Category Archives: Spain
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.
Also Known As: Rey Pascual, El Rey San Pascual, King of the Graveyard, King of the Underworld, and San Pascualito Muerte
San Pascualito is a folk saint found in Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Given the skeletal nature of his appearance, he is a figure that bears a strong resemblance to San La Muerte and Santa Muerte.
Warning – San Pascualito’s imagery causes him not to be acknowledged by the Catholic Church. Having a skeleton iconography puts San Pascualito in the same vein as Santa Muerte and San La Muerte and associations with death and crime. Due to not being as well known either outside of where he is venerated, there is still an air of unease among Catholic and other Christian sects.
Color: Black, Red, White
Month: May (17th Feast Day)
Patron of: Curing Diseases, Cures, Death, Healings, Love, Graveyards, Vengeance
Sphere of Influence: Death, Healing
Symbols: Skeleton, Cape, Crown, Wheeled Cart
San Pascualito is shown as a skeleton wearing a cape and crown.
Tradition holds that San Pascualito’s veneration very likely originates with a Pre-Columbian Death God. As a folk saint, he is strongly associated with Saint Paschal Baylon, a Spanish friar. Though traditions surrounding San Pascualito strongly lean towards a Pre-Columbian death god.
As the historian Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzmán relates, in 1650, an indigenous Guatemalan man in San Antonio Aguacaliente (now modern-day Ciudad Vieja) was dying of an epidemic fever known as cucumatz in the Kaqchikel language. As the man received his last rites, he had a vision of a tall skeleton dressed in glowing robes appear before him. This figure introduced themselves as “Saint Paschal Baylon.” At this time, Baylon would not be canonized by the Catholic church until 1690, though he had been beatified earlier in 1618.
The figure promised the dying man to intercede and end the cucumatz if he were to be adopted by the community as their patron saint and honor his image. For proof of his identity, the figure predicted that the man receiving the vision would die in nine days, at which time the epidemic would end.
When the appointed time came and the man died, the story of the vision began to spread, and people began putting up images of San Pascualito despite prohibition from the Spanish Inquisition.
San Pascualito’s major center of worship and veneration is in Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. There is a major shrine dedicated to him in Olintepeque, Guatemala. In the Church of San Pascualito in Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas, there is a version of San Pascualito as a seated skeleton in a cart. Devotees of San Pascualito will leave thank you notes, offerings of capes, or burn candles.
The color of the candle determines the intent of the request. Red is for love, Pink for health, Yellow for protection, Green for business, Blue for work, Light Blue for money, Purple for help overcoming vices or temptation, White for the protection of children, and Black for revenge.
King Of The Graveyard
One of San Pascualito’s epitaphs or names, King of the Graveyard does link him to being a potential death cult. Unlike other such cults, San Pascualito is more concerned with curing diseases, ya’ know, staving off death. Not yet.
As a Folk Saint, San Pascualito’s Feast Day is held on May 17th, the same feast day as Saint Paschal Baylon.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Grim Reaper – The imagery of the Grim Reaper and San Pascualito are remarkably similar.
Mictlantecutli – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec god of death and San La Muerte.
San La Muerte – A similar figure to San Pascualito found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – A similar female counterpart found in Mexico and southern parts of the United States.
Also Called: Wiracocha, Wiro Qocha, Wiraqoca, Apu Qun Tiqsi Wiraqutra, Huiracocha, Ticciviracocha, and Con-Tici
Etymology: “Sea Foam”
Epitaphs: Ilya (Light), Ticci (Beginning), Tunuupa, Wiraqoca Pacayacaciq (Instructor)
In Incan and Pre-Incan mythology, Viracocha is the Creator Deity of the cosmos. As a Creator deity, Viracocha is one of the most important gods within the Incan pantheon. Everything stems ultimately from his creation. The universe, Sun, Moon and Stars, right down to civilization itself. Similar to other primordial deities, Viracocha is also associated with the oceans and seas as the source of all life and creation. If it exists, Viracocha created it. Something of a remote god who left the daily grind and workings of the world to other deities, Viracocha was mainly worshiped by the Incan nobility, especially during times of crisis and trouble.
Patron of: Creation
Planet: Sun, Saturn
Sphere of Influence: Creation, Ocean, Storms, Lightning, Rain, Oracles, Language, Ethics, Fertility
In Incan art, Viracocha has been shown wearing the Sun as a crown and holding thunder bolts in both hands while tears come from his eyes representing rain. There is a sculpture of Viracocha identified at the ruins of Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca that shows him weeping.
Under Spanish influence, for example, a Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa describes Viracocha as a man of average height, white with a white robe and carrying a staff and book in each hand. The Spanish described Viracocha as being the most important of the Incan gods who, being invisible was nowhere, yet everywhere.
In the village of Ollantaytambo in southern Peru, there is a rock facing in the Incan ruins depicts a version of Viracocha known as Wiracochan or Tunupa. This rock carving has been described as having mouth, eyes and nose in an angry expression wearing a crown and by some artists saying the image also has a beard and carrying a sack on its shoulders.
Another figure called Tunupa found in Ollantaytambo was described by Fernando and Edgar Elorrieta Salazar.
What’s In A Name?
Viracocha’s name has been given as meaning “Sea Foam” and alludes to how often many of the stories involving him, have him walking away across the sea to disappear. When we look into the Quechuan language, alternative names for Viracocha are Tiqsi Huiracocha which can have several meanings. The first part of the name, “tiqsi” can have the meanings of foundation or base. The second part of the name, “wira” mean fat and the third part of the name, “qucha” means lake, sea or reservoir. An interpretation for the name Wiraqucha could mean “Fat or Foam of the Sea.”
Continued historical and archaeological linguistics show that Viracocha’s name could be borrowed from the Aymara language for the name Wila Quta meaning: “wila” for blood and “quta” for lake due to the sacrifices of llamas at Lake Titiqaqa by the pre-Incan Andean cultures in the area.
Viracocha also has several epitaphs that he’s known by that mean Great, All Knowing and Powerful to name a few. Another epitaph is “Tunuupa” that in both the Aymara and Quechua languages breaks down into “Tunu” for a mill or central support pillar and “upa” meaning the bearer or the one who carries. This is a reference to time and the keeping track of time in Incan culture. The other interpretation for the name is “the works that make civilization.”
Further, with the epitaph “Tunuupa,” it likely is a name borrowed from the Bolivian god Thunupa, who is also a creator deity and god of the thunder and weather. Another god is Illapa, also a god of the weather and thunder that Viracocha has been connected too.
Incan Culture & Religion
The Incan culture found in western South America was a very culturally rich and complex society when they were encountered by the Spanish Conquistadors and explorers during their Age of Conquest, roughly 1500 to 1550 C.E.
The Inca held a vast empire that reached from the present-day Colombia to Chile. Their emperor ruled from the city of Cuzco. They worshiped a small pantheon of deities that included Viracocha, the Creator, Inti, the Sun and Chuqui Illa, the Thunder. The constellations that the Incans identified were all associated with celestial animals. The Incans also worshiped places and things that were given extraordinary qualities. These places and things were known as huacas and could include a cave, waterfalls, rivers and even rocks with a notable shape. Essentially these are sacred places.
In the city of Cuzco, there was a temple dedicated to Viracocha. There was a gold statue representing Viracocha inside the Temple of the Sun. Nearby was a local huaca in the form of a stone sacred to Viracocha where sacrifices of brown llamas were notably made. During the festival of Camay that occurred in time of year corresponding to the month of January, offerings were also made to Viracocha that would be tossed into a river and carried away to him. Hymns and prayers dedicated to Viracocha also exist that often began with “O’ Creator.”
Like many cosmic deities, Viracocha was probably identified with the Milky Way as it resembles a great river. His throne was said to be in the sky. All the Sun, Moon and Star deities deferred and obeyed Viracocha’s decrees.
Deific Late Comer
Old and ancient as Viracocha and his worship appears to be, Viracocha likely entered the Incan pantheon as a late comer. Mostly likely in 1438 C.E. during the reign of Emperor Viracocha who took on the god’s name for his own.
For a quasi-historical list of Incan rulers, the eighth ruler took his name from the god Viracocha. According to story, Viracocha appeared in a dream to the king’s son and prince, whom, with the god’s help, raised an army to defend the city of Cuzco when it was attacked by the Chanca. This prince would become the ninth Incan ruler, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. He is thought to have lived about 1438 to 1470 C.E. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui is the ruler is renowned for the Temple of Viracocha and the Temple of the Sun along with the expansion of the Incan empire.
The Incas didn’t keep any written records. Like many other ancient cultures, there were those responsible for remembering the oral histories and to pass it on. Aiding them in this endeavor, the Incans used sets of knotted strings known as quipus number notations. By this means, the Incan creation myths and other stories would be kept and passed on.
In a comparison to the Roman empire, the Incan were also very tolerant of other religions, so those people whom they either conquered or absorbed into their empire would find their beliefs and deities easily accepted and adapted into Incan religion. One such deity is Pacha Kamaq, a chthonic creator deity revered by the Ichma in southern Peru whose myth was adopted to the Incan creation myths. At the same time, the Incan religion would be thrust on those they conquered and absorbed.
On one hand, yes, we can appreciate the Spanish Conquistadors and the chroniclers they brought with them for getting these myths and history written down. They did suffer from the fallacy of being biased with believing they were hearing dangerous heresies and would treat all the creation myths and other stories accordingly. Which is why many of the myths can and do end up with a Christian influence and the idea of a “white god” is introduced.
Parentage and Family
Unknown, Incan culture and myths make mention of Viracocha as a survivor of an older generation of gods that no one knows much about.
Mama Qucha – She is mentioned as Viracocha’s wife in some myth retellings.
Daughters – Mama Killa, Pachamama
Sons – Inti, Imahmana, Tocapo
Sun & Storm God
Viracocha was worshipped by the Incans as both a Sun and Storm god, which makes sense in his role as a Creation deity. The sun is the source of light by which things can grow and without rain, nothing has what it takes to even grow in the first place.
Cosmic Myths In The Rain
Many of the stories that we have of Incan mythology were recorded by Juan de Betanzos. Naturally, being Spanish, these stories would gain a Christian influence to them.
Rise Of A Deity – In this story, Viracocha first rose up from the waters of Lake Titicaca or the Cave of Paqariq Tampu. This was during a time of darkness that would bring forth light. It is at this time that Viracocha makes the sun, the moon, and stars. He then goes to make humans by breathing life into stones. The first of these creations were mindless giants that displeased Viracocha so he destroyed them in a flood. After the destruction of the giants, Viracocha breathed life into smaller stones to get humans dispersed over the earth.
Taking A Leave Of Absence – Eventually, Viracocha would take his leave of people by heading out over the Pacific Ocean where he walked on the water. He wouldn’t stay away forever as Viracocha is said to have returned as a beggar, teaching humans the basics of civilization and performing a number of miracles. People weren’t inclined to listen to Viracocha’s teaching and eventually fell into infighting and wars. Despite this, Viracocha would still appear to his people in times of trouble.
Incan Flood – As the All-Creator, Viracocha had already created the Earth, Sky and the first people. Giants. There wasn’t any Sun yet at this point. These first people defied Viracocha, angering him such that he decided to kill them all in a flood. This flood lasted for 60 days and nights. This great flood came and drowned everyone, all save two who had hidden themselves in a box. The flood water carried the box holding the two down to the shores of Tihuanaco.
Seeing that there were survivors, Viracocha decided to forgive the two, Manco Cápac, the son of Inti (or Viracocha) and Mama Uqllu who would establish the Incan civilization. Viracocha created more people this time, much smaller to be human beings from clay. These people, Viracocha taught language, songs and civilization too before sending them out into the world through underground passages. It is now, that Viracocha would create the Sun, Moon and stars to illuminate the night sky.
Another legend says that Viracocha fathered the first eight humans from which civilization would arise. Some of these stories will mention Mama Qucha as Viracocha’s wife.
The Cañari People – Hot on the heels of the flood myth is a variation told by the Cañari people about how two brothers managed to escape Viracocha’s flood by climbing up a mountain. After the water receded, the two made a hut. Some time later, the brothers would come home to find that food and drink had been left there for them. This would happen a few more times to peak the curiosity of the brothers who would hide.
Two women would arrive, bringing food. When the brothers came out, the women ran away. The two then prayed to Viracocha, asking that the women return. Viracocha heard and granted their prayer so the women returned. It is from these people, that the Cañari people would come to be.
The Creation of People – Dove tailing on the previous story, Viracocha has created a number of people, humans to send out and populate the Earth. These people, known as Vari Viracocharuna, were left inside the earth, Viracocha created another set of people known as viracohas and it is there people that the god spoke to learn the different aspects and characteristics of the previous group of people he created. The viracochas then headed off to the various caves, streams and rivers, telling the other people that it was time to come forth and populate the land.
Teaching Humankind – This story takes place after the stories of Creation and the Great Flood. Viracocha sends his two sons, Imahmana and Tocapo to visit the tribes to the Northeast or Andesuyo and Northwest or Condesuvo. Viracocha headed straight north towards the city of Cuzco. The intent was to see who would listen to Viracocha’s commands. As the two brothers traveled, they named all the various trees, flowers and plants, teaching the tribes which were edible, which had medicinal properties and which ones were poisonous. Eventually, the three would arrive at the city of Cusco, found in modern-day Peru and the Pacific coast. Here, they would head out, walking over the water to disappear into the horizon.
The Canas People – A side story to the previous one, after Viracocha sent his sons off to go teach the people their stories and teach civilization. As Viracocha traveled north, he would wake people who hadn’t been woken up yet, he passed through the area where the Canas people were. When they emerged from the Earth, they refused to recognize Viracocha. This angered the god as the Canas attacked him and Viracocha caused a nearby mountain to erupt, spewing down fire on the people. Realizing their error, the Canas threw themselves at Viracocha’s feet, begging for his forgiveness which he gave.
Founding The City Of Cuzco – Viracocha continues on to the mountain Urcos where he gave the people there a special statue and founded the city of Cuzco. He would then call forth the Orejones or “big-ears” as they placed large golden discs in their earlobes. These Orejones would become the nobility and ruling class of Cuzco.
His tasks done, Viracocha would head off into the ocean, walking out over it with the other Viracocha joining him. One final bit of advice would be given, to beware of those false men who would claim that they were Viracocha returned.
Right Of Conquest – In this story, Viracocha appeared before Manco Capac, the first Incan ruler, the god gave him a headdress and battle-axe, informing the Manco that the Inca would conquer everyone around them.
Yes, it’s easy to see how incoming Spaniards would equate Viracocha with Christ and likely influenced many of the myths with a Christian flair.
White God – This is a reference to Viracocha that clearly shows how the incoming Spanish Conquistadors and scholars coming in, learning about local myths instantly equated Viracocha with the Christian god. At first, in the 16th century, early Spanish chroniclers and historians make no mention of Viracocha. In 1553, Pedro Cieza de Leon is the first chronicler to describe Viracocha as a “white god” who has a beard.
It must be noted that in the native legends of the Incas, that there is no mention of Viracocha’s whiteness or beard, causing most modern scholars to agree that it is likely a Spanish addition to the myths. Other deities in Central and South America have also been affected by the Western or European influence of their deities such as Quetzalcoatl from Aztec beliefs and Bochica from Muisca beliefs all becoming described as having beards.
Though that isn’t true of all the Central and South American cultures. Some like the Peruvian Moche culture have pottery that depicted bearded men. The Aché people in Paraguay are also known to have beards. Though the debates and controversy are on with scholars arguing when the arrival of European colonialism began to influence the various native cultures.
Ultimately, equating deities such as Viracocha with a “White God” were readily used by the Spanish Catholics to convert the locals to Christianity. Much of which involved replaced the word God with Viracocha.
Pacha Kamaq – The “Earth Maker”, a chthonic creator god worshiped by the Ichma people whose myth would later be adopted by the Inca.
Saturn – It is through Viracocha’s epitaph of Tunuupa that he has been equated with the Roman god Saturn who is a generational god of creation in Roman mythology and beliefs.
Thunupa – The creator god and god of thunder and weather of the Aymara-speaking people in Bolivia.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.