Category Archives: Religion
Other Names: All-Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Donnerbesen, Druid’s Herb, Golden Bough, Herbe de la Croix, Holy Wood, Lignum Sanctae Crucis, Misseltoe, Mistillteinn, Mystyldyne, Thunderbesem, Witches’ Broom, Wood of the Cross,
Deity: Apollo, Balder, Cerridwen, Freya, Frigga, Odin, Taranis, Thor, Venus
Sphere of Influence: Defense, Dreams, Exorcism, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Invisibility, Locks, Love, and Protection
Symbols: Friendship, Peace
Victorian Language of Flowers: “I surmount difficulties, I send you a thousand kisses.”
What Is It?
Mistletoe is the common name for plant that is parasitic (hemiparasite) in that it grows by attaching itself to the branches of a tree or shrub, taking water and nutrients from the host plant. The mistletoe species, Viscum album is the one referred to in folklore is that is native to Great Britain and most of Europe. It is characterized by having a smooth-edged, oval shaped evergreen leaves set in pairs along the stem and white berries that are known to be poisonous.
There are a variety of other species of mistletoe plants found in other countries of Europe such as Spain and Portugal and on other continents. American Mistletoe is also known as False Mistletoe as the homeopathic remedies and uses are different from the European Mistletoe. Over time, the term mistletoe has come to include other species of parasitic plants. Even plants get parasites…
Despite mistletoe’s parasitic nature, it does have an ecological benefit with being a keystone species in that it provides food for a variety of animals that feed on it as well as providing nesting material for various birds.
There used to be all sorts of folkloric beliefs about how mistletoe would come to grow on various shrubs and trees. By the sixteenth, botanists had it figured out that seeds were passed by the digestive tracts of birds who fed on mistletoe or by the birds rubbing their bills on trees to get rid of the sticky seeds. An early reference to this is in 1532, an Herbal book by Turner.
What’s In A Name
One etymology for mistletoe that seems fairly accurate are the Anglo-Saxon words for “mistel” meaning “dung” and “tan” meaning “twig.” Making the meaning of mistletoe as “dung-on-a-twig.” Which makes sense, people observed that mistletoe grew wherever birds roosted and thus did their business.
The Latin word “viscusas” and the Greek word “ixias” both refer to the white coloration of mistletoe berries and being thought of to resemble sperm. The same words “visand ischu” mean “strength” In the Greek and Roman mindsets, sperm was connected to strength and vitality and thus to fertility for life springing seemingly out of nowhere. Mistletoe berries harvested from Oak trees were believed to have regenerative powers.
Mistletoe is a plant strongly associated with Christmas, Yule and other Winter Celebrations where it is used in decorations for its evergreen leaves that symbolize the promised return of spring.
Hanging Mistletoe – Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe can expect to be kissed. This probably originates in Druidic beliefs where mistletoe is strongly connected with fertility as the white berries of the mistletoe resembled semen. Now, proper etiquette says that when someone is kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry needs to be removed until all have been plucked, at which point, there are no more kisses.
One tradition holds that if any unmarried woman went unkissed after the hanging of the mistletoe, they would not be able to marry for a year.
British farmers would feed a bough of mistletoe to their livestock on January 1st, believing it would ward off any bad luck for the coming year. Alternatively, a farmer feeding mistletoe to the first cow calving in the New Year was what brought good luck.
In some regions of Britain, mistletoe would be burned on the twelfth night after Christmas to ensure any boys or girls who didn’t get kissed could still marry.
Celtic Druidic Mythology & Traditions
In the Celtic language, the name for mistletoe translates to “All-Heal” as they believed this plant to have healing powers that could cure a number of ailments and held the soul of the host tree. By Mistletoe was held the chief of the Druid’s sacred seven herbs. The other sacred plants were: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover and wolf’s bane.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the Druids who held the plant as being sacred. It held a magical virtue and served as a remedy to protect against evil. Mistletoe found growing on Oaks were especially sacred. Ovid’s writings mention how Druids would dance around oak trees with mistletoe growing on them. If mistletoe were to fall to the ground without being cut, it was considered an ill omen.
In Between – Seen as a tree that was not a tree. One of the things making mistletoe sacred was its seeming ability to spring forth out of nowhere. It represented the “in between” or a gateway to other worlds and spirit.
Harvesting – Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, circa 77 C.E. notes how the Druids revered the mistletoe. Pliny goes on to explain how white-clad Druids would use a golden sickle when harvesting mistletoe; taking great care to make sure that none hit the ground, believing that the plant would lose its potency and sacred powers. The sacrifice of two white bulls would follow. Pliny’s accounts are the most well-known documentation of Druid beliefs regarding the sacredness of mistletoe. Either the Midsummer or the Winter Solstice were the times to harvest and collect mistletoe. Better when done so on the sixth day after a waning moon.
Oak King & Holly King – This is a particularly old folkloric belief. With the Oak King and Holly King being personifications for the cycle of the year. Mistletoe berries found on an Oak tree were thought to be representative of the Oak King’s semen. So when the Oak King’s power waned and gave way to the Holly King, the harvesting of mistletoe and it’s berries off of Oak trees was symbolic of emasculating the Oak King. Hence, why two bulls would be sacrificed, to compensate the Oak King.
The white berries of mistletoe would be made into fertility potions as they were thought to be regenerative as on the Winter Solstice, the Oak King would be reborn, gaining power again as the new year progressed.
Fire & Lightning – It was thought that mistletoe would grow on an Oak tree that had been struck by lightning. For this, mistletoe was believed to be able to stop fires.
French farmers would burn mistletoe in their fields in order to have a successful harvest with the coming year.
Maidens would place a sprig of mistletoe beneath their pillows so they could dream of their future husband.
Herbe de la Croix – In Brittany, there is a legend how the cross that Jesus is to have been hung on was made from the wood of mistletoe. After Christ’s death, mistletoe is said to have been cursed or degraded to become a parasitic plant. Now days, thanks to 16th century Botanists discoveries, it’s better understood how the seeds of mistletoe or spread.
Immortality – Asclepius, the son of Apollo and god of medicine was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead. This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called onto the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
This herb is said to have been mistletoe. Now armed with this knowledge, Asclepius brought Glaucus back to life. Later, he would bring Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
This angered Hades enough that he complained to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be anyone entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Golden Bough or Mistletoe is the plant Aeneas uses to enter the Underworld to Hades’ realm.
Saturnalia – Many traditions regarding mistletoe and the Christmas traditions are believed to trace their origins to this ancient Roman festival once held on December 17th of the old Julian calendar.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg, the goddess of Love had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death, who was the most beloved of all the gods. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg got an oath from all living things that they wouldn’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small and inconsequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this oversight and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
Some variations to this legend have mistletoe becoming the symbol of peace and friendship to make-up for it’s part in Balder’s death.
In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
The white berries of mistletoe are to have formed from Frigg’s tears when she mourned Balder’s death. Shakespeare makes an allusion to the story of Balder’s death by referring to mistletoe as “baleful.”
Peace & Love
Due to the above story, the Norse held the belief that hanging the mistletoe would be a symbol of peace, indicating that any past hurts and anger would be forgiven. Enemies would cease fighting each other for the day.
Under the incoming Christian religion as it spread throughout Europe, the symbolism of the mistletoe would be converted to have Christian meanings as older pagan beliefs and traditions would get adapted and changed.
For example, in the Norse story with the death of Balder, mistletoe would keep its meanings as a symbol of life and fertility.
Wearing sprigs of mistletoe is believed to help conceive, attract love and for protection.
During Medieval times or Antiquity, branches of mistletoe would be hung to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe would be hung over the house and stable doors to protect from witches and keep them from entering.
Mistletoe could also be worn in amulets, bracelets, and rings for its magical qualities of protecting from evil, witches, poisoning and even werewolves!
Yes, there are medical uses for mistletoe. However, the white berries are poisonous as they do cause epileptic type seizures and convulsions. Keep the white berries away from small children and pets who might decide to try and eat them.
Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some information has changed.
Homeopathic Remedies – Due to the nature of the poisonous berries, it causes many cultures such as the ancient Celts to use mistletoe berries in remedies for treating convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and heart conditions. Some Native American tribes used a tea wash for bathing the head to treat headaches and infusions for lowering blood pressure and treating lung problems.
Warning – Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some medical experts disagree about the applications of homeopathic remedies and information is likely to change with better data and research.
Mistletoe is seen as an all-purpose plant and has been attributed a wide variety of magical uses and even a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies. A lot of it ending up very contradictory and suspect as to which to see as accurate. Further, you want to make sure you have the right mistletoe species.
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas, are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half-human, half-goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity in the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity, and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns, and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal-masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous-looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Etymology: “Bull Calf of the Sun,” “Calf of the Sun” or “Solar Calf”
Also known as: Bel (“Lord,” Akkadian), Bel-Marduk, Murdoch
Other Spellings: 𒀭𒀫𒌓 (Cuniform), dAMAR.UTU, Amar utu k (Sumerian), Μαρδοχαῖος, Mardochaios (Greek), מְרֹדַךְ, Mərōdaḵ (Masoretic Hebrew), Merōḏaḵ (Tiberian), Marōdak (Septuagint), Merodach (Biblical Hebrew), Martuk
In Mesopotamian mythology, Marduk is a fertility and storm deity of Babylon. He is known for defeating the dragon goddess Tiamat and becoming the Leader of the Babylonian pantheon.
Marduk came to prominence as the patron deity of the city of Babylon during the rule of Hammruabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty of the Amorites in the 18th century B.C.E. when Babylon became the political center of the Euphrates valley. Marduk’s full acceptance as the head of the Babylonian pantheon would be completed by the last half of the second millennium B.C.E.
Animal: Dogs, Horse, Mušḫuššu (Snake-Dragon)
Element: Air, Water
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Judgement, Storms, Vegetation
Symbols: Hoe, Spade
In what surviving art and texts we have, Marduk is shown as being human dressed in royal robes decorated with stars. Marduk is often accompanied by his snake-dragon that he got from the god Tishpak.
When shown riding in his war chariot, Marduk carries his other emblems of a scepter, arrows, bow, spear, net and lightning bolt.
What’s In A Name?
To start, there is some controversy over the translation of Marduk’s name. There is the Sumerian dAMAR.UD that translates as: “calf of the sun/sun-god.” Then comes the suggestion that this spelling should call for the translation of: “calf of the storm,” “the son of the storm, and “maker of storms.” The latter translation is often rejected due to a lack of evidence with Marduk’s role as a storm god. Accepting this interpretation of the name nixes any connection to Marduk as a solar deity.
The Akkadian spelling for Marduk’s name is AMAR.UTU that translates to mean MERI.DUG. The name is translated to mean “Solar Calf.” In the Hebrew Torah, his name is spelled as Merodach and the Greek spelling of his name is given as Mardochaios.
Marduk’s name is thought to derive from the phrase: amar-Utu meaning: “Bull Calf of the Sun God Utu.” This naming convention could easily be an indicator of early genealogy. Or, it’s an indicator of cultural ties to the city of Sippar, whose main deity was Utu, a Sun God. The city of Sippar dates to the third millennium B.C.E.
The Encyclopedia of Religion comments that the name Marduk was likely pronounced as Marutuk.
Esagila – “Temple whose top is raised” or “Proud/Honored Temple.” While Marduk would come to claim prominence throughout most of Mesopotamia, his primary temple is Esagila, located in Babylon. This is the famous ziggurat that’s described by Herodotus.
Etemenanki – “Temple that is the foundation of Heavens and Earth” A ziggurat with Marduk’s shrine located at the top. This may be the temple that inspired the “Tower of Babel.”
Cult of Marduk – As the patron god of Babylon, this city was the main location for Marduk’s worship. The rise and popularity of this religion venerating Marduk is tied closely with the rise of Babylon as a strong political power and capital of the Mesopotamian empire. To the degree that many other deities were subsumed and seen as aspects and epitaphs of Marduk. Outside of Babylon, Marduk was worshipped in Borsippa, Nippur, and Sippar.
In the Assyrian period of Babylonian history, Aššur becomes the head of the pantheon and Marduk takes on a symbolic role of Babylon’s resistance to Assyrian rule. The cult of Aššur would compete with the cult of Marduk. In the Assyrian version of the Enūma Eliš, it is Aššur who becomes the head of the pantheon, not Marduk.
The Marduk Prophecy also shows the conflicts of this change of power as Marduk’s statue is continually “taken captive” until finally the resulting destruction of Babylon and Esagila with the different shifts of power in the region.
This is a very important aspect of the ancient world beliefs and Mesopotamia is no different. Within the temple of Esagila there was a golden statue of Marduk. This statue wasn’t just dedicated to Marduk, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that statue to actually be the god himself. Seen in the Marduk Prophecy, if the statue of the god wasn’t present, then he wasn’t in his temple or there to protect his city-state and all sorts of calamities and problems would happen.
Originating during the rule of the Kassites, a new king wishing to see his rule as legitimate, needed to “take the hands of Marduk,” symbolizing the king’s submission and accepting the will and guidance of the god.
In 485 B.C.E., the Persian king Xerxes attacked the city of Babylon and there is no mention of Marduk’s statue. The same goes when Alexander the Great conquers Babylon in 331 B.C.E., there’s no mention of the statue. This lack of evidence and records leads many scholars to believe and agree that Marduk’s statue disappearance from history means that it has, in all likelihood been destroyed.
Without a statue, the Babylonian religion and worship of Marduk declined.
This was the ancient New Year’s festival that the Sumerians and Mesopotamian cultures celebrated. This festival occurred sometime during March and April, marking the planting of barley. This festival was presided over by Nabu and Marduk to such a degree, that a text known as the Akitu Chronicle documents a time when the festival couldn’t be observed as Marduk (his physical statue, thus him) wasn’t present in the city of Babylon. Without the statue to carry through the city out to a small house outside the city walls, the people thought that disaster would soon befall them if the patron god wasn’t there to stop the forces of chaos.
Every year at the Akitu House located outside the city, the Enuma Elish would be recited for the New Year’s festival. There was also involved a ritual slapping of the king. Gotta’ stay humble, I guess.
Parentage and Family
Anu – Grandfather and the original head of the Mesopotamian pantheon before other deities arrive on the scene.
Ea – The previous head and leader of the gods before stepping down. Known as Enki in Sumerian. Ea was the creator god, associated with the fresh, life-giving waters.
Damkina – A Fertility and Mother goddess originally known as Ninhursag.
Sarpanitu – Also spelled Zarpanitu. She is a Mother and Fertility Goddess
Nanaya – She is sometimes given as Marduk’s wife in the myths.
Nabu – Son and god of literature, scribes and wisdom. Nabu was originally Marduk’s first minister before being identified as his son.
Birth Of A Legend
For as old and ancient as the Mesopotamian mythologies are, it makes sense that we might not know that much about them. To a point.
Marduk goes from obscurity with almost nobody knowing anything about him in the third millennium B.C.E. to the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon in Babylon in the first millennium B.C.E.
By the time the Enuma Elish is written, Marduk’s original nature has already been altered and obscured. As now, he’s a deity linked to the attributes of judgment, magic, vegetation, and water. He is now identified as the son of Ea and Damkina.
As the politics of Babylon and the whole of the Euphrates Valley ramped up, Marduk’s attributes and aspects begin to alter as he would be placed as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, especially for his patron city-state of Babylon.
Once Babylon becomes the capital of Mesopotamia, Marduk who was currently just a patron deity of the city now ascends to become the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon and a supreme deity, ruling or presiding over everything else. Explaining this power shift of head honcho, head god and the transfer of power from Ea to Marduk, the Enûma Elish gets written, showing a peaceful abdication of power as Ea steps down and concedes rulership to his son.
There are a couple little snags later on, such as the revival of the god Enlil’s worship to Marduk, reflecting a real-world, historical rise of the cult of Enlil during Kassite control in Babylon between 1570 B.C.E. to 1157 B.C.E. The worship of Marduk and thus, his triumph over Enlil returns at the end of this era of Kassite control.
The other snag to Marduk’s popularity and his being the supreme deity comes during 1000 B.C.E. when the deity Aššur up north in Assyria gains popularity and worship. Down in the southern parts of the region, Marduk is still the head deity. The history of these events is reflected in the Marduk Prophecy.
This ancient epic creation poem was written in the 18th century B.C.E. when the city of Babylon becomes the political capital of Mesopotamia. It’s largely written to show Marduk’s birth, many of his heroic deeds and how Ea (Enki) steps down to allow Marduk, in a relatively peaceful transfer of power to become the king and head of the pantheon.
The Enuma Elish begins at the start of time when the universe is nothing more than chaos with freshwater represented by Apsu and saltwater represented by Tiamat, a dragoness. The male and female principles, not unlike the concept seen in the Japanese Yin & Yang. The joining of these two primordial deities would see the creation of all the other gods, known as the Anunnaki.
While Tiamat loved all her children, Apsu, on the other hand, didn’t care for them, saying they were too noisy, keeping him up all night and unable to get any work done during the day. Apsu’s response to this problem was to kill his children.
A horrified Tiamat told her eldest son, Enki of what Apsu planned. Enki decided that the best plan for dealing with this was to put Apsu into a deep sleep and then kill him. From Apsu’s corpse, Enki then creates his home, the earth and the marshy region of Eridu.
This further horrifies Tiamat who wasn’t expecting for Enki to just up and kill Apsu. As a result, she decided to wage war on her own children. The mighty Tiamat raises up an army of chaos and sets Kingu (Quingu) as the general of this army and her new consort.
This has Enki and the other gods worried about what to do. That is, until Marduk steps forward, saying he will lead everyone in this war. Marduk has one condition, that is that he be named as the new king of the pantheon. Enki agrees and Marduk leads the Anunnaki to battle.
Marduk prepares his weapons consisting of bow and arrows, a mace, lightning as he is a storm god, flames and a net. Gathering up the four winds, Marduk encircles and nets the mighty Tiamat to prevent her from escaping him. New winds are created by Marduk such as whirlwinds and tornadoes. As he is a storm god, Marduk brings down a fierce flood of rain. It’s a battle between a storm god and a primordial goddess of chaos and the sea, it’s epic as Marduk rides in his storm-chariot pulled by four horses who have poison in their mouths. Spellcasting and an herbal antidote as Marduk faces off against one of the mightiest dragons known in mythology.
After Marduk finally slays Tiamat with an arrow to her stomach, he then goes after Tiamat’s son, Kingu who oversaw the army and wears the Tablets of Destiny over his chest. Marduk makes short work of Kingu in single combat, claiming the tablets and establishing himself as the new head of the pantheon.
This is a lot of power that Marduk has now accumulated and he sets about to create the universe. But didn’t that already exist? He’s at least making a new one as Marduk takes the two halves of Tiamat’s corpse to create the heavens and the earth, completing the work started by Enki. From Tiamat’s eyes, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow.
With Kingu’s blood, Marduk mixes it with the earth to create the first humans. The creation of humans would allow the gods the leisure time and the time to focus on higher purposes, taking care of human needs as humanity basically did the grunt work. All humans would need to do is respect and give heed to the will of the gods living in Eridu with Marduk ruling overall as a benevolent god.
That doesn’t sound like it will end well and I’m sure there’s another story concerning that.
Side Note: Depending on the version of the creation myth, it is solely Marduk involved in all of it and there’s no mention of Enki.
Further, knowing that this is a revision of the original myths, I’m curious about what the originals may have been.
Eridu – The First City
Yes, there really is a historical site for an ancient city of this name. Eridu is the oldest city built by the Mesopotamians around 5400 B.C.E. Depending on who you ask, it may be the oldest city in the world. In the Babylonian texts, namely Enuma Elish, it is a holy city where all the other gods lived a life of leisure.
This city was originally the city-state for the god Enki who is later known as Ea by the Akkadians. For modern times, it was first excavated by John George Taylor in 1855. Later, archeological discoveries found that the city was ultimately abandoned around 600 B.C.E. due to a change in climate as the water became more salinized from all the constant irrigation.
As seen later, in the Marduk Prophecy, with the Enuma Elish, the story here likely reflects on the transition from Eridu to Babylon as it became the political and religious center of the Euphrates valley and a cultural shift as the newer city becomes more prominent over the older city of Eridu.
Revisionist History – Scholars have noted that the city of Eridu is founded in the 5th millennium B.C.E. and that Marduk ascends to head of the Mesopotamian pantheon in the 2nd millennium B.C.E. That is a lot of time to have passed. It clearly marks that someone decided to rewrite the myths to favor Marduk when his popularity and the importance of Babylon as a political center become prominent.
Marduk is a god of fertility and vegetation and thus, agriculture. The triangular spade or hoe that Marduk is shown with in some art represents his role and power over fertility and vegetation.
The roles and aspects of Marduk being a Spring, Storm and Solar god also blend in with this function. However, making these connections relies on accepting certain etymological interpretations for Marduk’s name.
As a patron god, Marduk, not just King of the gods, also presided over the city of Babylon. The importance of a patron deity is shown in the Marduk Prophecy where Babylon has fallen to chaos and disarray when Marduk’s statue and thus the god himself leaves and order is later restored when King Nebuchadnezzar returns Marduk’s statue to the city.
Not the Original Patron – This was a fun little fact to come across. Before Marduk became the patron god of Babylon, that honor belonged to Inanna, goddess of sexuality and warfare. She would still be a prominent and important goddess throughout the Mesopotamian culture.
Marduk’s role as Patron, also places him prominently as a protector deity. Aside from the Akitu Chronicles and the Marduk Prophecy, there are two other texts: “The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi” and “The Wrath of Erra” that highlight just how vital having one’s patron deity present was, not just for the city, but for the individual as well.
The Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi – Also called the “Let me praise the Lord of Wisdom” or “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer,” it is often classified as “Wisdom Literature.” This text is a long treatise some four tablets long with 120 lines each. that details the amount of suffering that Tabu-utu-bel, a city official of Nippur goes through because Marduk isn’t close enough to help as he is too far away for any meaningful help. Biblical scholars have compared this text with the Book of Job for the themes of suffering when one’s God seems absent.
The Wrath of Erra – This is another text, in which the war god, Erra (Irra or Nergal) grows bored and decides the only way to cure his boredom is to attack Babylon. The other gods try to persuade Erra that this is a bad idea and don’t do it. Undaunted, Erra heads off to Babylon anyways. Once there, Erra convinces Marduk that his clothes are shabby and perhaps he should go about getting some new threads. Marduk says he’s much too busy to take of this matter and Erra convinces Marduk that he’ll watch over the city. Off Marduk goes and Erra takes advantage of the opportunity to proceed with destroying the city and killing civilians. Depending on the source translated from, either the other gods stop Erra’s path of destruction or he’s halted when Marduk finally returns with his fancy new duds. Regardless, the story ends with giving praise to Erra, the god of war for sparing a part of the city so people could rebuild.
The idea of having a protector and patron god of one’s city was very strong among the Babylonians. This was their whole city and personal identity that in 485 B.C.E. the Persian king Xerxes had Marduk’s statue destroyed when he sacked the city. Eventually, with the sands of time, Babylon is deserted and left to ruin and people have forgotten about worshiping Marduk.
King Of The Gods
As head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, Marduk takes on a lot of aspects. In some cases, this is taking over the role of other gods who had previously been the head of the pantheon. Such aspects that Marduk comes to preside over are justice, compassion, mercy, healing, regeneration, magic.
A “snake-dragon, mušḫuššu is Marduk’s sacred animal that he got from the god Tishpak. The mušḫuššu is depicted on the city walls of Babylon.
If you ask me this is a lot of titles and epitaphs to be known by. We get this list from two different sources, “The Seven Tablets of Creation” that Leonard W. King studied in 1902 to reconstruct from fragments a list of names. Then there is the “King’s List” that Franz Bohl studied in 1936. Finally, we get to 1958, when Richard Litke compared and noticed similarities with Marduk’s name between the two lists of An (Anum, a deity list) and Enuma Elish.
These names demonstrate the level of prominence that Marduk held within the Babylonian pantheon. These fifty names of Marduk are found and documented in the Enûma Elish and the Anum.
Why 50? – The number 50 was originally associated with the god Enlil, the former head of the pantheon. So this is just part of showing the transfer of power from Enlil to Marduk.
Asalluhi – As Marduk came to prominence, he took over the role and identity of Asalluhi, the son of Ea and god of incantations and magic. With both Asalluhi and Marduk becoming equated as the same entity, Asalluhi’s name survives as one of Marduk’s many names and epitaphs. Some commentary has noted that equating or syncretizing Marduk and Asalluhi together is a means to create a stronger tie to the god Ea and the city of Eridu as Ea was not part of the original pantheon.
Bel – Meaning “Lord,” this is the name that Marduk would eventually be known by, making him a god of order and destiny.
He is normally referred to as Bel “Lord”, also bel rabim “great lord”, bêl bêlim “lord of lords”, ab-kal ilâni bêl terêti “leader of the gods”, aklu bêl terieti “the wise, lord of oracles”, muballit mîte “reviver of the dead”, etc.
The Marduk Prophecy
This is an interesting text, not so much as it’s telling prophecies, but more about being a history around the movement of Marduk’s cult as they follow Marduk’s statue from Babylon. This text was found at the House of the Exorcist in Assur and dates from 713 to 612 B.C.E. It appears to be similar to another set of texts, the Shulgi prophecy.
It begins with Marduk’s statue getting stolen by Mursilis I of Hatti in 1531 B.C.E. The god Marduk is described as visiting the land of Assyria. Then, when a Tukulti-Ninurta I overthrows Kashtiliash IV in 1225 B.C.E., Marduk’s statue is taken Assur and then Elam as Kudur-nahhunte sacks the city in 1160 B.C.E.
Each time, Marduk is described as willingly heading off to visit these places. Which makes sense when you remember that this far back, a statue of a deity… hence an idol was the actual deity in question, not just a representation.
The way Marduk’s travels are told, they are allegories of the history involved. The first couple of journeys that Marduk takes are fairly favorable. When it comes to the city-state of Elam, that’s a whole other matter as the other gods following after Marduk, likely shows the changing climate of the region as they abandon Babylon due to famine and pestilence.
There’s also a familiar theme as Marduk prophecies that he will return again to Babylon with a new king will rise to power bringing about redemption and salvation to the city, taking it back from the Elamites and restoring the Ekursagila temple. Where the Marduk Prophecy is concerned, King Nabu-kudurri-uṣur (Nebuchadnezzar), who reigned from 1125 to 1103 B.C.E. is accepted as being the king who returns Marduk’s statue to Babylon and is victorious over the Elamites.
The main importance of the Marduk Prophecy text is to highlight the necessity of the patron deity staying in Babylon. Each time that the Marduk statue (Marduk himself) is abducted, chaos falls on the city of Babylon while the places where the statue resides, prosper.
Like some epic game of football where the opposing team comes and steals the home team’s mascot to weaken their morale.
No! Say it isn’t so!
Remember the previously mentioned King Nebuchadnezzar? It’s been noted that the dates of when the Marduk Prophecy (1 millennium B.C.E.) and even the Enuma Elish both date to around the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule and reign between 1125-1103 B.C.E. It makes him look good for restoring order (his defeat of the Elamites and bringing Marduk’s statue back) that he’s the prophesied king come to do Marduk’s will.
Jupiter – Roman
With Marduk’s position and role as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the Romans equated him with Jupiter, the head of their pantheon.
Zeus – Greek
With Marduk’s position and role as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, the Greeks equated him with Zeus, the head of their pantheon.
Bel – Babylonian
Yes, Bel is previously mentioned earlier as one of Marduk’s fifty names.
He is mentioned as being a separate deity here as in the 1 millennium B.C.E., by the time we get to this era of history, as a title, Bel is the name that other deities Enlil and Dumuzid, not just Marduk have been known by.
Taken separately, Bel holds all the titles and aspects that Enlil did. To the point that Bel eventually becomes a god of order and destiny. Even Greek historians mentioned Bel in their writings. As a separate deity, Bel was the god of order and destiny. Both Marduk and Bel’s cults were similar, so it’s not hard to see how Bel becomes absorbed and an epitaph for Marduk.
Bel and the Dragon – This is a Jewish story and apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel in which the Babylonians offer a substantial amount of food and wine every day to an idol of Bel. This vast quantity of food seemingly, miraculously disappears each night. This is enough to convince the Persian king Cyrus the Great that the idol is alive, and he tells Daniel this.
Daniel being a wise man and rather smart knows this isn’t the case. Afterall Daniel says it’s clay on the inside and bronze outside. It likely has never eaten anything. To prove this, Daniel discreetly covers the floor of the temple with ash.
Both Daniel and Cyrus leave for the night. When they return in the morning, Daniel is able to point out the footprints left behind, thus proving that it is the seventy priests of Bel who are eating the food, not the idol.
Some scholars point out that the name Bel is derived from the Semitic word “Baal” that has the same meaning of “Lord.” There are several places within the Bible where Bel is mentioned, this more than likely referencing Marduk. The Hebrew version of Marduk’s name, Merodach is found in many places in the Bible as a surname for non-Israeli kings.
Continuing this trend for Biblical Connections, Marduk and a couple other Mesopotamian and Canaanite deities are made mention of in the Torah or Old Testament.
Thanks to Cyrus the Great of Persia, when he captured Babylon, he reversed the policies of the previous ruler by calling for the rebuilding of temples and reinstating religions that had been destroyed or banned before.
Where the Bible (Torah) is concerned, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple to Yahweh. Cyrus records inspiration for this as coming from Marduk. The bible will say that it is Yahweh who inspired Cyrus.
The “Cyrus Cylinder” found in 1879 at Babylon records the following: “Marduk, the great Lord, established as his fate for me a magnanimous heart of one who loves Babylon, and I daily attended to his worship… I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [in Babylon], to their places; and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings… at the command of Marduk.”
In the Book of Ezra 5:13 this event is recorded: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God.”
The Book of Isaiah is where Yahweh is given credit for inspiring Cyrus.
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city
and set my exiles free” (Isaiah 45:13)
The connections don’t end there, Biblical scholars see a similar theme with Marduk’s slaying Tiamat with the Canaanite story of Baal slaying Tannin and notably Yahweh’s defeating the giant sea monster Leviathan in Psalm 74: 13-14 or a future time in Isaiah 27:1.
The previously mentioned Etemenanki temple is thought to be the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. Babylon’s destruction is prophesied in the book of Jeremiah (50:2).
Who do you accept? It’s a matter of two different religions, cultures and perspectives. Of course, it’s easy, after the fact, to say there was divine intervention and that it is all prophesied.
According to Zecharia Sitchin, the claim is made that the great battle between Tiamat and Marduk is symbolic for the creation of our solar system’s asteroid belt. Sitchin writes that this asteroid belt was once a planet that the Sumerians called Tiamat. Due to an impact, the planet was destroyed, creating the “Great Band” or asteroid belt. The planetary impact responsible is that of the planet Nibiru, associated with the god Marduk.
Babylonian Astronomy, Astrology & Zodiac
I will call bunk on Sitchin’s ideas.
When you look at the word Nibiru in the Akkadian language, it refers to a crossing or transition points like with rivers. In Babylonian astronomy, Nibiru came to refer to the Equinox, notably, the Autumn Equinox. In their star lore, the term nibiru can refer to any crossing. Tracking the movement of the stars and planets in the heavens as they appear from Earth. The star or planet associated with Marduk is the one we know modernly as Jupiter.
For the Babylonians, the Autumn Equinox occurred in the month of Tisritum, roughly coinciding with between September and October. If we’re following the Greek Zodiac, then the constellation of Libra is prominent. A further fun fact, depending on the time of the year and the location of the planet Mercury, it could sometimes be called Nibiru.
Some of it is confusing. Mainly it’s understanding how to read and interpret what the Babylonians meant when tracking the night sky.
It should come as no surprise, that as old as the Mesopotamian cultures and religions are, that they would have mapped out the night sky to mark the turning of the seasons, creating a calendar. Many of these early constellations and zodiacs were adopted by the later Greeks who incorporated the constellations into their own mythology.
In Babylonian beliefs, it is Marduk who creates the astrological calendar and mapped out the different signs of the Zodiac. Marduk would be identified with the planet Jupiter, who of course is later equated with the Greek Zeus and renamed for the Roman deity Jupiter as all three are heads of their respective pantheons.
Cetus – Greek Mythology & Constellation
While many are familiar with the constellation’s connection to the Grecian story of Andromeda and Perseus in its role as the giant sea monster sent by Poseidon to destroy the coast of Aethiopia.
The constellation of Cetus has been identified with Tiamat, the dragon goddess of Chaos. Marking Tiamat’s story one of many that the Greeks likely inherited from the Mesopotamians and retold for their legends.
Pronunciation: Djet m-aw rohz
Other names: Dzyed Maróz (Ukrainian), Did Moróz (Russian), Dédushka Moróz (Serbian), Deda Mraz (Bulgarian), Dyado Mraz (Slovenian), Dedek Mraz (Russian), Morozko (Russian), Grandfather Frost, King Frost, Father Frost, Ice King
Etymology: Grandfather Frost
Ah Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas…. That magical time of the year with Christmas and Yuletide celebrations. When we jump over to the Russian and Slavic celebrations for Winter, there is Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost who will be bringing gifts.
Just who is Ded Moroz? Let’s see…
To start, Ded Moroz is described as an elderly looking man with a long, flowing white beard who wears a long red, blue or white fur coat and round fur hat and boots. He carries with him a long magical staff and rides along with an evergreen tree in a sled or troika pulled by three white horses.
Much like his American and other European counterparts, Ded Moroz is known for bringing presents to good children. Unlike Santa Claus who brings his gifts on December 25th or Sinterklaas who arrives on December 6th, Ded Moroz brings his gifts on New Year’s Eve.
Other little factoids about Ded Moroz include that his birthday is on November 18th, this coincides with when the first frost arrives on the ground in Veliky Ustyug, Russia. Many sources will also place Ded Moroz’s age at around 2,000 years old.
Ded Moroz appears to have a strong connection to Eastern Slavic Paganism before spreading out into Russian beliefs and culture. Here, Ded Moroz is the Wizard of Winter and a snow demon who personifies Russian winters.
In folklore, Ded Moroz is originally Morozko, a powerful blacksmith and hero known for freezing water to become frost. As a force of nature, Morozko isn’t necessarily evil, he is known to help those who show him proper respect and giving gifts, plus he can be devastating to those who are rude, disrespectful and otherwise mean-spirited.
Slightly different origins place Morozko as a god of frost and ice who’s married to the harsh, unforgiving Winter. As a deity, he could freeze people and the countryside in a moment’s notice. With the Russian Orthodox Church, there was an attempt to label Morozko as a demon. Later fairy tales would soften Morozko’s image to be an elderly old man who could be more benevolent and not quite as harsh.
You Called Him A Demon!
Before we freak out, the Slavic use of referring to entities as demons is very similar to the Greeks usage of the term daimon when referring to a spirit or a minor local deity, or force of nature. As more of the Slavic countries and Russia became Christianized, the term demon would take on more negative associations.
I should throw in at this point, a note that scholars and historians do have some disputes about the exact origins of Ded Moroz. He does appear to be derived from a Slavic deity of Winter and to be the personification of cold and frost.
I’ll touch on it more, further down; there was a period of religious prohibition during the Soviet era and the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be settled on the nature and role that Ded Moroz has. He goes from scary demon to a figure that can now allow for some of the religious traditions to come back, even if they’re claimed to be pagan in origin.
However, myths and legends do evolve, grow and change. The very image of Ded Moroz that many people have, especially in Russia does come out of the Soviet era. Why ruin a good thing that people love?
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Or Old Man Winter
This is the main story and source for Ded Moroz and is also the origin for his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It is a Russian fairy tale first collected by Alexander Afanasyey for his Russian Fairy Tales collection and then is included in “The Yellow Fairy Book” compiled by Andrew Lang in 1894 as “The Story of King Frost.”
The story begins with a stepmother who dislikes her good-natured stepdaughter who is always good and kind and always having to hear about it. Of course, the stepmother loves her own daughter and dotes on her whim and desires.
As is the nature of these type of stories, the stepmother tells the father to send the stepdaughter away, so she didn’t have to see or hear her again. The man begs his wife to reconsider and she is unrelenting about getting rid of the stepdaughter. So, the man, the father takes his daughter out on their sled, out to the woods before giving the girl a kiss and abandoning her there.
Realizing her lot and fate, the sobbing girl sits down next to a tree. She isn’t sitting there long before she hears a crackling noise and looks up to see that King Frost is standing there.
In a stern voice, King Frost snaps out doesn’t the girl know who he is? He is King Frost, king of the red-noses.
The girl says “All hail” to King Frost and then she asks if he is here to take her.
King Frost asks if she is warm enough. The girl answers, saying she is warm enough despite the fact that she is shivering fiercely.
The King repeated his question, stepping closer and the girl insisted that she was still warm.
At this, King Frost takes pity on the poor girl and wraps her in furs to keep warm. He goes further with covering her in blankets and giving her gifts of gems and lastly, a sleigh pulled by six white horses.
In the morning, the stepmother tells the man that he should go out and retrieve his daughter’s body for burial. To the stepmother’s surprise and shock, the man returns with a chest filled with gems and his still-living daughter, more beautiful than before with the splendid furs and her silver and gold dress.
Wanting the same for her own daughter, the stepmother tells the man to take her daughter out to the same spot where the stepdaughter had been left. The man did as he was bid, taking the stepmother’s daughter out and leaving her there.
As soon as the man left, the daughter sulked as she sat down by a tree. Just as before, it wasn’t long until King Frost appeared.
Just as before, King Frost asked the daughter if she was warm. Unlike the stepdaughter who had been respectful with her words, the daughter was rude, calling him a blind fool, of course she was cold, her hands and feet are nearly frozen.
Angered by this girl’s words, King Frost snapped his fingers and froze the girl to death.
Of course, the stepmother expected her own daughter to return just as the stepdaughter had, loaded with wealth and finery. That clearly wasn’t what happened when the man went out to retrieve her and brought back only the daughter’s cold, lifeless body.
It just shows, it pays to always be polite and respectful as you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.
Moroz – Red Nose
This is a poem connected to Ded Moroz written by Nikolai Nekrasov. The story found within this poem highlights a dark aspect to Ded Moroz’s character as it depicts him killing a peasant woman and orphaning her children.
Other darker aspects to Ded Moroz as a wizard of winter would have him kidnap children and he would only be willing to return them when parents offered him up gifts.
Within the Christian Orthodox Church, the character of Ded Moroz has changed over the years. Most notably during the 19th century with different plays featuring him. The two most notable plays are Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka and a similarly named play by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Russian Revolution
1917 saw the Bolshevik Revolution. More forward a few years into the 1920’s with the formation of the Soviet Union and Government, we see that many Christmas traditions were discouraged as they were considered to be too religious in nature and materialistic. Especially Saint Nicholas, who had been Russia’s patron saint, his feast day of December 6th were done away with.
It doesn’t help that Ded Moroz was declared to be “an ally of the priest and kulak” as Russia tried to remove many religious elements. Other sources give the history that Ded Moroz was seen as too childish and not acceptable.
This isn’t just Christmas that got banned by the Soviet Government, this is a prohibition on any religious holidays, observances and celebrations.
Soviet Santa – An Alternative
Luckily a complete banning of the holiday spirits wouldn’t last long. I’m sure there are many children psychologists and just even psychologists in general who can extrapolate much better than I can about the importance of play, the use of imagination and human spirit. If you crush it completely, we’re going to have problems.
Seeing a need and importance for some type of holiday seasonal celebration, Ded Moroz would take on his more familiar image thanks in part to a letter written by Pavel Postyshey on December 28th of 1935. Pavel stated that the origins for the Christmas traditions pre-dated actual Christianity and that it would be beneficial to bring back these traditions for the sake of the children.
Now, instead of arriving on Christmas Day, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka would arrive on New Year’s or Novy God, bringing presents to leave under an evergreen tree. This change provided an alternative to the American Santa Claus and one seen as a secular celebration by the Soviet Union.
Letters To Ded Moroz
Much like how Santa Claus will receive letters from children, Ded Moroz will receive his share of letters from numerous children requesting gifts. Millions of letters over the years from all across Russia and around the world have been addressed to Ded Moroz.
Where Santa makes his home in the North Pole, Ded Moroz does hang his hat and call home?
To answer that, in 1998, it was declared that the town of Veliky Ustyug, in Vologda Oblast is Ded Moroz’s home. Since then, Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians who travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet.
Ded Moroz spends his summers reading letters from children all over the country in preparation for the New Year’s Tree on January 1st.
Ded Moroz’s Granddaughter
Snihurónka or the Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter who often accompanies him. She is shown wearing a long silver-blue dress or robes and a fur-lined cap to keep warm.
Ded Moroz is often shown being accompanied by his granddaughter, Snihurónka. She’s noteworthy as numerous other, familiar Winter figures don’t have a female companion.
Holiday Twins & Counterparts
So, what are the difference between Santa Claus and Ded Moroz?
We know there are differences, after all, Santa Claus arrives Christmas Eve and Ded Moroz arrives on New Year’s; both bringing presents. Santa Claus classically dresses all in red, especially in America and Ded Moroz is known for dressing in not just red, he will also dress in blue or even white, much like how a Russian noble would be expected to dress. They certainly look like cultural syno-entities and cultural twins (given the history, that’s how Ded Moroz got his start.) Santa Claus is known for being short and rotund and Ded Moroz is tall and thin. Russian children will affectionately call Ded Moroz, “Ded Moroz the Red Nose.”
Other notable differences between the two is that Santa Claus will enter a home coming down the chimney and leaving his gifts in a stocking. Whereas, Ded Moroz will enter in through the front door and leave his gifts under the New Year’s Tree.
During the 1990’s, the character of Santa Claus began to make his way into the Russian Federation as more and more influences of Western culture made their way through the previous Soviet Union.
There have been efforts to show cultural goodwill by having Santa Claus (or his various counterparts) and Ded Moroz (sometimes his Belarus counterpart Dzied Maroz) has one-on-one meetings or friendly competitions.
December of 1997 saw the creation of ‘Christmas Without Borders” where Ded Moroz and Santa Claus met a bridge crossing the Narva River between Estonia and Russia. The whole point was to spread goodwill and increase cooperation between the two countries and neighboring border towns. I wasn’t able to determine if this started a new tradition and continued or if it just petered off after a few years.
The early 21st century saw a resurgence for the character of Ded Moroz and his granddaughter, Snegurochka where they arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts, often showing up at children’s parties. Much like Saint Nicholas who battles Krampus in some of the Germanic countries, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will face off with Baba Yaga who wants to steal the presents.
Of course, there are a few will say that Ded Moroz is really Santa Claus’ grandfather. That works too given how long the two have been around and who’s mythologies are older.
Tracking Ded Moroz On His Nightly Runs
Where Santa has NORAD tracking his nightly flight, Ded Moroz has GLONASS tracking his run on New Year’s. This began in November of 2009 when the Russian Federation offered to compete with NORAD.
Alright! May the best Present-Giver win!
What’s In A Name – Regional Variations
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of the countries that formed after sought to move away a Soviet heritage by reclaiming their own regional heritages and roots. This means that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will frequently have a different, variant name or change altogether as each country seeks their ancient traditions or move forward to something different.
Armenia – Dzmer Pap, meaning “Grandfather Winter,” his granddaughter is known as Dzyunanushik, meaning “Snow Sweetie” or Snow Anush. They have been part of Armenia traditions for some 160 years since the Russo-Persian War. Both wear red, blue or white winter coats. They make an appearance for both Christmas and New Year’s with bringing gifts. Children are expected to sing songs or recite poems before getting their gifts.
Azerbaijan – Saxta Baba, meaning “Grandfather Frost,” his granddaughter is known as Qar Qizi meaning “Snow Girl.” Saxta Baba brings gifts during New Year’s. Qar Qizi isn’t usually seen.
Bashkir and Tatar – Qis Babay, which means “Winter Old Man.”
Belarus – Dzied Maroz, he replaced Sviatv Mikalai who was more local, but had been disapproved of due to being Christian. Dzied Maroz’ makes his home in the Bialowieza Forest.
Bulgaria – Dyado Koleda or Grandfather Koleda is often equated with Santa Claus and appears alongside Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost. Dyado Mraz was popular during the Communist rule but has since fallen by the wayside since 1989 as Dyado Koleda began to gain more popularity.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Ayaz Ata is the name for Ded Moroz.
Nenets – Yamal Iri, which means “Grandfather of Yamal.”
Poland – Poland didn’t have a version of Ded Moroz and during the communist era, there were efforts to try and introduce Dziadek Mróz as historically speaking, Communists didn’t want religion and view Saint Nicholas as being too religious in nature. It’s fairly obviously that Dziadek Mróz was meant to create a culture link and tie to Russia.
Romania – In 1948, a Communist party gained power and Christmas celebrations were done away with. Mos Cracium (Father Christmas) was replaced with Mos Gerila (Old Man Frosty), the Romanian name for Ded Moroz who would now bring gifts on December 31st for the New Years. Anyone paying attention, knows that New Year’s celebrations begin on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, when King Mihai I abdicated the throne in 1947.
Sakha Republic – Chys Khan, meaning “Master of Cold” and Khaarchana (Snow Maiden).
Slovenia – In this country, Ded Moroz’s name translates to Dedek Mraz. He is a slender man who wears a grey leather coat trimmed with fur inside and out and who wears round dormouse fur cap. This image of Dedek Mraz is based on pictures by Maksim Gaspari in 1952. Dedek Mraz’s home is located on Mount Triglay, the highest peak in both Slovenia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990’s when Communism ended, Miklavž (Saint Nicholas) who arrives on December 6th and Božicek (Christmas Man) who arrives on December 24th, Christmas Eve began making an appearance in Slovenia. Some Slovenian families in the 1940’s would have the Christkind (Jezušcek or “Little Jesus”) who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. It varies by family in regard to their political and religious views, current culture will show all three of Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus as friends. The attributes of each will also get mixed with the others.
Tajikistan – Boboi Barfi, meaning “Grandfather Snow” and Snegurochka is known as Barfak, meaning “Snowball.” There was an effort briefly on December 11th of 2013 to do away with the state televised celebrations of Boboi Barfi, Barfak and the New Year’s. That lasted all of about a day and the next day, the televised broadcasting plans were back on.
Ukraine – With the current conflicts with Russia, as early as 2014, there have been efforts to replace Ded Moroz with Sviatyi Mykolai (Saint Nicholas) and well, Sviatyi Mykolai is more popular in Western Ukraine.
Yakut – Chys Khaan, meaning “Master of Cold.”
Yugoslavia – The socialist Yugoslavia that comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, has a character by the name of Grandfather Frost. In Bosnian, this name is Djed Mraz or Djeda Mraz, in Croatian, this name is Djed Mraz, in Macedonian, the name is Dedo Mraz, the Serbian name is Deda Mraz and the Slovenian name is Dedek Mraz.
For a bit of a history lesson here, in Croatia, Djed Mraz was viewed as a communist figure and the character of Djed Božicnjak or Grandfather Christmas is introduced. It’s taken a while for Djed Božicnjak to replace Djed Mraz and then, not completely. After 1999, both Djed Mraz and Djed Božicnjak have become synonymous. Some families still have Djed Mraz arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts. Thanks to some historical Austrian influence in parts of Croatia, children will get gifts on December 6th brought by Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) who is accompanied by Krampus. More religious families will have the baby Jesus (Isusek, Mali Isus or Kriskindl) who brings gifts on Christmas. Getting into some areas of Dalmatia, it is Sveta Lucija (Saint Lucy) who brings gifts.