Category Archives: Prosperity
Pronounced: BRIJ-id or BREE-id
Etymology: “Exalted” (Old Irish), “High”
Also Spelled: Brigit, Brid, Brig
Also Called: Brigantia, Brid, Bride, Briginda, Brigdu, Brigit, Brighid-Muirghin-na-tuinne, Brighid Conception of the Waves, Brighid-Sluagh (or Sloigh), Brighid of the Immortal Host, Brighid-nan-sitheachseang, Brighid of the Slim Fairy Folk, Brighid-Binne-Bheule-lhuchd-nan-trusganan-uaine, Song-sweet (melodious mouthed), Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles, Brighid of the Harp, Brighid of the Sorrowful, Brighid of Prophecy, Brighid of Pure Love, St. Bride of the Isles, Bride of Joy
Titles & Epitaphs: The Bright One, Fiery Arrow, Fire of the Forge, Fire of the Hearth, Fire of Inspiration, The Powerful One, The High One, Great Mother Goddess of Ireland, Lady of the Sacred Flame, Eternal Flame of Life, Flame of Inspiration, The Mistress of the Mantle
The goddess Brigid is an ancient Irish goddess who pre-dates the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the daughter of the Dagda, Brigid’s influence was such that after Christianity’s arrival, she would be adopted as a Saint when Catholicism couldn’t wipe out the old beliefs.
It has to be noted that a lot of early Celtic, Irish history has been lost and what we do have that survives about Brigid is through the filter of Christianity.
Animal: Oxen, Boars, Serpents, Sheep, Domestic Animals
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red, White, Yellow
Element: Fire, Water
Gem Stone: Agate, Amethyst, Carnelian, Fire Agate, Jasper
Metal: Brass, Copper, Gold, Iron, Silver
Month: February (“Mí na Féile Bride” or “The Month of the Festival of Brigit”)
Patron of: Arts & Crafts, Cattle, Domestic Animals, Smithing, Poetry, Healing, Medicine, Sacred Wells, Spring
Planet: Sun, Venus
Plant: Bay, Broom, Chamomile, Corn, Crocus, Dandelion, Heather, Oak, Oat, Pumpkin, Rosemary, Rushes, Sage, Shamrock, Snowdrop, Straw, Thyme, Trillium
Sphere of Influence: Agriculture, Divination, Domesticated Animals, all Feminine Arts, Fertility, Healing, the Hearth, Inspiration, Knowledge, Love, Martial Arts, Poetry, Prophecy, Protection, Smithing, Wisdom
Symbols: Brigid’s Cross, Corn Dolly
There are several aspects attributed to Brigid. Some of these are easily figured out from the myths and stories surrounding Brigid. Others do not appear to be so cut and dry as they vary based on individual Wiccan and modern Pagan traditions.
What’s In A Name
I’m sure there are more than a few who saw the title and immediately popped off how there are other spellings to the name Brigid. And they are correct. The spellings of Brigid, Brighid, and Brigit are all variations of the same name. Notably, the spelling of Brigit is the old Irish spelling with the others representing more modern spellings. A spelling reform in 1948 sees the name changed to a spelling of Brid.
It’s of interest and note the Proto Indo-European word “brgentih” (and I’ve likely got that spelling wrong still) that’s the feminine form of “bergonts” meaning “high.” This is similar to the Proto-Celtic word Briganti meaning “The High One.” This is taken to be a cognate of the ancient British goddess Brigantia. In Sanskrit, there is the word Brhati that also means “high” and is the epithet of the Hindi dawn goddess Ushas. This has caused the suggestion by the scholar Xavier Delamarre that Brigid could be a continuation of an Indo-European dawn goddess.
From there, you can see the potential of how this word has continued in various European languages, the first bit of evidence is pointed towards the Medieval Latin spelling of Brigit for its written form. This connection continues with all the modern English spellings of Bridget and Bridgit, the Austrian Bregenz, the Finnish Piritta, the French Brigitte, the Gallacian Braga and Bragança, the Gaulish Brigindu, the Great Britain Brigantia and Brigantis, the Italian Brigida, the Old High German Burgunt, the Scottish Brighde and Bride, the Swedish Birgitta, and the Welsh Ffraid, Braint or Breint.
The Sanas Cormaic or Cormac’s Glossary gives the name Breo Saighead that’s supposed to mean “fiery arrow.” This etymology is considered suspect by scholars today.
Epitaph Versus Proper Name
Further, one thing I found, focuses on the etymology of the root word or syllable “brig.” The name has been noted to appear in a lot of places with numerous, regional variations. When going back to the ancient Celts, this word “brig” is said evoke a sense of power with just the meaning of “Exalted” or “High.”
Noted too is that there are at least three goddesses with the variation of brig in their names. Brigindo in Gaul, Brigantia in Northern England, Brig of Ireland, and Bricta. This has caused some to come to the conclusion that all of these goddesses are the same one.
Parentage and Family
Father – The Dagda, an All-Father figure, King or Chief and Druid of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Mother – Danu, the Mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Other sources will list the Morrigan as Brigid’s mother.
Cermait, Aengus, Aed, Bodb Derg, Brigid the healer, and Brigid the smith, Midir
Bres – A Fomorian, appointed King by Nuada in order to bring peace.
Tuireann – Another story places Brigid having married him.
Ruadán – Brigid’s son with Bres, he would later be killed by Goibniu.
Brian, Iuchar, and Irchaba – Brigid’s sons with Tuireann. These three sons slew Cian, the father of Lugh of the Long-Arm while transformed into a pig.
Tuatha Dé Danann
Or the people of Danu, they are considered the original inhabitants and gods of Ireland. It should be of little surprise that Brigid is from this lineage of deities. In some sources, Brigid is identified as being Danu herself.
Birth Of A Goddess
Brigid is an ancient goddess worshipped throughout much of Ireland. The few legends that survive, hold that Brigid was born at the exact moment of dawn. That Brigid rose up into the sky with the rising sun with rays of fire or light coming from her head. Wherever Brigid walked, flowers and shamrocks would grow. As an infant, Brigid was fed milk from a sacred cow of the Otherworld.
Otherworld – Liminal Boundaries
As a goddess of the dawn as that is the time of day that Brigid was born, she has a connection to the Otherworld. In the Celtic world, that is the land of Faery. Brigid also owned an apple orchard in the Otherworld and bees would bring her their nectar to the earth.
As a goddess and guardian of domesticated animals, the most common are cattle or oxen. The animals belonging to Brigid are said to cry out warnings. As a goddess of the land, when the land was in turmoil, Brigid’s sacred animals would keen for it.
Cirb – the “king of wethers,” one of the rams that belong to Brigid. The plain of Cirb is named after this ram.
Fea & Femen – These are two of the ox that Brigid is said to have. The Mag Fea, the plain of the River Barrow, and Mag Femin, the plain of the River Suir are both named after them. Other sources will name these oxen as being from Dil and are “radiant of beauty.”
Torc Triath – the “king of boars” also belongs to Brigid. The plain of Treithirne is named after this boar.
Goddess of Blacksmithing
The art of blacksmithing and forging metal has been held as a mystical art in many older cultures and religions. By today’s standards that doesn’t seem so mystical. It does still require a lot of strength, skill, and knowledge to shape and bend molten metal into various forms.
As a goddess of blacksmithing, this aspect of creation also extends itself to other crafts and arts.
Goddess & Protector Of The Hearth
Some have seen in the perpetual fires kept at Kildare, that this also connects Brigid as a goddess of the hearth. Much like the Roman Vestia and Greek Hestia who kept the hearth. The women of the household would keep the home fires going, going over it at night to seek out Brigid’s protection of the home.
With Brigid’s connection to her celebration at Imbolc, she is seen as a fertility goddess as this spring celebration held in February saw many livestock having given birth for the coming year. As a fertility goddess, Brigid is also a mother goddess who would protect mothers and babies.
It is also interesting to note, with Brigid’s name, we see one shortening of the name to Brid or Bride from which the English word for a bride, for marriage comes from. Certain stories out of Celtic lore strongly show the tie that a King has with the land. That there would need to be a marriage to the goddess of the land to ensure the strength and welfare of the kingdom.
The snake enters here as a symbol of regeneration and renewal, connecting her to Spring.
Goddess Of Healing
As a goddess of the arts and crafts and see in Saint Brigid of Kildare, the goddess Brigid is also a goddess of healing, who knows all the herbs and arts needed for healing.
Goddess Of Poetry & Wisdom
As a goddess who oversaw many numerous aspects of early Irish life, it’s little wonder that many people feel an affinity for Brigid. Even in Cormac’s Glossary, written in the 9th century C.E., Christian monks wrote how Brigid is “the goddess whom poets adored.” Lady Augusta Gregory also describes Brigit as a woman of poetry and whom poets worshiped.
There isn’t much known about how the ancient Celts and their beliefs. As a goddess of poetry, Brigid could easily be a goddess who oversaw the passing on of oral traditions and stories. Brigid could also be the goddess who inspires creativity much like the Greek muses.
Filid – This is a class of poets who are known and said to have worshiped Brigid.
Brigid – Deific Title
Back to Cormac’s Glossary, this source explains how Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. The book further explains that the name Brigid is a title that all Irish goddesses hold. It would explain the proliferation of the name Brigid and the numerous spelling variations as a personal name.
The Lebor Gabála Érenn
Also known as The Book of Invasions, this text chronicles the origins of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their battles against the Fomorians and Firbolgs.
Cath Maige Tuired – During the First Battle of Magh Tuiredh, King Nuada of the Tuatha Dé Danann lost his hand the battle against the Fomorians. As a result, by the Tuatha Dé Danann customs, Nuada wasn’t seen as a whole and could no longer lead.
As a final act with abdicating the throne and hoping to bring peace between the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians, Nuada appointed Bres of the Fomorians king and Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann married Bres to seal the alliance.
Side note: During this era of Irish history, lineages were matrilineal, so it really is not as much of surrendering to the Fomorians as it appears.
Second Battle of Moytura – Brigid and Bres’ union would result in a son, Ruadan who later on is killed by Goibniu. When Ruadán died, Brigid began keening, a combination of singing and wailing as she mourned her son’s death. Keening is the Irish custom among women to wail and mourn the loss of their relatives.
Brigid is also noted for the invention of a whistle used for traveling at night.
Either as a goddess or as a saint, many holy wells throughout Ireland were held sacred by Brigid. A practice is known as Well dressing, where rags would be tied off on trees next to trees were the means by which to petition Brigid for healing from her sacred wells or to honor her.
Places, where the water came up from the earth, were seen as portals to the Otherworld and the source of Brigid’s power of divining and prophecy.
Wishing Wells – Water is symbolic of wisdom and healing. There was a custom born from the belief that Brigid would reward any offering to her. Offerings of coins would be tossed into her wells. This custom would become the custom of wishing wells and tossing a penny into a fountain of water.
Brigid’s Well in County Clare – Located near the Cliffs of Moher, this well is located at a church and is near the church’s cemetery.
Brigid’s Well in Kildare – Perhaps the most well-known of Brigid’s wells, the waters of this well were believed to heal any ailments or wounds.
Also called a triskele, this is a three or four-armed cross that is made from rushes or straw. It is an ancient symbol that would be set over doors and windows to protect the home from harm. One tradition says this cross will protect the home from fire.
Also known as Candlemas and called Latha Fheill in Gaelic, this is Brigid’s feast day that is held either February 1st or 2nd, it is a festival that celebrates the first day of Spring within Irish tradition and marked the beginning of the year. Brigid’s connection to the element of fire and as a Sun goddess shows her connection with this celebration. In the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and Eastern Orthodox Church, this day is known as Saint Brigid’s Day.
Modern Observances of this day outside of modern Paganism and Wicca often know February 2nd to coincide with Groundhog’s Day, the day when the groundhog comes out and sees its shadow or not will predict a longer or shorter winter. In the Carmina Gadelica, a snake coming out of a mound on Latha Fheill to predict a longer or shorter winter.
On this day, people are known to create the Brigid’s Cross for the protection of the home. A dolly made out of straw or corn that represents Brigid is invited into the house by the matriarchy of the family. This dolly is dressed in white and placed in a basket to bless the house. Offerings of loaves of bread, milk, and a candle are left out. A cake known as a bairin or breac would be baked by farmer’s wives as they invited the neighbors over to enjoy the festivities of a long winter over and the arrival of Spring.
Farmers were known to give gifts of butter and buttermilk to their less fortunate neighbors. Other farmers will kill some of their sheep livestock to send the meat to those in need. Brigid herself, either as a goddess or Saint was known to travel around the countryside on the eve of Imbolc, blessing the people and their livestock.
Scottish Story – In this story, Brigid as Bride is kidnapped by Beira, the Queen of Winter. Bride was held prisoner on the mountain Ben Nevis. In order to free Bride, a spell would need to be cast, a spell that would take three days from the month of August. Freed, Bride the goddess of the sun is now able to bring back the sun and light and thus Spring.
It has been noted that Brigid has two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. There’s a strong suggestion that Brigid may have been revered as a triple goddess. Even in modern Wicca and Neo-Paganism, she is a goddess often identified with the Maiden aspect of the Goddess. In this aspect, Brigid is worshiped alongside Cernunnos in many traditions. It has also been commented that as a triple goddess, it could account for there being so many local goddesses who may have happened to share the same name.
Darlughdacha – Dr. Mary Condren has suggested that Darlughdacha may have been the original name for the goddess Brigid, that Brigid as the “Exalted One” is a title.
The name Darlughdacha appears again when Brigid is Christianized as Saint Brigid. Here Darlughdacha is a very close friend and companion of Saint Brigid, even so far as to share the same bed.
Hmm… very interesting. This Darlughdacha becomes the abbess of Kildare after the first Saint Brigid’s death. For it was custom that the abbess of Kildare would take the name Brigid when taking up that role.
Saint Brigid – Catholic Saint
If you can’t beat them, join them! Plus, you can’t discuss the goddess Brigid without talking about her survival as a Saint. Given the name Brigid and its many variations, there may indeed have been a real person who would become the Catholic saint. Though given all of the similar attributes that this ancient Irish goddess and Saint have, Saint Brigid is easily an adaptation by the Catholic Church, where if they couldn’t get people to stop worshiping Brigid. There is even a feast day held on February 1st that corresponds with a pagan festival of Imbolc. In the end, one and the same being.
Mortal Origins – When held as separate from her divine origins, Saint Brigid is said to be the daughter of the druid, Dubthach. Her father brought Brigid from the Isle of Iona, the “Druid’s Isle” to Ireland.
Saint Patrick – Most people know of Saint Patrick as the patron saint of Ireland and the story of his driving out the snakes. What most may not be familiar with, is that Saint Brigid is considered a contemporary to him, sharing equal status with him as Ireland’s Patron Saint.
Saint Brigid of Kildare – This is the title that Saint Brigid is often known by. She is associated with the eternal sacred flames attended to by nineteen nuns in her sanctuary of Kildare, Ireland. These nineteen nuns would tend the sacred fires of Kildare for nineteen days with Brigid herself, being the one who kept the fire going on the twentieth day. The site for Kildare was chosen due to its elevation above a grove of oaks. Oaks were held to be so sacred that no weapons were permitted near them. Kildare was reported by Giraldus Cambrensis and others to be surrounded by a hedge that could drive men insane who tried to cross it or to become crippled or die. This tending to a sacred flame is not unlike the Greek goddess Hestia or the Roman Vesta who also tended the hearth and sacred flames.
With what appears to be a strong survival of a Celtic tradition of vestal priestesses, these women were trained and then would go throughout the land to attend various sacred wells, groves, hills, and caves. This was originally thirty years of service where they would then be allowed to leave and marry. This thirty-year period was divided into the first ten years in training, the next ten years practicing their duties and responsibilities. The last ten years would be spent training and teaching others. This wasn’t just keeping a sacred fire going, this was a study of the sciences and healing arts and possibly the laws of the state.
An interesting note is that Kildare comes from the words “Cill Dara,” meaning the Church of the Oak. The area around it was known as Civitas Brigitae or “The City of Brigid.” The abbess of Kildare was seen as the reincarnation of Saint Brigid and would take her name on investiture. The sacred flames of Kildare would burn continually until 1132 C.E. when Dermot MacMurrough decided to have a relative invested as the abbess. Due to politics, Dermot’s army overran the convent to rape the current abbess and discredit them. Kildare wouldn’t be the same after that, losing much of the power it held and King Henry VIII finally had the sacred flames put out during the Reformation.
Law Giver – During Kildare’s heyday, when the saint Herself reigned, Brigid went from being a Mother Goddess to a Lawgiver, much like the Roman Minerva. During this time, when laws were written and then codified by Christianity, it is Brigid herself who made sure that the rights of women were upheld. Before, these laws had been committed to memory by oral traditions.
The Lives of the Saints – In this text, Saint Brigid is placed as the midwife to Mary and was thus present at Jesus’ birth. Saint Brigid places three drops of water on the infant Jesus’ head. It comes across pretty clear that this is a Christian adaptation of Celtic myth with the birth of the Sun and the three drops representing wisdom.
The stories continue with Saint Brigid being a foster mother to Jesus. Fostering was a common practice among the Celts. When Herod comes to kill all the male infants, Saint Brigid is there to save Jesus from death. From this story, Saint Brigid wears a headdress of candles to light their way to safety.
These stories have earned Saint Brigid the titles of “The Mary of Ireland” and Muime Chriosd, “Foster Mother of Christ.” This is interesting to note as in Celtic society were held in high regard, much like the Italian custom of godparents.
The Two Lepers – There are many stories of Brigid’s miracles and healing. This popular story involves two lepers who arrived at Kildare seeking healing. Brigid informed them that they should bathe each until their skin healed.
When the first leper was healed, they felt revulsion towards the other and refused to touch them or bathe them. Angry, Brigid caused the first leper’s disease to return. Then she took her cloak and placed it over the second leper, instantly healing them.
Apocryphal Gospel of Thomas – An excluded book from the “standard” Bibles, Thomas claims that a web was woven to protect an infant Jesus from harm. Something that is in keeping with Saint Brigid’s deific connections to domestic arts such as weaving wool from her lambs.
Athena – Greek Goddess
A Greek goddess of war, wisdom and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Brigindo – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess of healing, crafts, and fertility, Brigindo has been equated as a continental cognate to Brigid.
Brigantia – British Goddess
A British goddess during the Roman occupation of Britain, she is a personification of the Brigantes in Northern England and Wexford Ireland. While there are plenty of attempts to link the two as the same goddess, there’s just enough evidence to show that Brigid and Brigantia are two separate and distinct goddesses.
Brigantia is seen as the patroness of warfare or Briga. Her soldiers were called Brigands. This connection sees some scholars linking Brigantia to the Roman Minerva and Greek Athena.
Bricta – Gaulish Goddess
A Gaulish goddess; it has been suggested this name is more a title and belongs to Sirona, a goddess of healing. The name or title of Bricta has been connected to Brig and thus Brigid.
Maman Brigitte – Haitian Goddess
Saint Brigid has been connected to Maman Brigitte as a syno-deity. Maman Brigitte is a Voodoo goddess or Loa who protects those graves within a cemetery marked with a cross. She is the wife to Ghede or Baron Samedi.
Minerva – Roman Goddess
A Roman goddess of war, wisdom, and women’s crafts such as weaving, Brigid is frequently seen as a Celtic counterpart to this goddess.
Oya – Yoruban Goddess
A mother goddess who is a patroness of many aspects such as winds, lightnings, violent storms, death, cemeteries, rebirth and the market place. It is Oya’s role as a Warrior Queen as a protector of women and justice that there connects her to Brigid and Saint Brigid the strongest.
Sulis – Romano-British
A local Celtic Solar goddess of Bath or Somerset. She is a goddess of the healing spring found there. Sulis has been equated with Brigid.
Also Known As: Our Lady of the Holy Death, Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of Shadows”), Lady of Night, Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), la Dama Poderosa (“the Powerful Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), la Niña Blanca (“the White Girl”), la Hermana Blanca (“the White Sister”), la Flaquita (“Skinny Lady”), La Flaca (“The Skinny Woman”), la Huesuda (“Bony Lady”), la Madrina (“the Godmother”), Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead), la Niña Bonita (“the Pretty Girl”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death” or “Most Saintly Death”), Santa Sebastiana (“Saint Sebastienne”), Doña Bella Sebastiana (“Beautiful Lady Sebastienne”), Virgin of the Incarcerated
Etymology: “Saint Death” or “Holy Death”
Santa Muerte is a folk Saint who is worshipped and venerated throughout much of Mexico and several places within the United States, most notably along the southern border. Many followers of Santa Muerte seek out her favor for love, prosperity, good health, healing, safe travels, and protection from several things such as assault, gun violence, violent death, and witchcraft.
Warning – As a result of Santa Muerte’s associations with the criminal element such as the drug cartels, the worship, and veneration of Santa Muerte is very controversial, especially by the Catholic Church and several Protestant dominations that don’t acknowledge or see her as cannon. There is a strong reaction of condemnation by the Catholic and other Christian sects to see her veneration as blasphemous and even satanic.
Color: Black, Red, White
Month: August, November
Patron of: Death, the Dead
Plant: Cempasúchil (Marigold)
Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing, Justice, Love, Prosperity, Protection, Safety in the Afterlife, Resurrection
Symbols: Globe, Scale of Justice, Hourglass, Oil Lamp, Scythe
Santa Muerta is often shown as a female skeleton dressed in robes carrying a scythe and a globe. Exactly how she will look and be dressed is up to the individual as the robe can end up being any color. Additionally, there are several other symbols and objects Santa Muerte can be shown with.
Some devotees of Santa Muerte also believe that her image should not be displayed alongside other Saints and Deities as she is jealous and there’s likely to be problems.
Though other devotees will have personal shrines and altars where Santa Muerte sits right alongside other Saints and images of Jesus.
Globe – The globe represents the earth and Santa Muerte’s, death’s dominion and power over the earth. For in death, everyone returns to the earth and with the resurrections and reincarnation, are likely to emerge from later.
Hourglass – This one simply represents our time upon this mortal coil before it’s time to shuffle off. It is also the belief that death is not the end with the ideas of reincarnation and being able to start over. When time is up, flip the hourglass over. It is also a symbol of patience and to wait along with Santa Muerte’s power over time and other worlds and realms.
Lamp – This symbolizes intelligence and spirit, the ability to light one’s way through the darkness, especially that of ignorance and doubt.
Owl – The owl represents Santa Muerte’s ability to navigate the dark places of life and the wisdom she can bestow. Like many bird symbols, the owl is also a messenger. The owl is also associated with Mesoamerican death gods like Mictlantecuhtli, serving as one more connection of Santa Muerte to Aztec roots with Mictecacihuatl as a continuation of her worship.
Robe – The color of the robe or garments that Santa Muerte is dressed often has symbolic meaning for what the worshiper and devotee is petitioning her for. Amber or Dark Yellow represents health or money, Black represents protection from black magic, negative magic, or power, Blue represents wisdom and knowledge, Brown is used for invoking spirits, Gold represents money, success, and prosperity, and Green represents justice and legal matters and unity with loved ones, Purple represents the need for opening paths, Red represents love and passion, and White represents loyalty, cleansing, and purity. Lastly, there is a Rainbow-Colored robe, wearing this, she is called the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red, and green. With this robe, Gold is for wealth, silver for luck, copper for lifting negative spirits, blue is for spirituality, purple for changing negative to positive, red is for love and passion and green is for justice.
Scales – These represent equity and balancing out for justice and equality. For all people are equal in death.
Scythe – The scythe symbolizes the cutting of negative energies and influences. In the role of a harvest tool, the scythe also represents hope and prosperity. This symbol also connects Santa Muerte most strongly with the Grim Reaper of Western culture. Much like the Fates in Greek mythology, the scythe can also cut the thread of one’s life for when it’s time to die. The long handle allows for her influence to be anywhere.
Followers and worshipers of Santa Muerta can be found throughout Mexico, Central America, and mainly the southwestern areas of the United States. Cults for Santa Muerte are one of the fastest-growing new religions growing in the Americas.
Most of Santa Muerte’s followers are neo-pagans and Catholics and former Catholics who venerate this folk saint and deity. This means a person doesn’t have to exclusively be one religion or another to seek her favor and protection.
Put bluntly, everyone, rich and poor alike is equal in death, and in this regard, Santa Muerte plays no favorites. Everyone eventually dies, it’s just part of life.
Many seeking Santa Muerte’s favor and miracles due to the strong Catholic influence, will offer up prayers and light votive candles, often of different colors depending on their need.
Side Note: This is also part of why the Catholic church sees blasphemy with Santa Muerte, catholic style prayers, votive candles, and rosaries are used in prayers and rites with this folk saint.
Votive Candles – black candles are lit for protection and vengeance, brown candles are for wisdom, gold candles are for financial matters, green candles are for crime and justice, purple candles are for healing, red candles for love and passion, and white candles for gratitude and consecration.
It should be noted that black votive candles are not often found in public shrines due to the strong association with “black magic” and the negative aspects of witchcraft. These votive candles are likely to be used in private. It doesn’t help that drug traffickers and criminals twist the worshiping of Santa Muerte around to hide and protect their activities. More benign uses for lighting the candle such as spell reversals, protection, and removing negative energies are uses for this votive.
Temples – The first or earliest known temple for Santa Muerte is the Shrine of Most Holy Death in Mexico City. It was founded by Enriqueta Romero.
Shrines dedicated to Santa Muerte can be found in several places: the home, stores, gas stations, and roadsides just about anywhere.
Altars – As more temples and shrines to Santa Muerte have sprung up, it’s not uncommon to see one or more images of her and to see offerings of cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, water, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies, and candles left there to try and gain her favor and protection.
Festivals – There is a festival day on August 15th for Santa Muerta. Though many have noted she can also be worshiped on November 1st & 2nd alongside La Dia de Los Muertos celebrations.
It should be noted that November 1st is the anniversary of when the altar to Santa Muerte was first constructed in Tepito where she is seen as the Patron Saint of that city.
Whereas Dia de Los Muertos is more associated with the skeletal figure of La Carina.
“Cult Of Crisis” – Anthropologists studying the rapid rise and popularity of Santa Muerte have called it this as they note how a large number of followers, worshipers, and devotees are mainly of the urban working poor, those who are younger from teens to early ’30s, especially women who live in areas where crime rates and poverty are high. Though members of more influential socioeconomic status and law enforcement are known to seek Santa Muerte’s blessings and protection as well.
We are talking about extreme economic and social hardships, were those most likely to turn to any entity or deity outside of the main, local religion. Where they are already likely to be overlooked, forgotten, and where there appears to be no hope.
Controversy – Criminal Associations
Much of what makes Santa Muerte so controversial is that many of her devotees are often criminals, thieves, gang members, and cartels. She has even become a popular Saint to venerate even in prison. Many of them will pray to Santa Muerte for protection from gun violence and violent death.
It makes sense if the ordinary people trying to live their lives, run a business, and take care of families seem more whom Santa Muerte would protect.
This association came to be in 1998 when a notorious gangster by the name of Daniel Arizmendi López was arrested and a shrine to Santa Muerte was discovered in his home. March of 2009, the Mexican army went so far as to destroy some 40 roadside shrines to Santa Muerte. In March of 2012, the Sonora State Investigative Police arrested eight people for murder who had intended human sacrifices to Santa Muerte. The sensationalism from the news media is what firmly associated Santa Muerte with violence and crimes, notably in the Mexican popular consciousness.
It’s hard to say if life is imitating art or if art is imitating life. There are those who claim a connection back to Aztec beliefs with human sacrifices and connecting them to Santa Muerte. So, any gentler, benevolent side is harder to see or accept.
Authorities have linked prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling, and homicides to the worship of Santa Muerte. There are just as many law enforcement and military personnel to pray to Santa Muerte as there are criminals.
Duality – That many criminal organizations and cartels claim religious authority around her and messianic prophesies have created two versions of Santa Muerte. “The Black Lady” who has the darker, negative aspects of black magic and human sacrifices is associated with her to cover and hide illicit activities.
Then “The White Lady” is the more the healer, nurturer, and protector from the violence that crimes bring that regular people call upon.
This duality of Santa Muerte’s means she will grant favors to anyone who asks and who prays to her regularly. Many people believe if you cut a deal with Santa Muerte and fail to uphold your end, she will take away a loved one even take your life.
Catholic Church – The Vatican has condemned any worship and veneration of Santa Muerte in Mexico. They see it as blasphemous and satanic. As long as there continue to be strong associations of Santa Muerte with criminals and drug running, any attempts to get people to see the lighter side of this entity will be an uphill battle.
It’s not just the Catholic Church, but other Protestant sects in Christianity have strong, adverse reactions to seeing satanism and devil-worshiping with Santa Muerte. Calling her an idol, that it’s all backward superstition, trickery, and black magic.
Which, from the Western, Christian mindset, seeing an entity that’s skeletal in appearance is very unsettling and scary. It’s an image far worse than that of the Grim Reaper for many. It just doesn’t sit well with many.
It’s a very strong “Nope!” from them.
It seems a bit odd at first, but that’s a Christian mindset and upbringing to see the worship of a deity or saint of death as odd, unusual, weird, and why!?!
For many though, it is obvious that Santa Muerte is merely the modern worship of the ancient Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. This provides an important understanding of why so many would venerate the modern image of Santa Muerte.
For some, the worship of Mictecacihuatl never went away. She just went underground, only to resurface later as Santa Muerte. The more modern image really does lean on that of the Grim Reaper when she’s shown holding a scythe and robes.
The primary thought is likely defiance to the Catholic Church, especially if many feel the church hasn’t protected them from the violence found in numerous places where gangs and cartels are found. It should be noted that a large number of the poor and destitute with a strong leaning towards women are the most likely to turn to Santa Muerte to worship her and seek her protection and favor.
That aside, the worshiping of Santa Muerte begins around the mid-20th century and peaks about the mid-1990s where many prayers and rites were done privately in one’s home. The earliest documentation for Santa Muerte’s worship is in the 1940s among the working class. Starting in 2001, with the introduction of Santa Muerte’s shrine in Mexico City, her worship has taken off in the 21st century with estimates of some 10-20 million worshipers throughout Mexico, Central America, and the United States.
Santa Muerte has become Mexico’s second most popular saint after Saint Jude and is close to rivaling Mexico’s national patroness, the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Goddess & Patron Saint Of Death
The majority of Santa Muerte’s devotees pray to her for protection, financial well-being, healing, and safe passage to the afterlife.
Goddess & Saint Of Protection
As I have previously mentioned, many people will seek out Santa Muerte’s favor for protection, especially from violence and violent death. This tends to include many people from marginalized groups, not just minorities, women, but those who are also LGBQT+. Protection from violence, hate disease, and surprisingly, even seeking love.
Saint Of Love
The Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos, also known as Church of Santa Muerte, are known for providing same-sex marriage ceremonies.
One source I came across said that Santa Muerte was originally a male figure. That makes sense as her image does look very similar to the Western figure of the Grim Reaper and Ankou with the robes and scythe.
When you’re praying to Santa Muerte for a safe delivery and passage to the afterlife, that’s a lot of what a psychopomp does. They deliver or escort the recently deceased to the afterlife, wherever it is that a soul will go.
As no one lives forever, Santa Muerte’s presence is a reminder that death should be greeted as a friend and not something to be feared.
Grim Reaper – In her role as a psychopomp, Santa Muerte easily has parallels to this entity and not just similar appearances of skeletal, scythe and robes.
Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and Santa Muerte. So much so, that there are many will say that the two are merely one and the same goddess, that as Santa Muerte, this is Mictecacihuatl’s continued worship into the modern, present day.
San La Muerte – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Paraguay.
San Pascualito – A similar male counterpart to Santa Muerte found in Guatemala.
Other Names: Furina, Lativerna
Simply put, Laverna is the Roman goddess of Liars, Thieves, and the Underworld, more specifically, she is of Italian origins. The poet Horace makes mention of her as does the playwright Plautus where they each call Laveran a goddess of thieves.
Patron of: Charlatans, Cheaters, Liars, Thieves
Plant: Wild Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Cheating, Deception, Fraud, Lies, Plagiarism, Secrets, Theft, Trickery
Laverna is frequently described as having a head, but nobody, or she’s a body without a head.
Laverna was a significant enough goddess in Roman to have her own sanctuary, minor place of worship on Aventine to be named after her, near the Porta Lavernalis. There was also a grove on the Via Salaria, an ancient highway that crossed the ‘calf” part of the boot for Italy from Rome up to the Tiber river.
Libations to Laverna would be poured from the left hand. Laverna would be invoked by thieves to ensure a successful heist without getting caught. Though, in one of Plautus’ plays, a cook does call upon Laverna to seek revenge against some thieves who stole his cooking tools. So I guess it all depends on who calls upon her first if she’s going to help or hinder a would-be thief.
What’s In A Name?
While there’s some anecdotal evidence for the goddess Laverna, scholars have surmised a few different meanings for her name. The first is latere, meaning: “to lurk,” or from levare, meaning: “to relieve, lessen or lighten,” as it relates to shoplifters and pickpockets. Lastly levator, meaning “a thief.” The word lucrum, meaning “gain or profit” is very much so connected to Laverna as a goddess of profit.
Very little is known about the Etruscans to begin with, so it’s likely that Laverna was an Underworld Goddess who then becomes a goddess of thieves as thieves have a reputation for working in the dark, whether actual night or a metaphor of darkness for in secret.
Plus, there are a couple of scraps of archaeological evidence to support her. One is a cup found in an Etruscan tomb with the engraving: “Lavernai Pocolom” and another fragment found in the Septimius Serenus Laverna that connects her to the di inferi.
Why yes, they were a collective group of ancient shadowy, underworld Roman gods, most of whom are death gods. Closely related are the Manes, ancestral spirits. Manes came about as a polite, euphemistic way to speak of the Inferi without really getting their attention.
Furrina – Synodeity?
Since we’re on the subject of Etruscan deities, the goddess Furrina is mentioned as an ancient Etruscan goddess of thieves and robbers, related to the element of water.
Except that on closer look, Furrina is a goddess of a Spring with an annual summer festival of Furrinalia once held on July 25th and was likely held for staving off summer droughts.
I just don’t see the connection unless bad etymology and linguistics are going on.
Also known as the Erinyes in Greek is a trio of Underworld goddess called upon for Vengeance. Some sources try to connect Laverna to this group. Which doesn’t hold up when you know who they are, Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone and that all three punish people for committing crimes. I would think these three would be at odds with Laverna for helping people to commit them in the first place.
Aradia, Gospel of the Witches
Written by Charles G. Leland in 1899, holds a story retold by Virgil in which he describes Laverna as being the one female who was the craftiest and knavish of them all. A thief of whom even the other gods knew little about her.
Laverna’s story continues with how she tricks a priest into selling her an estate swearing by her body with the promise of building a temple on the land. She sells off everything but doesn’t build a temple. There was also a Lord whom Laverna approached, promising by her head, to pay in full for his castle and all of its furnishings. Angry at having been deceived and unable to confront Laverna, both the lord and the priest appeal to the Gods to intervene.
And intervene the Gods do, bringing Laverna before them to inquire why she hasn’t upheld her end of the bargain with the priest. In response, Laverna made her body disappear so that only her head remained visible as she said that she swore by her body and a body she has none. That she couldn’t have sworn an oath.
Gaining a round of laughter, the Gods than asked Laverna why she hadn’t paid the lord in full for his castle. This time, in reverse, Laverna makes her body appear but has no head while her voice says that she swore by her head, but she has no head. Again, that this lack thereof, she couldn’t have sworn an oath.
As much laughter as this caused all the Gods, they still demanded that Laverna make right her debts and pay them off. Further, Jupiter than commanded that Laveran become the patron goddess of dishonest people, the liars, and the thieves.
Other names: Rhea, Opiconsivia, Opis
Other Names and Epithets: Ops Consiva, Ops the Sower, Ops Opifera
Originally from Sabine, Ops is the Roman Fertility and Earth-Goddess of the harvest, bounty and wealth. Her place in Roman mythology would directly lift from Greek mythology with the Earth Goddess Rhea.
Sphere of Influence: Abundance, Agriculture, Fertility
Symbols: Bread, Cornucopia, Crown, Seeds, Tambourine
King Titus of Sabine is who created a cult dedicated to Ops where in a short time she would come to be seen as a goddess of plenty, wealth, riches and abundance, both for an individual level and for the nation of Sabine. It wouldn’t take long for the Romans to adopt and import this fertility and earth-goddess, equating her with Cybele and Rhea.
Ops had a couple of different temples in ancient Rome. The first was a sanctuary in the Regia found at the Forum Romanum. The second was a Temple of Ops found on Capitoline Hill.
When paired with Consus, the God of Storage as her consort, Ops would be honored at the harvest festivals on August 21st, Opiconsivia on August 25th and a later celebration of Opalia held on December 19th (sometimes this date is the 9th). There is another festival, held in Ops’ honor that was to have taken place on August 10th.
In statuaries and coins, Ops is shown sitting down, a feature characteristic of Chthonic deities. Ops is also showing holding a scepter and a sheath of grain.
What’s In A Name?
Ops’ name comes from the Latin word meaning “plenty” or a catchall for the words: abundance, gifts, goods, riches and even wealth. In many of the Latin writings from this era, the name or word Ops wouldn’t be used as it’s singular and instead, the word opis used as it’s plural.
Ops’ name is also where the word opus, meaning “work” is derived from. Not just any work or labor, but the very tilling and working the land for farming with plowing and sowing. Without this abundance of the earth and the forthcoming harvest, no one could eat. There are many rituals and festivals in the ancient world that attest to the sacred nature of the earth and the fertility of the land.
A last final thought I came across is the suggestion that Ops’ name is also related to the Sanskrit word of ápnas that also means: “goods” and “property.”
Parentage and Family
Caelus (The primal god of the Sky) & Terra (The Earth)
The gods Janus and Saturn are given as Ops’ brothers.
Consus – The god of Storage, he is also worshiped with Ops as her consort.
Saturn – The god of agriculture, he is often paired up with Ops.
Ceres, Pluto, Neptune, Jupiter, Vesta, and Juno
A Crisis Of Identity
While Ops has her origins in Sabine culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by the ancient Romans, sees her getting identified with Cybele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother of Rome. The other notable goddess identified with Ops is Rhea, to the point that their stories are identical, just change out the names.
Epitaphs & Other Names
This time, I’ll be mainly looking at a few different epitaphs that Ops is known by.
Juno Opigena – Sometimes Ops would be used as an epitaph of Juno, the Queen of the Gods. This makes sense as Juno herself is a mother goddess, goddess of marriage and childbirth. Though, given Juno is Ops daughter, that comes off as a little confusing.
Ops the Sower – In this role, Ops protected the sowing of crops.
Ops Opifera – When called by this epithet, Ops is believed to bring help.
Ops & Saturn
Ops is often paired up with the god Saturn. The primary myth of these two directly lifts from the Grecian source as seen with Ops being equated with Rhea and Saturn with Cronus.
That said, Ops is the wife of Saturn, who one day learned of a prophecy in which one of his children would kill him, thus taking his throne as king of the Gods. Just like his Grecian counterpart, Saturn decided he would prevent this fate by devouring his children as they are born.
This leaves a very grief-stricken Ops, who decides with the birth of her sixth child, Jupiter (Zeus) that she would hide him away from Saturn. Ops takes and wraps a stone in swaddling clothes to present to Saturn as their latest child.
Even in the original Greek version of this story, they don’t explain how Rhea or Ops, in this case, manages to trick Saturn (Cronus).
Yet, there we are, Saturn has swallowed the stone. Opis hid away her youngest son, Jupiter and raised him in secret. Later, when Jupiter was older, he got a position as a cupbearer his father, the King. With this position, Jupiter is able to add a potion to Saturn’s drink that causes him to vomit and disgorge all of Jupiter’s siblings along with the stone.
The Titanomachy, a ten-year war would soon follow between Saturn and his children. Eventually, Jupiter would finally win the war, ending the Golden Age with Saturn’s death. Taking the throne, Jupiter would become king of the Roman pantheon.
Queen & Mother Of The Gods
That makes sense, Ops is the mother of the Roman Pantheon. As a queen, she would pass this title on later to her daughter Juno.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Rhea has been identified with a couple of different Roman goddess, one is Cybele and of course Ops. Which can lead to some confusion when matching and pairing up just who’s a Grecian counterpart to who in Roman mythology.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best-known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
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.
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 symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Pleiades Star Lore Around The World Continued
In Babylonian mythology and astronomy, the Pleiades are called MUL.MUL or “star of stars” in their star catalogues. The Pleiades are at the top of a list of stars along the ecliptic and close to the time of the Vernal Equinox around the time of the 23rd century B.C.E. A group of deities known as Zappu also represent the Pleiades star cluster.
Middle Eastern Mythology
Arabic – The Pleiades are known as al-Thurayya, they are mentioned in Islamic literature. The star, Aldebaran, meaning “the Follower” which is part of the Taurus constellation is seen as forever chasing al-Thurayya across the night sky.
Iran – In the Persian language, the Pleiades are known as Parvin. The name Parvin is also a very popular given name in Iran and neighboring countries.
Islam – Some Islamic scholars have thought that al-Thurayya might be the star mentioned in the sura Najm in the Quran. Muhammad is said to have counted 12 stars within the star cluster as found in Ibn Ishaq. This was in a time before telescopes and most people could only see six stars. The name al-Thurayya has been used as a female given name in Persian and Turkish culture. As seen in names such as Princess Soraya or in Iran and Thoraya as Obaid.
Judeo-Christian – In the Bible, the Pleiades are identified as being Kimah, meaning “cluster,” which is mentioned three times in relation to the constellation of Orion. Specifically in Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; and Job 38:31. In the New Testament, there is an indirect reference to this asterism found in Revelations 1:16.
The Talmud says that the Pleiades has about 100 stars. This is with the understanding that the word כימה as כמא (Kimah and pronounced as: ke’ me-ah) means just that, “about one hundred” in the Hebrew language.
The Talmud Rosh Hashanah tells that when God became with mankind’s wickedness, he went and remade Kimah, removing two of its stars and caused that this star cluster would rise with the dawn and out of season. This event is what precipitated and causes the Biblical Flood of Noah.
Pakistan – Much like Iran, the name Parvin is also a popular given name, especially for women. In recent decades the name hasn’t had as much use. In the Urdu language, the name Parvin and the stars it represents is a symbol of beauty.
Persian – The Pleiades are known as Nahid. Another name for the Pleiades that is shared by the Persiand and Urdu languages is Parvin, Parveen or Parween. It is a genderless or unisex given or family name used not just the Middle East, but Central Asia, South Asia and Azerbaijan. The name Parvin means star and is the name for the Pleiades asterism.
Native American Mythology
Several tribes have stories regarding the Pleiades star cluster.
Blackfoot – The Lost Boys – This is a story in which the Pleiades are a group of orphaned boys not taken care of by anyone, so they ended up becoming stars. Sun Man was angered by the boys’ neglect, so he punished the people with a drought, causing the buffalo to leave. The wolves, the only friends the boys had ever had, intervened for the people to have the buffalo return. Sadden by their lives on earth, the boys asked the Sun Man to allow them to play up in the heavens where they became the Pleiades. In addition, to remind the tribe of their neglect of the children, they hear the howling of the wolves calling for the friends up in the heavens.
The story represents more the time of the year and season in which the Blackfoot gather to hunt the buffalo. The buffalo herds don’t appear while the Lost Boys or Pleiades asterism is in the sky and this marks when the hunters would set out to their hunting grounds.
Another name for the Pleiades star cluster in Blackfoot legends is the Bunched stars. Instead of being orphans, the boys’ family were so poor that they couldn’t afford buffalo robes worn by other boys in the tribe. Out of grief and shame, the six boys went up into the sky to become stars.
Cheyenne – A Cheyenne legend, “The Girl Who Married a Dog,” tells how the Pleiades stars represent puppies that a Cheyenne chief’s daughter gave birth to after being visited by a dog in human form. The daughter had fallen in love with the dog-being and vowed that: “Where you go, I go.”
Cherokee – Both the Cherokee and Onondaga tribes tell a similar story about a group of seven boys who refused to any of their sacred responsibilities and only wanted to play. They ran around and ‘round the village’s ceremonial circle until all seven of the boys rose up into the sky. Only six of the boys reached the heavens where they became the Pleiades star cluster. The seventh boy was caught by his mother and pulled back to the earth so hard that he sunk into the ground, becoming a pine tree.
Crow – The Crow military societies have many songs that use a play on words referencing the Pleiades constellation. Many of the words are often difficult to translate and the stories range from stories of bravery and high ideals to many amusing or comical stories.
Hopi – The Hopi built many underground places called kivas that would get used for a variety of purposes. The most important of these kivas that was used for ceremonial meetings could only be accessed through a ladder in a small hole at the roof. During some ceremonies, the appearance of the Pleiades or Tsöösöqam, over the opening hole marked when to begin the ceremony. The Pleiades have been found shown on one wall in a kiva.
Inuit – Nanook, the Inuit Bear God was identified with the Pleiades. In the early days, a great bear threatened all of the people. This bear was chased up into the heavens by a pack of dogs where they continue to chase after the bear in the form of the Pleiades.
Kiowa – There is a legend told about how seven maidens were being chased by giant bears. The Great Spirit created Mateo Tepe, the Devil’s Tower and placed the maidens up on it. Still the bears pursued the maidens, clawing at the sides of the sheer cliffs. Such claw marks are said to be the vertical striations of the rock formation. Seeing that the bears were relentless in pursuit of the maidens, the Great Spirit placed the seven maidens up into the sky to become the Pleiades.
Lakota – There is a legend that links the origin of the Pleiades with Devils Tower. This constellation is known as Cmaamc, an archaic plural form of the noun cmaam, meaning “woman.” The stars are seven women who are giving birth.
Additionally, the Lakota hold a similar legend to the Kiowa about Mato Tipila, “Bear Tower” or Devil’s Tower to European settlers. A tribe was camped beside a river and seven of their young girls were playing nearby. The area at this time had a number of bears living there and a bear began chasing the girls. The girls started running back to the village. Just as the bear was about to catch them, the girl leaped up onto a rock. They cried out: “Rock, take pity on us; Rock, save us.” The rock heard their cries and began to rise up high out of the bear’s reach. The bear clawed at the sides of the rock, its claws breaking off. The bear kept jumping at the rock until it rose higher and higher to the point that the girls reached the sky where they became the Pleiades. The claw marks of the bear can still be seen on Mato Tipila or Devil’s Tower.
Mono – The Monache tell a story how the Pleiades are six women who loved onions more than their husbands. They were thrown out of their homes by their angry husbands and found their way up to the heavens. When the husband grew lonely and tried to find their wives, it was too late.
Navajo – The Navjo story of The Flint Boys, after the Earth had been separated from the Sky by the Black Sky God, he had a cluster of stars on his ankle. These stars were the Flint Boys. During the Black God’s first dance, with each stamp of his foot, the Flint Boys would jump up further on his body. First to the knee, then the hip, to his shoulder and finally up to his forehead. There they remained as a sign that the Black God was Lord of the Sky. The seven stars of the Pleiades or Flint Boys are shown on ceremonial masks for the Black God, sand paintings and ceremonial gourd rattles.
Nez Perce – They have a myth about Pleiades that parallels the ancient Greek myth and the Lost Pleiades. In this myth, the Pleiades are a group of sisters and one of the sisters falls in love with a man. When he died, she was so grief stricken, that she finally told her sisters about him. The other sisters mocked her, telling her how foolish she is to mourn the death of a human. This sister continued to grow in her sorrow, to the point she became ashamed of her own feelings that she pulled a veil over herself, blocking herself from view in the night sky. The Nez Perce use this myth to explain why only six of the seven stars is visible to the naked eye.
Onondaga – Their version of the story surrounding Pleiades has it the stars represented lazy children who wanted to dance instead of doing their chores. All the while as they ignored the warnings of the Bright Shining Old Man. Eventually, light headed and dizzy from hunger, the children rose up into the heavens to become the Pleiades.
Pawnee – Among the Skidi Pawnee, the Pleiades are seen as seven brothers. They observed this star cluster along with the Corona Borealis, the Chiefs through a smoke hole in Pawnee lodges in order to keep track of the time of night.
Shasta – In their stories, the Pleiades are the children of Raccoon who are killed by Coyote while avenging their father’s death. After death, they rose up to become the Pleiades star cluster. The smallest star in the asterism is seen as Coyote’s youngest child who helped Raccoon’s children.
Zuni – They used the Pleiades as an agricultural calendar. Among the Zuni, the Pleiades were known as the “Seed Stars.” When the Pleiades disappeared on the western horizon during spring, it was time for planting seeds as the danger of frost had pass. The Zuni also knew to finish all of their planting and harvesting before the Pleiades returned on the eastern horizon with the return of colder autumn weather and frost.
New Age, Western Astrology & Occult Connections
Astrology – In Western astrology, the Pleiades have come to represent coping with sorrow. In Medieval times, they were viewed as a single set of fixed stars and associated with fennel and quartz. In esoteric astrology, there are seven solar systems that revolve around Pleiades.
New Age – There’s a belief that the Sun and the Earth will pass through a Photon belft from the Pleiades star cluster. This will cause a cataclysm or a time of spiritual transition that is referred to as a “shift in consciousness,” the “Great Shift” and “Shift of the Ages.”
Occult – The Pleiades are mentioned as an astrological sign in “Three Books of Occult Philosophy” by Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. It has a publication date of 1533, but may have appeared earlier in 1510.
Theosophy – It is believed that the seven stars of the Pleiades act as a focus for the spiritual energy of the Seven Rays from the Galactic Logos to the seven stars of the Great Bear, from there the star Sirius, on to the Sun and then to the god of the Earth, Sanat Kumara and finally that energy goes through the seven Masters of the Seven Rays to everyone else.
Ufology – Some people have described a race of Nordic aliens known as Pleiadeans who come from the Pleiades star cluster. A man by the name of Billy Meier claims to have had contact with and met these aliens.
The Pleiades were seen as the goddess Freyja’s hens. Their name in many older European languages refer to this star cluster as a hen with chicks.
The name of Hen and Chicks for Pleiades is found in Old English, Old German, Czech, Hungarian and Russian.
The Pleiades are known by various names such as Moropóro, Molopólo or Mapúlon. Christian Filipinos know this star cluster as Supot ni Hudas (Judas’ pouch) or Rosaryo (Rosary).
Hawaiian – The Pleiades are known as Makali’i. It’s rise shortly after sunset marks the beginning of the Hawaiian New Year known as Makahiki. This is four month period of peace honoring the god Lono. The Hawaiian New Year’s celebration is similar to the Maori New Year’s observances.
Maori – Among the Maori of New Zealand, the Pleiades are known as Matariki, “eyes of god” or Mata rikie, “Little Eyes”, she is a goddess who is accompanied by her six daughters: Tupu-a-Nuku, Tupu-a-Rangi, Wai-Tii, Wai-Ta, Wai-puna-Rangi, and Uru-Rangi.
From June 20 to June 22, known as Maruaroa o Takurua, marks the middle of winter. This time period comes right after the rise of the Pleiades or Matariki and is the beginning of the New Year. Tradition holds that the Sun starts his northward journey with his winter-bride Takurua, represented by the star Sirius and will make his southward journey later with his summer-bride, Hineraumati.
Another story involving Matariki, tells that one day Ranginui, the sky father and Papatūānuku, the earth mother were separated by their children. The wind god Tāwhirimātea ripped out his eyes in rage and flung them up into the heavens where they became a star cluster.
Polynesian – According to Polynesian legends, the Pleiades were once one star and had been the brightest in the night sky. The god Tane hated this star so much as it had boasted of its own beauty. The legend goes on to say that Tane proceeded to smash this star into pieces, creating the Pleiades star cluster.
The Pleiades in Rome are called The Bunch of Grapes and The Spring Virgins. Another name for these stars is Vergiliae as this asterism begins to rise after Spring and considered a sign of Summer before setting later in the Winter months. In modern day Italy, the Pleiades began rising around the beginning of May and would set around the beginning of November.
South American Mythology
Andes – Among the people of the Andes Mountains, the Pleiades were associated with abundance as this star cluster was seen as returning every year during the harvest season. Among the Quechua, the Pleiades are known as collca’ meaning storehouse.
Inca – The Pleiades were called the “Seed Scatter” or “Sower.” Another name for the Pleiades are the “Little Mothers.” The Incas held festivals when this asterism appeared in the night sky.
Paraguay – The Abipones tribe worshipped the Pleiades, believing them to be their ancestors.
Peru – The season of Verano, roughly meaning summer or Dry Season. There is a ritual coinciding with the Pleiades during the Summer Solstice. A Peruvian cosmological chart from 1613 C.E. appears to show the Pleiades asterism. An Incan nobleman, Pachacuti Yamqui drew the chart in order to show objects depicted in the Cusco temple. He added Spanish and Quechua notations to his chart.
The Pleiades are known as Dao Luk Kai in Thailand. The name translates to the “Chicken Family Stars” in English, it is name that comes from Thai folklore.
An elderly couple living in a forest of Thailand were raising a family of chickens; a mother hen and her six chicks. One day, a monk arrived at the couple’s home during his Dhutanga journey. Fearful of not having anything good enough to offer for a meal, the couple considered cooking the mother hen. The mother hen overheard the couple’s conversation, hurried back to the coup to say goodbye to her chicks. The mother hen told her chicks that they would need to take care of themselves from now on. After that, the mother hen returned to the elderly couple so they could prepare their meal for the monk.
When the mother hen was killed, her chicks threw themselves into the fire to die alongside her. The god, Indra was impressed by their great love and in remembrance, raised the chickens up into the heavens as stars.
Depending on the version of the story being told, if only six chicks are mentioned, then the mother is included as being among the stars of Pleiades. Otherwise, it is usually seven chicks who make up the stars in Pleiades.
In Turkey, the Pleiades are known as Ãlker or Ülker. According to legends, mankind was suffering a lot of suffering and evil. The creator god, Tangri Ulgen met with the Sky Spirits of the West, the Ãlker. A decision was reached and they sent an eagle, the first Shaman down to the earth to ease these afflictions and problems. The nomadic tribes of Turkey see the Pleiades as a source of both solace and the area of the heavens where the gods reside.
Kaşgarlı Mahmud. An 11th century lexicographer, the term ülker çerig refers to a military ambush. Where the word cerig means: “troops in battle formation.” The term ülker çerig has been used as a simile for the Pleiades asterism.
There are a few different names that the Pleiades are known as in traditional Ukrainian folklore. Some of these names are Stozhary, which can be traced etymologically to the word stozharnya, meaning “granary,” “storehouse for hay and crops” or it can be reduced to it’s meaning of sto-zhar, meaning “hundredfold glowing.” Other names for the Pleiades are Volosozhary and Baby-Zvizdy.
With the names Volosozhary, which means “the ones whose hair is glowing” and ‘Baby-Zvizdy which means “female-stars,” the Pleiades star clusters refers to a group of female tribal deities. In Ukrainian legend, long ago, there lived seven maids who danced their traditional dances and sing songs to honor the gods. After their death, the gods turned the seven maids into water nymphs and took them up into the Heavens where they became the now familiar star cluster. The symbol of this star cluster was used as a women’s talisman.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and make an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”