Advertisements

Category Archives: Tradition

Kappa

Kappa Mikey

Also Called: Gataro (“River Boy”), Kawako (“River Child”), Kawataro (“River Boy” or “River Tiger”), Komahiki (“Horse Puller”), Suiko (“Water Tiger”)

There are some eighty names for kappa depending on the region they’re found in. Next to the oni and tengu, kappa are some of the best known yokai found in Japan.

Some of these other names are: Dangame (“Soft-Shelled Turtle”), Enko (“monkey”), Gawappa, Kawappa, Kawaso (“otter”), Kogo, Mizuchi, Mizushi, and Suitengu.

 Etymology – “River-Child” from the words kawa for “river” and wappo, an inflection of waraba meaning “child.”

In the Shinto Religion of Japan, Kappa are mischievous water spirits or yokai who will pull young children and the unwary into the river and ponds where they live and drown them. Kappa are also known for attacking travelers and animals. Even today, many towns and villages keep signs out warning of the dangers of kappa near a river.

Some of the less deadly pranks that kappa will pull are passing gas loudly and looking up women’s kimonos. They will also steal crops, flat out kidnap children and rape women.

The kappa are curious about human culture, they are not mindlessly aggressive and many can be appealed or reasoned with as they do speak Japanese. Wisemen were known to befriend kappa and learn the art of setting bones from them. It’s thought that somehow, kappa were once wise monkeys.

Kappa will also sometimes challenge people to different tests of skill such as shogi or sumo wrestling. People have been known to befriend kappa by giving gifts and offerings, often of food and especially cucumbers.

The kappa are a major folkloric figure that people have reported seeing for centuries. They have remained a staple of literature and even the tourist industry in some towns will tell visitors to be wary of kappa and to be careful.

Suijin

In Shinto, the Kappa are viewed as one of many types of Suijin or water people or even water deities. Many of these water deities or spirits are often depicted as snakes, dragons, eels, fish, turtles and kappa. It is believed that belief in kappa can be traced back to China, though much of the kappa lore is native to Japan.

With the arrival of Chinese and Koreans during the 2nd century C.E. along with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan, the imagery of kappa would be begin to take on these attributes.

While the name for the most powerful Suijin in Japan is Mizu no Kamisama or Goddess or God of Water, the kappa are more accurately referred to as Kawa no Kami or River Deity reflecting a less powerful status.

The offering of cucumbers to kappa may have come from a tradition of giving the year’s first crop of cucumbers and eggplants to the local river to either appease local water deities or hungry ghosts.

Festivals – There are still some festivals held in places, twice a year during the equinoxes to placate the kappa and ensure a good harvest. These festivals also mark the time of the year when the kappa travel down from the mountains to the rivers and back up.

Kappa Odori Dance – This is a sacred Shinto dance used to pray for abundant crops. Young boys dress up as kappa and jump and bounce around in time to the humorous music as it’s played.

Jozankei Hot Springs – A local spa near the Toyohiragawa River to the southwest of Sapporo. Named after the monk who found the place, the kappa are local guardian spirits. Some 23 kappa statues stand around the area. The Kappa Pool becomes very lively in early August during the Kappa Festival. A local legend holds that the story of the Kappa Buchi occurred here.

Ancient Origins?

Ainu Folklore – The Ainu are Japan’s earliest inhabitants who live mostly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The connection here is very tentative as some believe that the kappa come from Ainu folklore. There’s just not enough known of their mythology to really make a concrete connection. What does get cited is that near the main city Sapporo on Hokkaido is an area known as Jozankei where the legends for the “Great Kappa King” and the “Kappa Buchi Legend” can be found, though these stories are not likely to be of Ainu origin and mythology.

Nihon Shoki – Chronicles of Japan – One of Japan’s earliest and official records, it was compiled sometime around 720 C.E. It is the first text to refer to kappa where it is called Kawa no Kami or River Deity in this text.

Wakan Sansaizue – Kappa don’t really take on popularity until around Japan’s medieval era, during the Edo period. The Wakan Sansaizue is a 105-volume encyclopedia dating to about 1713 C.E. and is the first to depict a kappa.

Gazu Hyakkiyagyō – Or the “Night Procession of One Hundred Demons” is a four volume text that next shows and depicts kappa within it.

From here, the popularity of kappa in continues in the Edo Period, appearing in a serial called Kasshiyawa where the kappa called Kawataro. Another document is the Mimibukuro, a 10-volume text written by Negishi Yasumori.

Portuguese Monks – When Portuguese monks arrived in Japan during the 16th century, their appearance of cloaks that hung down in back like a kappa’s shell and their shaven heads resulting in a bald head crowned with hair known as a Capa for the Portuguese word for this hair style would easily become absorbed into Japan’s Kappa lore…. After all a homophone of words Kappa and Capa sound very alike.

Drowned Monkeys – Some legends will hold that the first kappa come from monkeys. Yanagida Kunio records a story where he notes that some regions of Japan referred to kappa as enko or monkeys.

There is a famous Buddhist story from China in which a group of monkeys tried to capture the moon’s reflection. For their trouble and efforts, the monkeys were drowned.

The Monkey King Versus The Water Demon – There are a number of tales for the Indian collection of Buddha stories called Jataka. Dating from the 3rd century B.C.E. India and Sri Lanka, the story in question features the monkey kingdom under attack from a monkey-eating water demon. The wise monkey king outwitted the demon with bamboo.

So, what’s the connection? In Sanskrit, the word Kapi translates to monkey. It’s possible that Kappa is a distorted form of Kapi. It would explain some of the descriptions of kappa being monkey-like is a carry over of this distortion. Further, there is a kapi jembawan, a monkey sage in Indonesian folklore based on the Dwarka kingdom where Lord Krishna ruled. The famous Hindi poet, Tulsidas who wrote the Ramayana some 500 years ago, uses the word kapi in place of the Vanara or monkey folk in the South who help Rama defeat Ravana.

If we’re looking at linguist connections, that could all hold up.

Description

Kappa look like child-sized humanoid turtles or more often monkeys with scaly limbs and thick tortoise shells. Some kappa are depicted with ape-like faces while others are more beaked. Skin coloration ranges from green to yellow and even blue.

The most distinguishing feature of kappa are the bowl or saucer-shaped depressions on the top of their heads called a sara (meaning “dish,” “bowl,” or “plate.”) When leaving the water, kappa makes sure that the sara is kept filled with water. The sara is surrounded with scraggly hair in a bobbed hair style known as okappa-atama. Should the kappa loose this water, it loses its strength and powers, possibly even dying in this weakened state if water isn’t refilled. Some kappa are reputed to have taken to wearing a metal plate or cap to cover their sara so the water doesn’t pour or dry out, thus weakening them.

Depending on the story, the arms of a kappa are said to be connected to each such, that the kappa can slide their arm from one side to the other. I can see that trick, the kappa is wearing a shell, pull one arm in and stuff it out the other arm hole, much like a person does when wearing a t-shirt. I’m sure it’s a simple enough illusion and magic trick to pull off.

Aquatic creatures who live in ponds and rivers, Kappa also possess webbed hands and feet. People have commented that Kappa smell like fish. Some of the legends involving kappa have them spending spring and summer down in the water during autumn and winter, heading up to the Yama-no-Kami (“Mountain Deities”) mountains. While kappa can be found throughout much of Japan, they’re often found in the Saga Prefecture.

Hyosube – This is the name for the kappa’s hairy cousin. The two are identical otherwise in terms of physical attributes and what they do. The biggest distinction of the two aside from hair, is that kappa are more prone to staying outside. The Hyosube are more likely to sneak into people’s homes to cause mischief, namely to take a bath. Being so hairsute, the hyosube are known to shed hair which is deadly to those who encounter it in Japanese folklore.

Shibaten – Also called Shibatengu, is a more turtle-like kappa where the kappa can be more ape or monkey like in appearance.

Diet

The kappa feed on a diet of blood and cucumbers.

Blood – Young children are told to be wary when playing near the water’s edge of ponds and rivers. Children are a kappa’s favored meal though they’re not above eating an adult.

Eww… so what makes humans so appealing to a kappa is a shirikodama that they will suck out of a person’s anus. Alrighty then.

And the shirikodama? Depending on the source and legend, that’s a mystical ball containing a person’s life force or soul that’s found near the anus, entrails, in the blood or liver.

Cucumbers – The only thing that kappa love more than small children. Its customary for some Japanese parents to write the names of their children or themselves on a cucumber and toss it into a pond or river where the kappa are believed to dwell.

Other Food Offerings – Cucumbers aren’t the only food item a kappa will accept. Offerings of eggplant, soba noodles, natto (fermented soybeans) and kabocha (winter squash) are accepted by kappa.

Powers

Being an aquatic yokai, it goes without saying that kappa are master swimmers with a vast knowledge of water and it’s importance.

Strength – Much of a kappa’s strength is tied to the waters of the pond or river it calls home. The water that a kappa keeps in the depression on its head is a source of its strength and even life.

Flatulence – I’m not sure that I would call this a power. Suffice to say that a kappa can use a particularly noxious gas attack in self-defense much like skunks do. A kappa is known to release this gas not just as a prank but to get someone like fishermen to let it go.

Flight – So those cucumbers offered to the kappa, not only do they eat the cucumbers, the kappa uses them to fly around on like dragonflies. Okay….

Weaknesses

So how does one manage to thwart and defeat a Kappa you might ask?

Arms – If we go off the idea that the arms of a kappa are connected to each other, they can be easily pulled off. If a person manages to get a kappa’s arm, they will perform a task in order to get it back. Assuming the arm can be reattached.

Challenges – Kappa aren’t mindlessly aggressive, and a person can reason with them. If they don’t have an offering of cucumbers to give, a person can try challenging the kappa. Most challenges usually take the form of feats of strength with wrestling matches.

One challenge found in a folktale sees a Farmer’s daughter get promised to a kappa in marriage in exchange for the yokai to irrigate his land. The daughter challenged the kappa to submerge several gourds in water. When the kappa failed at this task, the daughter was freed from the marital arrangement.

Fire – Being water creatures, it stands to reason that Kappa are held to be afraid of fire and loud noises. Some villages in Japan will have fireworks festivals each year to try and scare away spirits.

Land – Kappa can’t survive for long on the land and must always keep their heads wet, especially the sara filled with water.

Etiquette – That in mind, the kappa are overly found of etiquette, so if you bow deeply to them in greeting, they will bow as well, spilling the water from their sara. With this water spilled, the kappa loses its strength and any powers, becoming weakened and possibly die if this water isn’t refilled. It must be water from their home river or pond that is poured back in. If a human is the one who refills this water, it is believed that the kappa would the human in question for the rest of eternity.

Cucumbers – Offering the Kappa a nice tasty cucumber is sure to do the trick and placate them instead of trying to haul you into the river to drown.

Instead of offering the cucumber, a person would the vegetable themselves as a means of protection before swimming. Though some will say this is sure to guarantee an attack.

Miscellaneous – There’s a variety of other items that supposedly drive away kappa. These items include ginger, iron and sesame.

A Friend For Life

Those who have successfully befriended a kappa find that they truly have a friend for life. Kappa are known to help farmers in any number of ways such as irrigating fields. The kappa are very knowledgeable in the way of medicine and have been known to teach the art of bone setting to humans.

There are shrines to kappa that have been established, especially of a particularly helpful kappa. You could trick a kappa into service via the bowing and refilling the bowl on their head with water. He’s not likely to be so nice about the help he gives then.

The kappa, like the European Fae won’t break an oath as their sense of etiquette and decorum is such, they just won’t. So yeah, a human can trick a kappa into service and get one to swear an oath to them, the kappa’s sense of honor says they will follow it through to the end.

Japanese Expressions

There are a few expressions associated with kappa.

Kappa Maki – A cucumber sushi roll named for kappa.

“Kappa-no-kawa-nagare” – This phrase translates to “A kappa drowning in a river” is used to mean that even an expert can make mistakes.

“Kappa no He” – Much ado about nothing, the literal translation is water-imp fart. This is my new favorite.

Okappa – the bobbed hairstyles that look like those kappa sport.

Koppojutsu

This is a martial arts style invented by Kappa who will sometimes teach it to humans. The name of koppojutsu translates as “attacks against bones.” It is a hard-martial art compared to another, koshijutsu that is a soft-martial art that targets an opponent’s muscles.

Kappa-Buchi

The Kappa Pool is a legend found in the Jozankei region of Japan.

A young man was out fishing in a deep pool and he ended up falling in. He never surfaced. Some months later, as his father slept, the son came to him in a dream and told his father that he was living happily with the Kappa, that he even had a kappa wife and child. Shortly after, the pool came to be known as the Kappa Buchi.

Kappa Bashi

The Kappa bridge found in Tokyo used to be farmland that was surrounded by canals prone to flooding. During the late Edo period, a raincoat dealer, Kappaya Kihachi spent his entire fortune on building a better drainage system. The work proved more difficult than expect and taking longer to complete.

Falling into despair and about to give up, the man was visited by a kappa whose life he had saved many years before. The kappa had arrived to help and in no time at all, the new drainage system was completed. Further, the story goes that those who saw the kappa were blessed with good fortune. Shortly after, the Kappa Temple was built to honor and enshrine the kappa as a local deity.

Saiyuki – Journey West

When the Chinese epic of Journey to the West arrived in Japan, the character of Sha Wujing’s name is changed to Sangojo or Sagojo. Where Sha Wujing or Sandy is often depicted as a Water Buffalo or some kind of water demon, in Japan, he is frequently identified as a kappa.

Horses & Livestock & Monkeys!

Continuing a connection of Kappa to the Journey West story, in which kappa come from drown monkeys. In Chinese lore, monkeys are shown riding horses and in Journey West, the Jade Emperor appoints Monkey or Son Goku to a position of a Stable Hand or Protector of Horses.

This connection could explain a few different folktales and stories of kappa harassing people’s horse and cattle. There is a story recorded by Lafcadio Hearn in Kawachimura where a horse-stealing kappa was captured and forced to sign an agreement never to harm any people or steal from them again. The kappa even went so far as to swear he would get his fellow kappa to swear to the oath of leaving humans alone.

Of course, it could be too much of a stretch and horses were just one of many animals and objects that kappa would try to steal from humans.

Possible Reality Behind The Myths

Drowning – It’s likely stories of kappa developed as a means to scare and warn children from wandering too close to the water’s edge at any pond or river.

Kappa are even blamed for drowning deaths and signs are still posted near bodies of water that warn of kappa dangers.

Giant Salamanders – It makes sense, that inspiration for the kappa could come from the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki. It is a large, aggressive salamander that grow up to five feet in length that will grab its prey with powerful jaws.

Miscarriages & Leech Babies – Touching back on that idea of kappa rapping women. There is an 18th century Ukiyo-e picture by Utamaro showing a kappa rapping an ama diver while underwater. That’s a bit unpleasant. More relevant might be a belief found in Kunio Yanagita’s Tono Monogatari, in which women who were raped by kappa and became pregnant often had repulsive babies born. These babies, called Leech Babies, would be buried shortly after.

Sometimes these stillborn babies would be tossed into a river and children would be warned to stay away from the water’s edge to avoid seeing these dead babies. Sadly, sometimes a poor family might have tossed an unwanted baby into the river if they couldn’t afford to care for it.

It’s possible a woman might say she had been raped by a kappa in order to try and explain why a baby was born deformed and likely stillborn. It would provide a way of saving face to explain a stillborn and deformities. That’s my take after reading in Celtic folklore and comparing it the myths regarding Changelings and parents who have a child that dies of SIDs, you just say the fairies came and took your baby and that the one isn’t real. Because somewhere, your real baby is still alive.

Similar Folkloric Figures

There are a few other, similar figures found in other cultures from around the world that have been used to scare young children from straying too close to the water’s edge.

Kelpie – A fearsome water horse in Scottish folklore known to drown those who try to ride it.

Näkki – A water monster from Finnish folklore.

Neck – Also called Nix or Nixie, a similar shapeshifting creature to the Näkki, only from Germanic and Scandinavian folklore.

Shui Gui – Water Ghost or Water Monkey is a similar creature found in Chinese folklore.

Siyokoy – Found in the Philippin islands and known for kidnapping children. Their description is very similar to those of kappa.

Vodyanoy – A frog-like water spirit found in Slavic folklore.

Vodnik – A green humanoid spirit or creature found in western Slavic folklore, particularly in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

 

Advertisements

Jólakötturinn

Jólakötturinn

Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat

The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.

Description

The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.

The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.

Dark Ages – Autumn Wool

According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.

This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.

Jólasveinarnir

 The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.

The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

 

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

 

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

 

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

 

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

 

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon.

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

 

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

 

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

 

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

 

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

 

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

 

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

 

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

 

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

 

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

 

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.

 

Christmas Tradition

It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.

Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.

Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.

So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.

Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood

Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…

Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.

Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!

Fancy.jpeg

Jólasveinar

Yule Lads

Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen

These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!

Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.

Descriptions

The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.

Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.

Family

Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.

Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.

Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.

The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.

Dark Winter Spirits

This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.

Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.

The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.

Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.

Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.

For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.

In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.

Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.

If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.

Christmas Associations

Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.

The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!

The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.

Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.

If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.

The Thirteen Yule Lads

The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.

Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.

The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.

Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)

Arrives: 12 December

Leaves: 25 December

The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.

He came stiff as wood,

to prey upon the farmer’s sheep

as far as he could.

He wished to suck the ewes,

but it was no accident

he couldn’t; he had stiff knees

– not too convenient.

 

Giljagaur – Gully Gawk

Arrives: 13 December

Leaves: 26 December

The second was Gully Gawk,

gray his head and mien.

He snuck into the cow barn

from his craggy ravine.

Hiding in the stalls,

he would steal the milk, while

the milkmaid gave the cowherd

a meaningful smile.

 

Stúfur – Stubby

Arrives: 14 December

Leaves: 27 December

Stubby was the third called,

a stunted little man,

who watched for every chance

to whisk off a pan.

And scurrying away with it,

he scraped off the bits

that stuck to the bottom

and brims – his favorites.

 

Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker

Arrives: 15 December

Leaves: 28 December

The fourth was Spoon Licker;

like spindle he was thin.

He felt himself in clover

when the cook wasn’t in.

Then stepping up, he grappled

the stirring spoon with glee,

holding it with both hands

for it was slippery.

 

Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper

Arrives: 16 December

Leaves: 29 December

Pot Scraper, the fifth one,

was a funny sort of chap.

When kids were given scrapings,

he’d come to the door and tap.

And they would rush to see

if there really was a guest.

Then he hurried to the pot

and had a scraping fest.

 

Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker

Arrives: 17 December

Leaves: 30 December

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,

was shockingly ill bred.

From underneath the bedsteads

he stuck his ugly head.

And when the bowls were left

to be licked by dog or cat,

he snatched them for himself

– he was sure good at that!

As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.

 

Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer

Arrives: 18 December

Leaves: 31 December

The seventh was Door Slammer,

a sorry, vulgar chap:

When people in the twilight

would take a little nap,

he was happy as a lark

with the havoc he could wreak,

slamming doors and hearing

the hinges on them squeak.

 

Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler

Arrives: 19 December

Leaves: 1 January

Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,

was an awful stupid bloke.

He lambasted the skyr tub

till the lid on it broke.

Then he stood there gobbling

– his greed was well known –

until, about to burst,

he would bleat, howl and groan.

Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.

 

Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper

Arrives: 20 December

Leaves: 2 January

The ninth was Sausage Swiper,

a shifty pilferer.

He climbed up to the rafters

and raided food from there.

Sitting on a crossbeam

in soot and in smoke,

he fed himself on sausage

fit for gentlefolk.

 

Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper

Arrives: 21 December

Leaves: 3 January

The tenth was Window Peeper,

a weird little twit,

who stepped up to the window

and stole a peek through it.

And whatever was inside

to which his eye was drawn,

he most likely attempted

to take later on.

 

Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer

Arrives: 22 December

Leaves: 4 January

Eleventh was Door Sniffer,

a doltish lad and gross.

He never got a cold, yet had

a huge, sensitive nose.

He caught the scent of lace bread

while leagues away still

and ran toward it weightless

as wind over dale and hill.

 

Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook

Arrives: 23 December

Leaves: 5 January

Meat Hook, the twelfth one,

his talent would display

as soon as he arrived

on Saint Thorlak’s Day.

He snagged himself a morsel

of meat of any sort,

although his hook at times was

a tiny bit short.

I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.

 

Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)

Arrives: 24 December

Leaves: 6 January

The thirteenth was Candle Beggar

– ‘twas cold, I believe,

if he was not the last

of the lot on Christmas Eve.

He trailed after the little ones

who, like happy sprites,

ran about the farm with

their fine tallow lights.

Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.

Lost Yule Lads & Lasses

More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.

Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.

Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!

Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!

Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.

Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.

Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.

Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.

Bunch of weirdos.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus

Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)

That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.

The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?

A Santa By Any Other Name….

The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.

Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.

I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.

Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.

Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.

Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.

Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.

Codifying A Legend

It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.

History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.

A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.

A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.

William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.

Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.

Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.

George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.

Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.

To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.

He’s Making A List!

One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.

Letters To Santa

This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.

The Spirit Of Giving

The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.

Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.

Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.

Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care

Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.

Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.

Cookies For Santa

An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.

Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.

Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.

Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.

Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.

Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.

Santa’s Laughter

“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:

“. . . a little round belly

    That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”

The North Pole

The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.

Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.

Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.

Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.

Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.

Santa’s Helpers

At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.

Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.

Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.

Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.

Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.

Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.

Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.

Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.

Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten who brings in a sleigh drawn by goats.

Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.

La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.

La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.

Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”

Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.

Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turn Rudolph’s story into the well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.

Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.

Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.

What About Mrs. Claus?

As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.

Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.

Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs

With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.

Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.

The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus

Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.

There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.

Shaman Santa!

With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.

Santa Controversy

It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today, didn’t exist.

At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.

I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.

Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.

The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children become prominent.

Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?

You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.

Then you get into those clergy and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.

In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.

Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.

In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.

Hebe

Hebe

Etymology – “Youth,” “Flower of Youth” or “Prime of Life”

Pronunciation: hee’-bee

 Other Names and Epithets: Ἡβη, Basileia (Princess), Dia, Ganymeda, Juventas (Roman)

Hebe is the goddess of Youth in Greek mythology. She had also been the cup bearer to the gods before being replaced by the youth, Ganymede. In Pindar’s Nemean Odes, he notes how Hebe is one of the most beautiful goddesses in Olympus.

Attributes

Animal: Chicken, Eagle

Element: Air

Festivals: Kissotomoi

Metal: Gold

Month: June

Patron of: Sinners, Former Prisoners and Slaves, Young Brides

Planet: Venus

Plant: Ivy, Lettuce

Sphere of Influence: Youth, Vitality, Forgiveness

Symbols: Chalice, Fountain of Youth, Wings

Greek Depictions

In Grecian art, Hebe is frequently shown as a young woman wearing a crown of flowers and a sleeveless dress or partially nude. Many ancient vases show Hebe in either her role as cup-bearer or as Heracles’ bride. Occasionally, Hebe is shown to have wings like Iris or Nike.

There is a lost, though famous statue of Hebe made of gold and ivory that was sculpted by Naucydes during the 5th century B.C.E.

Worship

Hebe was worshiped in Phlious and Sicyon. There she was known by the name of Dia. They would pardon or forgive supplicants who came to her temple to pay respects and reverence.

Kissotomoi – Also known as Ivy-Cutters, this was a yearly festival held in secret dedicated to Hebe as Dia.

Hebe was also worshiped in Athens where she had an alter near an alter dedicated to Heracles in the Cynosarges.

Parentage and Family

Parents

Zeus – King of the Olympian Gods is Hebe’s father.

Hera – Queen of the Olympian Gods is Hebe’s mother.

Another version for Hebe’s parentage is that her mother, Hera became pregnant when she ate some lettuce while dining with the god Apollo.

Siblings –

Some sources list only a couple of siblings for Hebe, namely Ares and Eileithyia. Regardless of how many siblings that Hebe is noted to have, she was regarded as being the youngest of all of the Olympian gods residing on Mount Olympus.

Aeacus, Angelos, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Ersa, Helen of Troy, Heracles, Hephaestus, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai

Consort

In some of the myths, Hebe is the wife of the Greek hero Hercules after he became deified. It’s also kind of wrong given they’re half siblings.

Children

With Heracles, Hebe bore two children, Alexiares and Anicetus.

Cup-Bearer To The Gods

As cup-bearer to the gods on Mount Olympus, Hebe’s duties were to fill the gods’ chalices with the nectar of the gods, that would keep them all youthful and invigorated. In addition to the nectar, Hebe also served the ambrosia.

Some stories have Hebe being replaced by Ganymede to become the cup-bearer to the gods, other stories have where the youth is just one of two cup-bearers.

Most people seem to be familiar with the story of Hebe having been clumsy and either accidentally having a wardrobe malfunction or spilling the nectar. Either way, Apollo or Zeus fired Hebe on the spot and replaced with Ganymede.

Another version has Hebe leaving her post as cup-bearer to the gods when she marries Heracles and that’s why Ganymede ultimately takes over the divine position as cup-bearer.

Goddess Of Beauty

Sometimes, albeit briefly and in passing, Hebe is mentioned as a goddess of Beauty. For this, I can see Hebe sometimes being mentioned as one of Aphrodite, the goddess of love’s attendants.

Goddess Of Pardons & Forgiveness

As previously mentioned under worship, Hebe was the goddess of pardoning. In Hebe’s sanctuary in Phlius, she had a grove where freed prisoners would hang their former chains before going to live a free life.

Goddess Of Youth

This function pretty much goes hand in hand with Hebe’s role as cup-bearer for she was responsible for the vitality of youth and bestowing it on the other gods with dispensing and filling their cups with the nectar of the gods.

Fountain of Youth – In Greek myths, the fabled Fountain of Youth is a fountain from which the waters that flowed would keep one youth forever or restore one’s youth. As the goddess of Youth, Hebe guarded over these waters and they could only be found and used by her.

Young Brides – As Hebe’s mother is Hera, the goddess of marriage, as her daughter, Hebe is a handmaiden to Hera and the goddess of young brides. Other goddesses that Hebe would accompany for overseeing weddings are: Aphrodite, the Charities or Graces and Harmonia.

Spring – As a goddess of Youth, Hebe is sometimes seen as a goddess of the springtime.

Immortality – According to Euphronios in his writings, Hebe as a goddess of Youth is also the goddess of Immortality. Many have often pointed out over the years, what good is immortality if you don’t also have the strength, vitality and youth to go with it?

There’s a metaphor, from the Bacchylides where receiving the Basileia (“the Princess”) of heaven, one could gain or win immortality.

Granting Youth – When Heracles nephew, Iolaus grew old, he prayed to Hebe to be young again before he went off to fight Eurystheus. Hebe granted Iolaus’ request on Heracles’ behalf for the day. This episode is shown in Euripidies’ play Heracleidae.

In Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, there is an episode where after Hebe grants this guerdon or boon, that Themis, the goddess of Justice says to grant it this once is fair. After which there was a great discussion among that other gods and it was agreed not to allow any further gifts of restored youth.

Marriage To Heracles

When Heracles became deified and ascended to Mount Olympus, there was a marriage between the mighty hero and Hebe. This marriage was held to try and reconcile the problems between the mighty hero and Hera, Hebe’s mother.

Ancient Greek Traditions & Responsibilities

Aside from being the cup-bearer, Hebe would also help her mother, Hera when preparing her chariot. She has also been known to draw the bath for Ares after a battle.

It seems a bit odd at first some of these other servant-like tasks that Hebe held. She was the youngest of all of the Olympian gods and her role reflects the ancient Greek custom where the daughter helps and assists around the house and serving guests.

Deific Counterparts

Previously mentioned, Ganymedes served as Hebe’s male counterpart in her role as being cup-bearer to the gods.

As the goddess of youth, Hebe’s counter was Geras, the goddess or personification of Old Age.

Hebe is sometimes seen as being the counterpart or similar to Pandeia, the daughter of the moon goddess Selene.

Juventas – Roman Goddess

The Romans are very famous for taking and equating their gods with those of the Greeks or flat out renaming them. It is no different with Hebe, her Roman name and counterpart is Juventas.

In Rome, Juventas held a temple on the Capitol and Terminus long before there was one built for Jupiter. There was another temple for Juventas at the Circus Maximus.

The Month of June – This story is found more in the Roman myths as there’s a minor spat and disagreement over which goddess gave their name to the month of June, Juno or Juventas. It’s a minor footnote of a story as Juventas has a discussion with her husband, Hercules about wanting only her honor and acknowledgment for the month of June. Most people default to assuming Juno gave her name for the month of June.

Matariki

Matariki-Plieades

Etymology – “Eyes of God”

Also known as: Pleiades, Mata Rikie (“Little Eyes”)

Alternate Spellings – Mata Ariki (“Eyes of God”)

For the Maori of New Zealand, Matariki is the name of the Pleiades star cluster. When this asterism is seen rising during late May and June, it marks the beginning of the New Year.

Eyes Of God

In one story, Ranginui, the sky father and Papatuanuku, the earth mother became separated by their children. When Tawhirimatea, the wind god, heard that his parents had been separated, he became so angry that he ripped out his eyes and threw them up into the heavens to become the star cluster Matariki.

Yes, as there are seven stars in Matariki, it means that Tawhirimatea had seven eyes.

Maori Goddess

As a goddess, Matariki is accompanied by her six daughters: Tupu-a-Nuku, Tupu-a-Rangi, Wai-Tii, Wai-Ta, Wai-puna-Rangi, and Uru-Rangi.

Assisting The Sun

In Maori stories, the Sun god, Te Rā begins his northward journey with Takurua, his winter bride and represented by the star Sirius. The Sun will later make his southward journey with Hineraumati, his summer bride. Matariki and her daughters are believed to appear so they can help Te Rā on his northward journey.

To Great Grandmother’s House We Go

When the New Year approaches, Matariki gathers up her daughters to go visit Papatuanuku, their great grandmother. During this visit, each of the daughters help Papatuanuku prepare for the coming year with each using a different ability to help get the earth ready. The daughters will also learn new skills and knowledge from Papatuanuku to pass on for others.

The Six Sisters

Tupu-a-Nuku – The oldest of Matariki’s daughters, she spends her time helping her great grandmother Papatuanuku tending plants needed for food, medicine and cloth.

Tupu-a-Rangi – She loves to sing. Papatuanuku has her singing to revive the forest and all the creatures of the land. Tupu-a-Rangi song is one of joy bringing the land back to life.

Wai-Tii and Wai-Ta – Twins, they care for the smallest and fastest creatures, typically insects who work in teams such as the bees to pollinate or ants building nests.

Wai-puna-Rangi – She goes with Papatuanuku down to the oceans, lakes and rivers to prepare the fish, who are the children of Tangaroa, the god of the sea for harvest to feed people. In addition, Papatuanuku also teaches her about the rain that falls from Ranginui to provide drinking water and how it evaporates by the sun to become clouds.

Uru-Rangi – She enjoys racing and helps set the tone when her sisters and great grandmother are getting the earth ready for the new year.

Navigation

The star cluster Matariki was important to Maori sailors when navigating between their islands. Like many astronomers and star gazers, the Maori used the stars for calculating time and the seasons, preserving knowledge and passing on star lore and the history of the tribe.

New Year

The New Year begins in New Zealand among the Maori when Matariki is seen rising and the next new moon. Often, the pre-dawning rise of Matariki begins in the last few days of May and the New Year begins with the new moon that happens in June.

Rigel – Also known as Beta Orionis, Puanga in northern Maori, Puaka in southern Maori. This star is said to be the daughter of Rehua (the star Antares), the Chief of all Stars. When Rigel is first seen in the night sky, the rise of Matariki isn’t far behind. The Moriori of the Chatham Islands and some of the Maori use Rigel’s appearance to mark the start of the New Year.

Maruaroa o Takurua – Winter Solstice

Generally, between June 20th to June 22nd is the middle of winter, the new moon that occurs after Matariki can be seen in the morning sky.

If you didn’t already know, south of the equator, this marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

Celebrations

The arrival of Matariki marks a time of celebration and preparing for the year’s coming harvests. Depending on how visible and bright the stars of Matariki are, would determine how warm the coming season would be and harvest size. When celebrating Matariki, different tribes would celebrate at varying times, though most festivities last around three days singing, dancing, feasting and sports.

Conservation – Living on an island meant that it was especially important for the Maori to practice conservation of their resources. The youth of the tribes would learn about the cultivation and care for the land, for not just crops, but certain birds and fish would be easy to hunt during this time.

For the Maori, they could ill afford to desecrate the land and over harvest or hunt on their islands if they wanted to continue living there. How they treated the land determined how long they could live on the land.

Offerings – Offerings of crops were made to different gods, like Rongo, the god of cultivated food. Other gods offerings were given too are: Uenuku and Whiro.

Remembering The Ancestors – Matariki also marks a time for the Maori to remember their ancestors, especially those who have passed during the previous year. Some tribes believe the stars of Matariki are where the souls of the departed have gone.

Official National Holiday

The Maori New Year celebrations had been popular for a while and stopped during the 1940’s. In 2000, a cultural revival was started that has come to be thought of as a “New Zealand Thanksgiving.”

Pakau – According to Hekenukumai Busby, an expert in traditional Maori navigation, said that the ancestors of the Maori celebrated Matariki by flying kites, known as Pakau. More modern celebrations have fireworks and hot air balloons to symbolize the ancient kites.

The Maori Language Commission – In 2001, a movement began by this organization to reclaim Matariki or the Aotearoa Pacific New Year. Since then, there have been various private and public institutions that celebrate Matariki that go from a week long to a month-long celebration.

Cultural Heritage – The years 2009 and 2011 saw efforts to pass a bill that acknowledge Matariki as an official holiday with New Zealand’s Parliament. The 2011 bill was successful in recognizing Matariki as an official holiday, it also honored a peace-making heritage founded by Parihaka.

Siat

siat

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!

Yay!

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.

Dinosaurs!

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.

Huma

Huma Bird

Other names: Bulah (Arabic), Homa, Homajo (Avestan), Huma, Kumay (Turkic), Umay (Turkic), Hurruz, The Bird Of The Paradise

Pronunciation: Homa

Etymology – Fabulous Bird in the Persian language.

The Sufi teacher, Inayat Khan put forward the idea that the word huma breaks down to two parts. The first hu, which means spirit and the second, mah, from the Arabic word: “Ma’a” which means water.

Found in Iranian legends and stories, the Huma or Homa bird is a common motif of Sufi and Diwan poetry.

The Legend

While there a good many stories and legends of the Huma, they all share in common that the bird never lands on the ground and lives its entire life flying high above the earth where it is invisible. Some versions of the legends will state that the reason that Huma never lands is that it has no legs.

Other stories of the Huma say that they are hermaphrodites in that they have both male and female features represented by one wing and leg being male and other female. The Huma is seen as a being of compassion and a “bird of fortune” for to see its shadow or to be touched by one is considered auspicious.

The Bird Of Kings

One of the most important aspects of the Huma is its role as bestowing and confirming the right of rule and kingship. Most of the legends have the Huma landing on a person’s hand, head or shoulder to confirm their right to rule.

The Sufi teacher Inayat Khan gives the Huma’s kingship bestowing a spiritual explanation. In his explanation, he states: “Its true meaning is that when a person’s thoughts so evolve that they break all limitation, then he becomes as a king. It is the limitation of language that it can only describe the Most High as something like a king.”

Rising From The Ashes

In some versions of the legends surrounding the Huma, it is perceived as being like a phoenix in that it will consume itself in fire every few hundred years and then rise again whole from the ashes.

Indian Folklore

Mughal Era – The Huma’s aspects for bestowing the rights of kingship appear during this time. Aside from landing on a person’s head or shoulder, the shadow of the Huma passing over the head or shoulder would be enough to confirm kingship. Additionally, the feathers used to adorn the turbans of the kings were believed to be plumage from a Huma bird.

Folk Legend – In India, there is a folk story from Kashmir that tells the story of a poor man who struggled and toiled each day in the forests chopping wood. One day a Huma passed by and wanting to help him in some way, laid and dropped a golden egg next to him. When the man awoke, he found the egg and took it to a merchant who realized the significance of the egg and wanted the man to bring him another golden egg and the bird as well. The man returned to the forest and soon enough, the Huma found him again. Seeing that he was still poor, the Huma laid another egg for him. The man jumped up and grabbed the bird.

The bird pleaded with the man to let her go, promising him a feather that if he burned it, would take him up to Koh-I-Quaf where her mother lived who would reward him better. Disbelieving her, the man tied up the bird and ran to fetch the merchant. When he returned with the merchant, the bird was died from her struggles to break free. Enraged, the merchant told the man to never bother him again and the man lived out the rest of his days poor and continuing to struggle.

Iranian Literature & History

The Huma bird is often associated with pre-Islamic monarchs and stands vis-a-vis ravens, a metaphor for Arabs. In these pre-Islamic traditions, the Huma bestows the right of kingship to people.

Dating to 500 B.C.E., the Griffin-like statuary found in Persepolis, Iran are generally viewed and regarded as being Huma.

Sufi Traditions

Catching a Huma is seen as achieving the impossible. Just getting a glimpse of one, even if just the Huma’ shadow is believed to make a person happy for the rest of their life. Further, tradition holds that a Huma cannot be caught alive and the person who ends up killing a Huma in this way will die within forty days.

Attar of Nishapur’s “The Conference of the Birds,” the Huma is depicted as a pupil who refuses to take on a journey because the task would compromise its right to bestow kingship upon those whom it flew over.

Turkish Folklore

Huma, known as Kumay or Umay in Turkish mythology. It was used as a symbol of the Cepni, one of 24 tribal groups under the Oghuz Turks. The imagery of the Huma is used a lot in Turkey’s Diwan poetry.

Interestingly, Umay is the goddess of fertility and virginity in Turkish mythology and Tengriism.

In the Ottoman era poetry, the Huma is called a “bird of paradise.” Early European descriptions of the Paradisaeidae species of bird show these birds as having no wings or legs. Because of this, the birds were believed to always be inflight their whole lives.

In Turkish folk literature, the Huma symbolizes unreachable highness. References to the Huma also appear in Sindhi literature and like diwan traditions, the bird is a harbinger of great fortune.

A letter addressed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the Zafarnama of Guru Gobind Singh, makes a reference to the Huma as being a mighty and auspicious bird. In the same letter, the Huma is also referred to as an Osprey.

In the Memalik ul Mirat by the Ottoman admiral: Sisi Ali Reis, the Huma is also referred to as Hurruz. It has been suggested that Sisi Ali Reis’ account, the Hurruz that he observed on his return trip from India to Istanbul, is a vulture. This reference is seen as noteworthy as vultures, like many other birds were revered in Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism

In my researching the Huma, I found a few references linking the bird to the Zoroastrian religion. The references are rather tentative and I’ll post them here as I don’t have enough information to properly confirm or dispute them.

The first account for a reference seems to be a mis-translation due to similar sounding words where a Huma tree is mentioned and that Zoroaster himself is to have been born from one. The same reference mentions the Biblical, New Testament verse of John 3:5, “Except that a man be born of Water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

Just how much owes to mis-translation or misunderstanding, I’m not sure. In keeping with the Biblical verse of Water and Spirit, the same reference source takes note of the translation for Huma from the Arabic words of “Hu” for “Spirit” and “Mah” for “Water.”

The other reference for the Huma with Zoroastrianism is previous mention of the bird in Sisi Ali Reis’ Memalik ul Mirat where the suggestion of the bird is actually a vulture. This source goes on to mention how vultures were particularly revered in Zoroastrianism as a bird of compassion who refuses to hunt and instead feeds on carrion. And that vultures are found referenced in The Towers of Silence in Mumbai where they dispose of the dead.

What’s In A Name?

In several Persian dialects, the name Homa is sometimes used to refer to the Bearded Vultures and not just the mythical Homa. This could explain some legends that say the Homa is a bird of compassion that avoids killing for food and instead feeds on carrion.

Shennong

Shennong

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.

Cultural Hero

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.

 Shennong’s Death

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.

Geography Connections

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.

Zwarte Piet

100_7675

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.

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 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.

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. 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.