves all of mankind from a killer winter that would have killed every living creature. This mythical Persian King likely represents or symbolizes the transition of people going from animal hunting to animal husbandry and the eventual more settled, civilized eras of human history.
Jamshid is credited with the founding of celebrating Nowruz. According to the text of the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, Jamshid created a throne embedded with gemstones. Sitting on the throne, he had demons raise him up above the earth into the heavens where he sat like the sun, shining brightly. The creatures of the world would gather around Jamshid and scatter gems around him. This started the day known as the New Day or Nowruz and marking the first day of the month of Farvardin.
Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, about 10th century C.E. notes in his Kitab al-Tafhim li Awa’il Sina’at al-Tanjim, the Persian belief that Nowruz marks the first day that the universe begins.
UN Recognition Of Nowruz
While it goes slightly off topic of focusing on Amu Nowruz, I feel it’s important to mention that in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21st as the International Day of Nowruz. It is recognized as an ancient Persian festival for Spring that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
Where for Christians, the celebration of Christmas is often used to promote peace and goodwill, so too does the celebration of Nowruz during Spring. That having more of the world, the global community be better familiar with the significance of Nowruz and its meaning, it will help promote more cultural understandings, friendships, peace and hopefully long lasting respect.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Pleiades Star Lore Around The World Continued
In Babylonian mythology and astronomy, the Pleiades are called MUL.MUL or “star of stars” in their star catalogues. The Pleiades are at the top of a list of stars along the ecliptic and close to the time of the Vernal Equinox around the time of the 23rd century B.C.E. A group of deities known as Zappu also represent the Pleiades star cluster.
Middle Eastern Mythology
Arabic – The Pleiades are known as al-Thurayya, they are mentioned in Islamic literature. The star, Aldebaran, meaning “the Follower” which is part of the Taurus constellation is seen as forever chasing al-Thurayya across the night sky.
Iran – In the Persian language, the Pleiades are known as Parvin. The name Parvin is also a very popular given name in Iran and neighboring countries.
Islam – Some Islamic scholars have thought that al-Thurayya might be the star mentioned in the sura Najm in the Quran. Muhammad is said to have counted 12 stars within the star cluster as found in Ibn Ishaq. This was in a time before telescopes and most people could only see six stars. The name al-Thurayya has been used as a female given name in Persian and Turkish culture. As seen in names such as Princess Soraya or in Iran and Thoraya as Obaid.
Judeo-Christian – In the Bible, the Pleiades are identified as being Kimah, meaning “cluster,” which is mentioned three times in relation to the constellation of Orion. Specifically in Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; and Job 38:31. In the New Testament, there is an indirect reference to this asterism found in Revelations 1:16.
The Talmud says that the Pleiades has about 100 stars. This is with the understanding that the word כימה as כמא (Kimah and pronounced as: ke’ me-ah) means just that, “about one hundred” in the Hebrew language.
The Talmud Rosh Hashanah tells that when God became with mankind’s wickedness, he went and remade Kimah, removing two of its stars and caused that this star cluster would rise with the dawn and out of season. This event is what precipitated and causes the Biblical Flood of Noah.
Pakistan – Much like Iran, the name Parvin is also a popular given name, especially for women. In recent decades the name hasn’t had as much use. In the Urdu language, the name Parvin and the stars it represents is a symbol of beauty.
Persian – The Pleiades are known as Nahid. Another name for the Pleiades that is shared by the Persiand and Urdu languages is Parvin, Parveen or Parween. It is a genderless or unisex given or family name used not just the Middle East, but Central Asia, South Asia and Azerbaijan. The name Parvin means star and is the name for the Pleiades asterism.
Native American Mythology
Several tribes have stories regarding the Pleiades star cluster.
Blackfoot – The Lost Boys – This is a story in which the Pleiades are a group of orphaned boys not taken care of by anyone, so they ended up becoming stars. Sun Man was angered by the boys’ neglect, so he punished the people with a drought, causing the buffalo to leave. The wolves, the only friends the boys had ever had, intervened for the people to have the buffalo return. Sadden by their lives on earth, the boys asked the Sun Man to allow them to play up in the heavens where they became the Pleiades. In addition, to remind the tribe of their neglect of the children, they hear the howling of the wolves calling for the friends up in the heavens.
The story represents more the time of the year and season in which the Blackfoot gather to hunt the buffalo. The buffalo herds don’t appear while the Lost Boys or Pleiades asterism is in the sky and this marks when the hunters would set out to their hunting grounds.
Another name for the Pleiades star cluster in Blackfoot legends is the Bunched stars. Instead of being orphans, the boys’ family were so poor that they couldn’t afford buffalo robes worn by other boys in the tribe. Out of grief and shame, the six boys went up into the sky to become stars.
Cheyenne – A Cheyenne legend, “The Girl Who Married a Dog,” tells how the Pleiades stars represent puppies that a Cheyenne chief’s daughter gave birth to after being visited by a dog in human form. The daughter had fallen in love with the dog-being and vowed that: “Where you go, I go.”
Cherokee – Both the Cherokee and Onondaga tribes tell a similar story about a group of seven boys who refused to any of their sacred responsibilities and only wanted to play. They ran around and ‘round the village’s ceremonial circle until all seven of the boys rose up into the sky. Only six of the boys reached the heavens where they became the Pleiades star cluster. The seventh boy was caught by his mother and pulled back to the earth so hard that he sunk into the ground, becoming a pine tree.
Crow – The Crow military societies have many songs that use a play on words referencing the Pleiades constellation. Many of the words are often difficult to translate and the stories range from stories of bravery and high ideals to many amusing or comical stories.
Hopi – The Hopi built many underground places called kivas that would get used for a variety of purposes. The most important of these kivas that was used for ceremonial meetings could only be accessed through a ladder in a small hole at the roof. During some ceremonies, the appearance of the Pleiades or Tsöösöqam, over the opening hole marked when to begin the ceremony. The Pleiades have been found shown on one wall in a kiva.
Inuit – Nanook, the Inuit Bear God was identified with the Pleiades. In the early days, a great bear threatened all of the people. This bear was chased up into the heavens by a pack of dogs where they continue to chase after the bear in the form of the Pleiades.
Kiowa – There is a legend told about how seven maidens were being chased by giant bears. The Great Spirit created Mateo Tepe, the Devil’s Tower and placed the maidens up on it. Still the bears pursued the maidens, clawing at the sides of the sheer cliffs. Such claw marks are said to be the vertical striations of the rock formation. Seeing that the bears were relentless in pursuit of the maidens, the Great Spirit placed the seven maidens up into the sky to become the Pleiades.
Lakota – There is a legend that links the origin of the Pleiades with Devils Tower. This constellation is known as Cmaamc, an archaic plural form of the noun cmaam, meaning “woman.” The stars are seven women who are giving birth.
Additionally, the Lakota hold a similar legend to the Kiowa about Mato Tipila, “Bear Tower” or Devil’s Tower to European settlers. A tribe was camped beside a river and seven of their young girls were playing nearby. The area at this time had a number of bears living there and a bear began chasing the girls. The girls started running back to the village. Just as the bear was about to catch them, the girl leaped up onto a rock. They cried out: “Rock, take pity on us; Rock, save us.” The rock heard their cries and began to rise up high out of the bear’s reach. The bear clawed at the sides of the rock, its claws breaking off. The bear kept jumping at the rock until it rose higher and higher to the point that the girls reached the sky where they became the Pleiades. The claw marks of the bear can still be seen on Mato Tipila or Devil’s Tower.
Mono – The Monache tell a story how the Pleiades are six women who loved onions more than their husbands. They were thrown out of their homes by their angry husbands and found their way up to the heavens. When the husband grew lonely and tried to find their wives, it was too late.
Navajo – The Navjo story of The Flint Boys, after the Earth had been separated from the Sky by the Black Sky God, he had a cluster of stars on his ankle. These stars were the Flint Boys. During the Black God’s first dance, with each stamp of his foot, the Flint Boys would jump up further on his body. First to the knee, then the hip, to his shoulder and finally up to his forehead. There they remained as a sign that the Black God was Lord of the Sky. The seven stars of the Pleiades or Flint Boys are shown on ceremonial masks for the Black God, sand paintings and ceremonial gourd rattles.
Nez Perce – They have a myth about Pleiades that parallels the ancient Greek myth and the Lost Pleiades. In this myth, the Pleiades are a group of sisters and one of the sisters falls in love with a man. When he died, she was so grief stricken, that she finally told her sisters about him. The other sisters mocked her, telling her how foolish she is to mourn the death of a human. This sister continued to grow in her sorrow, to the point she became ashamed of her own feelings that she pulled a veil over herself, blocking herself from view in the night sky. The Nez Perce use this myth to explain why only six of the seven stars is visible to the naked eye.
Onondaga – Their version of the story surrounding Pleiades has it the stars represented lazy children who wanted to dance instead of doing their chores. All the while as they ignored the warnings of the Bright Shining Old Man. Eventually, light headed and dizzy from hunger, the children rose up into the heavens to become the Pleiades.
Pawnee – Among the Skidi Pawnee, the Pleiades are seen as seven brothers. They observed this star cluster along with the Corona Borealis, the Chiefs through a smoke hole in Pawnee lodges in order to keep track of the time of night.
Shasta – In their stories, the Pleiades are the children of Raccoon who are killed by Coyote while avenging their father’s death. After death, they rose up to become the Pleiades star cluster. The smallest star in the asterism is seen as Coyote’s youngest child who helped Raccoon’s children.
Zuni – They used the Pleiades as an agricultural calendar. Among the Zuni, the Pleiades were known as the “Seed Stars.” When the Pleiades disappeared on the western horizon during spring, it was time for planting seeds as the danger of frost had pass. The Zuni also knew to finish all of their planting and harvesting before the Pleiades returned on the eastern horizon with the return of colder autumn weather and frost.
New Age, Western Astrology & Occult Connections
Astrology – In Western astrology, the Pleiades have come to represent coping with sorrow. In Medieval times, they were viewed as a single set of fixed stars and associated with fennel and quartz. In esoteric astrology, there are seven solar systems that revolve around Pleiades.
New Age – There’s a belief that the Sun and the Earth will pass through a Photon belft from the Pleiades star cluster. This will cause a cataclysm or a time of spiritual transition that is referred to as a “shift in consciousness,” the “Great Shift” and “Shift of the Ages.”
Occult – The Pleiades are mentioned as an astrological sign in “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. It has a publication date of 1533, but may have appeared earlier in 1510.
Theosophy – It is believed that the seven stars of the Pleiades act as a focus for the spiritual energy of the Seven Rays from the Galactic Logos to the seven stars of the Great Bear, from there the star Sirius, on to the Sun and then to the god of the Earth, Sanat Kumara and finally that energy goes through the seven Masters of the Seven Rays to everyone else.
Ufology – Some people have described a race of Nordic aliens known as Pleiadeans who come from the Pleiades star cluster. A man by the name of Billy Meier claims to have had contact with and met these aliens.
The Pleiades were seen as the goddess Freyja’s hens. Their name in many older European languages refer to this star cluster as a hen with chicks.
The name of Hen and Chicks for Pleiades is found in Old English, Old German, Czech, Hungarian and Russian.
The Pleiades are known by various names such as Moropóro, Molopólo or Mapúlon. Christian Filipinos know this star cluster as Supot ni Hudas (Judas’ pouch) or Rosaryo (Rosary).
Hawaiian – The Pleiades are known as Makali’i. It’s rise shortly after sunset marks the beginning of the Hawaiian New Year known as Makahiki. This is four month period of peace honoring the god Lono. The Hawaiian New Year’s celebration is similar to the Maori New Year’s observances.
Maori – Among the Maori of New Zealand, the Pleiades are known as Matariki, “eyes of god” or Mata rikie, “Little Eyes”, she is a goddess who is accompanied by her six daughters: Tupu-a-Nuku, Tupu-a-Rangi, Wai-Tii, Wai-Ta, Wai-puna-Rangi, and Uru-Rangi.
From June 20 to June 22, known as Maruaroa o Takurua, marks the middle of winter. This time period comes right after the rise of the Pleiades or Matariki and is the beginning of the New Year. Tradition holds that the Sun starts his northward journey with his winter-bride Takurua, represented by the star Sirius and will make his southward journey later with his summer-bride, Hineraumati.
Another story involving Matariki, tells that one day Ranginui, the sky father and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their children. The wind god Tāwhirimātea ripped out his eyes in rage and flung them up into the heavens where they became a star cluster.
Polynesian – According to Polynesian legends, the Pleiades were once one star and had been the brightest in the night sky. The god Tane hated this star so much as it had boasted of its own beauty. The legend goes on to say that Tane proceeded to smash this star into pieces, creating the Pleiades star cluster.
The Pleiades in Rome are called The Bunch of Grapes and The Spring Virgins. Another name for these stars is Vergiliae as this asterism begins to rise after Spring and considered a sign of Summer before setting later in the Winter months. In modern day Italy, the Pleiades began rising around the beginning of May and would set around the beginning of November.
South American Mythology
Andes – Among the people of the Andes Mountains, the Pleiades were associated with abundance as this star cluster was seen as returning every year during the harvest season. Among the Quechua, the Pleiades are known as collca’ meaning storehouse.
Inca – The Pleiades were called the “Seed Scatter” or “Sower.” Another name for the Pleiades are the “Little Mothers.” The Incas held festivals when this asterism appeared in the night sky.
Paraguay – The Abipones tribe worshipped the Pleiades, believing them to be their ancestors.
Peru – The season of Verano, roughly meaning summer or Dry Season. There is a ritual coinciding with the Pleiades during the Summer Solstice. A Peruvian cosmological chart from 1613 C.E. appears to show the Pleiades asterism. An Incan nobleman, Pachacuti Yamqui drew the chart in order to show objects depicted in the Cusco temple. He added Spanish and Quechua notations to his chart.
The Pleiades are known as Dao Luk Kai in Thailand. The name translates to the “Chicken Family Stars” in English, it is name that comes from Thai folklore.
An elderly couple living in a forest of Thailand were raising a family of chickens; a mother hen and her six chicks. One day, a monk arrived at the couple’s home during his Dhutanga journey. Fearful of not having anything good enough to offer for a meal, the couple considered cooking the mother hen. The mother hen overheard the couple’s conversation, hurried back to the coup to say goodbye to her chicks. The mother hen told her chicks that they would need to take care of themselves from now on. After that, the mother hen returned to the elderly couple so they could prepare their meal for the monk.
When the mother hen was killed, her chicks threw themselves into the fire to die alongside her. The god, Indra was impressed by their great love and in remembrance, raised the chickens up into the heavens as stars.
Depending on the version of the story being told, if only six chicks are mentioned, then the mother is included as being among the stars of Pleiades. Otherwise, it is usually seven chicks who make up the stars in Pleiades.
In Turkey, the Pleiades are known as Ãlker or Ülker. According to legends, mankind was suffering a lot of suffering and evil. The creator god, Tangri Ulgen met with the Sky Spirits of the West, the Ãlker. A decision was reached and they sent an eagle, the first Shaman down to the earth to ease these afflictions and problems. The nomadic tribes of Turkey see the Pleiades as a source of both solace and the area of the heavens where the gods reside.
Kaşgarlı Mahmud. An 11th century lexicographer, the term ülker çerig refers to a military ambush. Where the word cerig means: “troops in battle formation.” The term ülker çerig has been used as a simile for the Pleiades asterism.
There are a few different names that the Pleiades are known as in traditional Ukrainian folklore. Some of these names are Stozhary, which can be traced etymologically to the word stozharnya, meaning “granary,” “storehouse for hay and crops” or it can be reduced to it’s meaning of sto-zhar, meaning “hundredfold glowing.” Other names for the Pleiades are Volosozhary and Baby-Zvizdy.
With the names Volosozhary, which means “the ones whose hair is glowing” and ‘Baby-Zvizdy which means “female-stars,” the Pleiades star clusters refers to a group of female tribal deities. In Ukrainian legend, long ago, there lived seven maids who danced their traditional dances and sing songs to honor the gods. After their death, the gods turned the seven maids into water nymphs and took them up into the Heavens where they became the now familiar star cluster. The symbol of this star cluster was used as a women’s talisman.
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 making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Etymology: “House of Horus (the Elder)”
Hathor is a Pre-Dynastic goddess who was very well known and like many of the Egyptian deities, she is still known by many in modern times. Hathor’s name may be a reference to her domain as a sky goddess and being the Celestial Cow and where too, the god Horus held his domain as well. Where Horus represented the living king, Hathor represented the living queen.
Other Names and Epithets: Athor, Athyr, Hat-Her, Hethert, Het-Hert (House or Womb Above), Het-Heru, Hwt-Hert, Hethara, Hetheru
Hathor is a goddess who is known by many titles. The first of her titles is: “the Great One of Many Names”
An example of a good many of her names and more properly, titles are:
“Lady to the Limit”, “Lady of Heaven”, “The One Who Shines as Gold”, “The Gold that is Hathor”, “Lady of the West”, “Divine (or Celestial) Cow”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “Lady of Gold”, “Lady of Greenstone and Malachite”, “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli”, “Mistress of Life”, “the Great Wild Cow”, “the Golden One”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Lady of Iunet” (Dendera), “Lady Of Denderah”, “Mistress of Qis”, “Lady of Punt”, “the Powerful One”, “Lady of the Southern Sycamore”, “Lady of the Turquoise”, “the Mistress of Turquoise”, “Mother of Mothers”, “The Celestial Nurse”, “Lady of Drunkenness”, “the Eye of Ra”, “Lady of Amenity”, “the Dweller in the Great Land”, “Lady of Ta-Tchesert”, “the Dweller in his breast”, “Lady of the Vulva”, “the Beautiful Face in the Boat of Millions of Years”, “the Seat of Peace of the doer of truth”, “Dweller in the Boat of the favored ones”, “Lady of Stars”, “Sovereign of Stars”, “Hand of God”, “Great Menat”, “Mistress of the Desert”, “Sovereign of Imaau”, “Queen of Heaven”, “Mistress of Heaven”, “the Gentle Cow of Heaven”, “Lady of the House of Jubilation”, “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy”
Hathor’s roles have been many for the many millennia that she has been known and worshipped. Beyond being one of two of Egypt’s Cow Goddesses, Hathor has been known as a Sky Goddess, a Sun Goddess, a Moon Goddess, the Goddess of the East, and the Goddess of the West, Goddess of Moisture and Fertility, Agriculture, Motherhood, Goddess of the Cycle, Goddess of the Underworld, Mistress of the Necropolis, Goddess of the Dead, Goddess of Love and Beauty, Goddess of Music, Song, Dance, Drinking and Joy. She has been known as the patron Goddess of Women and Marriage.
Animal: Cow, Cobra, Falcon, Hippopotamus, Lioness, Snake
Colors: Red, Turquoise
Festivals: Aug 7th (New Years), Sept 17th, Festival of Het Heret – November 2nd
Gemstones: Emerald, Malachite, Lapis-Lazuli, Turquoise
Month: Third Month by the Egyptian Calendar, Hethara (as the Greeks called it) or Athyr. From September 17th to October 16th. This was the month of Inundation when the Nile River would flood.
Patron of: Sun, Universe, Children, Mothers, Miners, Musicians, Pharaohs
Planet: Sun and Moon
Plant: Myrtle, Rose, Sycamore
Sphere of Influence: Arts, Astrology, Beauty; Children, Childbirth, Dance, Family, Femininity, Fertility, Flowers, Foreign Lands, Joy, Love, Mining, Moisture, Moon, Motherhood, Music, Prosperity, Pregnancy, Sexuality, Sky, Song
Symbols: Cow, Cosmetics, Horns-and-Sundisk Headdress, Menat (a type of ritual necklace possibly used for percussive music), Mirrors; Sandalwood and Rose Incense; Sistrum (a type of rattle), Papyrus Reed
Early depictions of this goddess show her as being a cow with a sun disk between her horns or as a woman wearing the horns-and-sun disk headdress that may or may not have a symbol known as the uraeus on it. Sometimes when Hathor is shown as a cow, she is covered in stars. When depicting Hathor’s role as a fertility goddess and her powers of procreation, she is shown suckling a child.
An early depiction of Hathor and identifying her as a cow is likely from what is known as the Narmer Palette. And it seems Hathor absorbed and took over many of the roles as a fertility goddess from another cow goddess, Bat.
Sometimes Hathor would be shown as a hippopotamus, a falcon, cobra, goose, cat, malachite, sycamore fig or even as a lioness. These forms aren’t as common to Hathor as her more familiar shape of a woman or a cow.
When Hathor is shown as a cow, she is seen having beautifully painted eyes and is frequently a red color, the color of passion. Hathor, along with the dwarf god Bes are the only known Egyptian gods shown in portrait rather than in profile.
The depictions showing Hathor as a woman with a cow’s head are more common of later periods. Also more common to later periods is Hathor being shown with a twin set of feathers and a menat necklace. A number of ancient mirrors and sistras have been found showing a smiling, nude Hathor on them over the years. Hathor’s image of a woman with cow ears is often found on the top of stone columns in Egyptian temples.
An ancient Goddess and one of the main gods of Egypt, Hathor was worshipped for well over 3,000 years and during that time, she has taken on many personas and aspects. She is the Celestial Cow, the protector of women, the Queen of Egypt, a Goddess of Love, Children, Pregnancy, Dancing, Singing and Poetry.
The Egyptians were very fluid in their theology and how the gods were depicted. Different deities were known to merge for a specific reason or to emerge and split away, becoming their own entity. Given the thousands of years the Egyptian Dynasties lasted, its not surprising in many ways for the myths to be fluid and change with the times. It was no problem for the Egyptians who saw such myths as complimentary and not contradictory.
At different points in the continuing development of Egyptian mythology, Hathor has been equated and associated with a good many other Goddesses who are sometimes, if not often seen as just being different aspects of the same Goddess. Hathor has also been shown to be the mother, daughter and wife of Ra and to have later seen many of her roles taken over by Isis who becomes the mother of Horus.
Some of the Goddesses are: Sekhmet, Bastet, Beb and Isis.
Bastet – As the goddess Bastet, Hathor is seen to be more gentle and loving. Particularly when compared to the more harsher image of Sekhmet. Where Bast represented Lower Egypt, Hathor represented Upper Egypt.
Bat – Another primordial, pre-Dynastic cow goddess of fertility. Hathor seems to have absorbed the aspects and roles that this Goddess once held. Bat has also been linked to the Ba, an aspect of the soul and Hathor seems to have gained her associations as a Death Goddess from this connection. The sistrum, a rattle that was once a symbol of Bat also became one of Hathor’s symbols.
Hesat – She was seen as a manifestation of Hathor in earthly form. Like Hathor, Hesat is also regarded as the wife of Ra. As an earthly cow-goddess, milk was said to be the beer of Hesat and part of her link to Hathor. Hesat was also known as the wet-nurse to the gods.
Isis – In the later periods of Egyptian religion, most of Hathor’s roles and aspect have been picked up and taken over by the goddess Isis. As Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, now has Hathor’s headdress and sistrum symbol. There can often be confusion as to which goddess is meant to be shown. The difference though is that when Isis is shown with horns, she is also wearing the vulture headdress that is typical of another goddess Mut or she is wearing a multi-colored feathered dress.
Mehet-Weret – Her name means “Great Flood.” She seems to be another primordial cow goddess like Hathor and Bat. Hathor absorbed many of her myths, particularly from the creation story of being the mother of Ra, carrying him between her horns.
Nebethetepet – Her name means “Mistress of the Offering.” She was a manifestation of Hathor at Heliopolis where she was associated with the Sun-God Atum.
Saosis – A goddess who is often identified with Hathor. Her symbol was the acacia tree in which death and life were enclosed.
Sekhmet – A rather dark and fierce goddess of justice. This is a harsher side of Hathor that is usually tempered by the gentler image of Bastet.
Tefnut – A primal lioness goddess, she and Hathor share a similar story where they become estranged from Ra and wander off towards Nubia.
As previously mentioned with the goddess Isis, some two thousand years after Hathor’s first appearances, the goddess Isis began to appear and to assume many of the roles and functions that Hathor once held. Where Hathor was once considered the mother of Horus, Isis took over this role along with being the mother of the Pharaohs.
Greek & Roman Connection!
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it to any that they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus.
Cults Of Hathor
Being an ancient, primordial deity, Hathor was worshipped in a good many Egyptian cities. Hathor was a patron of the cities of Iunet and Itjtawy. Temples could be found for her every where. The earliest temples and images for Hathor have been found drawn on rocks near Naqada and the Girez settlement. Both of these sites are located in the southern part of Upper Egypt and date back to the Predynastic era of about 4,000 B.C.E. Give or take a few years, this places Hathor around 6,000 years old.
Hathor’s cult thrived in Ta-Netjer (“Land of God”), modern day Dendera in Upper Egypt. Here she was worshipped as “Mistress of Dendra.” Dendra was also Hathor’s main temple, also known as the “Place of Intoxication.” So popular was Hathor’s worship that at one point her Dendera temple had as many as sixty-one priestesses. Hathor’s priests were both men and women, many of whom were capable dancers, musicians and singers. Priests of Hathor were also known for being oracles and midwives. It wasn’t unusual for people to go to her temples to have their dreams interpreted. The temple at Dendera along with the Temple of Deir el-Bahri clearly shows an indication of Hathor as a Sun Goddess. The temple of Dendera was also where Hathor’s cult was primarily found.
In the temple of Nefertari, found in Abu Simbel, Queen Nefertari is frequently shown as the goddess Hathor in many places. And Ramses II is shown in one sanctuary receiving milk from Hathor in her cow form. Not surprising as many of the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt saw themselves as living gods.
Other temple sites dedicated to Hathor have been found in Deir el-Medina, West Bank, Luxor, another at Philae Island, Aswan, Timna valley, Israel, Inerty (Gebelein), Iunet (Dendera), Qis (Qusiya), Tpyhwt (Atfih), Mennefer (Hikuptah, Memphis) and Iunu (On/Heliopolis). As Hathor-Sekhmet, she was the main goddess of Yamu (Kom el-Hisn).
Hathor had been worshipped in this land during the eleventh century B.C.E. as at this time, it was under Egyptian rule. Her holy city of Hazor or Tel Hazor was destroyed by Joshua as mentioned in the Jewish Torah or Christian’s Old Testament in Joshua 11:13, 21.
There were a good many places where Hathor was worshiped, not just Egypt and Nubia. Her worshippers could be found throughout all of Semitic West Asia, Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, especially in the city of Byblos.
One thought for why Hathor’s worship is so widespread, even during the Predynastic Era is that she appears on the Narmer palette. Many scholars have put forward that idea that the goddess depicted isn’t Hathor, but another cow goddess named Bat or even possibly Narmer themselves.
The Five Gifts of Hathor – Initiation Into Hathor’s Cult
For those wishing entrance into Hathor’s cult, they would under go a ritual of initiation. This initiation ritual was known as “The Five Gifts of Hathor.” An initiate would be asked to name off the five things they were grateful for while looking at the digits of their left hand.
The idea is that the poor of Egypt who didn’t own their own lands, but would work for others in their fields would always be able to see their left hand while working. It was always visible to them as they reached out for the strands of grain to harvest and then cut the sheaths with the blade being held in their right hand.
With the naming of the five things a person was grateful for and identifying them with the fingers of their left hand, a person was always reminded of the good things in life and kept them the sins of ingratitude. Ingratitude was a sin that Egypts viewed as leading towards many others.
For the rich and more prosperous of Egypt, the Five Gifts were a way to keep them from envying others and what they had so that they could stay humble before the gods.
Parentage and Family
Hathor is said to be the daughter of the goddess Nut and the god Ra (or Re).
Given how fluid Egyptian mythology can be and the varying, ever changing roles that the gods played over the millennia and as one dynasty gave way to another, there are some accounts where Hathor is the Mother of Ra. Another account will place her as the Daughter of Ra.
This seems better understood when taking note of another primordial cow goddess, Mht wr who was the mother of Ra. Hathor took over her role and place in the creation story. Another explanation has been given that when Hathor is seen as the Daughter of Ra, it is when she is seen as part of the greater whole of the stars of heaven. The stars were known as the “Children of Ra.”
It’s thought that in Pre-Dynastic times and certainly Early Dynastic Egypt, Hathor was the consort to the “Bull of Amenti,” who had originally been the deity of the Necropolis.
In Hermopolis, Thoth is considered the husband of Hathor, with him; she is the mother to Ra-Horakhty, one of many composite deities in Egypti. This could be due to Hathor at one point absorbing the role and aspects of Seshat, the goddess of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Architecture who is also Thoth’s wife.
When the gods Ra and Amun merged in Egyptian mythology, Hathor becomes seen as the wife of the god Sobek, an aspect of Amen-Ra.
Hathor is more famously known to be the wife of Horus the Elder.
The siblings of Hathor are considered to be: Sekhmet, Bast, Ptah, Shu, Tefnut, Thoth and Serqet
With Horus (the Elder), Hathor is the mother of Ihy (or Ahy), a falcon-headed god who like his mother, becomes a god of music and dancing. He is also shown as carrying a sistrum as well.
Some slight confusion is another child of Hathor and Horus (the Elder) in his aspect as Horus- Behdety is Harsomptus or Hor-sema-tawy (Horus Uniter of the Two Lands).
Sometimes, Ihy is listed as being one and the same as Hor-sema-tawy.
Other children of Hathor are: Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef.
And with Hathor’s divine role as Mother of the Gods, she can claim all of the Egyptian gods as her children, including Ra who is both her father and son.
The Mother Of The Egyptian Pharaoh And Horus
The name Horus is a bit tricky as there is more than one god named Horus. This makes better sense when it is understood and known that Hathor was often considered the mother of the Egyptian pharaoh, who would stylize themselves as the “son of Hathor.”
Many of the Pharaohs would take on the name of Horus as an honorific at death. Plus the Egyptian Pharaohs also saw themselves as living gods who would become deified on death, reborn again when the next Pharaoh took the throne.
And what about the goddess Isis being the mother of Horus? It should be noted that yes, but this is Horus the Younger, a different Horus. There were a lot of deities named Horus, nearly as many as there were Pharaohs. Given that the Pharoahs of Egypt believed themselves to be a living god, that’s not surprising.
Mother Of Mothers And The Celestial Nurse
Hathor’s protection was invoked over children and pregnant women.
In addition to the above information about Hathor’s role as a midwife and protector of children, anytime a child was born in Egypt, it was believed that seven Hathors would appear as seven young women wearing cow horns and playing tambourines. They spoke with one voice, determining a child’s fate in life even to the hour of his or her death, much like the European Fairy Godmother and the three Fates found in Greek, Roman and even Norse mythology.
The Seven Hathors held an extremely great power of being able to alter destinies. They could replace a prince should he have been born with bad fortune with a child who was born with good fortune. The Seven Hathors’ responsibility was to protect the Dynasty and Nation of Egypt. For it was believed among the Egyptians that a person’s destiny and fortune would follow them throughout their life with not ability to change it.
The Seven Hathors seem to be connected to divination and to be the questioners to those souls headed to the after life in the Land of the West.
As goddesses in their own right, the Hathors were worshipped in seven cities. These are: Waset (Thebes), Iunu (On, Heliopolis), Aphroditopolis, Sinai, Momemphis, Herakleopolis, and Keset.
Additionally, found both within the tomb of Nefertari and in the Book of the Dead, these seven Hathors had their own names as follows:
• Lady of the Universe
• You from the Land of Silence
• You from Khemmis
• Bright Red
• Your name flourishes through Skill
Other alternatives names for the Seven Hathors have also been found on papyri. Some of these are:
• Lady of the House of Jubilation
• Mistress of the West
• Mistress of the East
• Ladies of the Sacred Land
During the Ptolemaic Period, when Egypt fell under Greek rule, the Seven Hathors became identified with the Pleiades star cluster.
Hand Of God – The Sistrum
Music was very important in the worship of Hathor who is sometimes shown carrying a sistrum, a type of rattle. This was an ancient musical instrument played by her priests and priestesses. The sistrum often had the face of Hathor on the handle at the joining part. There is thought to be sexual overtones connected with this instrument, particularly for fertility. Hathor’s titles of “Hand of God” and “Lady of the Vulva” seem to be connections to the design of the sistrum and her role in fertility.
The menat is another musical instrument sacred to Hathor. At first glance it looks like a necklace with a special counterweight. This counterweight piece is thought to be similar to fertility dolls found in ancient tombs which in this respect, represented wombs. The menat as an instrument would be held in the hands and rattled to make noise.
Both the Menat and Sistrum connect Hathor as a Goddess of Song and Dance. The ancient Egyptians believed that it is Hathor who first taught mankind how to sing and dance using her sacred instruments. The menat is also important as a symbol of rebirth.
There is a hymn to Hathor that goes:
“Thou art the Mistress of Jubilation, the Queen of the Dance, the Mistress of Music, the Queen of the Harp Playing, the Lady of the Choral Dance, the Queen of Wreath Weaving, the Mistress of Inebriety Without End.”
The Goddess Of Joy
Hathor was very popular among the ancient Egyptians. She was greatly revered by women in her role as wife, mother and lover. This led to a couple of Hathor’s titles as “Lady of the House of Jubilation” and “The One Who Fills the Sanctuary with Joy.”
Such was Hathor’s popularity that there were a lot more festivals dedicated in her honor than any other Egyptian god. Plus a good many children were named after Hathor than any other god. As previously mentioned, both women and men could be priestess of Hathor and not one gender or the other.
The Goddess Of Beauty
In addition to being a goddess of Love and Joy, Hathor was also the goddess of beauty and a patron of the cosmetic arts. As has been previously mentioned, many ancient mirrors showing a smiling, nude Hathor have been found over the years. In addition to Hathor’s image on mirrors, her likeness has been found too on cosmetic palettes. A traditional votive offering was two mirrors.
It must be remembered and noted that this did not mean or make Hathor vain and shallow. This beauty was a mark of Hathor’s own confidence.
Hathor was also closely connected to the fragrance of myrrh incense, which has a long history of being very precious and in ancient Egypt, it embodied all of the finer qualities of a woman. The Egyptians also used ground malachite in their eye makeup which they believed to have a protective property against eye infections.
It must be noted that ancient Egyptian mirrors were made of flat oval copper or bronze that has been polished with a wooden or possibly bone handle. This handle was often enough shaped into the form of the goddess Hathor. It is thought the shape of the mirror represents the Sun Disc symbol of Hathor’s.
Goddess of Moisture And Fertility
Aside from Motherhood and Children, Hathor also ensured the fertility of the land and enough water or moisture from the annual flooding of the Nile for Farmers to grow their crops. In addition to this, Hathor represented the erotic aspects of femininity and procreation. As a fertility goddess, Hathor represents the creative abilities found in all of nature.
As a Vegetation or Fertility Goddess, Hathor was seen as both a giver and taker of life. When spring arrived, the land became fertile, only be destroyed later by the harsh summer sun as the seasons changed.
Hathor’s connection to the annual flooding of the Nile River was also connected to women’s pregnancies with the breaking of the amniotic sac and that she would be about ready to go into labor soon.
Lady Of Greenstone And Malachite – Goddess of Mines
Along with the titles “Lady of Lapis-Lazuli” and “the Mistress of Turquoise”, Hathor represented the very edges of the desert where mines for these gemstones were found at.
There is a major temple site found in Edomite Seir, Timna for Hathor where copper was mined. This temple was constructed by Seti II. Other mining places are Serabit el-Khadim found on the south-west Sinai Peninsula where a lot of turquoise was mined. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of mining camps and a Temple of Hathor in this place.
Lady Of The West
In Thebes, Hathor was seen as the Goddess of the Dead with her title of “Lady of the West.” This title is associated with the sun god Ra and his descent into the Underworld when the sun sets on the western horizon.
Hathor’s image is sometimes found on funerary scenes where she is shown standing behind Osiris, welcoming the dead to their new home. Hathor’s image has also been depicted as a cow suckling the souls of the dead. It is thought that Hathor did this so souls could survive while their bodies were being mummified and make their journey to the Judgment Hall where their hearts would be weighed. Hathor could also be depicted in her cow form surround by tall papyrus reeds. In these images, she would be shown wearing a menat necklace, symbolizing rebirth.
Hathor’s image often appears on sarcophagi with Nut. Hathor appears on the tops of lids and Nut will be found under a lid.
In the cult of Osiris, the morally worthy were promised eternal life. At first, both men and women would become Osiris. By the time of the early Romans, women were identified with Hathor and men with Osiris.
Lady Of The Southern Sycamore
Continuing Hathor’s connection as a Goddess of the Dead, the sycamore tree was sacred to Hathor as she would give water to the dead from the branches of this tree and offer them food. The Sycamore was important as trees were not a common site in ancient Egypt and the shade provided by trees offered much needed protection and relief from the heat of the sun.
Other myths have Amentet, a daughter of Hathor as being the one who handed out water to the dead under a Sycamore tree.
One myth has Hathor using milk from a Sycamore tree to restore Horus’ eyesight as he had been blinded by Set.
Lady Of Stars And Sovereign Of Stars
A celestial goddess, Hathor symbolizes not just the Sun, but the Moon and stars, the entirety of the heavens and creation.
As the divine, celestial cow, Hathor along with another goddess Nut, represented the Milky Way during the third millennium B.C.E. when the both the Autumn and Spring equinoxes appeared to occur at the same spot on the Earth as the sun rose or set. The four legs of Hathor represented the pillars holding up the heavens over the earth.
It must be noted, that the ancient Egyptians viewed the Milky Way as a waterway across the heavens that the sun and moon gods sailed upon each day. They called it The Nile in the Sky. As a result of this and the name mehturt, Hathor was seen as responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. Other interpretations or later myths will place Wadjet, a snake god as presenting the Milky Way and The Nile in the Sky.
One star in particular, Sothis (Sirius in more modern times) is significant. Originally, the star Sirius rose on the first day of the first month, known as Thuthi and Hethera by Grecian times. This marked a day of celebration for Hathor’s birth by her followers. The Nile River flooded at this time, providing a rejuvenation and growing for Egyptian farmers. During the time of the ancient Greeks, Hathor became the goddess of Hethara, the third month of the Egyptian calendar. The star Sothis would later be associated with the goddess Sopdet.
The Eye Of Ra – The Destruction of Mankind
This story has been found engraved on one of the shrines in Tutankhamen’s tomb and in “The Book of the Heavenly Cow.”
In this story, Hathor, as the Eye of Ra, turns into Sakhmet. How this came about is that Hathor’s father Ra, having grown old, was beginning to fall out of worship. Angry about this, Ra speaks to his daughter who turns into Sakhment and goes out to punish humanity.
As Sakhmet, she was very efficient and nearly wiped out everyone. Realizing that if she continued with killing everyone, there would be none left at all to worship the gods, Ra decided that there has been enough killing and tells her to stop. Only now she can’t quit, Sekhmet’s become so full of bloodlust.
Seeking the guidance of the ever-wise Thoth, he and Ra get large vats or barrels of beer that has been dyed and colored red to look like blood. In some versions of the story, they flood the land with the blood-red beer and in others; Thoth has a hallucinogenic like poppies put into the beer.
Regardless of the final version told, Sekhmet on seeing all this beer drinks it up, getting so drunk, she forgets about her reason for coming to the earth, her great blood lust and forgets all about killing anyone. When Sekhmet returns to Ra, he embraces her and Sekhmet turns back into Hathor. This is the Hathor that everyone knows of as being sweet loving, gentle and nurturing.
Another version of the story has it that this is how Hathor turns into Bast.
As Hathor-Sekhmet, we see Hathor take on a dual role in her aspect as a Sun Goddess. When she is Hathor, she represents the gentle spring Sun. When she is Sekhmet, she becomes a lioness and represents the scorching heat of the summer Sun. It has been noted how in the Zodiac, Taurus the Bull has a fixed sign in Spring and Leo the Lion has a fixed sign in Summer.
The symbolic importance of this story is that of the changing of the seasons from Spring to Summer. As summer comes to its height, so too does the danger of wildfires destroying crops and homes. Sekhmet returns to once more being gentle Hathor with the cooler autumn weather.
The color red is often symbolic of life and rebirth. The red beer again symbolizes the rejuvenation and regeneration of the Earth after the hot Summer weather and turn towards Autumn weather.
The Feast of Hathor
To commemorate this myth, the ancient Egyptians celebrated a yearly festival that marked the beginning of Egypt’s rainy season known as the Season of Inundation (Flooding). This was a time of the year when the glaring heat of the sun was finally stopped by the much needed life-bringing rains. The Feast or Festival was known for wild partying with sistrum music, dancing, love making and lots of beer.
The partying makes sense when realizing that the rise of the star Sothis (Sirius) marked the annual flooding of the Nile River on the Egyptian calendar. This would coincide with the end of August for Western Culture.
The myth of the annual flooding of the Nile would be later associated with Osiris.
New Years Festivities
As we’re on the subject, another popular and religious festival was celebrated on August 7th, the Egyptian New Year. The New Years also marked Hathor’s birthday. Hathor’s image would be taken from the temple and brought out to the rising Sun for the day. The New Years was a day of enjoyment, song and intoxication.
The Destruction of Mankind – Historical Context
This story has a historical context for the founding of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom when the Upper Egyptian pharaoh, Mentuhotep II took control of Lower Egypt. Before this, Lower Egypt had enjoyed a period of independence. Mentuhotep II’s forced unification resulted in a fierce bloody war that lasted for some twenty eight years before ending and peace resumed, when Mentuhotep III came to power. So the story of The Destruction of Mankind does look to be an analogy to this brutal period of Egyptian history.
The Distant Goddess
In this story, Hathor became angry with her father Ra. Maybe she remembered the events in The Destruction of Mankind. Another version of this story doesn’t state why Hathor got angry, she just does and decides she might have the earth covered again in the ocean and maybe return to even older primordial form of a serpent. Anyhow, angry, Hathor took off and wandered about, away from Egypt down towards Nubia.
A great sadness fell upon the land and Ra, missing his Eye and unable to do anything without it, sets out to try and get her back. Hathor by this time has turned into a deadly wild cat, killing anyone who comes near her. A slight variation to this has it that with Hathor turned into a lion, chaos swept the land with everything drying up and that’s why everyone and thing is dying.
As no one else was willing to go near an enraged Hathor, the god Thoth agreed to give a shot. In disguise, he managed to coax an angry goddess back to Egypt through the use of stories.
Once back in Egypt, Hathor bathed in the Nile River, returning to her calmer demeanor. As a result of her bathing, the waters of the river turned red from her cooling rage. With Hathor’s bathing, the Nile river overflowed and flooded the land, giving life giving waters to a parched land so Farmers could have their growing season.
Yeah, don’t make Hathor angry, you wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.
In some versions of this story, it is the goddess Tefnut who storms off in a fit of anger leaving Egypt and it’s the god Shu, not Thoth who sets off to bring her back.
Another telling of this story is that it is both Shu and Thoth who set off after Hathor, changing into lions to try and coax their sister back.
The Contendings Of Horus And Seth
Hathor only has a small part in this story. Her father, Ra had fallen into a bout of depression and Hathor, like any child, wanting to cheer up a parent, finds a way to do so. Taking off her clothing, Hathor dances nude around Ra’s throne. She keeps at it until he finally sits up and smiles at her antics.
Alternate Spelling: Haji Piruz
Also called: Khawja Piruz
Etymology: The word Hajji (or Haji) is a title or honorific, much like in the English language when using “Sir” or “Mister” to address someone. It is unrelated to the Islamic word “Haajhi” or “Hajj”. The name or word Firuz/Piruz means victory. Khawja means “Master”.
The character of Hajji Firuz is a familiar and traditional figure who heralds Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He is often depicted as being covered in soot and wearing bright red clothing and felt hat. Hajji Firuz is also shown playing a tambourine as he sings: “Haji Firuz-e, sal-i-ye ruz-e.” Which translates as: “It is Hajji Firuz time, It happens one day in a year.” People of all ages gather around Hajji Firuz and his troupe of musicians to listen to as they play the drum, saz or kamancheh and dance through the streets announcing the New Year. It is an air of festivity not unlike that of Christian celebrations of Christmas.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Hajji Firuz’s role in the celebrations of the New Year a very likely connected to an ancient role of the Zoroastrian fire-keeper Mir-Norowzi. It would explain Hajji Firuz’s depictions and portrayals of being soot covered and wearing all red.
In the remnants of the Zoroastrian traditions, Mir-Norowzi was seen as a clownish or comical figure who would rule the municipality for the last five days of the year. As a temporary five-day king, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave household, taking with them the family’s blessing and abundance.
Fire In Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, red-dressed fire-keepers would be sent out by the white-dressed moghsor priests on the last Tuesday of the year with the duty to spread the word and news for the arrival of Nowruz and Spring. The fire-keeper’s other duty was to have people burn all of their old items in a purification ritual in the holy fires in order to renew their life, vitality and energies for the coming year. The fire-keeper’s face would become darkened, due to being so near the heat caused by the holy fires.
Comparing Hajji Firuz And Black Pete
For those familiar with the Christian Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Pete, they will know of the controversies surrounding the character of Black Pete being seen as racist with his black skin and being a slave to Santa and not always as a servant, friend or companion.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attack by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Just as Black Pete is paired up with Santa, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with an Amu Nowruz.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Santa and Black Pete with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting.
Just as Santa is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring with done dying and being replaced by the other or being reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
With Hajji Firuz, he seems to be connected to the role and tradition of the “Lord of Misrule,” a mock king who would be sacrificed at the year in the Sacaea (the Persian New Year celebrations). As previously mentioned, in Zoroastrian, this figure is Mir-Norowzi who functions as a proxy for an agricultural deity and parallels the story of Murdock who is slain by Tiamat and is later resurrected.
Such stories of a sacrificial king or god at Spring dying and then being reborn are fairly common in many countries and cultures. Many of the stories include the mythological figures of Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus.
Islamic scholar, Mehrdad Baliar has put forward the idea that the character of Hajji Firuz comes from surviving ceremonies and legends in the epic of Prince Siavash. These legends and ceremonies are also very likely to come from ancient Mesopotamian deities of agriculture and flocks such as Tammuz and the Sumerian Dumuzi.
Baliar has also put forward the idea that Hajji Firuz’s blackened face symbolizes his returning from the lands of the dead. That Firuz’s red clothing represents Siavash’s red blood and his return to life as a sacrificed deity. The spirit and air of joy and celebration is seen as typical of those who bring renewal, rejuvenation and blessings with them. Baliar continues that the name Siyawaxš may mean “black man” or “dark-faced man” and related to previously mentioned Mesopotamian ceremonies or the black masks worn for the Nowruz celebrations.