Category Archives: Tradition
Also Spelled/Called: Siats
This is one of those, where I read the name along with the basic description and it got me excited about a new piece of mythology!
The biggest problem is that this may not even be correct information and there has been enough people passing this information around the internet as being authentic without doubling checking their sources. Much of the newer information out there refers to the dinosaur species inspired by this legend which follows at the end of this post.
So, what do we have?
Basically, the Siats are a monstrous humanoid described as being a cannibalistic clown who kidnaps children and eats them. Female versions of Siats are known as Bapet and their breasts are filled with milk that is poisonous to human children. The Bapet is known for kidnapping human children to suckle and kill with her poisonous milk before eating them.
The Siats supposedly originate in Eastern Utah and Southwestern Colorado from the Ute tribe. Like a good many bogeyman figures, tales of Siats and Bapets are probably told by Ute parents to their children to scare them into not straying too far away from the village and tribe.
Killing A Siat Or Bapet
The only method known for killing these monsters is the use of an obsidian arrow. Much like werewolves and silver, I imagine any item made of obsidian would be enough, not just an arrow to harm the Siats and Bapets.
Evil Clowns & Coulrophobia
Normally clowns are generally benign; seeking to make people laugh with their antics and comedy routines. When it comes to the horror genre and dark comedy, there is a strong tendency to take the ordinary, safe and familiar and subvert it so it becomes monstrous and scary.
In Europe, the use of Evil Clowns in literature has been around for a while. More modern and familiar uses of evil clowns are seen in the Harlequin, the King’s fool, Mr. Punch, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog” and Stephen King’s novel of “It.”
Coulrophobia – This is often seen with children who have a strong a dislike of the make-up that exaggerates the facial features. Such individuals and children suffer the effects known as Uncanny Valley where something that looks to be human doesn’t look quite right creates a feeling of dread or revulsion in some people.
Signs Of Our Times – Another observation put forward is that Clowns, like their Jester and Fool counterparts in Medieval Times as one who can make satirical comments, biting remarks and other criticisms while not having to fear any retribution.
In that light, any evil clowns would be symbolic and commentary of the late 20th century and early 21st century with the air of uncertainty, especially with the growing wealth gaps, poverty and lack of opportunities, as many people would be drawn to such a seemingly dark outsider who can speak of the truths to the ills of society.
Urban Legends – The stories of evil or Phantom Clowns have been around for a while, the first mention of them in real-life is from May 1981 when children in Brookline, Massachusetts said that some men dressed as clowns tried to lure them into a van.
Native American Clown Societies
There are several clown societies in many different Native American tribes and cultures. These clowns often have a sacred role as a trickster in their religious ceremonies. Often these sacred clowns in their rituals and behavior would pass on traditions, reinforce taboos and could make necessary critical commentary without fear of any reprisals.
Cherokee – There are the booger dances.
Pueblo – The Zuni clown society, a person into the Ne’wekwe order with the ritual of filth-eating where mud is smeared on the body for the clown performance. Other aspects of this performance involves sporting with mud or excrement, smearing or daubing it, drinking and pouring it onto each other.
Sioux – In the Lakota tribes, the Heyoka is a sacred Clown character, someone who lives outside of the constraints of normal societal roles. They are a “backwards clown” who does everything in reverse, acting as a boundary crosser who questions why different traditions and taboos hold.
Given the sacred and ritual nature of clowns and clown societies among the many Native American tribes, it seems out of place for the Siats if they are given any credence.
Jurassic World here we come!
About the only good that comes from the prolific spread for Siats is that their name has been given to a new species of Dinosaur, specifically a genus of megaraptors dating from the Late Cretaceous period. Their remains have been found in Utah. The Siats megaraptor is one of the largest theropods found in North America.
Alternate Spellings: Shen-Nung
Also known as: 神農 (Traditional Chinese), 神农 (Simplified Chinese), Thần Nông
(Vietnamese), Hangul (신농 Korean), 神農 (Japanese), The Emperor of the Five Grains (Wǔgǔxiāndì), Shen-Nung, Sheng-Nong, Shen-Nong-Shi, Yan-Di, Yandi, Flame Emperor, Lord of the Burning Wind, Holy Plowman King
Pronunciation: shin nung
Etymology: Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman
In Chinese mythology, Shennong is one of several important deities who introduced and brought agriculture to the Chinese people. Shennong is one of the three noble ones known as the San-huang. In art, Shennong is sometimes depicted with the head of an ox or bull.
Shennong is credited with having invented the plow and teaching people agriculture and the cultivation of forests. In addition, Shennong also introduced the use of medicines and herbs.
Shennong is the second of three legendary Emperors of China and an important cultural hero. Tradition has him being born in the 28th century B.C.E. with the head of a bull and the body of a man.
What makes Shennong such an important hero is not only his introduction and use of agriculture but his identifying the use of hundreds of medical and poisonous plants that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He went about this by testing the effects of these plants on himself.
Chinese legends tell how Shennong had a transparent body that allowed him to see the effects that different plants and substances had on him. Another legend tells how during his research, Shennong poisoned himself a total of seventy-two times during the course of a single day. Fortunately, and Shennong credited his anecdotal tea preventing him from suffering any long-term complications or side-effects.
Tea, a discovery attributed to Shennong, was believed to act as an antidote to some seventy different herbs. Shennong traditionally held to have discovered tea and to have first tasted it sometime around 2437 B.C.E. when the burning leaves of a tea tree were lifted up by the hot air from a fire and fell into a cauldron of boiling water.
Another discovery attributed to Shennong is that of acupuncture. Further, stories of Shennong’s youth have him speaking after three days, walking within the week and that he could plow a field by the time he was three.
Depending on the version of the story told and the accounts given, Shennong died as a result of his testing the effects of plants on himself. One of his experiments didn’t agree with him when he ate a yellow flower from a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before Shennong had time to take his anecdotal tea.
This wouldn’t be the end for Shennong as he was given special honors and worshiped as the Medicine King and Father of Chinese Medicine.
God Of Agriculture & Medicine
When Shennong is worshipped and mentioned as a deity, he is the god of the burning wind and the patron of farmers, pharmacists, rice traders and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
As a god of agriculture, Shennong is one of many cultural heroes and deities credited with different, various inventions such as the axe, the hoe, the plow (both leisi and the plowshare), digging wells, irrigations, the use of boiled horse urine to store seeds, weekly farmers’ markets, the Chinese calendar, acupuncture, therapeutic use of taking pulse measurements, moxibustion and instituting the harvest thanksgiving ceremony of Zhaji Sacrificial Rite, later known as the Laji Rite.
Burning Wind – This term refers to the type of agriculture that is slash and burn. The ash from the resulting fire is then used to fertilize the fields.
Worship – As Shennong is often depicted as being ox-headed, the sacrifice and offerings of cattle is never acceptable. However, the sacrifice of pigs and sheep is acceptable. In addition, the use and offerings of fireworks and incense is used at Shennong’s statues, particularly on the lunar calendar for April 26th for his birthday. There are a number of temples and places dedicated to the commemoration of Shennong.
Divine Family – This part is rather tentative and relies on accepting Shennong as a defied human. A couple sources will list Shennong as having married a Sien-Tsang, the goddess of Weaving and Crafts. They had a son, Qi-Yu (alternatively Chi-Yu) a rain god and who is half bull like his father.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of pseudo-mythological and sage-like emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Shennong is counted as being part of this group and the second of their number to have once ruled over China.
The Flame Emperor
Or Yan di, the Chinese accounts can sometimes get confused as to who exactly the Yan Emperor is or was.
Some accounts of Shennong’s legend place him as a relative to the Yan Emperor. Other accounts place him as the first Yan Emperor and that Shennong appointed one of his ministers, Chi You who was also ox-headed with sharp horns, bronze forehead and iron skulled.
Another account has posited that the Flame Emperor was a title, held by the dynastic succession with Shennong holding the title of Yandi posthumously. The last Yan Emperor was defeated by Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) about 500 years later.
The Yan di were regarded as masters of fire and thus used fire in their names. The Yan di was also known as the Emperor of the South. With the Yan di defeat by the Huangdi, the title of Yan passed out of usage. Their descendants though intermarried with the Huangdi.
Shennong, along with Fuxi and the Yellow Emperor are credited with the creation of the Gugin.
The Yellow Emperor
Huangdi – Also known as “The Yellow Emperor,” was known to be a friend and fellow scholar with Shennong despite there being some 500 years’ distance between the two. Both Huangdi and Shennong are said to have shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality and making gold.
Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) – By the 8th Century C.E. historian Sima Zhen, Shennong is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and the ancestor or patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regard both Shennong and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors.
Aside from the Han, the Song Dynasty General Yue Fei also traced his lineage to Shennong.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is fairly 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, a successor to Shennong is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologist trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Despite a lack of hard evidence, Shennong remains an important individual and even his clan share a prominent place in the history of China’s culture for mythology, popular culture and historical literature.
Shennong-shi – Shennong’s name can also refer to his people. The “shi” can mean both “clan” and “surname” as well as an honorific like “sir” or “mister.”
Sima Qian comments how the rulers directly following the Yellow Emperor were all of Shennong’s house or social group. Sima Zhen in his prologue for his Shiji says that Shennong’s surname was Jiang before going on to list all of his successors.
Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Remedies
The Chinese have a rich history and use of traditional remedies and herbs that dates back more than 5,000 years. With the use of oral history and stories by word of mouth, many of the stories attribute Shennong as the father of medicine. Like Shennong, Chinese people have tested the effects of different plants and herbs on themselves for their medicinal values over the millennia. These years of experimentation allowed for an increased understanding of pharmacology for the uses, dosages and toxicity of different herbal medicines.
Huainanzi – This is an older and more famous reference document. In it, before Shennong came along, people were constantly sick, starving, diseased and always suffering. When Shennong came along, he taught the people the art of agriculture and through his own research, the use of plants for medicine. Shennong did this feat by consuming hundreds of plants, testing them on himself. He is even said to have eaten some seventy poisons in one day.
Huang Ti Nei Ching – The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine – This book comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Ti 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 Ti and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
I Ching – The Book of Changes, Shennong is mentioned in this book coming into power after the end of the house or reigning period of Paoxi (Fu Xi). He is mentioned here as having invented the bent-wood plow, a cut-wood rake and having taught these skills to other people. Shennong is also credited with establishing of noonday markets.
Lüshi Chunqiu – This document mentions the violence of the rise of Shennong’s house and its lasting for seventeen generations.
Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng – Also called: “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” or “The Classic of Herbal Medicine” and “Shen-nung Pen-tsao Ching.” This book on agriculture and medicinal plants is the most well-known work attributed to Shennong. Research has found and suggested that this book is a compilation of oral traditions dating to between 200 and 250 C.E. during the end of the Western Han Dynasty.
Unfortunately, the original book no longer exists, but it believed it was written in three volumes with some 365 entries. The books list numerous, different herbs said to be discovered by Shennong. As the earliest pharmacopoeia reference, there are hundreds of different medicines derived from various animals, minerals and plants.
The first volume included 120 herbs and drugs deemed to be harmless to humans as they were stimulants such as reishi, ginseng, jujube, the orange, Chinese cinnamon, Eucommia bark and liquorice root. All of these herbs were regarded as “noble” or “upper herbs.”
The second volume has 120 therapeutic entries intended to treat the sick. All of them though have toxic or potentially toxic effects. Entries include cucumber, ginger and peonies. All of these entries were considered to be “human,” “commoner” or “middle herbs.”
The last volume has 125 entries for those herbs and substances that have strong or violent effects on physiological functions and seen as poisonous. Entries in this volume include rhubarb, various pitted fruits and peaches. All of these herbs are considered “low herbs.”
Wu Shi Er Bing Fang – Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Diseases, this book is ultimately the first written treatise on herbal medicine that dates to between 1065-771 B.C.E. It was discovered in 1973 during that excavation of Ma Wang Dui’s tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. It beats out the Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng which is figured to have been written between 200 and 250 C.E.
Many places in China have connections to Shennong.
Shennongjia – This mountain range located in Hubei is where Shennong is to have climbed up a rattan ladder that turns into a vast forest.
Shennongding – “Shennong’s Peak” – This is the specific mountain that Shennong climbed up and down with his ladder.
Shennong Stream – Named for Shennong, this stream flows into the Yangtze River.
Shennong Temple – Located in Taiwan, Shennong is worshiped here under a number of different names such as King Yan, the God of Five Grains, Shennong the Great Emperor, the Ancestor of Farming, Great Emperor of Medicine, God of Earth, and the God of Fields.
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.