Category Archives: Poetry
Etymology: “Jealously” or “Passion”
Also known as: Adaon, Aedín, Aideen, Echraidhe (“Horse Rider”), Éadaoin (modern Irish), Edain, Etaoin, Éadaoin
Epithets: Bé Find (“Fair Woman”), Shining-One
Etain is a figure from Irish mythology, her story involves a lot of unwanted transformations from a jealous Fuamnach and different suitors trying to win her. Etain is noted for her extreme beauty among the fae or sidhe. She is best known as the heroine found in the “Tochmarc Étaíne” or “The Wooing of Etain.”
Animal: Butterfly, Dragonfly, Fly, Horse, Swan, Worm
Sphere of Influence: Beauty, Healing, Irish Sovereignty, Music, Rebirth, Transformation, Transmigration of Souls
Parentage and Family
The lineage for Etain can get confusing. When seeing that Etain and the name’s many variant spellings could be the names of other characters, then it could be a matter of which Etain are we talking about?
Ailill – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Ailil, king of Ulaid is Etain’s father.
Etar – In the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (“The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel), Etar is Etain’s father.
Eochaid Feidlech – In the Tochmarc Étaine, Eochaid is the High King, he is Etain’s mortal husband whom she marries after being reincarnated. In the Dindsenchas poem, Rath Eas, Eochaid’s last name is given as Airem.
Midir – In the Wooing of Etain, this is Etain’s husband when she was in Tir na Nog.
Ailill Angubae – By some accounts of Etain’s story, she was really in love with Ailill, Eochaid’s brother. Not to be confused with the Ailill, King of Ulaid, who is her father.
Dian Ceacht – Etain’s daughter when she is married to Oghma.
Étaín Óg – Etain the Younger, she is Etain’s daughter when married to Eochaid Feidlech. Etain Og will go on to marry Cormac, the King of Ulster and have a daughter by the name of Mess Buachalla. Mess Buachalla will go on to marry High King Eterscel and be the mother of Conaire Mor.
Oghma – The Irish god of Writing, in some version, he is Etain’s husband.
Tochmarc Étaíne – The Wooing Of Etain
This is one of the oldest stories found in Irish mythology. There is another story that mentions Etain, the “Togail Bruidne Dá Derga” or “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel.”
For now, we’re going to cover: “The Wooing of Etain.” It begins not with Etain, but with Midir and his first wife, Fuamnach. They were happily married and raised among their own children, Oengus or Aengus Óg (a Love god, some sources try to say he’s a sun god too) as a foster son.
For a little further context and background, Oengus is the son of Dagda, Midir’s brother. So really, Midir and Fuamnach are raising their nephew.
Like all children, Oengus grew up and moved out on his own. Midir decided one day that he would go visit his nephew. While visiting, an incident happened, involving some holly and Midir was blinded in one eye.
Even though Oengus heal’s Midir’s eye, Midir still seeks compensation for the injury that occured while visiting as a guest. As Oengus is the God of Love, he gets his Uncle the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland and Fairy, Etain. On seeing her, Midir is instantly in love and he takes her home with him.
It should come as no surprise, that once the two are home, that Midir’s wife, Fuamnach is angry, jealous even. How dare her husband bring home another woman, even if said woman is either a mistress or second bride and this is allowable, it’s the jealously and anger of a far more beautiful woman getting her husband’s attention.
Rather than take out her ire on Midir for this insult, Fuamnach takes it out on Etain. Fuamnach is a powerful sorceress in her own right. An enraged, Fuamnach conspired to cast a series of dark spells on Etain. The first one turns Etain into a pool of water. Another spell turns Etain into a worm or snake. Then finally into either a butterfly or dragonfly.
Changed to this new form, Etain’s wings hold the power that water that dropped from her wings would cure disease and the humming of her wings was soothing to those who heard it. Even in this strange new form,
Depending on the story told, Midir either does or doesn’t recognizes Etain. Regardless of which way the story goes, Midir spends all of his time with his butterfly companion and eschews the company of other women.
This only further enrages Fuamnach who sees that the two lovers are still together. This time, she conjured up a great gale of wind that drove Etain out of Midir’s house and to be lost at sea.
Etain is lost for seven years being buffeted about by the sea winds before at long last finding her way back to shore where she lands on Óengus’ clothing. Óengus does recognize that the butterfly is Etain. As he and Midir are currently feuding with each other, Instead of returning Etain, Óengus makes a small portable butterfly house that he carries around with him.
Eventually Fuamnach learns that Etain is with Óengus and she sends another wind that once more blows Etain out to sea to be lost for another seven years.
That is a long time to be lost at sea, not just once, but twice. Exhausted by her ordeal, Etain finds herself coming to rest on the roof of a house where people were gathered, enjoying a feast.
Drawn by the warmth from within, Etain flew closer to the sounds of merriment. However, in her state of exhaustion, she flew into goblet of wine and was promptly drunk up by Etar, the wife of a wealthy Ulster chieftain.
This is how Etar becomes pregnant with a reborn or reincarnated Etain. The catch being, that as with all reincarnations, a person doesn’t remember who they had been in a previous life. So, a newly reborn Etain grows up as the daughter of a wealthy chieftain.
The Tochmarc Étaine notes that some one thousand and twelve years have passed since Etain’s first birth back in Tir Na Nog, Fairy Land. Just as she had been before, Etain was once again the most lovely and beautiful woman in all of Ireland. The gifts of love, generosity and kindness were all held to be hers.
One day, Etain is out with her handmaidens at a well when they spot a man on horseback coming their way. This man is Eochaid, the king of Ireland. As soon as Eochaid lays eyes on Etain, he is immediately taken with her and asks Etain to be his Queen.
Naturally Etain is flattered and this is an opportunity. Love or not. Power or not. Etain agrees to marry Eochaid and a wedding follows soon after.
Complicating matters, Eochaid’s brother, Ailill Angubae has also in love with Etain and he pins away for her. As he is dying, Ailill confesses his love to Etain. To save him, Etain agrees to sleep with Ailill.
Enter Midir back into the story, who casts a spell on Ailill so that he falls asleep and misses his tryst with Etain. When Etain does go to meet up with Ailill, she does find a man who looks like Ailill, but it’s not, it’s Midir in disguise. Thrice Etain tries to meet up with Ailill and keeps meeting up with the imposter, Midir who finally reveals himself to her on the last time.
Midir tells Etain of her previous life in Fairy as his wife, trying to get Etain to return with him. For Etain, this is a problem, she’s been reborn as a mortal and is married to Eochaid. She won’t leave her current husband unless Eochaid allows her to.
The good thing that comes out of this encounter is that Ailill is no longer pinning away and dying for lack of love over Etain.
A goal and mission in mind, Midir sets out to meet Eochaid. Coming as himself, Midir offers to play a boardgame called fidchell. As other versions of this story say that it’s chess that the two play.
For the first game, Midir makes an offer of fifty horses as the stakes. Eochaid accepts and wins with Midir graciously offered prize. Midir now challenges Eochaid to another game, with higher stakes and wins again.
At some point in the game playing, Eochaid’s foster-father warns him that Midir is a being of great power and to be careful. As Midir is letting Eochaid win, the two keep on playing and with each win, Eochaid has Midir perform another task, ranging from clearing forests, reclaiming land from bogs, building causeways over said bogs.
These series of tasks are said to fit with the idea of the Tuatha De Danann that Midir belongs to as earth deities. Eventually, Midir grows tired of letting Eochaid win and challenges him to a last game of fidchell with the stakes to be named by the winner. This time, Midir wins and he claims an embrace and kiss from Etain.
This is more than what Eochaid is willing to allow. Eochaid agrees to Midir’s claim, that in a month’s time he can come claim Etain. As these stories go, Eochaid didn’t have any intention of letting Etain return to her former husband. Etain was his. On the day that Eochaid was to honor the agreement, he had all of his warriors waiting at his castle. These warriors formed circles around the castle with the intent to keep Midir from reclaiming his wife.
As if he were air or invisible, Midir passed through all the encircling warriors without slaying a one or shedding blood. Soon, Midir comes to the room where Eochaid and Etain await within. Midir proclaims that he is there for that which is his.
Seeing that he can’t renege on the deal after all and must agree, Eochaid says that Midir may have a kiss from Etain’s lips. Eochaid reluctantly allows Etain to go to Midir and the two kiss, transforming into a pair of swans and they fly out, away from the castle and back towards their fairy home of Tir na Nog.
Not wanting to lose Etain, Eochaid and his men set off for the fairy mound of Bri Leith where Midir is said to dwell. The men begin digging and Midir appears before Eochaid, telling him that his wife will be returned to him the next day.
On the morrow, Eochaid returns and there are fifty women, all appearing as Etain. An old hag tells Eochaid to pick out his wife. Eochaid does so and Midir later reveals that Etain had been pregnant when he took her. That the woman he took was in fact their daughter. Eochaid is horrified by the fact that he’s slept with his daughter who is no pregnant. This baby, who is also a girl is laid out in the woods to be exposed. Before death can claim the infant, a herdsman finds the baby and raises her to become the mother of the High King Conaire Mor.
Variations – There are a few different versions to Etain’s story. Some that focus solely on just Etain and what happened to her exclusively. Other versions will explain the whole set up of what led up Midir marrying Etain and thus, better explain why Fuamnach is jealous and maybe not so much jealous, but angry.
Version 1 – This story focuses on Etain being the second wife to Midir with Fuamnach being jealous. Here, Fuamnach enlists the aid of her friends to turn Etain into a pool of water. This causes Midir to becomes worried and he goes searching for his missing wife. To stay one step ahead of him, Fuamnach then turns Etain into a worm and then a fly.
As a fly, Etain flies down Fuamnach’s throat, causing her to become pregnant. Etain is reborn, this time, she’s mortal and doesn’t remember her previous life. Once she grows up, Etain marries the king Eochaid. Only it’s not Eochaid that Etain loves, it’s his brother Ailill, as if that wouldn’t cause more than a few problems.
To make it more complicated, Etain eventually meets Midir again and suddenly remembers who she had been. Just like before Midir wins Etain in a game of chess with Eodaid.
I rather find this version extremely problematic as it’s suggesting Etain wouldn’t know her own father? Assuming Midir still remained married to Fuamnach. Further, if Midir and Fuamnach are fairies and Etain is reborn as their daughter, shouldn’t she be a fairy too? Not mortal? Not to mention the extreme ewww with Midir now wanting someone who’s his daughter.
Just no. No.
It’s this version of the story with Fuamnach becoming Etain’s mother and seeing that Etain’s name means jealously; it makes me think that there may be an allegory or symbolism for the stages of jealousy or passion that Fuamnach is working through with her husband Midir.
Other Versions: There’s numerous versions to Etain’s story, some have her remembering her life in fairy when she meets Midir. Others have her not remembering her life at all and agreeing to leave with Midir if her mortal husband agrees as she thinks this is something that won’t happen.
A lot of these other versions for Etain’s story often simplify their retellings in that they often leave out how Midir and Etain meet, just that they do, the who episode of Alill pinning away for Etain is left off and the final episode where Eochaid tries to get Etain back and unknowingly, is given his daughter.
A couple episodes from the Tochmarc Etaine are repeated in this poem. Eochaid Airenn’s winning Etain back from Midir is in the Rath Esa poem. Midir’s abduction of Etain is referenced in the Rath Cruachan.
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga – The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel
In the main story for the Wooing of Etain, the Tochmarc Etaine, she is described as being very beautiful. However, no description is given anywhere of her. That changes in the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga where Etain encounters King Echu in Bri Leith.
In this text, she is described in a lot of lengthy detail from the comb she’s using to her clothing in lot of green, silver and golds. Her hair is described as being a red gold, skin white as snow, rosy cheeks, unnaturally blue eyes and curved body like the waves of sea foam. The narrator goes to great lengths to try describing what Etain looks like as the fairest of them all, there is a final quote that goes: “Lovely anyone until Étain. Beautiful anyone until Étain.” That such beauty could only mean that Etain was clearly of the sidhe.
Grecian Comparison – Hellen of Troy
The first story of Etain, the Wooing of Etain says that she’s very beautiful, comparable even to Helen of Troy. Where whole cities of Greece go to war with each other her. Etain has a jealous first wife takes out their wrath on her, a former spouse waiting for over a thousand years to reclaim her, and when she’s reborn, her mortal husband trying to keep her from the fairy husband to take her back.
The entire story for Etain reflects an older time when these older stories were likely passed on orally before getting written. So Etain’s story has had plenty of time to be altered and change and the role of the Goddess or Queen who gets to choose is altered and she is no longer in control of her destiny and is just a prize to be won.
An important note brought up about this story, while it doesn’t feature Etain in the first part of it, is to bear in mind that this story is an allegory for Ireland’s history. Etain’s role in the narrative becomes clearer when seeing her as the Goddess of the Land who gets to choose her consort to ensure the prosperity of the land.
A similar motif for this Celtic belief that the Goddess gets to choose her consort is seen in Arthurian Legend for the story of Guinevere, Lancelot and King Arthur with the whole love triangle happening there. Granted that story is a much later addition to Arthurian Legend, it’s an inserted story to narrative to explain the Goddess or Woman’s right to choose whom she loves and marries.
All the figures featured in the story likely represent different clans and geographical localities. Seeing Etain as a Sovereign Goddess of the Land, who she chooses to couple with are whom she deemed as the best ruling clans for the welfare of Ireland.
Lack Of Agency – At a knee-jerk first glance response, I don’t like the story of the Wooing of Etain. Why is Etain punished by Fuamnach for marrying Midir? For that matter, why does Midir get to be the one rewarded for cheating on his wife and marrying a younger woman, loose her and then get her back after waiting patiently for Etain to be reborn?
That here, we have Etain a woman who is just passed around as a prize to be won with barely any say in the matter of what happens to her. If the focus is given soley to Midir as the hero, of course, the entire story makes sense for his journey of loss and recovering his love and wife. Then poor Eochaid who gets to pick his wife and loses her to Midir, who takes back the woman who is rightfully his.
Without the Historical Allegory angle, the entire story feels maddening. No wonder there are later rewritings of the story that want give an image of two lovers who loose and find each other again. To give more agency to Etain’s actions and the series of unfortunate circumstances that befall her.
Etain is forced to a series of unwanted transformations by a jealous lover, ranging from worm to butterfly, to swan and even a pool of water. Including the worm and then changing to a fly, sounds like the larval state of an insect, either as a nymph, meaning the larval form of a dragonfly or caterpillar to a butterfly.
Looking at these stories symbolically, Etain’s transformations from a worm to a fly, only to be swallowed later by a woman and reborn as a child can all be seen as the different stages of life.
Soul or Spirit – In a lot of Celtic folklore, flies or butterflies are often seen as being the souls of the deceased, even if it’s just a metaphor. It makes sense if Etain’s changing to a worm, than a fly or butterfly is merely a symbolic way of describing the spirit’s transformation and more easily explaining the transition from one life to another. Or maybe Fuamnach actually killed Etain, tossing her body into a pool of water?
Celtic Numerology – More of a minor note, the number seven is used for the number of years that Etain is lost at sea a mystical number. In this case, it is a number meaning a spiritual awakening.
That’s undeniable with all the transformations that Etain undergoes once she falls afoul of Fuamnach’s magic, going from a pool of water, to a worm, to a fly or butterfly, swallowed and reborn as a mortal woman.
What’s In A Name
Given the nature of Etain’s story and the meaning of her name: “Jealousy” or “Passion.” I think it sheds an important light to the significance of Etain’s story and the proper framework to look at it in.
Bé Find – Meaning “Fair Woman,” this is a name that Midir gives to Etain in Tochmarc Etaine. It comes from a poem found within the larger saga called: “A Bé Find In Ragha Lium” is likely from a much older, unrelated source and was just stuck in the saga at a later time.
Eadaoin – As Eadaoin, she is noted as being a sidhe and one of the Tuatha De Dannan who is associated with poetry and inspiration. With this spelling, Etain is noted as having a different husband, either Midir or Oghma depending on the source used. This could just merely mean Etain or Eadaoin was a common enough name that there is more than one person in the Irish Mythological Cycles who has this name. As they’re all sidhe, that makes it even more difficult to keep them all straight.
Echraide – Meaning “Horse Rider,” this is a name that has been attached to Etain and is meant to link her with horse deities such as the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Shining-One – An epitaph of “Shining-One” or claiming that’s what Etain’s name means, tend to come from more modern sources that want to connect her to be a Sun Goddess or a fairy. As far as a strong, scholarly bent goes, it doesn’t really work.
Some sources, often the more modern Pagan paths will place Etain as a goddess. Depending on the lineage you follow, if Oghma for example, she is a goddess of poetry and inspiration. Yet another source will list her as a Love or War goddess?
Some of the sources that link Etain to different deific roles seem tentative.
Horse Goddess – One of Etain’s epitaphs is Echraide, meaning “Horse Rider,” which would mean she’s a Horse Goddess, much like the Welsh Rhiannon and the Gaulish Epona.
Sun Goddess – T. F. O’Rahilly is who identified Etain as a Sun Goddess. Several New Age and modern Pagan groups have adopted her as such. When Oengus is identified as a Sun God, this connection makes sense if Etain is seen as his daughter.
Goddess of the Land – This I would readily accept given the nature of Etain’s story as an allegory for Ireland’s history and a Goddess marrying whom she wants that will bring prosperity to the land.
Love Goddess – This really works best for more modern interpretations of Etain’s story; especially when keeping in mind her story as an allegory and for those seeking to reclaim her role as a deity with her own agency who chooses her lovers. Plus, the connection seems to come more strongly with Midir’s fostering of Aengus Óg who is a Love God.
Sovereign Goddess – This is an important aspect of Etain, especially if you want her story to make sense as a deity who choose her consort for the prosperity and welfare of the land.
Triple Goddess – In New Age and Wiccan practices, Etain is often seen as a Triple Goddess
Other Aspects – Furthering this, due to the forced transformations, some will claim Etain as a Goddess of Transformation and Rebirth, a Moon Goddess.
Well yes, most versions of Etain’s story acknowledge her as a fairy, specially one of the Sidhe and certainly of the Tuatha de Danann. An imagery not at all unlike the Tolkien Elves in his Middle Earth series.
The account that has some men coming across an extremely beautiful woman beside a spring see them agreeing that such beauty was only possible of the sidhe.
That seems to be the sentiment of some authors, scholars and modern Pagans.
Wiccan, New Age & Modern Paganism
I think it’s important to note, that myths and stories do change with time. Much of the story that so many know with Etain has been colored through the lens of Christianity and with some regards, a patriarchy, resulting in a story about a woman who appears to have little agency and control over her own fate and destiny.
In the pursuit of adjusting Etain back to her perceived mythological roots and giving her significance and relevance, to better be the actor in her own story, some modern Pagan traditions will claim that Etain’s name means “Shining One” and place her as a Triple Goddess who represents the Sun, Water and Horses.
Understanding Etain’s story will certainly make it easier to interpret her as needed. I think sticking to what’s known and concrete from her legends is the most useful.
Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat
The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fearsome cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.
The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.
The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.
Dark Ages – Autumn Wool
According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.
This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.
The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.
The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.
It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.
Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.
Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.
So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
Alternate Spellings: Σύριγξ
A nymph known in Greek myths for turning into some water reeds to escape the unwanted advances of Pan. Like Pan, Syrinx hailed from Arcadia in ancient Greece.
Parentage & Family
Father – Ladon, a river god
As a nymph, all of the other nymphs would be counted as Syrinx’s sisters.
Daphne – A fellow naiad who shares the same father Ladon.
Silenus – Only if you count Thomas Woolner’s poem.
Follower Of Artemis
Being a Nymph, Syrinx was a virgin like many of her sisters whom were all favorites and followers of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Like her patron goddess, Syrinx was also a hunter and desired to remain a virgin.
The Naiads are water nymphs in Greek mythology, minor deities or spirits. Specifically, Naiads were associated with fresh water.
While there are a few sources that will call Syrinx a wood-nymph or just a nymph in general. With her parentage of Ladon as her father, she is most likely a naiad.
Pan & Syrinx
This is the main and only story involving Syrinx. It’s generally used to explain the origins of Pan’s famous syrinx or pan pipes. Plus, this story is one of Pan’s more famous and well-known myths.
Syrinx was just one of many nymphs that Pan would endlessly pursue. She was a water-nymph and the daughter of the river-god Ladon. One day, as Syrinx returned from hunting, she encountered Pan who became infatuated with her. To escape his unwanted advances, Syrinx fled from Mount Lycaeum down to the Ladon river. There she pleaded with her sisters (or sometimes the gods in general, her father Ladon or Zeus) to change her into a bed of water reeds.
When Pan narrowly missed grabbing Syrinx, he discovered that when he blew air through the reeds, they made a noise. A forlorn Pan, mourning the loss of Syrinx, took the reeds and crafted his famous reed pipes or syrinx from them.
Thomas Woolner’s Silenus
A Victorian artist and poet, Thomas Woolner wrote a long narrative poem about the myth of Syrinx. He embellishes his tale by having Syrinx become the lover of Silenus. She ends up drowning while trying to escape from Pan’s attempted rape. As a result, Pan turns into a demonic figure while Silenus becomes a drunkard.
Given the Victorian age and when Christianity started associating Pan with the Devil, this makes sense.
Pan Pipes – Syrinx
An instrument played by the Greek god Pan. It consists of seven reeds all cut to different lengths all tied together and sealed with wax on one end. These reed pipes were synonymous with rustic music and were relatively cheap and easy to make.
Pan would of course use the syrinx in a music competition against the god Apollo. Some sources will credit Cybele or Hermes with having invented the syrinx.
La Flute De Pan
For those who play the flute, the composer Claude Debussy wrote a flute solo entitled “Syrinx” or “La Flute De Pan” in the 20th century. This musical piece is based on Pan’s sadness at having lost his love, Syrinx. It seems to be a popular piece that flautists will learn and add to their repertoire of music.
If you play the saxophone, ” La Flute De Pan” has also been transcribed so it can be played on this instrument too.
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.
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 is who brings gifts 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 turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became 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 became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who 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.
Etymology: Originating in the Old Norse, Þórr or þunraz, meaning: “Thunder.”
Alternate Spelling: Þórr (Old Norse), ðunor (Old English), Thorr, Thunor, Thonar, Donar (Old High German/ Teutonic), Donner, Thur, Thunar (Old Saxon), Thuner (Old Frisian) or Thunaer
Other Names and Epithets: Thor is known by a number of names and epithets in Norse mythology, poetry and literature.
Tor, Ásabragr (Asabrag, Æsir-Lord), Ása-Þórr (Asa-Thor Æsir-Thor), Atli (The Terrible), Björn (Bjorn, Biorn Bear), Einriði (Eindriði, The One who Rides Alone, The One who Rules Alone), Ennilangr (Ennilang, The One with the Wide Forehead), Harðhugaðr (Hardhugadr, Strong Spirit, Powerful Soul, Fierce Ego, Brave Heart), Harðvéurr (Hardveur The Strong Archer), Hlóriði (Hlórriði, The Loud Rider, The Loud Weather-God), Öku-Þor (Oku-Thor, Ukko-Thor, Cart Thor, Driving Thor), Rymr (Rym, Noise), Sönnungr (Sonnung, The True One), Véþormr (Vethorm, Protector of the Shrine), Véuðr (Véuðr, Véoðr, Veud, Veod), Véurr (Veur, Guard of the Shrine, Hallower), Vingþórr (Vingthor, Battle-Thor, Hallower), The Thunderer and many others
Thor, the Germanic god of Thunder is found in many Germanic mythologies such as the Teutonic and Norse mythos! Much as I love the Marvel version, what follows will be the proper mythological versions of the legend.
Among the Norse, Thor was a very popular deity who even surpassed the worship of his father Odin. As a god of thunder, strength and war, Thor protected both gods and mortals against evil.
Day of the Week: Thursday
Element: Air, Earth
Patron of: Farmers, Sailors, Common Man, Warriors
Sphere of Influence: War, Protection of Mankind, Sky, Rain, Strength, Fertility, Hallowing, Healing, Thunder, Lightning, Storms
Symbols: Hammer, Swastika
Not the Marvel comic character of Thor who is blonde and muscular.
In Norse mythology, Thor is described as a large man with red hair and beard that gives off sparks when he’s angry. Further, he is described as having a wide forehead and fierce looking eyes. Thor is also known for not being very smart and having an insatiable appetite, he however, is always dressed for battle.
Another important aspect to Thor is that he is known for being able to change his size. Due to how hot and heavy he is, Thor is unable to cross the Bifrost bridge. He has to wade through the Northern Sea and enter Asgard the long route.
While Thor is known to be overly hasty in his judgments, is a reliable friend and battle companion who will have people’s backs.
What’s In A Name? – Syno-Dieities!
For one, the Romans, as they did with many other cultures that they encountered would equate their gods with those, whom they had in many cases, just conquered. In the case of Thor, while the Norse may not have ever been fully conquered, the Romans saw their god, Jupiter, a god of lightning and thunder in Thor. If the Romans weren’t equating Thor with Jupiter, they were equating Thor with Hercules. Other Indo-European gods equated with Thor have been the Celtic god Taranis, the Baltic Perkunas, the Estonian Taara, the Finno-Ugric Tiermes and Tordöm or Torum, the Slavic Perun and even the Hindu god Indra.
There were several Germanic cultures with incredibly similar mythologies throughout Europe at the time. So many of the deities were often extremely similar in function and myths. The Anglo-Saxons knew Thor by the name of Thunor. In Old English, Thor is known as Þunor where it becomes Donar in the Old High German or Teutonic mythos. Donar is thought to originate from the Common Germanic word Þunraz, meaning “thunder.”
During the Viking Age, many personal names using some form of Thor began to appear and be recorded with increasing frequency. It’s thought that the increased usage for the name Thor was in direct response to the growing Christian religion and resistance to it.
Donar – This is the South German or Teutonic name for Thor. The first record of this name was found on a piece of jewelry dating from the 7th century C.E. during the Migration Period of the Germanic people.
Donar Oak – In the 8th century C.E., there is an account how the Christian missionary, Saint Boniface knocked down an oak tree dedicated to “Jove” in Hesse, Germany.
Indra – A Hindu god, many have pointed towards both Thor and Indra having red hair and Scholars have compared the slaying of Vrita, a demon serpent by Indra with Thor’s battle with Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent.
Thunor – this is the Anglo-Saxon storm god and name for Thor.
Germanic Origins & Worship
Thor finds his roots in the Proto-Indo-European religion. He is a very prominent god who is mentioned many times throughout the history of the Germanic peoples from the Bronze Age, to the times of Roman occupation, to their expansions during their Migration Period, to seeing the height of his popularity during the Viking Age and persisting even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia.
Even into modern times, Thor is still found in the rural folklore in many Germanic regions. Many Nordic personal and place names often contained Thor’s name.
A hypothesis put forward by Georges Dumézil for the old Indo-European religion says that Thor represented strength when comparing him to the Hindu god Indra. However, it’s noted that many of Indra’s functions have been taken over by Odin.
Scholars have taken note of Thor’s association with fertility, especially as seen in later folklore where Thor is referred to as Sami Hora galles, the “Good-man Thor.” The equation is made as peasants seeing the side-effects of Thor’s aerial battles in the heaven that bring rain. Which makes sense when seeing Thor as a storm god, fertility would be a side-effect. Further proof is pointed in Thor’s marriage to Sif of whom not much is known about, but may very well be a memory for the divine marriage between the primary Sky God and Earth Goddess.
I’m not sure how much I agree with, but when you’ve got people wanting to connect everything, okay….
What is more practical and pointed out is Thor’s primary and principle function as the god of the second class, common man. Archaeological evidence points towards a three-tiered social hierarchy among the Norse. The first being the nobility and rulers, second being the warriors and the third being the farmers, commoners and everyone else. Thor was primarily the god of warriors and due to his being a storm god, easily stood for the farmers and commoners. As a result, Thor became the most important of the Norse gods, especially during the Viking Age as the lines between the second and third classes began to blur as social changes among the Germanic peoples.
Odin, who was the principle god for the first class appealing to the nobles, rulers, outcasts and anyone who was considered elite. Odin was often seen at odds with Thor as seen in many of the Eddas. One episode has Odin taunting Thor how Odin’s warriors are the nobles who fall in battle and that the thralls who fall in battle belong to Thor. Another episode has Odin blessing a favored hero of his, Starkaðr. For every blessing that Odin would impart, Thor gave a matching curse for Starkaðr.
This is an example of place names containing the name for Thor, but later forgotten as Christianity replaced the older Pagan religions.
In Kentish royal legends from about the 11th century C.E., there is a story of a reeve of Ecgberht of Kent known as Thunor. He was seen as being so wicked that he was swallowed up by the earth at a place known as þunores hlæwe or “Thunor’s Mound.
Thor’s hall of Bilskirnir is found in the region of Thrudheim (or spelt Thruthheim and Þrúðheimr), meaning: “Land of Strength.” Another place known as Þrúðvangr is mentioned as one of Thor’s abodes.
One of Thor’s temples located in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, here, there is a statue showing Thor wielding a mace with Odin and “Fricco” standing to his right. Uppsala was replaced by a Christian church in 1080 C.E. Priests were appointed to each of the gods who offered up sacrifices. Sacrifices to Thor were only made during times of famine and plague.
Parentage and Family
Odin – Not just Thor’s father, Odin is also The All Father in Norse Mythology
Jord – Mother and Earth Goddess
Sometimes, Thor is said to the son of either Fjorgynn, also an Earth Goddess or Hlodyn.
Frigg – Thor is sometimes portrayed as Frigg’s stepson.
Sif – Wife, a fertility goddess
Jarnsaxa – “Iron Cutlass,” A Jötunn and Thor’s Mistress. I guess that means Thor was in a polyamory relationship.
Thor is the oldest of several brothers.
Baldr, Höðr, Víðarr, Váli, Hermóðr, Heimdallr, Bragi, Týr
Thrud – Also spelled as Þrúðr. She is likely a Valkyrie. Thor’s daughter with Sif
Magni – Thor’s son with Járnsaxa
Modi – Thor’s son with an unknown mother.
Ullr – Thor is the stepfather to this god of hunting.
Attendants of Thor
Thialfi – Not only Thor’s servant, but the messenger for the gods.
Þjálfi and Röskva – A pair of mortals, brother and sister who accompanied Thor as they ride around in his chariot.
Aesir Versus Vanir
The Aesir gods and Vanir gods of Norse mythology were two different tribes of gods who at first fought each other then started working together.
Thor belongs to the Aesir tribe of gods.
Thursday – Eight Days A Week!
In Western culture, the fourth day of the week is called Thursday or Thor’s Day, named after and for Thor himself. In Old English, this name is Thunresdaeg or Thunor’s Day. In German, the name of this day was known as Þonares dagaz or Donnerstag, meaning: Donar’s Day. Others believe the name of Thursday derives from Jupiter Tanarus, the Thundering Jupiter. In this case it’s taking the name of a Celtic deity and attaching them to a Roman god.
Interpretatio Germanica – This was a practice used during the time of the Romans when the Germanic people adopted the Roman weekly calendar and simply replaced the names of the Roman gods with their own. It easily explains how the Roman calendar and Dies Iovis, “Day of Jupiter” becomes Thursday, “Thor’s Day.”
God Of Thunder & Lightning
Thor is best known as a god of the sky and thunder among the Norse. Since thunder & lightning often mean rain, Thor is also the god of agriculture and fertility.
The 19th century scholar Jacob Grimm wrote how a number of phrases in the Germanic languages refer to Thor. Phrases such as: Thorsvarme meaning “Thor’s Warm” in Norwegian used to describe lightning; godgubben åfar meaning “The good old fellow is taking a ride” in Sweden along with tordön, meaning: “Thor’s rumble” or “Thor’s thunder” to describe when it thunders. According to Montelius, thunderbolts were known as Thorsviggar.
In Scandinavia, there is a folk belief that lightning will frighten away trolls and jötnar. This is likely a reflection of Thor’s pen chance for fighting giants. The evidence for a lack of trolls and ettins in Scandinavia is given that it is due to Thor’s accuracy and proficiency with his lightning strikes.
Once upon a time, this symbol was a protective religious symbol. While many who are already familiar with the history of this symbol are familiar with the sun or solar wheel. The swastika was also associated with Thor as this symbol was thought to represent Mjollnir or lightning.
As a protective sigil, it had been worn by women and archaeological searches have found the swastika depicted on many women’s graves. It’s thought to have been used by warriors too as it represented Thor’s lightning and used alternatively with a hammer symbol when going into battle. The symbol has been found on many memorial stones throughout Scandinavia next to inscriptions for Thor and a sword was found with an image of the swastika on the pommel. This symbol appears in many places on many Germanic artifacts dating from the Migration Period and Viking Ages.
Note: With the passage of time and WWII, this symbol is not acceptable anymore, though a few try do to cling to it. Just not cool. It’s become a modern symbol of hatred, division and terror.
God Of Craftsmanship
As a god of craftsmanship, it also made him the common man’s god from farmers to sailors.
God Of Healing
A Canterbury Charm dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription calling upon Thor to heal a wound by banishing a þurs or thurs.
In the Elder Futhark, the rune ᚦ or Thurs may have likely referred to dark magic or an evil spirit often called trolls or nisse.
God Of Protection & Strength
For the Germanic peoples, Thor represented the very archetype of the loyal and honorable warrior that warriors would aspire to. He was the defender of Asgard and the Aesir gods, protecting them from the jotuns, their enemies.
Going hand in hand with his role as protector is Thor’s great strength. Without his strength, power or even courage, Thor would not have been able to do his job as a protector of the gods, Asgard and Midgard. Sure Odin and Loki have the brains, it was often Thor with his brawn leading the way to muscle past faceless hordes of jotuns, ogres and trolls to defend everyone while the brains of the operations got their plans working.
A Kvinneby amulet dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription invoking protection from both Thor and his hammer.
As a weather god, Thor would also protect sailors traveling over the seas.
I find it interesting that Thor specifically is a deity noted for hallowing, that is to make something or someplace sanctified, sacred or holy. I suppose any deity can and do so, just not so explicitly like this.
As many called on Thor for protection and defense, for comfort, it does make a certain sense that he does bless items and places. A number of runic inscriptions found at many archeological sites all testify this. Even weddings were blessed by Thor as seen in the use of a hammer placed on a bride’s lap during marriage ceremonies. Early Icelandic farmers were known to call upon Thor to bless their plot of land before they built or planted crops.
Often Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir was used for blessing and hallowing just as often as he would use it to destroy. So, if he is seen as having the power to banish or destroy, having the power for just the opposite of hallowing is a given.
Interesting, some sources cite December fifth or even December 25th as the day for Thor’s birth. Imagine that, the same day for Saint Nicholas’ Day (December fifth) and Christmas (December 25th).
Mjollnir – Thor’s Hammer
Meaning “Destroyer” or “Crusher,” Mjollnir is represented as a stylized hammer. Whenever Thor threw Mjollnir, lightning would flash. The hammer would return to Thor’s hand after being thrown, a move symbolic of lightning. The myths describing Mjollnir say it could crush mountains. Mjollnir was crafted for Thor by the dwarven brothers Sindri and Brokkr.
In addition, Mjollnir held another power, that of returning the dead to life. In connection to Thor’s association to fertility and life, there was an old Nordic tradition of placing a hammer in a bride’s lap at her wedding and that of raising a hammer over a newborn.
Mjollnir’s Origins – Loki, the Norse god of trickery was in a rather mischievous mood, deciding it would be a good idea to cut off all of Sif’s hair. With Sif being Thor’s wife, the might god of thunder was not amused one bit. He swore to break every bone in Loki’s body to defend Sif’s honor and Loki pleaded with Thor to let him go to the caves of the dwarves to see if they could help fix the problem of Sif having no hair.
Loki went to the dwarven home where he implored the dwarf, Ivaldi to fashion some new hair for Sif. Ivaldi’s sons crafted a wig composed of the finest strands of gold. In addition, the dwarves made two other gifts, a ship that could easily fold down into a person’s pocket and would always have wind to move it and a magnificent, yet deadly spear.
Seeing these, Loki made a wager with two dwarven brothers, Sindri and Brokkr, betting his own head that the brothers couldn’t craft three gifts of their own for the gods that would be greater than what Ivaldi’s sons had crafted.
As the brothers began working at their forge, Loki shape-shifted into a fly as he attempted to interrupt their work to try and win the bet. While crafting the last gift, a hammer, Loki succeeded at interrupting the brothers enough that the handle of the hammer was too short. Despite this, the hammer was still considered the best of all of the gifts created and it was presented to Thor as he was the only one capable of welding it.
Holy Symbol – This major symbol of Thor’s has appeared in a many archaeological sites in iron, silver and other metal. Hammer shaped amulets were worn as necklaces by worshipers and followers of Thor, even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia as a means of defiance to the incoming religion. Both crosses and hammer shapes have been found side by side at archeological and burial sites.
Megingjard – Belt Of Strength
Meaning “Strength Increaser,” this is another of Thor’s mystical items and regalia. This belt doubled his already considerable strength while wearing it.
Járngreipr – Iron Gloves
These gloves were given to Thor by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd. These gloves were needed when Thor wielded Mjollnir.
An unbreakable staff provided by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd.
Thor rode around the heavens in a chariot pulled by two goats. These goats’ names are: Tanngnjostr (Teeth-Grinder) & Tanngrisnir (Teeth-Barer or Gap-Tooth.) Thor would kill and eat these goats, after which, they would be resurrected by placing their bones back within their hides. The Old English expression of: þunnorad (“thunder ride”) is likely an allusion to Thor riding around in his chariot.
Thor Versus Giants
The giants or Jotun lived in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology. The Jotun of were the main enemies of Thor whom he would strike down by hitting them on the head. While many of the dealings between the gods and Jotun were often civil, the fights and battles were frequent. Thor would lead the charge against the Jotun as he rode his chariot and swinging around his mighty hammer. The lightning and thunder seen during storms were believed to be Thor fighting the Jotun on behalf of the mortal realm of Midgard.
In Norse mythology, the jotun represented the forces of chaos, destruction and entropy that would destroy all of Midgard and the Cosmos if Thor and the other gods didn’t keep them in check.
Half-Giant – Well… more like three-quarters giant really. It seems a little odd that for all that Thor is the protector of the Aesir and Asgard, that Thor is three-quarters giant himself. Odin, his father is a half-giant and his mother, Jord is a giant herself. Despite that lineage, it doesn’t stop Thor or any of the other gods from getting along and standing against the jotuns.
Thor Versus Geirrod – In this story, Loki had been flying around in the form of a falcon when got captured by the jotun, Geirrod. The jotun refused to release Loki unless he could find a way to get Thor to come to his court. Thor did agree, thinking that this would be a peaceful invitation and came without his hammer, Mjollnir.
Along the way, Thor stopped at the home of a friendly female jotun by the name of Grid. She warned Thor how Geirrod really intended to kill Thor. Grid loaned Thor her unbreakable staff, Gríðarvölr.
Finally arriving at Geirrod’s court, Thor was taken to a room where he sat in the only chair present. When Thor sat, the chair began to raise towards the ceiling. Just as Thor was about to be crushed to death, he braced Grid’s staff against the ceiling and pushed his way back to the floor. There were two loud cracks and screams that followed. When Thor looked to see the source, he saw Geirrod’s two daughter laying there in pain as Thor had broken their backs when forcing himself back to the floor as they had been lifting the chair.
Geirrod rushed into the room in a rage, throwing a molten iron rod at Thor. Undaunted, Thor caught the rod easily and Geirrod in a panic, hid behind a pillar. When Thor threw the rod at the pillar, it not only pierced the pillar, but continued through to impale Geirrod, killing him.
The Sun, The Moon & Freyja – One such story has Asgard, the home of the Norse gods getting damaged during a war between the gods. One of the Jotun offered to help rebuild the walls for Asgard, vowing to get it done in a short span of time. The gods accepted this offer, believing it would be an impossible task. The gods promised the Jotun a reward of the sun, the moon and the hand of Freyja in marriage. This Jotun nearly finished the task in the stated time period. However, to prevent having to fulfill the gods end of the bargain, Thor killed the Jotun.
Defeated By Utgard-Loki
This is a story that has two parts to it, beginning easily enough one winter when the jotun were causing huge blocks of ice to fall from the sky down into Midgard into people’s homes and causing vast amounts of snow to cover the fields to prevent planting any crops. As the defender and champion of humanity, Thor journeyed to the realm of Jotuneim with Loki and a couple of other companions.
Part One – Thor Versus Skrymir – In this first part, Thor and Loki met the Jotun known as Skrymir. This giant was so immense, that Thor and his companions mistook him for a hill. There was an oddly shaped mansion that the group found and decided to sleep in for the night. In the morning the group discovered that this mansion was actually one of Skrymir’s gloves. When the group awoke n the morning, they realized what they had taken for a hill was actually the giant, Skyrimir still asleep. Thor tried to crush in the Jotun’s skull with his hammer, Mjollnir. In response, Skrymir merely brushed the blow away as if it were nothing but a fly or leaf.
Despite the efforts of Thor to murder Skyrimir in his sleep, when the giant awoke, he offered to lead the group on their way to Utgard, a city of the jotun.
Part Two – Visiting Utgard – Skrymir led the group to the jotun city of Utgard where the group lost sight of Skrymir and was greeted by a group of jotun, including the king himself, Utgard-Loki. Given the general animosity between the gods and jotun, it’s no surprise that Thor, Loki and their other companions were not welcomed, unless of course they could complete a series of seemingly impossible challenges.
Loki was challenged and lost an eating contest when his opponent not only ate all the meat, but the bones and plate itself. Thialfi, one of the companions with the group, lost a series of three footraces.
It now fell to Thor to fulfill three challenges. As Thor boasted he could drink anyone under the table, a large drinking horn was brought to him with the challenge to finish it all in one gulp. After taking three huge swallows, Thor had only managed to drain the horn a few inches.
With the next challenge, Thor boasted his immense strength and Utgard-Loki challenged Thor to pick up a cat off the ground. After three attempts at moving the cat, Thor was only able to succeed at moving one paw.
Enraged by this, Thor accepted the last challenge of a wrestling match with anyone willing to match strength with him. The only one who would, was an old, frail looking woman. Thinking this would be easy, once again Thor was met with defeat at the hands of a feeble opponent who easily bested the mighty god, bringing him to his knees.
After this, Utgard-Loki declared the contests over and allowed the gods to stay the night and rest before returning home in the morning.
Come daylight, Utgard-Loki led the group out of Jotunheim. Once they were well past the borders, Utgard-Loki revealed himself to have been the giant, Skrymir who lead them to the city. Utgard-Loki proceeded to reveal the secrets of all of the challenges that Thor and his companions undergone.
Loki had been competing with fire, that burns and consumes everything it touches. That Thialfi’s opponent was thought, whom no one can outrun. As to Thor, the drinking horn he had drunk from was connected to the ocean and that he had succeeded in lowering the sea levels. The cat that Thor had tried lifting was none other than Jormungand, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world. As for the old woman, she was Age itself whom no one can defeat. That no matter how fiercely and bravely Thor fought her, even he would fall to her.
Angry at being tricked, Thor raised his hammer Mjollnir only to have the king of giants and his city vanish into thin air.
Thor Versus Hrungnir – One day Odin was out wandering near Jotunheim when he meets the jotun, Hrungnir. Odin challenged the jotun to a horse race back to Asgard. While Odin still won the match, he invited the jotun, Hrungnir to stay for dinner. During the dinner, Hrungnir gets drunk and boasts about how he could destroy Asgard and keep the goddesses as his concubines, including Thor’s own wife, Sif.
Needless to say, Thor didn’t take too well to this boasting and challenged Hrungnir to a fight. The jotun agreed and as Hrungnir had brought no weapons, they went back down to meet up near Jotunheim.
Before getting there, the other jotuns crafted a huge clay figure, some 30 miles high and 10 miles wide whom they brought to life. This clay figure would be Hrungnir’s right-hand man during the upcoming fight.
When Thor arrived, he was unfazed by seeing Hrungnir’s massive clay figure fighting beside him. Using his own trickery, Thor sent his own servant to keep the clay figure busy while Thor battled Hrungnir. When Hrungnir threw a giant whetstone, Thor responded with hurling his hammer, Mjollnir that broke the stone in half before continuing through to smash in Hrungnir’s head.
The Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Thor and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð.
Alvíssmál – In this poem, Thor manages to trick the dwarf, Alviss. When the story starts, Thor meets the dwarf, Alviss who is talking about marriage. Finding the dwarf to be ugly and repulsive, Thor comes to realize that it is own daughter, Thrud who is to be married. Further angered, Thor learns that this marriage was arranged by the other gods while he was away. Alviss however, must still seek Thor’s consent.
In order to get Thor’s permission, Alviss must tell Thor all about the worlds that he has visited. It becomes a rather long question and answer session as Alviss goes into detail about the terrains, different languages of various races and a goodly amount of cosmology.
This long question and answer session is nothing more than a delay tactic by Thor. While Thor comments that he has never met anyone with more wisdom, he has succeeded in delaying Alviss long enough that when the Sun rises, it turns him to stone. Now Thor’s daughter won’t be marrying someone he doesn’t approve. Of course, Thor could have made it easier by simply denying Alviss’ request, but it might have been more problems.
Grímnismál – In this poem, Odin is disguised as Grimnir wherein he is tortured, starved and thirsty. In this state, Grimnir tells a young Agnar about the cosmology of Norse believes, that Thor lives in Þrúðheimr and every day, Thor wades through the rivers Körmt and Örmt and the two Kerlaugar. At the base of the world tree, Yggdrasil, Thor sits as a judge.
Hárbarðsljóð – In this poem, Thor is the central figure. After having traveled “from the east,” Thor comes to an inlet where he tries to get a ride from a ferryman by the name of Hárbarðr (Odin in disguise). The ferryman shouts at Thor from the inlet, being rude and obnoxious. Thor takes this all-in stride at first, keeping his cool. As Hárbarðr becomes more and more aggressive, the two eventually fall into a flyting match.
Flyting? Epic Rap Battles way back in the day. As the match continues, it is revealed that Thor has killed several jötnar (giants) in the east and berserk women in Hlesy (the Danish island of Læsø). Thor loses the match to Hárbarðr and finds himself forced to walk.
It should be noted that the name of Hárbarðr or Harbard means Greybeard.
Hymiskviða – In this poem, Thor is the central character. After the gods have been out hunting and finished eating their prey, they begin to drink. As they drink, the gods decide to “shake the twigs” and interpret what is said. The gods then decide that they will find some cauldron’s at Ægir’s home. Thor gets to Ægir’s home and tells the other god how he needs to prepare a feast for the gods. Annoyed by this, Ægir informs Thor that he and the other gods will need to bring him a suitable cauldron in which to brew some ale in. Searching to no avail, Thor and the other gods are unable to locate such a cauldron. Tyr tells Thor that there may be a proper cauldron to use at Hymir’s place over east in Élivágar.
Stabling his goats, Thor and Tyr head to Hymir’s hall for a large enough cauldron to meet Ægir’s demands. When they arrive, Tyr see his nine-hundred-headed grandmother and his gold-clad mother who welcomes the two with a drinking horn. Hymir comes in and he’s not happy to see Thor. Tyr’s mother helps with finding a large enough cauldron for Ægir’s need for brewing. Thor in the meantime, eats a huge meal consisting of two oxen (while the others only have one) and then falls asleep.
In the morning, Thor awakens and tells Hymir that he wants to go fishing, intending to catch a lot of fish, but he will need bait. Hymir has Thor get bait from his pasture. Thor does so, going out and rips the head off of Hymir’s best ox. I can see why Hymir isn’t happy with seeing Thor.
There’s a break in the poem and it picks up with Thor and Hymir out at sea in a boat, fishing. Hymir manages to catch a few whales. Thor goes and baits his line with the head of the ox and when he throws it out, it is Jörmungandr, the monstrous sea serpent that takes the bait. Undaunted, Thor pulls the serpent up and slams Jörmungandr’s head with his hammer. Jörmungandr lets out a mighty shriek.
There is another break in the poem. However, other sources have commented that what is likely to have happened, is that Hymir cut the line holding Jörmungandr and he slipped back down into the ocean. This incident is also probably the source of the enmity between Thor and Jörmungandr at Ragnarok when the two kill each other.
The poem picks back up with Hymir completely unhappy and quiet as the two row back to shore. Back at shore, Hymir tells Thor to help him carry one of the whales back to his farm. Thor’s response is to pick up the boat, whales and all to carry them back to the farm.
Back at the farm, Thor smashes a crystal goblet that he throws at Hymir’s head at the suggestion of Tyr’s mother. Thor and Tyr are given the cauldron that they came looking for and while Tyr is unable to lift it, Thor is able to at least roll it along.
After leaving Hymir’s place and getting some distance from the farm, Thor and Tyr are attacked by an army of multi-headed creatures all led by Hymir. Thor kills all of the attacking creatures and presumably Hymir. One of Thor’s goats ends up lame, however Thor and Tyr are successful at bringing back a large enough cauldron for Ægir who is able to brew enough ale for everyone. Clearly the feast is enough of a success that the gods return every winter to Ægir’s place for more ale.
Hyndluljóð – In this poem, Freyja offers the jötunn woman, Hyndla a blót or sacrifice to Thor so that she can be protected. The comment is made that Thor doesn’t care much for jötunn women. Which begs the question of why make the offer? Unless because it was Freyja making the offering, knowing that Thor would honor it?
Lokasenna – In this poem, Loki enters a flyting match the gods in Ægir’s hall. Thor isn’t present for this incident. Towards the end of the poem, as things get more heated, the attention is turned towards Sif, Thor’s wife and Loki makes a bold claim to have slept with her. Beyla, a servant of Freyr’s, interrupt and announces that since the mountains are shaking, it must mean that Thor is on his way home. Beyla continues with how Thor will bring an end to the argument. Loki responds with more insults.
Thor does arrive and tell Loki to keep quiet or else he’ll rip off Loki’s head using his hammer. Loki taunts Thor, asking why he is so angry, he won’t be in any mood to fight the wolf, Fenrir after it eats Odin. All this is about the events of Ragnarok that have been foretold. Thor again tells Loki to keep quiet with a threat to throw the trickster god so far into the sky he would never come back down.
Not daunted in the least, Loki tells Thor how he shouldn’t be bragging about his time in the east as the mighty Thor had once cowered in fear inside the thumb of a glove. Once more Thor tells Loki to keep silent with threats to break every bone in his body. Loki continues the taunts, saying he still intends to live, throwing in references to when Thor had met Útgarða-Loki.
Thor gives a fourth and final demand to Loki for silence or else he would send Loki to Hel. At this, Loki ceases his taunts saying that he will leave the hall, knowing that Thor does indeed strike. The segment of the poem containing Thor ends here, but continues on.
Skírnismál – In this poem, Freyr’s messenger, Skirnir threatens the lovely Gerðr with whom Freyr is in love with. Skirnir’s many threats and curses include those of having Thor, Freyr and Odin himself be angry with her if she doesn’t return Freyr’s advances. I would hope that Gerðr held her ground and said no.
Þrymskviða – Also known as the Lay of Trym, this comedic poem features Thor as a central figure. Thor awakens one morning to discover that his hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Thor confides in Loki about the missing hammer and that no one knows it’s missing. The two then head to Freyja’s hall to find the missing Mjöllnir. Thor asks Freyja if he can borrow her feathered cloak to which she agrees. At this, Loki takes off with the feathered cloak.
Loki heads to Jötunheimr where the jotunn, Þrymr is making collars for his dogs and trimming the manes of his horses. When Þrymr sees Loki, he asks what is happening among the Æsir and elves and why it is that Loki is alone in Jötunheimr. Loki replies by telling Þrymr how Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Þrymr admits to having taken Mjöllnir and hiding it some eight leagues beneath the earth where Thor will never get it back unless the goddess Freyja is brought to him to be his wife. Loki takes off again, flying back to the Æsir court with Freyja’s cloak.
Thor enquires with Loki if he was successful. Loki tells of what he has found out, that Þrymr took Thor’s hammer and will only give it back if Freyja is brought to Þrymr to be his wife. At this news, Thor and Loki return to Freyja to tell her of the news that she is to be a bride to Þrymr. Angry, Freyja flat out refuses, causing the halls of the Æsir to shake and for her famous necklace, Brísingamen to fall off.
The gods and goddess hold a meeting to debate the matter of Þrymr’s demands. The god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that instead of Freyja, that Thor should dress as the bride as a way to get Thor’s hammer back. Thor balks at the idea and Loki seconds Heimdallr’s idea, saying it will be the only that Thor can get his hammer back. For without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade Asgard. Relenting, Thor agrees to dress as a bride, taking Freyja’s place. Dressing as a maid to the disguised Thor, Loki goes with Thor down to Jötunheimr.
After arriving in Jötunheimr, Þrymr commands the jötnar of his hall to make the place presentable for Freyja has arrived to be his bride. Þrymr then tells how of all of his treasured animals and objects, that Freyja was the one missing piece to all of his wealth.
Disguised, Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and all of his jötnar. At the feast, Thor consumes a large amount of food and mead, something that is at odds with Þrymr’s impressions of Freyja. Loki, feigning the part of a shrewd maid, tells Þrymr how that is because Freyja had not eaten anything for eight days in her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr decides that he wants to kiss his bride and when he lifts “Freyja’s” veil, fierce looking eyes stare back at him. Again, Loki says that this is because Freyja hasn’t slept either during the past eight nights.
A poor sister of the jötnar arrives, calling for the bridal gift from Freyja if she cares anything at all for the jötnar. The jötnar then bring out Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir in order to sanctify the bride as they lay it on “Freyja’s” lap. Þrymr and Freyja will be handfasted by the goddess Var. When Thor sees his hammer, he grabs hold of Mjöllnir and proceeds to beat all of the jötnar with it. Thor even kills the poor sister of the jötnar. Thus, Thor gets his hammer back.
Völuspá – In this poem, a dead völva tells the history of the universe and the future to Odin in disguise about the death of Thor. The völva foretells how Thor will battle with the Midgard serpent during the great mythical battle known as Ragnarok. How after slaying the serpent, Thor will only be able to take nine steps before dying from the serpent’s venom.
After the battle, the sky turns black before fire envelops the world, the stars vanishing, flames dancing across the sky, steam rising and the world becoming covered in water before it raises again, once more green and fertile.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
In the Prose Edda, Thor is a prince of Troy, the son of King Memnon by Troana, the daughter of Priam. In this account, Thor is also known as Tror who is to have married the prophetess Sibyl, identified with Sif. It continues that Thor was raised in Thrace by the chieftain Lorikus whom Thor later kills and takes on the title: King of Thrace. Like later Marvel versions of Thor, this version of Thor also has blonde hair.
Snorri Sturluson explains how the name of the Aesir gods means: “men from Asia” and that Asgard was an “Asian City” that is, Troy. Given that Troy is located anciently in Tyrkland (Turkey) and is part of Asia Minor, that explanation works. So Asialand or Scythia is where Thor is to have founded a new city by the name of Asgard. Odin in this version is a descendant of Thor by twelve generations, who leads an expedition across Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
If Snorri can play around with Thor’s mythology, so can Marvel comics.
This is another of Snorri Sturluson’s books, written in the 13th century C.E. Statues attributed to Thor are found mentioned in a number of different sagas. Namely the Ynglinga saga, Hákonar saga góða, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, and Óláfs saga Helga sagas. In the Ynglinga saga, Thor is described as having been a pagan priest who was given by Odin, another powerful, magic using chieftain to the East, a place in the mythical place of Þrúðvangr, that is now Sweden. A number of popular names for Thor likely originate from the Ynglinga.
Ragnarok – Twilight of the Gods
The final end game of the Norse Gods, this not exactly a happy time as a good many of the gods end up dying.
Jormungand – On the day of Ragnarok, Thor would kill the Midgard Serpent known as Jormungand and then die in turn from the serpent’s poison. Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi would inherit the hammer. Though just how they would split it between them is unknown.
Norse Versus Christianity
Dating from the 800’s C.E., there’s a story how a bunch of priests of Thor had shown up at a Christian monastery of monks. Apparently, word had gotten around and the priests of Thor weren’t happy with how the monks their God were transgressing on Thor’s territory.
The priests of Thor were considering wiping out all of the monks, but knew if they did that, more monks and followers of Christianity would soon arrive.
Thor’s priests then decided on a pretty clever plan, let the gods fight it out for who would be the supreme deity. Thor’s priests were very confident that Thor would show up, leaving the Christian monks to have their God show up. The monks declined the challenge.
It’s an interesting story of people so certain in the reality of their faith and deities.
Old Saxon Baptismal Vow
This codex dating from the 9th century C.E. has the names of three Old Saxon gods, UUôden (Old Saxon “Wodan”), Saxnôte, and Thunaer, listed as demons to be renounced by the Germanic pagans converting to Christianity.
This is a specific breed of fox found in Iceland. The name translates to “Thor of the Holt” and receives the name due to their red coats.
Thorwiggar – Thor’s Wedges
In Swedish folklore, these are smooth, wedge-shaped stones that were thrown by Thor at a troll.
In a similar vein, meteorites are considered memorials to Thor due to how heavy they are.
On the Swedish island of Gotland, this is the name of a beetle named after the god Thor. It is believed that when this beetle is found upside down, that a person can gain Thor’s favor by flipping the beetle back over.
Unfortunately, in other parts of Sweden, this beetle has become demonized with the Christinization of Europe as seen in the name of Thordedjefvul and Thordyfvel, both of which mean “Thor-Devil.”
Also called: Faran Maka, Faran Maka Bote
Among the Songhay people of Africa, Fara Maka is a significant culture hero. He is described as being a giant of a man who fished and grew rice for a living. Stories about Fara Maka have him using his long beard to catch fish and to eat at least one hippopotamus a day. As a result of his divine heritage, Fara Maka also had magical powers.
The Songhay are able to trace their origins back to the 8th century B.C.E. when Aliman Dia came to the Niger River. Aliman Dia had iron weapons that enabled him to overpower the people living there along the river. Namely the sorko or fishers and the gow or hunters. By uniting the different villages in the area, Aliman Dia founded the first Songhay dynasty.
Aliman Dia’s descendants ruled until around the 15th century when the Sonni replaced them.
Parentage and Family
Fara Maka’s father was a mortal man by the name of Nisili Bote, a fisherman by trade.
His mother’s name is Maka, a river spirit. As a result, this is from whom Fara got his mystical and divine heritage from.
This one is a bit odd, Fara Maka found a girl in a termite mound who gave birth to his two children.
Among the Mali people, Fara Maka or Fara Maka’s wife’s name is Nana Miriam.
Fara Maka is the father of Wango and Weikare. Not a whole lot else is known about them other than their children in turn become the sorko of the Songhay tribe.
The most significant story involving Fara Maka is that of his battle with the water spirit Zinkibaru for control of the Niger River.
Zinkibaru has caused the fish to eat Fara Maka’s rice crops. In response to this, Fara Maka fought the water spirit and in the process, won a magical guitar from it.
After his battle with the river spirit Zinkibaru, Fara Maka soon got too overconfident with his abilities and victory. This angered Dongo, the god of lightning and thunder. Dongo displayed his anger towards Fara by burning many Songhay villages and people.
Eventually Dongo cooled down enough and summoned Fara to him. Dongo demanded that Fara humble himself in order to stop the attacks on the villages by offering up music, praise-poems and animal sacrifices. Dongo further told Faran that if he would organize these festivals, that he, Dongo would enter into the bodies of the dancers for a spiritual ecstasy and help all those living along the Niger River.
Songhay Possession Ceremony
After Dongo’s forced meeting with Fara Maka, the first Songhay Possession Ceremony was held. Even today in modern era, this ceremony is still performed. The most important people of the Songhay Possession Troupe are the Sorko, the praise-singers to the spirits. The Sorko are direct descendants of Fara Maka Bote, keeping alive the traditions, folklore and religion of the Songhay.
Among the people of Mali, Fara Maka is a hero who slew a monstrous hippopotamus known as Mali.
Mali had eaten all of Fara Maka’s crops. Fara Maka tried to kill the monster hippo using his spear and sending out as many 120 black hounds to attack the beast. Fara Maka failed and was eaten in the process by some accounts. His wife, Nana Miriam used a spell to paralyze the monster Mali and finally defeating it.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.