Category Archives: Supernatural
Alternate Spellings: 黄帝, Huang Di, Huangdi
Also known as: Gongsun, Kung-sun, Xuanyuan, Xuan Yuan, Hsuan-yuan, Huang Ti, Hwang Ti, Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch, the Yellow God, the Yellow Lord
Etymology: the Yellow Emperor, The character 黄 Huang, means “yellow” and is a homophony for the character, 皇 Huang, meaning, “august”, “creator” and “radiant”, Di “emperor”
Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor ruled during a golden age of Chinese history and mythology. He is the first of five legendary Chinese emperors. Tradition has Huang-Di beginning his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
There are a number of different legends surrounding Huang-Di that tell of his greatness as a benevolent ruler and establishing Chinese civilization. Huang-Di is to have ruled in a Golden Era of history before written Chinese history was established so many of his stories were passed down orally first. Just as Britain has its King Arthur, China has Huang-Di, the greatest ruler of all time that everyone looks up to and reveres.
What’s In A Name?
This gets a little tricky. Depending on the Chinese character used and its pronunciation; depends on what the word is translated to mean.
The character for Di, is used to refer to the highest deity from the Shang dynasty. During the Warring States period, the term Di came to be associated with the gods of the five sacred mountains and colors. After this era, about 221 B.C.E. the term Di came to refer to earthly emperors.
The character for Huang can be translated a couple different ways. Either Yellow or August. Scholars and historians seeking to emphasize the more religious meaning to the name Huaung-Di will translate the name to mean “Yellow Thearch” or “August Thearch.”
Some scholars such as Sima Qian in his “Records of the Grand Historian” compiled in 1st century B.C.E. have given Huang-Di’s name as Xuanyuan. The 3rd century scholar Huangfu Mi have said that this is to be the very same hill that Huang-Di lived and takes his name from. Liang Yusheng, from the Qing dynasty has argued that the hill is named after the Huang-Di. In Chinese astronomy, Xuanyan is the name for the star Alpha Leonis or Regulus.
The name Xuanyuan is also references Huang-Di’s birthplace. Huang-Di’s surname was Gongsun or Ji.
The name Youxiong is thought to be either a place name or clan name. Several Western scholars and translators have given their ideas on what Youxiong translate to. The British sinologist, Herbert Allen Giles says the name is from Huang-Di’s principal heritage. William Nienhauser, in translating the “Records of the Grand Historian” has put forth that Huang-Di is the head of the Youxiong clan who lived near Xinzheng in Henan. The French historian, Rémi Mathieu translates the name Youxiong to mean “possessor of bears” and linking Huang-Di in mythology to bears. Rémi isn’t the only one to make a connection to bears. Ye Shuxian also makes a connection with Huang-Di to the bear legends found throughout northeast Asia and the Dangun legend.
As a culture hero, Huang-Di is seen as a wise and benevolent ruler who introduced government and laws. He is also seen as having taught people several different skills and to have invented several things such as clothing, building permanent structures such as palaces and houses, music, the wheel, armor & weapons, carts, ships, writing, digging wells, agriculture, taming and domesticating animals, astronomy, calendars, mathematics, cuju (a sport similar to football), the compass and currency.
At some time during Huang-Di’s rule, he reputed to have visited the Eastern sea where he met Bai Ze, a supernatural talking beast that taught him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. Bai Ze explained to Huang-Di there were 11,522 (or 1,522) different types of supernatural beings.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also, known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of god-kings and demigod emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Huang-Di is counted as being part of this group and the leader of their number to have once ruled over China. Other’s counted among this number are Fu Xi, Nuwa and Shennong.
This is another mythological and historical group of rulers important to Chinese culture. These five emperors were virtuous rulers of outstanding moral character. Taihao, the Yan Emperor, the Yellow Emperor (Huang-Di), Shaohao and Zhuanxu are considered among the Five Emperors in this group.
But that makes four with the Three Sovereigns! The math is off! There are a number of variations as to who is counted among these numbers and it all depends on which text and source is used. It will even flip-flop too as to where Huang-Di is placed as either one of the Three Sovereigns or Five Emperors.
Parentage and Family
Huang-Di’ parents are given as Shaodian as his father and Fu Pao as his mother.
According to the “Discourses of the States”, Shaodian is sometimes mentioned as being Huang-Di’s step-father.
Huang-Di seems to have had several different wives:
Leizu – Of Xiling, she is the first wife, she is the most notable with any information as she is the first person to have domesticated silk worms for their silk. With Leizu, Huang-Di had two sons.
Fenglei – Second wife
Tongyu – Third wife
Momu – Fourth wife
Huang-Di is reputed to have had 25 sons. 14 of these sons all started clans of their own with their own surnames.
Shaohao – Also known as Xuanxiao, he would become the Emperor after Huang-Di’s death.
Changyi, who in turn is the father of Zhuanxu who would succeed his uncle, Shaohao as the next Emperor.
Ancestor Of The Chinese
A lot of emphasis and importance has been placed on Huang-Di as many Chinese dynasty rulers would trace the rights of their sovereignty to him. The Chinese Han claim being descendants of both Yandi (The Flame Emperor) and Huang-Di. Eventually, Huang-Di would be seen as the ancestor to all Chinese. A many Dynasty Emperors would all lay claim to Huang-Di’s legacy to prove their rightful claim to the throne.
It should be noted that the earlier mentions of Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor is on a fourth century bronze inscription for the royal house of the Qi. This inscription claims Huang-Di as an ancestor to the Qi. The scholar, Lothar von Falkenhausen has suggested that Huang-Di is likely created as an ancestral figure in order to claim that all the ruling clans from the Zhou share a common ancestor.
Birth Of A Legend
Per myth and legend, Huang-Di is the result of a virgin birth. His mother, Fubao become pregnant with him while walking out in the countryside and was struck by lightning from the Big Dipper constellation. Fubao would give birth to her son after a period of twenty-four months on either Mount Shou or Mount Xuanyuan. It is for mount Xuanyan that Huang-Di would be named.
In Huangfu Mi’s account, Huang-Di is born at Shou Qiu or Longevity Hill near the outskirts of Qufu in Shandong by modern times. Huang-Di lived with his tribe near the Ji River, a mythological river and later migrated with his tribe to Zhuolu near modern Hebei. As a cultural hero, Huang-Di tames six different animals, the bear, the brown bear, the pi and xiu. The pi and xiu get combined to become a mythological animal known as the Pixiu. He also tames the chu and tiger. I’m not sure which creatures all of these are or the difference between a bear and brown bear is, but there we have it.
Other legends surrounding Huang-Di hold that he could speak shortly after his birth. That when he was fifteen years old, there was nothing that he didn’t know. Huang-Di would eventually hold the Xiong throne.
Trouble In Paradise
Huang-Di’s rule wasn’t completely problem free. One god decided to challenge Huang-Di’s sovereignty. This god was helped by the emperor’s son, Fei Lian, the Lord of the Wind. Fei Lian sent fog and heavy rain to try and drown the Imperial Armies. The emperor’s daughter, Ba (meaning drought) put an end to the rain and helped to defeat Fei Lian and his forces.
The Yellow Emperor And The Yan Emperor
Despite there being some 500 years between Huang-Di and Shennong rules, both of these emperors’ rules near the Yellow River. Shennong hailed from another are up around the Jiang River. Shennong having trouble with keeping order within his borders, begged the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di for help against the “Nine Li” lead by Chi You and his some 81 brothers who all have horns and four eyes.
Battle of Zhuolu – Shennong was forced to flee Zhuolu before begging for help. Huang-Di used his tame animals against Chi You who darkened the sky by breathing out a thick fog. Huang-Di then invented the south-point chariot to lead his army out of the miasma of fog.
In order to defeat Chi You, Huang-Di calls on a drought demon, Nüba to get rid of Chi You’s storm.
This story sounds a lot like a variation of the previous story where Huang-Di calls for his daughter Ba to defeat Fe Lian.
Battle of Banquan – It is at this battle, that both Huang-Di and Shennong finally defeat Chi You and his forces and replace him as ruler.
Death & Immortality
Huang-Di ruled for many years and is thought to have died in 2598 B.C.E. Legend holds Huang-Di lived over a hundred years, by some accounts this was 110 years. Before he died, Huang-Di met a phoenix and qilin before he rose to the heavens to become an immortal or Xian. He is considered the very archetype of a human who merges their self with the self of the Universal God; how a person reaches enlightenment and immortality.
Another account of Huang-Di’s death is that a yellow dragon from Heaven flew down to take up Huang-Di up. Huang-Di knew that he could not deny destiny and went with the dragon. On their way to fly back to Heaven, they flew over Mount Qiao where Huang-Di asked to be able to say goodbye to his people. The people cried out, not wanting Huang-Di to leave them and they pulled on his clothing to try and keep. Surprisingly, Huang-Di slipped free of his clothing and got back on the dragon to fly up to the heavens. As to his clothing, they were buried in a mausoleum built at Mount Qiao.
Two tombs commemorating Huang-Di were built in Shaanxi within the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Other tombs were built in Henan, Hebei and Gansu.
Huang-Di is the founder of Taoism, one of the main philosophies and religions found in China.
As Huang-Di began to age, he began to allow his court officials to handle matters and make decisions. Huang-Di moved out into a simple hut in his courtyard. There, as he fasted, prayed and meditated, Huang-Di discovered Tao, or the way, a philosophy that would lead to the ideal state of being.
In some of the older accounts with Huang-Di, he is identified as a god of light and thunder. The name Huang and Guang, meaning “light,” making him a Thunder God. However, Lei Gong or Leishen is the name of another deity and he is seen as Huang-Di’s student.
The legend and origins for Haung-Di have been cast into doubt by many. The scholar Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School has argued that Huang-Di is derived from the god, Shang-Di from the Shang dynasty. Yang says that the etymology of Shang-Di, Huang Shang-Di and Huang-Di all have a connection to the Chinese character of 黄 Huang, which means “yellow” and its homophony of, 皇 Huang, which means “august,” that to use the character for 皇 Huang, was considered taboo.
Other historians have disputed this claim like Mark Edward Lewis and Michael Puett. While Mark Edward Lewis agrees that the two characters are interchangeable, he has suggested that the character 黄 Huang is closer to the character wang phonetically. Lewis puts forth the idea that Huang might have referred to a “rainmaking shaman” and “rainmaking rituals.” He uses the Warring States and Han era myths for Huang-Di, in that these were ancient rainmaking rituals, as Huang-Di held power over the clouds and rains. Huang-Di’s rival, Chiyou or Yandi held power over fires and drought.
Lord Of The Underworld Or The Yellow Springs
Further disagreements with Yang Kuan’s idea of equating Haung-Di with Shang-Di is the Western scholar, Sarah Allen who has stated that the pre-Shang myths and history can be seen as changes to Shang’s mythology.
By this argument, Huang-Di was originally an unnamed Lord of the Underworld or Yellow Springs, the counterpart to Shang-Di in his role as the supreme deity of the sky. Continuing this theme, the Shang rulers claimed their ancestor as the “the ten suns, birds, east, life and the Lord on High. Shang-Di had defeated an earlier group of people who were associated with the Underworld, Dragons and the West.
After the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in the eleventh century B.C.E., the Zhou rulers began to change out the myth, changing the Shang to the Xia dynasty. By the time of the Han, according to Sima Qian’s Shiji, Huang-Di as Lord of the Underworld had now become a historical ruler.
During the Warring States era of texts, the figure of Huan-Di appears intermittently. Sima Qian’s text, Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the first work to gather all of the fragments and myths surrounding Huan-Di into a coherent form and narrative. The Shiji would become a very important and influential text for the Chinese and the start of their history.
In the Shiji, Sima Qian he says that the state of Qin began worshiping Huang-Di during the fifth century B.C.E. along with Yandi, the Flame Emperor. Alters had been established in Yong, the capital of Qin. By the time of King Zheng in 247 B.C.E., Huang-Di had become the most important of the four “thearchs” worshiped in Yong.
During the late Warring States and early Han eras, Huang-Di’s cult became very prominent as he is regarded as the founder of the arts, civilization, governing and a supreme god. There have been a number of texts such as the Huangdi Neijing, a classic medical text, and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises that Huang-Di is credited with having written.
While his influence has waned for a period, the early twentieth century saw Huang-Di become an important figure for the Han Chinese when trying to overthrow the Qing dynasty. For some, Huang-Di is still an important, nationalist symbol.
Huángdì Sìmiàn – Yellow Emperor with Four Faces
In the Shizi, Huang-Di is known as the Yellow Emperor with Four Faces. Other names that Huang-Di is known by are: Sìmiànshén, Four-Faced God or the Ubiquitous God. The name Sìmiànshén is also the name for Brahma in Chinese.
As Huángdì Sìmiàn, Huang-Di represented the center of the universe and his four faces allowed him to see in everything that happened around him and in the world. In this aspect, he communicated directly with the gods for prayer and sacrifice. When traveling, Huang-Di rode in an ivory chariot pulled by dragons and an elephant. He would be accompanied by a troop of tigers, wolves, snakes and flocks of phoenix.
Wufang Shangdi – Five Forms of the Highest Deity
In Chinese texts and common beliefs, the Wudi (“Five Deities”) or Wushen (“Five Gods”) are five main deities who are personifications or extensions of a main deity.
Zhōngyuèdàdì – Huang-Di, when he becomes an Immortal or Xian and deified, is one of the Wudi. As Zhōngyuèdàdì, the “Great Deity of the Central Peak”, he is the most important of the Wudi, representing the element of earth, the color yellow and the Yellow Dragon. He is the hub and center of all creation upon which the divine order found within physical reality makes way for possible immorality. Huang-Di is the god of the governing the material world, the creator of the Huaxia (Chinese) civilization, marriage, morality, language, lineage and the primal ancestor to all Chinese people. In addition, he is a Sun God and associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Huángshén Běidǒu – the “Yellow God of the Northern Dipper”, connected to this constellation, Huang-Di becomes identified as Shangdi or Tiandi, the supreme God or “Highest Deity.”
Further, Huang-Di is the representation for the hub of creation, the divine center and the axis mundi for the divine order in physical reality which opens the way to immortality. He is the god who is the center of the cosmos that connects the San-Huang and the Wudi.
Huángdì Nèijing – The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon
Also, spelled as Huang Ti Nei Ching (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).
This medical text forms the foundation for traditional Chinese Medicine. it comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Di who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Di and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
Huangdi Sijing – Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor
In this text, it is explained how regulating the heart and one’s emotions, they will never allow oneself to get overly emotional and carried away. Huang-Di had accomplished doing this during his three years at the refuge at Mount Bowang in order to find himself. Doing this, creates an internal void where all the forces of creation gather, where the indeterminate they stay, the more powerful these forces of creation will be. In more simpler terms, this is self-mastery and self-control.
Other Books –
Other books attributed to Huang Di are: Huángdì Yinfújing (Yellow Emperor’s Book of the Hidden Symbol) and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Seasons Poem that is found contained in the Tung Shing fortune-telling almanac.
As a Sun God, Huang-Di as Zhōngyuèdàdì is associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Going Back To Where It All Began!
As previously mentioned earlier, tradition has Huang-Di begin his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending in 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
It should be noted that the traditional Chinese calendar didn’t mark years consecutively. Some Han-dynasty astronomers have tried to determine when Huang-Di ruled. Under the reign of Emperor Zhao in 78 B.C.E. a court official, Zhang Shouwang calculated that some 6,000 years had passed since the time of Huang-Di rule. The court however rejected this claim and said that only 3,629 years had passed. Comparisons with the Western, Julian calendar place the court’s calculations to the late 38th century B.C.E. for Huang-Di. Nowadays, the 27th century B.C.E. is accepted by many.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologists trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Many Chinese historians view Huang-Di to have a stronger historical basis than other legendary figures like Fu Xi, Nuwa and the Yan Emperor. While many legendary figures and ancient sages have all been considered to be historical figures, it is not until the 1920’s that members of the Doubting Antiquity School in China began to question the accuracy of these legends and claims.
Warring States Era
These early figures of Chinese history, as Gu Jiegang from the Doubting Antiquity School, as stated are mythological in origin. They started off as gods and then became depicted as mortal during the Warring States era by intellectuals.
Yang Kuan, another member of the Doubting Antiquity School, has commented that it is only during the Warring States era that Huang-Di is mentioned as the first ruler of China. Yang goes on to argue that Huang-Di is really the supreme god, Shang-Di, the god of the Shang pantheon.
Even the French scholars Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet, in their “Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne” (“Dances and legends of ancient China”) have commented that early Chinese legends have more to do with the period to when they were written than to when they are supposed to have happened.
From God To Man
Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the 2nd century C.E. with the rise and reverence of Laozi. Huang Di will still be regarded as an immortal and the master of the longevity techniques and a deity who would reveal new teachings in the form of books like the Huang Di Yinfujing in the 6th century C.E.
Nowadays, many scholars accept the view that Huang-Di and other figures like him started off as a god of religious importance and then become humanized, mortal during the Warring States and Han periods. Even though Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the
Chang Tsung-tung, a Taiwanese scholar has argued, that based on a vocabulary comparison between Bernhard Karlgren’s Grammata Serica and Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, there is a connection with the Old Chinese and the Proto-Indo-European etymologies. That there is a strong influence of Indo-European languages on the Old Chinese language around 2400 B.C.E. Chang goes on to say that the Shang dynasty was founded by Indo-European conquerors and identifies Huang-Di as an Indo-European god. Chang says that the “yellow” in Huang-Di’s name should be interpreted as referring to blond hair. That as a nomad of the steppes, Huang-Di encouraged road construction and horse-drawn carriages to establish a central state.
This idea, to me, seems farfetched. Since it is one of the ideas I came across, I’ll include it here.
Thanks to the French scholar, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, many Chinese historians got hooked on the idea Chinese civilization getting its start in 2300 B.C.E. by Babylonian immigrants and that Huang Di would have been a Mesopotamian tribal leader. This idea has been rejected by European sinologists, however the idea was advocated for again by two Japanese scholars Shirakawa Jiro and Kokubu Tanenori in 1900.
The ideas certainly seem to held on to by anti-Manchu intellectuals who are looking for the truth of China’s history and wanting to prove the superiority of the Han over the Manchu and the importance of Huang Di as the ancestor of all Chinese.
The Mausoleum Of The Yellow Emperor
Also called Xuanyuan Temple, this mausoleum is the most important of ancient mausoleums in China and praised as “the First Mausoleum in China.” The mausoleum is located at Mount Qiao, north of the Huangling County of Yan’an some 200 kilometers north of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. According to historians, the mausoleum was first built on the western side of Qiao during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) It was later restored during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) It had been damaged by floods and moved to Qiao’s eastern side by the Emperor Song Taizu of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1234 C.E.)
During the Qingming Festival that is held on April 5th, Chinese people from all over gather to hold a memorial ceremony to commemorate the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di. Yan’an also earns the distinction of being considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
Alternate Spellings: Wani Yuu Dou
Etymology – Umbrella Ghost
The Kasa-Obake of Japan are an unusual type of ghost or yokai. Sometimes, the Kasa-Obake are considered a tsukumogami, those human tools that have managed to survive long enough and have absorbed enough energy to become animated, sentient beings. In this case, the Kasa-Obake is an old umbrella that has managed to reach 100 years old.
This yokai is described as an umbrella with one eye that jumps around one leg with it’s sole foot wearing a wooden sandal or geta. Other descriptions will give the Kasa-Obake two arms and possibly two eyes. In addition, the yokai is sometimes shown as having a long tongue. In the Hyakki Yagyo Zumaki text or yokai emaki, the Kasa-Obake are shown to have two feet instead of one.
Behavior wise, the Kasa-Obake is seen as a playful, child-like trickster that loves to frighten people.
In Japanese folklore, the tsukumogami are human tools, that over a period of time, often months and years are capable of becoming yokai. By having survived that long, that tsukumogami has gained and absorbed enough energy to become sentient as well as animated.
In the case with the Kasa-Obake, they are umbrellas that have survived one hundred years of use before becoming yokai.
Where there have been many types of tsukumogami yokai, the Kasa-Obake is the one that seems to have become the most well-known of this variety.
A Made Up Yokai
Edo Period – The Kasa-Obake with the classical appearance of being an umbrella with one eye and foot comes from this era. What I find cool, is that there is an old card game known as Obake Karuta (“Ghost” or “Monster Cards”) that people would play, wherein the players try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that people collect and showcase different, various monsters.
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai – Or “The Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales”, is another game popular during the Edo period. In this game of telling ghost stories, the Kasa-Obake likely originates from the need for story-tellers to come up with another, new story about yokai to fulfill the needs of this game with having one hundred ghosts. In other words, the Kasa-Obake is very likely made up.
Ansei Period – A board game from this era, called Mukashi-banashi Yōkai Sugoroku, the Kasa-Obake is shown and given the name of Sagazaka no Ippon Ashi or “One-footed from Sagizaka.”
Variations On A Theme
There are a couple of other very similar yokai that are also described as umbrellas, though they’re not the Kasa-Obake.
Higashiuwa Region – In the Ehime Prefecture, there is a story of a rain umbrella yokai that appears in the valleys on rainy nights. Those who are unfortunate to see this yokai are unable to move their feet as they cower before it. I’m not sure how that could be, unless there is some supernatural effect going on.
Hyakki Yagyo Emaki – Dating from the Muromachi period, the yokai found in this text or scroll have a more humanoid appearance and have umbrellas on their heads.
Mizokuchi Region – In the Tottori Prefecture, what is now the Hōki, Saihaku District, the Yureigasa or “Ghost Umbrella” also has one eye and foot much like the Kasa-Obake. They are said to go out on extremely windy days and blow people up into the skies.
Kasa-Obake continue their presence into the modern era with appearances in a good many, various video games, anime and manga; especially any making use of yokai.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
The story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one that I found while looking up another article on an American Folklore site. The imagery that came to mind while reading the story caught my imagination and I set it to the side while I worked on other projects for Brickthology before coming back to it.
Now, sometime later as I began working on this post, I find that the story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one of several stories from S.E. Schlosser’s “Spooky New York” which is a collection of ghost stories and folklore from around New York State.
Further, is that many of the sites that mention and reference this story, merely reprint it. Only one additional mention is of Aunty Greenleaf appearing as a character in Fables’ “The Wolf Among Us” game. It does leave me to question the validity of Aunty Greenleaf as an actual folkloric figure or if she can be considered a newer folkloric and literary character who first makes her appearance in 1995.
Even if Aunty Greenleaf doesn’t appear before Schlosser’s “Spooky New York,” this is how new mythological characters find their place. Enough people who want to view the story of Aunty Greenleaf as a literary source and new piece of folklore will certainly succeed.
The story of Aunty Greenleaf goes as follows: she is your typical elderly woman who lived alone in a small house outside the town of Brookhaven. She was known as a witch who people avoided except for when they needed her knowledge of herbs and healing. Like many suspected and accused witches, the townspeople accused Aunty Greenleaf of being in league with the devil.
Typical accusations against Aunty Greenleaf included claims that she had hexed a farmer’s pigs so that they all died after he had spoken ill of her. Another accusation involved a prominent townswoman who claimed to have dreamt of Aunty Greenleaf and the next morning, her daughter fell deathly ill. Another wild claim placed Aunty Greenleaf and her fellow witches crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an egg shell for a Sabbath in England before returning at sunrise.
This is typical of people during Colonial times in the Americas or even in Europe. Superstitions and fear when anything bad happens or a streak of misfortunes and it’s easier to blame the town outcast or someone who doesn’t quite fit in.
Aunty Greenleaf’s story picks up and get more interesting one year during early fall when people started talking about a large, white deer that has been seen in the surrounding forest of Brookhaven. Several large hunting parties were organized by the townsfolk to hunt down this white deer. It soon became clear that this white deer was impervious to bullets and people started to believe this deer to be supernatural in nature.
It wasn’t long after, that the women of Brookhaven also began having problems with churning their butter and a number of livestock sickened and died. It wasn’t too difficult for the people to blame the presence of the white deer. Added to this, those people affected had had run-ins with Aunty Greenleaf at one point or another during the past month.
Finally, a hunting party was put together in earnest and the people of Brookhaven really began hunting the white deer. They had gone all day and most of the night hunting the deer before it was finally spotted. It was the largest and fastest that anyone has seen. The hunting party was hard pressed to keep up. Several people fired at the deer, but it kept on running and the hunting party soon return empty-handed.
One farmer became rather obsessed with hunting the white deer, every chance he had when he wasn’t busy with his farm. It was this farmer who decided there must be some connection between the white deer and witchcraft. The farmer took some silver and melted it down to make bullets.
Ah! But aren’t silver bullets only for werewolves? Yes and no. Silver is a sacred metal, connected to the moon and there is folklore silver to harming other supernatural creatures such as vampires and witches who turn into rabbits.
Anyhow, rifle in hand, the farmer went hunting the white deer. This time he succeeded in hitting the deer with one of his shots. The farmer managed to track the deer close to Aunty Greenleaf’s house before it vanished in the growing darkness of night.
The next day, the farmer learned that Aunty Greenleaf was ill. From the moment she took to her bed, the local farm animals stopped dying and the families who were having trouble with their churning were back to normal. Less than a week later, Aunty Greenleaf died and the doctor who cared for her told the minister he found three silver bullets in her spine.
After the death of Aunty Greenleaf, the phantom white deer was never heard of or seen again in Brookhaven.