Category Archives: Psychopomp
Also Known As: Angel of Death, Death, The Reaper, The Grim Spectre of Death, der Tod (German), Kosač (Slavic), La Muerte (Latin), La Mort (Latin), La Calaca (in Mexico), Pietje de Dood (Dutch), Smrt (Slavic)
“Only two things are certain in life, death and taxes.”
- Benjamin Franklin
In the modern, Western mindset, the Grim Reaper is either a personification of Death, an angel, spirit, or psychopomp who comes to take the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife.
Since the earliest times, there are numerous stories showing death being a part of life. Even modern literature and media will show that death happens and that the figure of the Grim Reaper is frequently one who’s there to guide people on to the next life.
One can rightfully argue that the concept and personification of the Grim Reaper have existed for a very long time. Even before their modern appearance, numerous cultures have some variation of a Death deity or psychopomp. Prominent deities are the Greek Thanatos, God of Death, and more recently from Brittany, France the Ankou who bears a striking resemblance to the modern Grim Reaper, it’s easy to see them as both the same entity doing the same job.
From European history, it’s easy to see a personification of Death taking on the skeletal visage they have during the fourteenth century when the Black Death plague is sweeping through, with so many people dying and bodies piling up. Artists would paint images of skeletons with weapons or scythes, riding on white horses through the streets with wagons full of bodies. From all of this would eventually come the dark figure dressed in black robes and carrying a scythe.
As for the name “Grim Reaper,” that wouldn’t come until 1847 when the name “Grim” was a popular name for Death that can be traced to the thirteenth century.
The Grim Reaper is often described as a skeleton dressed in black robes with a hood pulled up and carrying a scythe. In Europe, the Grim Reaper or Death may be dressed in white, a traditional color worn during funerals in some cultures.
During the Medieval Ages, the Grim Reaper was thought of as a decaying corpse before becoming the more familiar skeletal figure.
The Grim Reaper is a familiar figure who appears in numerous media and literature and can appear as either his familiar robed figure or as an ordinary person, male or female going about doing their job.
Scythe – It should go without saying, the scythe represents a harvester’s tool for bringing in the grain. So does the scythe representing harvesting a person’s soul or spirit when they did. Depending on the story, the Grim Reaper doesn’t have to use their scythe, just their mere presence and arrival is enough to signify that a person’s time has come.
Hourglass – Some depictions of the Grim Reaper have them with an hourglass representing the ticking off the sands of time and moment of death.
White Horse – When connected as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Grim Reaper or Death as they are then known is seen riding a white horse or possibly, riding in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Regardless of the description of the Grim Reaper that you go by or calling them Death, the Angel of Death, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife.
While researching the Grim Reaper, I came across numerous articles that break down and go into all the myriad personifications of Death around the world, either as a deity, angel, or psychopomp. Including dozens of examples of the Grim Reaper in modern media where they are still a very active figure who is simply doing their job.
Or the “Dance of Death” is a medieval French allegory for how death unites everyone, regardless of age or social status in life. The Danse Macabre has been shown in various forms of the arts beginning as theatre plays and poems, wall paintings, and drawings. The majority of these come from the 15th century, an era of numerous famines, plagues, and wars. All things that people associated with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The imagery invoked is Death summoning the spirits of the dead to come and dance along their graves. The more commonly used figures would be the pope, a king, the young, old, and the laborer to remind the audience watching that death is an inevitable part of life and the Danse would highlight those too attached to worldly possessions.
The French believed the Grim Reaper would arise every year in the local cemetery at midnight, the Witching Hour. The Grim Reaper would then play a fiddle, summoning all the skeletons and ghosts of the dead to come dance until dawn, and the rising sun would force them back to their graves. This belief inspired Henri Casalis’ poem “Danse Macabre” which would be made into a musical piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.
Kalan Goañv – A Breton festival occurring on October 31st and similar to Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou, a figure similar to the Grim Reaper with milk, cider, and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders where offerings for the dead can be left.
Looking at the Grim Reaper through the lens of Christianity, the Grim Reaper is the angel of death sent by God to do his bidding. This is the angel who is to have smote some 185,000 Assyrians in their camp. The same destroying angel who killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Just about any time that an angel of death or destroying angels is mentioned, there’s a connection made to the Grim Reaper. With this connection, the Grim Reaper’s name is Azrael. The Talmud will connect him to Samael. In Eastern Orthodox beliefs, Death is one of the three enemies of humanity, with the other two being sin and the devil.
Getting into the Biblical Book of Revelation, particularly in chapter six, there are four horsemen who appear, each signaling another sign of the end of the world and Judgement Day. The four horsemen are said to be Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death. It is the figure of Death, the only one outright named, riding a pale horse that has many connecting the imagery of the Grim Reaper. Many modern depictions of the horseman Death will show him being dressed and looking like the Grim Reaper too.
In the Major Arcana of the tarot cards, death is one of the cards that can turn up. Depending on the specific deck in use, the death card may depict the familiar robed figure of the Grim Reaper.
The modern imagery of the Grim Reaper and how he or she appears varies wildly depending on the media in which the figure appears. From the traditional skeletal figure dressed in robes with a scythe to a very ordinary-looking human woman or man just doing their job. But they almost always appear in some capacity to release the soul of the recently deceased and guide them to the afterlife. For some characters, they’re ready to go, for others they are scared and don’t want to go and try to find a way to cheat death, claiming a false death, one more chance, unfinished business before some stories have the character realize they can’t beat the inevitable and that it’s time.
Playing Games With Death – This has been a popular motif used and spoofed in many media and literature. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman first brought this concept in his 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal” where a medieval knight plays a game of chess against Death. Since then, many movies and shows have spoofed or made use of this idea later. One of my personal favorites is in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – This is a song from 1976 by Blue Oyster Cult found on their album Agents of Fortune. The lyrics to the song encourage listeners to not fear death, but rather instead to see it as symbolizing eternal love. Author Stephen King found inspiration from it for his novel The Stand and the song features in the opening of the 1994 miniseries adaptation and again in the end of the fifth episode for the 2020-2021 miniseries adaptation. Plus, if you want a song with more cowbell, this is for you.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – In the 1988 movie, Baron Munchausen is constantly being pursued by Death, shown as a skeletal angel with raven wings and wielding a scythe and hourglass. At the end of the film, Death takes Munchausen’s soul with Munchausen is given a lavish funeral where Munchausen then boldly states that this was “one of the many times I faced Death” before the movie finally comes to an end.
The Sandman – This graphic novel series and recent Netflix adaptation show Death as an immortal and one of Morpheus’ siblings. In the comics, she is shown as a Goth Girl and in the live-action, she is dressed casually. The episode featuring Death shows her appearing to a person at the time of their death and guiding them on.
I could keep going on with all the various appearances of Death or the Grim Reaper. Suffice to say they are still a rather active figure and one who is truly timeless whose motifs will always fascinate people and seek to explore.
Father Time’s Age-Old Companion
It’s notable how the imagery for both Father Time and the Grim Reaper are very similar in appearance. Both wear a robe, and both carry a scythe. One just happens to be an old man while the other is a skeleton. Despite how similar the two look in certain details, they are not the same being.
Syno-Deities & Entities
As a psychopomp and representation of Death, the Grim Reaper has numerous counterparts around the world. Many of the more European-based figures will certainly share similarities in their depictions while other cultures are likely to have different appearances. They do share in common, either being the guide to the afterlife or the one that greets spirits on arrival.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Ankou – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.
Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.
Azrael – The Angel of Death in Jewish traditions. More accurately, they are the Angel of Light and Darkness from the Talmud.
Azrail – The Angel of Death in Islamic beliefs. He, along with many angels under him will guide and take souls to the afterlife.
Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the seashore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears whenever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come too close. The crew of this boat is said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.
Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Grim Reaper due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.
Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.
Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.
Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.
The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán means “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.
In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.
Giltinė – The Lithuanian personification of Death. She was depicted as an ugly, old woman with a long blue nose and poisonous tongue.
Gwyn ap Nudd – The Welsh god of the Dead, in some later folklore, he leads the Wild Hunt, especially on Halloween to guide and take wayward souls to the afterlife in Arawn.
Hel – In Norse mythology from Scandinavia, she is the goddess of the Dead and rules over a realm with the same name.
Hermes – This is the Greek god sometimes known to guide souls down to the Underworld where Charon, the Ferryman would receive them for the next part of the journey to Hades.
La Calavera Catrina – A popular figure to see in Mexican culture and during Dia De Los Muertos.
Jeoseungsaja – Or Saja is the Korean version of the Grimm Reaper who escorts souls to the afterlife.
Magere Hein – Also known as Pietje de Dood, this is the personification of Death in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Maweth – In Hebraic scriptures, Death or Maweth is the personification of either the angel of death or a devil.
Memitim – A name for a class of angels in biblical lore that presides over those dying whom a Guardian Angel was no longer protecting.
Mercury – The Roman version of the Grecian Hermes, he too is a psychopomp that guides souls to Avernus, a crater in Italy thought to be the entrance to the underworld.
Mictecacihuatl – The Aztec goddess of death
Mictlantecutli – The Aztec god of death
Morana – The Slavic goddess of winter, death, and rebirth.
Mot – The Canaanite personification and god of Death.
Omolu – The Brazilian spirits known to bring death, disease, and even healing.
Pesta – Meaning the “plague hag,” in Scandinavia, during the Black Plague, she was depicted as an old woman wearing a black hood. Pesta would come into town carrying either a rake or broom. If she brought the rake, it meant some people would survive the plague. If she brought the broom, it meant that everyone would die.
Samael – This the name for another angel in Jewish tradition who does the Lord’s bidding as his executioner.
San La Muerte – A similar figure found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.
San Pascualito – A folk saint of Death found in Guatemala and Mexico.
Śmierć – This figure of Death is female and comes from Poland where instead of dressing in black like the Grim Reaper, they dress in white.
Shinigami – These are the Japanese gods of Death.
Thanatos – The Greek god of Death.
Valkyries – The “choosers of the slain” and warrior maidens in Norse mythology, they would escort the souls of the dead with half going to Odin’s realm in Valhalla and the other half going to Freya’s Hall of Folkvangr.
Yama – The Hindu god of death, as well as the judge of souls in the afterlife.
Yanluo – From Chinese mythology, Yanluo is the god of the dead and ruler of Di Yu.
And if I have done nothing else, let death be greeted as an old friend instead of something to be feared…
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is 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. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
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 Calavera Catrina.
“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, where 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 who 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.
Etymology – Swan
Also known as: The Northern Cross, Ornis (Greek “bird”)
The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is considered one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky, particularly during the summer and autumn in the Northern Hemisphere.
To the Greeks, this constellation was known as Ornis, meaning “bird.” It was later named Cygnus by the Romans who proceeded to adapt several Greek myths to try and explain the name or connection.
While there are many people in Greek mythology who bear the name of Cycnus, the constellation of Cygnus is also associated with several stories. One of the more well known stories is that of the god Zeus and his transformation into a swan to try and seduce Leda or in some variations, Nemesis. Another well known story connected to this constellation is that of the story of Phaethon and his friend Cycnus.
The constellation known as Cygnus is one of 48 constellations listed by the 2nd century astronomer Ptolemy in his book, Almagest. Today it remains as one of the 88 current or modern constellations. It is a large constellation, ranking 16th in size. Pseudo-Eratosthenes and Hyginus’ Poetical Astronomy are the earliest sources of Greek astronomy and constellations that make the connection of the story of Zeus and Leda with his transformation into a swan.
Constellations bordering with Cycgnus are: Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta, The best time to spot Cygnus is during the month of September in the Northern Hemisphere.
Many of the older, traditional names for the star in Cygnus such as Albireo, Deneb, Rukh and Sadr clearly point towards a Middle Eastern connection. In Arabia, the constellation was known as: Al Ta’ir al Arduf, “the Flying Eagle.” Other names include Al Ta’ir al Arduf, Al Radif and Al Dajajah “the Hen.”
They clearly saw a bird, sometimes said to be an Eagle or Pigeon, but frequently, as the traditional names point to, a Hen.
The Arabs also have an asterism called Al Fawaris or “the Riders” that’s found within Cygnus.
Chinese Astronomy & Mythology
The constellation of Cygnus lays in the area of the night sky symbolized by The Black Tortoise of the North or Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ. Modern Chinese has adopted the name of tiān é zuò, meaning “the swan constellation.”
The Chinese also know the constellation of Cygnus as Que Qiao, the “magpie bridge.” In the story associated with it, there was a pair of lovers, Niu Lang (a Shepherd) and Zhi Nu (a Weaver) who were separated by the Goddess of Heaven because Zhi Nu is a fairy and due to celestial decrees and mandates, wasn’t allowed to be with a mortal.
When the Goddess learned that the two were secretly married, she took Zhi Nu with her up into the heavens and created a river, represented by the Milky Way in the sky to keep the two separated.
Niu Lang was still determined and took his and Zhi Nu’s two children to Heaven so they could all be together. The Goddess however still forbade the two lovers to be together but on seeing their bitter tears, she relented and allowed that once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month the two could be reunited. So once a year, all the magpies in the world come together to form a bridge over the river and help the two lovers unite and see each other. The star Deneb in the story either marks the start of the bridge or represents a fairy who chaperones the two lovers when they meet.
The Qixi Festival, also known as the Qiqiao Festival and Double Seventh Festival and even the Magpie Festival commemorates the joyful reunion of these two lovers. It is a variable holiday held on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in China. It is celebrated and observed in a couple other countries like Japan as Tanabata in Korea as Chilseok. It is a festival and holiday comparable to the European celebration of Valentine’s Day.
The legend of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu is one of four folk legends regarding love and romance. Young girls pray to Zhi Nu for skillful hands for sewing and young newly weds will worship this celestial couple and bid them farewell before moving on in their own marriage and happiness. Now days though, young people tend to favor the Western celebration of Valentine’s Day more then the Qixi Festival though their story is still told and passed on.
In Tonga, Cygnus is known as Tuula-lupe. The Tuamotus called it Fanui-raro or Fanui-tai. The star Deneb is also given the name of Fanui-tai. The star Gamma Cygni is called Fanui-runga. In New Zealand, it is known as Mara-tea. The star Beta Cygni was likely called Whetu-kaupo. In the Society Islands, it is known as Pirae-tea or Taurua-i-te-haapa-raa-manu.
Zeus And Leda
One of the more well known stories connected to the Cygnus constellation is the story of Zeus disguising himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus And Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are more clear that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
The great musician Orpheus was said to have been turned into swan after being murdered by a group of Ciconian or Thracian Maenads. In this retelling of the story, Orpheus was placed up into the heavens as a swan next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Cycnus And Phyllius
Another myth connected to this constellation is that of Cycnus and Phyllius. This Cycnus committed suicide and was turned into a swan after he was shamed and refused a tame bull that he demanded from Phyllius.
King Of Kolonai
Among many ancient Greek figures to have the name Cygnus or Cycnus, is a son of Poseidon and as well a king who fought in the Trojan war. He was killed by the hero Achilles on the first day and turned into a swan at his death by his father to save him.
The Death Of Phaethon
This story is perhaps the best known and most associated story to the Cygnus constellation.
Phaethon was the son of Clymene, whose husband was the Egyptian King Merops. Eventually, Clymene told Phaethon that Merops wasn’t his father and that it was the Sun-god Helios (or Apollo). Afterwards, Phaethon would boast and brag to his friends how his real father was a powerful god. Phaethon’s friends teased him and said he was lying. Hurt by this, Phaethon went to his mother Clymene, who then told him to go to the Sun-god and ask him yourself of the truth.
Helios was greatly pleased on seeing his son Phaethon and promised him anything that he asked for in order to prove to his friend who his father is. To Helios’ horror or dismay, Phaethon demanded to drive the Sun-chariot across the sky. Helios tried to dissuade Phaethon, telling him that driving the chariot was too dangerous for mortals, even demigods to drive. Unable to deter Phaethon, Helios relented, granting Phaethon his request.
Phaethon soon found himself loosing control of the chariot as the horses realized that someone new and inexperienced was holding the reigns. Like any such spirited animals who push to see how far they can go and do what they please, the horses took their own lead, racing across the sky towards the eastern horizon and heavens.
The horses’ uncontrolled pathway across the heavens left a scorch mark across the sky that became the Milky Way. The Earth became cold as the Sun-chariot was too high. As the horses continued their uncontrolled trek, they raced down close to the Earth, scorching the land across Africa and creating a great desert.
Making it worse, a frightened Phaethon saw the chariot racing towards a giant scorpion, the Scorpius constellation as the horses continued their uncheck race across the heavens. Pulling wildly on the reigns, Phaethon realized his folly and foolishness to not listen to his father.
To keep the Earth and Heavens from seeing more destruction from the out-of-control chariot, Zeus, the King of the Gods hurled one of his thunderbolts, striking Phaethon in the process. Phaethon’s body fell into the river Eridanus while the horses returned to their stables and back to Helios.
Phaethon’s friend or lover, Cycnus was so distraught over his death, that he went down to the river where he wept bitterly until the god Apollo took pity and turned Cycnus into a swan and eventually the gods decided to place him up into the heavens as the Cygnus constellation.
Another version to this story is that Phaethon and Cycnus were racing their respective chariots across the sky when they got too close to the Sun. Their chariots burned up and they fell to the Earth with Phaethon falling into the river Eridanus. When Cycnus came to and found where his friend was at, he dove in after to try and retrieve his friend’s body for burial and it’s from that action, that the gods or Apollo (sometimes its listed as Zeus) turn Cycnus into a swan and place him up into the heavens due to the level of grief Cycnus held and the gods sympathy and pity for him.
In other slight versions to this story, Cycnus is not only mentioned as a musician, but a King of the Ligurians. When Phaethon fell into the river Eridanus, Cycnus dove into the water, swimming back and forth searching for his friend’s body so he could bury them. Regardless of which variations of the story are retold and mentioned, Cycnus is still turned into a swan by the god Apollo and placed up into the heavens to form the Cygnus or Swan Constellation.
The Sons of Ares
There are two sons of Ares both of whom are named Cycnus. They often get confused together, though they both have in common getting killed by the hero Hercules and being turned into swans at their death.
Sacred Bird Of Apollo
While many deities have animals associated with them, Apollo is best known and associated with the swan. It was believed that large flocks of these birds could be found living on the mythical northern river of Eridanos in Hyperborea. These flocks were said to circle Apollo’s holy shrine, singing hymns. Another belief was that the people of Hyperborea, on reaching old age, that instead of dying, would turn into swans after bathing in the bitumen swamp of the river.
This phrase refers to a person’s final act or deed before death or retirement. Most often this is used for a person’s last piece of creative work, or performance, particularly in literature, music, or art.
One origin for this phrase is from the story of Cycnus, the friend or lover of Phaeton. The same Phaethon who begged his father Helios to be able to drive the sun chariot across the sky that ended in disaster and his death. While there are a few different versions of this story, it is generally agreed that Cycnus, being in such grief over the death and loss of his friend was changed into a swan by the god Apollo who took pity on him.
In addition, the Mute Swan was believed to sing a song at its death, a song considered to be the sweetest of all bird songs.
Queen Cassiopeia’s Pet
A rather minor note is that some think that Cygnus represents the swan that Queen Cassiopeia kept.
The constellation of Cygnus, along with 18 other constellations of: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
All of these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Hercules. They are the largest grouping of constellations found in the Western Hemisphere.
Cygnus, along with the other avian constellations of Aquila and Vultur cadens form a part of a significant myth of the Stymphalian Birds and one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.
The Northern Cross
Among Christians, the constellation of Cygnus is known as the Northern Cross. Many Christians have seen the Cross or Crux that Jesus hung on.
Five stars form this asterism. They are: Deneb (Alpha Cygni), Delta Cygni, Albireo (Beta Cygni), Gienah (Epsilon Cygni) and Sadr (Gamma Cygni) forming the center.
It has been noted by some archaeologists that there are megalithic sites such as those found in Ireland that appear to be aligned with the Cygnus constellation. The Avebury, Wayland Smithy long barrow and Callanish are two such places aligned with either the rising or setting stars within Cygnus.
The swan, like many other birds are seen as symbolic of carrying the souls of the deceased to the after life. Many Palaeolithic sites and cultures have used birds symbolically for death and rebirth. Even the Greeks saw birds as psychopomps or “soul-carriers” and it been a very common belief among several cultures of Europe.
With such a connection to death and rebirth and Cygnus’ shape in the heavens, it would be very easy for early Christians to adapt and adopt this belief to their faith as the Cross.
Stars Of Cygnus
The stars Delta and Epsilon Cygni are used to depicted Cgynus’ wings while the star Deneb depicts the tail and Albireo represents the tip of the swan’s beak.
Alpha Cygni – Also known as Deneb, it is one of the brightest stars seen in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant star and 19th in brightness. The name Deneb comes from the Arabic word dhaneb, meaning “tail.” It is from the phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means: “the tail of the hen.” Within the constellation of Cygnus, it is one corner of the Summer Triangle with the stars Altair found in the constellation Auila and Vega, found in the constellation Lyra.
Beta Cygni – Also known as Albireo, it is generally considered to be the head of the swan and sometimes called “the beak star.” The name Albireo is likely the result of a mistranslation from Arabic into Latin where ab ireo was thought to be the name of a particular herb. The original translated name in Arabic was from the Greek word for bird which is “ornis.” It is a binary star and the fifth brightest star in Cygnus. It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.
Gamma Cygni – Also known as Sadr which comes from the Arabic word for “the chest.” This star is also sometime known as Pectus Gallinae, which is Latin for “the hen’s chest.” It is the star found in the center of the Northern Cross asterism.
Delta Cygni – Also known as Rukh. The name Rukh is Persian in origin and is related to Urkhga in Akkadian. The star is named after the huge, mythical bird of prey known as a Roc that was capable of carrying off elephants. In the year 11,250 C.E. this star will take the position of the North Star for a period of about 400 years.
Epsilon Cygni – Also known as Gienah, this star shares the same traditional name with Gamma Corvi from the Corvus constellation. The name Gienah comes from the Arabic word janah meaning “the wing.”
Kappa Cygni – This star marks the tip of Cygnus’ left wing. Its most notable for a meteor shower, the Kappa Cygnids that take place in August.
North America Nebula
Or NGC 7000 is one of the most well-known nebulae found within the Cgynus constellation as it is visible within the night sky without the aid of any telescopes as a bright patch of the Milky Way. Due to its characteristic shape, which resembles the North American Continent, it is only visible in long-exposure photographs and for those using telescopes; it can be difficult to spot as the surface area for brightness is low. It was first discovered by William Herschel in 1786.
This is the largest star-forming region that has some of the brightest and most massive stars known such as Cygnus OB2-12 and Cygnus OB2.
Also known as NGC 6946; this galaxy is known for the number of supernovae that have been found there. It is a spiral galaxy that borders the edge of Cygnus with the constellation Cepheus. NGC 6946 was discovered on September 9, 1798 by the German-born British astronomer Sir Frederick William Herschel. So far nine supernovae have been observed within this galaxy.
There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Cygnus. They are the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids, a minor meteor shower that occurs in August.