Category Archives: Spirit
Etymology: Rai (“Thunder”) and Den or Jin (“Lightning”). Another derivation is Kaminari 雷 (“Thunder”) and Kami 神 (“God”)
Other Names and Epithets: 雷神, Kaminari, Kaminari-sama (“Thunder Master”), Karai-shin, Karaijin, Narukami (Thundering Spirit”), Raiden, Raiden-sama (Thunder and Lightning Master”), Yakusa no ikazuchi no kami (“Eight, Thunder, Spirit”)
Raijin is the name of a Shinto Weather God in Japanese mythology, specifically the God of storms, thunder & lightning. Sometimes, the name Raijin refers to one deity, other instances, Raijin will refer to several weather gods.
Sphere of Influence: Storms, Thunder, Lightning, Agriculture
Raijin is often depicted as a muscular, red-skinned Oni with sharp claws, horns, wild hair and carrying around a large drum or several drums with the symbol of tomoe written on them. These drums of course are used for the sound of thunder. To beat the drums, Raijin uses hammers. Sometimes Raijin is shown to have three fingers that each represent the past, present and future.
Statues depicting Raijin can be found throughout many places in Japan. Many of these sculptures will show Raijin possessing a pot-belly and a fearsome face.
Mortal Kombat – Finish Him!
Raijin, better known as Raiden, appears in the popular fighting game series Mortal Kombat. As Raiden, he is often shown as a robed man wearing a straw hat.
Parentage and Family
The gods Izanami and Izanagi, the main deities in Shinto are who birthed or created Raijin and all the other gods in Japan.
In addition to Raijin and his brother Fujin, all of the Kami of Japan can be said to be Raijn’s brothers and sisters as they were all created after the creation of Nippon (Japan).
There’re a few variations to Raijin’s origin.
In line with Japan’s creation myth, the gods Izanami and Izanagi created Raijin after they created Nippon, making him among some of the oldest gods in the Shinto religion. Specifically, Raijin was born right after the death of his mother, Izanami when she bore the fire god, Kagu-tsuchi. Izanagi took his sword, Ame no Ohabri got Kagu-tsuchi up into eight pieces, which became eight volcanoes. The blood dripping off the sword would create a number of other Japanese gods or kami.
After Izanami descended to the underworld, her husband Izanagi would follow after. There is a misunderstanding between the two and Izanagi took off. Izanami would send Raijin, along with other spirits to bring Izanagi back.
Other legends will say that there are eight lightning gods, hence the suffix part of Raijin’s name “jin” for people, plural. Getting back on point, these eight lightning gods were tasked with protecting Dharma by the Buddha. This syncretism, known as Shinbutsu-shūgō, joining different religions together is common in Japan. Even an order 1868 meant to separate the two religions of Buddhism and Shinto didn’t stop this from happening.
In Japanese lore, Raijin and his companion, Fujin were a pair of oni who actively opposed the other deities. Under the orders of Buddha, it took an army of thirty-three gods to subdue Raijin and Fujin and convert them to work alongside the other deities.
Kojiki – This ancient Japanese text is the primary source for everything known about Raijin.
Kamikaze – The Divine Wind
In 1274, the Mongols for the first time would attempt to set sail and invade Japan. However, a massive typhoon would destroy a good number of the Mongol fleet, disrupting plans for a conquest of Japanese archipelago. Going by the legend, only three men are said to have escaped. A second attempt in 1281 saw a similar typhoon blow through and wreck most of the Mongol fleet again. Both massive storms or Kamikaze as they would come to be known were attributed as being sent by Raijin to protect Japan.
Kami or Oni?
Some of the descriptions of Raijin say he’s an oni and that certainly seems true given his description and when looking at more Buddhist influenced stories where the gods had to battle Raijin and Fujin to tame them and convert them to Buddhism.
Kami – When we go back to the Shinto religion that predates Buddhism in Japan, Raijin is one of many, numerous gods or kami found throughout the region. They range in power from low level spirits all the up to gods.
Shintoism holds the belief and idea that everything seen in nature has a spirit, or kami. As spirits, they just are. The greater the spirit or kami, the more of a force of nature and raw power it will be. So many of these spirits would be revered and respected just to avoid needlessly getting them angry and ticked off.
Oni – By Japanese mythology, Oni are very synonymous with the Western concept of demons. Ugly, ogre-like creatures of varying descriptions. An Oni’s only purpose is to create chaos, destruction and disaster. Given depictions of Raijin, he looks the part of an Oni very much and when it comes to storms, a more severe storm can be very destructive.
With some of the more primal nature spirits and gods, it’s a very thin line for the concepts of good and evil if you’re trying to pin them to those categories. As a weather deity, it goes either way if his rains bring fertility and life or if it’s the destructive force of a hurricane.
When Raijin is mentioned, he is frequently paired with Fujin, another Weather God is also a sometimes rival. The two are constantly at it, fighting among themselves over who will rule the skies. The more intense a storm, the more intense their fighting.
Temple Guardians – Statues of Raijin and Fujin can be found at the gates to many temples and holy places in Japan where they are seen as protectors and guardians.
Raiju! I Choose You!
That sounds like the name of a pokemon. There are a couple, Raichu and Raikou, a legendary pokemon who is based on Raiju and other thunder gods.
In Japanese mythology, raiju is the name of Raijin’s animal companion. Raiju is described as a blue and white wolf or a wolf wrapped in lightning.
Raijin is also the god or kami of one of the Japanese islands and believed to live up on the mountains.
As a storm deity, Raijin is revered as a considerable force of nature. The storms he brings can be destructive in the form of hurricanes and great wind storms when he battles Fujin. Or they can be life giving water and fertility to the land.
Kura-Okami – The god of rain and snow, Raijin is sometimes equated as being the same deity. Kura-Okami is active and at his strongest during the winter months from December to February.
Thunder isn’t all that bad. A thunderstorm would mean rain. A lot of Japanese farmers would seek to appease Raijin for rain during droughts and not to flood their rice fields. There was a belief that lighting would cause fertility for a rice field. The sound of thunder and lighting, it would mean a bountiful harvest. This seems a tentative way to connect Raijin to agriculture and fertility.
I would think having a lightning rod to redirect lighting to the ground would be protection from Raijin. Hiding under a mosquito net is the only protection from Raijin.
That isn’t the only way, as the sound of thunder often freaks out many people and is an omen of disaster. After all, who wants a tree crashing in on their house during a thunderstorm or coming out after it’s over to see what swath of destruction has been left behind? Not many.
Mosquito nets asides, certain areas in Japan hold to a superstition that ritual needs to be performed during a thunderstorm. This ritual involves striking bamboo to exorcise bad spirits away from rice fields. This was thought to avert any disasters in the fields that would result to any lightning and thunder.
As a stated previously, as Raijin is seen as a primal spirit, its better to appease him and get on his good side rather than get him needlessly angry.
Hide Your Navel!
It’s believed that Raijin is found of eating human navels. It was common practice for Japanese parents to tell their children to hide their belly buttons during a thunderstorm lest Raijin come eat it.
If it’s any minor consolation, according to some beliefs, it’s not really Raijin who eats children’s belly buttons, but his animal companion Raiju who actually does. Or if Raiju isn’t eating your navel, he’ll curl up inside to sleep.
Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen
These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!
Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.
The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.
Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.
Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.
Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.
Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.
For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.
In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.
Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.
If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.
Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.
The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!
The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.
Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.
If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.
The Thirteen Yule Lads
The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.
The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.
Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)
Arrives: 12 December
Leaves: 25 December
The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer’s sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn’t; he had stiff knees
– not too convenient.
Giljagaur – Gully Gawk
Arrives: 13 December
Leaves: 26 December
The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stúfur – Stubby
Arrives: 14 December
Leaves: 27 December
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker
Arrives: 15 December
Leaves: 28 December
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper
Arrives: 16 December
Leaves: 29 December
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.
Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker
Arrives: 17 December
Leaves: 30 December
Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
– he was sure good at that!
As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.
Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer
Arrives: 18 December
Leaves: 31 December
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.
Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler
Arrives: 19 December
Leaves: 1 January
Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.
Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper
Arrives: 20 December
Leaves: 2 January
The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper
Arrives: 21 December
Leaves: 3 January
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer
Arrives: 22 December
Leaves: 4 January
Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook
Arrives: 23 December
Leaves: 5 January
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak’s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.
Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)
Arrives: 24 December
Leaves: 6 January
The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
– ‘twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.
Lost Yule Lads & Lasses
More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.
Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.
Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!
Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.
Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.
Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.
Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.
Bunch of weirdos.
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.
Etymology: “Unseen” or “The Unseen One”
Alternate Spellings & Other Names: Ἁιδης, Αιδωνευς, Áïdes (Ionic and Epic Greek), Aïdoneús, Áïdos, Áïdos, Áïda, Ais, Eubouteous, Háides, Klymenos, Pluto or Ploutos (“wealth” or “the rich one,”) Pluteus,Pluton, Ploutodótes, Ploutodotr (“Giver of Wealth”), Pylartes, Stygeros, ‘unseen’, Zeus Katachthonios (“Zeus of the Underworld”)
Epithets: Agesander, Agesilaos (“fetcher of men,” “carries away all” or “leader of men”), Chthonian Zeus, Clymenus (“notorious,”) Eubuleus (“good counsel” or “well-intentioned”), Hegesilaus, Polydegmon (“Reciever of Many Guests”)
Hades is an ancient chthonic deity who best known as the God and Ruler of the Underworld, so much so, that the Underworld would come to be known by his name.
Animal: Black Rams, Dog, Rooster, Screech-Owl, Serpents
Patron of: The Underworld, the Dead, Wealth
Plant: Asphodel, Cypress, Mint, Narcissus, Pomegranate, White Poplar
Sphere of Influence: Death, Grief
Symbols: Cerberus, Cornucopia, Scepter, Narcissus, Key of Hades
Early Greek Depictions
In early Greek art and even mythology, Hades doesn’t make many appearances as this is a deity whom the ancient Greeks didn’t want to attract the attention of.
Most of Hades’ early representations in art are mostly pottery and statuary where he’s not always clearly defined. The classical era of art, especially those that depict the Rape of Persephone will show Hades with varying ages depending on the artist. Sometimes Hades is shown as looking away from the other gods to represent their disdain for him.
In Greek pottery, Hades is often shown having a dark beard and shown as a stately figure seated on an ebony thrown. In Greek statuary, Hades is often shown with his three-headed dog Cerberus for quick and easy recognition.
Hades is known to drive a chariot, drawn by four black horses, which makes for a fearsome and impressive sight. Hades is often thought of as being very dour and stern, unmoved by prayers.
When identified and represented as Plouton, Hades is seen in a more positive light. As Plouton, he is shown holding a cornucopia that represents the riches and fertility of the earth.
Cult & Worship
Hades was a grim and fearsome seeming deity that living humans did not mention by name lightly. As the god of the dead, one simply did not mention Hades by name lest they draw his attention and potentially an early death. Instead, Hades would be called by a few different euphemisms and epithets.
Such was the reluctance of any followers that people were hesitant to swear oaths in Hades’ name and would avert their gazes when performing sacrifices to him. The sacrifices made to Hades were black animals like sheep. Human sacrifices to Hades were outright rejected even though other sources will try to say that such human sacrifices were done. The blood from the animal sacrifices would be dripped into a pit or cleft in the ground. The person offering the sacrifice would turn away their face. When propitiated, people would slap or hit the ground to make sure that Hades heard them. Finally, every hundreds, festivals would be held to honor Hades. These were known as the Secular Games.
Temples – Hades was worshiped throughout Greece and Italy. It is known he had a sacred grove and temple in Elis. This temple would only be opened once a year. Another temple is known to have been in Pylos Triphyliacus near Mount Menthe. Finally, there was a sacred grove to the Erinnyes in Athens and another grove in Olympia.
Hades does have a part in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. Hade’s role in the mysteries comes in the story of his abducting Persephone to the Underworld to be his wife and Queen. The Mysteries concern more the worshiping of Demeter and Persephone.
While we don’t know as much about the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Orphic Mysteries are another matter as there have been plenty of surviving Orphic Hymns and texts that have been found and translated. There’s plenty of evidence that has been left behind found through out all of southern Italy. Much of which is the connection of Dionysus’ death and resurrection symbolisms in myth.
Hades = Dionysus!?!
In connection to the previously mentioned Eleusinian Mysteries, starting with the philosopher Heraclitus; he states that Hades and Dionysus are merely the same deity with different aspects to them, the essence of life. A Karl Kerenyi points out that in her grief, Demeter refused to drink wine, a symbol of Dionysus, especially after Persephone’s abduction. Further, one of the Dionysus’ epithets is Chthonios, meaning “the subterranean.” Demeter knows full well that its Dionysus who has abducted her daughter and that Hades is merely an alias.
Though this is just one level of the Orphic tradition trying to explain a deity who has a dual nature. Many of Hades epitaphs are also the same epitaphs used for Dionysus. Names such as: Chthonios (“the Subterranean”), Euclius (“glorious” or “renowned”) and Eubouleus (“Good Counselor”)
Speaking of Eubouleus, that epitaph is also applied to Zeus…. When covered as a deity by himself, Eubouleus is depicted as a youthful representation of the Lord of the Underworld.
Zeus Katachthonios – Zeus of the Underworld
Another important epitaph of Hades in the Orphic tradition. By calling Hades the name: “Zeus Katachthonios” they could connect him to his brother Zeus and why there are stories of Zeus and Persephone coupling up to have children like Melinoe and Zagreus.
Homer calls Hades “the Infernal Zeus” and “Grisly God”.
It all makes for an interesting connection. Hades as the God of Death, Dionysus as the God of Life and Zeus tying them both together to represent the birth, death and resurrection of a deity.
What’s In A Name
The exact origins for Hades’ name have been lost to antiquity. It is however been agreed to translate as: “The Unseen One.” Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus has an extensive section devoted to the etymology of Hades’ name. Socrates argues that the name doesn’t mean “unseen,” but instead means: “his knowledge of all noble things.” More modern linguists lean towards the “unseen” meaning though another idea put forward is the meaning: “the one who presides over meeting up” referring to death.
Given his role as Lord of the Underworld, Hades is the deity liked least and people were reluctant to speak his name lest they bring unwanted attention to themselves. Even the other gods are said to have avoided Hades’ company.
In the 5th century B.C.E., the ancient Greeks began calling Hades by the name of Plouton, meaning “wealth” or “riches.” This name served more as a euphemism as the Greeks didn’t want to draw the attention of the God of Death. In addition, not only is the Underworld were the dead go and that’s who Hades rules over, but wealth and riches in the form of gold, silver and various gems can be found there.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Persephone – The daughter of Demeter whom Hades himself abducted. She is the Goddess of Spring, Vegetation and Fertility before becoming Queen of the Underworld.
He is the fourth child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
It should be noted that by some accounts, Hades being the God of the Underworld is thought to be infertile, so any of Hades and Persephone’s children are the result of Zeus coming to have sex with his brother’s wife… and his own daughter. If you ask me, that’s a bit limited in thinking, just because Hades is lord of the Underworld, doesn’t mean he will be infertile. Of course, Zeus as the father works in the Orphic tradition when you want him to be the father of everyone.
The Erinyes – Also known as the Furies, they are sometimes called the daughters of Hades, though they’re actually earth-born.
Macaria – Death or Blessed. It’s just known that she is a daughter of Hades. There is a proverb: “Go to blessedness.” This is a euphemism for death as it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead.
Melinoe – A chthonic goddess identified with Hecate. In the Orphic tradition, she is the daughter of Persephone and Zeus in the guise of Hades. So, she’s not really Hades’ daughter and it’s possible Persephone claimed her as Hades if she didn’t know of Zeus’ ruse.
Zagreus – A minor deity in Greek mythology, he is called the “first Dionysus” in the Orphic tradition. In the Orphic tradition, Zagreus is the son of Zeus and Persephone, he is torn apart by the Titans and reborn later. The earliest mentions of Zagreus have him as a consort to Gaia and the god of the Underworld. The Greek playwright, Aeschylus connects Zagreaus with Hades so that they are either Father (Hades) and Son (Zagreus) or that they’re the same deity. Linking Dionysus into the myth of being Hades seems to stem from the myths of Zagreus.
As much as Hades is a major Greek Deity, as his domain and realm is that of the Underworld where he rules over the dead, he isn’t one of the Olympian Gods.
Simply because that isn’t where Hades spent all his time. Except for the one time that he happened to be above ground and fell in love with Persephone, Hades spends all his time underground.
Attendants of Hades
Ruling the Underworld isn’t easy. There are all those souls of the deceased coming in. While Hades is sure to have the help if his wife and queen, Persephone, there’s still a lot to be done.
Cerberus – A Most Loyal Hound
Cerberus is the three-headed dog of Hades that guards the gate to the Underworld. It is with amusement that Cerberus has the meaning of “spot.” There’s something very humanizing and endearing in a deity naming their dog Spot.
Also known as the Furies, they are an earth-born trio of chthonic deities whose job is to mete out retribution and vengeance. If you went against the natural order of things, perjured, broke an oath, murder, unfilial conduct, a child upsetting their parent…. These are the deities who came to deal with you. In their connection to Hades in the Underworld, the Erinyes would torment the souls of criminals.
I think its fair to say I wouldn’t want them angry with me, that way lays madness and likely some horrifying illness.
Judges of the Dead
The three judges of the dead are: Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus. These three judges would sentence the souls of the dead, determine their guilt on if they would go to Tartarus or if deemed innocent enough, to pass on to the Elysian Fields.
In Plato’s Gorgias, a story is told to Socrates that the reason that there are three judges is so that everyone who dies will be judged fairly. The original judges had been there since Cronos’ time and were prone to letting anyone who was wealthy enough, dressed fanically enough and had witness who would claim that an undeserving, wicked soul was being allowed to pass on to the Elysian Fields. As these judges were judging people while still alive on their last day on earth.
Hades and the overseers in charge of the Isles of the Blessed came before Zeus with a complaint about this.
Zeus said he would put a stop to this practice and decreed that there would be stop to anyone having any foreknowledge of their death. The dead would be stripped bare of everything before judgement and would stand naked. The judge too would likewise be naked… clearly a metaphor for the naked truth and nothing hidden. The judge would hold the soul of the deceased in their hands to determine it’s worthiness without any of the entrapments of life. Aeacus and Rhadamanthus would determine a soul’s fate with Minos to act as a tie breaker if there were any doubt to where a soul’s final destination would be.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Hades and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
In other versions I have found of this story, Zeus meets with Metis who concocts a drug for Zeus to give Cronus so that he disgorges or vomits up the stone and all of his children.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up rulership of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld, Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone.
After Hades’ birth and the dividing up rulership of the realms, this story is the most well-known regarding this deity.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden. As Kore, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires were known.
This didn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this was love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (also Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes, and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love at first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – Regarding the Narcissus flower, Zeus commands Gaia to create it to distract Persephone when she is out picking flowers. As it is far from any lakes or rivers where her Naiad friends can follow, Persephone is all alone for when Hades comes. Sure enough, when Persephone picks this strange new flower, a chasm opens underneath her, and she falls down into the waiting arms of Hades and the Underworld.
Version 3 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Plouton, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility.
Homeric Hymn – More like a side note, this hymn tells how the shepherd Eumolpus and the swineherd Eubuleus see a girl being carried away to the Underworld in Hades’ chariot. Eubuleus looses his pigs to the Underworld as they fall into the chasm that opens up for Hades on his descent below.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when he is released, Demeter turns him into an owl.
Altered States of Mind – Most people think of rape as having to be a something violent for it to be valid? I’m sure the in the original Greek tellings of the story, it’s obvious what Hades’ intent is. Never mind later retellings that seem to gloss over and not really make it clear as they want to give you a happy fuzzy feeling that Persephone just accepted her fate and this is how we got the four seasons of the year.
Looking at the older, archaic definition, this is the forcible carrying away of a woman to have sexual intercourse with her. So, looking at how the story of Persephone’s Abduction is originally titled and knowing older definitions of a word, I’d say it’s pretty clear.
Before his marriage to Persephone, Hades does seem to have had a couple of love interests. Not as many as Zeus, that’s for sure, just a couple though.
Hades & Minthe
Hades had a mistress by the name of Minthe, a nymph. In an act of hubris, Minthe boasts about how she is more beautiful than Persephone and that she would manage to win Hades back.
Persephone takes exception to this boast and to prove her power, might and indignation, she turns the nymph into a plant of the same name.
By Ovid’s account, Hades is still pursuing Minthe, which would explain a moment of jealousy on Persephone’s part to make sure her man remains loyal.
Mmm…. Mint. Gotta love that sweet smell.
Hades & Leuce
Leuce was a nymph and the daughter of Oceanus. She was carried off by Hades and ravaged, according to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Though we know what really happened, rape. Alas things were not meant to be and Leuce died. On her death, Hades turns Leuce into a white poplar, a tree that would later be sacred to Hades. Hercules is said to have been wearing a crown of poplar leaves when he returned from the Underworld.
Theseus & Pirithous – Would-Be Suitors
Even though Persephone is married to Hades, that doesn’t stop the heroes Pirithous and Theseus from descending down to the Underworld with the aspirations of Pirithous marrying Persephone.
The two had it in their heads that they would marry daughters of Zeus. They clearly didn’t think the plan through. Of course, Theseus had the bright idea of being the one to try kidnapping Helene, Zeus wasn’t happy with that. Some accounts have the mighty Zeus sending a dream to the two with the idea of going off to have Pirithous marrying Persephone.
Hades is there to welcome the pair sure enough. Soon as they are seated, their chairs magically bind and holdfast the would-be suitors. There they would remain prisoners until the hero Hercules comes to the Underworld to free them. Most versions, it’s just Theseus who is freed.
Just let that be a lesson, don’t mess with another man’s wife or daughters if he thinks you’re unworthy of such a thing.
Molossians – King Aidoneus
There’s a version of the story of Theseus and Pirithous were they journied to the Molossian in Epiros where a King Aidoneus rules. Coincidentally, Aidoneus has a wife by the name of Persephone, a daughter named Kora and a dog named Cerberus. Pirithous conspires to kidnap Kora and when Aidoneus learns of this plot, he seizes both men. Pirithous is killed by the dog Cerberus and Theseus is held prisoner. In this version of the story, Herakles (Hercules) was a guest of Aidoneus and when he learned of what happened; Herakles pleaded for Theseus’ release. In gratitude, Theseus built an alter to Herakles.
So perhaps this shows a bit of taking an actual event and making it larger than life involving the god of the Underworld, Hades.
The Twelve Labors Of Hercules
In Greek mythology, the hero Hercules was tasked with a series of twelve labors by King Eurystheus that needed to be performed as penance for the killing of Hercules’ family. One of Hercules’ tasks and the final one, was to descend to the Underworld to retrieve the three-headed hound Cerberus.
In a more extended version of the event, Hercules goes to Eleusis to be initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. This had to purposes, first to absolve Hercules of his guilt for the death of all the centaurs and secondly, it would allow him to learn enter and return from the Underworld.
Hercules found the entrance to the Underworld in Taenarum. With the help of the gods Athena and Hermes, Hercules was able to make the descent down and back. Being sensible, Hercules goes and asks Hades if he can take his dog, Cerberus rather than outright steal it. Hades only consents to Hercules taking his beloved dog on the condition of not harming Cerberus. Specifically, Hercules is not to use any weapons. When leaving the Underworld with Cerberus, Hercules passes through the Acherusia cavern.
In some accounts, it is said that Persephone, not Hades is who allowed the hero to take the hell hound. While Hercules was at it, Persephone also allowed the hero to free Theseus from his confinement. Other accounts will say that Hercules wounds Hades with an arrow, though that sounds like that’s from another story.
In Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, Hercules decided it was a good idea to slaughter one of Hades’ cattle in order to give the souls of the dead some fresh blood. Menoetes, Hades’ keeper of cattle challenged the titular hero to a wrestling match. It is only after Hercules breaks the ribs of Menoetes that the hero sets him down at the behest of Persephone.
In the versions told by Diodorus Siculus in his “Library of History” and Pseudo-Hyginus’ Fabulae, Hercules frees both Theseus and Pirithous.
In Seneca’s Hercules Furens, Hera complains about Hercules having broken down the doors to the Underworld and dragging the hound, Cerberus up to the living world. Hera ask why doesn’t Hercules lord it over Hades, saying that the law of the shades has been nullified. That a way for ghosts or spirits of the dead to return from the Underworld has been opened up. That the mysteries of Death are available for all to see. Seneca’s Hercules Furens also ignores that Hercules was not to harm Cerberus with any weapons and says that the hero does use his club.
Hercules & Alcestis
This is the second encounter that Hercules and Hades have.
Queen Alcestis was the wife of King Admetos. He didn’t want to die and seems to have gotten some special permission from the Fates.
The Fates told Admetos that he could escape his time to die if someone else would take his place. That person ended up being Alcestis. Wise to the shenanigans, Persephone sent Alcestis back to the living world.
Another version has the mighty Hercules coming to fight Hades so Admetos can be released back to the living world.
Look, when your time comes, it comes.
Hercules & The Siege Of Pylos
This is the third time that Hercules and Hades encountered each other. During the siege of Pylos, Hercules hurt Hades who was there to gather up the souls of the deceased. Some later accounts would place Hades as defending the town of Pylos. Most accounts of this story have Hades wounded by an arrow.
Orpheus & Eurydice
In the story of Orpheus’ descent to the Underworld, wherein he hoped to bring back his wife, Eurydice back from the dead. Both Hades and Persephone takes compassion on Orpheus and allow him a chance to try and bring his deceased wife back to the lands of the living.
Seven Against Thebes
During this event, Hades and Persephone ended up sending a deadly plague to the city of Thebes when King Creon refused to bury any of the dead warriors. When two maidens, the Coronides, daughters of Orion sacrificed themselves to appease Hades and Persephone, they were transformed into a pair of comets.
Well, you’re gonna get a plague and diseases if you leave a bunch of corpses out rotting in the field of battle and don’t bury or clean them up.
Hades & Sisyphus
Ah Sisyphus forced to forever roll that boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down on him.
Before dying, Sisyphus has tied up Thanatos so that men would cease to die. It would take the god Ares to come to the rescue and release Thanatos before turning Sisyphus back over to the god of Death.
Just before getting taken away to the Underworld, Sisyphus had told his wife, Merope to just have his body be thrown out into a public square, where eventually his body made its way to the river Styx. Sisyphus then tricked Hades into allowing him to return to the living world, so he could scold his wife for not giving him a proper burial.
Naturally, the trick worked and once Sisyphus “told off” his wife, he refused to return to the Underworld. It took the god Hermes to forcibly drag Sisyphus back to the Underworld.
Another version of the story has Sisyphus simply pleading to Persephone that he was taken to Tartarus by mistake and the Queen of the Underworld orders his return.
Some people just don’t want to face the music.
Lord Of The Underworld – Hades
Hades was so well equated with the Underworld that the very place came to be associated with his name. Small wonder then, that the Greeks would start calling him Pluto to distinguish between the deity and the place.
The Underworld was known as the Unseen Realm where all the souls of the dead, not just of humans, but all living things. Once there, there for good, there’s no leaving.
As ruler of the dead, Hades forbid anyone from leaving the underworld. A few such as Hercules and Orpheus are among the few living to have claim to entering and returning to tell about it. Others, such as Pirithous and Sisyphus learned the hard way that you don’t dare try to cheat death or there would heavy consequences to pay.
Even so, feared and disliked as he is, Hades was known for being very stern and sometimes seemingly cruel at times. He was still just in all his dealings, even when he had someone like Sisyphus repeatedly trying to cheat death.
The Underworld – Hades
As a physical locale, there are many regions in the underworld. The Greek mythographers weren’t consistent with the geography of the Underworld.
Getting to the Underworld isn’t so easy as it’s located beneath the earth, obviously. In the Odyssey, the entrance is described as being at the edge of the world, across the ocean. Other Greek and Roman poets would describe the Underworld’s entrance being found in deep caverns and deep lakes.
Homer describes the Underworld as being a vague and shadowy place occupied by ghost where nothing is real and any existence, such as it is, was miserable. Well then….
Later descriptions better define what the Underworld looks like with having the Elysian Fields where “good people” go and Tartarus where “evil people” go. Firstly, the god Hermes in his role as a Psychopomp would lead the souls of the dead down to the river Styx. There, assuming the dead had been buried with a coin, the souls would pay the ferryman, Charon to take them across the river Styx to the gates of the Underworld.
An unlucky soul who wasn’t buried with the proper coin, the Greek obol, a small denomination coin much like an American penny, would be condemned to wander the Earth as a ghost
Guarding the gates to the Underworld would be Cerberus ensuring that anyone can enter, but no one is getting back out. Once in, the souls of the dead would stand before the Judges of the Dead to determine where they would be spending the rest of eternity.
A soul deemed to have been good would be taken to the river Lethe where they would drink and forget all the awful things that happened to them in life before being sent to the Elysian Fields. A soul deemed to be bad or unworthy would be seized by the Erinyes and taken to Tartarus where they would be tormented forever.
Acheron – Meaning woe or sorrow, it is one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Asphodel Meadows – Or the Fields of Asphodel, this is the first region of the Underworld. The shades of heroes wander here. Lesser spirits gather around them. The libations of blood offered to them by those in the living world are able to reawaken these spirits for a short period to what it had been like to be living.
Avernus – In Roman myths, the entrance to the Underworld is found at Avernus, a crater near Cumae. This is where the hero, Aeneas journeyed on his descent down to Hades. Incidentally, the name Avernus is sometimes used as the name for the Underworld.
Cocytus – Meaning lamentation, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Elysium – Also called the “Islands of the Blessed,” those souls deemed blameless or heroes would come here to reside in the afterlife.
Erebus – This area is described as being a gloomy and misty place where the dead reside. This is the place where every living person goes when they die. Few are those who have entered that leave. This place is the area most associated with Hades and would be called by the deity’s own name. Here, two pools were to be found. The first being Lethe, the souls of the dead would drink from to erase the memories of their former life. The second pool is Mnemosyne or “memory” that initiates of the Mysteries would drink from.
Hades and Persephone’s court is found here, where three judges of the Underworld, Aeacus, Minos and Rhadamanthus sit in judgment of the dead. In addition, the trivium, a spot sacred to Hecate was found. From the trivium ran three roads. The souls of the dead would be judged here. If a soul was judged to be neither virtuous or evil, they would be sent to the Asphodel Meadows. If a soul was judged to be evil or impious, they would be sent to Tartarus. If a soul was judged to be virtuous or “blameless”, they would be sent to Elysium.
Erytheia – An island found in the Underworld. Hades kept a herd of cattle here who are attended to by Menoetius.
Lethe – Meaning oblivion, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Phlegethon – Meaning fire, one of five rivers found in the Underworld.
Styx – Meaning hate, an infamous river of the Underworld. One of five rivers, Styx forms the boundary between the living world and the lands of the dead. The newly dead would pay the fare of an obolus or small coin to Charon, the Ferryman to be ferried across to the Underworld. The Greeks would make propitiatory offerings to help those born paupers or without friends and relatives to have a proper burial; thus, preventing their return to the living world. Once to the other side of Styx, the dead would pass by Cerberus, through the gates of the Underworld to be judged and sent on their way to where in the Underworld they would reside. The gods would swear their oaths on this river and is the same river that Achille’s mother dipped him into in order to grant her son invulnerability.
Tartarus – If a soul were deemed evil, they would be sent to Tartarus. Infamous inmates of Tartarus are: the daughters of Danaus who must try to fill a sieve with water, Ixion who is tied to a constantly spinning wheel of fire, Oknos who forever braids a piece of rope while a donkey eats the other end, Sisyphus who must forever roll a rock up a hill, and Tantalos who is unable to ever quench his thirst.
Judaism & Hades
Continuing on the theme of Hades’ name becoming synonymous with that of the Underworld. The Hebrew word, Sheol which means “Unseen” is also the name for the Jewish Underworld. And Hades’ name means “Unseen” as well. It could be easy to see a linguistic translation could cause confusion and could cause people to start calling the Underworld by the name of Hades and giving the deity the name Pluto to keep it straight.
Christianity & Hades
It wasn’t just the Greeks, later Christians would also refer to Hades when wishing someone to go to Hell, they might say “See you in Hades” as an alternative.
The name Hades appears ten times in the Bible, particularly the New Testament; specifically, the newer King James Version and the original Greek texts, where the name Hades is frequently interchangeable with the Christian idea of Hell or for the body’s decay and destruction in death. At times, certain verses seem to indicate the god Hades, not just the place. Later translation will replace the name Hades with that of Hell.
Evil Vs. Well… Neutral
Because Hades is the ruler of the Underworld and God of the Dead, there’s a strong tendency to equate him as being evil. The Underworld, that’s where Hades rules and people down below to Hell where Satan, the devil dwells. Hades must be evil!
Not so, Hades is more altruistic in that he prefers to keep balance. Sure, he comes off as stern and dour and when dealing those like Sisyphus, you have to lay down the law.
There’s a lot of movies and T.V. shows that tend towards showing death and going to the Underworld as some sort of negative thing. When really, it’s just another place, another state of being and plane of existence. Hades was all about maintaining balance.
The television show: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seems to be the only series I know of that portrays Hades in a positive light. The main episode in question being Hercules helping his Uncle Hades properly win and earn Persephone’s love, not just flat out abducting her. A retelling of Hades’ abduction of Persephone to the Underworld.
Thanatos – Death Personified
Just a quick note to throw in, yes Hades is the God of the Underworld and the Dead, he is not Death personified, that distinction belongs to Thanatos.
Sibylline Oracles – This was a curious mixture of Greco-Roman beliefs and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Here, Hades is noted as the name for the realm of the dead. If one played fast and loose with the etymology of the name Hades, they would derive the name of Adam, the first man due to his being the first to die and enter the afterlife.
Asclepius & Hades
As mentioned before, Hades being the God of the Underworld doesn’t allow the souls of the living to return to the living world lightly. So, it should come as no surprise when, Asclepius, a famous healer, finds himself in trouble with Hades.
Asclepius’ healing abilities were so great, that he could bring the dead back to life. This angered Hades, who, one of his few trips to the upper world, brought his grievances to Zeus. Hades accused Asclepius for the decreasing number of dead who entered his realm.
Siding with his brother, Zeus kills Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Aesop Fable #133
As a bit of a side story, this fable has a reference to Asclepius’ story. In it, a physician who knows nothing about medicine, informs a patient that they will die and to get his affairs in order.
Even though this patient had other people telling him this bought of illness would go away.
A short bit later, the physician runs into the patient again and asks them how everyone down in Hades are doing. The patient responds that everyone is doing well, however Persephone and Hades are angry, ready to denounce all physicians with the physician at the top of the list as people were no longer getting sick and dying. The patient goes on to say that he stepped forward, grasping their scepters and sword that his was nonsense as the physician was no doctor of at all.
Key Of Hades
This symbol is often used in art to represent Hades’ power and control over the Underworld. The key serves as a reminder that the Gates to the Underworld are always locked. That while souls are free to enter, they are not allowed to leave. Even if the Gates are opened, that Cerberus is right there, guarding the exit to prevent any escapees.
A bident is a two-pronged weapon that Hades is often shown with. That claim though, for antiquity remains uncertain even though a bident does appear in various Greek art and literature and there are a few examples of bronze weapons from Greek culture.
It has also been pointed out that Poseidon has a trident, a three-pronged weapon, Hades has a bident, a two-pronged weapon and that Zeus has his thunderbolt, that is a one-pronged weapon. Just in case someone thought there should be some sort of connection.
With this bident, Hades could shatter anything in his way, much like Poseidon does with his trident.
Helm Of Darkness
Better known as the Cap of Invisibility, the Cap of Hades and Helm of Hades, it is either a cap or helmet that can turn whoever wears it, invisible. The Greek name for the Cap of Invisibility is: Ἅϊδος κυνέην, which translates into “dog-skin of Hades.” The 1st/2nd century text: Bibliotheca mentions Hades having this helmet. A Rabelais refers to this helmet as the Helmet of Pluto and Eramus calls it the Helmet of Orcus. Both names clearly connect this cap or helmet as belonging to the god of the Underworld.
The Helm of Darkness is said to work by creating a cloud of mist, allowing the wearer to become invisible to any supernatural being. The Elder or Uranian cyclops created the Helm of Darkness for Hades to use in the war during the Titanomachy. A gift and thanks for freeing the cyclops from Tartarus.
Hades isn’t the only one to wear the helmet. The goddess Athena wore the helmet during the Trojan War when helping Diomedes fight her brother, Ares. Diomedes succeeds at wounding Ares with a spear.
Then you have Hermes who wore the Helmet when he battled the giant Hippolytus. Lastly is the hero Perseus who received the Helmet from Athena, along with a set of winged sandals when he was on his way to go slay the gorgon, Medusa. Another variation to the story has Perseus getting the Helmet and sandals from the Stygian nymphs. After slaying Medusa, Perseus used the helmet to escape the wrath of her sisters, Euryale and Sthenno.
Plouton – God of Wealth & Riches!
When Hades is known as Plouton, he becomes connected with that of wealth and riches. Seeing as it is underground where gold, silver, precious gems, etc. are all going to be found, that makes sense. It also makes some sense too when partnering Hades up in his role as Plouton with Persephone to spread and share the bounty of the earth. Not just in mineral wealth, but the fertility and growth of the land as well.
Eleusinian Deity – Ploutos is originally a god of wealth as it concerns agriculture and later just wealth and riches overall. Of which, Ploutos is the Demeter’s son by way of Iasion. Which when you know the genealogy and who Ploutos mother is and who Persephone’s mother is, I don’t think the ancient Greeks were thinking through this pairing of deities very well.
Which is what they did when referring Hades by the name of Plouton to try and connect him to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Of course, that could be why Hades is said not to have any children directly and why the mother of Persephone’s children are fathered by someone else. Even then….
It’s just the Greeks playing theological games with throwing everything in a blender and trying to have more minor deities absorbed into the worship of a more influential deity to become an epitaph of said deity.
This connection also comes about too, as the Greeks didn’t like to refer to Hades by name. A euphemistic name would be used instead; Plouton. This alternate name for Hades started seeing use in 5th century B.C.E. The name Plouton would be adopted by the Romans and Latinized to become Pluto.
Aita – Etruscan
A cognate for Hades in the little-known Etruscan beliefs and mythology.
Pluto – Roman
Pluto the Latinization of Plouton. Other Roman names used for Pluto are: Aidoneus, Dis, Dis Pater (“the Rich Father”), Dives and Orcus.
In the Roman retellings of the story, Pluto (Hades) is out riding in the mortal realms, inspecting the land to make sure that after the fall of the titans, the borders to his realm in Tartarus are still secure. When Venus and her son Cupid see the lord of the Underworld out riding, the opportunity is too much for them and Venus instructs her son to hit Pluto with an arrow so that when he sees Proserpine, he is stricken with such love and lust that he carries her off to his shadowy realm of Tartarus. The rest of the story is much like the Greek versions where Ceres sets off in search of her missing daughter.
Alternate Spellings: Σύριγξ
A nymph known in Greek myths for turning into some water reeds to escape the unwanted advances of Pan. Like Pan, Syrinx hailed from Arcadia in ancient Greece.
Parentage & Family
Father – Ladon, a river god
As a nymph, all of the other nymphs would be counted as Syrinx’s sisters.
Daphne – A fellow naiad who shares the same father Ladon.
Silenus – Only if you count Thomas Woolner’s poem.
Follower Of Artemis
Being a Nymph, Syrinx was a virgin like many of her sisters whom were all favorites and followers of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Like her patron goddess, Syrinx was also a hunter and desired to remain a virgin.
The Naiads are water nymphs in Greek mythology, minor deities or spirits. Specifically, Naiads were associated with fresh water.
While there are a few sources that will call Syrinx a wood-nymph or just a nymph in general. With her parentage of Ladon as her father, she is most likely a naiad.
Pan & Syrinx
This is the main and only story involving Syrinx. It’s generally used to explain the origins of Pan’s famous syrinx or pan pipes. Plus, this story is one of Pan’s more famous and well-known myths.
Syrinx was just one of many nymphs that Pan would endlessly pursue. She was a water-nymph and the daughter of the river-god Ladon. One day, as Syrinx returned from hunting, she encountered Pan who became infatuated with her. To escape his unwanted advances, Syrinx fled from Mount Lycaeum down to the Ladon river. There she pleaded with her sisters (or sometimes the gods in general, her father Ladon or Zeus) to change her into a bed of water reeds.
When Pan narrowly missed grabbing Syrinx, he discovered that when he blew air through the reeds, they made a noise. A forlorn Pan, mourning the loss of Syrinx, took the reeds and crafted his famous reed pipes or syrinx from them.
Thomas Woolner’s Silenus
A Victorian artist and poet, Thomas Woolner wrote a long narrative poem about the myth of Syrinx. He embellishes his tale by having Syrinx become the lover of Silenus. She ends up drowning while trying to escape from Pan’s attempted rape. As a result, Pan turns into a demonic figure while Silenus becomes a drunkard.
Given the Victorian age and when Christianity started associating Pan with the Devil, this makes sense.
Pan Pipes – Syrinx
An instrument played by the Greek god Pan. It consists of seven reeds all cut to different lengths all tied together and sealed with wax on one end. These reed pipes were synonymous with rustic music and were relatively cheap and easy to make.
Pan would of course use the syrinx in a music competition against the god Apollo. Some sources will credit Cybele or Hermes with having invented the syrinx.
La Flute De Pan
For those who play the flute, the composer Claude Debussy wrote a flute solo entitled “Syrinx” or “La Flute De Pan” in the 20th century. This musical piece is based on Pan’s sadness at having lost his love, Syrinx. It seems to be a popular piece that flautists will learn and add to their repertoire of music.
If you play the saxophone, ” La Flute De Pan” has also been transcribed so it can be played on this instrument too.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop 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, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. 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 have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, 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 which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
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.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten who brings in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
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.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turn Rudolph’s story into the well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
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.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today, didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children become prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergy and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.