Category Archives: Purification
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Etymology: From the Latin cloaca meaning “Sewer” Other meanings are Cleanser and Purifier.
Epitaphs & Other Names: Mistress of the Great Sewer, “The Cleanser,” Venus Cloacina (Venus the Cleanser)
Cloacina is the Roman Goddess of Sewers, Filth, and Purity. Before you laugh, the Romans had a spirit or deity for nearly everything. Naturally, when it comes to taking care of sewage and drainage, the Romans also have a deity for this. Enter Cloacina, the goddess responsible for purifying filth and whatever nasty things are in the sewers that we don’t want to think about.
Sphere of Influence: Cleansing, Purification, Rivers, Sewers
Tool: Incense Burner
It is generally accepted that Cloacina was an Etruscan goddess first before being adopted by the Romans. The Etruscans lived in the northern and central part of Italy called Tuscany where they were called Tusci or Etusci by the Romans.
Not much is known about the Etruscans, a few words have survived into the Latin language. What little we do have and know, shows that many deities were adapted and adopted by the Romans into their belief systems.
Plus, the whole story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus comes to us from Etruscan stories. It’s also interesting to track history meeting myth and where things get muddled. Titus Tatius for example is credited as being the Sabine King co-ruling with Romulus and erecting a statue honoring Cloacina and the Great Sewer. Traditionally, Romulus is said to have ruled between 753 and 717 B.C.E., and Lucius Tarquinius Priscus’ rule from 616-579 B.C.E. and when the sewer’s construction is done. Which would put Titus Tatius about a century ahead of schedule.
Back to Cloacina, when we look at Rome’s foundation myth, we see that the king of Sabine, Titus Tatius commissions the statue where the Sabines and Romans meet to end the conflict following the rape of the Sabine women. It is Tatius who instituted the lawful marriage between Sabines and Romans to unite them as one people. This new peace between the Sabines and Romans would be noted by a cleansing ritual using myrtle performed near an old Etruscan shrine to Cloacina by a small stream. The same stream that would become part of the Cloaca Maxima.
Side Note: Myrtle is also one of Venus’ symbols, the Romans would later equate Cloacina with Venus in her function as a goddess of peace, union, and reconciliation. In this sense, Cloacina would be known as Venus Cloacina or Venus the Cleanser as she also presided over the purification of sex during marriage.
Goddess Of Water
In her early Etruscan origins, Cloacina began as a goddess of water and in that aspect, her attributes were that of Cleanser and Purifier. The stream that Cloacina was originally associated with was part of a marshy region that would empty out to the Tiber River. This region was also prone to flooding by the Tiber as well.
Goddess Of The Sewers
And thus filth, in this respect Cloacina is responsible for purification and cleansing to keep the streets and City of Rome clean.
Despite this seemingly unsavory position, Cloacina was greatly revered and respected by the Romans as they had statues of Fortuna in their latrines, shrines, art, and even prayers for her.
We’re talking that Roman sewers were well maintained to keep the streets and City of Roman free from flooding, diseases, and vermin such as rats.
This is the vast sewer system in Rome that kept the city clean and relatively free of excrement. At its peak, Rome had over a million people living in the city and it was very important to keep the place disease-free. Even today, the Cloaca Maxima still functions and works, which speaks a testament to the engineering abilities of the ancient Romans, notably Tarquin as one of the building projects he overtook for Rome. What we know, is that the Etruscan king, Tarquinius Priscus is credited as beginning the work on the Cloaca Maxima which would be completed by Tarquinius Superbus.
The Cloaca Maxima was originally built as an open-air canal that ran through the main Forum, collecting water from streams and emptying it into the Tiber River. Over time, it came to be built over and enclosed with later sections and branches being tunneled out as the city grew. In Ovid’s Fasti, it is mentioned that the Forum had been built on an area with swamp-like conditions.
This is the name of the shrine that Romans built in the Forum to petition Cloacina’s aid to keep the streets and City of Rome clean. The Forum is where one could expect to find statues and shrines to all the major Roman gods like Jupiter, Saturn, Juno, and Minerva. From there, there was a manhole access cover to the sewer below. Today, the foundations of this shrine can still be seen. There are a number of layers of stonework that show how ancient this shrine is as the entrance had been raised many times and upkeep by the Romans. There is a set of stairs with a railing that leads down to where a pair of small statues stand that are either both Cloacina or Cloacina and Venus. Each statue holds an incense burner and a flower.
As a side note, Cloacina’s image can be found on the backside of Roman coins, opposite that of Julius Caesar dating from 44 B.C.E. These coins were likely tossed into the water as offerings to Cloacina for her favor and to be free from diseases. Another interesting note to this is that the Hall of Curia, where Julius Caesar was assassinated was turned into a public toilet and the waste from this hall would flow into the Cloaca Maxima.
There are even prayers and poems written to Cloacina as the Mistress of the Great Sewer.
A couple of these poems and prayers are as follows:
“Then Cloacina, goddess of the tide,
Whose sable (black) streams beneath the city glide
Indulged the modish flame, the town she roved,
A mortal scavenger she saw she loved.”
“O Cloacina, Goddess of this place,
Look on thy suppliants with a smiling face.
Soft, yet cohesive let their offerings flow,
Not rashly swift nor insolently slow.”
Venus – Roman
This one is somewhat surprising as Venus is the Roman goddess of Love and Beauty. This does make sense that one of Venus’ functions is that as a purifier and that’s also what Cloacina does too. Though if you ask some historians like Pliny the Elder why Cloacina is identified with Venus, he couldn’t tell you. But it makes sense when you look at one of Venus’ functions as a unifier, peace, and reconciliation, and that where the ancient Sabines and Romans made peace is right on the same location for Cloacina’s shrine. Plus, Rome had this thing for Pax Romana for trying to keep peace and stability within their empire that would extend to trying to appease every god that they had, even if it meant some becoming epitaphs or another name for a deity to try and keep the list down and simplified.
Pronunciation: ˈjaːnʊs or jayn’-uhs
Alternate Spelling: Iānus (Latin)
Other names: Bifrons,Ianuspater (“Janus Father”), Ianus Quadrifrons (“Janus Four-faced”), Ianus Bifrons (“Two-faced Janus”), Dianus, Dionus
Other Names and Epithets: Ianitos (Keeping Track of Time), Iunonius, Consuvius (‘”The Guardian of the Beginning of Human Life”), Cozeuios, Conseuius the Sower, Patultius (the Opener), Iancus or Ianeus (the Gatekeeper), Duonus Cerus (the Good Creator), Geminus (Double), Rex King, Father of the Gods (or part of the Gods), God of Gods, Pater, Patulcius, Clusivius or Clusius (Closer of Gate), Κήνουλος (Coenulus), Κιβουλλιος (Cibullius), Curiatius
Etymology: “Arched Passage, Doorway” (Latin)
Janus is quite simply, the Roman god of Beginnings, Gates, Transitions, Time, Duality, Doorways, Frames, Portals, Passages and Endings. To the ancient Romans, Janus is one of their primordial deities who was there at the beginning of time and all existence. While Janus has an important and prominent role in the Roman Pantheon, he is not the Sovereign Deity of it.
It should be noted that there is no Greek equivalent to Janus. However, I should note, that some later Greek authors would place Janus as having been a mortal from Greece. Plutarch specifically, says that Janus was from Perrhebia.
Day of the Week: The first day of every month
Number: 300 & 65
Patron of: Transitions, Travelers
Planet: Sun, Moon
Plant: White Hawthorne, Olive Tree
Sphere of Influence: Transitions, Giving form to Chaos
Symbols: Keys, Staff, Two-Faces, Doors, Archways, Gateways, Portals
Given the many aspects that Janus presided over, many of which are abstract ideas and concepts for duality, Janus is often shown as having two faces. One looking forward to the future and the other looking back towards the past. Additionally, one face is bearded while the other is not. Later, both faces would be bearded. In Janus’ right hand, he holds a key and a staff in the other.
The double-faced head is found on many early Roman coins. In the 2nd century C.E., Janus is sometimes depicted with four faces.
During the Renaissance, the two-faces of Janus not only represented the past and future, but wisdom as well.
Janus had no flamen or specialized priests dedicated to him. However, the King of the Sacred Rites, the Rex Sanctorum, would carry out Janus’ ceremonies.
There are several rites for Janus. All prayers, regardless of which deity was to be invoked, didn’t start without Janus first being mentioned, regardless of which deity was being invoked. For that matter, every day, every week, every month began with invoking and calling on Janus. Incidentally, every prayer and rite ended with invoking the goddess Vesta.
Military Season – For the Romans, the start of their military season began with March 1st with the Rite of Arma Movere and ended on October 1st with the Right of Arma Condere. The first rite is also known as the Rites of the Salii. The aspect of Janus as Janus Quirinus would be invoked on the anniversary of the dedication to Mars on June 1st that corresponds with the festival of Carna. Another festival was held on June 29th which had been the end of the month under the Julian calendar for Quirinus.
The Military Season also marks something of a seemingly paradoxical connection between Janus and the war god Mars. The peace-loving King Numa sends out the army to ensure peace while later, it’s the warmongering King Tullus in his battle with the Sabines who sees Roman Soldiers coming home to peace.
It’s a connection that makes sense that for the Romans, having been attacked once, vowed that peace would come when everyone else around them was subdued. This creates a couple other epitaphs for Janus of belliger and pacificus, depending on which role he is in. As Janus Quirinus, the deity brings the closing of the Rites of March at the end of the month and then later in October as soldiers return victorious.
Janus doesn’t seem to have many prominent temples for worship. We do see that the covered portaculis and areas over gates to a building are called iani. There is an altar, that later becomes a temple for Janus near the Porta Carmentalis that leads to where the Veii road ended.
The gates of the Argiletum were called Ianus Geminus. This gate yard was built by Numa around 260 B.C.E. after the Battle of Mylae. Other names for this passageway are Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus, and Porta Belli. These gates would be open during times of war and closed during peace, something that didn’t happen often with Roman history. A statue here dedicated to Janus shows him with the symbol for 300 in the right hand and on the other hand, the number 65 for the days in the solar year. There were also twelve altars, one for each month. In the Christian religion, early Christian clerics claimed that these gates were closed when Jesus was born.
There is also the Porta Ianualis that protected the city of Rome from the Sabine that were all thought to be places where Janus was present. Janus was also seen as having a presence at the Janiculum leading out of Rome towards Etruria and the Sororium Tigillum that lead to Latium.
What’s In A Name?
In Latin, Janus’ name is spelt as Ianus as their alphabet has no letter “j.”
Jansus’ name translates from Latin to English as “Arched Passage” or Doorway.” In turn, there’s a root word from Proto-Italic language of “iānu” for “door” and another from Proto-Indo-European of “iehnu” for “passage.” There is also a cognate word found in Sanskrit of “yāti” meaning “to go” or “travel.” Another cognate in Lithuanian of “jóti” meaning “to go” or “ride.” And lastly found in Serbo-Croatian is the word “jàhati” meaning “to go.”
Some modern scholars reject the Indo-European etymology though others see in the word “Iānus,” an action name that expresses movement. My favorite though is how the word “Janitor” derives from “ianua” and Janus.
Among the ancients, there are a few different interpretations that all tie into the nature of Janus as a deity. The first is Paul the Deacon’s definition that connects Ianus to chaos. As seen in the phrase: “hiantem hiare” to “be open,” indicating the transitional state of this deity.
The second definition comes from Nigidius Figulus where Ianus would be Apollo and Diana. That the “D” in Diana’s name has been added as it has a better sound. It would be related to Diana’s name to the word “Dianus” with the Indo-European root of “dia” or “dey” for day. This idea is somewhat flimsy and not usually, widely accepted as being accurate. It seems to be what happens when you’re stretching and trying to connect everything back as all originating from one deity.
The last proposed etymology comes from Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius, where they explain that the Latin form of Janus for “to go” refers to Janus as the god of beginnings and transitions. That one feels a little more on the money with how many people view and interpret Janus’ name.
Parentage and Family
As a primordial deity, Janus isn’t given any parentage. If any are mentioned, it is:
Caelus (The primal god of the Sky) & Terra (The Earth)
The gods Camese, Ops and Saturn are given as Janus’ siblings.
Camese – Depending on the version of the myth (Greek in this case,) they become Janus’ sister and wife.
Jana – A Moon Goddess
Juturna – Goddess of Wells & Springs
Venilia – Goddess of the Winds & Seas
Canens – A nymph and personification of song.
Fontus – Son of Janus and Juturna
In a Greek version of the myths, where Janus is mortal and marries his sister Camese, they have the following children: Aithex, Olistene, Tiberinus
Primordial Gate Keeper
You could say that Janus is the Ultimate Gate Keeper, even possibly the Custodian of the Universe and probably the only one we should have. This connection makes Janus a Liminal Deity, guarding boundaries and passages.
Janus guarded the gates of Heaven. Doorways, Gates, any passageways, Janus presides over these as well. As a Doorway is the literal transitioning, moving from one area to another. Nothing changed, transitioned, moves, or altered it’s/their states without Janus’ presence and influence. Even the abstract ideas of going from war to peace and back, from birth to death and rebirth, to journeys, exchanges, barbarism and civilization, the start of and any ending of conflicts, their resolutions. Janus presided over all transitions.
Key – Janus is often shown holding a key that symbolized his protection over doors, gates and thresholds of many kinds. Both physical and spatial boundaries. The key symbolized that a traveler would be able to find a safe place or harbor to trade their goods in peace.
Staff – This symbolized Janus’ guiding travelers on their paths.
Order Out Of Chaos
If, in the beginning, everything is a primordial ooze and chaos, Janus is the being who brings order from it all, as everything transitions from one state to another. Modern science will have fancy technical terms and jargon for everything and how everything forms and comes into being. For the ancient Romans, this is all explained as Janus being responsible for the formation of the elements and harmony from Chaos and getting the whole shebang going.
Janus’ functions denote that he is a liminal deity who watches the borders. As rivers are frequently natural borders and boundaries, Janus presided over these along with the bridges that cross over them. Four of Janus’ altars and temples were built along rivers.
Janus is a god of dualities, representing numerous abstract and literal concepts for beginnings and endings. The very transitioning from one state to another. Janus was present at the very beginning and start of the universe before any of the gods existed.
With Janus being depicted as having two faces. One face facing towards the future and the other towards the past, Janus is said to have held the gift of prophecy. Omens and portents were very much so the domain of Janus as he could see all.
A Solar Deity & Divine Twins?
This idea comes from Macrobius who in turns cites Nigidius Figulus and Cicero. The idea is that Janus and Jana (a variation of Diana) are a pair of deities worshiped together as Apollo & Diana; the sun and the moon.
Adding to this is one A. Audin who connects the solar motif back to the Sumerian cultures. They mention two solar pillars that are located on the eastern side of temples and denote the direction of the rising and setting sun and the solstices. These two solstices would connect to the idea of the Divine Twins often seen in mythology, particularly the myth where one twin is mortal and the other is immortal.
Morning Time – The start of the day or morning is thought to be Janus’ time, when men awoke and began their daily routines and activities. Janus is called Matutine Pater, meaning “Morning Father by Horace. It is thought this association with this time of the day is what links Janus with being a solar deity.
Winter Solstice – In keeping with the solar connection, under the Roman calendar, the Winter Solstice was held to be on December 25th, a remarkably familiar date that carries over to Christianity for when Christmas is celebrated. Where solar deities are revered, the Winter Solstice is often when these deities are said to be reborn and their power grows again.
Month – January
It is generally accepted that the month of January is named for Janus (Ianuarius) and why, with the Gregorian calendar, it is the first month and beginning of the calendar year. Under the ancient Roman calendar, their year began with March as the first month, incidentally when Rome would begin its war and campaign season.
For further, in-depth history, we can credit Numa Pompilius, the second of seven kings who ruled Rome before it became a Republic. In the 6th century B.C.E., Numa added the months of Inauarius and Februarius to ten month “Romulus” religious calendar. Under this new calendar, Inauarius would become the first month starting in 200 B.C.E. of the Roman Republican Calendar. Inauarius, pronounced as Januarius means the “Month of Janus.”
One interesting thing to note, when looking at the translations of old Roman Farmer’s Almanacs, the goddess Juno is who presided over the month of January initially, not Janus.
Since we’re on the subject of time and dates… as a god of beginnings, the very concept of time even starts with Janus. In one of the few temples dedicated to Janus there is a statue of him where the position of the hands signifies the number 355 for the number of days in a lunar year. Later, this number becomes 365 to symbolize Janus’ mastery over time.
New Year’s Day
Another calendar date that carries over from the Romans to modern day in much of Western culture, January 1st marks the start of the New Year. For the omens, the beginning of anything was an omen and would set the tone for the rest to follow. It was customary to greet people with well wishes. People would exchange gifts of dates, figs and honey. Gifts of money or coins called strenae were also exchanged.
Additionally, cakes made of spelled and salt were offered up to Janus on his altars. These offerings or libums were known as ianual. There is likely a corresponding connection to another offering of summanal on the Summer solstice for the god Summanus. However, these offerings would be made with flour, honey, and milk, making them sweeter.
This is another festival held on January 9th for Janus. A ram would be sacrificed at this time.
This is a bit of an oddball festival for me. It was held on October 1st, during the month that Rome’s War Season is ending, and soldiers are returning home.
It’s a purification rite that commemorates Marcus Horatius making atonement for the murder of his sister. The representative for Marcus has their head covered as they pass beneath an archway. The ritual seems to be used as a purification rite for soldiers returning from war to cleanse them from the taint of war as they return to civilized society.
This rite has also been connected to a pairing of Janus and Juno through the epitaphs of Janus Curiatus and Juno Sororia. Janus in his role as a god of transitions and Juno in her role as a protectress of young soldiers.
Several early Roman coins depict Janus on them. With one face being clean shaven while the other is bearded.
This connects Janus as the founder of financial commerce and trade systems as humans transitioned from an age of barbarism to civilization. Roman myth holds that Janus was the first to mint the first coins.
There is a rite or custom where a bride would oil the posts to the door of her new home with wolf fat when she arrived. While this rite does not specifically mention Janus, it is a rite of passage connected to the ianua.
King Of Latium
As old as Janus is, predating the Roman Pantheon, it is very likely that he was a real person at one time.
In a story told by Macrobius, Janus had been exiled from Thessaly and sailed to a place known as Latium with his wife Camise and their children. They settled in a place along the Tiber river that would be named after his son Tiberinus.
Where Janus and his family settled, they built a city called Janiculum. After his wife died, Janus ruled in Latium for many years. After his death, Janus became deified.
Janus’ rule in Latium is part of the Golden Age in Roman mythology that saw a lot of wealth and agriculture come to the region. This era would be what caused Janus to be associated with trade, streams, springs and a sky god.
Variations: Hyginus in his retellings, Camese is male and Janus succeeded him as ruler of the kingdom.
Greek authors place Camese as Janus’ sister and spouse and that they have a son by the name of Aithex and a daughter by the name of Olistene.
Janus & Saturn
In Ovid’s Fasti, the god Saturn welcomes Janus as a guest and eventually shares his kingdom with them in return for teaching the art of agriculture.
Another slight variation to this, is the custom of Roman to depict their gods as having been mortal and ruling the city of Latium during a Golden Age of Peace. Janus as the ruler of his own Kingdom, welcomed Saturn in after he had been expelled from the heavens by Jupiter.
Janus & Romulus
In this myth, Romulus, as in one of the legendary founders of Rome; with the help of his men, kidnapped the Sabine women. In response, the Sabine men retaliated, trying to get their daughters back. Luck was with the Sabine men as a daughter of the city guard betrayed her fellow Romans and let the Sabine men slip within the city.
When the Sabine men tried to make their way up the Capitoline Hill, Janus is credited with causing a hot spring to erupt, causing a mixture of boiling water and volcanic ash that forced the Sabine men to turn back.
It’s from this myth, that the Romans and Sabines would later form a new community and the gates being open during war and closed during peace to keep in would come from.
Janus & Canens
A story found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis; Janus is the father of Canens with the nymph Venilia. Canens was the personification of song and married to Picus. When Picus spurred the love of Circe, she turned him into a woodpecker.Canens searched for six days for her husband before throwing herself into the Tiber river where she sang one final song before dying.
Janus & Carna
Also known by the name of Crane.
Carna was a nymph of the sacred grove in Helernus. Whenever Carna found herself being pursued by the unwanted advances of a young man, she would call out to the young man only to slip away to hide in various crags and other places. Janus saw her hiding and of course, what ancient Roman wouldn’t, Janus rapes Carna.
By way of apology, Janus gives Carna a whitethorn branch so that she may guard all thresholds and doorways, making her a goddess of hinges and then becomes known by the name of Cardea. As a goddess, Cardea would be responsible for protecting and purifying thresholds and doorposts. Incidentally, she also protects newborn infants from stirges. That… is really interesting given the connection between Vampires and not being able to cross thresholds.
That, however, is a post for another day…
I think it is also possible, given how old this myth is, that Janus and Carna had consensual sex and not rape. It would explain giving the hawthorne as a gift between two lovers and Janus elevating Carna from a nymph to a goddess with close to the same powers and abilities as he does with guardianship over thresholds.
Janus & Juturna
A minor myth is that Janus and Juturna, a goddess of wells give birth to Fontus, the god of wells and springs. Comment has been made that Fontus or Fons is another name for Janus. This myth is more likely used to explain why two festivals, Juturna on January 11th and Agonium of Janus on January 9th were so close together. Plus, further explaining why there is an alter for Fontus or Fons near the Janiculum and the connection to spring and beginnings.
Janus & Vesta
Janus presides over the beginnings and guards the doors and entries. Janus would be invoked first in rites and Vesta would be invoked last. It has brought some curious observations. The presence of Vesta shows that there was importance for the hearth, its life-giving fire and thus the home. A community couldn’t survive or thrive without the safety of the household. To be able to exit the untamed and unknown wilds to the safety of the community and civilization.
As has been the case with many deities, Janus was made a martyr and then later the Saint Januarius by the Roman Catholic Church.
Janus was also made a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church and later became known Saint Januarius.
During the Medieval or Middle Ages, the Italian city of Genoa used the symbol of Janus or Ianua. Many other European communes also used the symbol of Ianua.
For those interested in tracing an Indo-European religion and pantheon of gods that links the European deities with those of Vedic origins. There’s been a lot of study into it. As a god of beginnings and transitions, a primordial deity, Janus has been connected to the Vedic Vâyu. Most notably in the works of G. Dumézil. There certainly was a cross-pollination of ideas and religion when you see how much further east Greek culture was at one point and trade routes.
Portunus – Syno-Deity
Portunus is a similar deity to Janus. The difference is that Portunus presided over harbors and gateways in regard to traveling, commerce, trade and shipping. Like Janus, the key and staff are also one of Portunus’ symbols. Portunus’s festival day was held on August 17th.
Janus the Sailor – Because of how similar Janus and Portunus are, there is a hypothesis put forward that Janus may have originated as a god of winds and sailing, brought to the communities by the Tiber river. The connection has more to do with when Saturn sailed to ancient Latium and was welcomed by Janus.
Aditi – Hindu Goddess
The Vedic goddess of Infinity, Aditi is depicted as having two faces. She is seen as the feminine form of Brahma. Like Janus, Aditi is invoked at the beginning of ceremonies and she concludes them as well.
Ani – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Ani is the god of the sky and sometimes shown as having two faces. This has led some to conclude a possible connection between Ani and Janus.
Belinus – Chaldean God
Also called Baal-Ianus, a William Betham has made arguments that Janus’ cult would originate from the Middle East with the Chaldean culture.
Brahma – Hindu God
The imagery of double or four-faced deities in Hinduism is common. Brahma is the god who created the universe.
Culśanś – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Culśanś has been identified as being the counterpart to the Roman Janus. This connection seems more likely given Culśanś’ role as a god and protector of doorways and his depiction of having two faces.
Heimdallr – Nordic God
As guardian of the Bifrost bridge, the functions that Heimdallr has for standing in a place between time and space have been noted to be similar to Janus.
Isimud – Sumerian God
Also known as Usimu in Babylonian. A deity featuring two faces appears several times in Babylonian art. Isimud is the messenger of Enki.
Greek Connection – Which brings us to another point. However much the ancient Greeks and Romans tried to claim that Janus had no Middle Eastern connection, and that Janus is solely a Roman deity, there are some much later writers who would equate Hermes with Janus, especially so during the Hellenistic era of Greek culture.
Svetovid – Slavic God
Depicted as having four heads or faces, Svetovid is the Slavic god of war, fertility, and abundance.
Janus In Astronomy
On December 15th of 1966, the astronomer Audouin Dollfus discovered and identified, orbiting around Saturn, a moon that would later be called Janus. This moon is also known as Saturn X. It would take a little over a decade before it was recognized that Janus was one of two satellites or moons occupying close to the same orbit. The other is called Epimetheus. These names would become official in 1983. Janus also has two craters on it named for the characters of Castor and Pollux in mythology.
Etymology: “mother,” “woman,” “daring one”
Nanna Nepsdóttir is a Norse Goddess best known as the wife of Balder. There is also a Mesopotamian God of the Moon known by the same name, however the two are different deities.
What’s In A Name?
There’s a few different scholarly ideas and debates on what Nanna’s name may actually mean. The idea by some is that Nanna comes from a word that means “mother.” The scholar, Jan de Vries makes the connection of Nanna to the root word nanb- meaning: “the daring one.” Another scholar, John Lindow puts forward the theory that Nanna may come from a common word for “woman.” Then there is John McKinnell who notes that “mother” and variations of nanb- that are not always clear what’s meant. He does suggest that it might have meant: “she who empowers.”
Parentage and Family
Odin – If we follow Nep being a son of Odin.
Frigg – This goddess is mentioned as a mother-in-law to Nanna in the Prose Edda, Skáldskaparmál.
Nep – He is listed as Nanna’s father, as deduced by the surname of Nepsdóttir.
Balder – The Prose and Poetic Eddas both list him as Nanna’s husband.
Hodr – According to the Gesta Danorum, he is Nanna’s husband.
Foresti – The god of Justice, he is Nanna’s son with Balder.
This is Balder’s Mansion or abode in Asgard. Naturally being his wife, Nanna’s lives here with him. Considered the most beautiful of all the halls in Asgard, only the purest could enter it.
This is a comb dating from the either the 6th or 7th century. The comb has runic inscriptions on it that are thought to reference Nanna.
Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Nanna 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.
Hyndluljóð – In this poem, Nanna is mentioned as the daughter of Nökkvi and a relative of Ottar. This may or may not be the same Nanna who’s Balder’s wife.
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.
Gylfaginning – In chapter 38, Nanna Nepsdóttir and Balder are mentioned having a son, the god Foresti. Later, when Balder dies at the hands of Höðr, the blind god, Balder’s body is taken down to the seaside and placed into his ship, Hringhorni. Nanna collapses and dies from grief, her body is also placed within Badler’s ship and the ship light on fire with Thor using his hammer, Mjölnir to hallow the funeral pyre.
A grieving Freya sends the god Hermóðr down to Hel, the Underworld to try and resurrect Balder. Hermóðr arrives in Hel to find both Balder and Nanna sitting in a hall in places of honor. Hermóðr then begins bargaining with Hel to resurrect Balder. After a length of time, the two come to an agreement and Hermóðr leaves Hel’s hall with both Balder and Nanna. Balder presents the ring Draupnir to Hermóðr to be returned to Odin. Nanna presents Hermóðr with a few different gifts: a linen robe for Frigg, a gold ring for Fulla and a numer of other unnamed items. Laden up, Hermóðr makes the return journey to Asgard.
Much as Freya wanted, it would only be after the events of Ragnarök that Balder and Nanna are resurrected and return to the land of the living.
Skáldskaparmál – In the first chapter of this book, Nanna is listed among eight goddesses who are attending a feast for Aegir. Chapter five of this book, Balder is referenced as the “husband of Nanna.” Chapter nineteen continues with another reference of Frigg as the “mother-in-law of Nanna.” Chapter seventy-five has Nanna included in a general list of goddesses. Lastly, chapter eighteen references the skald, Eilífr Goðrúnarson’s Þórsdrápa where a kenning references Nanna as “wake-hilt-Nanna” another name for “troll-wife.”
Written by Saxo Grammati in the 12th century, the third book of this series portrays Nanna a mortal and daughter of King Gevar. Nanna becomes the object of affection by the demigod Balder and the mortal Hodr.
As it goes, Nanna has feelings for her foster-brother, Hodr Hothbrodd. Things won’t go the way the two lovers plan though. Balder, a demigod son of Odin is out and about one day when he espies Nanna bathing. Infatuated with her, Balder learns that another already has Nanna’s heart and he conspires to kill the competition.
The next time Hodr is out hunting, he finds himself wandering through a patch a mist and forest maidens calling out to him by name. They explain that they are able to manipulate fate and appear out on battlefields (that sounds like Valkyries to me). The Valkyries tell Hodr that Balder is interested in Nanna and being a demigod, Hodr won’t stand a chance against him. The Valkyries depart, leaving Hodr standing in an open field.
Undaunted, Hodr returns home where he recounts his story to King Gevar about getting lost in the forest and the Valkyries appearing before him. Not wanting to delay any longer, Hodr then asks King Gevar for Nanna’s hand in marriage.
Much as King Gevar would like to, Balder has already beaten Hodr to it and asked for Nanna’s hand in marriage first. Plus, King Gevar feared Balder’s wrath if he refused, given the demigod nature of Balder. Not all is lost, for Gevar knows of a magical sword that hurt someone like Balder and tells him where and how to get the sword.
While Hodr is off getting an enchanted blade, Balder returns to Gevar’s kingdom, ready to claim Nanna for his wife. Stalling for time for Hodr, King Gevar tells Balder to go easy with Nanna and try reasoning with her. Nanna is having none of Balder’s advances. One of her arguments is to say that a mortal woman and a demigod couldn’t possibly marry her as they’re too different.
Hodr, now accompanied by Helgi return to do battle with Balder and various other gods. We know for sure that two of their number are Thor and Odin. Despite the overwhelming odds, Hodr is victorious.
Once again, Hodr asks King Gevar for Nanna’s hand in marriage. This time, Hodr’s request is granted and both Hodr and Nanna ride off into the sunset for Sweden where Hodr becomes king!
Not quite, Balder returns and attacks Hodr, forcing Hodr and Nanna to retreat to Denmark. Alas poor Balder is plagued with visions of Nanna in his sleep, so much so, that Balder took to riding in a chariot as he couldn’t walk on his own and finally, he just wastes away.
We’ll assume at this point that Hodr and Nanna finally do get their happily ever after.
The term Pangenic or Pangenesis comes from Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with trying to explain the origins of life and species.
As it relates to the study of folklore and mythology, the term and idea of Pangenic or Pangenesis connections is problematic and still very pervasive as a lot of scholars and literature try to make connections with various stories and deities; often as there are very similar motifs, concepts, and ideas that are very universal.
The Romans of course, are famously known for equating many of their gods with the gods of other cultures, especially those they conquered. Nearly everyone knows of the Greek-Roman counterparts and connections such as Zeus and Jupiter or Ares and Mars. To a lesser-known extent, the Romans connected their deities with those of the Egyptian, Norse, and even Celtic deities.
The idea of Pangenic deities and myths still continues even today and is something of a disservice and in terms of mythology. When one ethnic group or religion moves into another area, the existing myths will get overlapped and mixed together. Sometimes it’s easy to see where and when this blending of ideas occurs. Other times, the differences should be acknowledged without trying to force a connection.
Some scholars have taken one look at Nanna in Norse mythology and then see a similar sound and spelling in Mesopotamian mythology and want to start connecting the dots. There is the Sumerian goddess Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar and then the Phrygian goddess Nana, the mother of the god Attis. Then you add in the Mesopotamian moon god Nanna and people really go all out trying to make connections.
Just accept that there are a lot of coincidental spellings and pronunciations.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear what Nanna is a goddess of, only that she’s Balder’s wife. As has been observed by other scholars, a lot of the old Norse stories have been lost, especially considering a newer, Christian religion moving into the regions and displacing the older local, pagan worship. Nanna is just one of the many goddesses whose story has been lost to the sands of time and we just don’t know.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
This is where modern paganism trying to reconstruct an older religion will try to extrapolate on the meaning found in Nanna’s name of “woman” or “mother” and “daring one” what she might have been a goddess of. They also look at the scant evidence found in the surviving myths.
Being married to Balder, it would be easy to assume that the two held similar and likely complementary roles.
Love – Given the scant evidence, where Nanna dies of grief for the loss of Balder, she will be identified as a goddess of Devotion and Undying Love, even beyond the grave or in the darkest depths of depression, pain, and sorrow.
Mother Goddess – This seems a likely role if we go from the meaning of Nanna as “mother” and that when she dies, both she and Balder will be resurrected after the events of Ragnarök to restart the cosmos all over.
Syno-Deity – Some pagans will adopt Balder’s symbols for Nanna. As Balder is a god of the seasons Spring and Summer along with flowers, so is Nanna.
Also known as: Maaui-Tikitiki (Maori/New Zealand)
Alternate Spellings: Māui
Epithets: Maui-Tikitiki “Maui the Top-Knot,” Maui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga “Maui the Top-Knot of Taranga,” Maui-Potiki “Maui the Last Born”
In Polynesian mythology, Maui is either a trickster demigod or god and in some stories, a mere mortal man. Most of his stories and exploits are best known from the Hawaiian and Maori legends though many other Polynesian cultures such as Mangarevan, Tahitian and Tongan have their own stories regarding this trickster hero. Among the Samoans, Maui is known as Ti’iTi’i. Many of the stories involving Maui make note of him being the youngest son, thus while small, he was extremely strong for his size.
Maui is sometimes described as being ugly, quick to respond as well as quick-witted covered in tattoos. Lucky for humans, for all that Maui is known for having some vicious practical jokes, he works to help people and not the Gods.
Parentage and Family
In the Hawaiian Kumulipo, Maui is the son of Akalana and Hina-a-ke-ahi (or just Hina, a goddess).
In another Hawaiian legend, Maui’s father is given as Ru.
In the Mangarevan myths, Maui is the son of Ataraga (Father) and Uaega (Mother).
In the Maori myths, Maui is the son of Makeatutara (Father) and Taranga (Mother).
Tangaroa – This Maori god of the sea is sometimes mentioned as being Maui’s father with his mother being a mortal woman.
Akalana and Hina had four sons: Maui-Mua, Maui-Waena (or Maui-Hope), Maui-Ki’iki’i and Maui-a-Kalana.
In the Mangarevan myths, Ataraga has eight sons all named Maui: Maui-mua, Maui-muri, Maui-toere-mataroa, Tumei-hauhia, Maui-tikitiki-toga, Maui-matavaru, Maui-taha, Maui-roto. It is Maui matavaru or eight-eyed who is the culture hero.
In the Maori myths, Maui has four brothers: Maui-Taha, Maui-Roto, Maui-Pae and Maui-Waho.
Hinakealohaila – She is the wife to Maui-a-Kalana in Hawaiian legends.
Nanamaoa – The son of Maui-a-Kalana and Hinakealohaila in Hawaiian legends.
This is the name of Maui’s great, big fish-hook. In the Hawaiian legends, it is baited with the wing of an Alae, the sacred or pet bird of Hina. This fish-hook was created from the jawbone of an ancestor of Maui’s, usually given as being his grandmother.
Maui’s Fish-Hook can be seen in the night-sky in the same constellation recognized by Western Culture as Scorpio.
While yes, there is an island called Maui in Hawaii, it is not named for the trickster Maui. Legend holds that the island is named for the son of Hawai’iloa, a great navigator who discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Each of the islands of Kaua’i, O’ahu, and Maui are named after one of Hawai’iloa’s sons.
These were a group of heroic trickster demigods in Hawaiian legends. All kupua are shape-shifters who took the forms of either humans or various elements in nature, often an animal. Many kupua are rather malevolent and vindictive. Maui appears to be one of the more beneficial and gentler kupua in comparison.
Pulling Up The Islands
There are many variations to the story of Maui using his fish-hook to pull up all eight of the Hawaiian Islands.
Version 1 – Maui had gone out fishing one day with his brother. In typical sibling rivalry, the brother wouldn’t share any of his bait with Maui. Ever the resourceful one, Maui punched his own nose and used his own blood as bait to fish. He succeeded in bringing in hauls so large, that they would become the Hawaiian Islands. Not just Hawaii, but all the Polynesian Islands were pulled up in this way.
Version 2 – Maui had gone out fishing with his brothers. While out there, Maui caught his hook on the ocean floor. Maui then told his brothers he had caught a large fish and to start paddling as hard and as fast as they can. The brothers never noticed the island rising up behind them out of the ocean. Maui of course, proceeds to do this several more times, pulling up all the Hawaiian Islands.
Version 3 – This is perhaps the more interesting version of the stories. Maui planted his fish-hook at Hamakua with the intent to pull up Pimoe, the god of fish. Maui warned his brothers not to look back as they paddled their boats or this venture would fail. Hina, shape-shifted into a bailing-gourd and Maui, not realizing it was his mother, took hold of the gourd and put it in front of his seat. Now suddenly, there appeared before them, an extremely beautiful woman and all of Maui’s brothers looked back out of curiosity. Having looked back, Hina in her disguise disappeared and the line breaks, causing all of the islands that Maui was trying to unite into one giant island falls apart and he is unable to catch Pimoe.
The Theft Of Fire
Version 1 – In order to steal fire for the people of the islands, Maui transformed himself into the guise of a hawk so he could get closer the Earth-Mother. To this day, the hawk’s feathers are brown in memory of Maui being burned by the flames when he brought the gift of fire.
Version 2 – In this story, Maui and his brother would go out fishing every day. Every morning they would always see a bunch of Kiawe trees smoking and flames coming up out of them. Hovering above all this were some vultures, also known as mud hens or ‘alae.
Maui and his brothers constantly tried to sneak up on the vultures, thinking they were responsible for the fire. However, just before getting close enough, there would be a noise that scared them all off.
Maui came up with the idea of creating a dummy that looked like him and placed in the canoe. Now Maui had his brothers take the dummy with them as they would go one direction and Maui would come from the other as they tried to sneak up on the vultures.
Maui snuck up on the bird and grabbed it by the neck, forcing it to tell him the secrets of fire. The vulture, an ‘alae told Maui to take and rub two maia peels together. When nothing happened, Maui nearly choked the bird to death, telling it to tell the truth. Finally the bird said to rub to Ti leaf stalks together. Nothing happened this time and Maui once more choked the bird who said to rub two dry kiawe sticks together.
This time, Maui had success with creating fire. He took the flaming stick and pressed it against the ‘alae’s forehead, making their head red and bald to remind it and other ‘alae’s thereafter of their selfish act.
Slowing Down The Sun
Version 1 – In this story, Maui’s mother, Hina complained about how the sun moved too quickly through the sky, that she barely had time to get her kapa, bark cloth dry. Hina wasn’t the only one, many people hurried to get their work such as planting, cooking or making clothing done in the few hours of daylight. There just wasn’t time with how fast the Sun moved.
Deciding to help his mother and the other people, Maui hid behind a big rock at the highest peak on the island known as Haleakala, the “House Of The Sun.” When the Sun passed by overhead, Maui quickly threw a rope, made from his sister’s hair with his magic hook tied to the end and lassoed the Sun’s rays with it. Some legends have Maui using a net to trap the Sun. The Sun demanded to be let go and Maui would only do so if the Sun would promise to move slower through the day so people could get their work done. Some versions of the story have Maui beating the Sun with his jawbone until it agreed to move slower. Added to this, Maui took one look at the sky and decided it hung too low. With a shove and heave, Maui pushed the sky up higher.
Version 2 – In this telling of the story, Hina sends Maui to a big wiliwili tree where he finds his old, blind grandmother laying out bananas. Ever mischievous, Maui starts stealing bananas from his grandmother, one by one until she catches him in the act. Maui tells his Grandmother about his mother’s complaints and sending him out to the tree. After hearing the story, Grandmother decides to help him with making a rope. Maui then sits by the tree, waiting until the Sun passes by overhead and he lassos it, forcing it to agree to slow it’s progress across the sky.
Version 3 – Very similar to the story in Version 2, Maui decides to slow down the sun after a man by the name of Moemoe taunts him and says it can’t be done. Just to prove him wrong, Maui sets off to slow down the sun much like he did earlier with finding his grandmother and getting her help. After Maui slows down the sun, he chases after Moemoe and beats him soundly.
Lifting The Sky
While a similar story of Maui lifting the sky is told in his quest to slow down the sun, there is another expanded version of this story.
After a while, as Maui was looking around, he could see that the sky was far too low to the ground and that people were unable to stand up straight. Being Maui, if he didn’t like a thing, he went about changing it. As it just so happened to be, the sky was sinking or lowering and would have made living on the earth impossible for humans.
Maui proceeded to travel to the town of Lahaina, to enlist his father into helping him lift the sky. There, Maui laid himself on the ground and then bracing himself, pushed the sky upwards with all of his considerable strength.
At the signal, Maui’s father, Ru also began pushing with all his might, aiding his son in getting the sky up high enough so people could stand upright. So there you have it, another of Maui’s deeds done.
Variations – In other retellings of this story, Maui lifts up the sky when he comes across a girl complaining how the sky was too low and that she couldn’t do her chores. Like any guy seeking to impress a girl, Maui decided to push up the sky for her.
Yet another variation is that Maui was busy making an earth oven when his poker got stuck up in the sky. To get his poker unstuck and to keep it from getting stuck again, Maui simply pushed the sky up higher. Again, this was all part of impressing a girl.
Defeating The Long Eel
Still one more legend of Maui’s to cover in Hawaiian mythology!
After Maui finished pulling up all of the islands with his Fish-Hook, he decided to start exploring them to find out what all was there. Traveling to each of the islands, Maui discovered that they were all inhabitable. There were houses, but no one living in them, no one in the whole of all the islands.
Taking ideas from the layout and build of the houses, Maui returned home and built a new house for himself in the style of what he had seen on the islands. Finished, Maui then sought out Hinakealohaila (or just Hina, not to be confused with his mother) to marry.
Time passed and Hina went down to a nearby river bank to get some water. While down there, Hina ran into the Long Eel Tuna, who just so happened to decide that striking Hina and covering her in slime was somehow a good idea.
Hina ran back home, but didn’t tell Maui of what transpired. Or at least, not yet.
The next day, Hina went back down to the riverbank and the same thing happened. The Long Eel Tuna hitting and covering her with slime again. This time, when she returned home, Hina told Maui about what happened.
Angry, Maui headed down to the river. Once down there, Maui laid out a number of traps designed to lure the Long Eel Tuna out of hiding. When the Eel Tuna emerged, Mauil used his stone axe to kill them. It seems that the Long Eel Tuna had been causing many people in the village problems. Thanks now to Maui, everyone would be safe.
In this mythology cycle, the Maui known as Maui the Eight-Eyed is the hero, born from his mother’s navel and raised by his grandfather, Te Rupe. This Maui has a magic staff called Atua-Tane and a hatchet called Iraiapatapata. Like the Hawaiian and Maori legends, Maui still pulls up the islands from the sea and ties up the sun with locks of hair to slow it down or hold in place.
The legend of Maui among the Maori is a long epic.
The Birth Of Maui
Maui was born the son of Taranga and Makeatutara. Considered a miraculous birth, Makeatutara had taken her premature baby and threw it into the ocean wrapped in locks of hair from her topknot. Hence, Maui is known as Maui-Tikitiki-A-Taranga. Fortunately for the infant Maui, ocean spirits found him and wrapping him in seaweed, took him to Tama-Nui-Te-Ra (or Rangi), a divine ancestor who raised the child.
It is Maori tradition, that any baby prematurely born is buried with special incantations and ceremonies least the spirit of the unborn child become a malicious spirit as they had never known any joy or happiness in life. Given what happens later in the stories with Maui, this may be why they bury the baby with rites and ceremonies instead of tossing them into the ocean. It would certainly explain all the mean spirited tricks and deeds that Maui performs.
Reuniting With His Family
Once Maui was a child and no longer a premature infant, he left the sea, going search of his mother and family. When Maui found his mother’s house, he discovered four other older brothers: Maui-Taha, Maui-Roto, Maui-Pae and Maui-Waho.
Understandably, the brothers were all leery of this new comer. Maui won them all over by performing many tricks such as transforming into a number of different birds. The brothers were greatly impressed and accepted Maui.
As for his mother, Maui introduced himself to Taranga when everyone was gathered for some dancing and celebrating. Maui sat down behind his brothers, when Taranga called for her children, she discovered a fifth unknown child among her sons. Maui soon proved he was Taranga’s son and he was accepted into the family.
At first, some of Maui’s brothers were jealous. They were put at easy by the eldest brother telling them how they should let Maui be counted among them, that in days of peace, they should be generous to others by helping to improve the welfare of others and that in times of war, that’s only when disputes should be settled with violence. The speech worked and Maui was finally welcomed home.
Maui Finding His Father
Though Maui stayed with his mother and his brothers, each morning, his mother Taranga would disappear. None of Maui’s older brothers seemed concerned about their mother’s disappearance each morning. This bothered Maui who wondered where Taranga would go each morning before they woke.
When nightfall came again, Taranga returned to her children, they all went to sleep as before on other nights in their house. This time, Maui stayed awake so that when everyone else had fallen asleep, he stole Taranga’s clothing and hid them. Then Maui went and hid himself in the crevice of a window above the doorway so that when morning came, he could see where it was that his mother went.
After what seemed like forever, morning finally came and Taranga awoke. Upon finding she was naked, Taranga began frantically looking for her clothes, finally she gave up and began pulling off pieces of siding from the house to cover herself. Covered, she now ran outside.
Watching from his hiding spot, Maui watched as his mother reach down to some tufts of grass, revealing a hole that she disappeared into and pulling close behind her. Curious, Maui came out of his hiding spot and ran to the spot where the grass had been pulled up. Sure enough, he found the opening to a cave descending deep into the earth, to the Underworld in fact.
Covering the hole again, Maui returned to the house and woke up his brothers. He asked them about where it is that their father and mother went during the day. The older brothers answered that they didn’t know. They taunted Maui saying he shouldn’t worry or bother and that Rangi, the god of the sky was their father.
Little Maui responded how he had been brought up differently from his brothers, having been tossed to the sea. That he had never been nursed by their mother and how he longed to find where it was that she and father went to during the day.
Surprised by the response, Maui’s brothers encouraged to try and find their parents. Maui said that he would go and demonstrated to them his ability to turn into a bird. It was only with the kereru or wood pigeon shape that his brothers were impressed. The ability to shapeshift was something that only a skilled magician with a lot magic could perform and Maui delighted in his being the youngest brother, able to do something the others couldn’t.
Bidding farewell to his brothers, Maui took off in pigeon form to seek after his parents. Long Maui flew off into the forest and down to the cave his mother had disappeared into. Eventually, Maui came to a place where he saw many people gathered in a grove of trees. Among these people, Maui spotted his mother seated by whom he could only assume to be his father.
Still in bird form, Maui descended to a lower branch where he could pick off some berries growing. These berries, Maui dropped down to his father on the head with. Some of the other people at the gathering asked if the bird had dropped the berry and Maui’s father, Makeatutara insisted the berry had only fallen by chance.
Once more, Maui plucked more berries and threw them down hard at both of his parents. As Maui’s parents cried out, the other people gathered there, looked up to the tree and seeing only a pigeon sitting there cooing, began to throw stones at the bird. All the stones missed and it was when Maui’s father threw a stone at the bird that he hit the pigeon, but only because Maui allowed it.
The pigeon fell to the ground and when the others ran up to it, it turned into a man. The others were taken aback for the eyes of the young man who now stood before them were red and fierce looking. Talking amongst themselves, the others discussed if the man standing before them was a god like Rangi and Papa-Tu-A-Nuku. Finally Taranga spoke up and said the man looked like someone knew and repeated the story of Maui’s premature birth everyone to hear.
Taranga then asked the man, Maui who he was and where he came from. When she asked Maui, if he was her child Maui-Tikitiki-O-Taranga, he answered yes and Taranga welcomed him where she seemed to prophesy that he would visit his ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po and conquer death.
Now a man, Maui’s father Makeatutara took him down to the river to be baptized in order to cleanse and purify his son. As luck would have it, Makeatutara made a mistake during the ceremony with incantations, having skipped over parts and forgotten them. This mistake was an ill omen that would eventually lead to the death of Maui. The gods would be sure to punish this forgetfulness with Maui’s eventual death.
In the meantime, however, Maui returned to his brothers to tell them he had found their parents and how to find them too.
Maui Getting Bloodthirsty
After returning to his brothers, Maui ended up slaying and carrying away his first victim, the daughter of Maru-Te-Whare-Aitu. Not long after, Maui proceeded to destroy the crops of Maru-Te-Whare-Aitu, causing them to all wither.
Maui Gaining His Jaw-Bone Weapon
His first war raid done, Maui once more visited his parents. While with them, he noticed how the other people would be carrying away some food as if it were being taken to someone.
When he asked for who, they informed Maui it was for an ancestress, Muri-Ranga-Whenua, an old chief. Maui responded with saying that he would take the food to her.
In typical trickster fashion, Maui didn’t take any of the food to Muri-Ranga-Whenua. Instead he set them to the side, hiding them away. Eventually Muri-Ranga-Whenua wondered why her food wasn’t coming and suspecting that something was up, she wandered down the path, sniffing.
Finally smelling something coming, Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s stomach began to enlarge as she got ready to devour Maui as soon as he came close enough. Maui went up wind of the old chief so she couldn’t find him. Turning westward, Muri-Ranga-Whenua finally smelled someone close to her, realizing it was a human.
Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s stomach shrunk back to normal size and she greeted Maui as one of her descendants. Her next question was why Maui wasn’t bring her food. Maui answered that he was seeking for Muri-Ranga-Whenua’s jaw-bone to use as a weapon. The old chief consented and gave Maui the bone.
Holding Back The Sun
Similar to the story found in the Hawaiian cycle, Maui for his next quest, takes the jaw-bone of an ancestor, Muri-Ranga-Whenua to use as a weapon. He uses this jaw-bone to ensnare the Sun so it will be forced to move slower throughout the day, thus making the days longer. With the aid of his brothers, Maui lassoes the Sun and beats them soundly until the Sun agrees to move slower.
Variation – Sometimes a net is mentioned as what Maui used to catch the Sun before Maui and his brother beat the Sun senseless with his magic jawbone to the point it could limp slowly now across the sky.
Gone Fishing – Part 1
Somewhere along the line, Maui got married and had a number of wives and children to boot. When Maui and his brothers returned from the feat of Holding back and slowing down the sun, he heard the complaints of his family and how they had no fish to eat.
Maui assured his wives and children not to fret, he would soon take care of this trivial matter and they would soon enough have food to eat. He then took his jaw-bone and fashioned it into a fish-hook.
When Maui’s brother headed out to go fishing, Maui jumped in the canoe. His brothers yelled for Maui to get out of the boat, claiming that his constant use of magic would cause problems. Eventually Maui got out of the canoe seeing as his brothers refused to take him.
Determined, Maui just waited until it was night when he went back to the beach and his brothers’ canoe. This time he hid in the bottom, under some boards. When his brothers came at dawn, they headed out to sea, none the wiser that Maui was hidden on board.
Once they were well at sea, Maui came out of his hiding spot. Seeing him, his brothers commented that they had better return to shore. Using his magic, Maui stretched out the distance from the shore to the boat that when his brothers looked for land, it was out of view.
Maui told his brothers that they should let him come with, at the very least he could be able to bail water out of the canoe for them. The brothers consented and they paddled on towards their fishing spot. Maui wasn’t content and told his brothers to paddle out further before dropping anchor, which spot would be far out of view of land.
Far out on the open ocean, the brothers now began to fish and soon, easily they had their canoe filled with fish in no time.
Pulling Up The Islands – Part 2
Continuing from Gone Fishing, this story is similar to the previously mentioned Hawaiian story of Pulling Up The Islands. Now that the brothers had filled the canoe, they wanted to return, but not Maui who now wanted a turn at fishing.
The North Island – Maui’s brothers wanted to know where he got a fishing-hook from, to which he told them never mind. When he asked to borrow of their bait, his brothers refused. With no other recourse, Maui made a fist and struck his own nose, using his own blood for bait.
With that and using incantations, Maui managed to snag the porch of a carved house on the sea bed floor and pulled up not just the house with his superhuman strength, but an entire island. Witht his much land pulled up, the canoe became grounded.
With the newly pulled up land and the haul of fish that had been caught, Maui went to go make an offering of thanks to the gods. He instructed his brothers to wait until her returned before eating or cutting up any of the fish, that everyone would get a fair share.
While Maui went to get a priest to bless, consecrate and purify the land, his brothers went ahead and started to cut up the fish that were also pulled up. These fish began to writhe in agony and in their throes, the mountains, cliffs and valleys of the island were formed. It’s been said if the brothers had waited for Maui to make his offerings, the island would have all been level plains and forest, making it easy for people to traverse it. The Maori call this land Te Ika-a-Maaui, the Fish of Maui or Hahau-Whenua, it is the North Island of New Zealand.
The South Island – By Maori tradition, Maui’s canoe becomes the South Island. The Banks Peninsula is said to be where Maui place his foot to support himself as he pulled in his fish haul. The island is known as Te Waipounamu or Te Waka-A-Maui, the canoe of Maui.
The Secret Of Fire
The secret for the creation of fire had been lost and Maui decided to remedy that situation. Of course, if Maui didn’t have it in his head to pull the stunt of putting out all of the fires for the cooking houses in the village, there would still be fire. But no, Maui puts them all out and then calls out, saying he’s hungry and getting someone to come cook up some food for him and there’s no fire to be had, anywhere.
When Maui’s mother heard there was no fire, she implored the servants to seek out Mahu-Ika to see if she would send more fire. The servants refused, no matter how Maui’s mother and others insisted they go.
Finally, Maui spoke up and said that he would go and get more fire. In order to do so, he needed to know which way to go. His parents informed Maui which path he should go, that he should let Mahu-Ika know who he was and that he shouldn’t perform any of his tricks as too often, his tricks brought harm and injury to others.
Yes, they’re on to you Maui!
Of course, Maui assured his folks he was only interested in bringing fire, he wasn’t going to do anything else, he’d go and come back right away. Honest!
So off he goes, in search of Mahu-Ika, the goddess of fire and his ancestor. When Maui found Mahu-Ika, he was filled with wonder and awe, all he could do was stare before he finally spoke up asking her where the fire was, he had come to get some.
Mahu-Ika got up and asked who Maui was. At first, Maui wouldn’t tell Mahu-Ika was, making her do a quessing game of which country he was from and which direction he had come. Finally, when Mahu-Ika asked Maui if he had come on the wind, he said yes and she recognized him as one of her descendants.
Mahu-Ika proceeded to pull out a fingernail from which fire flowed out. This she gave to Maui who was amazed by the feat. Maui took the fingernail away with him and when he was out of sight, he promptly put the fire out.
Maui returned to Mahu-Ika saying that the fire she had given him had gone out and to give him another. Once more, Mahu-Ika pulled one of her fingernails out, producing fire to give to Maui once more.
Maui managed to keep this antic up of coming back to Mahu-Ika saying the fire had gone out until he had gotten her to pull out all of the nails from her hands and feet save for the nail of her big toe. Nine times and Mahu-Ika finally catches on that Maui might be playing tricks on her.
Angry, Mahu-Ika pulled the last nail out and slamming it on the ground, she told Maui that he now had all the fire as everything around them began to catch fire. Maui made a mad dash to escape with the fire quickly gaining. Maui changed himself into an eagle (or hawk) to be fast enough to escape.
Even as an eagle, his flight wasn’t enough and the fire was about to consume Maui; he called on his ancestors Tawhiri-Ma-Tea and Whatitiri-Matakatak to send rain. The ancestors answered and soon there was a heavy rain. Mahu-Ika was nearly killed in the resulting downpour before she could hide. Maui however, in his eagle form was scorched, resulting in black-tipped wings. Mahu-Ika saved some of her fire by placing it in the wood of trees.
When Maui returned from this latest stunt, his parents tried to warn him about trying to trick his ancestors and that he deserved what he got. They concluded the speech that things would end badly and likely in his death if he didn’t stop his behavior. Maui taunted his parents, saying what did he care, he planned to continue. With that, Maui went off to seek out his next round of mischief.
Variation – A little simpler, Maui gained the secrets of fire by stealing a hen from heaven as fire was believed to be guarded by a celestial chicken.
Turning Irawaru Into A Dog
Shortly after his theft of fire, Maui went out fishing with his brother in law, Irawaru who had married Maui’s younger sister Hinauri, Maui as per his luck, had only caught one fish while Irawaru was catching plenty of fish. Fuming his poor luck, Maui lost his cool when Irawaru’s line got tangled with his. The classic two fishermen tugging on their respective lines, each in the opposite direction.
The two began arguing about how it was their fish on the line and to let go. Finally Irawaru relented and let go of his line enough that Maui was able to pull up on his end. Once the line was pulled up, Maui saw that the fish caught was indeed on Irawaru’s line and that it was his line entangled with the other.
Mad, Maui said they should return to shore and the two began paddling. Once back to shore, Maui had Irawaru lift up the canoe to his back as part of pulling it in. No sooner had Irawaru gotten the canoe up onto this back than Maui jumped on it, forcing the whole weight down on his brother-in-law, nearly killing him.
Nearly dead, Maui continued to trample Irawaru’s body, twisting and forming him through the use of magic into a dog. Maui completed the job by force feeding Irawaru some dung.
That done, Maui went back to the village, acting like nothing had happened. It’s then, that Maui’s little sister Hinauri on seeing him, ran up to asked where her husband Irawaru was. Maui responded with that he had left Irawaru back with the canoe. Well how come the two of them didn’t return together? Oh, well that’s because Irawaru wanted Hinauri’s help with bringing back the fish. So you had better hurry and if you don’t see him, just call out “Mo-i, mo-i, mo-i.”
Hinauri hurried down to the beach looking for her husband. Not seeing him, she called Irawaru’s name and when there was no response, then she called as Maui had told her to with the “Mo-i, mo-i, mo-i.”
Irawaru, now in his dog form, recognized his wife and barked back. He followed her all the way back to the village wagging his tail. Seeing what had happened to her husband, Hinauri became very distraught with grief to the point that she threw herself into the sea.
As to Maui, that antic seems rather petty to have done, but no different from say the Greek gods taking it out on mortals. Maui was now at a point that he found it best to leave the village and once more return to the Underworld where his parents lived.
Variation – Sometimes the story of Maui turning Irawaru into a dog is told that they were on their way to another village not far away. As they were headed on the return trip home, Maui had asked Irawaru to carry some food for them. Irawaru said there was no need to, they had just eaten a meal and it was only a short ways home.
This angered Maui and he used his magic to make the journey home take longer than it should have. As they continued to walk on the seemingly endless road, both Maui and Irawaru grew tired and hungry.
As they sat down, Maui pulled the food he had brought for himself after all and proceeded to eat right in front of Irawaru.
If it had been me, I would have left it at that.
Not Maui, after finishing his meal and not offering anything to Irawaru, Maui asked his brother-in-law to clean and dress his hair. Irawaru supposed that was harmless enough and did the job for Maui. When he had finished, Maui offered to clean and dress Irawaru’s hair for him. Thinking nothing of it, Irawaru allowed Maui to do so. Maui put Irawaru into an enchanted sleep and with further magic, changed Irawaru into a dog.
Either way, in Maori legends, Irawaru is the progenitor of all dogs.
The Death Of Maui
Version 1 – In this version of Maui’s death, people got tired of all his antics and decided to kill him. As a result, Maui’s blood is what creates rainbows and is responsible for the color of shrimp.
But that’s not a very exiting end for a hero and trouble maker.
Version 2: The Quest for Immortality! – This one is more exciting and noteworthy.
Following the events of a botched baptismal ceremony, Maui takes it on himself to go win immortality for humankind. Maui’s father, Makeatutara tries to dissuade him of the notion, that he will fail and that someone will kill him.
Of course, since Maui’s last antics involved turning Irawaru into a dog, he’s looking to leave the village anyways. He’s certainly gotten more than enough people upset with him, Maui heads off for the Underworld where his parents are at.
After staying with his folks for some time, Maui’s father, Makeatutara makes mention of how they have heard of Maui’s deeds up in the living world, but being down here in the Underworld, he’s sure to be defeated at some point. Makeatutara is also remembering the botched baptismal ceremony, knowing that Maui will come to a bad end.
Maui scoffs at this notion of someone defeating him, who after all would do that? Makeatutara says it would be Maui’s ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the goddess of the Night. Undaunted, Maui boasts of his many previous deeds with pulling up the islands and slowing down the sun, saying that it won’t be possible to beat him.
Makeatutara relents and tells Maui to go find his ancestress who lives far on the horizon. After asking what she looks like, Makeatutara told Maui his ancestor, Hine-Nui-Te-Po looks human but with greenstones for eyes and sea kelp hair, barracuda mouth and that the red flashing of light came from her.
Unfazed, Maui set off towards the west with companions towards the home of Hine-Nui-Te-Po. In some versions of the stories, these companions of Maui are birds such as the tomtit, robin, warbler and fantail. In other versions, these companions are Maui’s brothers.
Eventually, Maui finds Hine-Nui-Te-Po asleep with her legs spread apart. Maui and his companions were quick to note rows of sharp obsidian and greenstones between Hine’s legs.
Maui now informed the others of his master plan, telling his companions not to laugh and to save it for after. Maui planned to enter Hine-Nui-Te-Po’s vagina, in a reverse birth process and to exit out her mouth. This, according to Maui was to gain him immortality.
Maui’s companions tried to dissuade him, saying he would be killed. Maui was again undaunted, insisting if his friends did laugh, waking Hini-Nui-Te-Po, then yes, he would die, but if he successfully passed through her, he would live and that she would be the one to die.
This of course is where the companions just shut up and let Maui do his thing as he readied himself, tying a rope that held his battle club around his waist and thrusting off his clothes. Ready, Maui began to climb in, very much the image of reverse birth as his companions did their best not to laugh.
As it happens with these type of stories, the one task you’re not supposed to do, happens and one of the companions couldn’t hold it in anymore and began laughing. One version of the story says it’s the fantail who begins laughing and wakes Hine-Nui-Te-Po who opens her eyes and quickly closes her legs tight, cutting Maui in half.
Instead of immortality, Maui becomes the first person to die, bringing death to the world. Hine-Nui-Te-Po maintained her post as the Goddess of the Underworld the portal to which all humans must pass through on death.
Variation – When Maui set off to gain immortality for humankind, he did so by changing into a worm in order to enter the vagina of Hine-Nui-Te-Po and leaving through her mouth. This stunt didn’t work out so well as Hine-Nui-Te-Po crushed Maui in her sleep with the obsidian teeth in her vagina.
Maui And Rohe
We’re not quite done with Maui! In a few stories, Maui is married to the goddess Rohe whom he ends up mistreating in some rather cruel and unusual means.
What happens, is that Maui wished to trade faces with Rohe as she is very beautiful and he on the other hand is rather ugly.
Rohe refused to trade faces and when she was asleep, Maui used an incantation to make the trade and switch for faces. When Rohe woke up and realized what happened, she left the living world and departed for the Underworld, becoming the Goddess of Death.
Good one Maui.
In Samoan mythology, the character of Ti’iti’i is very similar to that of Maui. Many of the stories are similar to those of Maui from other Polynesian cultures. One striking similiarity is the story of Ti’iti’i’s theft of fire from the earthquake god, Mafui’e. In this story, Ti’iti’i breaks off one of Mafui’e’s arms, forcing them to reveal the secret of fire and how to rub sticks together for friction to create it.
For the Samoans, the loss of Mafui’e’s arm means that he is unable to create even bigger earthquakes.
Among the Tahitians, Maui was a prophet or priest who later becomes deified.
He had once been at a sacred place known as a marae busy with some task or other. When the sun began to set before he was finished, Maui grabbed hold of the sun’s rays and halted the movement of the sun so he could complete his task.
Maui became known as Ao-ao-ma-ra’i-a after he discovered fire and passed on his knowledge to others to create it by the use of friction with wood. Before this, people would eat their food raw.
As a final bit of lore, Maui is the one responsible for earthquakes.
Among the Tongans, the Maui stories tell how he pulled up the Tongan islands from the depths of the ocean, starting first with Lofanga, then the other Ha’apai islands and finishing up with Vava’u. That task finished, Maui lived on the island of Tonga. The village of Houma located on the main island of Tongatapu is noted for being the place where Maui’s fish-hook got caught.
In these stories, Maui has two sons: Maui-Atalanga, the eldest and Maui-Kisikisi, the younger. In other sources, there are listed three Maui brothers: Maui-Motu’a (old Maui), Maui-Atalanga and Maui-Kisikisi (dragonfly Maui). It is Maui-Atlanga who discovered the secret of fire and taught others how to cook with it. Maui-Motu, like Atlas from Greek mythos, holds the earth up on his shoulders. Whenever Maui-Motu starts to nod off, he causes earthquakes and people will stomp the ground in order to wake him up. The god, Hikule’o who rules the underworld of Pulotu is Maui-Motu’s youngest son.
Maui-Kisikis is known for being a trickster. He gained the name of Maui-Fusi-Fonua or Maui Land Puller after Maui-Kisikisi begged for a magic fish-hook from an old fisherman by the name of Tongafusifonua. The old man would only allow the fish-hook to be taken on the condition that Maui be able to find it in his collection of hooks. Tongafusifonua’s wife, Tavatava told Maui the secret of how to find the hook and Maui was able to succeed at picking it out from all the other hooks. With this hook, Maui-Kisikisi was able to pull up the coral islands from the bottom of the sea as these volcanic islands were believed to have fallen from the heavens.
Movie Time – Moana!
So of course, the movie came out in 2016, featuring the famous Maui of Polynesian mythology. Since I was curious, I of course wanted to know how much of the mythology and stories that the movie gets right.
It is of course, a new story and the Maui seen in the movie pulls and combines many of the aspects of him found primarily in Hawaiian and Maori legends. Much of which is confirmed during the song: “You’re Welcome” and a quick montage of all of Maui’s deeds that he’s done that have earned him a new tattoo to commemorate the event.
The character of Te Fiti in her darker aspect as Te Ka was originally referred to as Te Po, based on the Maori goddess Hine-Nui-Te-Po, the goddess of night, death and the underworld. Others have noted a strong similarity between Te Ka and the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele.
Interestingly, while the movie was being developed and written, it incorporates the history of Polynesian people as voyagers who just abruptly ceased and then a thousand years later, start sailing again. Why? No one knows. However, the story of Moana certainly provides an interesting what if story to it.
Etymology: Originating in the Old Norse, Þórr or þunraz, meaning: “Thunder.”
Alternate Spelling: Þórr (Old Norse), ðunor (Old English), Thorr, Thunor, Thonar, Donar (Old High German/ Teutonic), Donner, Thur, Thunar (Old Saxon), Thuner (Old Frisian) or Thunaer
Other Names and Epithets: Thor is known by a number of names and epithets in Norse mythology, poetry and literature.
Tor, Ásabragr (Asabrag, Æsir-Lord), Ása-Þórr (Asa-Thor Æsir-Thor), Atli (The Terrible), Björn (Bjorn, Biorn Bear), Einriði (Eindriði, The One who Rides Alone, The One who Rules Alone), Ennilangr (Ennilang, The One with the Wide Forehead), Harðhugaðr (Hardhugadr, Strong Spirit, Powerful Soul, Fierce Ego, Brave Heart), Harðvéurr (Hardveur The Strong Archer), Hlóriði (Hlórriði, The Loud Rider, The Loud Weather-God), Öku-Þor (Oku-Thor, Ukko-Thor, Cart Thor, Driving Thor), Rymr (Rym, Noise), Sönnungr (Sonnung, The True One), Véþormr (Vethorm, Protector of the Shrine), Véuðr (Véuðr, Véoðr, Veud, Veod), Véurr (Veur, Guard of the Shrine, Hallower), Vingþórr (Vingthor, Battle-Thor, Hallower), The Thunderer and many others
Thor, the Germanic god of Thunder is found in many Germanic mythologies such as the Teutonic and Norse mythos! Much as I love the Marvel version, what follows will be the proper mythological versions of the legend.
Among the Norse, Thor was a very popular deity who even surpassed the worship of his father Odin. As a god of thunder, strength and war, Thor protected both gods and mortals against evil.
Day of the Week: Thursday
Element: Air, Earth
Patron of: Farmers, Sailors, Common Man, Warriors
Sphere of Influence: War, Protection of Mankind, Sky, Rain, Strength, Fertility, Hallowing, Healing, Thunder, Lightning, Storms
Symbols: Hammer, Swastika
Not the Marvel comic character of Thor who is blonde and muscular.
In Norse mythology, Thor is described as a large man with red hair and beard that gives off sparks when he’s angry. Further, he is described as having a wide forehead and fierce looking eyes. Thor is also known for not being very smart and having an insatiable appetite, he however, is always dressed for battle.
Another important aspect to Thor is that he is known for being able to change his size. Due to how hot and heavy he is, Thor is unable to cross the Bifrost bridge. He has to wade through the Northern Sea and enter Asgard the long route.
While Thor is known to be overly hasty in his judgments, is a reliable friend and battle companion who will have people’s backs.
What’s In A Name? – Syno-Dieities!
For one, the Romans, as they did with many other cultures that they encountered would equate their gods with those, whom they had in many cases, just conquered. In the case of Thor, while the Norse may not have ever been fully conquered, the Romans saw their god, Jupiter, a god of lightning and thunder in Thor. If the Romans weren’t equating Thor with Jupiter, they were equating Thor with Hercules. Other Indo-European gods equated with Thor have been the Celtic god Taranis, the Baltic Perkunas, the Estonian Taara, the Finno-Ugric Tiermes and Tordöm or Torum, the Slavic Perun and even the Hindu god Indra.
There were several Germanic cultures with incredibly similar mythologies throughout Europe at the time. So many of the deities were often extremely similar in function and myths. The Anglo-Saxons knew Thor by the name of Thunor. In Old English, Thor is known as Þunor where it becomes Donar in the Old High German or Teutonic mythos. Donar is thought to originate from the Common Germanic word Þunraz, meaning “thunder.”
During the Viking Age, many personal names using some form of Thor began to appear and be recorded with increasing frequency. It’s thought that the increased usage for the name Thor was in direct response to the growing Christian religion and resistance to it.
Donar – This is the South German or Teutonic name for Thor. The first record of this name was found on a piece of jewelry dating from the 7th century C.E. during the Migration Period of the Germanic people.
Donar Oak – In the 8th century C.E., there is an account how the Christian missionary, Saint Boniface knocked down an oak tree dedicated to “Jove” in Hesse, Germany.
Indra – A Hindu god, many have pointed towards both Thor and Indra having red hair and Scholars have compared the slaying of Vrita, a demon serpent by Indra with Thor’s battle with Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent.
Thunor – this is the Anglo-Saxon storm god and name for Thor.
Germanic Origins & Worship
Thor finds his roots in the Proto-Indo-European religion. He is a very prominent god who is mentioned many times throughout the history of the Germanic peoples from the Bronze Age, to the times of Roman occupation, to their expansions during their Migration Period, to seeing the height of his popularity during the Viking Age and persisting even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia.
Even into modern times, Thor is still found in the rural folklore in many Germanic regions. Many Nordic personal and place names often contained Thor’s name.
A hypothesis put forward by Georges Dumézil for the old Indo-European religion says that Thor represented strength when comparing him to the Hindu god Indra. However, it’s noted that many of Indra’s functions have been taken over by Odin.
Scholars have taken note of Thor’s association with fertility, especially as seen in later folklore where Thor is referred to as Sami Hora galles, the “Good-man Thor.” The equation is made as peasants seeing the side-effects of Thor’s aerial battles in the heaven that bring rain. Which makes sense when seeing Thor as a storm god, fertility would be a side-effect. Further proof is pointed in Thor’s marriage to Sif of whom not much is known about, but may very well be a memory for the divine marriage between the primary Sky God and Earth Goddess.
I’m not sure how much I agree with, but when you’ve got people wanting to connect everything, okay….
What is more practical and pointed out is Thor’s primary and principle function as the god of the second class, common man. Archaeological evidence points towards a three-tiered social hierarchy among the Norse. The first being the nobility and rulers, second being the warriors and the third being the farmers, commoners and everyone else. Thor was primarily the god of warriors and due to his being a storm god, easily stood for the farmers and commoners. As a result, Thor became the most important of the Norse gods, especially during the Viking Age as the lines between the second and third classes began to blur as social changes among the Germanic peoples.
Odin, who was the principle god for the first class appealing to the nobles, rulers, outcasts and anyone who was considered elite. Odin was often seen at odds with Thor as seen in many of the Eddas. One episode has Odin taunting Thor how Odin’s warriors are the nobles who fall in battle and that the thralls who fall in battle belong to Thor. Another episode has Odin blessing a favored hero of his, Starkaðr. For every blessing that Odin would impart, Thor gave a matching curse for Starkaðr.
This is an example of place names containing the name for Thor, but later forgotten as Christianity replaced the older Pagan religions.
In Kentish royal legends from about the 11th century C.E., there is a story of a reeve of Ecgberht of Kent known as Thunor. He was seen as being so wicked that he was swallowed up by the earth at a place known as þunores hlæwe or “Thunor’s Mound.
Thor’s hall of Bilskirnir is found in the region of Thrudheim (or spelt Thruthheim and Þrúðheimr), meaning: “Land of Strength.” Another place known as Þrúðvangr is mentioned as one of Thor’s abodes.
One of Thor’s temples located in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, here, there is a statue showing Thor wielding a mace with Odin and “Fricco” standing to his right. Uppsala was replaced by a Christian church in 1080 C.E. Priests were appointed to each of the gods who offered up sacrifices. Sacrifices to Thor were only made during times of famine and plague.
Parentage and Family
Odin – Not just Thor’s father, Odin is also The All Father in Norse Mythology
Jord – Mother and Earth Goddess
Sometimes, Thor is said to the son of either Fjorgynn, also an Earth Goddess or Hlodyn.
Frigg – Thor is sometimes portrayed as Frigg’s stepson.
Sif – Wife, a fertility goddess
Jarnsaxa – “Iron Cutlass,” A Jötunn and Thor’s Mistress. I guess that means Thor was in a polyamory relationship.
Thor is the oldest of several brothers.
Baldr, Höðr, Víðarr, Váli, Hermóðr, Heimdallr, Bragi, Týr
Thrud – Also spelled as Þrúðr. She is likely a Valkyrie. Thor’s daughter with Sif
Magni – Thor’s son with Járnsaxa
Modi – Thor’s son with an unknown mother.
Ullr – Thor is the stepfather to this god of hunting.
Attendants of Thor
Thialfi – Not only Thor’s servant, but the messenger for the gods.
Þjálfi and Röskva – A pair of mortals, brother and sister who accompanied Thor as they ride around in his chariot.
Aesir Versus Vanir
The Aesir gods and Vanir gods of Norse mythology were two different tribes of gods who at first fought each other then started working together.
Thor belongs to the Aesir tribe of gods.
Thursday – Eight Days A Week!
In Western culture, the fourth day of the week is called Thursday or Thor’s Day, named after and for Thor himself. In Old English, this name is Thunresdaeg or Thunor’s Day. In German, the name of this day was known as Þonares dagaz or Donnerstag, meaning: Donar’s Day. Others believe the name of Thursday derives from Jupiter Tanarus, the Thundering Jupiter. In this case it’s taking the name of a Celtic deity and attaching them to a Roman god.
Interpretatio Germanica – This was a practice used during the time of the Romans when the Germanic people adopted the Roman weekly calendar and simply replaced the names of the Roman gods with their own. It easily explains how the Roman calendar and Dies Iovis, “Day of Jupiter” becomes Thursday, “Thor’s Day.”
God Of Thunder & Lightning
Thor is best known as a god of the sky and thunder among the Norse. Since thunder & lightning often mean rain, Thor is also the god of agriculture and fertility.
The 19th century scholar Jacob Grimm wrote how a number of phrases in the Germanic languages refer to Thor. Phrases such as: Thorsvarme meaning “Thor’s Warm” in Norwegian used to describe lightning; godgubben åfar meaning “The good old fellow is taking a ride” in Sweden along with tordön, meaning: “Thor’s rumble” or “Thor’s thunder” to describe when it thunders. According to Montelius, thunderbolts were known as Thorsviggar.
In Scandinavia, there is a folk belief that lightning will frighten away trolls and jötnar. This is likely a reflection of Thor’s pen chance for fighting giants. The evidence for a lack of trolls and ettins in Scandinavia is given that it is due to Thor’s accuracy and proficiency with his lightning strikes.
Once upon a time, this symbol was a protective religious symbol. While many who are already familiar with the history of this symbol are familiar with the sun or solar wheel. The swastika was also associated with Thor as this symbol was thought to represent Mjollnir or lightning.
As a protective sigil, it had been worn by women and archaeological searches have found the swastika depicted on many women’s graves. It’s thought to have been used by warriors too as it represented Thor’s lightning and used alternatively with a hammer symbol when going into battle. The symbol has been found on many memorial stones throughout Scandinavia next to inscriptions for Thor and a sword was found with an image of the swastika on the pommel. This symbol appears in many places on many Germanic artifacts dating from the Migration Period and Viking Ages.
Note: With the passage of time and WWII, this symbol is not acceptable anymore, though a few try do to cling to it. Just not cool. It’s become a modern symbol of hatred, division and terror.
God Of Craftsmanship
As a god of craftsmanship, it also made him the common man’s god from farmers to sailors.
God Of Healing
A Canterbury Charm dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription calling upon Thor to heal a wound by banishing a þurs or thurs.
In the Elder Futhark, the rune ᚦ or Thurs may have likely referred to dark magic or an evil spirit often called trolls or nisse.
God Of Protection & Strength
For the Germanic peoples, Thor represented the very archetype of the loyal and honorable warrior that warriors would aspire to. He was the defender of Asgard and the Aesir gods, protecting them from the jotuns, their enemies.
Going hand in hand with his role as protector is Thor’s great strength. Without his strength, power or even courage, Thor would not have been able to do his job as a protector of the gods, Asgard and Midgard. Sure Odin and Loki have the brains, it was often Thor with his brawn leading the way to muscle past faceless hordes of jotuns, ogres and trolls to defend everyone while the brains of the operations got their plans working.
A Kvinneby amulet dating from the 11th century C.E. has a runic inscription invoking protection from both Thor and his hammer.
As a weather god, Thor would also protect sailors traveling over the seas.
I find it interesting that Thor specifically is a deity noted for hallowing, that is to make something or someplace sanctified, sacred or holy. I suppose any deity can and do so, just not so explicitly like this.
As many called on Thor for protection and defense, for comfort, it does make a certain sense that he does bless items and places. A number of runic inscriptions found at many archeological sites all testify this. Even weddings were blessed by Thor as seen in the use of a hammer placed on a bride’s lap during marriage ceremonies. Early Icelandic farmers were known to call upon Thor to bless their plot of land before they built or planted crops.
Often Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir was used for blessing and hallowing just as often as he would use it to destroy. So, if he is seen as having the power to banish or destroy, having the power for just the opposite of hallowing is a given.
Interesting, some sources cite December fifth or even December 25th as the day for Thor’s birth. Imagine that, the same day for Saint Nicholas’ Day (December fifth) and Christmas (December 25th).
Mjollnir – Thor’s Hammer
Meaning “Destroyer” or “Crusher,” Mjollnir is represented as a stylized hammer. Whenever Thor threw Mjollnir, lightning would flash. The hammer would return to Thor’s hand after being thrown, a move symbolic of lightning. The myths describing Mjollnir say it could crush mountains. Mjollnir was crafted for Thor by the dwarven brothers Sindri and Brokkr.
In addition, Mjollnir held another power, that of returning the dead to life. In connection to Thor’s association to fertility and life, there was an old Nordic tradition of placing a hammer in a bride’s lap at her wedding and that of raising a hammer over a newborn.
Mjollnir’s Origins – Loki, the Norse god of trickery was in a rather mischievous mood, deciding it would be a good idea to cut off all of Sif’s hair. With Sif being Thor’s wife, the might god of thunder was not amused one bit. He swore to break every bone in Loki’s body to defend Sif’s honor and Loki pleaded with Thor to let him go to the caves of the dwarves to see if they could help fix the problem of Sif having no hair.
Loki went to the dwarven home where he implored the dwarf, Ivaldi to fashion some new hair for Sif. Ivaldi’s sons crafted a wig composed of the finest strands of gold. In addition, the dwarves made two other gifts, a ship that could easily fold down into a person’s pocket and would always have wind to move it and a magnificent, yet deadly spear.
Seeing these, Loki made a wager with two dwarven brothers, Sindri and Brokkr, betting his own head that the brothers couldn’t craft three gifts of their own for the gods that would be greater than what Ivaldi’s sons had crafted.
As the brothers began working at their forge, Loki shape-shifted into a fly as he attempted to interrupt their work to try and win the bet. While crafting the last gift, a hammer, Loki succeeded at interrupting the brothers enough that the handle of the hammer was too short. Despite this, the hammer was still considered the best of all of the gifts created and it was presented to Thor as he was the only one capable of welding it.
Holy Symbol – This major symbol of Thor’s has appeared in a many archaeological sites in iron, silver and other metal. Hammer shaped amulets were worn as necklaces by worshipers and followers of Thor, even during the Christianizing of Scandinavia as a means of defiance to the incoming religion. Both crosses and hammer shapes have been found side by side at archeological and burial sites.
Megingjard – Belt Of Strength
Meaning “Strength Increaser,” this is another of Thor’s mystical items and regalia. This belt doubled his already considerable strength while wearing it.
Járngreipr – Iron Gloves
These gloves were given to Thor by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd. These gloves were needed when Thor wielded Mjollnir.
An unbreakable staff provided by the female Jotunn Gríðr to defend himself against the giant Geirröd.
Thor rode around the heavens in a chariot pulled by two goats. These goats’ names are: Tanngnjostr (Teeth-Grinder) & Tanngrisnir (Teeth-Barer or Gap-Tooth.) Thor would kill and eat these goats, after which, they would be resurrected by placing their bones back within their hides. The Old English expression of: þunnorad (“thunder ride”) is likely an allusion to Thor riding around in his chariot.
Thor Versus Giants
The giants or Jotun lived in Jotunheim, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology. The Jotun of were the main enemies of Thor whom he would strike down by hitting them on the head. While many of the dealings between the gods and Jotun were often civil, the fights and battles were frequent. Thor would lead the charge against the Jotun as he rode his chariot and swinging around his mighty hammer. The lightning and thunder seen during storms were believed to be Thor fighting the Jotun on behalf of the mortal realm of Midgard.
In Norse mythology, the jotun represented the forces of chaos, destruction and entropy that would destroy all of Midgard and the Cosmos if Thor and the other gods didn’t keep them in check.
Half-Giant – Well… more like three-quarters giant really. It seems a little odd that for all that Thor is the protector of the Aesir and Asgard, that Thor is three-quarters giant himself. Odin, his father is a half-giant and his mother, Jord is a giant herself. Despite that lineage, it doesn’t stop Thor or any of the other gods from getting along and standing against the jotuns.
Thor Versus Geirrod – In this story, Loki had been flying around in the form of a falcon when got captured by the jotun, Geirrod. The jotun refused to release Loki unless he could find a way to get Thor to come to his court. Thor did agree, thinking that this would be a peaceful invitation and came without his hammer, Mjollnir.
Along the way, Thor stopped at the home of a friendly female jotun by the name of Grid. She warned Thor how Geirrod really intended to kill Thor. Grid loaned Thor her unbreakable staff, Gríðarvölr.
Finally arriving at Geirrod’s court, Thor was taken to a room where he sat in the only chair present. When Thor sat, the chair began to raise towards the ceiling. Just as Thor was about to be crushed to death, he braced Grid’s staff against the ceiling and pushed his way back to the floor. There were two loud cracks and screams that followed. When Thor looked to see the source, he saw Geirrod’s two daughter laying there in pain as Thor had broken their backs when forcing himself back to the floor as they had been lifting the chair.
Geirrod rushed into the room in a rage, throwing a molten iron rod at Thor. Undaunted, Thor caught the rod easily and Geirrod in a panic, hid behind a pillar. When Thor threw the rod at the pillar, it not only pierced the pillar, but continued through to impale Geirrod, killing him.
The Sun, The Moon & Freyja – One such story has Asgard, the home of the Norse gods getting damaged during a war between the gods. One of the Jotun offered to help rebuild the walls for Asgard, vowing to get it done in a short span of time. The gods accepted this offer, believing it would be an impossible task. The gods promised the Jotun a reward of the sun, the moon and the hand of Freyja in marriage. This Jotun nearly finished the task in the stated time period. However, to prevent having to fulfill the gods end of the bargain, Thor killed the Jotun.
Defeated By Utgard-Loki
This is a story that has two parts to it, beginning easily enough one winter when the jotun were causing huge blocks of ice to fall from the sky down into Midgard into people’s homes and causing vast amounts of snow to cover the fields to prevent planting any crops. As the defender and champion of humanity, Thor journeyed to the realm of Jotuneim with Loki and a couple of other companions.
Part One – Thor Versus Skrymir – In this first part, Thor and Loki met the Jotun known as Skrymir. This giant was so immense, that Thor and his companions mistook him for a hill. There was an oddly shaped mansion that the group found and decided to sleep in for the night. In the morning the group discovered that this mansion was actually one of Skrymir’s gloves. When the group awoke n the morning, they realized what they had taken for a hill was actually the giant, Skyrimir still asleep. Thor tried to crush in the Jotun’s skull with his hammer, Mjollnir. In response, Skrymir merely brushed the blow away as if it were nothing but a fly or leaf.
Despite the efforts of Thor to murder Skyrimir in his sleep, when the giant awoke, he offered to lead the group on their way to Utgard, a city of the jotun.
Part Two – Visiting Utgard – Skrymir led the group to the jotun city of Utgard where the group lost sight of Skrymir and was greeted by a group of jotun, including the king himself, Utgard-Loki. Given the general animosity between the gods and jotun, it’s no surprise that Thor, Loki and their other companions were not welcomed, unless of course they could complete a series of seemingly impossible challenges.
Loki was challenged and lost an eating contest when his opponent not only ate all the meat, but the bones and plate itself. Thialfi, one of the companions with the group, lost a series of three footraces.
It now fell to Thor to fulfill three challenges. As Thor boasted he could drink anyone under the table, a large drinking horn was brought to him with the challenge to finish it all in one gulp. After taking three huge swallows, Thor had only managed to drain the horn a few inches.
With the next challenge, Thor boasted his immense strength and Utgard-Loki challenged Thor to pick up a cat off the ground. After three attempts at moving the cat, Thor was only able to succeed at moving one paw.
Enraged by this, Thor accepted the last challenge of a wrestling match with anyone willing to match strength with him. The only one who would, was an old, frail looking woman. Thinking this would be easy, once again Thor was met with defeat at the hands of a feeble opponent who easily bested the mighty god, bringing him to his knees.
After this, Utgard-Loki declared the contests over and allowed the gods to stay the night and rest before returning home in the morning.
Come daylight, Utgard-Loki led the group out of Jotunheim. Once they were well past the borders, Utgard-Loki revealed himself to have been the giant, Skrymir who lead them to the city. Utgard-Loki proceeded to reveal the secrets of all of the challenges that Thor and his companions undergone.
Loki had been competing with fire, that burns and consumes everything it touches. That Thialfi’s opponent was thought, whom no one can outrun. As to Thor, the drinking horn he had drunk from was connected to the ocean and that he had succeeded in lowering the sea levels. The cat that Thor had tried lifting was none other than Jormungand, the Midgard serpent that encircles the world. As for the old woman, she was Age itself whom no one can defeat. That no matter how fiercely and bravely Thor fought her, even he would fall to her.
Angry at being tricked, Thor raised his hammer Mjollnir only to have the king of giants and his city vanish into thin air.
Thor Versus Hrungnir – One day Odin was out wandering near Jotunheim when he meets the jotun, Hrungnir. Odin challenged the jotun to a horse race back to Asgard. While Odin still won the match, he invited the jotun, Hrungnir to stay for dinner. During the dinner, Hrungnir gets drunk and boasts about how he could destroy Asgard and keep the goddesses as his concubines, including Thor’s own wife, Sif.
Needless to say, Thor didn’t take too well to this boasting and challenged Hrungnir to a fight. The jotun agreed and as Hrungnir had brought no weapons, they went back down to meet up near Jotunheim.
Before getting there, the other jotuns crafted a huge clay figure, some 30 miles high and 10 miles wide whom they brought to life. This clay figure would be Hrungnir’s right-hand man during the upcoming fight.
When Thor arrived, he was unfazed by seeing Hrungnir’s massive clay figure fighting beside him. Using his own trickery, Thor sent his own servant to keep the clay figure busy while Thor battled Hrungnir. When Hrungnir threw a giant whetstone, Thor responded with hurling his hammer, Mjollnir that broke the stone in half before continuing through to smash in Hrungnir’s head.
The Poetic Edda & Other Sagas
Much of what we know about Thor and the other Norse deities comes from the surviving Poetic Edda that was compiled in the 13th century C.E. It is a collection of various poems as follows: Völuspá, Grímnismál, Skírnismál, Hárbarðsljóð, Hymiskviða, Lokasenna, Þrymskviða, Alvíssmál, and Hyndluljóð.
Alvíssmál – In this poem, Thor manages to trick the dwarf, Alviss. When the story starts, Thor meets the dwarf, Alviss who is talking about marriage. Finding the dwarf to be ugly and repulsive, Thor comes to realize that it is own daughter, Thrud who is to be married. Further angered, Thor learns that this marriage was arranged by the other gods while he was away. Alviss however, must still seek Thor’s consent.
In order to get Thor’s permission, Alviss must tell Thor all about the worlds that he has visited. It becomes a rather long question and answer session as Alviss goes into detail about the terrains, different languages of various races and a goodly amount of cosmology.
This long question and answer session is nothing more than a delay tactic by Thor. While Thor comments that he has never met anyone with more wisdom, he has succeeded in delaying Alviss long enough that when the Sun rises, it turns him to stone. Now Thor’s daughter won’t be marrying someone he doesn’t approve. Of course, Thor could have made it easier by simply denying Alviss’ request, but it might have been more problems.
Grímnismál – In this poem, Odin is disguised as Grimnir wherein he is tortured, starved and thirsty. In this state, Grimnir tells a young Agnar about the cosmology of Norse believes, that Thor lives in Þrúðheimr and every day, Thor wades through the rivers Körmt and Örmt and the two Kerlaugar. At the base of the world tree, Yggdrasil, Thor sits as a judge.
Hárbarðsljóð – In this poem, Thor is the central figure. After having traveled “from the east,” Thor comes to an inlet where he tries to get a ride from a ferryman by the name of Hárbarðr (Odin in disguise). The ferryman shouts at Thor from the inlet, being rude and obnoxious. Thor takes this all-in stride at first, keeping his cool. As Hárbarðr becomes more and more aggressive, the two eventually fall into a flyting match.
Flyting? Epic Rap Battles way back in the day. As the match continues, it is revealed that Thor has killed several jötnar (giants) in the east and berserk women in Hlesy (the Danish island of Læsø). Thor loses the match to Hárbarðr and finds himself forced to walk.
It should be noted that the name of Hárbarðr or Harbard means Greybeard.
Hymiskviða – In this poem, Thor is the central character. After the gods have been out hunting and finished eating their prey, they begin to drink. As they drink, the gods decide to “shake the twigs” and interpret what is said. The gods then decide that they will find some cauldron’s at Ægir’s home. Thor gets to Ægir’s home and tells the other god how he needs to prepare a feast for the gods. Annoyed by this, Ægir informs Thor that he and the other gods will need to bring him a suitable cauldron in which to brew some ale in. Searching to no avail, Thor and the other gods are unable to locate such a cauldron. Tyr tells Thor that there may be a proper cauldron to use at Hymir’s place over east in Élivágar.
Stabling his goats, Thor and Tyr head to Hymir’s hall for a large enough cauldron to meet Ægir’s demands. When they arrive, Tyr see his nine-hundred-headed grandmother and his gold-clad mother who welcomes the two with a drinking horn. Hymir comes in and he’s not happy to see Thor. Tyr’s mother helps with finding a large enough cauldron for Ægir’s need for brewing. Thor in the meantime, eats a huge meal consisting of two oxen (while the others only have one) and then falls asleep.
In the morning, Thor awakens and tells Hymir that he wants to go fishing, intending to catch a lot of fish, but he will need bait. Hymir has Thor get bait from his pasture. Thor does so, going out and rips the head off of Hymir’s best ox. I can see why Hymir isn’t happy with seeing Thor.
There’s a break in the poem and it picks up with Thor and Hymir out at sea in a boat, fishing. Hymir manages to catch a few whales. Thor goes and baits his line with the head of the ox and when he throws it out, it is Jörmungandr, the monstrous sea serpent that takes the bait. Undaunted, Thor pulls the serpent up and slams Jörmungandr’s head with his hammer. Jörmungandr lets out a mighty shriek.
There is another break in the poem. However, other sources have commented that what is likely to have happened, is that Hymir cut the line holding Jörmungandr and he slipped back down into the ocean. This incident is also probably the source of the enmity between Thor and Jörmungandr at Ragnarok when the two kill each other.
The poem picks back up with Hymir completely unhappy and quiet as the two row back to shore. Back at shore, Hymir tells Thor to help him carry one of the whales back to his farm. Thor’s response is to pick up the boat, whales and all to carry them back to the farm.
Back at the farm, Thor smashes a crystal goblet that he throws at Hymir’s head at the suggestion of Tyr’s mother. Thor and Tyr are given the cauldron that they came looking for and while Tyr is unable to lift it, Thor is able to at least roll it along.
After leaving Hymir’s place and getting some distance from the farm, Thor and Tyr are attacked by an army of multi-headed creatures all led by Hymir. Thor kills all of the attacking creatures and presumably Hymir. One of Thor’s goats ends up lame, however Thor and Tyr are successful at bringing back a large enough cauldron for Ægir who is able to brew enough ale for everyone. Clearly the feast is enough of a success that the gods return every winter to Ægir’s place for more ale.
Hyndluljóð – In this poem, Freyja offers the jötunn woman, Hyndla a blót or sacrifice to Thor so that she can be protected. The comment is made that Thor doesn’t care much for jötunn women. Which begs the question of why make the offer? Unless because it was Freyja making the offering, knowing that Thor would honor it?
Lokasenna – In this poem, Loki enters a flyting match the gods in Ægir’s hall. Thor isn’t present for this incident. Towards the end of the poem, as things get more heated, the attention is turned towards Sif, Thor’s wife and Loki makes a bold claim to have slept with her. Beyla, a servant of Freyr’s, interrupt and announces that since the mountains are shaking, it must mean that Thor is on his way home. Beyla continues with how Thor will bring an end to the argument. Loki responds with more insults.
Thor does arrive and tell Loki to keep quiet or else he’ll rip off Loki’s head using his hammer. Loki taunts Thor, asking why he is so angry, he won’t be in any mood to fight the wolf, Fenrir after it eats Odin. All this is about the events of Ragnarok that have been foretold. Thor again tells Loki to keep quiet with a threat to throw the trickster god so far into the sky he would never come back down.
Not daunted in the least, Loki tells Thor how he shouldn’t be bragging about his time in the east as the mighty Thor had once cowered in fear inside the thumb of a glove. Once more Thor tells Loki to keep silent with threats to break every bone in his body. Loki continues the taunts, saying he still intends to live, throwing in references to when Thor had met Útgarða-Loki.
Thor gives a fourth and final demand to Loki for silence or else he would send Loki to Hel. At this, Loki ceases his taunts saying that he will leave the hall, knowing that Thor does indeed strike. The segment of the poem containing Thor ends here, but continues on.
Skírnismál – In this poem, Freyr’s messenger, Skirnir threatens the lovely Gerðr with whom Freyr is in love with. Skirnir’s many threats and curses include those of having Thor, Freyr and Odin himself be angry with her if she doesn’t return Freyr’s advances. I would hope that Gerðr held her ground and said no.
Þrymskviða – Also known as the Lay of Trym, this comedic poem features Thor as a central figure. Thor awakens one morning to discover that his hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Thor confides in Loki about the missing hammer and that no one knows it’s missing. The two then head to Freyja’s hall to find the missing Mjöllnir. Thor asks Freyja if he can borrow her feathered cloak to which she agrees. At this, Loki takes off with the feathered cloak.
Loki heads to Jötunheimr where the jotunn, Þrymr is making collars for his dogs and trimming the manes of his horses. When Þrymr sees Loki, he asks what is happening among the Æsir and elves and why it is that Loki is alone in Jötunheimr. Loki replies by telling Þrymr how Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir is missing. Þrymr admits to having taken Mjöllnir and hiding it some eight leagues beneath the earth where Thor will never get it back unless the goddess Freyja is brought to him to be his wife. Loki takes off again, flying back to the Æsir court with Freyja’s cloak.
Thor enquires with Loki if he was successful. Loki tells of what he has found out, that Þrymr took Thor’s hammer and will only give it back if Freyja is brought to Þrymr to be his wife. At this news, Thor and Loki return to Freyja to tell her of the news that she is to be a bride to Þrymr. Angry, Freyja flat out refuses, causing the halls of the Æsir to shake and for her famous necklace, Brísingamen to fall off.
The gods and goddess hold a meeting to debate the matter of Þrymr’s demands. The god Heimdallr puts forth the suggestion that instead of Freyja, that Thor should dress as the bride as a way to get Thor’s hammer back. Thor balks at the idea and Loki seconds Heimdallr’s idea, saying it will be the only that Thor can get his hammer back. For without Mjöllnir, the jötnar will be able to invade Asgard. Relenting, Thor agrees to dress as a bride, taking Freyja’s place. Dressing as a maid to the disguised Thor, Loki goes with Thor down to Jötunheimr.
After arriving in Jötunheimr, Þrymr commands the jötnar of his hall to make the place presentable for Freyja has arrived to be his bride. Þrymr then tells how of all of his treasured animals and objects, that Freyja was the one missing piece to all of his wealth.
Disguised, Loki and Thor meet with Þrymr and all of his jötnar. At the feast, Thor consumes a large amount of food and mead, something that is at odds with Þrymr’s impressions of Freyja. Loki, feigning the part of a shrewd maid, tells Þrymr how that is because Freyja had not eaten anything for eight days in her eagerness to arrive. Þrymr decides that he wants to kiss his bride and when he lifts “Freyja’s” veil, fierce looking eyes stare back at him. Again, Loki says that this is because Freyja hasn’t slept either during the past eight nights.
A poor sister of the jötnar arrives, calling for the bridal gift from Freyja if she cares anything at all for the jötnar. The jötnar then bring out Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir in order to sanctify the bride as they lay it on “Freyja’s” lap. Þrymr and Freyja will be handfasted by the goddess Var. When Thor sees his hammer, he grabs hold of Mjöllnir and proceeds to beat all of the jötnar with it. Thor even kills the poor sister of the jötnar. Thus, Thor gets his hammer back.
Völuspá – In this poem, a dead völva tells the history of the universe and the future to Odin in disguise about the death of Thor. The völva foretells how Thor will battle with the Midgard serpent during the great mythical battle known as Ragnarok. How after slaying the serpent, Thor will only be able to take nine steps before dying from the serpent’s venom.
After the battle, the sky turns black before fire envelops the world, the stars vanishing, flames dancing across the sky, steam rising and the world becoming covered in water before it raises again, once more green and fertile.
The Prose Edda & Other Sagas
Not to be confused with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda consists of four books: Prologue, Gylfaginning, Skáldskaparmál, and Háttatal written by Snorri Sturluson.
In the Prose Edda, Thor is a prince of Troy, the son of King Memnon by Troana, the daughter of Priam. In this account, Thor is also known as Tror who is to have married the prophetess Sibyl, identified with Sif. It continues that Thor was raised in Thrace by the chieftain Lorikus whom Thor later kills and takes on the title: King of Thrace. Like later Marvel versions of Thor, this version of Thor also has blonde hair.
Snorri Sturluson explains how the name of the Aesir gods means: “men from Asia” and that Asgard was an “Asian City” that is, Troy. Given that Troy is located anciently in Tyrkland (Turkey) and is part of Asia Minor, that explanation works. So Asialand or Scythia is where Thor is to have founded a new city by the name of Asgard. Odin in this version is a descendant of Thor by twelve generations, who leads an expedition across Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
If Snorri can play around with Thor’s mythology, so can Marvel comics.
This is another of Snorri Sturluson’s books, written in the 13th century C.E. Statues attributed to Thor are found mentioned in a number of different sagas. Namely the Ynglinga saga, Hákonar saga góða, Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, and Óláfs saga Helga sagas. In the Ynglinga saga, Thor is described as having been a pagan priest who was given by Odin, another powerful, magic using chieftain to the East, a place in the mythical place of Þrúðvangr, that is now Sweden. A number of popular names for Thor likely originate from the Ynglinga.
Ragnarok – Twilight of the Gods
The final end game of the Norse Gods, this not exactly a happy time as a good many of the gods end up dying.
Jormungand – On the day of Ragnarok, Thor would kill the Midgard Serpent known as Jormungand and then die in turn from the serpent’s poison. Thor’s sons, Magni and Modi would inherit the hammer. Though just how they would split it between them is unknown.
Norse Versus Christianity
Dating from the 800’s C.E., there’s a story how a bunch of priests of Thor had shown up at a Christian monastery of monks. Apparently, word had gotten around and the priests of Thor weren’t happy with how the monks their God were transgressing on Thor’s territory.
The priests of Thor were considering wiping out all of the monks, but knew if they did that, more monks and followers of Christianity would soon arrive.
Thor’s priests then decided on a pretty clever plan, let the gods fight it out for who would be the supreme deity. Thor’s priests were very confident that Thor would show up, leaving the Christian monks to have their God show up. The monks declined the challenge.
It’s an interesting story of people so certain in the reality of their faith and deities.
Old Saxon Baptismal Vow
This codex dating from the 9th century C.E. has the names of three Old Saxon gods, UUôden (Old Saxon “Wodan”), Saxnôte, and Thunaer, listed as demons to be renounced by the Germanic pagans converting to Christianity.
This is a specific breed of fox found in Iceland. The name translates to “Thor of the Holt” and receives the name due to their red coats.
Thorwiggar – Thor’s Wedges
In Swedish folklore, these are smooth, wedge-shaped stones that were thrown by Thor at a troll.
In a similar vein, meteorites are considered memorials to Thor due to how heavy they are.
On the Swedish island of Gotland, this is the name of a beetle named after the god Thor. It is believed that when this beetle is found upside down, that a person can gain Thor’s favor by flipping the beetle back over.
Unfortunately, in other parts of Sweden, this beetle has become demonized with the Christinization of Europe as seen in the name of Thordedjefvul and Thordyfvel, both of which mean “Thor-Devil.”
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician, and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There are typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus, and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or a demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus are also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue its true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to God and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Another gift that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, is often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Calliope, Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophecy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This is the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus’ fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations of how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, and he looks back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would then later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld, and Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize, and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay, or other supernatural beings.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually, Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophecies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come and tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures in Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their descent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.
Attis & Cybele
This story is one of the major myths involving Cybele and they often include her relationship with Attis, a youthful consort to the goddess. Attis is noted too as being the name of a Phrygian deity. Further, Attis doesn’t become a part of the myth with Cybele until the Roman poet Catullus references him with Cybele as Magna Mater and as the name of the head priest for the Galli. Additionally, pine cones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
Attis – As a Phrygian deity, Attis is the god of vegetation, his death and resurrection is symbolic of the death and rebirth of vegetation and the harvest with each winter and spring. The name Attis in Phyrgia was a common name and one used for priests. In the myths linking Attis with Cybele as her consort; wherever Cybele’s worship spread, Attis’ worship went as well.
Imagery portraying Attis has been found at a number of Greek sites. Whenever Attis is shown with Cybele, he is shown as a younger, lesser deity to her. He is possibly even one of her priestly attendants. During the mid-2nd century B.C.E., various letters from the king of Pergamum to Cybele’s shrine in Pessinos all address the chief priest as “Attis.” So deity or priest tends to be a matter of personal interpretation with the myths of Attis.
Attis was Cybele’s young lover who had devoted himself to the goddess. He had a made a promise that he would always be faithful. As fate would have it, Attis in time fell in love with a nymph by the name of Sagaritis (or Sagaris) and they decided to marry. When Cybele learned of this marriage, she burst in on the marriage ceremony, inflicting Attis with madness and sending the other guests into a panic.
In his maddened state, Attis fled for the mountains. There, he stopped under a pine tree and proceeded to mutilate himself to the point of castrating himself and bleeding to death there beneath the pine tree.
When Cybele found her lover, the young Attis dead, she mourned her actions and deeply regretted them. She pleaded with the god Jupiter to restore Attis to life. Jupiter vowed that that pine tree would remain sacred and like the tree, Attis would live again. The blood that Attis shed is said to have become the first violets.
In the versions of the myths where Maeon is Cybele’s father – Maeon kills Attis, the baby whom he sires after committing incest with his daughter. Cybele manages, in this myth to restore Attis back to life.
Pausanias’ Version – Another story of Attis, this time with Agdistis as another name for Cybele follows much of the same story as previously mentioned. Only now, when the baby, Attis is born, he is left exposed and a ram comes, standing guard over the child. As the baby grew, his beauty became ever more apparent as more than human. Agdistis saw Attis and fell in love with him.
When Attis finally came of age, he was sent to Pessinos, a city in Phrygia to wed the King’s daughter. After the marriage ceremony was completed, Agdistis appeared, causing Attis, driving him mad in her jealously to the point of cutting off his own genitals. The madness was such, it effected other nearby, that even the king cut off his own genitals.
Shocked, Agdistis sought amends for what she had done and begged Zeus to restore Attis to life so that he would be reborn.
Ovid’s Version – In this one, Attis had fallen in love with Cybele who wanted to keep the boy at her shrine as a guardian. She commanded Attis to always be a boy. Attis declared in kind that if he lied, let the lover he cheated be his last.
As happens with these kinds of stories, Attis does cheat with the Nymph Sagaritis (or Sagaris). Her tree is cut down by Cybele, killing her the Nymph. Attis in response goes mad and hallucinates that the roof to his bedroom is collapsing on him. Attis runs towards Mount Dindymus where he calls out for Cybele to save him.
Hacking away at his own body with a sharp stone, Attis continues to cry out to Cybele that she take his blood as punishment and cuts off his genitals as that is what has caused him to cheat on Cybele.
Ultimately, this story of Attis’ self-mutilation and castration is the basis for the Galli, Cybele’s priest to castrate themselves as a show of devotion to the goddess.
Cybele & Dionysus
Similar to the story of Attis & Cybele, is the story of Dionysus & Cybele. The earliest reference to this myth in Greek mythos is around the 1st century B.C.E. in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
Like Attis, Cybele also cures Dionysus of his madness. Considering she’s the one who caused Attis’ madness, I would hope she would cure it too.
Both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cult shared many similarities. As foreign deities worshiped among the Greeks, both gods would arrive in chariots drawn by large exotic cats. Dionysus would come in his chariot pulled by tigers whereas Cybele’s chariot was drawn by lions. Both deities would be accompanied to the fanfare of wild, raucous music and a parade of exotic foreigners and lower class citizens of Greek society.
For the Hellenic Greeks, these two gods held wild temperaments that didn’t sit well with many affluent Greeks and were thus, warily worshiped.
Due to the similarities of both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cults, in Athens, by the end of the 1st century B.C.E., the two cults were often combined.
Cybele & Sabazios
Sabazios is the Phrygian version to the Greek Dionysus. Under Greek influence, the name Sabazios is often used as an epithet for Dionysus and the two’s myths have become very intertwined.
Further Greek influences have Cybele equated with Rhea. By Phrygian traditions, Cybele is the mother of Sabazios. When Cybele is equated with Rhea, she is the nurse-maid and tutor to a young Dionysus after his mother Hera rejects him.
Orgia – It is thought that the Orgia, the Orgiastic cult of Dionysos-Sabazios may have originated with Cybele. When Sabazios had been wandering in his madness, he made his way to Cybele in Phrygia where she purified him and taught him the initiation rite for the Orgia. Sabazios is to have received his thyrsus and panther-drawn chariot while he went throughout all of Thrace to spread the Orgia. The Orgia certainly seems to have become associated with the celebrations of Cybele as the Great Mother or Mountain Mother in the writings of Strabo or as Euripides makes mention of in his play Bacchae.
As Nurse-Maid – In a story very similar to Dionysus’ being rejected by his mother Hera, it is Cybele, identified as Rhea and Grandmother to Dionysus who takes up the infant to care for him much like she did her own son Zeus. The god Hermes, tells Cybele how Dionysus will become a god later when he’s grown to manhood. Cybele’s priests the Korybantes use their loud drumming and chanting to drown out the cries of the infant in order to prevent Hera’s wrath from finding him to finish what she had started with trying to kill Dionysus when she cast him out. The story of Dionysus’ youth with Cybele continues with him grabbing lions for the Mother Goddess to hitch up to her chariots and later acquiring a lion-drawn chariot of his own.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
These two were turned into lions in myth by either Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex with one of their temples. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
Cybele was also especially noted for being a bee goddess.
Mother Of The Mountain – Goddess Of Mountains And Fortresses
As a goddess of mountains, cities and forts, Cybele’s crown was seen to take the form of a city wall, showing her role as a guardian and protector of Anatolian cities.
There is an inscription of “Matar Kubileya” found at a Phrygian rock shrine dating from the 6th century B.C.E. It is often translated to: “Mother of the Mountain.” It is a name that is consistent with Cybele and a number of other tutelary goddess who are all seen as “mother” and connected to a specific Anatolian mountain or other locations. In this sense, Cybele is seen as a goddess born from stone.
Cybele’s connection and association with hawks, lions and the mountainous regions of Anatolia show her role as a mother of the land in its wild, uninhabited state. She holds the power to rule, moderate or soften the unbridled power and ferocity of nature and to reign it in for the use of civilization.
Idaea – Mountain Goddess & Nymph
Cybele is often connected with Mount Ida in Anatolia where there is an ancient site of worship. Idaea is the name of the local mountain goddess or nymph who resided here. Where many goddess get absorbed into each, the name of one deity, Idaea in this case will become an epithet to the more well-known deity.
Goddess Of Nature And Fertility
As an ancient fertility goddess, Cybele’s worship is believed to have covered from Anatolia to Greece during the Archaic period, roughly 800 to 500 B.C.E and then into the Hellenistic era of 300 to 50 B.C.E.
Lions and sometimes leopards were shown to either side of Cybele to depict her strength.
Cybele is typically seen as a guardian and protector over all of a nature and a goddess of unbridled sex.
Along with Artemis, Cybele is seen as the “Great Huntress” and patron goddess and protector of the Amazons.
Magna Mātēr – The Great Mother
The Romans revered and knew Cyble as Magna Mātēr or the Great Mother, Rome’s protector. They also knew her as Magna Mātēr deorum Idaea, the great Idaean mother of the gods. It is a similar title to the Greek title for Cybele of Mētēr Theon Idaia, Mother of the Gods from Mount Ida. In the early 5th century B.C.E., she was known as Kubelē. In Pindar, she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother.” Cybele’s worship among the Greeks saw her easily identified and equated with the Minoan-Greek Goddess Rhea and the grain-goddess Demeter.
As Magna Mātēr, Cybele was symbolized by a throne and lions. She held a frame drum. A bowl used for scrying. A burning torch was also used to symbolize her bull-god husband Attis in his resurrection. For some like Lucretius, Magna Mater represented the world order. Her imagery hold overhead represented the Earth, thought to “hang in the air.” As the mother of all, the lions pulling her chariot represent the offspring’s duty of parental obedience. Magna Mater is seen as un-created and separate from and independent of all of her creations.
Under Imperial Rome, Magna Mater represented Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout its empire. Emperor Augustus, like many of Rome’s leading families, claimed Trojan ancestry and a connection to Magna Mater. His spouse, empress Livia was seen as the earthly equivalent and representation of Magna Mater. Statuary of Magna Mater has Livia’s likeness.
While there are not a lot of documents or myths that survive regarding Cybele, it has been suggested that her Phrygian name of Mātēr indicated a role as a mediator between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, the civilized world and the untamed wilds, the living and the dead. The Imperial Magna Mater protected Rome’s cities and its agriculture. Ovid mentions how barren the earth was before Magna Mater’s arrival. The stories and legend of Magna Mater’s arrival to Rome are used to promote and exemplify its principles and Trojan ancestry.
Megalesia – Festival To Magna Mātēr
Also known as the Megalensia or Megalenses Ludi; under the Roman calendar, Cybele’s Spring festival of Megalesia was celebrated from April 4th to April 10th, a period of six days. This festival celebrated Cybele’s arrival in Rome along with the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. This festival and the whole month of April were celebrated with an air of rejoicing and lavish feasts.
Exactly how the festival was celebrated is uncertain. What is known is that there were many religiously themed plays, games and activities. There are descriptions of mummery, war dancers wielding shields and knives and a lot of drumming and flute playing. As to the games, slaves were not allowed to participate. On the first day of Megalesia, there would be a feast held. These feasts were known for being very lavish and the Roman Senate passed a law limiting the amount that could be spent on these feasts. On April 10th, Cybele’s image would be publicly paraded to the Circus Maximus, chariot races would be held in her honor. A statue dedicated to Magna Mater with her seat on a lion’s back stood at the side of the race track barrier line.
Hilaria – Holy Week
In addition to the Megalesia festival, there is also a week-long festival known as Holy Week that starts from March 15th, also known as the Ides of March. That really gives a new meaning to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he’s told to beware the Ides of March. The entire festival is meant to have an air of celebration for the arrival of Spring and the Vernal Equinox.
The festival itself seems to have been established by Claudius as a means of claiming and honoring Trojan ancestry. As a result, the festival very likely grew and expanded over time as a celebration for the death and resurrection of Attis.
The Reed Entered – Also known as Canna Intrat, from the 15th to the end of the month, there is festival for Cybele and Attis that starts on the 15th or Ides, with Attis’ birth and his being left along the reed bank of the Sangarius river in Phrygia before either shepherds or Cybele find him. People known as Cannophores will carry away the reeds. During this time, there is a nine-day period of abstinence from eating bread, fish, pomegranates, pork, quinces and likely wine. Only milk was allowed to be drunk during this period.
The Tree Enters – Also known as Arbor Intrat, March 22nd marks the date of Attis’ death under a pine tree. It is observed. People known as Dendrophores or “Tree Bearers,” after sacrificing a ram, will cut down a tree and carry it to Magna Mater’s temple for a mourning period of three days.
Tubilustrium – March 23rd, this is an old, archaic holiday for the Roman god Mars. The tree has now been laid to rest in Magna Mater’s temple. Mars’ priest, the Salii will do a traditional beating of their shields accompanied by trumpets and other loud music from the Corybantes. Overall, this is a day of mourning.
The Day of Blood – Also known as Sanguis, Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis March 24th. The rites can only be described as frenzied as mourners and devotees whip or scourge themselves in order to sprinkle the alters and Attis’ effigy with their blood. Some of the rites involve castration and the tree is buried, symbolizing Attis’ placing within his tomb. This day was also to honor Bellona, a war goddess. Her priests were known as the Bellonarii and practiced mutilation along with using hallucinogenic plants.
The Day of Joy – Also known as Hilaria, on the Roman Calendar this marks the Vernal Equinox. It takes place on March 25th and celebrates Attis’ resurrection. It must be noted that is a day of celebration and not the previous mournful tones and rites. I’m also not the only one to have noted a similarity to the Christian association of Jesus’ resurrection.
Day of Rest – Also known as Requietio, March 26th. What can we say? Partying is hard work.
The Washing – Also known as Lavatio, March 27th. This is when Cybele’s sacred stone, the Pessinos’ black meteor is taken from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena along a stream called Almo. This stream is a tributary to the Tiber river. Here, the stone would be bathed by a priest. The return trip back to the temple would be conducted by torchlight. It’s noted by Ovid as being an innovation by Augustus.
Initium Caiani – March 28th. This particular part of the festival is found on the Calendar of Philocalus. It is likely an initiation ceremony that was held at the Vatican sanctuary for the mysteries of Magna Mater and Attis.
Pine cones are symbols of Cybele and the related myth of Attis. They are believed to have been worn by Cybele’s priests and followers as one of her symbols. As a protective symbol, a pine cone would be affixed to the top of a pole and placed out in vineyards to protect the crops. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A type of hand drum or tambourine, the tympanon was used by the Greeks to denote worship in a foreign cult or religion. Of the foreign deities the Greek adopted, only Cybele is ever shown holding the tympanon. On the cuirass of Ceasar Augustus’ Prima Porta statue, Cybele’s tympanon is shown lying at the goddess Tellus’ feet.
The Trojan War
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas.
The Trojan War was a major and significant war among the Greeks. Many deities got themselves involved. Cybele was one of many such gods to do so. When Prince Aeneas was attacked by Turnus, leading the Rutulians, Cybele prevented Turnus from setting fire to the Trojan fleet by turning all of the ships into nymphs.
Virgil’s Aeneid – As Berecyntian Cybele, she is the mother of Jupiter and the protector of prince Aeneas. Cybele gave the Trojans her sacred tree to use for building their ships. Cybele then pleaded with Jupiter to make the resulting ships indestructible. Aeneas and his men are able to flee Troy, heading for Italy, where Rome would be founded. Once the they arrived in Italy, the ships all turned into sea nymphs or Oceanids.
Yes, you read that correctly. During the early Roman Imperial era, the poet Manilius introduces Cybele into classic Greco-Roman zodiac. It upsets the balance as there’s already twelve zodiac houses represented by a corresponding constellation. Each of which is ruled by a different deity, the Twelve Olympians in Greek and the Di Consentes in Rome. Manilius places Cybele as a co-ruler with Jupiter over Leo the Lion, which is noted for being in direct opposition to Juno who rules Aquarius.
Some modern scholars have taken note of how, as Leo rises over the horizon, that Taurus the Bull sets. Symbolically, this is seen as the lion dominating or defeating the bull. The idea then gets put forth that the celebrations of Megalensia includes this symbolism with lions attacking bulls. As a Spring festival, the date for the celebration of Megalensia is around April 12th when farmers would dig in their vineyards to break up the soil and sow their crops. This would also be when farmers would castrate their cattle and other livestock.
It has been suggested by some scholars that Cybele’s name can be traced to that of Kubaba, a deified queen who ruled during the Kish Dynasty of Sumer. Kubaba was worshipped at Carchemish and would later be Hellenized to the name of Kybebe. Kubaba was also known to the Hittites and Hurrians in the region. There isn’t enough etymological evidence to support this. However the names Kubaba and Matar do seem to have become closely associated. Such as the genital mutilations that are found both within Cybele’s and Kybebe’s cults. Much like many other localized mountain goddesses in Anatolia, who are called “mother” and among many who would become identified with Cybele.
Christianity And The Book Of Revelation
Of interest, is that the author of the Book of Revelations, identified by modern scholars as John of Patmos is likely to have been referring to Cybele when he mentions “the mother of harlots who rides the Beast.”
Christianity – Kept to a nutshell, the early Christians, once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, began to view and regard Cybele’s cult as evil, even demonic. Under Emperor Valentinian II in the 4th century C.E., he officially banned the worship of Cybele and the goddess followers and devotees fell under a lot of hate and persecution. Under the rule of Justinian, objects of worship for Cybele and her temples were destroyed and eventually by the 6th century C.E., Cybele’s cult seems to have vanished.
It has been noted by others how the Basilica of the Vatican is apparently the same exact spot for where Cybele’s Temple once stood and that Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same place where Attis was once worshiped. Some will even go so far as to suggest that revering the Virgin Mary is merely another aspect of worshiping Cybele and many other ancient Mother Goddesses.
Montanism – Christianity – Also known as New Prophecy – Now I do find it fascinating that around 100 C.E. a former Galli priest of Cybele by the name of Montanus formed a Christian sect that worked to oppose Pauline Christianity.
In Pauline Christianity, those who followed the teachings of the Apostle Paul, it held a major influence into the formation of Christianity in terms of scriptural interpretations, cannon and dogma.
Montanus’ sect was considered very heretical to the Catholic Church and would eventually see all of its followers excommunicated.
In brief, Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of god and that women could also be bishops and presbyters. Where much of early Christian theology diminished the power and presence of women within religion, Montanus’ sought to keep it.
It’s also interesting to note a rather prominent example of a Pagan religion that Christianity and former followers of other religions attempting to adopt and add in their beliefs. Like Montanus equating Jesus with Attis and the celebrating of Easter with the resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week, the days between Good Friday and Easter is also the same period that Hilaria, observing and celebrating Attis’ resurrection was held.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Just as Cybele is the Great Mother of the Roman Pantheon, Rhea, her Grecian counterpart is the Great Mother of the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Cybele with Rhea.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Like Cybele, Rhea can help in easing the pain of childbirth and soothe the pain and difficulties that come with menstruation.
Demeter – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and make an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
Alternate Spelling: Haji Piruz
Also called: Khawja Piruz
Etymology: The word Hajji (or Haji) is a title or honorific, much like in the English language when using “Sir” or “Mister” to address someone. It is unrelated to the Islamic word “Haajhi” or “Hajj”. The name or word Firuz/Piruz means victory. Khawja means “Master”.
The character of Hajji Firuz is a familiar and traditional figure who heralds Nowruz, the Persian New Year. He is often depicted as being covered in soot and wearing bright red clothing and felt hat. Hajji Firuz is also shown playing the tambourine as he sings: “Haji Firuz-e, sal-i-ye ruz-e.” Which translates as: “It is Hajji Firuz time, It happens one day in a year.” People of all ages gather around Hajji Firuz and his troupe of musicians to listen to them as they play the drum, saz or kamancheh and dance through the streets announcing the New Year. It is an air of festivity not unlike that of Christian celebrations of Christmas.
Nowruz – The Persian New Year
Hajji Firuz’s role in the celebrations of the New Year a very likely connected to the ancient role of the Zoroastrian fire-keeper Mir-Norowzi. It would explain Hajji Firuz’s depictions and portrayals of being soot-covered and wearing all red.
In the remnants of the Zoroastrian traditions, Mir-Norowzi was seen as a clownish or comical figure who would rule the municipality for the last five days of the year. As a temporary five-day king, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him.
With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for, without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessing and abundance.
Fire In Zoroastrianism
In Zoroastrianism, red-dressed fire-keepers would be sent out by the white-dressed moghsor priests on the last Tuesday of the year with the duty to spread the word and news for the arrival of Nowruz and Spring. The fire-keeper’s other duty was to have people burn all of their old items in a purification ritual in the holy fires in order to renew their life, vitality and energies for the coming year. The fire-keeper’s face would become darkened, due to being so near the heat caused by the holy fires.
Comparing Hajji Firuz And Black Pete
For those familiar with the Christian Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas) and his helper Black Pete, they will know of the controversies surrounding the character of Black Pete being seen as racist with his black skin and being a slave to Santa and not always as a servant, friend or companion.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attack by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Just as Black Pete is paired up with Santa, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with an Amu Nowruz.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Santa and Black Pete with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting.
Just as Santa is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring with done dying and being replaced by the other or being reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
With Hajji Firuz, he seems to be connected to the role and tradition of the “Lord of Misrule,” a mock king who would be sacrificed at the year in the Sacaea (the Persian New Year celebrations). As previously mentioned, in Zoroastrian, this figure is Mir-Norowzi who functions as a proxy for an agricultural deity and parallels the story of Murdock who is slain by Tiamat and is later resurrected.
Such stories of a sacrificial king or god at Spring dying and then being reborn are fairly common in many countries and cultures. Many of the stories include the mythological figures of Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dionysus, Balder, and even Jesus.
Islamic scholar, Mehrdad Baliar has put forward the idea that the character of Hajji Firuz comes from surviving ceremonies and legends in the epic of Prince Siavash. These legends and ceremonies are also very likely to come from ancient Mesopotamian deities of agriculture and flocks such as Tammuz and the Sumerian Dumuzi.
Baliar has also put forward the idea that Hajji Firuz’s blackened face symbolizes his returning from the lands of the dead. That Firuz’s red clothing represents Siavash’s red blood and his return to life as a sacrificed deity. The spirit and air of joy and celebration is seen as typical of those who bring renewal, rejuvenation and blessings with them. Baliar continues that the name Siyawaxš may mean “black man” or “dark-faced man” and related to previously mentioned Mesopotamian ceremonies or the black masks worn for the Nowruz celebrations.