Category Archives: Presents/Gifts
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.
Other names: Amphictyonis, Sito (“She of the Grain,”) Thesmophoros (“Law Bringer”)
Other Names and Epithets: Achaea, Achaiva (“Sorrowing,”) Aganippe (“the Mare who Destroys Mercifully”, “Night-Mare,”) Anesidora (“Sender of Gifts,”) Antaea, Chloe (“the Green Shoot,” Chthonia (“In the Ground,”) “Corn-Mother,” Daduchos (“Torch Bearer,”) Demeter Lousia, “the Bathed Demeter”, Demeter Erinys, Demeter Melaine “Black Demeter,” Despoina (“Mistress of the House,”) Epipole, Erinys (“Implacable,”) Europa (“Broad Face or Eyes,”) Kidaria, Lusia (“Bathing,”) Malophoros (“Apple-Bearer” or “Sheep-Bearer,”) “Mistress of the Labyrinth,” “Mother-Earth,” Potnia “Mistress,” Thermasia (“Warmth,”) “Green,” “The Giver of Gifts,” “The Bearer of Food,” and “Great Mother.”
When paired with Persephone, she and Demeter are called: “the Older” and “the Younger” in Eleusis, Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, the Thesmophoroi or “the Legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia. “The Queens” in Mycenaean Pylos.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: Earth Mother
It’s generally agreed that the second part to Demeter’s name, “meter” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning mother.
Now, the first part to Demeter’s name, De originates as Da, becoming Ge in Attic and then De in Doric. Making it that Demeter means “Mother Earth.” The root word of De has also been linked to the name Deo, from the Cretan word for emmer, spelt, rye and other grains. In this respect, Demeter is the giver of food. Another alternative from Proto-Indo-European etymology is that De is derived from Despoina and Potnia where Des- means house or dome, making in this case, Demeter mean “mother of the house.”
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Olympian goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She specializes in the cultivation of grains and is a fertility goddess. In addition, Demeter ruled over the cycles of life and death as well. Demeter is an ancient goddess whose worship predates the Greeks. Both Demeter and her daughter Persephone were the central figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Animal: Horse, Pig, Snake
Colors: Black, Green
Patron of: Agriculture, Harvest
Plant: Grains, Wheat, Barley, Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Growth, Seasonal Cycles, Harvest, Sacred Law
Symbols: Cornucopia, Scepter, Wheat, Torch, Bread
Early Greek Depictions
Found in Pylos, there is a set of Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets that dates from between 1400 to 1200 C.E. that depicts “two mistresses and the king” that are thought to possibly be Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter is described as a blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain.
Demeter doesn’t often appear in art before the 6th century B.C.E. Demeter is often associated with imagery of the harvest, flowers, fruit, grain and sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone where they are both wearing crowns and hold a torch and scepter or stalks of grain. Another scene that Demeter is shown in is that of Athena’ birth. Sometimes Demeter is shown sitting alone wearing a wreath of braided ears of grain.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. During the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens is when Demeter’s worship came to Eleusis.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
There were two sets of observances or celebrations for the Eleusinian Mysteries that would be held every five years.
The Lesser Mysteries would be held the 20th Anthesterion (roughly coinciding with February 28th) and take place over a span of week
The Greater or Eleusinian Mysteries would occur during the 15th-21st of Boedromion (September 28th to October 4th).
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
Amphictyony – An ancient ruin site, this is likely the oldest cult center for Demeter in Anthele along the coast of Malis, Thessaly. For those interest in history, this is near Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans fought the invading Persians. After the “First Sacred War,” this Amphictyony became known as the Delphic Amphictyony. Basically a meeting place for many local Greek tribes and cities to come gather to maintain temples to the gods, festivals and work out any disputes and problems.
Megara – Temples to Demeter were called Megara and would be built in groves with neighboring towns nearby.
Mysia – The goddess Demeter worshiped here had a seven-day festival held at Pellene, Arcadia.
Sacrifices To Demeter – These would consist of pigs, bulls, cows, honey cakes, and fruit.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” an epitaph of Poseidon. Eileithyia’s myth and cult would come to be absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted, and Demeter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess. The date can vary, if the festival were held in Athens, it would during the 11th-13 Pyanepsion, roughly coinciding with October 23rd-25th.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Thesmophoros – “Giver of Customs” or “Legislator” is a name and epitaph that links Demeter to the goddess Themis, which derives from the word thesmos, the unwritten law.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor, and Triptolemus
Iasion – Demeter manages to lure Iasion away during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia.
Poseidon – The Arcadian cult and myths link Demeter and Poseidon together. In this respect, Demeter is then equated with the Minoan Great Goddess, Cybele.
She is the second child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Amphitheus I – Her son by Triptolemus.
Arion – A magical speaking horse, her son by Poseidon.
Chrysothemis & Eubuleus – Her children by Karmanor.
Despoina – Her daughter by Poseidon.
Dmia – Her daughter by Oceanus.
Iacchus – Her son by Zeus. Due to the similarity of his name with Bacchus, he is sometimes identified as being Dionysus.
Persephone – Goddess of Fertility and Queen of the Underworld, her daughter by Zeus.
Philomelus – her son by Iasion.
Ploutos – Also spelled Plutus, her son by Iasion.
While Demeter may just very well indeed predate Grecian culture, she is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Demeter and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronous that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronous eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia.
There is a ten-year long war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Demeter and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Demeter & Zeus
Zeus as we know, King of the Gods, fathered many children with many goddesses and mortal woman alike and usually by rape.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus rapes his sister Demeter, resulting in Kore, Persephone.
By one account, Demeter becomes a fourth wife to Zeus and in their union, they have a daughter by the name of Kore (Persephone).
With the information from the Homeric Hymn and Zeus’ reputation, that would be an awful lot of wives if he married everyone he’s to have raped.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone. Plus, this is also a story involving her mother Demeter and her role in it and the primary story told in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires are known.
This doesn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this is love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. During her search, Demeter found herself in the palace of Celeus, King of Eleusis in Attica. Demeter took the guise of an old woman, calling herself Doso and asked the King for shelter. Celeus took the old woman in and had her nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons.
Now, from a goddess’ perspective, she planned to reward Celeus’ kindness by gifting his son Demophon immortality. To grant the gift of immortality, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia and laid him down in the hearth fire with the intention to burn away his mortality. Mom, Queen Metanira walks in and see her baby laying in the fire and understandably freaks out, screaming. Demeter decided against this idea and instead taught the older boy, Triptolemus the knowledge of agriculture. From this, this is how humankind learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Version 3 – Some versions of the story place the episode where Demeter goes to Celeus’ kingdom to hide in sorrow after she learns just who abducted Persephone. Regardless of if its Helios or Hecate who tells her the news.
This placement in the narrative often fits when the impression of Demeter as Fertility goddess is wanted to be given and that in her despair or out of spite, sets the world on a path to barrenness and winter.
Side Note – Sometimes the characters of Demephon and Triptolemus seen as being the same person, especially Triptolemus.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when Ascalaphus is released, Demter turns him into an owl.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility. In this case, the wealth of corn or grain springing forth from the ground every year and the promise of renewal it brings with it.
This is perhaps the biggest aspect about Demeter. As an Earth Goddess and Goddess of the Harvest, this is Demeter’s biggest role in her gifting mankind with the knowledge of agriculture, especially for grains and cereals. Without the advent of agriculture, humans would still largely be hunter-gatherers moving about and never having settled in any place to build cities and all the rest that follows.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
This strong connection of grain and rebirth or renewal is what ties Demeter so closely to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Hesiod, there are prayers to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter to help ensure that the crops will be full and strong.
Secrets Of Agriculture – In the larger story of “The Rape of Persephone,” there is a shorter episode that occurs. During Demeter’s search for her missing daughter, the goddesses’ wanderings took her to the kingdom of Eleusis in Attica where King Celeus ruled. While there, seeking shelter in the guise of an old woman, Demeter, after deciding to not gift immortality to the young son, Demophan, the goddess instead taught the knowledge of agriculture to the older son, Triptolemus. In this way, this is how humankind learned the knowledge of how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Now, there a few different versions to this myth and other figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus will be who learned the secrets of agriculture. Fair enough.
Without the knowledge of agriculture, humankind would have continued to be nomadic, hunter-gathers. With Demeter’s influence, humankind is able to settle and stay in one place to begin building up their cities and civilizations. This fits with one of Demeter’s names: Thesmophoros as “Law Bringer” and laying out the planning and laws of society.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
Like her daughter, Demeter is also closely connected to the Ancient Greeks beliefs about the changing of the seasons, especially as seen in the story: “The Rape of Persephone.” That Spring and Summer are when Persephone has returned to the Living World to be with her mother Demeter and that Fall and Winter come when Persephone descends back down to the Underworld to be with her husband Hades for the rest of the year.
Sure okay, makes sense I guess.
The more simplified Greek versions would have it that Demeter is responsible for the fertility of the earth and that she causes it to be winter out of grief and spite because her daughter Persephone isn’t with her. Add to that so many people wanting to give stories about how fickle and petty the Greek Gods could be, this just seems to fit the Pantheon’s MO, nobody is questioning the story?
Yay! I love mankind so much! I’m going to teach them agriculture and how to harvest! Boo! Hiss! You took my daughter! I’m going to punish the very mortals I claim to love so much by making the earth barren and winter!
That really doesn’t make sense!
Fertility Goddess – That’s because you have to remember that Persephone is a chthonic fertility goddess. The earth can grow again, and Spring comes when Persephone has ascended to the Living World.
The fertility function is something that the Greeks really seem to have forgotten and which role and function they attached to Demeter. That way, a version of the story where Demeter is the fertility goddess, it’s out of spite and grief that Demeter causes winter and refuses to allow anything to grow.
Harvest Goddess – Yeah! Everyone remembers this aspect about Demeter. Afterall, she taught mankind the secrets of agriculture! This is Demeter’s domain and better fits the dual roles that she and Persephone share.
Alright kiddos, Persephone’s going back to the Underworld to be with Hades again, better bring in those crops and harvest like I told you! It’s gonna’ be awhile and we don’t need any empty bellies or people dying while we wait for Persephone to come back.
Fall comes, and this is where Demeter’s role comes in. As plants become dormant or die, now is the time for harvesting, to make sure there enough food has been stored and gathered for the long winter months until Persephone and Spring returns. The first loaf of bread is thought to have been sacrificed to Demeter.
As a goddess of the Harvest, this domain ties closely to Demeter’s role as a goddess of Agriculture, having taught humankind it’s knowledge so they can grow enough food.
To keep with the version of the story where Demeter makes it Winter out of spite or grief because her daughter has been abducted seems contradictory. Especially if Demeter is one of the few Greek Gods who is considered closest to humankind and understands the most about grief and loss.
Just by the very meaning of Demeter’s name, “Earth Mother,” we know she is a mother goddess. Not necessarily a “Great Mother Goddess” as the Romans would identify Cybele and Rhea with.
As a mother goddess, Demeter is seen as the most compassionate and closest to humankind of all of the Greek Gods for she is the one who understands the most about grief and loss. It’s her gifts of abundance and the harvest yields that nurture and sustain humans through the long winter months.
This is another plant besides grains that is strongly associated with Demeter. Her emblem is that of a bright red poppy flower growing among the barley. Theocritus wrote of Demeter being a poppy goddess, that she held poppies and sheaves of grain in both of her hands. In Gazi, Minoa, there is a clay statuette that was found of a goddess wearing seed capsules on her diadem. The idea has put forward that a Great Mother Goddess, under the names of Rhea and Demeter introduced the poppy with her cult in Cretan.
Healing A Poor Man’s Son – An episode often set during Demeter’s search for her daughter, the goddess comes across a poor, old man who is out gathering firewood. He invites the goddess to his home, likely not knowing who she is, and offers to share a meal with her. This would be the law of hospitality among the Greeks known as Xenia.
When Demeter told the old man about her search for her missing daughter, he wished Demeter success and said that he understood her grief and suffering for his own son lay dying. Taking compassion, Demeter decided to go with the old man to his home. She stopped once to gather some poppies and when they arrived, Demeter went straight to the boy’s bedside, kissing him on the cheek. At once, the boy’s sickly pallor left him, and he was restored to health.
As to the poppies, I assume the story intended some healing use and connection. Poppies are a source of opium from which morphine is derived. There is a history of poppies being used medicinally, mainly for diarrhea and pain, chest colds, coughs and pneumonia. So, a Greek audience likely knew very well what Demeter intended to use the poppies for.
Poppy seeds are also used in preparations for bread and confections. Not likely an immediate use of drug abuse.
Goddess Of Marriage
As a goddess of marriage, Demeter is venerated at the celebration of Thesmophoria. It’s an interesting connection and one that makes sense if one remembers that it wasn’t unusual for mothers to be kept out of the loop as to whom their daughter would marry when the father is making the arrangements.
Of course, this future husband was likely someone easily two if not three times the girl’s age and she would find herself torn from her birth home and leaving to live with her husband, most likely in another town and province.
Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter would resonate with many women in ancient Greece. Taking from the stance of Demeter as responsible for fertility, she, unlike many women was able to do something that others couldn’t. That was to defy Zeus’ will by holding the world hostage until he agrees to release Persephone back to Demeter, even if only for part of the year.
It may have been a partial victory, but a victory all the same for Demeter. Many mothers probably hoped to be able to do something similar. Or say, a daughter could return to visit her maternal family, things would never return to the way they were before. But just for a little while, they could.
Demeter & Iasion
Iasion is noteworthy as he is considered the only consort Demeter took by choice rather getting raped or forced by another person. Iasion is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Elektra.
During the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter spotted Iasion and fell in love. She managed to lure Iasion away from all the other party goers. The two would head out to a field near Crete where they would have a tryst. Demeter would later give birth to twins: Ploutos (or Plutus) who is known for bestowing wealth and plenty on people and Philomelos who would become the patron of plowing.
Zeus would become jealous of Iasion and kill him with a thunderbolt. By one account, Zeus didn’t think it appropriate that a Goddess would consort with a mortal. But it’s okay if he does it? Got it.
Ploutos & Philomelos
In a case of sibling rivalry, Philomelos was envious of Ploutos great wealth. Rather than re-enact a biblical scene worthy of Cain and Abel, Philomelos bought a pair of oxen and invented the plow so he could earn a living tilling the earth. This so impressed Demeter, that she placed Philomelos up into the heavens to become the constellation Bootes.
Demeter & Poseidon
Well sure and why not? Demeter is the Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon is the God of Water. That’s a good match and they’re consenting adults and gods.
Mycenaen Greek – This is Bronze Age Greece, there is a script known as Linear B found in Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos where both Demeter and Poseidon’s names appear. Poseidon is given the epitaph of E-ne-si-da-o-ne “earth-shaker” and Demeter’s name is given si-to-po-ti-ni-ja. In these inscriptions, Poseidon’s title and epitaph E-ne-si-da-o-ne (Enesidaon) links him as a King of the Underworld and gives him a chthonic nature.
Touching back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are tablets found in Pylos that mention sacrificial goods for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” or “to the Two Queens and King.” It’s agreed that the Two Queens very likely refer to Demeter and Persephone or its later precursor goddesses who are not associated with Poseidon later.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” whom we just mentioned is Poseidon. Her cult and worship would survive within the Eleusinian Mysteries. Plus, we see where local deities’ worship get absorbed and conflated with a more popular, well-known deity.
Arcadia – We’re still in Bronze Age Greece! Here, Demeter and Poseidon Hippios or Horse Poseidon give birth to a daughter, Despoina, who is a goddess in her own right before some of the myths confuse her with Persephone or make her an epitaph of Demeter.
In this myth, Poseidon is a river spirit of the Underworld, appearing as a horse. In this form, Poseidon pursues Demeter, who is also in horse form. Demeter hid among the horses of King Onkios. Due to her divinity, Demeter couldn’t remain hidden for long and Poseidon caught up with her and forced himself on her. When the two gods copulate, Demeter gives birth to a goddess who is also in horse or mare form. This is a myth that sounds very similar to another one between Poseidon and Athena and more accurately, Philyra and Cronos when Chiron is born. The horse motif is very common in norther-European myths and folklore.
As a mare-goddess, Demeter is known first as Demeter Erinys due to her fury with Poseidon for forcing himself on her. She becomes Demeter Lousia, “the bathed Demeter” after washing away her anger in the River Ladon. There’s something to be said for this as you can’t hold onto your anger forever, you must let it go or otherwise it consumes you.
The whole myth of pairing up Demeter and Poseidon is to connect Demeter as a Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon as a God of Water with their connection over nature. Despoina is the daughter who results from their union and whose name could not be spoken outside of the Arcadian Mysteries. Demeter and Poseidon also have another child, a horse by the name of Arion who is noted being able to speak, being immortal, really swift and for having a black mane and tail.
The effigy or imagery of Demeter worshiped in Arcadia depicts her as a gorgon or medusa-like with a horse’s head and snake hair while holding a dove and dolphin that likely represented her power over air and water. Close to the Arcadian city of Phigaleia, there is Mt. Elaios where a cave held sacred to Demeter is found. Here, an image of Demeter Melaine is seated showing the goddess dressed in black with a horse’s head and snake hair. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, when the statue caught fire and was destroyed, the Phigalians failed to make a new statue for Demeter, eventually leading to neglecting her sacrifices and festivals, the land became barren.
Demeter & Ascaelabus
I assume this is an episode set during when Demeter is searching for her daughter. When Demeter stopped at one point to kneel by a spring to quench her thirst, a man by the name of Ascaelabus began laughing when he heard the sound of Demeter’s gulping. Angry and embarrassed, Demeter turned the man into a lizard for his rudeness.
Demeter & Triopas
Considered the father of the Thessalians, Triopas was cursed by Demeter after he destroyed one of her temples. In retaliation, Demeter sent a huge serpent to kill Triopas. Even in death, Demeter wasn’t finished and she set Triopas up among the heavens as a constellation where the serpent could forever torment him.
Demeter & Erysichthon
Erysichthon was a Thessalian hero who decided to build himself a palace. Unfortunately for Erysichthon, the grove of trees he chose were sacred to Demeter. As Erysichthon set about to cut down the trees, Demeter came in disguise as a priestess by the name of Nikippe to try and warn Erysichthon not to cut the trees.
Nikippe is also the name of a nymph who lived in the grove. So when Erysichthon ignores the warning and chops down the tree, killing Nikippe, Demeter became very wroth and cursed Erysichthon with an insatiable hunger.
The more that Erysichthon ate, the thinner he became. In addition, when he had spent all of his money to try and sate his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon turned to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery.
Luckily for Mestra, she was a mistress of Poseidon and he granted the powers of shape-shifting into animals. Using this ability, Mestra would be able to escape slavery every time her father sold her.
In New Age, Pagan and Wiccan practices, Demeter is often seen as the Mother aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Persephone representing the Maiden and Hecate the Crone.
Virgo Zodiac Constellation
The constellation of Virgo is the sixth sign of twelve that form the classical Greek Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from August 23 to September 22. Virgo is often depicted as a Winged Maiden holding a stalk or sheaf of wheat or some other grain in her hand. This figure is sometimes identified with that of Demeter, most notably by Marcus Manilus in his Astronomicon in 1st century Rome.
Ceres – Roman Goddess
Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherhood and equated with Demeter. Similarly, Ceres has a daughter by the name of Proserpina is also abducted by Pluto down to the Underworld to become Queen of the Dead. The biggest difference in the myth is that Pluto is struck by an arrow from Cupid after his mother Venus told him to do. This is what causes the God of the Dead to fall madly in love with Proserpina. The other difference is that Cere’s celebrations and festivals come during the Spring while Demeter is venerated in Fall with the Harvest.
Cybele – Phrygian & Roman Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who equate Demeter with her mother, Rhea, a Titaness, mother of the gods who is also a goddess of the earth and fertility. As I previously mentioned with the name of Antaea, that epitaph could be applied to Demeter, Cybele and Rhea equally. It works if you’re just seeing all the gods as different aspects of the divine and not making any distinction. It’s possible that’s just remnants of an older belief and religion that the Greeks replaced with their own.
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and -mundr (Old Norse) “Protector”
Pronunciation: Zeek-muwnt (German), Seeg-mund (Swedish), Sig-mənd (English)
Also known as: Siegmund
Alternate Spellings: Sigmundr (Old Norse), Sigimund, Sigismund (Ancient Germanic), Sigmundr (Ancient Scandinavian), Zikmund (Czech), Siegmund, Sigismund (German), Zsigmond, Zsiga (Hungarian), Sigismondo (Italian), Zygmunt (Polish), Žigmund (Slovak), Žiga (Slovene), Segismundo (Spanish), Sigge (Swedish)
The hero Sigmund is best known from his exploits in the Völsunga saga. Sigmund’s fame comes from being the one who could pull the sword, Gram from a tree and being the father of another hero, Sigurd.
Parentage and Family
Father – Völsung, for whom the Völsunga saga is named.
Mother – Ljod, also spelled Hljod, Sigmund’s mother in the Völsunga.
Borghild – His first wife.
Sieglind – His wife in the Nibelungenlied.
Sisibe – His wife in the Thiðrekssaga.
Brother – It’s mentioned that Sigmund has nine brothers, though none of them are ever given any names.
Sister – Signý, his twin
Helgi – Son by way of Borghild.
Sigurd – Son by way of Hljod. A famous dragon-slayer of many Norse, Scandinavian and German sagas.
Sinfjötli – Son by way of incest with his sister Signý.
Hamund and Helgi – Sons by way of Borghild.
The oldest source for Sigmund’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. based on events from the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.
This is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that follows several generations of Völsung’s lineage. While this saga is best known for the story of Sigurd and Brunhildr and the destruction of the Burgundians, this is the main source for the story regarding Sigmund.
Backing up a little bit, the saga begins with Völsung, known of his great strength and size, who is the king of Hunland. Völsung marries Hljod with whom he fathers ten sons and a daughter, Signý, the twin to Sigmund.
So great is Signý’s beauty, that King Siggeir of Gautland (Västergötland) sends a missive to King Völsung requesting his daughter Signý’s hand in marriage. Now, Siggeir had a reputation for being fierce in battle and Völsung and his sons knew that they couldn’t hope to fend off Siggeir and his men once they saw them. Add to this, Signý doesn’t want to marry Siggeir.
Against her better judgment, Signý marries Siggeir. A wedding feast, one that would last for several days commenced shortly after. At a time when both Völsung and Sigmund are in attendance, the god Odin came, disguised as a beggar and thrust the sword Gram into the a large oak tree known as Barnstock. Völsung’s hall was built around this large oak. The beggar (Odin) announces that the man who is able to pull the sword free may have it as a gift. Of all the men present, only Sigmund succeeded in pulling the sword free.
Signý’s new husband, Siggeir became very envious and greedy for Sigmund’s sword. When Sigmund refused an offer to buy the sword, Siggeir than invites Völsung, Sigmund and his nine other brothers to come visit him and Signý a few months later in Gautland.
When Völsung and the rest of his clan arrived, they are attacked by Siggeir’s men. In the fight that followed, Völsung is killed and his sons captured. Signý pleaded with Siggeir to spare her brothers, to have them placed in stocks instead of killing them outright. Siggeir agreed to Signý’s pleas only because it went along with his ideas of torturing the brothers before killing them.
It turns out that Siggeir has a mother who can shape-shift into a wolf. He lets dear old mother kill one of the Völsung brothers each night. Signý, much as she tries, is unable to save her brothers. One by one they are killed by this she-wolf until finally only Sigmund remains.
With only last chance to save any of her brothers, Signý gets a servant to smear some honey on Sigmund’s face. When Siggeir’s shape-shifted mother arrives that night, the she-wolf licks the honey off Sigmund’s face, causing her tongue to stick to the roof of her mouth. The opportunity allowed Sigmund to bite off the she-wolf’s tongue. The resulting blood loss killed the wolf. Shortly after, he freed himself and Sigmund took off to hide in the forest.
Hidden safely in the woods, Sigmund has everything he needs and what he doesn’t have, Signý would bring to him. Seeking revenge for the death of their father herself, Signý would send her sons out to the forest to be tested by their uncle. As each one failed the test, Sigmund would kill them until he finally had enough of it and refused to kill any more children. A distraught Signý came to Sigmund disguised as a völva (a type of Scandinavian Witch or Shaman). Disguised, Signý gave birth to Sinfjötli, whom, a child of incest is able to pass Sigmund’s test.
Living the life of outlaws, both Sigmund and Sinfjötli lived in the forest. During their time, the two came across some men sleeping in some wolf skins. The two kill the men and on donning the wolf skins for themselves, discover that the skins are cursed. With their new-found abilities or curse, Sigmund and Sinfjötli are able to avenge Völsung when they kill Siggeir by way of setting his place on fire. The only person to escape the blaze was Signý, whom if Sigmund hadn’t known the truth about his nephew/son Sinfjötli, she now came clean to tell him she had tricked Sigmund into sleeping with her. After revealing the truth, Signý walked back into the raging fire to die with Siggeir.
Returning To Hunland
The story doesn’t end there as both Sigmund and Sinfjötli continue their exploits of banditry when they return to Hunland. Sigmund’s plan is to reclaim his lands from the king who took over after Völsung’s death. After reclaiming his rightful throne, Sigmund marries Borghild and they have two sons, Hamund and Helgi.
It’s known that Helgi, at the age of fifteen would go on to fight many battles and win his own kingdom. He earned the name Helgi Hundingsbani when he killed Hunding and his sons after two battles. Helgi wasn’t done yet and would continue on to defeat Hodbrodd and Grannar in order to win the hand of Sigrun, the daughter of King Hogni in marriage. This is a story for another post.
Borghild became jealous of her stepson Sinfjötli’s abilities and when he killed her brother, she plotted Sinfjötli’s demise. Both Sinfjötli and her brother had been competing for the hand of the same woman. Killing Sinfjötli wouldn’t be easy for Borghild as he was immune to all poison. That didn’t stop Borghild from trying. She offered Sinfjötli two cups of poisoned wine that he drank without problem. However, with the third cup, that did Sinfjötli in. For her efforts, Borghild was banished from Hunland.
The narrative continues that Sigmund carried Sinfjötli’s body into the forest where he meets a ferryman at a fjord. The ferryman had only enough room on his boat for one passenger at a time and offered to take Sinfjötli’s body across first and come back for Sigmund. When the boat reached the middle of the fjord, it vanished along with the ferryman and Sinfjötli’s body. This ferryman would be none other than Odin in disguise, come to personally take his descendant to Valhalla despite not meeting the prerequisite to die in battle.
Marrying Hjördís & Sigmund’s Doom
Sigmund goes on to marry again, this time to Hjördís, daughter of King Eylimi. Hjördís had another suitor who sought her hand in marriage, King Lyngi along with other suitors. The would be suitors competed for Hjördís’s hand in marriage and Sigmund won, despite being much older than other kings. Lyngi refused to give up and concede to Sigmund.
After enjoying a brief period of peace, Sigmund’s kingdom is attacked by King Lyngi as he was jealous and wanted revenge on Hjördís for marrying Sigmund.
It is during this battle, Sigmund fought alongside his father-in-law, King Eylimi who is killed. It is this day, that the Norns have decreed will be when Sigmund dies. The god Odin returns in this battle, disguised as a beggar and when he comes face to face with Sigmund, the sword Gram is shattered by his spear Gungnir.
The sword shattered, Sigmund easily falls at the hands of others in battle. As he lays dying, Sigmund tells Hjördís that she is pregnant, and their son will one day receive the broken remains of his sword. That their son will be named Sigurd who would go on to avenge his father’s death and slay the dragon Fafnir.
As to Lyngi, he was thwarted in trying to win Hjördís for she had fled and was found by King Alf who married and took her and her unborn son in.
Other Germanic Sagas
In many of the sagas about the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), Sigmund or Siegmund is often cited as being Sigurd’s father. None of these other sagas have the same level of detail regarding Sigmund that is found within the Völsunga.
Nibelungenlied – In this saga, his wife was Sieglind
Thiðrekssaga – In this saga, Sigmund is the son of Sifjan, the king of Tarlungland. He has a son with Sisibe, the daughter of King Nidung of Spain.
This is an Old English poem. In the story Beowulf, the story of Sigemund is told to the title character and involves the slaying of a dragon, not unlike that of Sigurd slaying a dragon. The child conceived by Signý and Sigemund the Wælsing is known as Fitela, not Sinfjötli.
The Sword In The Tree – Arthurian Legend!?!
The Branstock tree was a massive oak tree that Völsung built his hall around.
For those familiar with Arthurian legend, Sigmund’s pulling the sword Gram from the Branstock tree sounds very familiar to the story of Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone.
In addition, it’s been noted that the characters of Sinfjötli and Mordred are both nephew and son to the respective figures of Sigmund and Arthur.
Gram – A Gift From Odin
In the Völsunga saga, the name of Sigmund’s sword is Gram. Other Norse sagas will give the name of Balmung for Sigmund’s sword. Gram’s name means: “wrath.”
Being an enchanted sword gifted by the god Odin, Gram holds the magical ability of giving its wielder the power to win all their battles.
As for who forged Gram, the myths and legends say that Volund, or Wayland the Smith is who crafted this blade. In the Nibelungenlied, Gram is known by the name of Balmung and Mimung in Germanic myths. In Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the sword is known as Nothung.
It was said that Volund (or Wayland the Smith) made the sword, and the magic sword was later called Gram (Balmung or Mimung in German myth).
Tolkien Middle Earth Connection – I mentioned in my post for Sigurd that the shattering of Gram served as the inspiration for Aragorn’s shattered sword that he reforges.
Odin’s Role In The Völsunga
It should be noted that Odin is the great grandfather of Völsung who founds the clan of the same name. Effectively making Völsung at least a demigod of sorts and later descendants being more extraordinary in their deeds and destiny.
So, it makes sense at the first, that Odin would appear, favoring the Völsung’s when he impales the sword Gram into the Branstock tree, saying that whoever can pull this sword can have it and it’s Sigmund who succeeds.
However later, Sigmund appears to fall out of favor with Odin when the god shatters Gram and leaves Sigmund to fall at the hands of his enemies.
God of Prophesy
Surely a god of prophesy would know what events would transpire. Which could mean that’s exactly what Odin wanted to have happen. Or he’s trying to change the fates of his kinsmen even though the Norns have told Odin that no, you can’t change fate, no you won’t get your descendant at all. That as punishment, Sigmund won’t die in battle at all.
Even a god can try?
If a person’s fate is truly set and there’s no avoiding destiny or changing one’s stars, even a god of prophesy would know you can’t change the future. Unless predicting the future is nothing more than being able to see what the most likely outcomes and probabilities are. That if you don’t change the variables, X event is the most likely event and course of action to happen.
Of course, the other thing to remember, is that Odin is also a god of battle and as such, like many other war gods, he thrives on the conflicts and strife that happen. Even if only for the sake of it.
With the whole impending doom of the gods and Ragnarok among the Norse, Odin is going to try and bolster his forces by recruiting from the various fields of battle, the fallen and slain warriors. Isn’t that what the Valkyries are for? Well sure, so unless there’s a constant steady source of conflicts and battles, the Valkyries aren’t likely to be doing much recruiting. One can see Odin going about instigating some of these conflicts, so he can try to recruit promising warriors for his Einherjar, ya’ know, the slain warriors of Valhalla. And let’s not forget that Freya is going to get half of those warriors for her hall of Folkvangr.
Sigmund! I don’t choose you!
Sigmund also has a date with destiny, for the Norns have decreed that he would die on that day. There is however a hitch to this, so long as Sigmund has the sword Gram, there’s no way he’s going to loose or die. So there’s Odin off to the field of battle to make sure that Sigmund can meet destiny by making sure he doesn’t have the sword.
Now it could be that he has angered Odin when Sigmund tries to interfere with protecting his father-in-law, King Eylimi during the battle against King Lyngi. Odin attacks Sigmund, shattering the sword Gram and leaves him to die.
It might be too how dare a descendant of his defy the mighty Odin and shatter the sword, hoping somehow that Sigmund will die in battle to join his forces in Valhalla. Odin’s efforts to sow contention earlier at a wedding only resulted in nine other of his grandsons getting killed by a wolf while tied up. That’s not exactly the heat of battle there and the loss of nine potential warriors to join him.
So, Odin cuts his losses with Sigmund and gifts a final prophesy to his grandson about the birth of Sigurd and that Gram will be reforged and passed on to another hero.
Lastly, the Völsunga saga was written in the 13th century C.E. several centuries from when the events are to have initially occurred. That’s more than enough time for the skalds to have embellished the stories. To add Odin to the events in an effort to make sense of narrative as well as give a more mythic quality to the tales to explain why events turn out the way they did.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten who brings in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turn Rudolph’s story into the well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today, didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children become prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergy and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Also known as: 布袋, 笑佛 (Laughing Buddha), Hasne Buddha (Nepal), 胖佛 (Fat Buddha), Hotei (“cloth bag”) Japanese, Hotei-Osho (Japanese), Bo Dai or Bố Đại (Vietnamese), Hangul (Korean), Pu-Tai, Wagon Priest, Budai Luohan
Etymology: Laughing Buddha, Fat Buddha, Cloth Sack
In Chinese folklore, Budai is a Buddhist deity who has been integrated into Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto religions. The historical Budai lived during the 10th century C.E.
In art, Budai is often shown as being a very fat, bald man wearing a robe, either wearing or carrying prayer beads and has a huge belly; seen as the symbol of abundance, contentment, happiness, luck and generosity. He carries a large linen bag holding a number of precious things, even children on his back. This same bag is the source of Budai’s name. Sometimes Budai is shown sitting in a cart being pulled by boys where he is known as the Wagon Priest.
With his nickname of the Laughing Buddha, Budai is frequently shown smiling or laughing. Budai’s image is often confused with that of Gautama Buddha with Westerners, where he gets the name of the Fat Buddha. In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei and is one of the Seven Lucky Gods or Shichi Fukujin.
Budai Statues & Depictions
As already said, Budai is nearly always shown carrying a sack that is filled with a number of precious things such as rice plants, candy for children, food and the sadness of the world.
In Buddhist temples throughout China, statues of Budai are placed in the front part of the entrance halls. Budai is frequently shown as a stough, smiling or laughing man wearing a robe that is unable to cover his large belly. This large belly represents happiness, good luck and abundance. Some Budai statues will have small children gathered around at his feet. Another common feature of Budai statues is a begging bowl, that clearly shows him to be a Buddhist.
Because of Budai’s great association with happiness and wealth, statues of Budai can be found in many businesses and homes in China and Japan.
I Kuan Tao – Budai statues are a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines. Here, Budai is known by his Sanskrit name of Maitreya.
Budai represents the teachings of contentment, generosity, wisdom and kind-heartedness. He is also associated with luck and abundance.
Budai is the guardian and protector of children, the weak and poor. As a wandering monk, Budai is known to take sadness from people and bring them happiness.
Chinese history holds that Budai had been an eccentric Chan monk who lived during the late Liang dynasty. He had been a native of Zhejiang or Fenghua and his Buddhist name was Qieci, meaning: “Promise This.” Budai or Qieci was regarded as a man of good and loving character.
In Buddhism, the term Buddha means: “one who is awake,” as in awakened to enlightenment. There have been many figures in Buddhism who have all been revered as Buddhas. The Chan school of Buddhism teaches that all beings possess a Buddha nature within them and thus, already enlightened, they just have yet to realize it.
A few Buddhist traditions view Budai as an incarnation of Buddha or a bodhisattva.
Angida Arhat – One of the original Eighteen Arhats, meaning one who is worth or a perfected person, much like the Saints of Western Culture. In the Sakyamuni Buddhism, there is a legend wherein Angida is a talented Indian snake catcher would catch venomous snakes, thereby preventing them from biting travelers. Angida would remove the snake’s venomous fangs before releasing them. Due to these acts of kindness, Angida was able to attain bodhi or nirvana. In Chinese art, Angiha is sometimes depicted as Budhai; being rotund, mirthful and carrying a bag.
Gautama Buddha – The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived during the 6th century B.C.E. in India, Nepal and much of southeast Asia. Here, Gautama is shown as being tall and slender in appearance. Whereas in China and other areas, Budai is consistently shown as being short and rotund. Both of these descriptions have been noted as being the idealized imagery of the different religions, cultural and folkloric traditions of the countries and regions after the two monks’ deaths. Many Westerners too, often confuse Budai with Gautama and Budai often does get equated or replace Gautama.
Maitreya – The Future Buddha
Budai is identified or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. In China, Budai’s image is often the main used to depict Maitreya. Among the Japanese, Maitreya is known as Miroku. There is a Buddhist hymn that Budai is to have spoken at his death that identifies him with Maitreya:
Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
Other times they do not recognize him.
Mi-Lo-Fo – As Hotei, Budai is often confused with the Buddhist deity known as Mi-lo-Fo.
Pu-Tai – A Chinese monk that Budai came to be associated with, who due to their good nature, was seen as the incarnation for the bodhisattva or future Buddha, Maitreya. Due to how Pu-Tai is also portrayed with having a large, rotund belly, its easy to see how he came to be known as the Laughing Buddha and connected to Budai.
Chan, Seon And Zen
Chan is Chinese, Seon is Korean and Zen is Japanese, all three are the same philosophy.
The following koan, or short story is often told about Budai. One day, Budai was out traveling, giving candy to poor children. He would only a penny from any monks or lay practitioners he met with. One day, a monk approaches Budai and asks: “What is the meaning of Zen?” (Or Chan or Seon). Budai responded by dropping his bag. The monk continued with his questions. “How does one realize Zen?” At that, Budai picked up his bag and continued on his way.
Budai is greatly admired for his congenial and jovial attitude, along with his generosity and philosophy of contentment.
One of the most persistent and popular beliefs is that of rubbing the statues of Budai to bring wealth, good luck and even prosperity.
Japanese Religion & Folklore
In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei who was a Buddhist monk that lived during the 16th century. Like Budai, Hotei is still greatly associated with laughter and being called the Laughing Buddha. Chinese legend holds that Hotei had been a real person, whose name was Kaishi. While the date of his birth is unknown, Hotei death is given as being March 916. The Japanese began to believe in Hotei during the Edo era. Hotei was once a Zen priest who appearance and actions didn’t go along with his fellow Zen priests. He always looked like he was up to mischief and never had a permanent place to sleep. Hotei had no desire to be a Zen Master or to gather a following of disciples. He was known for walking the streets with a sack full of candy, fruits and doughnuts that he would give out to children. His bag would also hold the fortunes for those who believe in him. Among the Chinese, he is nicknamed: Cho-Tei-Shi or Ho-Tei-Shi, which means “bag of old clothes.”
According to Japanese legend, before Zen Buddhism came to the islands, another Buddhist philosophy of questionable aesthetics was prevalent. This philosophy originated with the priest Miroku. Miroku was the patron of those who couldn’t be saved by the beliefs of Buddha. Later, Hotei’s arrival was seen and accepted by the Japanese as a second Miroku.
Laughter – This is Hotei’s essence and teachings, he used laughter to impart wisdom. This was not the laughter of laughing at jokes or making fun of others. Hotei would laugh at himself and laugh for the mere celebration of life and existence, for the joy of life. Hotei has no other philosophy, scriptures, dogmas, ideologies or any other precepts to teach. Hotei’s laughter is considered a form of meditation, to experience the joy of living and to just be living and being present in the moment.
People would gather around Hotei as at first, they thought he was mad with how often he laugh and his laugh was known for being infectious in that others would soon laugh along with him. Such was Hotei’s laughter that people would cease to be judgmental or ask questions about enlightened. People would wait for Hotei and his laughter as they found it to have a purifying quality to it that would impart a deep sense of well-being.
One story about Hotei has a villager finding him sitting beneath a tree with his eyes closed. When the villager asked why Hotei wasn’t smiling or laughing, Hotei answered that he was preparing, preparing himself for laughter as he needed go within, forget the world without and recharge himself with rest. Once he was well rested, Hotei would be ready to laugh again.
Thailand Religion & Folklore
Phra Sangkajai – Also spelled Phra Sangkachai. Budai is sometimes equated with the monk Phra Sangkajai. Both Budai and Phra Sangkajai can be found Thai and Chinese temples. Though Phra Sangkajai can be found more often in Thai temples and Budai in Chinese temples. While very similar in appearance, Phra Sangkajai is distinguished from Budai in that he has a thin trace of hair while Budai is bald. Their styles of dress are also different, Phra Sangkajai is dressed in robes folded across one shoulder, with the other bare. Budai’s robes are clearly a Chinese style that covers both of his arms and front part of his upper body uncovered.
Phra Sangkajai is credited with composing the Madhupinadika Sutra. Buddha is said to have praised Phra Sangkajai for his excellence and understanding with explaining the more sophisticated dharma in easy and correct, understandable manners.
A folk story about Phra Sangkajai tells how he was so handsome, that a man once wanted to marry Phra Sangkajai and take him for a wife. To avoid this situation, Phra Sangkajai changed his appearance to that of a fat monk. Another story tells how Phra Sangkajai was found to be so attractive, that both men and angels would compare him to the Buddha. Phra Sangkajai considered this inappropriate, changed his body so he would be rather fat.
First off, Yiguandao is a folk religion out of China that got started around the late 19th century.
In many Yiguandao shrines, statues of Budai or Maitreya as he is known can be found. In Yiguandao, Maitreya represents a number of teachings such as: contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kind-heartedness. It is believed that Maitreya will succeed Gautama Buddha as the next Buddha and help people to realize their own spiritual essence within that connects everyone.
Shichi Fukujin – Seven Lucky Gods
In Japan, the Seven Lucky Gods or Seven Gods of Fortune, known as Shichi Fukujin are believed to granters of good luck and fortune. The Shichi Fukujin are often depicted in Japanese art and engravings known as netsuke. While many of the Shichi Fukujin are believed to be mythical in nature, one Shichi Fukujin is a known historical figure. Over the course of Japan’s history, the Shichi Fukujin became more associated with specific professions and aspects. Many of these same gods also originate from different countries and religions such as Hinduism and India to Chinese Buddhism and Taoism before coming to Japan. There are also seven Shichi Fukujin as seven in Japan is a lucky number.
While the gods had been worshipped for over a thousand years, mainly by merchants, they were first collectively called the Shichi Fukujin in 1420 C.E. It’s believed the Buddhist priest Tenkai arranged and selected these deities after talking with the shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa. The selection was based on the following virtues of: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity.
Benzaiten – Often claimed as the only female deity among the Shichi Fukujin, Benzaiten originates in Hinduism where she had been the goddess Saraswati. Other names for Benzaiten are: Benten, Bentensama and Benzaitennyo. When she was adopted into Buddhism, Benzaiten became the associated with talent, beauty and music. Benzaiten is the patron of artists, writers, dancers and geishas. She is often seen as an intelligent, beautiful woman standing before a Torri, carrying a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute-style instrument and is accompanied by a white snake.
Bishamonten – A god originating in Hinduism where he had been the god Kubera and Vaisravana before becoming Bishamonten in Japanese culture. Bishamonten is the god of fortune in war and battles. He is also associated with authority and dignity, the protector of those who follow the rules and hold themselves accordingly. He is the protector of holy sites and other important places. Bishamonten is the patron of fighters and is often shown dressed in armor and helmet, carrying a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right hand to battle evil spirits. Bishamonten is also shown with a hoop of fire.
Daikokuten – The god of commerce and prosperity. He was also known as the patron of cooks, farmers, bankers and protected crops. Daikokuten was known too for hunting demons. There is a legend of how Daikokuten hung a sacred talisman from a tree branch in his garden to use as a trap for catching a demon. Daikokuten is often depicted with short legs, perpetual smile and wearing a hat on his head and often carrying a bag full of valuables.
Ebisu – The only purely Japanese god in the group, he is the god of prosperity, wealth in business, abundance in crops, cereals and food. Ebisu is the patron of fishermen and he is often dressed as a fisherman carrying a fishing rod in his right hand and the left holding a fish. Ebisu’s figure can often be found in restaurants where fish is served or in kitchens.
Fukurokuju – Originating in China, Fukurokuju is believed to have once been a hermit who lived during the Song dynasty. Fukurokuju is seen as the reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu. As a god, Fukurokuju is the god of wisom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness. In addition, he is thought to be one of the Chinese philosophers who could live without eating and was able to resurrect the dead. Fukurokuju is noted for having a head that is almost the same size as his body. He is often shown dressed in traditional Chinese attire, carrying a cane in one hand and a scroll containing historical writings. Fukurokuju is often shown being accompanied by a turtle, crow or deer, all animals that represent a long life. With a strong love for chess, Fukurokuju is also the patron of chess players. Fukurokuju, along with Jurojin both overlap with their origins with the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. Due to this overlapping, Fukurokuju’s position as one of the Shichi Fukujin is sometimes given to the goddess Kichijoten in the Butsuzozu compendium.
Hotei – This is the Japanese name for Budai. As Hotei, he is the god of fortune, the guardian of children, happiness, laughter, popularity and the patron of diviners and barmen. Hotei is often shown as a fat, smiling bald man with a curly mustache. Because he is so fat, Hotei is often shown as being half naked as his clothes aren’t quite big enough to cover his large belly.
Jurojin – Like Fukurokujin, he has his origins in the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. He is the god of the elderly and longevity in the Japanese Buddhist mythology. Jurojin is believed to be based on a real person, he was very tall, 1.82 meters with a very long head, much like Fukurokuju. Aside from his elongated skull, Jurojin is also shown to have a long white beard and rides a deer and is sometimes accompanied by a crane and tortoise, all animals that represent a long life. Jurojin is sometimes shown sitting under a peach tree, another symbol of long life. In one hand, he holds a cane, in the other he holds either a book or scroll containing the wisdom of the world. Jurojin is known to enjoy rice and wine and has a rather cheerful disposition. Finally, Jurojin is an incarnation of the southern polestar.
Kichijoten – Also known as Kisshoten or Kisshoutennyo. Kichijoten was adopted into Buddhism from the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Kichijoten is shown holding a Nyoihoju gem in her hand. The Butsuzozu compendium from 1783 lists and has Kichijoten replace Fukurokuju as one of the seven Shichi Fukujin. By this accounting, Daikoku is portrayed as being feminine and all three of the Hindu Tridevi goddesses are seen represented among the Shichi Fukujin.
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.
Animal: Beetle, Goat
Day of the Week: Thursday
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.
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 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.
So, 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.”
Alternate Spelling: Uncle Nowruz
Also called: Persian – عمو نوروز
Etymology: Uncle Nowruz or Uncle New Year.
The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring.
In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year.
Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
Naneh Sarma And Amu Nowruz
One thing I found of interest is learning about Amu Nowruz’s wife, Naneh Sarma. There’s a love story wherein they only meet each other once a year.
According to the one story found, every year, on the Spring Equinox, Mother Simorq flies down from Mount Qâf with Amu Nowruz, the Young Man Spring. Once Simorq has dropped off Amu Nowruz, he heads for a chestnut colored horse waiting for him. Amu Nowruz will then ride the horse out over the plains towards the city gates where he will meet Naneh Sarma, Grandmother Frost in her orchard just outside the city walls.
Amu Nowruz and Naneh Sarma were madly in love with each other and the first day of Spring, Naneh Sarma cleans her house and prepares for Amu Nowruz’ arrival. Naneh Sarma waits a long time for Amu Nowruz’s arrival. Long enough that she falls asleep.
By the time Amu Nowruz arrives, he finds Naneh Sarma fast asleep. Instead of waking her, Amu Nowruz leaves a flower he picked for Naneh Sarma on her lap. He then proceeds make himself a glass of tea and stoke the fire so it doesn’t die down. After all this, Amu Nowruz then heads on into the city, bringing Spring time with him.
Shortly after, Naneh Sarma wakes up and finds the flower that Amu Nowruz left and the other signs of his having been there. She weeps finding that her lover has come and gone again. Mother Simorq comes to Naneh Sarma to comfort and remind her that she will have to wait another year for Amu Nowruz’s arrival without falling asleep.
Mother Simorq then carries Naneh Sarma back up to Mount Qâf as she begins to melt. On the top of the Mountain, Mother Simorq lays Naneh Sarma down as she completely melts, knowing that if Naneh Sarma and Amu Nowruz should ever meet, the world would end.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Amu Nowruz’s role in the New Year’s celebration is one very similar to that of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas with the celebration of Christmas in that of one whom is bringing gifts. Depending on the country and the calendar used, Nowruz is celebrated close to the Spring or Vernal Equinox, often close to somewhere between March 19 to March 22.
Nowruz is Persian for “New Day,” marking the first day of the month Farvardin and the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar. The celebration of Nowruz has its roots in ancient Persian traditions of Zoroastrian religion. Some scholars suggest that the celebration may even be older and have roots in Mithraism. It has survived some 3,000 years and varies a bit in celebration from one country to another, especially among the Middle Eastern cultures, mainly Iranian.
Heralding the start of Nowruz, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him. Accompanying him is Amu Nowruz bringing and bearing gifts where Hajji Firuz is the one to demand and expect them.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessings, abundance and luck for the coming year.
Shahnameh – The Book Of Kings
The Shahnameh is an epic poem written by the Persian poet, Ferdowsi sometime between 977 and 1010 C.E.
What’s significant is that this poem dates the celebration of Nowruz to the reign of Jamshid, who in Zorastrian texts saves all of mankind from a killer winter that would have killed every living creature. This mythical Persian King likely represents or symbolizes the transition of people going from animal hunting to animal husbandry and the eventual more settled, civilized eras of human history.
Jamshid is credited with the founding of celebrating Nowruz. According to the text of the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, Jamshid created a throne embedded with gemstones. Sitting on the throne, he had demons raise him up above the earth into the heavens where he sat like the sun, shining brightly. The creatures of the world would gather around Jamshid and scatter gems around him. This started the day known as the New Day or Nowruz and marking the first day of the month of Farvardin.
Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, about 10th century C.E. notes in his Kitab al-Tafhim li Awa’il Sina’at al-Tanjim, the Persian belief that Nowruz marks the first day that the universe begins.
UN Recognition Of Nowruz
While it goes slightly off topic of focusing on Amu Nowruz, I feel it’s important to mention that in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21st as the International Day of Nowruz. It is recognized as an ancient Persian festival for Spring that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.
Where for Christians, the celebration of Christmas is often used to promote peace and goodwill, so too does the celebration of Nowruz during Spring. That having more of the world, the global community be better familiar with the significance of Nowruz and its meaning, it will help promote more cultural understandings, friendships, peace and hopefully long lasting respect.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”