Category Archives: Solstice
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Alternative Names: Apu Punchaur, Apu-punchau, Giver of Life, Inti-Wawqi (Brother of the Sun)
In the Quechua and primarily Incan cultures of what is now modern-day Peru, Inti is a god of the sun and war. Inti was second in importance only to Viracocha, the creator god. Inti is generally perceived as a benevolent deity much of the time, bringing the heat of the sun for crops to grow. In the same vein, Inti could show displeasure through solar eclipses in which sacrifices would need to be made to soothe his anger. Rulers of the Inca saw themselves as descendants of Inti, the patron of their empire and military might.
The Incan Empire once spanned from Chile to Colombia and had covered most of Peru and Ecuador in its heyday. The Incan people were an advanced culture with sophisticated records, astronomy, art, and wealth. The Inca originated from the Lake Titicaca region in the Andes. Like any empire, the Incas expanded, conquering other tribes and cultures. That is, until the arrival of the Spaniards who came looking for gold and their own conquests in 1533. Smallpox devastated many of the local populations, making it easy for the Spanish and other Europeans to come in and with it, the fall of the Incan empire.
Animals: Cougars, Snakes
Patron of: Creation
Sphere of Influence: Crops, Fertility
What’s In A Name?
Surprisingly, the word inti isn’t a Quechuan word but is instead a loanword from the Puquina language. Looking at the language groups of Aymara, Mapuche, and Quechua in the region shows why all these languages have a similar word for the sun. The Mapuche people have a similar sun deity known as Antu, the names for their spouses, and the Moon goddess are different from Quilla and Cuven.
In art, Inti would be represented as a golden disc with a human face. In the minds of the Incan people, Inti has a human form.
Gold – This metal was particularly associated with Inti as it was thought to be the sweat of the sun. There is a record of a gold statue to represent Inti. Within Inti’s temple in Cuzco, the interiors were lined with 700 half-meter panels of beaten gold. Outside the temple was a life-sized scene of a field of corn with llamas and shepherds all made of gold and silver. This statue represented Inti as a young boy known as Punchao or the Day and Midday Sun. From the statue’s head and shoulders, the sun’s rays shone forth. He was wearing a royal headband and had snakes and cougars coming out of his body. The stomach of the statue was hollow and would hold the ashes of the previous Incan rulers’ vital organs. This statue would be brought out every day into the open air and returned to the temple at night. When the Spanish arrived, the statue was taken to a place of safety, but eventually, it was found in about 1572 C.E. and has since disappeared from history where it was likely melted down for the gold along with so many other Incan artifacts.
Inti Masks – These masks were made of thinly beaten sheets of gold to form and represent the rays of the sun coming out of Inti’s head. The rays were often cut in a zig-zag design and some were known to end with small human faces or a figure. The most well-known mask was the one on display at the Coricancha temple.
Temples & Solar Constructions
Temples were often elaborately decorated with gold and jewels with intricate designs. This added a lot of prestige for those worshiping within, to offer something so abundant and plentiful to Inti to magnify the glory of the sun.
Coricancha Temple – (“House of the Sun”) and Sacsahuaman were sacred districts in the Incan capital of Cuzco. These are thought to have been built during Pachacuti’ reign. The High Priest of the Sun or Villac Umu presided over rites dedicated to Inti. They would be assisted by acllas or acyllyaconas (young virgin priestesses). Priests in other parts of the empire would carry out ceremonies and rites locally in those places.
Gateway of the Sun – This monolith located in Tiahuanaco by the Tiwanaku culture is thought to have a figure representing Inti while other sources will claim that it is Viracocha. The Sun Gate is also important as it shows the position of the sun on the days of the solstices and equinoxes.
Intihuatana – Or “hitching post of the sun” are solar astronomical stones (similar to a sundial but more sophisticated) that would be set at the highest point of a sacred precinct. They were used during the solstices to track the sun and connect it to the earth with a special cord or rope. Other astronomical observations for the sun and perhaps other celestial bodies would also be tracked with them. The most familiar and famous example is the one found at Machu Picchu. Other places are Pisac in north-eastern Cuzco, Ingapirca in Ecuador, and the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca where Incan rulers would make a pilgrimage to once a year.
Sucanga – These were a series of twelve pillars arranged around the city of Cusco used in the Incan solar calendar. Each pillar was arranged so that each month, it would indicate where the sun would set and rise. Farmers used them to rely on their planting and harvests. In the Incan Solar Calendar, the year was divided into 12 moons with 30 days. Each moon corresponded with its festivities and daily activities.
This isn’t that much of a stretch, Inti is the Sun god, the sun way up in the sky is seen as him. It’s not that hard to see the sun as sacred, especially when needing crops to grow and bring light to the world.
Among the Inca, they began worshiping before the dawn. The emperor, his family, and everyone would head down to the main square of Cusco and wait silently for the rising of the sun. Once the sun rose, everyone would rejoice and kneel as the priests offered up a chicha to Inti in a silver bowl.
From there, the people would march to Coricancha to relight the sacred fire using mirrors to direct the sun’s rays.
The sun worship also included dances, sacrifices of grain, flowers, and animals that would be burned on bonfires.
Parentage and Family
Father – Viracocha, the creator god
Mother – Mama Qucha
Sometimes Pachamama, the earth goddess is Inti’s mother and in yet other myths, Inti will become Pachamama’s second husband.
Mama Quilla – The goddess of the Moon.
Pachamama – An Earth goddess
Siblings – Imahmana, Mama Killa, Mama Quilla, Pachamama, Tocapo
Inca Manco Capac I and Mama Oello
Through Inca Manco Capac I, Inti is essentially the progenitor of all the Incan people. Other myths will place Manco Capac as the son of Viracocha.
Ancestor & Protector Deity
Inti is noted as being an ancestor of the Incan people through his son Inca Manco Capac I. In this capacity, Inti is also the state protector of the Incan peoples. Inti taught both Manco Capac and his daughter Mama Ocllo the arts of civilization.
The ruling elite of the Inca were all seen as representatives or avatars of Inti on earth. A similar concept is found in ancient Egypt where the Pharoah was seen an avatar of Ra in the flesh. Every member of the Incan people, especially the nobles to see themselves as representing Inti when they traveled and that they needed to holy when entering certain cities within the empire.
Incan myths say that Inti is the founder of their culture and empire. Inti taught his children Manco Capac and Mama Ocollo the arts of civilization before sending them to the Earth to pass these skills on to humankind. Inti ordered his children to build the capital of the Incan empire where a golden wedge hit the ground. This city is often regarded as being the city of Cusco and had been founded by the Ayar.
Worship – Inti was regarded as the head of the state cult and his worship was enforced throughout the Incan empire. The Incan leader, Pachacuti is who is often credited for the spread of the Inca Sun Cult.
The High Priest or Willaq Umu placed this position as the second most important person in the Incan culture. The Willaq Umu was directly beneath the Sapa Inca and were often brothers as both were held to be descended from Inti.
In Incan beliefs, Inti and his sister, Mama Quilla, the Moon goddess are regarded as being benevolent. Inti is also to have married his older sister Mama Killa who bore him two children. Within Inti’s court, he and Mama Quilla are served by the Rainbow, the Pleiades, Venus, and other celestial bodies.
Where many will identify Inti as a sun god, he is more accurately viewed as a series of solar aspects, specifically the stages of the sun as it passes throughout the day.
Incan Astronomy – In Incan cosmology, the sun has three phases it goes through during the day. The first is known as Apu Inti, the “supreme Inti” and represents the father and is sometimes known as “The Lord Sun.” The next is Churi Init or “Son Inti” which represents the son of Inti and is known as “Daylight.” The last is Inti Wawqi, the “Sun Brother”. The name is also spelt Inti- Inti-Guauqui and Inti-Huaoqui. Inti Wawqi represents the sun god in his role as the founding father of Incan rule and ancestor of the Incan people.
The aspects of Apu Inti and Churi Inti are separated cosmically as they each represent the Summer and Winter Solstices. Inti Wawqi is not associated with any astronomical spot.
The other idea in Incan cosmology is that these different aspects of Inti involved different duties they undertook. One of the suns represented the actual sun giving heat and light to the earth. Another of the sun was in the sky during the day much like the moon is out at night. And that the last sun was responsible for the growth of plants and agriculture.
Eclipses – Like many cultures, eclipses were seen as a sign of ill omen, and with the Inca, that Inti was somehow displeased. The Inca couldn’t predict a solar eclipse, part of what led to beliefs in an angry sun deity. The priests would seek to find ways to divine and figure out what had caused Inti’s wrath and then figure out which sacrifices needed to be made. With an eclipse, this is when the Inca would resort to human sacrifice to appease Inti’s anger. In addition, the ruling Inca would withdraw to fast for several days before returning to their duties.
Creation Myth – One of the interpretations of this myth has a conflict between Viracocha and Inti over the Sun’s creation and if it meant it should be worshiped as a separate entity.
Agriculture – As a Sun god, Inti is also instrumental as an agricultural deity. Especially in the highlands of Peru where the sun’s heat was thought to be the cause of rain. The correlation makes sense when during the rainy season, the sun is hotter and during the dry season, the sun feels cooler. Without that rain, the production of crops for maize and other grains would be more difficult.
Each province of the Inca empire would dedicate a third of their land and herds to Inti. Each major province would have a Sun Temple where priests and priestesses would serve.
Inti-Raymi – Meaning “Sun Festival,” this is an annual festival held during the time for the start of a new planting season. In the Quechua language, the name Inti Raymi means “resurrection of the sun” or “the path of the sun.”
The festival began with three days of fasting, no fires lit and people abstaining from sex, the sacrificing of 100 brown llamas. Once the festival began, it would last nine days during which time people consumed a lot of food and drink. There would be ritual dances, chanting from sunrise to sunset with animal sacrifices throughout the day all dedicated to celebrating Inti. Other sacrifices to Inti included simple prayers, food, coca leaves, and woven cloth. At the conclusion of the festival, people would leave with permission.
Sacrifices – Oftentimes animals of various livestock would be given. The most common sacrifices to Inti were white llamas. Any human sacrifices were done during a special ceremonial occasion or in the event of an event such as an earthquake, solar eclipse, or a death in the royal family. Such sacrifices and ceremonies were conducted to ensure the continuation of the Incan empire for its people and harvests.
There is one particular story of an eagle being attacked by buzzards and falling from the sky during a ceremony to Inti in roughly 1526 C.E. This was seen as an omen or portent for the collapse of the Inca empire. This would also coincide with the arrival of smallpox brought by Spanish Conquistadors from Europe. The smallpox epidemic would devastate numerous populations throughout the Americas and in the case of the Inca, it weakened them to conquered by the Spanish.
After the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, this festival would be changed to May or June to coincide with the feast of Corpus Christi. Of course, incoming invaders and conquerors saw the festival of Inti-Raymi as being too pagan and would try to replace it with Christian observances.
The Inti-Raymi festival has seen a revival and tourists are known to come to Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire to observe it. Inti Raymi occurs during the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and June 24th by modern Calendar dates. And of course, no human sacrifices in the modern day.
With the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors, came also the arrival of Catholicism and Christianity. The incoming Christian priests saw any religion other than themselves as being Pagan. The Sun Worship observed among the Incans was no exception and quickly equated with paganism and thus evil. This religious zeal, fueled by Spanish greed led to many temples being destroyed along with many religious artifacts meeting the same fate.
It is known that the Spanish Conquistadors seized a huge golden disk that represented Inti in 1571. It was sent back to Spain and given to the pope. Since then, this artifact and religious icon have been lost and there is speculation it may have been melted down to bullion.
Nowadays, in the 20th and 21st centuries, Inti is equated with the Christian god by the Quechua people.
Apollo – A Greek god of the sun also worshiped by the Romans.
Arinna – A Hittite goddess of the sun and light.
Helios – An ancient Greek sun god.
Huitzilopochtli – The Aztec god of the sun.
Kinich Ahau – The Mayan sun god.
Lugh – The Celtic sun god and fierce warrior.
Mithra – The Persian god of the sun.
Ra – A solar god worshiped among the ancient Egyptians.
Sol – The name of the Roman personification of the sun.
Sunna – Or Sol, one of the few sun goddesses and venerated by the Norse.
Surya – The Hindi god of the sun.
Tawa – The Sun Kachina in Hopi beliefs.
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
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 in the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity, and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns, and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
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 sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal-masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous-looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Herne The Hunter
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 fearsome 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.
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.