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Category Archives: Switzerland

Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga

Alternate Spelling: Баба Яга (Russian)

Other names: Baba Cloanta (“Old Hag with Broken Teeth,” Romanian), Baba Jaga (Czech, Slovak, Polish), Baba Jaha, Baba-Jahinia, Baba Roga, Baba Ruta, Baba Yaha, Baba Yaga Kostianaya Noga (“bone legs”), Babcia (“grandmother” Polish), Babushka (Russian), Baka (Croatian), Boba (Lithuanian), Jezi-Baba, Yaga-Baba, Bobbe Yakhne (Yiddish), Ježibaba (Czech & Slovak), Vasorrú (“iron-nosed”)

Etymology: Baba means an elderly woman or grandmother, Yaga is uncertain, but may likely come the words: “jeza” meaning: horror, shudder or chill, “jezinka” for an evil wood nymph or dryad, “jeze” meaning: witch, “jedza” another word meaning: witch, fury or evil woman and lastly, “jeza” meaning: anger or disease and illness.

At its heart, the stories of Baba Yaga are used in Russian and Slavic folklore as a legendary bogeyman type monster to scare little children into behaving. Depending on your source, there is either just the one, terrifying Baba Yaga or there are several.

What’s In A Name?

In the Slavic languages, Baba Yaga’s name is understood to be composed of two parts. The first part of her name, Baba is generally understood to mean an elderly woman or grandmother. The second part of her name, Yaga is thought to be from a Proto-Slavic word “eg” and likely related to a Lithuanian word of “ingis” meaning: lazybones or sluggard. Other suggested words are the Old Norse word of “ekki” meaning pain and the Old English word of “inca” for doubt, scruple, grievance, and quarrel. Yaga might also derive from the feminine name of “Jadwiga.”

A Sergei V. Rjabchikov suggests that Yaga derives from the word Aga meaning: “Fiery” or “cauldron” saying that it refers to a solar deity of the Scythians and Sarmatians. Mainly as the suggestion connects Aga as a cognate to the Sanskrit word “agni” meaning: “fire” which is also the name of a fire god. Other cognate words that get linked are the Russian word “ogon” for fire and the Ossetic word “ag” for cauldron. Another scholar, Alexander Afanasyey proposes the ides of a proto-Slavic word “ož” and the Sanskrit word ahi for serpent may be a source for where the word Yaga comes from.

The earliest references to Baba Yaga, or “Yaga-Baba” is found in the “Of the Russe Common Wealth” by Giles Fletcher, the Elder. As “Yaga-Baba” she is found in the section for Permyaks, Samoyeds and Lopars where a Finno-Ugric influence is suggested.

Depending on the region and local dialect, Baba Yaga is known by slightly different names. In the Czech, Slovak and Polish regions, she’s called Baba Jaga, though Jezibaba is also used. In the Slovene language, the name is reversed to Jaga Baba. Where the term Jaga is concerned, there are numerous variations from different Slavic languages that connect it to the word jeza meaning: “horror,” “shudder,” and “chill.” There is the Slovian word jeza for “anger” and then the Old Czech word of jeze for “witch” or any legendary evil female being. The modern Czech word of jezinka refers to any evil nymph or dryad.

In Belarussia, Bulgarian, Russia and Ukraine, the names Baba Yaga and Baba Jaga are both used. Belarusia and Ukraine both have variant spellings of Baba Yaha and Baba Jaha. In the South Slavic languages of Bosnia Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, she is known as Baba Roga. Finally, the Romanians, even though they’re not Slavic, know of her as Baba Cloanta, which roughly translates to “the Old Hag with Broken Teeth.”

Suffice to say, Baba is well known, revered, respected and feared. So much so, that some will say that Baba is the Devil’s own Grandmother. In Russian, Baba can sometimes get used as pejorative for women and men who are seen as unmanly, too timid and lack character. In the Polish language, the term Baba is also a pejorative as it can refer to a particularly nasty or ugly woman.

Description

The descriptions of Baba Yaga vary from region to region. Most are very similar in that she is a small, ugly old woman who’s very fierce or an ogress. Consistent details include mentioning her long nose and long teeth, long bony legs. Whichever details let a person know how hideous to look upon that Baba Yaga is and there’s no mistaking her for anyone else. She is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a hut in the forest. Where most witches of folklore are said to ride brooms, Baba Yaga is known for flying around in a mortar & pestle, using a broom made of silver birch to sweep away any traces of her passage. Much like the Wild Hunt, a host of spirits followed after Baba, these are most likely the spirits of her victims.

Aging: Baba Yaga is said to age one year for every question that she is asked, which, given that, could explain why she is often reluctant to help any who cross paths with her. With a tea made from a special blend of blue roses, Baba Yaga is able to undo the effects of this aging.

Chicken Hut: Baba’s Chicken Hut is notable as it walks and moves around chicken legs. The hut will move when Baba recites a specific rhyme. The keyhole to the door is a mouth full of sharp teeth. Sometimes this door will open with the following phrase: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.” When the house has roosted for the day, a fence with the skulls of Baba’s victims surrounds the hut.

Mortar & Pestle: Where most witches use a broom to fly around on, Baba rides around in a giant mortar & pestle, the same mortar & pestle that she can use to grind the bones of her victims then and there.

Servants: Baba will often be served by invisible servants inside her hut. If any ask about the servants, Baba is known to kill them.

Three Riders: Usually found in the Russian folklore, Baba can be associated with three riders, each of whom rides a different colored horse. White is the Day; Red is the Sun and Black is the Night. If any ask about who the riders are, Baba will explain who they are.

Hungarian Folklore

In the folklore and tales from Hungary, Baba Yaga began as a fairy, a good fairy. With the procession of time, she becomes a witch, one who drives a hard bargain and threatens to eat those who fail to uphold their ends of agreements.

Polish Folklore

Many Polish stories featuring witches often name them Baba Jaga. Much like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretal, these Baba Jaga sometimes live in Gingerbread huts. When Baba Jaga’s hut isn’t described as being made of Gingerbread, it will be described as having only one chicken leg it moves around on.

Baba Jaga also flies around on a mop instead of a broom or in a flying mortar and pestle. She is further described wearing a black and red striped cloth that hails from Swietokrzyskie Mountains. For those wanting a bit of further trivia, this cloth is a symbol of the Kielce region and has a connection with a legendary witches sabbath on the Lysa Gora mountain.

Russian Folklore

This is the folklore that I at least was familiar with and knew Baba Yaga to hail from. It is these tales that the fearsome Baba Yaga flies through the air in flying mortar and pestle. The stories where the protagonists will discover Baba’s House that walks or dances on giant chicken legs. A house surrounded by a fence made of human bones with skulls on the posts. The keyhole of the front door is a mouth full of teeth.

Slavic Folklore

In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is often the antagonist of many tales. Often, she is sought by other characters who come seeking her for wisdom. Rarer is when Baba will offer guidance to wayward travelers and souls.

Dark Nature Spirit

There have been numerous, various folklore and tales about Baba Yaga over the years. Her tales often show her as a dangerous antagonist while other times she is just a tad more benevolent where she will help out others on their quests while devouring others instead. Given the location of where Baba Yaga is likely encountered most, it is out in the dark forests where she would easily represent the more wild, unknown and unpredictable force of nature.

In some stories, like Vasilissa the Beautiful, the heroine likely crosses over into the Otherworld when she is tasked by her stepsisters to go and get more light from Baba Yaga. Later traditions say that when meeting with Baba Yaga, one needs to prepare themselves spiritually and have a proper purity of spirit in order to survive an encounter with her.

Faerie – The Hungarian connection of Baba Yaga as a fairy really seems to fit given that the fae operates by rules. Baba Yaga strikes a bargain with Vasilissa the Beautiful who comes to get some fire from her in exchange for some labor. The old crone can’t hurt or eat Vasilissa so long as she full-fills her tasks and gets everything done. In the end, because Vasilissa has the aid and blessing of her mother, Baba Yaga sends the girl away. Just as many fae are known to have a trickster side to them, Baba Yaga displays hers, however dark with the skull she gives Vasilissa that burns up her stepfamily in flames. One can also argue that’s Baba Yaga acting as a bit of a dark fairy godmother to Vasilissa to aid her like that. But a bargain’s a bargain and many fairy gifts do often come with a price that’s up to the recipient to decide if that was a curse or blessing.

Good Witch Or Bad Witch? – Whether Baba Yaga will be helpful or try to eat someone really depends on the story told of her and what era of folklore for ancient or more modern. The ancient stories really home in on her dangerous nature and that she does eat people. More modern stories that feature Baba Yaga will still show her dangerous side, but as someone who’s mellowed with time, she seems to take on a more helpful nature.

More Than One? – As a supernatural being, some stories will mention a trio of sisters or witches who are all Baba Yaga, much like the idea of three fates? The good news is, that when Baba is encountered as three individuals, they’re much more likely to be benign and helpful.

Family – Some folktales will mention Baba Yaga having a daughter, sometimes she is given the name, Marinka.

Similar Folkloric Figures

There’s a number of other figures from myth and folklore of Europe that may have some cultural influence from the Eastern Slavic people’s beliefs or just the fact that similar ideas and concepts will pop up no matter what.

Baba Korizma – Serbian

Baba Pehtra – Slovenian

Baba Roga – From Croatia and Bosnia, she is used to scare children into behaving. The name Roga suggests that she has horns.

Babice – Serbian

Chlungeri – Switzerland

Gorska Maika – The Forest Mother of Bulgaria.

Gvozdenzuba – Meaning “Iron Tooth,” Serbian

Holda – Or Holle from Germany

Jezibaba –Western Slavic, she is very similar in function to Baba Yaga, though her appearance and specific stories differ from the Eastern Slavic stories.

Mama Padurii – Forest Mother, Romanian

Perchta – Alpine region

Sumska Majka – The Forest Mother, Serbian

Ancient Slavic Earth Goddess

 That’s very likely possibility given the strong connections of her as a fairy in Hungarian folklore and her connection as a dark, wild and unpredictable force of nature. She could be connected to an ancient matriarchal religion. Some sources have said that the Baba part of her name connects her as being female and that there could very well be a male counterpart to her.

There are also scholars who suggest that Baba Yaga is influenced by the Eastern Slavic people’s contact with the Finno-Ugric and Siberian people. The Finnish stories have an ogress by the name of Syöjätär who is the source of diseases and in stories, she often takes the role of a wicked mother. Contrasting with Syöjätär is Akka, a female fertility spirit or deity found in Estonian, Finnish and Sami mythology and shamanism.

The first distinct references to Baba Yaga or Iaga Baba appear in 1755 with Mikhail V. Lomonosov’s Rossiiskaia Grammatika (Russian Grammar). In this book, Baba Yaga is mentioned a couple times alongside other Slavic figures and traditions. The second mention has her in a list of Slavic deities and their assigned, roman syno-deities.

Feminist Icon

It’s no wonder, after looking into the folklore and mythology behind Baba Yaga, that in many Wiccan and Modern Pagan practices and even those who aren’t would seek to reclaim and take Baba Yaga back as a feminist icon. When incoming Christianity couldn’t tame Baba Yaga, they vilified her.

After all, centuries of persecution by Christian beliefs and she has endured in the imaginations and of those who examine her stories; see the quintessential, untamed wild old woman who does as she pleases with no one to tell her otherwise. Baba Yaga is a fierce, dark force of magic, who when approached with caution, can help or destroy.

Triple Goddess

In New Age and Wiccan practices, Baba Yaga fits very easily with the role of the Crone.

Baba Yaga In Folklore

There are a lot of stories in Slavic and Russian folklore that feature Baba Yaga, so much so, she is considered a stock character by authors of modern Russian fairy tales. There are whole articles and commentary that go into exploring Baba Yaga’s role and place in folklore as sometimes, she’s not always an antagonist or even protagonist, she’s a feature or obstacle that the heroes must overcome and get past on their journey. Is she a threat? Does she really prove helpful as a dark and dangerous fairy godmother or guide?

She does seem to come off as a trickster figure, one who can often be bested and outwitted by use of trickery and using her own sense of propriety and rules for manners and etiquette to escape her.

With her continued use in more modern, contemporary literature and media, Baba Yaga’s nature at times, depending on the needs of the narrative and author, her demeanor can soften, though she’ll remind people she can still be very dangerous.

Vasilissa The Beautiful

This is perhaps the most well-known story with Baba Yaga that was recorded by Alexander Afanasyeye in 1862. It begins as any story does, with a merchant who had married for twelve years before he and his wife were able to conceive and have a baby, a little girl whom he called Vasilissa the Beautiful.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck, and the mother became ill when Vasilissa was eight years old. Before she died, Vasilissa’s mother called her daughter to her bedside where she presented her Vasilissa with a small wooden doll. The mother explained that she was dying and that she was leaving her this little doll. She was not to show anyone this doll and to always be sure to carry it with her everywhere she went. If ever she had any sorrow or threat to her, Vasilissa was to go to a corner and take the doll from her pocket, giving it an offering of food or drink. Once it had drunk or eaten, Vasilissa would then able to tell the doll her troubles and it would aid her or give advice on what to do. With that, the mother kissed Vasilissa on the head and died soon after.

That first day, Vasilissa grieved for her mother’s loss. So much so, that when night finally came, she couldn’t sleep. As she lay there in her bed, Vasilissa remembered the tiny doll and pulled it out from her pocket. Then she found a small piece of bread and something to drink, these Vasillisa placed before the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead, and I am lonely for her.”

The doll came to life, its eyes glowing as it ate a bit of bread and took a sip of drink. When the doll had finished, it told Vasilissa not to cry, that grief can be at its strongest during the night. That she should lay down and try to sleep for in the morning things would be better. Vasilissa did as the doll advised her and went to sleep and found that in the morning, her grief as not as deep and sorrowful as before.

After a period of mourning, Vasilissa’s father decided that it was right to marry again. Being a merchant, it wasn’t difficult for him to find and attract a suitable wife given his status with having a fine house, horses and his charity for giving to the poor. The merchant found a widow close to his own age with two daughters and thought that she would make for a good foster mother to his own little Vasilissa.

Such was not the case, as many of these stories show, the widow was a cruel and cold-hearted woman who only wanted the merchant’s wealth. Nor, did the widow harbor any love for Vasilissa.

Take a page right out of Cinderella, the widow and her two daughters envied and hated Vasilissa for her good looks and gave her all manner of tasks and errands to run in an effort to try and were Vasilissa out. Despite this, Vasilissa persisted, never complaining of what happened to her.

The key to Vasilissa’s success and enduring where others might have failed, is that she still had the little doll. Every night, while everyone else slept, Vasilissa would bring out the doll, while locking her door, she would feed the little doll. After the doll had eaten and drunk a little, Vasilissa would tell the doll of her troubles and the work her stepmother would task her to do.

After the doll came to life and listened to the girl’s plea, it would comfort Vasilissa and send her off to sleep. While she slept, the doll would perform all of the tasks set before Vasilissa and get all of her work and chores are done for the next day. This wouldn’t leave much left come the next morning for Vasilissa to do besides rest and play.

Time passed and Vasilissa grew up, becoming a beautiful young woman of marrying age. All the young, would-be suitors in the village came knocking, seeking out Vasilissa’s hand in marriage. None of the young men ever had an eye for the stepmother’s two daughters. This angered the stepmother to the point of being enraged. The stepmother would tell every young man who arrived at their door that the youngest would never be wed before the older ones. When the young man left, the stepmother would then beat and berate Vasilissa.

More time passed and Vasilissa’s father, the merchant left for a business trip. Barely was the father gone when no sooner did the stepmother have the house sold and packed everything up so they could move to the far side of the village near the dark forest. While the stepsisters worked indoors, the stepmother would task Vasilissa with more errands that would take her out into the dark woods.

The plot thickens!

The stepmother it seems was well aware that out in this dark forest, in a small clearing, Baba Yaga’s hut could be found. The stepmother had high hopes that Vasilissa would encounter the old witch that was known to eat people. She hoped that with each errand, it would be Vasilissa’s last as she would get eaten. Such was not to be, for the little doll of Vasilissa’s would guide her to where the berries and flowers grew and kept her well away from Baba Yaga’s hut.

One night, the stepmother brought all three girls together and tasked each of them with a job. To one of her daughters, they were to knit a piece of lace. The second daughter was to knit a pair of hose. As for Vasilissa, she was to spin a basket of flax. The tasks given out; the stepmother proceeded to put out all of the fires except for one candle before then heading off to sleep.

The girls worked for hours. The older of the girls eventually got up and went to straighten the wick on the lone candle. Instead of straightening the wick, the girl “accidentally” put the candle out. Now the girls panicked, for what would they do without any light to work by? The only house close enough to get a light from was that of Baba Yaga’s. The two daughters of the stepmother bade that Vasilissa be the one to go out and get the much-needed fire as she knew the nearby forest better. Nor, would the girls allow Vasilissa to return to the house without any light or flame.

Out a distraught Vasilissa went and sat on the front steps of the house. She pulled the small doll from her pocket and some food from the other. As she gave the food to the doll, saying: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little and listen to my sorrow. I must go out to the hut of Baba Yaga in the dark forest to get some fire and I fear that she will eat. Tell me! What shall I do?”

The doll came to life, eyes glowing as it ate. When it had finished, the doll replied that Vasilissa should not fear, to go to where she had been sent and that while he was with her, no harm would come to her from the witch. Hearing those words, Vasilissa placed the doll back in her pocket and headed out into the forest.

After a time, walking through the dark forest, Vasilissa soon heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground and shortly after, a white horse and rider dressed all in white passed by her. Soon as rider and horse were gone, it became twilight.

Vasilissa continued further on and again, she heard the sound of horse hooves pounding the ground as presently, another horse and rider passed by her. This horse and rider were blood-red and once they had gone, the sun arose.

On, Vasilissa continued her journey within the Dark Forest and it became very clear that she was now lost and there was no longer a path to follow. Nor, was there any food for Vasilissa to take out and bring the little doll to life to ask for help or advice.

Finally, as the evening came, Vasilissa found herself standing before a green lawn where a peculiar hut stood on chicken legs. Around the hut, a wall made of human bones with skull atop each post. It was a very unsettling sight for Vasilissa to take in.

While standing there, Vasilissa once more heard the sound of horse hooves and sure enough, a third horse and rider thundered into view. This time horse and rider were all in black. As horse and rider pounded the ground up to the gate to the hut, they disappeared, and night fell upon the forest as everything became dark.

The only place not dark within the forest was the lawn as all the eyes of the skulls on the wall lit up, illuminating the place. Vasilissa didn’t have long to stare for a loud noise boomed from the forest as trees groaned and shift. The source of the noise was Baba Yaga flying in riding in a large mortar with a pestle steering it. As Baba Yaga moved through the forest, behind her, she swept her trail clear with a broom.

Up to the gate, Baba Yaga flew and stopped, reciting the following: “Turn your back to the forest, your front to me.”

With those words, the hut turned on its chicken legs, facing towards Baba Yaga and stood waiting. Before going in, Baba Yaga sniffed the air and cried out that she smelled someone present and asked he was there.

In fear, Vasilissa stepped out, bowing low before Baba Yaga. “It is only me, Vasilissa, grandmother.” And explained how the daughters of her stepmother bid her come to borrow some fire as it had gone out at home.

Baba Yaga knew of whom Vasilissa spoke off and bargained that if she gave her some fire, that she was to stay a while and work for it. If Vasilissa didn’t, then Baba Yaga would eat her. The bargain struck, Baba Yaga with Vasilissa following behind, entered the hut.

Once they were inside, Baba Yaga sat down on her stove and stretched out her skinny, bony legs as she spoke: “Go and fetch the table and place everything in the oven on it. I’m hungry!”

Hearing this, Vasilissa hurried and pulled out from the oven, enough cooked meat for three big men. Then Vasilissa brought out from the cellar, honey and red wine. All of this Baba Yaga ate and drank with gusto, leaving only a small bit of cabbage soup, a crust of bread and a bit of pork for Vasilissa to eat.

Her hunger satiated, Baba Yaga grew tired and went to lay down on the stove. Before falling asleep, she instructed Vasilissa that on the morrow, when she left, that Vasilissa was to clean the yard, sweep the floors and cook her supper. Vasilissa was then to take a quarter measure of wheat from Baba’s storehouse and pick out all of the black grains and wild peas. Failure to accomplish all of this would see Vasilissa eaten by Baba.

Now Baba Yaga turned over, facing towards the wall and promptly fell asleep as evidenced by the snores. Scared, Vasilissa went to a corner and took out her tiny doll from her pocket. She fed it a bit of bread and a little bit of cabbage soup that she had saved. Then, bursting into tears, Vasilissa told the doll to eat a little and drink a little and then told it how she was in the house of Baba Yaga, that the old witch had given her a difficult task and if she did not complete it all, that Baba Yaga would eat her. What was she to do?

The little doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate the bread and drank the soup before it responded, telling Vasilissa not to be afraid. To say her prayers and go to sleep, that things would look clearer in the morning. Trusting her little doll, Vasilissa did as she was told and went to sleep.

The next morning, Vasilissa awoke early while it was yet dark. Peering out the window, she the skulls on the wall glowing still. As she continued to watch, Vasilissa saw a man dressed all in white ride away on a white horse ran past and as they pounded by, it became light. The glowing eyes of the skulls went out with the light. Baba Yaga went out to the yard and whistled for her giant iron mortar and pestle that came. Climbing in, Baba Yaga flew away. Shortly after she left, a man dressed all in red riding an equally red horse appeared, signaling fully the arrival of dawn.

Alone now, Vasilissa looked about the hut as she took in everything that had to be cleaned and all that she was tasked to do. As she turned attention back to the yard, Vasilissa was astonished to find the yard already clean along with the floors of the house when she looked back inside. Looking around, Vasilissa spotted her little doll sitting in the storehouse as it picked the last of the black grains and wild peas out from a quarter measure of wheat.

Vasilissa took up the little doll in arms to thank it. That now all she had to do was cook Baba Yaga’s supper. The little doll bid her to that task which Vasilissa did after the doll went back to her pocket. Laying out the table for supper and getting the meal ready, Vasilissa needed only to rest and wait the rest of the day.

As she waited, Vasilissa heard the sound of horse’s hooves and soon saw a rider all in black on a black horse ride up the gate and disappear. Once the black rider vanished, it became night and the eyes of the skulls began to glow. Not long after that, the forest began to shake and branches tremble as Baba Yaga flew back to hut.

On entering her hut, Baba Yaga looked around, sniffing the air. Baba Yaga then asked the girl if she had done all that was asked of her or was Baba Yaga going to get to eat her? Vasilissa replied for her to look.

Baba Yaga looked around the hut and yard. Try as she might, Baba Yaga was unable to find anything amiss which angered the old witch. Still, the tasks were done, and Baba Yaga clapped her hands together, calling for her faithful servants to take her wheat. Instantly, three pairs of hands appeared and hauled away the measure of wheat.

Then Baba Yaga sat down at the table as Vasilissa placed before her all the food that she had cooked along with kvass, honey and red wine. Baba Yaga ate with much gusto, enough for four men. Finished, Baba Yaga stretched out her bony legs on the stove and told Vasilissa that tomorrow, she was to the same as she had done today and in addition, that she was to take a half-measure of poppy seeds from the storehouse and clean them, one by one. It seems that someone mixed earth with the seeds to cause old Baba Yaga some mischief. With that, Baba Yaga turned over towards the wall and began to snore.

Just as she had the night before, Vasilissa crept to a corner to pull out her little doll. She once more placed a small bit of food before the doll to ask its advice. Like always, the doll’s eyes glowed as it came to life and ate. Finished, the doll replied for Vasilissa not to worry, to say her prayers as she had before and to sleep. Vasilissa did as she was bid and went to sleep.

The next morning, Vasilissa awoke to the sound of Baba Yaga’s whistling. Vasilissa got up and ran to the window, just in time to see the old witch take off in her giant mortar and pestle. Just as she had seen the day before, the man in red appeared on his horse, riding away to signal the dawn. Like the previous morning too, as Vasilissa looked around, she saw that all of the tasks had been accomplished by her doll and all that remained was to cook the supper.

Vasilissa had everything for dinner prepared and ready on the table when the man in black on his horse return to signal nighttime and Baba Yaga’s arrival. Baba Yaga came into her hut, peering around, seeing for herself that all the tasks and supper were accomplished. Angry, Baba Yaga clapped her hands, calling for her servants to come take the poppy seeds. Again, three pairs of hands appeared to take the measure of poppy seeds away.

Baba Yaga sat down at the table devouring the meal with the zeal and gusto of five men. Vasilissa stood nearby, quietly waiting as the old witch ate. The quietness annoyed Baba Yaga who snapped at the girl, asking why she stood there as if she were dumb.

Vasilissa replied that she didn’t dare speak, but if she was allowed, could she ask grandmother some questions.

Baba Yaga allowed it, cautioning Vasilissa to remember that not every question had good answers and that knowing too much could lead a person to prematurely growing old.

Vasilissa then inquired, asking about the white rider. Baba Yaga said that was her servant, Bright Day. Then Vasilissa asked about the red rider to which Baba Yaga responded that was her servant, the Red Sun. Lastly, Vasilissa asked about the black rider and Baba Yaga replied that was her servant, the Dark Night. That none of her servants couldn’t harm Vasilissa.

Going silent, Vasilissa sat there and Baba Yaga wanted the girl to ask more questions. Why not ask more? What about the three pairs of hands? Vasilissa answered that three questions were enough and that she did not want to grow old too soon if she knew too much.

Old Baba Yaga laughed and said that well for her if she had asked about the hands, they would have appeared and seized Vasilissa to carry away to become Baba Yaga’s next meal. Now that Vasilissa had asked her questions, Baba Yaga wanted to ask questions of her own.

Namely, how was it that Vasilissa had been able to accomplish all the tasks in the short time allotted. Frightened, Vasilissa nearly brought out her doll, but thought better of it in time, replying instead that she had the blessing of her dead mother helped her.

Enraged, Baba Yaga told Vasilissa to get out of her house, she would have no one in her house who bore a blessing to cross her threshold. As Vasilissa got up to leave, running from the house, Baba Yaga grabbed a skull from a post on her wall and threw it at the girl. Saying that she was to take the skull, that’s what the stepmother’s daughters had sent her for.

Grabbing up the skull, Vasilissa placed it on the end of a stick and carried it with her out of the forest, running as fast as she could. She ran until morning when the glow of the skull dimmed just as Vasilissa exited the edge of the forest before her stepmother’s house.

Surely, by now, Vasilissa thought, the sisters would have found another light. Vasilissa thought to throw the skull into the hedge, but it spoke saying not to throw it away, to take it to her stepmother. Vasilissa picked up the skull again and carried it with her to the house.

In all the time that Vasilissa had been gone, the stepmother and daughters had had no fire or light for all of the house. Whenever they would strike flint and steel, the tinder wouldn’t catch and any fire brought in from a neighbor’s would immediately out as soon as it crossed the threshold of the house. Such was the state of three to have no light or warmth for themselves or to cook food. This made it the first time that the presence of Vasilissa was ever welcomed for when she carried the skull across the threshold, it’s light did not go out.

The stepmother insisted on placing the skull in the best room on a candlestick. As the stepmother and her daughters admired it, the eyes of the skull began to glow red like coals. Whenever the three would look or go, the eyes of the skull would follow, growing larger and brighter until the eyes burned bright as a furnace, growing hotter and hotter so that the stepmother and her daughters burned to ashes. Only Vasilissa was spared this fate.

What every poor abused stepchild wants, freedom from the wicked stepparent and siblings.

The next morning, Vasilissa dug a hole and buried the skull and locked the door to the house. She then set out of the village where she went to live with an old woman who was childless. There, Vasilissa lived, waiting for her father’s return from his journey.

After a few days of nothing to do, Vasilissa asked the old woman for some flax to spin, that she could at least do. The old woman went out and got Vasilissa some flax of the best kind and Vasilissa sat down to spin. So fine was the thread, even and fine as hair, eventually there was enough to work with to weave. However, so fine was the thread that there was frame that could weave the thread.

As she had done before when needing help, Vasilissa took out her little doll and giving it food and drink, told it of her need for a frame to weave her thread on. As always, the little doll came to life, eating and drink and when it had finished, it instructed Vasilissa to bring it an old frame, an old basket and some hairs from a horse’s mane and that it would make the frame needed. Vasilissa did as she was instructed, getting all the items and bringing them back.

The next morning, Vasilissa found a frame suited for the needs of weaving her thread on. It would take Vasilissa several months work weaving, throughout the winter, until she had at last a piece of linen as fine that it could be passed like the thread it was made of through the eye of a needle. Spring came and Vasilissa bleached the linen, making it as white as snow. Vasilissa then bid the old woman take the linen to market and sell it for the money made would pay for her food and lodging. The old woman returned from the market, saying that no one would buy the linen and that no one would wear it except for the Tsar himself. That tomorrow, she would carry it to the Palace.

The next day came and the old woman carried it to the Palace, and she spent her time walking up and down the walkways of the Palace. Servants would come up and ask her what brought her to the Palace and the old woman would say nothing. Presently enough, the Tsar opened his window and called down to the old woman what she wanted.

The old woman replied that she had a marvelous piece of linen and that she would show it to no one but him. The Tsar bid the servants bring the old woman in who showed off the linen to him. The Tsar was so taken with the finery and beauty of the cloth that he asked the old woman what she wanted for it. The old woman replied that there was no price for it, it had been brought as a gift. So pleased was the Tsar that he couldn’t thank her enough and sent the old woman away with many gifts.

Numerous seamstresses were brought in to make shirts for the Tsar out of the marvelous cloth, but they found that when it was cut up, that none of them had skill to sew it. The Tsar found himself calling the old woman back, saying that if she knew how to spin such linen, surely, she would know how to sew shirts from it.

At this, the old woman confessed that it wasn’t her who wove the cloth, but her adopted daughter who had done so. The Tsar bid the old woman to bring the cloth back to her daughter to sew into shirts. Bringing the cloth home, Vasilissa replied that it was just as well that she be the one to sew the shirts as she made the cloth.

Vasilissa took the cloth and went to her room where she returned later with a dozen shirts for the Tsar. The old woman brought all of these back to the Tsar who was so delighted with the craftsmanship that he sent a servant to fetch Vasilissa and bring her back to the Palace.

For the Tsar, it was love at first sight when he saw Vasilissa enter his Palace. So beautiful was Vasilissa that the Tsar asked her to marry him. The two wed and shortly after, Vasilissa’s father returned from his journey and he and the old woman went to live with Vasilissa in the Palace. As for the little doll, Vasilissa kept it with her always in her pocket all her life.

Christianized Version –

There is a Christianized version of this story where, when Vasilissa is sent off to Baba Yaga and ends up being captured by the old witch, it is Baba Yaga’s servants, a cat, a dog, a gate and a tree that all help Vasilissa escape her fate as she had shown them each kindness. At the end of this story, Baba Yaga turns into a crow.

Baba Yaga And The Peasant Children

This is a story I came across that is very similar to the Christianized version of Vasilissa’s story above. It also, after I finished reading it, that it sounds a lot like the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel. You go over to Poland and these Gingerbread dwelling witches are all over the place.

The story starts off with two children who have a cruel stepmother. One day, the stepmother decides she no longer wants the children and contrives a way to send them off into the forest to get lost and eaten by the infamous Baba Yaga.

The children do find their way into Baba Yaga’s clutches and while there, they are able to escape her cannibalistic nature first from a black cat who helps them as they had fed it when Baba Yaga wouldn’t. Secondly, the children are aided by the gate slamming shut on Baba to slow her down because the children had mended the gate when Baba Yaga had neglected it. Finally, the very trees of the forest aid the children in evading Baba Yaga due to how she had mistreated them. The children are able to get home safely where their father kicks out the stepmother and welcomes his children home.

Prince Danila-Govorila

This is another story involving Baba Yaga that I came across and it reads in many ways, like a modern horror story. In it, there is an old woman who’s a princess and she had two children, a son and daughter. Entering the story is an old witch, Baba Yaga who doesn’t want the woman or her children to be happy. She turns into a fox and appears before the woman, presenting her with a ring and tells her that the ring is for her son, that he will be rich and generous, and he can only marry the woman whose finger will also fit the ring.

The old woman or princess believes the fox has given her a blessed gift and bestows it on her son. Time goes by and the son grows up and he beings to look for the woman whose finger will fit the ring. He finds many women whom he likes and fancies, but none of them are able to wear the ring. At long last, the son, Danila laments to his sister Katerina how he is unable to find a wife as no one is able to wear the ring.

Katerina asks to see the ring and Danila pulls it out. As it’s a ring, Katerina does the most natural thing and tries it on. To both siblings’ astonishment, the ring fits and Danila declares that Katerina is meant to be his wife. This can’t be so Katerina cries out, that’s incest and against God’s will. But Danila is so elated he runs off dancing and singing.

Katerina goes outside to cry her misfortune and as she does so, some elderly woman pass by and ask her what the matter is. They listen to her story and tell Katerina not to worry. Make four dolls and places them in the corners of her room. When Danila calls her to marriage, she should go and when it’s time to go to the bedroom, take her time. That Katerina should put her faith and trust in God to work things out.

Katerina does as she’s advised with making the dolls and placing them. Soon after, she and her brother are married. That night, when Danila called her to bed, Katerina took her time with getting ready and heading to bed.

This is where it gets to sounding like a horror story, as Danila is calling for Katerina, the dolls come to life, calling out how Prince Danila is marrying his sister and taking her to bed, for the earth to open up and Katerina to fall inside.

The more Danila calls, the more the dolls cry out, the more the earth opens up beneath Katrina and she sinks down within it. Eventually Danila can’t hear Katerina responding and he rushes into the room where she was supposed to be getting ready for bed. Only he finds the dolls calling out for the earth to open up and sister fall inside and there’s no sign of his sister. Danila flies into a rage and chops off the heads of all the dolls.

Meanwhile, Katerina finds herself beneath the earth and eventually she comes across a small hut that stands on chicken legs. A voice calls out from within for the hut to: “stand as before, rear to the forest and face before me.” The chicken hut turns, and Katerina is greeted to the sight of a beautiful maiden sitting alone inside.

The maiden invites Katerina inside to visit for a while. The maiden warns Katerina that her mother is a witch and when she shows up, she needs to hide. However much this frightened Katerina and with nowhere else to go, she went inside to visit and talk with the maiden as she knitted and made a wedding towel.

I can see where this is going…

The maiden knows when her mother will return, and she turns Katerina into a needle that she hides in her broom. No sooner done, then in comes the old witch who declares that it smells of a Russian having been in the hut.

The maiden says that some passersby had come through, looking for water. When the old witch asks why the maiden didn’t hold them, the maiden says that they were too old and tough for the old witch’s teeth.

The old witch instructs the maiden to call people into the yard and to keep them there next time. Now she was going to head off and get some booty. The old witch leaves and the two girls resume their talking and laughing.

The old witch returns again, Katerina is turned into a needle once more before she enters the house and the maiden tells a story to her mother how she couldn’t detain and keep the people there.

Third times the charm and the old witch isn’t fooled, she takes off again, but doesn’t go far for just when the girls are back to their antics of laughing and talking, where Katerina will hide this time and what story to use, the old witch enters the hut, revealing herself to be Baba Yaga to the frightened Katerina.

Delighted that her daughter has finally caught dinner, Baba Yaga tries unsuccessfully to get Katerina to sit on a paddle to be placed in the oven. Katerina makes it difficult as she keeps moving her legs to keep from getting pushed in. Baba Yaga is angered and when she tries to push Katerina in, the maiden takes her opportunity and instead, shoves her mother into the oven.

As the two girls ran, Baba Yaga got free of the oven and chased after them. First, the maiden threw down her brush that turned into a marsh that Baba Yaga had difficulty crawling through. On the girls ran with Baba Yaga still giving chase. Now the maiden tossed down her comb and a dark, thick forest sprang up that slowed down the old witch, causing Baba Yaga to lose sight of the two for a time.

Eventually, she was nearly caught up with the girls and the maiden now threw down her towel which turned into a vast fiery lake. Baba Yaga tried to fly up over this fiery lake, no matter how high Baba Yaga flew, the heat of the lake got to her and she plunged to a fiery death.

The two girls made it back to the world above but didn’t have any idea of where they were at. As they sat to rest, catching their breath, a man came up to the two. Both Katerina and the maiden were very alike in appearance and the man knew that they both matched the description of the missing Prince’s sister and wife, Katerina.

Finding themselves getting brought before Prince Danila so he could figure out which was his sister, Katerina refused to speak a word. As they couldn’t get either girl to speak, the man who was a servant of Danila’s came up with a plan to have the Prince hide a bladder full of blood under an arm, he, the servant would come up and stab him and that would get the sister to speak and thus reveal herself.

The plan is put into motion, the Prince with blood bladder under his clothing comes back out. The servant goes to stab the Prince. The Prince falls down as if dead, Katerina cries out in fright and goes up to hold the body of her brother, only to find, surprise! He’s not dead. Danila hugs his sister and marries her off to a good man and he decides to marry the maiden as the ring he has fits her finger too.

And I find that ending very wow? All that work and Katerina and the maiden are both married off like property, the Prince is reward for…pretending to die and takes the friend who shows up seemingly out of nowhere.

However that’s not the scope of retelling these stories, just that they’re ones that feature Baba Yaga that I came across and showcase her as a very scary, unpredictable being, whom with a bit of luck, cunning, one’s own magic or minding manners when dealing with someone very old, they can survive an encounter with Baba Yaga.

More Stories

I could go on for quite a while trying to give quick run-through of all the different folktales involving Baba Yaga, there are just that many. It would be my luck to still miss one or two. She even continues into the present day with continued use in literature and media.

At the very least, I can try to mention some of these other stories. There is: “The Feather of Finist the Falcon,” this is one story where the hero meets up with three Baba Yagas. There is also “Teryoshechka”, “The Enchanted Princess,” “The Silver Saucer and the Red Apple,” “The Maiden Tsar,” “The Tale of the Three Royal Divas”, “Ivashka, The Priest’s Son,” “Baba Yaga and Zamoryshek,” “By Command of the Prince Daniel,” “Marya Moryevna,” “Realms of Copper, Silver and Gold,” “The Sea Tsar and Vasilisa the Wise,” and “Legless Knight and Blind Knight.”

Reality Behind The Myth

The description of Baba Yaga’s hut that stands on chicken legs, with no windows or doors, likely has a place in the local cultures of the Siberian region. Similarly built cabins and huts have been observed with the early hunter-nomadic peoples of Siberia (namely the Finno-Ugric) and Tungusic families. To keep wild animals from getting into food supplies while they have gone, they built cabins with no doors or windows up on supports from trees. From a distance, these supports with the tree roots still attached would look like chicken legs. The only access to these huts would be by way of a trap door.

Siberian Paganism

Smaller, similar constructs were used in the old Siberian pagan religion to hold figurines of their deities. The idea has put forth of a late matriarchy where a bone-carved doll dressed in rags is placed in a small cabin that the doll can barely fit in.

The last idea is a funeral tradition used for cremating the dead in huts built on poles. Russian archaeologists, Yefimenko and Tretyakov found small huts containing the cremated remains of corpses and circular fences places around them in 1948.

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Zwarte Piet

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Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter

Etymology: Black Peter

December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.

The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.

Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.

The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th

Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.

Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions

For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.

Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.

Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.

The Wild Hunt – Odin

I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.

The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.

Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.

Middle Eastern Connections?

I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.

Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.

Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.

The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.

Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.

Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil

To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.

Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.

Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.

The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.

Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.

Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.

Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.

Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil

During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.

A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.

While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.

Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions

By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?

With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.

Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.

Codifying A Legend

The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.

In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.

What’s In A Name?

The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.

The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”

By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.

By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.

WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.

All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.

A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery

Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.

Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.

Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.

Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.

During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.

Other Takes On Zwarte Piet

High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.

Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.

This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.

Crime & Punishment

Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:

*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.

*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.

*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.

*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.

Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.

Signs & Changes Of The Times

Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.

Controversy

Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.

There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.

Caricaturing

 There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.

The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.

While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.

And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.

Cultural & Historical Disconnect

It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”

Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.

The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.

Movie Time! – Santa & Pete

I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.

I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.

This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.

As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.