Category Archives: Punishment
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half human, half goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity to the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated, tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and was likely introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
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 if 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. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
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.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who 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.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
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.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
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). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though, is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing a sack cloth around his wait and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
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.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. 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 reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who 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. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
The Father Of Gods & Heroes
Some of Zeus’ “romantic conquests” are also how many of Greece’s heroes are born, giving them some divine might and heroic destiny for their exploits. It is very likely that many of these stories are just wish fulfillment to connect early Greeks to the gods and explain why many early heroes appear to have divine destinies and beyond human attributes.
As the Father and King of the Gods, even those deities not directly related to Zeus as his children would likely refer him to Father.
A good number of the myths and stories of the Greek gods and heroes tend to place Zeus having some prominence, even if it’s as a cameo appearance.
I will admit that many of the myths about the Olympians I grew up with only ever mention Hera as Zeus’ wife. Then throwing in all of the numerous “affairs” of Zeus as just his many flings by whom the different gods and heroes of Greek mythology are born.
Clean, sanitized versions of the myths. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article series, there are at least three main sources for Zeus’ origins and myths. A couple of sources mentioned give Metis as Zeus’ first wife and that Hera is the second wife. So maybe Hera’s jealousy is not wanting to get replaced? Or just the rewrites that come later that say Hera has to be jealous of Zeus’ affairs.
I did come across one source that gives several wives for Zeus, starting with Metis, then the titaness Themis, Eurynome, Demeter, Mnemosyne, Leto, and lastly Hera.
Zeus & Callisto
This poor nymph found herself transformed into a bear along with her son Arcas by Artemis after an affair with Zeus. In compensation, Zeus placed both Callisto and Arcas up into the heavens to become the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Zeus & Danae
Zeus & Europa
In Greek mythology, Zeus in many of his various affairs; had fallen love with Europa, the daughter of Agenor, a King of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia. The problem with Zeus getting close to show his affection is that Europa was always guarded by her father’s servants. Being a god and a shape-shifter, Zeus changed himself into the form of a handsome white bull with golden horns.
That accomplished, Zeus in his white bull form then mingles with the King’s royal herds grazing in a large field near the sea. While a walk along the beach, Europe noticed the handsome white bull and couldn’t resist going up to feed it. The bull was so very friendly and gentle, that Europe climbed up on its back when it lay down; taking hold of the golden horns.
Once she was on the bull’s back, it stood up and the white bull wandered closer and closer to the sea and then when they approached the beach, took off running for the water. Once in the sea, the bull starts swimming towards the island of Crete. And for Europa, it was too late to get off now.
When they arrived in Crete, Zeus changed back into his own form, revealing himself to Europa. As he’s already married to Hera, Zeus gives Europa instead in marriage to Asterius, the King of Crete.
In slightly different versions of this story, Zeus and Europa have three children together. One of whom is Minos who grows up and goes on to be a famous king of Crete. He had the palace in Knossos built where bull games were held and is more infamous for the sacrifice of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) to his Minotaur in a labyrinth every year. In either event, Zeus is said to have commemorated the white bull he turned into by placing it up among the heavens as the constellation Taurus.
Zeus & Leda
This story is connected to the Cygnus constellation. In this story, Zeus disguised 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 & 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 clearer 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.
Zeus & Leto
Another of Zeus’ affairs is with Leto and the resultant children would be the twin deities Apollo and Artemis.
From the surviving stories we have, a jealous Hera forced Leto to roam the earth to safely give birth. Hera had commanded that the earth and sea refuse Leto any safe refuge. Eventually, Leto came to the floating island of Delos and was able to safely give birth to her twin children.
Zeus & Ganymede
This is an oddball myth in that Zeus falls in love with a particularly handsome youth, Ganymede while he is out watching his father’s sheep. Zeus either transforms into or sends an eagle to come carry the youth off to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus grants Ganymede immortality and makes him a cup-bearer to the gods, replacing Hebe after she spilled some of the nectar and causing Hera a lot of anger over the replacement.
Depending on how you interpret this myth, this is Zeus wanting to grant immortality to a worthy descendant of his or how the ancient Greeks were justifying homosexuality in their culture.
Zeus & Semele
In this myth, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia is “seduced” by Zeus. The mighty Zeus promised the young Semele to reveal himself in all of his godly glory, however she dies when Zeus reveals himself as thunder and lightning to her. Their union results in the birth of the young Dionysus.
Herakles – The Favored Son
Of all of the many children that Zeus is to have sired, Herakles (or Hercules for the Roman spelling) is the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Even though, Herakles’ name means: “Glory of Hera,” Hera was not too pleased with the birth of this demigod and tried to kill him. Herakles would go on to become one of the best well known heroes in Greek & Roman mythology.
One such adventure between father and son is when they team up against a tribe of earth-born Giants threatening Olympus. The Delphi Oracle had decreed that only a single god and mortal would be able to defeat these monsters. Zeus and Hercules proved their mettle and overcame the monsters, defeating them.
Truth, Justice And The Olympian Way!
As King of the gods and their ruler, Zeus is the one who also gets to determine and uphold the laws, mete out justice, mercy, and morals. He punishes oath breakers and liars by hurling bolts of lightning to strike them down! It is Zeus’ place to maintain these laws, both in the heavens and on the earth, to protect his worshipers, preside over the various festivals and handle the governing of prophecies.
Given how often the gods, as a whole, are said to be petty and Zeus’ reputation for his numerous affairs (*coughs* rapes), I’m not sure I really buy this?
Hesiod in his “Work and Days” does describe Zeus as being a carefree god who loves to laugh aloud. Zeus was known for being wise, fair, just, merciful, and prudent despite supposedly having an unpredictable nature as no one knew what decrees he would give. A lord of justice who brought peace instead of violence.
Now we do have in the story of Ixion, what happens when someone violates the Host-Guest laws and proves to be a bad guest. Zeus comes through with laying down the law there.
Protector of Kings – Zeus was known to be a protector, particularly of kings and rulers. Once Greece shifted away from Kings and more towards democracy, Zeus then becomes the chief judge and peace maker.
Morals – For all of his affairs, if Zeus is to be setting the example for morals, it is small wonder that Hera comes across as angry and jealous all the time. Someone needs to keep him in line.
The show “Hercules: The Legendary Journey” is the only series that comes to mind that tried any meaningful reconciliation between Zeus and Hera about his numerous affairs. It was a very cheap shot with having Hera get amnesia as it didn’t really resolve the issues. Just lazy writing on the part of the screen writers. Most other shows and movies tend to gloss over the moral and marital problems as that usually is not the focus of the story at hand that writers want to tackle and tell.
I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, people twisted this view of justice and started recreating Zeus in their image. After all, people are mortal, and they’ll end up following after deities that appeal to their natures and what they want.
A Partial List Of Zeus’ Many Judgments & Punishments
I’m bound to miss a few, the stories involving Zeus are many, even if we’re counting the ones where he has a small bit part or cameo.
- At Hades’ request, Asclepius was killed by thunderbolt after his medical knowledge enabled the dead to return to life.
- Forcing Atlas to hold up the world on his shoulders after his part in the Titanomachy.
- Turning the nymph Chelone into a tortoise after she refused to attend the marriage of Hera and Zeus.
- Turning both King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains. Your mileage may vary depending on if these are the Balkan Mountains, Stara Planina or Rhodope mountains, all for the crime of being too vain.
- Punishing Hera by hanging her upside down from the sky after she attempted to drown Heracles in a storm. His own wife.
- Throwing Hephaestus off the top of Mount Olympus as the baby was too repulsive looking.
- Lycaon was turned into a wolf after daring to serve Zeus human flesh to eat.
- Turning Pandareus to stone after he stole the golden dog that had guarded him as an infant in the holy Dictaeon Cave of Crete.
- Pandora was given a box, that when opened cursed mankind with all the evils and diseases after Prometheus gave humans the gift of fire.
- Turning Periphas into an eagle, thus making him the king of birds after Apollo intervened and said not to kill him.
- Blinding the seer Phineus and sending the harpies to harass him after revealing divine secrets. In some cases, for blinding his own sons.
- Killing Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to impersonate him, riding around in a bronze chariot and loudly imitating thunder.
- Sisyphus was condemned to spend all of eternity in the Underworld to roll a stone up hill.
- Condemning Tantalus to eternal torture in the depths of Tartarus after he tried to trick the gods into eating the flesh of his son Pelops.
- Sinking the Telchines into the sea.
Callirrhoe – Not everything was divine retribution… Zeus does grant Callirrhoe’s prayer that her sons be able to grow up swiftly so they can get revenge on Phegeus and his two sons for the death of their father.
Ixion – One really sees Zeus’ role as a god of justice and distributer of divine justice in the story of Ixion. How Ixion committed murder after refusing to pay a bride price. Ixion went everywhere he could think of to be purified and absolved of this grievous sin. Eventually Zeus said he could purify Ixion and then invited the mortal up to Mount Olympus.
While there, Ixion tried putting some moves on Hera who complained to her husband, Zeus. In response, Zeus created a cloud named Nephele in Hera’s likeness. When Zeus caught Ixion trying to put some unwanted moves on Nephele, Zeus sentenced Ixion down to Tartarus to spin forever on a flaming wheel crying out how you should always show gratitude to your benefactor.
The Myrmidons – After the death of his son, King Aeacus, Zeus turned the Myrmidons into ants. Later, Achilles would lead them into battle during the Trojan War.
Porphyrion – Ixion wasn’t the only one to get punished by Zeus for daring to look at his wife. The giant Porphyrion was struck down by lightning bolt after lusting for Hera.
Prometheus – This is another of the more famous of those punished by Zeus. In sum, the titan Prometheus had gifted humankind with fire. Not just fire, but divine fire after all the other animals received their gifts. Prometheus’ punishment is to be chained to a rock for all eternity while every day a vulture comes and eats his liver.
Most of the stories don’t mention that there was also a woman, by the name of Thetis whose identify that Prometheus was keeping from Zeus. That age-old prophecy plaguing Zeus that a son of his would be born greater than him who would overthrow the mighty Zeus and take his throne. After torturing Prometheus for a while, the titan tells Zeus that if he pursues Thetis, she will bear him the aforementioned, prophesied son. Hearing the news, Zeus decides to pass off Thetis to Peleus and it is from that union, that the hero Achilles is born.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Zeus and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea, with the help of Gaia hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetite, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Here, it gets a little muddled as to what exactly happens next for Zeus’ infancy and being raised in secret before returning to reclaim his birthright.
It largely depends on which accounts of the story you read.
At Rhea’s behest, Gaia takes the infant Zeus to Crete where she hides in a cave located on Mount Dicte or Mount Ida.
There, Gaia raised the child with the divine goat, Amalthea providing milk for the infant Zeus. The Kouretes, soldiers or minor gods would dance, shout and clash their spears to hide the sounds of the baby’s cries from Cronus.
If Amalthea is instead a nymph, she raises a young Zeus in a cave called Dictaeon Andron on the Lasithi plateau.
Sounding a little more messed up, in Hyginus’ Fabulae, another nymph Adamanthea is who takes and raises Zeus. She dangled the infant on a rope between the heavens and sea as Cronus ruled over the earth, thus preventing him from discovering his son. Yay?
Cynosura is sometimes said to have raised Zeus and in thanks, he placed her up in the heavens to become a constellation.
Then there’s Melissa who nursed the infant on goat milk and honey.
The Promise They Were Sheeped
And while they’re not nymphs, a family of shepherds raises the baby with the promise that their flock of sheep would be protected from wolves.
Claiming His Birthright
An older Zeus returns to fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. With either Gaia or Metis’ help, Zeus is able to administer a potion that causes Cronus to regurgitate all of his siblings along with the stone that was swallowed.
An alternate scenario has Zeus splitting open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners. One titan, Atlas would be punished by forever having to hold the earth up.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up ruler-ship of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld; Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
Gigantomachy – Battle For The Heavens!
While the Titans would be defeated, Zeus would still have to contend with other beings to secure his throne. Namely, because Gaia wasn’t happy with how her children, the Titans were treated and imprisoned in Tartarus. There would come a series of three additional attacks.
If that doesn’t have parallels with the story of Marduk and Tiamat.
The first were the Gigantes, another of Gaia’s children who would be defeated and sent to Tartarus.
Typhon & Echidna
Second would come the mighty Typhon, husband to Echidna and Father of All Monsters. Typhon or Typhoeus is described as a serpentine monster that breathes fire. Zeus fought him using his thunder bolts and aegis.
Eventually Zeus would defeat Typhon and trap him under Mount Etna. Echidna would be allowed to live along with her monstrous children. In Grecian myths, this is how Mount Etna became a volcano. Other versions of the myth, the gods Hermes and Pan would come to Zeus’ aid.
The third would be the twin brothers. These two would attempt to gain entrance to the heavens by stacking Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympus. Then by stacking Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa.
That doesn’t seem like it would work. Zeus manages to defeat the Aloadae and just as he had with the Titans, he banished them too down to Tartarus.
One Last Final Challenge
It is curious that only when I went researching Zeus that I came across this story for the first time.
Sometime after Zeus has succeeded over coming all the previous challenges from Gaia, the various giants and titans to become ruler of the heavens, a young Zeus had gotten rather prideful, temperamental and arrogant in his rulership.
Enter Apollo, Hera and Poseidon (and depending on the source, all the other gods except Hestia join in) decide that Zeus needs to be taught a lesson.
While Zeus is sleeping, they come in to steal his thunderbolts and tie him up with some one hundred knots. Powerless, Zeus lays there until the Nereid, Thetis comes and seeing the god’s predicament, call the Hecatoncheire, Briareus who comes and unties Zeus.
With Briareus’ support, Zeus is able to put an end to the rebellion and punish those involved. Most notable, Hera who is punished as she led the rebellion. Zeus only relents and ends the punishments after Hera and all the gods swear never to rise up against him again.
Metis – First Marriage (Birth Of Athena)
Most mythological accounts jump straight to Zeus being married to Hera. Before that, there was Metis, the daughter of the Ocean and goddess of Wisdom, Prudence and Cunning.
Metis resisted Zeus’ advances at first but eventually she gives into him and from their union would eventually come Athena. Just not a normal birth would follow for Athena.
Sins Of The Father – Now, just as Cronus did to his father Uranis and Zeus did to Cronus in time… Gaia informed Zeus that Metis would bear a daughter and from her, there would be a son who would over throw him.
Thinking he’s clever and going to break the cycle of constant fratricide, Zeus goes and swallows Metis whole on the belief that this would prevent the unwanted birth or because he gives birth to a child, it will prevent prophecy.
Birth Of Athena – By swallowing Metis, Zeus will either give birth to Athena, causing a lot of anger and outrage from Hera as this is Zeus circumventing the entire birthing process.
Hera is so angry with Zeus over this, that she gives birth to Hephaestus by immaculate conception or parthenogenetically, take your pick. Either way, Hera gives birth without the need for sex.
Sometime later, Zeus is experiencing a skull splitting headache. When he goes to seek relief and splits open his head with Hephaestus’ help, out pops Athena fully clothed, armed and already an adult.
Good thing Hera gave birth to Hephaestus. Who knows what Zeus would have done to alleviate his splitting headache?
The other version that I’m familiar with, Metis is swallowed with Zeus never knowing that she was ever pregnant to begin with.
I Have A Gut Feeling – I’ve found this story a bit curious in swallowing Metis. The ancient Greeks believed that the stomach rather than the brain were the source of intellect and emotions. With this belief, mindset in mind, it makes sense why Zeus would swallow Metis, that way, her powers of wisdom existed in some form inside him.
It gives a new meaning to the phrase: “thinking with one’s stomach” or “listening to one’s gut” would come from.
Hera – Second Marriage
Going back to the normal course of events with Greek myths, Zeus is married to his sister Hera. For gods and immortals, this works out. There just weren’t very many other options. For those who are mortal and human, ewww…. Inbreeding. Don’t do it!
Naturally, being his wife, goddess of marriage, birth, women, and fidelity, I do not blame Hera for getting angry with Zeus. The myths will say she was jealous and vengeful towards Zeus’ lovers and numerous children. Hera’s myths likely reflect what life was like for woman of the day. If she couldn’t punish her husband outright, she took her anger out on his lovers and any resulting children.
Zeus had to trick Hera into marrying him too. Knowing that Hera holds an affinity for animals, the god came to her in the form of a cuckoo. When Hera picked up the bird to hold close to her, Zeus transformed back his godly form and shamed her into having to marry him.
I really just don’t see how that will be a lasting or happy marriage.
Hera & Echo – This is one of the more famous stories depicting Hera’s anger and jealously. The nymph Echo was instructed by Zeus to distract Hera while he was out having his many “affairs.” Since Hera couldn’t punish Zeus, she would punish others. In Echo’s case, she was cursed to forever repeat what was said to her.
There’s plenty of studies to show and suggest that the Greeks were originally a matriarchal people. As patriarchy took over and the myths are rewritten, the resistance of the older religion and people twists these myths and stories around to make Hera look jealous and petty as so many of the Greek gods appear to be when their myths, especially original ones get co-opted and rewritten.
Battle Of The Sexes – If you don’t already have an idea of Zeus’ amorous reputation in mythology, keep reading, you will…
Hera would be rather upset and angry with her husband from his numerous affairs. I can only imagine, that as the goddess of marriage, Hera would try to have it out with Zeus over having sex and who got the most pleasure out of it.
The mortal Tiresias was given the job of acting as judge for this contest. When he ruled in favor of Zeus that men have more pleasure in having sex, Tiresias was rewarded with getting to live three times longer than other mortals.
Your Reputation Precedes You Sir!
Politely put, Zeus has quite a reputation with all of the “love interests” and “affairs” and the vast number of children he is to have fathered over the millennia. Zeus is rather busy for a married man, I mean god.
There are numerous stories of Zeus’ many love affairs, romances and some of which that are just outright rape stories no matter how euphemistically later rewrites try to retell them.
There’s a certain prestige, especially seen in the ancient Egyptian culture where all the Pharaohs are earthly incarnations of Ra. This divine birthright is what justifies them to be the rulers over the common, ordinary people.
I can imagine a similar thing happening among the Greeks where they want to claim a divine heritage to justify their rule over various cities states. Stories that often just served to explain how a thing came to be, why something is and to explain divine right of rulership.
We also know there’s two major areas of Greek history, the Mycenean Greek era and the those whom we think of as the Ancient or Classical Greeks with a dark age period in between. If you look at the myths carefully from these periods, Poseidon had been the ruler of the Olympian gods during the Mycenean era of Greek history. This later changes to Zeus being the head of the pantheon.
There is also a Neolithic, Cycladic culture that is best known for its female idols. Couple this with Hera and her vehemence towards Zeus and his numerous affairs. Now it appears to be clear that the Greek myths we get of Zeus are the result of revisionist history and storytelling.
As there’s a theological takeover of replacing Poseidon with Zeus as the head of the pantheon and a patriarchal takeover of the regions that reduces goddesses like Hera’s importance. Just taking a close look at some of these myths, you can see the hints of it and some of the discrepancies that come up as Greece and then Rome expanded, trying to absorb all of these locals myths and to equate local deities and variations with their own.
The most obvious being the Titanomachy story where Zeus and his siblings all displace the older pantheon and the survivors get absorbed into the new divine order.
Alternate Spelling: Κάδμος Kadmos
Etymology: “From the East” or “He Who Excels”
In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the name of the legendary founder and first king of Thebes. He is distinguished by being one of Greece’s first heroes who slew monsters long before the birth of the mighty Heracles.
Parentage and Family
Father – King Agenor of Tyre
Mother – Queen Telephassa of Tyre
Alternatively, Phoenix and Perimede are given as Cadmus’ parents.
Phoenix – No, not the legendary fire bird that resurrects itself in flames, but his brother who returns to Tyre to rule where the region is renamed to Phoenicia.
Cilix – Brother, the city of Cilicia is named after him.
Europa – Sister, abducted by Zeus
Agave – Daughter, with her sisters Autonoe and Ino, she unknowingly killed her son Pentheus. She marries first the Spartoi Echion and then later King Lycotherses of Illyria whom she also murders in order to hand over the kingdom to her father.
Autonoe – Daughter, her son, Actaeon was killed by his hounds.
Illyrius – Youngest son and child born, from whom the Illyrians are descended.
Ino – Daughter, was driven mad by Hera leapt to her death to the sea with her only surviving son. Instead of dying, Ino becomes a sea goddess.
Polydorus – Eldest son, inherits the throne in Thebes, carrying on the family dynasty.
Semele – Daughter, she is killed later by Hera after a liaison with Zeus. In some stories, she is the mother of Dionysus. The controversy will say that Semele was raped from an unknown assailant and the blame is placed on Zeus in an effort to try keeping some dignity
Thasus – The son of Cilix. In some accounts, he is also Cadmus’ brother. The island of Thassos is named after him.
Pentheus – the son of Agave and the Spartoi Echion, he becomes king of Thebes after Polydorus.
Cadmus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
I feel it’s worth mentioning that through Telephassa’s line, Cadmus and all of his siblings are the grandchildren of Nilus, the god of the Nile River and Nephele, a cloud nymph. Through their father Agenor, again, Cadmus and his siblings are the grandchildren of the sea god Poseidon and Libya, the goddess or personification of ancient Libya in North Africa.
During Mycenaean Greek, Poseidon is the head of the Greek pantheon, it is later during what most think of as ancient Greece when we have more concrete records and writing, that Zeus is the head of the pantheon. I feel that Cadmus’ myth does show where some of these changes to try giving Zeus more prominence start getting put in.
Fifth generation divinity! That’s gotta count for something though!
As early culture heroes, Cadmus and a few others some of the founding members are who get the ball rolling for Greek culture.
First King Of Thebes
Part of Cadmus’ claim to fame is that he’s the first king and founder of Thebes. A Grecian dynasty that stayed in power for quite some time. By Greek myths, this dynasty ruled Thebes for many generations, even during the time of the Trojan War.
His history goes back far enough to when oral history was getting passed on from one generation to the next before getting written down.
Antique Powerhouse – As far as Greek antiquity goes; Thebes did rival the ancient cities of Athens and Sparta. Come the time of Alexander the Great, when he set his sights on Thebes in 335 B.C.E., the city fell and never reclaimed its ancient glory.
Historical Conflicts – The Grecian historian, Herodotus (who lived between 484 B.C.E. and 425 B.C.E.) wrote about Cadmus, chronically him down. Herodotus writes down that he believes Cadmus to have lived some 1600 years before him, placing the timeline for Cadmus in 2000 B.C.E. With so much myth and legend interwoven into Cadmus’ story, how much is history and how much is a tall tale turned to legend that we aren’t sure if there really was a Cadmus.
Once again, Herodotus is to have seen and described the Cadmean writing inscribed on some tripods within the temple of Apollo at Thebes. Tripods that are to date back to when Laius, Cadmus’ great-grandson lived. The inscriptions effectively read as: “Ἀμφιτρύων μ᾽ ἀνέθηκ᾽ ἐνάρων ἀπὸ Τηλεβοάων in English “Amphitryon dedicated me don’t forget the spoils of the battle of Teleboae.”
Further confusion for how much myth and legend there is versus actual history comes from a later Roman writer, Ovid in his Metamorphosis. There are certainly a lot of additions and his versions of the myths are what many are familiar with when thinking of Greco-Roman mythology.
Hittite Connection – More like a controversy. There is a letter from the King of Ahhivawa to the Hittite King where a Cadmus is mentioned as the father of the Ahhivawa people. It is known that this is the term for the Achaeans in the Mycenaean Greek era and mentioned in Homer’s works. It’s not accepted by scholars that this is evidence of the actual Cadmus of mythology.
Cadmeia – This is the acropolis in Thebes named so in honor of Cadmus.
Fun Fact – Cadmeia is supposed to be the original name of the city before becoming Thebes. The name change came about a couple generations later during the reign of Amphion and Zethus who wanted to change the city’s name to honor his wife Thebe.
Al-Qadmus – The name of a Syrian city that is named after Cadmus.
Thebes – There is a city called Thebes in Egypt, no they are not the same city, they just happen to share the same name.
What’s In A Name?
There’s not a clear consensus on what Cadmus’ name means. Some scholars have put forward the idea that it might have a Semitic root of QDM meaning “East.” In Arabic, QDM is a verb meaning: “to come.” Then, in Hebrew, qedem means: “east,” “front” and “ancient.” Then there is the ver qadam meaning: “to be in front.” The Greek word kekasmai means: “to shine.” All this conjecture means that Cadmus translates as either “He who excels” or “From the east.”
I’d say we’re really close, there is a clue with Cadmus being from Tyre and his brother returning to rule there and the region becoming Phoenicia. Scholars studying the region and languages note that there are cognates between the Phoenician and Hebraic language.
The Alphabet – It’s Greek To Me!
Speaking of writing, Cadmus is who gets the credit by the ancient Greek historians for introducing the Phoenician alphabet where it would get adapted to become the Greek alphabet.
Herodotus goes as far as to say that Cadmus founded Thebes long before the events of the Trojan War, placing it during the Aegean Bronze Age. It’s a chronology that’s dubious as it conflicts with when both the Phoenician and Greek alphabets are to have originated.
The earliest known Greek inscriptions that involve Phoenician letters don’t appear until the late 9th and 8th century B.C.E. The belief is that the Phoenician alphabet didn’t develop until 1050 B.C.E., after the Bronze Age.
The Homeric depictions of the Mycenaean Greek (think really ancient Greek) doesn’t mention much about writing. The only reference to any Homeric writing is the phrase “grammata lygra” meaning: “baneful drawings.” This is a connection to the Bellerophontic letter, in which Proteus sent a sealed message with the hero Bellerophon to King Iobates who one reading the missive had instructions to kill the hero.
At any rate, there are several examples of Greek writing known as Linear B found in Thebes that seems to give credence to Cadmus as the inventor and bringer of writing to the Greeks. In Modern-Day Lebanon, Cadmus is still revered and accepted as the originator.
Once again, it’s just Cadmus’ legend that goes so far back that there are doubts and questions about the existing records for just how accurate any of it is.
Going To Find His Sister
All legends have their beginning.
Cadmus’ story begins when he and his brothers are sent by their parents, the King Agenor and Queen Telephassa to go find his sister Europa and bring her back to Tyre after she had been abducted by the god Zeus. Further, Cadmus and his brothers are told not to return without their sister.
Unable to find their sister, Cadmus’ brothers Phoenix and Cilix gave up in their quests. The region of Phoenicia is named after Phoenix and the city of Cilicia is named after Cilix. Here, it can go either way, either Cadmus was unsuccessful in finding his sister or Cadmus very wisely chose not to go up against Zeus.
He very likely decided not to press his luck and instead went to Samothrace, an island known to be sacred to the “Great Gods” or Kabeiroi.
On his journey to Samothrace, Cadmus was not alone. For his mother, Telephassa and his nephew Thasus were also present. Thasus is noted for naming the nearby island of Thasos after himself. It is at Samothrace, that Cadmus meets and marries Harmonia, the daughter of Electra and Zeus. Though, some accounts will say that Cadmus abducted Harmonia away the same way that Zeus did with Europa.
I can’t see that ending well though…
It will get confusing, as some accounts have Cadmus and Harmonia marrying on Samothrace or meeting later after the founding of Thebes and marrying then.
Bridal Gifts With A Curse
I mentioned things not ending well right? I did.
Some of Harmonia’ bridal gifts were a peplos (a type of dress) gifted by Athena and a necklace made by Hephaestus. This necklace will become known as the Necklace of Harmonia and it would bring misfortune to anyone who had it. Sure, the necklace will make any woman who wears it eternally young and beautiful. Eventually, the curse takes hold and Harmonia’s home city of Thebes faces civil unrest and misfortunes.
At first glance, that seems unusual, I’ll cover this further down.
The Founding Of Thebes
This is perhaps the story that Cadmus is best known for in his saga. As Cadmus and his mother continued their journey and search for Europa, the two settled in a place called Thrace. It is here, that Telephassa died of grief for her missing daughter. After performing the funeral rites for his mother, Cadmus sought out the Oracle of Delphi for help.
It is here, that Cadmus is told to stop his quest and search for Europa (thanks to the gods), and instead, Cadmus is to now follow a cow.
Not just any cow, this one has a half-moon on her flank and Cadmus is to follow her until she finally comes to a rest, exhausted. The spot where the cow rests is where Cadmus is to build a town in a land known as Boeotia along the banks of the river Cephisus.
With the exhausted cow, Cadmus decided to sacrifice it to Athena as thanks for the cow guiding him. While making his preparations, Cadmus sent off his companions, Deileon and Seriphus to get some water from the Ismenian spring. While the two were there, the guardian of the spring, a water-dragon belonging to Ares rose up and slew both Deileon and Seriphus.
Chaoskampf & Spartoi
On discovering what had happened, Cadmus then slew the dragon. It has been noted that this is a notable trait of culture heroes to slay a dragon and the whole order triumphing over chaos.
The dragon-slaying story usually ends here. However, a couple of different things will happen here. First, Athena appears to Cadmus and gives him half of the dragon’s teeth, instructing our stalwart hero to plant them. (The other half of the teeth will appear later in the story of Jason and the Argonauts). As Cadmus plants each tooth on the Aonian plain; from each tooth springs up a fully armed warrior. Fearing for his life, Cadmus threw a stone in amongst the warriors and they began to fight each other. Each thinking the stone had been thrown by another warrior. These warriors fought until there were only five of them left standing. Sometimes, depending on who’s telling the story, Athena instructed Cadmus to leave only five Spartoi living. These five remaining warriors’ names were: Chthonius, Echion, Hyperenor, Pelorus and Udeus who would become the founders of Thebes’ noble families. At Cadmus’ instructions, these five helped him to found and build the city of Thebes.
The first building that would-be built-in Thebes was a shrine dedicated to the Moon goddess Selene. The acropolis of Thebes would be called Cadmeia.
In his writings, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth, only five warriors sprang up from the ground. There was no fighting it out among them. In addition, Hellanicus has Zeus step in to save Cadmus from the Ares’ wrath as the war god wanted to kill the mortal. And the Spartoi, Echion marries Cadmus’ daughter Agave and their son, Pentheus succeeds Cadmus to become king.
In this version of the myths with the Roman names for the gods in it, a voice (presumably Mars) speaks out to Cadmus, after he slays the giant serpent, that he too shall become one.
Ares’ Dragon & Eight Years Servitude
Slaying the dragon also held another problem to it. This dragon or drakon was a servant to the god of war, Ares; add, in some versions, the drakon is a son of Ares. Either way, Ares’ isn’t too pleased.
As restitution for this deed, Cadmus meets Ares’ demands by serving the war god for an “everlasting year” or eight years. At the end of this period, Cadmus marries Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares.
Sidenote: Yeah, I know, the marriage has been mentioned up above. It is a conflict of the narrative and it really depends on who’s telling the story.
The narrative that places Harmonia’s marriage to Cadmus here, as the daughter of Ares is meant to symbolize the coming of harmony and an end to war.
Harmonia would bear Cadmus several children, Agave who married Echion, one of the Spartoi, they would have a son named Pentheus. Cadmus and Harmonia’s other children are three daughters, Autonoe, Ino and Semele who would be the mother of Dionysus. There two sons are Polydorus and Illyrius from whom the Illyrians descend.
Something Rotten In Thebes
Married and the City of Thebes founded, no matter how divinely ordained this was, peace and harmony wouldn’t last.
Due to the cursed necklace that Harmonia received, she and Cadmus’ family would soon see misfortune befall them and a series of civil unrest. Eventually, Cadmus would abdicate his throne to his grandson, Pentheus.
Cadmus would go with Harmonia to Illyria to fight a war brewing over there as they took the side of the Enchelii. From there, Cadmus would go on and found the city of Lychnidus and Bouthoe.
Despite leaving Thebes and establishing other cities, misfortune continued to plague and follow Cadmus. It got so bad that Cadmus cried out that all this had to because of his slaying Ares’ dragon, if the gods were so obsessed with its death, why not turn him into one.
At that pronouncement, Cadmus begins to grow scales and to change into a serpent. Horrified by this transition of her husband, Harmonia begged the gods to change her too so she could share in Cadmus’ fate.
Variations to this ending are that both Cadmus and Harmonia are changed into snakes when they died. Both snakes watched over their tombs while their souls were sent by Zeus to the Elysian Fields.
Famous Grecian playwright Euripides’ in his The Bacchae, has Cadmus given a prophecy from Dionysus that both he and his wife will be turned into snakes before getting to enjoy an eternity of bliss in the Elysian Fields.
The First Earthly Marriage
If you were paying attention to the above narrative and Cadmus’ story, I noted that there are two different timelines to when he marries Harmonia and each one has a side not for who her parentage is.
I think it’s worth noting and remembering Cadmus’ Divine Lineage connecting him to Poseidon and thus a demigod. The story of Cadmus and the ruling, royal family of Thebes is likely a very old story, dating back to Mycenaean Greece and it is during Mycenaean Greece that Poseidon is the head of the Pantheon, not Zeus.
Zeus will become head of the Greek Pantheon during the era thought of as Ancient Greece when we have written records being kept that chronicle historical accounts.
It’s an important distinction and one seen in the conflicting timeline of when Cadmus is to have married Harmonia and who her parentage is to be.
Where Cadmus marries Harmonia on the island of Samothrace with Zeus and Electra given as her parents seems more like the later changes to the story to have Zeus hold a more prominent role within it.
Following a timeline for after Cadmus’ eight years of servitude to Ares and then marrying Harmonia with both Ares and Aphrodite as her parents seems far more likely the correct lineage. It would explain too so much better why Hephaestus would gift Harmonia a cursed necklace.
Knowing the backstory between Hephaestus, Aphrodite and Ares, the cursed necklace that is given to Harmonia makes more sense. Hephaestus was angry at Aphrodite for her affair with Ares and yes, he makes the necklace a means to punish Aphrodite’s infidelity by placing a curse on the child that resulted from hers and Ares’ affair.
Thus, all the misfortunes that Cadmus and Harmonia suffer are from the necklace, not slaying the dragon. Afterall, Cadmus had already paid penance to Ares and then is rewarded his daughter for marriage. It’s even in Harmonia’s name, harmony, there was to be an end to the strife and conflicts.
I do find it curious that there are versions of Cadmus’ story where the Necklace of Harmonia is not mentioned at all or having been made by Hephaestus. The misfortunes that befall Cadmus are attributed to the dragon that was slain. It makes no sense to have Ares forgive Cadmus after several years of servitude and giving his daughter to marry.
Of course, it’s easy to assume the Greek gods are perpetuating their pettiness. We have lots of stories of mortals being punished by the gods. If Hephaestus is keeping mums about the curse he placed on the necklace, of course, no one knows why bad things keep happening to Cadmus and Harmonia.
By Diodorus’ account of this story, Cadmus’ marriage to Harmonia is significant in that it was the first one celebrated on Earth and one wherein the gods are to have come, bringing gifts. There was supposed to be an end to conflicts and war, alas it could not last.
East Meets West – Another idea for Cadmus and Harmonia’s wedding is that it may be symbolic of the Eastern, Phoenician learning combining with the Western, Grecian love of beauty.
Fertility God – The Samothracian Connection!
The island of Samothrace is one of the places that Cadmus, his mother, and nephew are said to have stopped at in their search for a missing Europa.
There is a small Pantheon of the Great Gods whose members have been equated or identified with several of the Greek deities. One such god, is Kadmilus, a fertility god identified with the god Hermes. There are also a pair of Underworld deities, Axiokersos (Hades) and Axiokersa (Persephone) whose marriage gets equated to Cadmus and Harmonia courtesy of Diodorus Siculus’ trying to connect the island’s local myths to the overall Greek myths.
I can see it too, the similar-sounding names of Kadmilus and Cadmus.
Zeus Versus Typhon
In Nonnus’ Dionysiaca where he recounts the story of Zeus battling the monstrous serpentine monster known as Typhon, Zeus asks the hero Cadmus to help him by recovering his lightning bolts with playing his pipes, to play a tune. Zeus promises Cadmus that if he helps, that he will receive the hand of Harmonia in marriage.
The Dionysiaca is written in the 5th century C.E. and reflects plenty of time to have rewritten the myths. This is the only myth to involve Cadmus with Pan, playing the pipes to distract Typhon so this fearsome monster can be defeated.
Earlier versions of this story have where it’s Hermes and Aeigipan (Pan) stealing back Zeus’ tendons, no mention of the thunderbolts.
Once again, if we are confusing Cadmus with Kadmilus, the Samothracian deity identified with Hermes. I can see the confusion.
However, yes Nonnus is equating Hermes with Kadmilus and thus Cadmus in the episode where Hermes comes in disguise as a mortal to announce that Zeus has decreed a marriage of Harmonia with Cadmus.
That’s just confusing if you can’t keep it straight.
The story of Cadmus slaying the dragon is sometimes cited as being one of many myths associated with this constellation.
Etymology – “Big Fish” or Whale
Alternate Spellings: Κηφεύς Kepheús (Greek), Ketos, Cetea (plural)
Cetus is the name of the monstrous sea creature whom King Cepheus was to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda. The giant monster has a bit part in the overall story of Perseus and Andromeda, though it is enough to earn it a place up in the heavens to be immortalized as a constellation.
The name cetus can mean any large fish, especially a shark, whale or a sea monster. In Greek art, as well as seen in the Hercules The Legendary Journeys series, the cetea were shown as large sea serpents. And yes, both Hercules and Perseus slay giant sea monsters in their adventures.
Visualizing Cetus as a huge, monstrous sea serpent makes it easier to see how it could destroy the coast of Aethieopia or rise up out of the sea to try and devour Andromeda.
Side Note – The art historian John Boardman has the idea that the images of the cetus along the silk road influenced the image of the Chinese dragons and the Indian makara.
Story Of Perseus
In the Greek story of Perseus, Cepheus was the king of Acrisios or Aethiopia, the husband of Queen Cassiopeia and the father to Andromeda. For the Greeks, Cepheus is known as the father of the Royal Family.
The story begins when Cassiopea started bragging about how Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids. This kind of attitude of extreme arrogance and pride, especially when a person claims to be better than the gods, creates what’s known as hubris.
Offended by Cassiopeia’s remarks, the Nereids approached Poseidon and complained, asking him to punish this mortal woman. Poseidon agreed and he sent a flood as well as the sea monster Cetus (or Kraken) to destroy the coastline of Aethiopia.
After consulting with the oracle of Ammon (identified by the Greeks with Zeus,) located at an oasis near Siwa in the Libyan desert, Cepheus was told that he would be able to end the destruction of his country by giving up his daughter Andromeda in sacrifice to Cetus. At the urging of his people, Cepheus had Andromeda chained to a rock by the sea to await her fate.
Luck was with Andromeda, for the hero Perseus was flying by on the Pegasus and on seeing her, he flew down to ask her why she was bound to the rocks. Andromeda told her story to the hero Perseus.
After hearing the story, Perseus went to Cepheus, saying he could save Andromeda from the sea monster and that in return, he wanted her hand in marriage. Cepheus told Perseus that he could have what he wanted.
At that, Perseus then, depending on the accounts given, pulled his sword and found a weak spot in the scales of the sea monster Cetus or he used the severed head of Medusa to turn the monster to stone.
In either event, the monster is slain, Perseus saved Andromeda and a grateful Cepheus and Cassiopeia welcomed them to a feast where the two were married.
The story doesn’t completely end there as it seems Andromeda had also been promised to her uncle Phineus to marry. This wouldn’t have been disputed or contested if Phineus had been the one to save Andromeda and slay Cetus himself. So Phineus picked a fight with Perseus about his right to marry Andromeda at the wedding.
After slaying a Gorgon and a Sea Monster, a mere mortal man is no challenge for Perseus who once again pulls out Medusa’s head and turns Phineus to stone. Given variations of the story, sometimes this is when Cepheus and Cassiopeia are also turned to stone when they accidentally look at the gorgon’s severed head. With Phineus now dead, Andromeda accompanies Perseus back to his home Tiryns in Argos where they eventually founded the Perseid dynasty.
Some accounts give that Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters. Others place this count a little differently saying its seven children all together, six sons and one daughter. Most accounts agree that the eldest son, Perses founds his own kingdom and becomes the ancestor to the kings of Persia. A variation to this account is that Perses was adopted by his grandfather Cepheus and named an heir to the throne.
Eventually, years later, as the major figures of the storied died and passed away, the goddess Athena placed Cepheus and the others up into the heavens as constellations to immortalize and commemorate this story.
In another account, because Cepheus was descended from one of Zeus’ lovers, the nymph Io, that earned him a place in the night sky.
Further, it is the god Poseidon who places both Cepheus and Cassiopeia up into heavens to become a constellation.
Hyginus’ Account – By his account, Cepheus’ brother is Agenor who confronts Perseus as he was the one to whom Andromeda had been promised in marriage. This is who Perseus ends up killing instead of Phineus.
Aethiopia or Ethiopia?
The accounts can vary and much of this owes to some lack of clarity among the ancient Greek Scholars and Historians. Homer is the first to have used the term Aethiopia in his Iliad and Odyssey. The Greek historian Herodotus uses the name Aethiopia to describe all of the inhabited lands south of Egypt. The name also features in Greek mythology, where it is sometimes associated with a kingdom said to be seated at Joppa, (what would be modern-day Tel-Aviv) or it is placed elsewhere in Asia Minor such as Lybia, Lydia, the Zagros Mountains, and even India.
Modern-day Ethiopia is located on the horn of Africa and has some tentative ties to the legend of Andromeda. The Egyptian priest Manetho, who lived around 300 BCE called Egypt’s Kushite dynasty the “Aethiopian dynasty.” And with the translation of the Hebrew Bible or Torah into Greek around 200 BCE, the Hebrew usage of “Kush” and Kushite” became the Greek “Aethiopia” and “Aethiopians.” This again changes later to the modern English use of “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopians” with the arrival of the King James Bible.
Given the way that Countries, Empires, Kingdoms, and Nations rise and fall, expand and shrink, it’s very well possible that both Aethiopia and Ethiopia are one and the same and that modern-day Tel-Aviv once known as Joppa (Jaffa) may have once been part of Ethiopia. Some sources cite Joppa as having been a city of Phoenicia. There is a lot of history that has been lost to the sands of time that can only be guessed at and speculated upon.
Hercules Vs Cetus
This is a very similar story that follows much the same theme that the story of Perseus and Andromeda follows.
Now, Hesione is a Trojan princess and the daughter of King Laomedon. Being Trojan, Hesione in some versions and not Helena gets the blame as the trigger for the famous Trojan War.
Enough of that, the gods Apollo and Poseidon became angry with King Laomedon when he refused to pay his tribute to the gods for the construction of Troy’s walls. Fair enough, if you don’t pay, we’ll send a plague and a giant sea monster after you to collect.
After consulting the Oracles for what he could do to set things right, Laomedon was told he would need to sacrifice his daughter Hesione to the monster Cetus. Some versions say a series of pulling lots saw Hesione get this fate. Like Andromeda, Hesione too is chained to the rocks near the ocean for Cetus to come and get.
The hero Hercules along with Oicles and Telamon were returning from their campaign against the Amazons when they come across Hesione chained up and exposed. Hercules finds out what’s going on and goes to her father, Laomedon saying that he can save her for a price.
What price? The horses Laomedon received from Zeus as compensation when Ganymede was abducted. Though it’s Tros who is often given as the father of Ganymede and Laomedon is a nephew of said Ganymede. This story follows the lineage with Laomedon as Ganymede’s father rather than a nephew.
Back on track, Laomede agrees to Hercules’ price of giving the horse and the hero sets off to kill the sea monster Cetus.
When it came time for Hercules to collect his reward, Laomedon refused to pay. Why am I not surprised by that? Some people just don’t learn.
Hercules and his companions are angry enough that they come back to attack Troy, killing Laomedon and all his sons except for Podarces. Telamon takes Hesione for his wife and Podarces, becoming king of Troy, changes his name to Priam.
The whole famous Trojan War fits in as Priam wanted Hesione returned to Troy. When Antenor and Anchises, both sent by Priam, couldn’t get Hesione, they return. Paris is then sent to Greece to bring Hesione back and while on the way, brings back Helen, Queen of Sparta and wife to Menelaus.
Other Grecian Legends
Gates of the Underworld – With Cetus’ location under the ecliptic, it’s stars, along with those of Pisces are connected to the capture of Cerberus in The Twelve Labors of Hercules. Having written a post for Pisces, this is the first I’ve come across this story being connected to either constellation. It seems to me, part of a series of connection several constellations to the story of Hercules and his labors.
The constellation known as Cetus 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. The Cetus constellation is found in region of the sky called “The Sea” with other water-based constellations of: Aquarius, Capricornus, Eridanus, Piscis Austrinus, and Pisces.
17th-century astronomer, Johannes Bayers thought Cetus resembled a dragonfish. In his star map or Uranographia, Johann Elert Bode gives an alternative name of Monstrum Marinum for Cetus. Other astronomers, Willem Jansson Blaeu and Cellarius saw a Whale in the Cetus constellation. It’s not unusual either for Cetus to be shown as a giant, monstrous fish with varying animal heads on it.
The Cetus constellation is found in the southern hemisphere where it can most likely be seen during autumn evenings, especially in November, along with several other constellations named after characters in the myth of Perseus. Because of its southern location, Cetus is visible between the 70° and -90° latitude lines and for observers farther south it lies below the horizon. It is 4th largest constellation found in the night sky. Bordering constellations to Cetus are: Aquarius, Aries, Eridanus, Fornax, Pisces, Sculptor and Taurus.
Arab astronomers were aware of Ptolemy’s constellations, in their star lore, one of the hands from the Pleiades (Al-Thurayya) is said to extend into part of the Cetus constellation. Additionally, two pearl necklaces were seen as making up the stars of Cetus. One necklace is intact and whole while the other is depicted as broken and the pearls scattered.
The Tukano and Kobeua people see a jaguar in the Cetus constellation. This jaguar is the god of hurricanes and violent storms. The stars Lambda, Mu, Xi, Nu, Gamma and Alpha Ceti make up the head. The stars Omicron, Zeta and Chi Ceti make up the body with the stars Eta Eri, Tau Ceti and Upsilon Ceti making up the legs and feet. Lastly, the stars Theta, Eta, and Beta Ceti mark the tail of the jaguar.
The stars of Cetus are located in two areas of the Chinses Night Sky, the Black Tortoise of the North or Bei Fang Xuán Wu and the White Tiger of the West or Xi Fang Bái Hu.
The area of the night sky that Cetus occupies is associated with Autumn, agriculture and the harvest season, especially with the need for storing grains and cereals.
Bakui – This is an old asterism comprised of the stars 2, 6 and 7 Ceti that represents a bird catching net. In older maps, this asterism will be placed further south in the constellations of Sculptor and Phoenix. It’s thought that perhaps Chinese astronomers have moved this asterism further north with the slow precession of stars in the night sky.
Chuhao – Or called Chugao, it is located south of Tianjun. This asterism is made up of six stars, two of which are Epsilon and Rho Ceti that border with Eridanus. This asterism represents either a measure of animal feed or medicinal herbs.
Tiancang – Is a square granary, made up of six stars from main body of Cetus, including Iota, Eta, Theta, Zeta, Tau and Upsilon Ceti form this asterism.
Tianhun – This asterism is a loop of seven stars near Eta Ceti and represents either a manure pit or pig sty.
Tianjun – Is a circular granary, made up of thirteen stars from the head and neck of Cetus, including Alpha, Gamma, Delta and Xi Ceti form this asterism.
Tianlin – Is a third granary that borders between the Cetus and Taurus constellations. It is comprised of four stars Omicron, Xi, 4 and 5 Tauri. This storehouse or granary is used to store millet or rice.
Tusikong – One star, Beta Ceti marks this asterism that represents the Minister of Works and Land Usage Overseer.
It’s thought that this constellation was called Na Kuhi and the star, Omicron Ceti might have been called Kane.
As I study the old Grecian myths and the history behind them, the stronger a connection and correlation between the Greek and Mesopotamian myths appears. The story of Andromeda and Perseus is just one set of myths the Greeks inherited from the Mesopotamian cultures.
The constellation of Cetus has been identified with Tiamat, the dragon goddess of Chaos. She bore many demons for her husband, Apsu, but eventually she decided to destroy them in a war that ended when Marduk killed her. He used her body to create the constellations as markers of time for humans.
Biblical Connection – Lost In Translation!
The Greeks weren’t the only ancient people that the Mesopotamians influenced. We see another interesting connection come in the Torah or Hebrew Bible and with the Canaanites.
Jonah and the Whale – This is the story that many people are most likely familiar with for any connection of Cetus with the Bible. If you don’t really dig any further, that can be good enough for people when linking this constellation to the Bible.
If we go a little further, yes, the Hebrew text in Jonah calls the whale a dag gadol, meaning “great fish.” And yes, when the Old Testament was translated to the Greek Bible or Septuagint, the translation is “mega ketos.” Then translated again, in the Latin Vulgate, it translates to Cetus and then later to “piscis grandis.”
Torah – What gets interesting, is another creature, Tanninim (or Tannin for singular) that gets mentioned in the Hebraic Books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Now, the translation into the King James Bible will translate many of these instances to mean a serpent or whale.
Why mention one particular creature, Tannin in all of these other passages and books and call it a dag gadol in Jonah? It’s assumed that whales are what’s being mentioned. Yet when we get into Isaiah, tannin is again mentioned as a sea monster that will be slain by God or Yahweh. When we go into the King James Bible, that translation of tannin becomes dragon.
If dag gadol is a whale or rather, a great fish; then what’s tannin? Sticking to just Jewish mythology, tannin is often linked to the sea monsters Leviathan, Lotan and Rehab. In modern Hebrew, tannin means crocodile.
Canaanite Mythology – Tannin also appears in Canaanite myths, specifically the Baal Cycle. It is a story very similar to the Mesopotamian myth of Marduk (or Enlil) slaying Tiamat and the Grecian Perseus slaying Cetus.
Tannin is a monstrous servant of the sea god Yam who is defeated by Baal or is bound by his sister Anat. This serpentine sea monster is used in Canaanite, Hebrew and Phoenician mythologies as being symbolic of chaos and evil. Much like how Tiamat is equated as a symbol of chaos. It is this part of being a sea monster or dragon and chaos that has modern scholars identifying Tiamat with Tannin.
Nautical Lore & Superstitions
A ship or a ship’s maidenhead will be called Cetus to indicate a ship undaunted by the sea or a fearsome and ruthless pirate ship.
By sailors, the name Cetus is an omen and harbinger of a bad storm or misfortune. The name could also mean lost cargo, the presence of pirates or getting steered/pulled off course. The superstition was so great, that sailors would avoid mentioning the name Cetus.
Here Be Dragons! – Continuing the bit of nautical connection, some retellings of Perseus and Andromeda will refer to Cetus as being a sea serpent or outright calling it a dragon.
Release The Kraken!
Thanks to the 1981 stop-motion movie Clash of the Titans and it’s later 2010 remake, the part that Cetus played is replaced with an even scarier and more compelling monster, the now famous Kraken that rises up to destroy a coastline and kill Andromeda.
Think about it, “Release the Cetus!” just doesn’t have as dramatic of flair as “Release the Kraken!” does. Even the old stop-motion Kraken is more ominous to see on the screen then a giant whale or monstrous sea serpent rising up out of the ocean. It’s more exciting for a modern audience whether seen in theaters or on the small screen to watch.
This also simply shows how Hollywood will often change the source material for what they think is more exciting and action-oriented. Then, when enough people are familiar with this version as the story of Perseus and Andromeda, it shows how these stories and mythologies are still active and evolve with the different cultures that retell them.
It’s been pointed out that the Kraken isn’t even Greek in origin, it’s from Norse & Icelandic lore and mythologies.
Even in Renaissance paintings depicting Perseus, this is where we see the hero going from wearing Hermes’ flying sandals to riding the winged horse Pegasus.
All these constellations have some connection to the overall legend and myth of the Grecian hero Perseus.
Stars Of Cetus
Alpha Ceti – Also known as Menkar that means “nose.” It is a giant red star. It forms a double star with 93 Ceti. Alpha Ceti gets to have a bit of a claim to fame with it’s use in Science Fiction, particularly the original Star Trek series. It is Alpha Ceti V where Khan and his crew are exiled. Then in Star Trek: Enterprise, Alpha Ceti V is the planet that humans find refuge at after the Xindi destroy Earth.
Beta Ceti – Also known as Deneb Kaitos and Diphda is the brightest star found within Cetus. It is an orange star. The name Deneb Kaitos comes from the Arabic phrase Al Dhanab al Ḳaiṭos al Janūbīyy meaning: “the whale’s tail.” The name Diphda comes from the Arabic: “aḍ-ḍafdaʿ aṯ-ṯānī” meaning: “the second frog.” It should be noted that the star Fomalhaut found within Piscis Austrinus is the first frog.
Gamma Ceti – This a double star, the main star is yellow while the secondary star is blue.
Omicron Ceti – Also known as Mira, meaning “The Wonderful,” is the first variable star to have been discovered. Because this star seems to appear and disappear to the unaided eye, it was given the common name of “The Amazing One.” It was discovered by David Fabricius in 1596.
Tau Ceti – Is only notable for being a star similar to the Earth’s own sun. There aren’t any known planets for this star.
AA Ceti – Is a triple star system. The third star is only known by the shadow it casts when passing in front of the primary star.
NGC 246 also known as the Cetus Ring, is a planetary nebula found within the Cetus constellation. It’s roughly 1600 light-years away from Earth. It earns the nickname of Pac-Man Nebula due to how its central stars and surrounding star field appear.
There are a series of three meteor shows associated as originating out of Cetus, they are the October Cetids, the Eta Cetids and finally, the Omicron Cetids.
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 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 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.
Etymology: Old Norse logi “flame”, possibly “tangler” Possibly the Old Norse word luka meaning “close,” Indo-European -leug meaning “to break”, Indo-European -luk meaning: “to close,” “lock,” “lid,” “end,” to light,” and “lightning.”
Alternate Spellings: Loge, Lokki (Faroese), Lokkemand (Danish), Loke, Lokke (Norwegian), Luki, Luku (Swedish), Lukki (Finnish), Loder, Lokkju, Lopti, Loki-Laufeyjarson
Other Names and Epithets: Hveðrungr “Roarer” (Old Norse), Loptr (Air), Loftur, “Father of Lies,” “the Sly God,” “the Sly One,” “Sky-Traveler”
Loki is best known in Norse mythology as a trickster deity. Like any trickster figure, Loki often questions and more accurately, challenges the status quo among the gods with the trouble and chaos he often causes. At the same time, for all the trouble and mischief that Loki creates, he will also help the other gods with fixing the mess. Just even studying and looking up the mythology for Loki has been fairly difficult to pin down this figure and try to say just who he is has been somewhat difficult. I could lay it down to Loki’s trickster nature and the fluid mythological change of the times as scholars try to figure out scraps of ancient sagas and runes.
Animal: Spider, Salmon, Mare, Seal, Flies
Day of the Week: Saturday
Element: Air, Fire
Sphere of Influence: Magic, Mischief, Lies, Deceit, Chaos, Thievery
Symbols: knots, loops, fishing nets
Some sagas describe Loki as being male with a slim build with red hair. He has a curly mustache and possibly a pointed beard. Other descriptions of Loki will mention that he has a twisted smile, owing to his misadventure and encounter with some dwarves who sowed his mouth shut and tied him to a tree.
In his Gylfaginning, Snorri Sturlson describes Loki as being “beautiful and comely to look upon, evil in spirit, very fickle in habit.” Well if that’s not an apt descriptor of Tom Hiddleston’s portrayl of Loki in the Marvel Cinema Movies.
When looking at the main sources of Norse Mythology that mention Loki, the main source is the Icelandic Scholar and Historian Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda from the 13th century. Loki shows up in some earlier Viking Sagas from the 9th to 11th century. However, tracking back to the earlier Nordic Sagas of Vafþrúðnismál and Grímnismál, Loki is absent from these tales.
A contemporary of Snorri Sturlson is Saxo Grammaticus, who in his Gesta Danorum (“Deeds of the Danes,”) largely leaves out mention of Loki. This absence has been noted by scholars to point out that Loki may have only been a regional deity known among the most northern Germanic lands. Many of the other Norse deities like Odin and Thor can be found to have regional variant names and very similar corresponding myths.
What’s In A Name? Lock & Key
Just what Loki’s name means and which etymology to use for it has been debated for quite a while by various scholars.
Often it is suggested that the Old Norse word: logi, meaning “flame” is the source for Loki’s name. The Icelandic use of Loki’s name has it meaning: “knot” or “tangle.”
Other Scandinavian names have put forth ranging from the Faroese Lokki, the Danish Lokkemand, the Norwegian Loke and Lokke, the Swedish Luki and Luku to the Finnish Lukki. All of these names have a commonality in the Germanic root word of luk- which corresponds with loops, especially for knots, hooks, closed-off rooms and even locks. Further etymological evidence is pointed out in the Swedish word: “lokkanät” and the Faroese word: “Lokkanet” that translate to mean “cobweb” or “Lokke’s web.” Even the Faroese word for Daddy-Long Leg spiders is: “lokki~grindalokki~grindalokkur.” That could make sense and certainly adds a new understanding to just what Loki’s name might really mean.
Another take is some of the Scandinavian dialects where the root word luk- corresponds to words like nokke and nøkkel that mean “key.” Some of the Western Scandinavian words that translate to key are: loki~lokke and lykil.
What a tangled web we weave….
These etymological connections in mind, has led some to conclude that this is how Loki fits into the narrative for the events of Ragnarök. After-all, Loki creates all these problems and entanglements. So much so, that people believed Loki to cause knots, tangles and looks to occur or to be one, at least symbolically.
Germanic Origins & Worship
Loki is not a deity who was exactly worshiped among the ancient Germanic, Norse, Scandinavian tribes or others.
There is a lot of debate on just how to interpret Loki’s place in Norse Mythology. Jacob Grimm introduced the idea of Loki as a god of fire in 1835. Next, Sophus Bugge in 1889 put forward the idea of Loki being a variation of Lucifer in Christianity. That aspect makes sense if you’re trying to equate every trickster figure and outright evil figure in the black & white box of Christian theology.
Shortly after World War II there are four theories regarding Loki that have prevailed. The first of these is in 1956, Folke Ström who suggests that Loki is as an aspect of Odin, much like the godhead in Christianity. The second, in 1959 is from Jan de Vries that says Loki represents a trickster figure. At current, I think everyone who knows about Norse mythology pretty much agrees with that idea. Third, in 1961, Anna Birgitta Rooth made a conclusion of Loki being a spider, which seeing the etymology of the name, makes sense too. Than, in 1962, an Anne Holtsmark said that no conclusions about Loki can be made. Maybe so, if we’re agreeing to the idea of a trickster figure, they can be pretty hard to pin down.
Christianity & Norse Religion
When Christianity was being introduced to Europe, many of the Nordic or Scandinavian countries, including Denmark and Sweden continued to practice their Heathenism or Paganism up until the 13th century when there was a mass forced conversion as the then King decided to convert. The process began about 900 C.E. as the Vikings began interacting with Christians and of course, while all similar, different regions and countries would have different oral or written traditions for the Norse gods.
Divine Trinity – In Christianity, many are familiar with the Godhead of God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost. Where Norse paganism and religion is concerned, those who’ve studied the myths and then tried to equate with Christianity seem to have come up with a Triad that’s Odin, Hœnir and Loki. An idea supported in the sagas and ballads: Haustlöng, a prologue to Reginsmál and Loka Táttur. This idea works if you accept the scholar Ursula Dronke’s theory that Lóðurr, the Norse deity who created the first humans is another name for Loki and that Lóðurr is a third name for Loki along with Loptr.
You’re not alone if you reject this idea of Loki and Lóðurr being the same being. After all, Lóðurr is only really mentioned twice in the Völuspá and only in a couple other places where they describe Odin as “Lóðurr’ friend.” Still enough people have glommed on to the idea and argue that much of the Poetic Edda was forgotten around 1400 C.E. when it began to be written down and possibly poor etymology studies of trying to make similar sounding words and name mean and be the same thing.
Since a lot of the mythology has been lost, it’s likely the 14th & 15th century poets, namely Snorri and Saxo were doing the best they could to preserve an oral history. Snorri followed mostly the Icelandic traditions of myths he wrote down and Saxo followed the Danish traditions of myths. A difference seen in the Death of Baldr where Snorri includes Loki’s involvement and Saxo leave it out of the myth.
Many scholars who have looked at Loki’s place in Norse mythology haven’t found any evidence of any cult for Loki.
Followers and Worshipers of Loki seem to be more of a modern phenomenon with modern Wicca and Pagan religions. As he is considered a Trickster deity and God of Fire, this shouldn’t be done lightly or on a lark.
Parentage and Family
Father – Fárbauti (“Crue-Striker,”) a frost giant or jotunn.
Mother – Laufey, a frost giant or jotunn.
In the Prose Edda, an alternate for Laufey’s name is Nál, meaning: “Needle.”
Angrboða – “Anguish-Boding,” a jotunn, by her, Loki is the father of Hel, Fenrir the wolf and Jormungandr, the world serpent.
Sigyn – Loki’s wife, with her, he is the father of Narfi or Nari.
Svaðilfari – Keeping things interesting for the time Loki turned into a mare, he is the mother of Odin’s eight-legged horse Slepnir.
Býleistr (“Bee-Lightning”) and Helblindi (“All Blind” or “Hel-Blinder”) are brothers of Loki as given in the Prose Edda.
Fenrir – A monstrous wolf.
Hel – The goddess of the Underworld. Given the similarity of the name Hel with the Christian name Hell for the Underworld, it has been suggested that Hel is a Christian addition to the Norse myths.
Jormungand – The great world serpent.
Nari – Also spelled Narfi, meaning “corpse.”
Slepnir – The famous eight-legged horse of Odin.
Váli – In the Prose Edda, Loki is mentioned as the father. This Edda also mentions Odin as the father, twice to Loki’s one reference.
Hati and Skol – a pair of monstrous wolves who kill Odin and begin the events of Ragnarök.
Well, sort of… Loki, being the son of frost giants or jotunns isn’t really a member of the Aesir tribe of gods in Norse mythology.
Blood Brother – Loki does, however, gain membership with the Aesir and is counted among their number when Odin makes him a blood brother. Also, by Loki being a blood brother, it would fit some theological views where Loki is seen as Odin’s opposite or his darker half.
Outsider – Even getting accepted as an Aesir, for all the trouble and mischief that Loki causes, he is still seen as an outsider to the Norse pantheon. Mischief, problems, fights and often times he’s the one who goes right in and fixes the mess he created in the first place.
God Of Air & Fire
Being a trickster deity, many people tend towards associating Loki with the element of fire as many trickster figures often are.
In Scandinavian folklore, there are a number of phrases and folk sayings such as: “Loki is reaping his oats” or “Loki is herding his goats: that refer to during springtime, when mist is raising off the ground. The mist rising in places like Jutland create a shimmering effect, especially over flat ground. The same shimmering is observed with hot steam over a kettle or fire.
Logi The Fire Giant – Thanks to Wagner’s Opera and etymological confusion, many people will confuse Loki with the Fire Giant Logi. Which adds to further identifying Loki as a fire god.
They’re two separate beings.
Still those who equate Loki and Logi together, will then try to add Glut to the list of spouses for Loki and add on Esia & Einmyria as two additional children and daughters of Loki’s.
God Of Mischief & Trickster
Loki is most prominently known as a trickster figure in Norse mythology. Like any trickster, Loki sometimes is the cause of rather callous and malicious pranks. For as often as he causes trouble, Loki also ends up helping to resolve the messes he’s created.
Hero Or Villain – Looking at the oldest known poems and sagas to mention Loki from the 9th to 11th centuries, Loki is portrayed more as a friend to the gods and helping them out on many occasions. These notable works are the Ynglingatal, Haustlǫng, Húsdrápa and Þórsdrápa.
When we get to later sagas and Snorri’s Prose Edda, Loki has taken on a more malicious or evil bend who will have a leading role and part in Ragnarök.
Maybe his pranks were getting more and more out of hand to the point the gods weren’t taking any more or it’s a clear influence of Christianity upon the myths. Either way, Loki’s tricks and cunning do go from helpful to outright malicious and evil.
Not helping of course is when numerous articles continue to glom on to the idea that a Trickster figure must be counted as evil. Or some scholars like Georges Dumézil in their studies of folklore equate Loki with a demonic figure like Syrdon from Caucasian Legends.
Fishnets & Spider Webs
As mentioned earlier, there are etymological connections of Loki’s name to knots and loops. This connection makes sense that Loki is also credited as being the inventor of fishnets as these contain many knots and loops.
Spiders also get associated with the name loki, lokke, lokki, loke, luki as they spin and make spider or cobwebs.
Cunning – As a god of cunning, Loki’s connection to fishnets and spider webs works very well on the metaphorical and spiritual sense for the complex, intricate, even elaborate schemes that catch everyone up in his well, mischief. He’s the source in many causes of tying all the gods together and brings about their end with Ragnarok.
This aspect seems to be a staple of many trickster figures within myth. Loki is noted for having changed into a salmon, a mare, a falcon, a fly and likely an old woman by the name of Þökk (whose name in Old Norse means: “thanks.”)
When Loki’s children with Angrboða were born, it was foretold to the Aesir how they would cause a great evil in the world. Odin decreed that Loki’s children should be retrieved from Jötunheim and brought to Asgard.
Odin threw Jormungand, the Midgard Serpent into the where it would wrap itself around the whole of the earth. Jormungand would grow so big he could bit his own tail. As to Hel, Odin sent her down to the Underworld, Niflheim. Hel would create her own realm here called Helheim. The third child, Fenrir, a monstrous wolf was kept in Asgard and chained up, bound to a rock.
The Treasures of the Gods
In yet another of Loki’s many pranks, he goes and cuts off all of Sif’s hair while she’s sleeping and leaves it in a pile on the floor. Needless to say, Sif was not amused, and neither was her husband, Thor. Promising to make up for it, Loki went to replace it with the help of the dwarves. Best not to be on Thor’s bad side.
Loki sought out the dwarves, particularly the sons of Ivaldi. After Loki persuaded the dwarves to spin gold so fine to replace Sif’s lost hair, the dwarves decided they didn’t want to waste the fire and went on to create more treasure. They crafted the ship Skidbladnir that could be dismantled and folded down to the size of a piece of cloth for Freyr. Then they went on to craft the spear Gungnir that would never miss it’s mark for Odin.
As Loki began to return towards Asgard, he decided to pay the dwarves Brokk and Eitri a visit. Loki showed off the treasures that Ivaldi and his sons had crafted and challenged the two to craft something better.
A wager this time, one that Loki staked his head on. The dwarves agreed and now the magical gold boar Gullinbursti for Freyr was created. Next came the magical gold arm ring known as Draupnir that could create 8 gold rings every ninth night. Finally, the two crafted Thor’s famous hammer, Mjolnir that couldn’t be broken and always returned when thrown.
Returning at last to Asgard, Brokk accompanied Loki to have the gifts judged by the gods. Odin, Thor and Freyr were all quick to agree to Mjolnir’s fine craftsmanship. With that pronouncement, Brokk tried to claim Loki’s head.
Not so fast Loki retorted, he had only promised his head, not any other part of his neck. Damaging his neck was not part of the deal. Fine then, Brokk responds that he can at least sew Loki’s lips shut and left him tied to a tree.
At least it shut Loki for a while, probably not long enough for other’s liking.
The Theft Of Idunn’s Apples
Due to his penchant for mischief, Loki ends up in the hands of the jotunn, Thiaz who threatens to kill the trickster unless Loki brings him the goddess Idunn and her golden apples. Very much so looking to save his own skin, Loki agrees to the deal and brings her and the apples to Thiaz.
Needless to say, this caused an uproar among the gods who are the ones now threatening to kill Loki unless he rescues and brings back Idunn. Once more, looking to preserve his own hide, Loki agrees and transforms into a falcon to carry the goddess safely back to Asgard.
Wanting back what he deems rightfully his, Thiaz changes into an eagle and pursues the pair. As Loki and Idunn are getting closer to Asgard, Thiaz in eagle form has nearly caught up with them. The gods light a fire around the perimeter to their hall and the flames catch Thiaz, burning him up.
With Idunn safely within the halls of Asgard, Loki runs back out to help the other gods with the remains of Thiaz and rectifying the very problem he created in the first place.
Loki & Skadi
Not long after Thiazi’s death, his daughter, Skadi shows up demanding restitution for her father’s slaying at the hands of the Aesir. One of Skadi’s demands is that the gods make her laugh. Loki accomplishes this by taking a rope and tying it to the beard of a goat and the other end to his own testicles. Both the goat and Loki bleat and cry out in terror and more pain as they try to pull away from each other. Eventually, Loki falls into Skadi’s lap and she busts out laughing at the absurdity of the scene.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg gets an oath from all living things that they won’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small in consequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
The Bjarkan Rune – Loki is mentioned in the 13th stanza of a Norwegian rune poem utilizing the Younger Futhark Bjarkan rune.
In Old Norse, the poem reads:
Bjarkan er laufgrønster líma;
Loki bar flærða tíma
In Modern English, the translation:
Birch has the greenest leaves of any shrub;
Loki was fortunate in his deceit
It has been suggested that “Loki’ deceit” refers to his part in the death of Balder.
Did Loki Get Too Out Of Hand This Time?
There is an interesting view given regarding Balder’s death. For one, we know that Saxo’s version written from the Danish myths, doesn’t include Loki’s involvement in Balder, the Sun God’s death.
The version that everyone is familiar with in Snorri’s Prose Eddas, where Loki is seen as getting progressively more and more out of hand with his trickery and becoming more and more outright evil.
What if… that weren’t the case? The gods know the prophesy of Ragnarök, the end of the Norse gods. Of course, they want to prevent and prolong the inevitable. What if, Loki’s killing Balder is for the greater good? A sacrifice? Odin knows the only way to really protect Balder is if he dies and goes to the Underworld, Niflheim. The only place that won’t be destroyed of all the nine realms. So it is at Odin’s request, that Loki sees to it that Balder is killed and to prevent his return, turns into an old woman who refuses to weep for his loss.
That way, now, when Ragnarök comes, Baldur is able to be in place to remake the world.
It’s an interesting take on this myth.
The Binding Of Loki
Eventually with all of his mischief and havoc and likely with the death of Baldur, the Aesir have finally had it with Loki and decide to bind him to a massive rock deep beneath the earth in a cave. As punishment for all these misdeeds, Loki is tied by the gods using the entrails of his son Nari after turning another son, Vali into a wolf to rip apart his brother. Both the Poetic and Prose Edda mention the goddess Skaði being the one who places a serpent above Loki while he’s bound. This serpent then drips venom down on Loki. Before it can hit him, Sigyn collects the venom in a bowl, the caveat is that whenever Sigyn has to empty the bowl, that is when the venom does hit Loki, causing him much pain. This pain causes Loki to writhe in such agony, it causes earthquakes.
Loki & Útgarðaloki – Many are familiar with Snorri Sturluson’s take on Loki & Thor’s encounter with Utgard-Loki from the Prose Edda’s Gylfaginning. The medieval Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus has a different take on the story of Utgard-Loki or Útgarðaloki.
In Saxo’s take, Thor does indeed travel to Jotunheim, the realm of the giants. There, Thor finds a jotun by the name of Útgarðaloki, meaning “Loki of the Utgard,” who is bound fast much like the other versions for the binding of Loki. Otherwise, Loki is largely absent of Saxo’s collection of Norse mythology.
It has been pointed out, that the Scandinavians may have held conflicting views on deciding if Loki were a god, a jotun or another entity altogether.
Greek Connection – Loki’s being bound to a rock has been compared to other, mythological figures in Greek, namely those of Prometheus and Tantalus.
In the Prose Edda, Loki is described as a: “contriver of fraud.” Loki isn’t mentioned very often in the Eddas, he is generally mentioned as being a member of Odin’s family.
The Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Loki and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð. Loki only appears or is referenced in a few of these.
It should be noted that Loki, in many of these poems is often referred to as Loptr, coming from the Old Norse word lopt for “air.”
Baldrs Draumar – In this poem, Odin awakens a dead völva in Hel. He questions her about the meanings of Baldr’s dreams. It is in the final stanza of the poem, that the völva tells Odin to go home and be proud of himself, that no one else is coming until Loki escapes his bounds and brings about the onset of Ragnarök.
Fjölsvinnsmál – In this poem, Fjölsviðr is describing to the hero Svipdagr where Sinmara keeps the weapon Lævateinn. Loki as Lopt, is mentioned as using runes to lock Lægjarn’s chest nine times, holding within it the weapon Lævateinn. There are two different translations of this poem depending on how the runes are translated.
The first translation reads:
“Lævatein is there, that Lopt with runes
Once made by the doors of death;
In Lægjarn’s chest by Sinmora lies it,
And nine locks fasten it firm.”
The second translation reads:
“Hævatein the twig is named, and Lopt plucked it,
down by the gate of Death.
In an iron chest it lies with Sinmœra,
and is with nine strong locks secured.”
Hyndluljóð – Loki is referenced twice in this poem. Here, Loki is mentioned as the father of the wolf with the jötunn Angrboða, to have given birth to the horse Sleipnir by the stallion Svadilfari and to be the brother of Byleistr. The last child that Loki gives birth to is “the worst of all marvels.” This is due to his eating the heart, the “thought-stone” of a woman and having eaten it half-cooked, Loki became pregnant by this woman and it is from this union, that all ogress on earth are descended from.
Lokasenna – Loki’s Quarrel in English, in this poem, Loki enters a flyting match with the gods in Ægir’s hall. Ægir is a god of the sea and he is currently holding a feast for the other gods and elves. The other gods begin to praise Ægir’s servants: Fimafeng and Eldir. Hearing this, puts Loki into a right foul mood and he kills Fimafeng. In response, the other gods grab up their shields and weapons as they chase Loki out into the woods. With Loki gone, the gods then return to the hall to resume their feasting.
The poem begins properly when Loki returns from the woods and meets Eldir outside whom he entreats to tell him what the other gods are talking about. Eldir tells Loki how the other gods are discussing their weapons and prowess and how no one has anything good to say about Loki.
Loki says he will return to the feast, this time intending to incite the other gods to arguing and to put malice into their drinks. Eldir warns Loki that this isn’t a good idea if all he is going to do is sow anger and resentment towards him, that it won’t end well.
Undaunted, Loki heads back into the hall anyways and sure enough, all the gods fall silent on noticing the trickster enter. I can just imagine Loki smirking as he breaks the silence, saying he’s thirsty and has only come for a drink.
When no one answers him, Loki calls the gods arrogant and demands they either give a seat at the table or tell him to leave. The god, Bragi is who finally addresses Loki, saying that he will not have a seat among the gods for they know whom to invite and who not to.
Turning his attention to Odin, Loki address the god, reminding him of the time when Odin and he had mixed their blood together and that Odin said he would never drink ale unless it were brought to the two of them.
Odin than asks his son, Víðarr to sit up so that the “wolf’s father” (referring to Loki) can have a seat at the table and not speak of the gods. As Víðarr stands to pour Loki a drink. Before drinking, the trickster makes a toast to the gods with the exception of Bragi.
Bragi, trying to make amends and smooth things over, says he would give a horse, sword and ring for his own possessions so that Loki won’t speak ill. It’s really clear now that Loki is going out of his way to single out Bragi, by saying he’ll always be short these things and implies that the skald deity is a coward.
Temper beginning to flair, Bragi says that if they were outside, he would have Loki’s head for a trophy given all his lies. Loki taunts Bragi, calling him a “bench-ornament.” At this point, Iðunn interrupts, trying to calm Bragi.
All that does is get Loki to direct his ire towards Iðunn now, calling her “man-crazy” of all of the goddess’s present. Iðunn does her best not to be baited by Loki’s words. Now Gefjun speaks up, asking why the two have to fight. Doesn’t everyone know that Loki is jesting. Not quitting now, Loki comments that Gefjun is one to talk, having been seduced by a boy and proven to be an easy lay.
Essentially, it carries on for a quiet a bit with Odin, then Freya and most of the other gods refuting Loki, saying he has to be mad to get someone like Gefjun angry as Loki in turns just calls out the flaws and failings of each of the gods. He just keeps it up, getting them all angry with him one after the other.
Towards the end of the poem, as things get more heated, the attention is turned towards Sif, Thor’s wife and Loki makes a bold claim to have slept with her. Beyla, a servant of Freyr’s, interrupt and announces that since the mountains are shaking, it must mean that Thor is on his way home. Beyla continues with how Thor will bring an end to the argument. Loki responds with more insults.
Thor does arrive and tell Loki to keep quiet or else he’ll rip off Loki’s head using his hammer. Loki taunts Thor, asking why he is so angry, he won’t be in any mood to fight the wolf, Fenrir after it eats Odin. All this is about the events of Ragnarök that have been foretold. Thor again tells Loki to keep quiet with a threat to throw the trickster god so far into the sky he would never come back down.
Not daunted in the least, Loki tells Thor how he shouldn’t be bragging about his time in the east as the mighty Thor had once cowered in fear inside the thumb of a glove. Once more Thor tells Loki to keep silent with threats to break every bone in his body. Loki continues the taunts, saying he still intends to live, throwing in references to when Thor had met Útgarða-Loki.
Thor gives a fourth and final demand to Loki for silence or else he would send Loki to Hel. At this, Loki ceases his taunts saying that he will leave the hall, knowing that Thor does indeed strike.
Loki leaves at this point, going to hide behind the Franangrsfors waterfall in the form of a salmon. The gods do eventually capture Loki and bind him in his son, Nari’s entrails. His other son, Narfi turns into a wolf. Skaði places a venomous snake above Loki’s head that drips venom. Loki’s wife, Sigyn sits nearby with a bowl to catch the venom. Every time she goes to empty the vessel, Loki writhes in such agony that it causes earthquakes.
Reginsmál – In this poem, the dwarf Regin, who is the son of the sorcerer Hreidmar and foster father to the hero Sigurd, tells of how the gods Odin, Hœnir and Loki had gone down to the Andvara-falls to fish. Now Regin had two brothers, Andvari who would swim about in the form of a pike and Otr, who would change into an otter to swim and fish.
On this particular occasion, Otr, in otter form had caught a salmon and was eating it on the river banks when the god Loki killed him with a stone, thinking it’s just a normal otter. Later that evening, the gods go to stay with Hreidmar and show off the otter pelt. There’s a catch of course, Hreidmar and Regin both recognize the pelt as being a dead Otr. Regin and Hreidmar seize hold of the gods and demand a weregeld for Otr’s death.
The gods agreed and made a sack out of Otr’s pelt that they filled with gold and covered the outside with red gold. Now just where the gods got this gold from? Loki was sent out to get and he borrowed a net from the goddess Rán. Going back to the Andvara-falls, Loki spreads out the net and captures Andvari in his pike form. Loki forces Andvari to reveal where his gold is at before releasing him.
Andvari tells Loki a little bit about himself, namely having been cursed by a “norn of misfortune” during his early days. Loki replies back, asking what does mankind get if they “wound each other with words.” Andvari’s response is that they get a terrible fate, being forced to wade in the river Vadgelmir.
Eventually, Andvari hands over his gold to Loki, including the ring, Andvarinaut. Back in his dwarf form, Andvari tells Loki that this gold will cause the death of two brother, conflict between eight princes and be of no use to anyone.
Taking the gold back, the gods fill the otter skin with it, with the ring Andvarinaut covering a whisker to Hreidmar’s satisfaction. Loki chimes in how the gold is as cursed as Andvari and that it will be the death of Hreidmar and Regin
Hreidmar doesn’t believe Loki, believing instead the curse is for those not yet born. Plus, with the gold, he’s plenty wealthy now and he tells the gods to leave.
The poem does continue, and most are familiar with how it continues and connects to Sigurd in the Völsunga saga where Regin is the foster father to Sigurd. This version of Regin’s story lists Fafnir and Otr being his brothers, not Andvari. Which makes far more sense to have the gold belonging to someone else that Loki steals the gold from. Not this Loki stealing Andvari, who in the Reginsmál is Regin’s brother. That connection makes no sense to have Loki steal Andvari’s gold and then seem to give it right back, granted to the father.
Skáldskaparmál – An episode in this saga sees Loki rather maliciously cut off all of Sif’s hair. Thor threatens to break Loki’s bones if doesn’t put this to rights. Looking to save his own skin for the problems he often creates, Loki gets the dark elves or dwarves to craft some golden hair to replace Sif’s shorn hair with.
Þrymskviða – Also known as the Lay of Trym, this comedic poem features Thor as a central figure. Thor awakens one morning to discover that his hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Thor confides in Loki about the missing hammer and that no one knows it’s missing. The two then head to Freyja’s hall to find the missing Mjöllnir. Thor asks Freyja if he can borrow her feathered cloak to which she agrees. At this, Loki takes off with the feathered cloak.
Loki heads to Jötunheimr where the jotunn, Þrymr is making collars for his dogs and trimming the manes of his horses. When Þrymr sees Loki, he asks what is happening among the Æsir and elves and why it is that Loki is alone in Jötunheimr. Loki replies by telling Þrymr how Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Þrymr admits to having taken Mjöllnir and hiding it some eight leagues beneath the earth where Thor will never get it back unless the goddess Freyja is brought to him to be his wife. Loki takes off again, flying back to the Æsir court with Freyja’s cloak.
Thor enquires with Loki if he was successful. Loki tells of what he has found out, that Þrymr took Thor’s hammer and will only give it back if Freyja is brought to Þrymr to be his wife. At this news, Thor and Loki return to Freyja to tell her of the news that she is to be a bride to Þrymr. Angry, Freyja flat out refuses, causing the halls of the Æsir to shake and for her famous necklace, Brísingamen to fall off.
The gods and goddess hold a meeting to debate the matter of Þrymr’s demands. The god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that instead of Freyja, that Thor should dress as the bride as a way to get Thor’s hammer back. Thor balks at the idea and Loki seconds Heimdallr’s idea, saying it will be the only that Thor can get his hammer back. For without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade Asgard. Relenting, Thor agrees to dress as a bride, taking Freyja’s place. Dressing as a maid to the disguised Thor, Loki goes with Thor down to Jötunheimr.
After arriving in Jötunheimr, Þrymr commands the jötnar of his hall to make the place presentable for Freyja has arrived to be his bride. Þrymr then tells how of all of his treasured animals and objects, that Freyja was the one missing piece to all of his wealth.
Disguised, Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and all of his jötnar. At the feast, Thor consumes a large amount of food and mead, something that is at odds with Þrymr’s impressions of Freyja. Loki, feigning the part of a shrewd maid, tells Þrymr how that is because Freyja had not eaten anything for eight days in her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr decides that he wants to kiss his bride and when he lifts “Freyja’s” veil, fierce looking eyes stare back at him. Again, Loki says that this is because Freyja hasn’t slept either during the past eight nights.
A “wretched sister” of the jötnar arrives, calling for the bridal gift from Freyja. The jötnar bring out Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir in order to sanctify the bride as they lay it on “Freyja’s” lap. Þrymr and Freyja will be handfasted by the goddess Var. When Thor sees his hammer, he grabs hold of Mjöllnir and proceeds to beat all of the jötnar with it. Thor even kills the “wretched, older sister” of the jötnar. Thus, Thor gets his hammer back.
Völuspá – In this poem, a dead völva tells the history of the universe and the future Odin in disguise about the events of Ragnarök. Regarding Loki, the völva speaks about how she sees Sigyn sitting unhappily near her bound husband, Loki. The location of this being in a grove of hot springs. Once Ragnarok begins, Loki, referred to as the “brother of Býleistr” is freed from his bounds.
The völva further describes how she sees Loki steering a boat, filled with Muspell’s people (these people being from the World of Fire and seen as destroyer of worlds).
The last bit in the Völuspá is the monstrous wolf Fenrir, referred to as Loki’s kinsman as he will eat Odin and then be killed by Odin’s son, Víðarr.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
In the Prose Edda, Loki is described as a: “contriver of fraud.” Loki isn’t mentioned very often in the Eddas. He is generally mentioned as being a member of Odin’s family.
This book has various stories that feature Loki. Notably his giving birth to the eight-legged horse Sleipnir and of Loki’s contest with the personification of fire, Logi. This book gives a number of epitaphs for Loki that aren’t very flattering from “originator of deceits” to “the disgrace of all gods and men.”
The Fortification of Asgard – This seems to be a significant story within the Prose Edda, the gods are establishing Midgard and have built “Val-Hall.” An unnamed builder has offered to build a wall for the gods to keep out invaders, all he wants in exchange is the goddess Freyja, the sun and moon.
Sure, why not, the gods agree after some debate. There are some conditions to be met, such as the builder has to complete the work in three seasons without help from any man. The builder argues he needs the help of his stallion Svaðilfari and this is agreed to with, with Loki’s influence.
With the aid of his horse, the builder is able to make quick work on the wall. With the deadline of Summer just three days away, the builder is nearly complete with this task. The gods hold a meeting and decide that Loki is to blame.
But the gods wanted a wall, now they blame Loki for the builder nearly being finished. Oh that’s right, Loki spoke on the builder’s behalf to have his horse help. Right then, the gods decide, if Loki doesn’t find a way to get the builder to forfeit his payment of Freyja, the sun and moon. Loki swears that he will find a way to stop the builder.
That night, the builder and his horse, Svaðilfari head out to the forest to get more stone to finish the wall with. A mare comes running out of the forest and neighs at Svaðilfari, who realizes what kind of horse he sees and goes chasing after. The builder swears and follows after his horse. The two horses are busy all night, running around and getting it on.
The builder is of course, unable to complete the work and thus misses his deadline. Understandably, the builder flies into a rage and the gods realize that he is a hrimthurs (some type and variety of jötunn as the term can be pretty broad). The gods forget their oaths to the builder and call for Thor who comes and kills the builder, smashing his head in with his hammer.
Ya’ know, don’t make a deal or promises if you know you’re just going to renege on them later and refuse to pay up. As to Loki, with his horsing around, he gave birth to the eight-legged horse Slepnir that Odin rides.
Loki & Thor Versus Skrymir – This section of Gylfaginning see a reluctant Third telling the story of how Thor and Loki were out riding in Thor’s chariot. The two came upon the home of a peasant and stopped there for the night. Now, Thor’s chariot is pulled by a pair of goats, whom Thor killed to eat, knowing that they will be resurrected the following day. All good, no big deal for Thor.
Thor invites the peasant’s family to feast on the goats with him that night. He warns the family though not to crack the bones. Loki, plotting what he thinks is harmless mischief, gets the peasant’s son, Þjálfi to crack one of the bones and suck the marrow from it.
Now, when Thor goes to resurrect his goats, he finds that one of his goats has become lame. Afraid of the god’s wrath, the peasant gives Thor his son Þjálfi and his daughter Röskva to be his traveling companions.
Without his goats, the small group of four continues heading east until they arrive at the forested edge of Jötunheimr. The group continued on into the forest until it becomes night. They come upon a large building and take shelter in it. During the night, there are earthquakes that awaken the group who, with the exception of Thor or afraid to fall back asleep. The building turns out to be the giant Skrymir’s glove, who had been sleeping during the night and the source of the earthquakes.
The group moves out from the shelter and sleep beneath an oak tree. During the middle of the night, Thor awakens and attempts to slay Skrymir. Twice, Thor attempts to slay the giant, only to have Skrymir awaken and believe acorns have fallen on him. It is on the second attempt, that Skrymir fully awakens and advices the group not to be so cocky when they arrive at Útgarðr, to turn around and go back.
Skrymir led the group to the jotun city of Utgard where the group lost sight of Skrymir and was greeted by a group of jotun, including the king himself, Utgard-Loki, whom it turns out was Skrymir all along.
Given the general animosity between the gods and jotun, it’s no surprise that Thor, Loki and their other companions were not welcomed, unless of course they could complete a series of seemingly impossible challenges.
Loki was challenged and lost an eating contest when his opponent not only ate all the meat, but the bones and plate itself. Þjálf races against Hugi, losing to him in a series of three footraces.
It now fell to Thor to fulfill three challenges. As Thor boasted he could drink anyone under the table, a large drinking horn was brought to him with the challenge to finish it all in one gulp. After taking three huge swallows, Thor had only managed to drain the horn a few inches.
With the next challenge, Thor boasted his immense strength and Utgard-Loki challenged Thor to pick up a cat off the ground. After three attempts at moving the cat, Thor was only able to succeed at moving one paw.
Enraged by this, Thor accepted the last challenge of a wrestling match with anyone willing to match strength with him. The only one who would, was an old, frail looking woman. Thinking this would be easy, once again Thor was met with defeat at the hands of a feeble opponent who easily bested the mighty god, bringing him to his knees.
After this, Utgard-Loki declared the contests over and allowed the gods to stay the night and rest before returning home in the morning.
Come daylight, Utgard-Loki led the group out of Jotunheim. Once they were well past the borders, Utgard-Loki revealed himself to have been the giant, Skrymir who lead them to the city. Utgard-Loki proceeded to reveal the secrets of all of the challenges that Thor and his companions undergone.
Loki had been competing with fire, that burns and consumes everything it touches. That Thialfi’s opponent was thought, whom no one can outrun. As to Thor, the drinking horn he had drunk from was connected to the ocean and that he had succeeded in lowering the sea levels. The cat that Thor had tried lifting was none other than Jormungand, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world. As for the old woman, she was Age itself whom no one can defeat. That no matter how fiercely and bravely Thor fought her, even he would fall to her.
Before the group leaves, Utgard-Loki says that group should never return and if he knew who he had been dealing with, they would never have been allowed in. Angry at being tricked, Thor raised his hammer Mjollnir only to have the king of giants and his city vanish into thin air.
This is another of Snorri Sturluson’s books, written in the 13th century C.E. Loki is made mention in this text. On the Snaptun Stone, the Kirkby Stephen Stone and the Gosforth Cross, it has been suggested that Loki is the figure seen on these stone artifacts.
Also spelled Lokka Táttur, this is a Faroese tale or ballad from the late Middle Ages and more 18th century. It features Hœnir, Loki and Odin all helping a farmer and boy escape the wrath of a jötunn after he loses a bet. The ballad is notable in that it presents Loki as a benevolent god rather than the usual “evil” deity he’s often seen as due to all of mischief and cunning.
A jotunn comes and snatches up a farmer’s son. The farmer and his wife pray to Odin that their child may be protected. Odin comes and hides the boy in a field of wheat. The jotunn still manages to find the boy. Odin rescues the son and brings him back to his parents, saying he’s done hiding the boy. Now the couple pray to Hœnir who hids their son in the neck-feathers of a swan. Again, the jotunn finds the boy. Now the couple prays to Loki who hides the child in the middle of a flounder’s eggs. Once more, the jotunn finds the child and Loki tells the boy to run towards a boathouse. As the boy runs, Loki turns and faces off against the jotunn who’s gotten his head stuck in the boathouse while trying to snatch the boy. Loki chops off the jotunn’s leg and shoves a stick and stone into the leg stump, preventing the jotunn from regenerating. Loki takes the child home and both the farmer and his wife embrace the two.
Ragnarok – Twilight of the Gods
The final endgame of the Norse Gods, this is not exactly a happy time as a good many of the gods end up dying. Baldur’s death is clearly a catalyst for setting these events in motion. Loki still bound, becomes an enemy of the Norse Gods.
When this event begins, Loki is able to break free of his bonds to fight against the Norse gods on the side of the Jotnar. He sails on a ship made of nails called Naglfar. During this battel, Loki will face off against Heimdallr and the two end up killing each other.
Christian Connection – Given that one man and woman are who survive the events of Ragnarök. The story is then seen not so much as the end of the world yet to come, but an event that has already happened. As Christianity continued to move through Europe, Ragnarök can be interpreted as the end of the Norse Gods and their worship as Christianity becomes the dominant religion.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle. Loki does make an appearance in this famous opera series. In Wagner’s version, Loki is called Loge, a play on the Old Norse word of loge for fire. As Loge, he is an ally of the gods, especially Wotan. Loge views all the Norse gods as being greedy as they refuse to return the Rhine Gold back to it rightful owners. At the end of the first opera, Das Rheingold, Loge reveals a secret desire that he turns into fire and destroys Valhalla. In the last opera, Götterdämmerung, Valhalla is indeed destroyed by fire and all the gods with it.
A stone cross dating from the mid-11th century C.E., this artifact features various figures believed to be from Norse mythology. The lower part of the western side of the cross depicted a long-haired female figure who is kneeling, holding an object above another bound and prone figure. Above and to the left of this imagery is a knotted serpent. The female figure has been interpreted by some to be Sigyn holding the bowl above the bound Loki as the serpent drips venom down onto him. The cross is located in Cumbria England.
Kirkby Stephen Stone
This artifact is part of a cross dating from the 10th century C.E. found in Stephen’s Church of Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria England. It features a bound figure with horns and a beard, this image has sometimes been thought to be Loki. The stone cross was found in 1870 and is composed of a yellowish-white sandstone. A similar horned figure was found in Gainford, County Durham and rests in the Durham Cathedral Library.
This is a gilded silver brooch discovered in 7th century Nordendorf, Germany. There are two lines of inscriptions on the brooch. The first line reads: “awaleubwini.” This has been interpreted as “Awa” a woman’s name and likely shortened of Awila. “Leubwini” has been interpreted as meaning “beloved” or “dear friend” and could mean it’s from a friend of the same name.
The second line of the inscription reads: logaþore wodan wigiþonar. The last two names of Wodan and Wigiþonar are easily read as alternate names for Odin and Battle Thor as either “Holy Thunder” or “Fight Lightning.” Personally, I’d go with “Holy Thunder.” The first name is a little more problematic with the name Logabore. It would seem this is the name of a third deity, making for a Divine Trinity. Both deities, Lóðurr and Loki have been suggested. However, where Germanic paganism and beliefs are concerned, there’s just not enough evidence and what there is, is tenuous.
One scholar, K. Düwel put forward that Logabore means: “magician” or “sorcerer” and would point to Odin and Thor as two magician deities. So we get, where this is an example of Pagan Germany slowly becoming more Christianized as the brooch is either a protective amulet against the old gods or it’s meant to be more beneficial as a healing charm. It all lays in how the interpretation of “wigi” for Thor is taken.
This is a semi-circular flat stone found on a beach near Snaptun, Denmark in 1950. The stone is composed of soapstone that originally came from either Norway or Sweden and features a carving dating back to 1000 C.E. The image shown in the carving is a face with scarred lips, which is identified with that of Loki. The scarred lips are thought to be in reference to a story found in the Skáldskaparmál where the sons of Ivaldi stitched Loki’s lips closed.
A hearth stone, the Snaptun stone would have had the nozzle of a bellows placed into a hold at the front of the stone and air pushed through to feed a fire while the bellows were protected from catching fire. It’s thought this stone might point out a connection between Loki, smithing and flames.
Lokabrenna or “Loki’s Torch is the name of the “Dog Star,” Sirius in pagan Scandinavia. The location of Útgarða-Loki’s worship in Denmark, there is also mention of the Danes potentially worshipping or revering this star according to Saxo.
Place Names & Surnames
As Loki gets more associated and reviled as a villain, there aren’t very many locales or surnames being named after the devious Trickster god.
The surnames in question are close enough in spelling, they may or may not be variations to Loki’s name, they include: Locchi (from 12th century Northumberland, England), Locke and Luki (Sweden).
Jacob Grimm mentions a place in Vestergötland, Sweden reputed to be a giant’s grave called Lokehall. Other place names are: Lockbol, Luckabol, Lockesta, and Locastum. One of the Faroe Islands is called Lokkafelli or Loki’s Fell. It should be of note that the Faroe Islands are where the 18th century saga of Lokka Táttur originates.
Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat
The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.
The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.
The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.
Dark Ages – Autumn Wool
According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.
This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.
The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.
The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.
It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.
Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.
Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.
So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.
Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood
Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…
Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.
Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.