Category Archives: Solstice
Etymology – medis “tree” or medė “forest” Lithuanian
Also Called: Medeinė, Meidein, Meidene, Žvorūna, Žvorūnė, vilkmergė (“She-Wolf”)
Medeina is the Lithuanian goddess of the forest and hunt in the Baltic region. As a goddess of the hunt, Medeina has been compared to the Grecian Artemis or Roman Diana.
Animal: Bear, Hare, Wolf
Sphere of Influence: Forests, Wildlife
The first images of Medeina show her as a bear.
Lithuanian scholar, Algirdas Julius Greimas says that Medeina is single, a virgin goddess much like Artemis or Diana. Greimas describes her as a beautiful, young and voluptuous huntress who is accompanied by wolves.
When seen as a bear, Medeina’s worshipers dressed in bear skins during a Winter Solstice ritual.
The scholar, Vykintas Vaitkevičius is reported to have identified five Hare Churches and ten Wolf-Footprints in Eastern Lithuania that are sacred to Medeina. The churches are sacred stones, hills and forests while the paw prints are stones with hollows that look like a paw print.
After the Baptism of Lithuania, Medeina’s cult and worship went in decline.
Her name day is August 21st in Lithuania.
Goddess Of The Hunt/Forest Protector
Whele Medeina is seen as a goddess of the hunt, her actual role is that of protecting the wild animals in the forest from hunters. One way that she would do this is to send out a rabbit or hare to misdirect hunters and get them to chase it.
As Medeina protected the wildlife from Hunters, she was often seen as having dual benign and malign traits. As if scholars couldn’t decide if she were divine or demonic in nature.
The first animal caught in spring would be sacrificed to Medeina.
Medeina is known to take a couple of different forms. The first is that of a young woman, the second is that of a wolf. In her wolf form, Medeina leads a pack of wolves.
A Russian chronicle that dates to around 1252, according to this text, Medeina is one of the pagan deities that was worshiped by the Lithuanian King Mindaugas. Here, Medeina is an unnamed hare goddess.
This text has caused some scholarly discussions whether the name Medeina is the name of the hare goddess or if there are two different goddesses with the same name.
Military Prowess & Might
Any early role of Medeina was in the military aspects of warriors. Medeina would later be replaced by Zemyna, the goddess of Earth who represents agriculture and peasants.
I could not find much on this entity. The Juodas kudlotas which translates from “juodas” for black and “kudlotas” for hair is some sort of cross between a hairy animal and a human being, much like sightings of Big Foot or Sasquatch in the U.S. This is a creature that lives in the forests and finds favor with Medeina.
Artemis – The Greek goddess of the Hunt.
Diana – The Roman goddess of the Hunt.
Meža Mate – The Forest Mother, she is another goddess associated with Medeina.
Žvorūnė – Also called Žvorūna from the word “žvėris” meaning “beast,” is a Lithuanian goddess of hunting and animals. She is a goddess made mention of in the Malala Chronicle and Chronicle of Ipatius. She has been equated with Medeina. There’s some speculation that Žvoruna may be an epitaph of Medeina and that there might be an older hunting goddess who has since been forgotten.
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.
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 to the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated, tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and was likely introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though, is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing a sack cloth around his wait and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Etymology – Horn (Old English)
Suffice to say, Herne is a well-known figure in British and Modern folklore. At first glance, it’s easy to say that Herne is one of the names for the Horned God in Wicca and Modern Paganism. A slightly more knowledgeable response would say that Herne is who leads the Wild Hunt. Or perhaps that he is the ghostly specter of a Games Keeper with antlers who haunts Windsor Forest.
It does get a bit tricky on trying to get into what’s concrete for the figure of Herne.
Many descriptions of Herne will agree that he is human either wearing antlers or has antlers. Sometimes he is on foot others he is on horseback and may or may not be accompanied by hunting hounds or other animals of the forest.
Ghost – The version of Herne that appears in Shakespeare’s play, clearly terrorizes the forest animals and people alike, blasting or withering the trees of the forest as he shakes his chains. The alternative lines say he can take on the shape of a stag. Later descriptions of Herne will have him riding a horse as part of the Wild Hunt.
The Merry Wives Of Windsor
The earliest known mention that we have of Herne is in William Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor written in 1597.
That certainly is a case for having been around for quite a while just based off that alone.
In Act 4, Scene 4, we have the characters Mistress Page and Mistress Ford deciding that they will play a trick on Sir John Falstaff because of his unwanted advances. The two ladies convince Falstaff to disguise himself as a ghost and meet them out under an oak in Windsor Forest at midnight. The two ladies also convince and get some children to show up at the same time who are dressed up as fairies to pinch and burn Falstaff.
“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the trees, and takes the carrle,
And makes milch kine* yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.”
Milch kine? Yeah, milking cows.
There is a set of alternative lines from 1602 that hint that Herne was a local ghost story used by mothers to get their children to behave.
The alternative lines are as follows:
“Oft have you heard since Horne the hunter dyed,
That women, to affright their little children,
Says that he walkes in the shape of a great stagge.”
Whether the character of Herne existed before the creation of Shakespeare’s play or is a creation of it, isn’t clear. What is clear is that this play is for certain where the figure of Herne enters British folklore and onwards to a larger, global audience… at least the West.
Cuckold’s Horns – With an Elizabethan audience, they would know that a cuckold is a name given to a husband with an unfaithful wife. A cuckold like the cuckoo bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. So, a husband is likely raising a child who is not his own. The horns were likely a theatrical device of the Elizabethan stage to inform an audience of a character’s role.
In Windsor’s Home Park, there have been a few different oak trees since the mid-1800’s that people have claimed to be either Falstaff’s Oak or Herne’s Oak.
The main oak that people pointed to as Herne’s Oak fell in 1796 due to declining botanical health. The other oak was blown over during a windstorm on August 31st 1863. The logs from this tree were burnt in order to exorcise the ghost of Herne. One log was kept to carve a bust of Shakespeare from and is on display in the Windsor and Royal Borough Museum in the Guildhall.
Later, Queen Victoria planted another oak to replace the one that fell in 1863. Later, King Edward VII would have the tree removed in 1906 during a landscaping project. Still, another oak would be replanted to replace the fallen tree from 1796 and named Herne’s Oak.
All’s well that ends well.
As the legend of Herne continues to grow and expand, the 20th century sees Herne’s ghost now appearing shortly before national disasters and before the death of monarchs, much like a Banshee.
At the very least, because people expect to see something, more and more people claim to have encountered Herne’s ghost or to have heard the sounds of hounds or a horn blowing in Windsor Forest.
Truth In The Telling
With the authenticity of Herne being lost to history and up for debate, there are enough people who believe that Shakespeare must have been using a local legend. To this end, people have been trying to add some historical veracity and authenticity to legitimize Herne’s legend. If nothing else, the legend and imagery of Herne have succeeded at capturing people’s imaginations for centuries and has well earned a place in folklore.
The Restless Gamekeeper – This is the next literary source, written by Samuel Ireland in 1791 in his Picturesque Views on the River Thames. In the story, Herne is to have been based on a historical figure by the name of Richard Horne, a yeoman who lived during Henry VIII’s reign. Horne was accused of poaching and as a result, he hung himself from an oak tree. As this was a suicide death, Herne’s spirit is believed to be barred from entering either heaven or hell and is doomed to haunt the place of their death.
Shakespearean scholar James Halliwell-Phillips found a document where Herne is listed as a hunter and confessed to poaching. Plus, early versions of The Merry Wives of Windsor spell the name as “Horne” instead of “Herne.”
There are of course, a couple variants to this story.
Variation 1 – In this version, Herne is the huntsman to King Richard II. After some local men grew jealous of Herne’s status, they conspired to accuse him of poaching on the King’s land. Falsely accused and outcast, Herne hung himself from an oak tree.
Variation 2 – In this story, Herne saves King Richard II from a stag. Fatally wounded, Herne is healed by a magician who takes Herne’s skills in forestry and hunting as payment. Part of this being cured involved having the dead stag’s horns tied to Herne’s head. Distraught by the loss of his skills, Herne hung himself from a tree. As a result, his spirit is doomed each night to lead a spectral hunt through Windsor Rest.
Windsor Castle – Written by William Harrison Ainsworth in 1842. This novel aims to be a historical drama set during the reign of the Tudors and follows Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn. Herne features throughout the novel as a ghostly figure haunting the nearby woods of Windsor. This version of Herne is somewhat sinister as Harrison Ainsworth created a history where Herne was gored by a stag. Herne makes a deal with the Devil to spare him. Part of the deal is that Herne would forever wear antlers. This version of Herne had served Richard II and likely the source of the two previous folkloric versions of where he originates from.
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 able to evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
Of course, the point is brought up that as a ghost, Herne is connected to one locality whereas the Wild Hunt wanders, moving from one place to another, seemingly randomly.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
With Wicca and many modern pagan religions, Herne is frequently identified with the Horned God. As a Horned God, Herne is seen as a god of the Hunt, the sacred masculine, animals, nature, crossroads, sacrifice, fertility, virility, forests, hunters, and warriors.
Close on the heels of a horned deity, Herne has been connected to the Celtic deity of Cernunnos. Most notably, Margaret Murray made this connection in her 1931 book, “God of the Witches.” She sees Herne as a manifestation of Cernunnos and a very localized god found only in Berkshire. Take that as you will, for as much as Margaret Murray is hailed as the Grandmother of Wicca, many of her ideas and theories have been discredited and contested or challenged as they often appealed to emotional desires didn’t fulfill proper scrutiny and criteria for research. She is still very important in getting the ball rolling for those who follow Wicca and Paganism.
Archeological Discoveries – Of note is that a headpiece made from the top part of a stag’s skull with antlers still attached was found in Britain at Star Carr near Scarborough. This headpiece is thought to date back to around 8500 B.C.E., dating it to the Mesolithic era. The headdress is thought to have served shamanic rituals to ensure a successful hunt.
Cernunnos – Gaul
It’s not just Margaret Murry who sees Herne as being very similar to or an aspect of Cernunnos, it is also R. Lowe Thompson in his 1929 book “The History of the Devil – The Horned God of the West” who makes the connection.
Thompson makes the connection of Herne to other Wild Huntsmen, looking for a connection of all of these horned deities being really the same being or aspects of each other. He goes on how Herne and Cernunnos are the same, just as the English word “horn” is a cognate of the Latin word “cornu.”
So… “cerne” and “herne.” It’s enough for many Wiccans and Pagans to accept Herne as an aspect of Cernunnos just on the fact that both have horns or antlers.
Depending on the source and who you ask, Herne hunts and destroys nature and wildlife where Cernunnos seeks to protect it.
Pan – Greek
While we’re at it, the Grecian rustic gods of the wild, Pan is also seen as a syno-deity who can be equated with Herne and other Horned Gods.
Woden – Anglo-Saxon
Also spelled Wotan.
Because so many have tried to make connections, I already touched on this above with the Wild Hunt, Herne as been connected to Wodan as well. Both Herne and Wodan hung from a tree. Herne out of shame and suicide and Wodan as he was seeking knowledge of the runes. Herne is also bandied about as being derived from one of Wodan’s titles, Herian (“Warrior-Leader”), a titled used when leading his fallen warriors, the Einherjar.
The Play’s The Thing!
Even if the origins of Herne are rooted in a Shakespearean play solely as a creation of the great bard himself. People assume that Shakespeare must have drawn on some unverifiable local myths and folklore.
While we can argue and aren’t completely sure, Herne has more than earned a place in folklore. Afterall, Herne continues to inspire and find his way into literature and modern media.
There are numerous books and T.V. series where Herne has a part or features and continues to be a character people readily draw inspiration from.
Such as a British show, Robin of Sherwood where Herne is a pagan priest and spirit of the woods. Books such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat
The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.
The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.
The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.
Dark Ages – Autumn Wool
According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.
This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.
The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.
The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:
You all know the Yule Cat
And that Cat was huge indeed.
People didn’t know where he came from
Or where he went.
He opened his glaring eyes wide,
The two of them glowing bright.
It took a really brave man
To look straight into them.
His whiskers, sharp as bristles,
His back arched up high.
And the claws of his hairy paws
Were a terrible sight.
He gave a wave of his strong tail,
He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.
Sometimes up in the valley,
Sometimes down by the shore.
He roamed at large, hungry and evil
In the freezing Yule snow.
In every home
People shuddered at his name.
If one heard a pitiful “meow”
Something evil would happen soon.
Everybody knew he hunted men
But didn’t care for mice.
He picked on the very poor
That no new garments got
For Yule – who toiled
And lived in dire need.
From them he took in one fell swoop
Their whole Yule dinner
Always eating it himself
If he possibly could.
Hence it was that the women
At their spinning wheels sat
Spinning a colorful thread
For a frock or a little sock.
Because you mustn’t let the Cat
Get hold of the little children.
They had to get something new to wear
From the grownups each year.
And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve
And the Cat peered in,
The little children stood rosy and proud
All dressed up in their new clothes.
Some had gotten an apron
And some had gotten shoes
Or something that was needed
– That was all it took.
For all who got something new to wear
Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp
He then gave an awful hiss
But went on his way.
Whether he still exists I do not know.
But his visit would be in vain
If next time everybody
Got something new to wear.
Now you might be thinking of helping
Where help is needed most.
Perhaps you’ll find some children
That have nothing at all.
Perhaps searching for those
That live in a lightless world
Will give you a happy day
And a Merry, Merry Yule.
It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.
Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.
Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.
So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.
Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood
Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…
Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.
Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.