Category Archives: Travel/Traveler
Pronunciation: Djet m-aw rohz
Other names: Dzyed Maróz (Ukrainian), Did Moróz (Russian), Dédushka Moróz (Serbian), Deda Mraz (Bulgarian), Dyado Mraz (Slovenian), Dedek Mraz (Russian), Morozko (Russian), Grandfather Frost, King Frost, Father Frost, Ice King
Etymology: Grandfather Frost
Ah Santa Claus, Sinterklaas and Father Christmas…. That magical time of the year with Christmas and Yuletide celebrations. When we jump over to the Russian and Slavic celebrations for Winter, there is Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost who will be bringing gifts.
Just who is Ded Moroz? Let’s see…
To start, Ded Moroz is described as an elderly looking man with a long, flowing white beard who wears a long red, blue or white fur coat and round fur hat and boots. He carries with him a long magical staff and rides along with an evergreen tree in a sled or troika pulled by three white horses.
Much like his American and other European counterparts, Ded Moroz is known for bringing presents to good children. Unlike Santa Claus who brings his gifts on December 25th or Sinterklaas who arrives on December 6th, Ded Moroz brings his gifts on New Year’s Eve.
Other little factoids about Ded Moroz include that his birthday is on November 18th, this coincides with when the first frost arrives on the ground in Veliky Ustyug, Russia. Many sources will also place Ded Moroz’s age at around 2,000 years old.
Ded Moroz appears to have a strong connection to Eastern Slavic Paganism before spreading out into Russian beliefs and culture. Here, Ded Moroz is the Wizard of Winter and a snow demon who personifies Russian winters.
In folklore, Ded Moroz is originally Morozko, a powerful blacksmith and hero known for freezing water to become frost. As a force of nature, Morozko isn’t necessarily evil, he is known to help those who show him proper respect and giving gifts, plus he can be devastating to those who are rude, disrespectful and otherwise mean-spirited.
Slightly different origins place Morozko as a god of frost and ice who’s married to the harsh, unforgiving Winter. As a deity, he could freeze people and the countryside in a moment’s notice. With the Russian Orthodox Church, there was an attempt to label Morozko as a demon. Later fairy tales would soften Morozko’s image to be an elderly old man who could be more benevolent and not quite as harsh.
You Called Him A Demon!
Before we freak out, the Slavic use of referring to entities as demons is very similar to the Greeks usage of the term daimon when referring to a spirit or a minor local deity, or force of nature. As more of the Slavic countries and Russia became Christianized, the term demon would take on more negative associations.
I should throw in at this point, a note that scholars and historians do have some disputes about the exact origins of Ded Moroz. He does appear to be derived from a Slavic deity of Winter and to be the personification of cold and frost.
I’ll touch on it more, further down; there was a period of religious prohibition during the Soviet era and the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t seem to be settled on the nature and role that Ded Moroz has. He goes from scary demon to a figure that can now allow for some of the religious traditions to come back, even if they’re claimed to be pagan in origin.
However, myths and legends do evolve, grow and change. The very image of Ded Moroz that many people have, especially in Russia does come out of the Soviet era. Why ruin a good thing that people love?
Morozko (Grandfather Frost)
Or Old Man Winter
This is the main story and source for Ded Moroz and is also the origin for his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Snow Maiden). It is a Russian fairy tale first collected by Alexander Afanasyey for his Russian Fairy Tales collection and then is included in “The Yellow Fairy Book” compiled by Andrew Lang in 1894 as “The Story of King Frost.”
The story begins with a stepmother who dislikes her good-natured stepdaughter who is always good and kind and always having to hear about it. Of course, the stepmother loves her own daughter and dotes on her whim and desires.
As is the nature of these type of stories, the stepmother tells the father to send the stepdaughter away, so she didn’t have to see or hear her again. The man begs his wife to reconsider and she is unrelenting about getting rid of the stepdaughter. So, the man, the father takes his daughter out on their sled, out to the woods before giving the girl a kiss and abandoning her there.
Realizing her lot and fate, the sobbing girl sits down next to a tree. She isn’t sitting there long before she hears a crackling noise and looks up to see that King Frost is standing there.
In a stern voice, King Frost snaps out doesn’t the girl know who he is? He is King Frost, king of the red-noses.
The girl says “All hail” to King Frost and then she asks if he is here to take her.
King Frost asks if she is warm enough. The girl answers, saying she is warm enough despite the fact that she is shivering fiercely.
The King repeated his question, stepping closer and the girl insisted that she was still warm.
At this, King Frost takes pity on the poor girl and wraps her in furs to keep warm. He goes further with covering her in blankets and giving her gifts of gems and lastly, a sleigh pulled by six white horses.
In the morning, the stepmother tells the man that he should go out and retrieve his daughter’s body for burial. To the stepmother’s surprise and shock, the man returns with a chest filled with gems and his still-living daughter, more beautiful than before with the splendid furs and her silver and gold dress.
Wanting the same for her own daughter, the stepmother tells the man to take her daughter out to the same spot where the stepdaughter had been left. The man did as he was bid, taking the stepmother’s daughter out and leaving her there.
As soon as the man left, the daughter sulked as she sat down by a tree. Just as before, it wasn’t long until King Frost appeared.
Just as before, King Frost asked the daughter if she was warm. Unlike the stepdaughter who had been respectful with her words, the daughter was rude, calling him a blind fool, of course she was cold, her hands and feet are nearly frozen.
Angered by this girl’s words, King Frost snapped his fingers and froze the girl to death.
Of course, the stepmother expected her own daughter to return just as the stepdaughter had, loaded with wealth and finery. That clearly wasn’t what happened when the man went out to retrieve her and brought back only the daughter’s cold, lifeless body.
It just shows, it pays to always be polite and respectful as you never know who you’re talking to or dealing with.
Moroz – Red Nose
This is a poem connected to Ded Moroz written by Nikolai Nekrasov. The story found within this poem highlights a dark aspect to Ded Moroz’s character as it depicts him killing a peasant woman and orphaning her children.
Other darker aspects to Ded Moroz as a wizard of winter would have him kidnap children and he would only be willing to return them when parents offered him up gifts.
Within the Christian Orthodox Church, the character of Ded Moroz has changed over the years. Most notably during the 19th century with different plays featuring him. The two most notable plays are Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Snegurochka and a similarly named play by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Russian Revolution
1917 saw the Bolshevik Revolution. More forward a few years into the 1920’s with the formation of the Soviet Union and Government, we see that many Christmas traditions were discouraged as they were considered to be too religious in nature and materialistic. Especially Saint Nicholas, who had been Russia’s patron saint, his feast day of December 6th were done away with.
It doesn’t help that Ded Moroz was declared to be “an ally of the priest and kulak” as Russia tried to remove many religious elements. Other sources give the history that Ded Moroz was seen as too childish and not acceptable.
This isn’t just Christmas that got banned by the Soviet Government, this is a prohibition on any religious holidays, observances and celebrations.
Soviet Santa – An Alternative
Luckily a complete banning of the holiday spirits wouldn’t last long. I’m sure there are many children psychologists and just even psychologists in general who can extrapolate much better than I can about the importance of play, the use of imagination and human spirit. If you crush it completely, we’re going to have problems.
Seeing a need and importance for some type of holiday seasonal celebration, Ded Moroz would take on his more familiar image thanks in part to a letter written by Pavel Postyshey on December 28th of 1935. Pavel stated that the origins for the Christmas traditions pre-dated actual Christianity and that it would be beneficial to bring back these traditions for the sake of the children.
Now, instead of arriving on Christmas Day, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka would arrive on New Year’s or Novy God, bringing presents to leave under an evergreen tree. This change provided an alternative to the American Santa Claus and one seen as a secular celebration by the Soviet Union.
Letters To Ded Moroz
Much like how Santa Claus will receive letters from children, Ded Moroz will receive his share of letters from numerous children requesting gifts. Millions of letters over the years from all across Russia and around the world have been addressed to Ded Moroz.
Where Santa makes his home in the North Pole, Ded Moroz does hang his hat and call home?
To answer that, in 1998, it was declared that the town of Veliky Ustyug, in Vologda Oblast is Ded Moroz’s home. Since then, Veliky Ustyug has become a popular tourist destination for many Russians who travel to Veliky and visit. Ded Moroz’s lives in a log cabin out in the taiga forest near where three rivers meet.
Ded Moroz spends his summers reading letters from children all over the country in preparation for the New Year’s Tree on January 1st.
Ded Moroz’s Granddaughter
Snihurónka or the Snow Maiden is Ded Moroz’s granddaughter who often accompanies him. She is shown wearing a long silver-blue dress or robes and a fur-lined cap to keep warm.
Ded Moroz is often shown being accompanied by his granddaughter, Snihurónka. She’s noteworthy as numerous other, familiar Winter figures don’t have a female companion.
Holiday Twins & Counterparts
So, what are the difference between Santa Claus and Ded Moroz?
We know there are differences, after all, Santa Claus arrives Christmas Eve and Ded Moroz arrives on New Year’s; both bringing presents. Santa Claus classically dresses all in red, especially in America and Ded Moroz is known for dressing in not just red, he will also dress in blue or even white, much like how a Russian noble would be expected to dress. They certainly look like cultural syno-entities and cultural twins (given the history, that’s how Ded Moroz got his start.) Santa Claus is known for being short and rotund and Ded Moroz is tall and thin. Russian children will affectionately call Ded Moroz, “Ded Moroz the Red Nose.”
Other notable differences between the two is that Santa Claus will enter a home coming down the chimney and leaving his gifts in a stocking. Whereas, Ded Moroz will enter in through the front door and leave his gifts under the New Year’s Tree.
During the 1990’s, the character of Santa Claus began to make his way into the Russian Federation as more and more influences of Western culture made their way through the previous Soviet Union.
There have been efforts to show cultural goodwill by having Santa Claus (or his various counterparts) and Ded Moroz (sometimes his Belarus counterpart Dzied Maroz) has one-on-one meetings or friendly competitions.
December of 1997 saw the creation of ‘Christmas Without Borders” where Ded Moroz and Santa Claus met a bridge crossing the Narva River between Estonia and Russia. The whole point was to spread goodwill and increase cooperation between the two countries and neighboring border towns. I wasn’t able to determine if this started a new tradition and continued or if it just petered off after a few years.
The early 21st century saw a resurgence for the character of Ded Moroz and his granddaughter, Snegurochka where they arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts, often showing up at children’s parties. Much like Saint Nicholas who battles Krampus in some of the Germanic countries, Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will face off with Baba Yaga who wants to steal the presents.
Of course, there are a few will say that Ded Moroz is really Santa Claus’ grandfather. That works too given how long the two have been around and who’s mythologies are older.
Tracking Ded Moroz On His Nightly Runs
Where Santa has NORAD tracking his nightly flight, Ded Moroz has GLONASS tracking his run on New Year’s. This began in November of 2009 when the Russian Federation offered to compete with NORAD.
Alright! May the best Present-Giver win!
What’s In A Name – Regional Variations
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many of the countries that formed after sought to move away a Soviet heritage by reclaiming their own regional heritages and roots. This means that Ded Moroz and Snegurochka will frequently have a different, variant name or change altogether as each country seeks their ancient traditions or move forward to something different.
Armenia – Dzmer Pap, meaning “Grandfather Winter,” his granddaughter is known as Dzyunanushik, meaning “Snow Sweetie” or Snow Anush. They have been part of Armenia traditions for some 160 years since the Russo-Persian War. Both wear red, blue or white winter coats. They make an appearance for both Christmas and New Year’s with bringing gifts. Children are expected to sing songs or recite poems before getting their gifts.
Azerbaijan – Saxta Baba, meaning “Grandfather Frost,” his granddaughter is known as Qar Qizi meaning “Snow Girl.” Saxta Baba brings gifts during New Year’s. Qar Qizi isn’t usually seen.
Bashkir and Tatar – Qis Babay, which means “Winter Old Man.”
Belarus – Dzied Maroz, he replaced Sviatv Mikalai who was more local, but had been disapproved of due to being Christian. Dzied Maroz’ makes his home in the Bialowieza Forest.
Bulgaria – Dyado Koleda or Grandfather Koleda is often equated with Santa Claus and appears alongside Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost. Dyado Mraz was popular during the Communist rule but has since fallen by the wayside since 1989 as Dyado Koleda began to gain more popularity.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – Ayaz Ata is the name for Ded Moroz.
Nenets – Yamal Iri, which means “Grandfather of Yamal.”
Poland – Poland didn’t have a version of Ded Moroz and during the communist era, there were efforts to try and introduce Dziadek Mróz as historically speaking, Communists didn’t want religion and view Saint Nicholas as being too religious in nature. It’s fairly obviously that Dziadek Mróz was meant to create a culture link and tie to Russia.
Romania – In 1948, a Communist party gained power and Christmas celebrations were done away with. Mos Cracium (Father Christmas) was replaced with Mos Gerila (Old Man Frosty), the Romanian name for Ded Moroz who would now bring gifts on December 31st for the New Years. Anyone paying attention, knows that New Year’s celebrations begin on December 30th, the Day of the Republic, when King Mihai I abdicated the throne in 1947.
Sakha Republic – Chys Khan, meaning “Master of Cold” and Khaarchana (Snow Maiden).
Slovenia – In this country, Ded Moroz’s name translates to Dedek Mraz. He is a slender man who wears a grey leather coat trimmed with fur inside and out and who wears round dormouse fur cap. This image of Dedek Mraz is based on pictures by Maksim Gaspari in 1952. Dedek Mraz’s home is located on Mount Triglay, the highest peak in both Slovenia and Yugoslavia. In the 1990’s when Communism ended, Miklavž (Saint Nicholas) who arrives on December 6th and Božicek (Christmas Man) who arrives on December 24th, Christmas Eve began making an appearance in Slovenia. Some Slovenian families in the 1940’s would have the Christkind (Jezušcek or “Little Jesus”) who brought gifts on Christmas Eve. It varies by family in regard to their political and religious views, current culture will show all three of Grandfather Frost, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus as friends. The attributes of each will also get mixed with the others.
Tajikistan – Boboi Barfi, meaning “Grandfather Snow” and Snegurochka is known as Barfak, meaning “Snowball.” There was an effort briefly on December 11th of 2013 to do away with the state televised celebrations of Boboi Barfi, Barfak and the New Year’s. That lasted all of about a day and the next day, the televised broadcasting plans were back on.
Ukraine – With the current conflicts with Russia, as early as 2014, there have been efforts to replace Ded Moroz with Sviatyi Mykolai (Saint Nicholas) and well, Sviatyi Mykolai is more popular in Western Ukraine.
Yakut – Chys Khaan, meaning “Master of Cold.”
Yugoslavia – The socialist Yugoslavia that comprises Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, has a character by the name of Grandfather Frost. In Bosnian, this name is Djed Mraz or Djeda Mraz, in Croatian, this name is Djed Mraz, in Macedonian, the name is Dedo Mraz, the Serbian name is Deda Mraz and the Slovenian name is Dedek Mraz.
For a bit of a history lesson here, in Croatia, Djed Mraz was viewed as a communist figure and the character of Djed Božicnjak or Grandfather Christmas is introduced. It’s taken a while for Djed Božicnjak to replace Djed Mraz and then, not completely. After 1999, both Djed Mraz and Djed Božicnjak have become synonymous. Some families still have Djed Mraz arrive on New Year’s bringing gifts. Thanks to some historical Austrian influence in parts of Croatia, children will get gifts on December 6th brought by Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) who is accompanied by Krampus. More religious families will have the baby Jesus (Isusek, Mali Isus or Kriskindl) who brings gifts on Christmas. Getting into some areas of Dalmatia, it is Sveta Lucija (Saint Lucy) who brings gifts.
Other names: Amphictyonis, Sito (“She of the Grain,”) Thesmophoros (“Law Bringer”)
Other Names and Epithets: Achaea, Achaiva (“Sorrowing,”) Aganippe (“the Mare who Destroys Mercifully”, “Night-Mare,”) Anesidora (“Sender of Gifts,”) Antaea, Chloe (“the Green Shoot,” Chthonia (“In the Ground,”) “Corn-Mother,” Daduchos (“Torch Bearer,”) Demeter Lousia, “the Bathed Demeter”, Demeter Erinys, Demeter Melaine “Black Demeter,” Despoina (“Mistress of the House,”) Epipole, Erinys (“Implacable,”) Europa (“Broad Face or Eyes,”) Kidaria, Lusia (“Bathing,”) Malophoros (“Apple-Bearer” or “Sheep-Bearer,”) “Mistress of the Labyrinth,” “Mother-Earth,” Potnia “Mistress,” Thermasia (“Warmth,”) “Green,” “The Giver of Gifts,” “The Bearer of Food,” and “Great Mother.”
When paired with Persephone, she and Demeter are called: “the Older” and “the Younger” in Eleusis, Demeters in Rhodes and Sparta, the Thesmophoroi or “the Legislators” in Thesmophoria, The Great Goddesses and The Mistresses in Arcadia. “The Queens” in Mycenaean Pylos.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Etymology: Earth Mother
It’s generally agreed that the second part to Demeter’s name, “meter” comes from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning mother.
Now, the first part to Demeter’s name, De originates as Da, becoming Ge in Attic and then De in Doric. Making it that Demeter means “Mother Earth.” The root word of De has also been linked to the name Deo, from the Cretan word for emmer, spelt, rye and other grains. In this respect, Demeter is the giver of food. Another alternative from Proto-Indo-European etymology is that De is derived from Despoina and Potnia where Des- means house or dome, making in this case, Demeter mean “mother of the house.”
In Greek mythology, Demeter is the Olympian goddess of agriculture and the harvest. She specializes in the cultivation of grains and is a fertility goddess. In addition, Demeter ruled over the cycles of life and death as well. Demeter is an ancient goddess whose worship predates the Greeks. Both Demeter and her daughter Persephone were the central figures in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Animal: Horse, Pig, Snake
Colors: Black, Green
Patron of: Agriculture, Harvest
Plant: Grains, Wheat, Barley, Poppy
Sphere of Influence: Growth, Seasonal Cycles, Harvest, Sacred Law
Symbols: Cornucopia, Scepter, Wheat, Torch, Bread
Early Greek Depictions
Found in Pylos, there is a set of Linear B Mycenean Greek tablets that dates from between 1400 to 1200 C.E. that depicts “two mistresses and the king” that are thought to possibly be Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Demeter is described as a blond-haired goddess who separates the chaff from the grain.
Demeter doesn’t often appear in art before the 6th century B.C.E. Demeter is often associated with imagery of the harvest, flowers, fruit, grain and sometimes seen in the company of her daughter Persephone where they are both wearing crowns and hold a torch and scepter or stalks of grain. Another scene that Demeter is shown in is that of Athena’ birth. Sometimes Demeter is shown sitting alone wearing a wreath of braided ears of grain.
The Eleusinian mysteries were an annual religious celebration that predates the Olympian pantheon. It is an important life and death ritual with Persephone in her role as a vegetation goddess and Demeter having important roles where they are worshiped together. During the reign of King Erechtheus of Athens is when Demeter’s worship came to Eleusis.
Originally, the festival was celebrated in the autumn during the seasonal sowing in the city of Eleusis. The myth was told in three phases of a decent, the search and the ascent, describing Demeter’s sorrow and her joy as she became reunited with Persephone. This celebration also involved dancing in the Rharian field where the first grains were grown. There are inscriptions of “the Goddesses” being accompanied by Triptolemos, an agricultural god and another of the God and Goddess that refer to Persephone and Plouton.
There were two sets of observances or celebrations for the Eleusinian Mysteries that would be held every five years.
The Lesser Mysteries would be held the 20th Anthesterion (roughly coinciding with February 28th) and take place over a span of week
The Greater or Eleusinian Mysteries would occur during the 15th-21st of Boedromion (September 28th to October 4th).
Ancient Sumerian Origin – The idea has been put forward by the renowned scholar, Samuel Noah Kramer that the story of Persephone’s abduction to the Underworld likely sees its origins in the ancient Sumerian story of Ereshkigal, the goddess of the Underworld who was abducted by the dragon Kur and forced to become the ruler of the Underworld against her will.
Agrarian Cults – The cults of Demeter and Persephone of the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria are based on some very old agrarian cults. These cults were led by priest as evidenced from an image on a Minoan vase dating to the end of the New Palace Period. This ancient cult held a connection to seasonal practices and tasks.
Daemons & Animal Nature – In Arcadia, the worship of Persephone and Demeter were the first daemons local deities who governed the powers of nature. Such ancient beliefs show a connection to animal nature that saw a belief in nature personified with nymphs and deities with human forms but also possessing animal heads and tails or other features.
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
The seasonal disappearance and the later return of Persephone were times of festivals during the time of ancient Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries are the most well-known and even then, the secrets for this festival were closely guarded, that not much is known about them.
Secret Rites & Immortality – Life after death seems to be a very common motif in many religions and beliefs around the world, even anciently. That somehow, life, some sort of existence continues even after death. It was no different for initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries who closely guarded their initiation rites. After all, the Eleusinian Mysteries wouldn’t be a mystery if everyone knew about them. For the Eleusinian Mystery initiates, these secrets were that of resurrection and there would be some place better than that of dismal depths of Tartarus.
They wouldn’t be the first to have the idea of life after death. It is thought by the experts, that the rites and mysteries held during the Eleusinian mysteries, along with other traditions such as the Orphic tradition and Mithraism all contributed towards the formation of Christianity and its ideas of resurrection, everlasting life and even immortality.
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, Kore’s return from the Underworld conveyed the idea of immortality and a resurrection from death.
Orphic Tradition – This is where the myth of Persephone is identified with other deities such as Isis, Rhea, Ge, Hestia, Pandora, Artemis, and Hecate. It is within this tradition that Persephone, with Zeus becomes the mother of Dionysus Iacchus, Zagreus or Sabazius.
Local Cults & Worship
Each local cult held their own traditions and ideas for where Persephone had been abducted from. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, it is the “plain of Nysa” where Persephone’s is kidnapped. The Corinthian and Megarian colonists, and Sicilians believed her abduction to happen in the fields of Enna. The Cretes believed that Persephone’s abduction occurred on their island. Other versions will place the abduction in places like Attica, near Athens, or even near Eleusis.
Distant localities that lay in the mythical played a part in creating a sense of some mystically, distant chthonic world that normally couldn’t be visited and created more of an air of mystery and prestige to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In the month known as Anthesterion, Persephone was the only one to whom the mysteries were dedicated to in Athens.
Temples dedicated to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the worship of Demeter and Persephone were found throughout all ancient Greece, Asia Minor, Sicily, Magna Graecia and Libya. Not much is known about the specifics of local rites and worship.
Amphictyony – An ancient ruin site, this is likely the oldest cult center for Demeter in Anthele along the coast of Malis, Thessaly. For those interest in history, this is near Thermopylae where the famous 300 Spartans fought the invading Persians. After the “First Sacred War,” this Amphictyony became known as the Delphic Amphictyony. Basically a meeting place for many local Greek tribes and cities to come gather to maintain temples to the gods, festivals and work out any disputes and problems.
Megara – Temples to Demeter were called Megara and would be built in groves with neighboring towns nearby.
Mysia – The goddess Demeter worshiped here had a seven-day festival held at Pellene, Arcadia.
Sacrifices To Demeter – These would consist of pigs, bulls, cows, honey cakes, and fruit.
New Year’s Celebration & Divine Child
A near eastern culture with strong ties and connection to the ancient Greeks. The Minoans of Crete held a belief in a fertility goddess whom every year, would give birth to the God of the New Year. That sounds familiar. The New Year’s baby to symbolize the New Year.
This god of the New Year would become the fertility goddess’ lover and of course, the cycle would repeat with the god’s death and his rebirth at the New Year. Similar beliefs and cults are found with those of Adonis, Attis and Osiris.
In Minoan Crete, this fertility goddess is Ariadne and the “divine child” who died every year were part of an aniconic religion whose main deities were female. Every year, an ecstatic sacral dance that involved tree-shaking and the worshiping of stone or stone idols were conducted. The idea and suggestion have been put forward that the worshiping of Persephone may likely be a continuation of the worshiping of a Minoan Great Goddess.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” an epitaph of Poseidon. Eileithyia’s myth and cult would come to be absorbed into the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Divine Child – This boy consort to the Great Goddess symbolized the annual dying and renewal of vegetation every year.
Mycenean Greece – Arcadia
While we know the mystery cults existed, not much is known about other than a few inscriptions. In Mycenae, Persephone is thought to have been identified with a local goddess by the name of Despoina, “the Mistress” and chthonic goddess of West-Arcadia. Despoina’s worship is just an example of another deity who would be absorbed into the worship of Greek deities. To the uninitiated of the Arcadian mysteries, the name Despoina was not allowed to be revealed.
The local temples throughout Arcadia were often built near springs and there is evidence of continual fires being kept at some of these. The worship of Demeter and Kore were closely linked to springs and animals.
Another mystery cult similar to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Many of the secret rites and traditions are very similar to each other, including an early concept idea of immortality. Thesemophoria were held and celebrated in the city of Athen before coming more wide spread throughout Greece. It was a women-only festival that held strong association to marriage customs. It would be held on the third day of the year in the month of Pyanepsion, marking when Kore was abducted, and Demeter neglected her duties as a harvest goddess. The date can vary, if the festival were held in Athens, it would during the 11th-13 Pyanepsion, roughly coinciding with October 23rd-25th.
One ceremony involved burying sacrifices of pigs into the earth and then unearthing the decayed remains of pigs buried from the previous year. The remains would be placed on an alter and mixed with seeds before being planted.
Thesmophoria would be celebrated over the course of three days. On the first day is the “way up” to the sacred space. The second day is a day of feasting where pomegranate seeds are eaten. The third and final day, is a meat feast that honors Kalligeneia, goddess of beautiful birth. Hades, under the euphemistic name of Zeus-Eubuleus would attend the feast.
Thesmophoros – “Giver of Customs” or “Legislator” is a name and epitaph that links Demeter to the goddess Themis, which derives from the word thesmos, the unwritten law.
Parentage and Family
Cronus and Rhea
Zeus, Oceanus, Karmanor, and Triptolemus
Iasion – Demeter manages to lure Iasion away during the wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia.
Poseidon – The Arcadian cult and myths link Demeter and Poseidon together. In this respect, Demeter is then equated with the Minoan Great Goddess, Cybele.
She is the second child born of Cronus and Rhea.
The birth order is Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus.
Chiron – a half-brother by way of Cronus and the nymph Philyra.
Amphitheus I – Her son by Triptolemus.
Arion – A magical speaking horse, her son by Poseidon.
Chrysothemis & Eubuleus – Her children by Karmanor.
Despoina – Her daughter by Poseidon.
Dmia – Her daughter by Oceanus.
Iacchus – Her son by Zeus. Due to the similarity of his name with Bacchus, he is sometimes identified as being Dionysus.
Persephone – Goddess of Fertility and Queen of the Underworld, her daughter by Zeus.
Philomelus – her son by Iasion.
Ploutos – Also spelled Plutus, her son by Iasion.
While Demeter may just very well indeed predate Grecian culture, she is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Birth Of A Goddess
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Demeter and all her siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea hides him away and manages to convince Cronous that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetit, Cronous eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Rhea takes and hides Zeus, that later, when he is older, he can come fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. During the battle, Zeus splits open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia.
There is a ten-year long war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Demeter and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
Demeter & Zeus
Zeus as we know, King of the Gods, fathered many children with many goddesses and mortal woman alike and usually by rape.
In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Zeus rapes his sister Demeter, resulting in Kore, Persephone.
By one account, Demeter becomes a fourth wife to Zeus and in their union, they have a daughter by the name of Kore (Persephone).
With the information from the Homeric Hymn and Zeus’ reputation, that would be an awful lot of wives if he married everyone he’s to have raped.
The Rape Of Persephone
You read that right. Yes, I could have titled this one differently. However, this is the title of the story for Persephone’s abduction by Hades to the Underworld that many are familiar with and the most well-known story regarding Persephone. Plus, this is also a story involving her mother Demeter and her role in it and the primary story told in the Eleusinian Mysteries.
When Persephone is first known as Kore, the Maiden, she lived with her mother Demeter, a harvest Goddess. Kore herself is a fertility goddess who makes or causes everything to grow. Kore’s father is the mighty Zeus himself.
Kore grew up and spent her time playing in the fields with the nymphs, gathering flowers, playing and with her mother. As she grew older, Kore came to attract the attention of the other male Olympian gods. Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Hermes all sought her hand in marriage. The young Kore rejected them all for she was still interested in playing with her nymph friends and collecting flowers. Demeter made sure that her daughter’s desires are known.
This doesn’t stop Hades, the god and ruler of the Underworld. For Hades, this is love at first sight. As was customary, Hades went to his brother, Zeus (Kore’s father), to petition for Kore’s hand in marriage, getting permission.
Zeus took the proposal to Demeter who refused. Kore isn’t going to leave her or go anywhere, least of all the Underworld with Hades. Not going to happen!
At first, this sounds as if Demeter is simply being unreasonable. The type of response of a mother fearing the empty nest or mother smothering and won’t let her child go. What we would call now days, Helicopter Parenting.
Zeus likely thinks he’s being reasonable, mentioning that every child grows up and leaves their parents eventually and that Kore is certainly old enough to marry. But Zeus isn’t listening, he thinks he knows better. That Demeter is just making an idle threat that if he marries off Kore to Hades and takes her down to the Underworld, nothing will grow!
Since they can’t get Demeter’s approval for the match, Zeus and Hades take a step back, allowing Demeter to think she’s won this round. Hades comes up with a plan to outright kidnap/abduct Kore while she is out gathering flowers. Zeus is in on this too and plants a narcissus flower to attract Kore’s attention.
While Kore is distracted by this new, unusual flower, behind her, a chasm opens up in the earth and out comes Hades, riding in his chariot to snatch up Kore to carry away with him back to the Underworld.
Of all of Kore’s Nymph friends, only the Naiad, Cyane tried to rescue and stop her abduction. Overpowered by Hades, Cyane in a fit of grief cried herself into a puddle of tears, forming the river Cyane.
Demeter, hearing the nymph’s cry out that something was amiss, came running, only to find that her daughter is missing and none of the nymphs in their crying could tell her what happened. Angry, Demeter cursed the nymphs that they turned into Sirens. Only the river Cyane offered any help with washing ashore, Kore’s belt.
In vain, Demeter wandered the earth, searching for her daughter. During her search, Demeter found herself in the palace of Celeus, King of Eleusis in Attica. Demeter took the guise of an old woman, calling herself Doso and asked the King for shelter. Celeus took the old woman in and had her nurse Demophon and Triptolemus, his sons.
Now, from a goddess’ perspective, she planned to reward Celeus’ kindness by gifting his son Demophon immortality. To grant the gift of immortality, Demeter anointed the child with ambrosia and laid him down in the hearth fire with the intention to burn away his mortality. Mom, Queen Metanira walks in and see her baby laying in the fire and understandably freaks out, screaming. Demeter decided against this idea and instead taught the older boy, Triptolemus the knowledge of agriculture. From this, this is how humankind learned how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Unable to find her, Demeter went and hid herself in sorrow at the loss of her daughter. Once plant life begins to die, the other gods go in search of her. Especially once all their followers begin to cry out there’s no food, help them.
Pan is the one who eventually finds her in a cave. Demeter in her despair, reiterates that without Kore, nothing will grow.
The way this gets told in most retellings, Demeter is threatening to refuse any new life or plant growth. To appease her and prevent people from starving, the gods agree to find Kore so that life can return. It seems that way if you don’t know or forget Kore’s already existing role as a fertility goddess.
Hecate realizes and knows there’s a problem. Hence, she intervenes. All isn’t lost if Kore hasn’t eaten the food of the Underworld, the dead, she can return to the world above.
Down in the Underworld, a frightened and despairing Kore is refusing the advances of Hades and refusing to eat any food. Kore knows that if she eats the food, she won’t be able to return to the living world.
Now at some point, Hecate comes and talks with Kore. At some point, Kore falls in love with Hades or she sees the state of what the Underworld is like. A plot twist comes and Kore does, either willingly or tricked into it, eats some pomegranate seeds. The number of which varies from one to four, Persephone is bound to the Underworld and must spend part of the year there. The rest, she can spend above in the mortal world with her mother Demeter.
This way, Hades doesn’t lose his wife and queen and Persephone can fulfill her role as a fertility goddess, bringing life to the land.
As a note, I came across commentary that says there are some 22 variations in Antiquity about the story of Persephone’s abduction. I doubt I could find all of them. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter written between 650-550 B.C.E. is thought to be the oldest story.
Overly Simplified – One version of the above story is drastically simplified and glosses over a lot of details to the story of Persephone and Hades. In it, Hades just happens to be out and about in the mortal realm when he spots Persephone. It’s easy enough to say Hades has love and first sight and he simply grabs Persephone and carries her off with him down to the Underworld. Persephone is unhappy at first with her lot, but eventually she grows to love Hades and comes to accept her fate as his wife.
As to Demeter, she is so overcome with grief at the loss of her daughter that she neglects her duties with creating plant growth. It is Zeus who makes a decree that Persephone may be reunited with her mother, but only for part of the year. Zeus sends the god Hermes down to the Underworld to retrieve and bring Persephone back.
Hades held no desire to give up the goddess whom he intended to marry. Coming up with a plan, Hades tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Now because she had eaten the food of the Underworld, Persephone was bound to stay.
Persephone needed to only stay part of the year and the rest, she could be with Demeter. This way too, Hades didn’t lose his bride for she would have to return to him.
Not the best version of the story to give as it removes many details and robs Persephone of any agency or choice in the matter. Stockholm Syndrome at its finest.
Version 2 – When Demeter becomes distraught over the loss of Persephone, she goes mad and wanders the land disguised as an old woman carrying a pair of torches in her hands. She searches for some nine days and nights.
Eventually Demeter meets Hecate on the tenth day who takes pity on Demeter’s miserable appearance. Hecate tells Demeter to seek out Helios, the sun god who can tell her of what happened. Demeter finds Helios who informs her about Hades abducting Persephone.
Demeter begs Hades to release Persephone and allow her to come back to the living world. Hades consults with Zeus about the matter. Hecate returns and lets Demeter know that Persephone hasn’t eaten four pomegranate seeds and because of that, Persephone will still be able to return to the living world. There is a catch and that is, because Persephone has eaten some of the pomegranate, she will have to return to the Underworld for part of the year.
Both version 2 and 3 retellings go for making it look as if Demeter is responsible for refusing to allow anything to grow and does so out of anger or spite. Or that in her grief, Demeter simply neglects her duties for making things grow. This idea originates in Homer’s “Hymn to Demeter,” that gives the idea that Demeter is in charge of fertility.
Those versions work if you want to ignore that Kore/Persephone is a Fertility goddess, she’s the one who is responsible for new plant growth.
Version 3 – Some versions of the story place the episode where Demeter goes to Celeus’ kingdom to hide in sorrow after she learns just who abducted Persephone. Regardless of if its Helios or Hecate who tells her the news.
This placement in the narrative often fits when the impression of Demeter as Fertility goddess is wanted to be given and that in her despair or out of spite, sets the world on a path to barrenness and winter.
Side Note – Sometimes the characters of Demephon and Triptolemus seen as being the same person, especially Triptolemus.
Ascalaphus – In what seems to be padding the story, Ascalaphus, the keeper of Hades’ Orchard is who tells the other gods that Persephone has eaten the pomegranate seeds. Demeter becomes so enraged with this news that she buries him beneath a huge rock in the Underworld. Later, when Ascalaphus is released, Demter turns him into an owl.
Hades’ Role In The Myth
In the story for the Rape of Persephone, Hades fits into the story as he is an Underworld deity himself. Among the Greeks, it was believed that Hades rode around in his chariot catching the souls of the dead to carry back down to the Underworld.
With Persephone being a chthonic goddess, the Greeks likely came up with the story to better fit the goddess to her role as a Queen of the World. It unfortunately greatly diminishes her role and what her functions were from a much earlier era.
In the myths where Hades is called Pluto or Ploutos, he is not only a god of the Underworld, but wealth where the riches of the earth can be found. Partnering him up with Persephone is meant only to add to his power and domain for now it is the riches of the earth in terms of fertility. In this case, the wealth of corn or grain springing forth from the ground every year and the promise of renewal it brings with it.
This is perhaps the biggest aspect about Demeter. As an Earth Goddess and Goddess of the Harvest, this is Demeter’s biggest role in her gifting mankind with the knowledge of agriculture, especially for grains and cereals. Without the advent of agriculture, humans would still largely be hunter-gatherers moving about and never having settled in any place to build cities and all the rest that follows.
Grain – This crop was of great importance to the ancient Greeks as it was rare and hard to come by in the Grecian country sides. Persephone’s close association with this crop held the promise of renewal, regeneration and possibly immortality, knowing that she would return every spring.
This strong connection of grain and rebirth or renewal is what ties Demeter so closely to the Eleusinian Mysteries. In Hesiod, there are prayers to Zeus-Chthonios and Demeter to help ensure that the crops will be full and strong.
Secrets Of Agriculture – In the larger story of “The Rape of Persephone,” there is a shorter episode that occurs. During Demeter’s search for her missing daughter, the goddesses’ wanderings took her to the kingdom of Eleusis in Attica where King Celeus ruled. While there, seeking shelter in the guise of an old woman, Demeter, after deciding to not gift immortality to the young son, Demophan, the goddess instead taught the knowledge of agriculture to the older son, Triptolemus. In this way, this is how humankind learned the knowledge of how to plant, grow and harvest grain.
Now, there a few different versions to this myth and other figures such as Eleusis, Rarus and Trochilus will be who learned the secrets of agriculture. Fair enough.
Without the knowledge of agriculture, humankind would have continued to be nomadic, hunter-gathers. With Demeter’s influence, humankind is able to settle and stay in one place to begin building up their cities and civilizations. This fits with one of Demeter’s names: Thesmophoros as “Law Bringer” and laying out the planning and laws of society.
Seasonal Cycles & Changes
Like her daughter, Demeter is also closely connected to the Ancient Greeks beliefs about the changing of the seasons, especially as seen in the story: “The Rape of Persephone.” That Spring and Summer are when Persephone has returned to the Living World to be with her mother Demeter and that Fall and Winter come when Persephone descends back down to the Underworld to be with her husband Hades for the rest of the year.
Sure okay, makes sense I guess.
The more simplified Greek versions would have it that Demeter is responsible for the fertility of the earth and that she causes it to be winter out of grief and spite because her daughter Persephone isn’t with her. Add to that so many people wanting to give stories about how fickle and petty the Greek Gods could be, this just seems to fit the Pantheon’s MO, nobody is questioning the story?
Yay! I love mankind so much! I’m going to teach them agriculture and how to harvest! Boo! Hiss! You took my daughter! I’m going to punish the very mortals I claim to love so much by making the earth barren and winter!
That really doesn’t make sense!
Fertility Goddess – That’s because you have to remember that Persephone is a chthonic fertility goddess. The earth can grow again, and Spring comes when Persephone has ascended to the Living World.
The fertility function is something that the Greeks really seem to have forgotten and which role and function they attached to Demeter. That way, a version of the story where Demeter is the fertility goddess, it’s out of spite and grief that Demeter causes winter and refuses to allow anything to grow.
Harvest Goddess – Yeah! Everyone remembers this aspect about Demeter. Afterall, she taught mankind the secrets of agriculture! This is Demeter’s domain and better fits the dual roles that she and Persephone share.
Alright kiddos, Persephone’s going back to the Underworld to be with Hades again, better bring in those crops and harvest like I told you! It’s gonna’ be awhile and we don’t need any empty bellies or people dying while we wait for Persephone to come back.
Fall comes, and this is where Demeter’s role comes in. As plants become dormant or die, now is the time for harvesting, to make sure there enough food has been stored and gathered for the long winter months until Persephone and Spring returns. The first loaf of bread is thought to have been sacrificed to Demeter.
As a goddess of the Harvest, this domain ties closely to Demeter’s role as a goddess of Agriculture, having taught humankind it’s knowledge so they can grow enough food.
To keep with the version of the story where Demeter makes it Winter out of spite or grief because her daughter has been abducted seems contradictory. Especially if Demeter is one of the few Greek Gods who is considered closest to humankind and understands the most about grief and loss.
Just by the very meaning of Demeter’s name, “Earth Mother,” we know she is a mother goddess. Not necessarily a “Great Mother Goddess” as the Romans would identify Cybele and Rhea with.
As a mother goddess, Demeter is seen as the most compassionate and closest to humankind of all of the Greek Gods for she is the one who understands the most about grief and loss. It’s her gifts of abundance and the harvest yields that nurture and sustain humans through the long winter months.
This is another plant besides grains that is strongly associated with Demeter. Her emblem is that of a bright red poppy flower growing among the barley. Theocritus wrote of Demeter being a poppy goddess, that she held poppies and sheaves of grain in both of her hands. In Gazi, Minoa, there is a clay statuette that was found of a goddess wearing seed capsules on her diadem. The idea has put forward that a Great Mother Goddess, under the names of Rhea and Demeter introduced the poppy with her cult in Cretan.
Healing A Poor Man’s Son – An episode often set during Demeter’s search for her daughter, the goddess comes across a poor, old man who is out gathering firewood. He invites the goddess to his home, likely not knowing who she is, and offers to share a meal with her. This would be the law of hospitality among the Greeks known as Xenia.
When Demeter told the old man about her search for her missing daughter, he wished Demeter success and said that he understood her grief and suffering for his own son lay dying. Taking compassion, Demeter decided to go with the old man to his home. She stopped once to gather some poppies and when they arrived, Demeter went straight to the boy’s bedside, kissing him on the cheek. At once, the boy’s sickly pallor left him, and he was restored to health.
As to the poppies, I assume the story intended some healing use and connection. Poppies are a source of opium from which morphine is derived. There is a history of poppies being used medicinally, mainly for diarrhea and pain, chest colds, coughs and pneumonia. So, a Greek audience likely knew very well what Demeter intended to use the poppies for.
Poppy seeds are also used in preparations for bread and confections. Not likely an immediate use of drug abuse.
Goddess Of Marriage
As a goddess of marriage, Demeter is venerated at the celebration of Thesmophoria. It’s an interesting connection and one that makes sense if one remembers that it wasn’t unusual for mothers to be kept out of the loop as to whom their daughter would marry when the father is making the arrangements.
Of course, this future husband was likely someone easily two if not three times the girl’s age and she would find herself torn from her birth home and leaving to live with her husband, most likely in another town and province.
Demeter’s grief over the loss of her daughter would resonate with many women in ancient Greece. Taking from the stance of Demeter as responsible for fertility, she, unlike many women was able to do something that others couldn’t. That was to defy Zeus’ will by holding the world hostage until he agrees to release Persephone back to Demeter, even if only for part of the year.
It may have been a partial victory, but a victory all the same for Demeter. Many mothers probably hoped to be able to do something similar. Or say, a daughter could return to visit her maternal family, things would never return to the way they were before. But just for a little while, they could.
Demeter & Iasion
Iasion is noteworthy as he is considered the only consort Demeter took by choice rather getting raped or forced by another person. Iasion is the son of Zeus and the mortal woman, Elektra.
During the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia, Demeter spotted Iasion and fell in love. She managed to lure Iasion away from all the other party goers. The two would head out to a field near Crete where they would have a tryst. Demeter would later give birth to twins: Ploutos (or Plutus) who is known for bestowing wealth and plenty on people and Philomelos who would become the patron of plowing.
Zeus would become jealous of Iasion and kill him with a thunderbolt. By one account, Zeus didn’t think it appropriate that a Goddess would consort with a mortal. But it’s okay if he does it? Got it.
Ploutos & Philomelos
In a case of sibling rivalry, Philomelos was envious of Ploutos great wealth. Rather than re-enact a biblical scene worthy of Cain and Abel, Philomelos bought a pair of oxen and invented the plow so he could earn a living tilling the earth. This so impressed Demeter, that she placed Philomelos up into the heavens to become the constellation Bootes.
Demeter & Poseidon
Well sure and why not? Demeter is the Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon is the God of Water. That’s a good match and they’re consenting adults and gods.
Mycenaen Greek – This is Bronze Age Greece, there is a script known as Linear B found in Mycenae and Mycenaean Pylos where both Demeter and Poseidon’s names appear. Poseidon is given the epitaph of E-ne-si-da-o-ne “earth-shaker” and Demeter’s name is given si-to-po-ti-ni-ja. In these inscriptions, Poseidon’s title and epitaph E-ne-si-da-o-ne (Enesidaon) links him as a King of the Underworld and gives him a chthonic nature.
Touching back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, there are tablets found in Pylos that mention sacrificial goods for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” or “to the Two Queens and King.” It’s agreed that the Two Queens very likely refer to Demeter and Persephone or its later precursor goddesses who are not associated with Poseidon later.
Eileithyia – She is a local Minoan goddess found in Amnisos, Crete where she is a goddess of childbirth who gives birth to a divine child. Her consort is given as Enesidaon, the “earth-shaker” whom we just mentioned is Poseidon. Her cult and worship would survive within the Eleusinian Mysteries. Plus, we see where local deities’ worship get absorbed and conflated with a more popular, well-known deity.
Arcadia – We’re still in Bronze Age Greece! Here, Demeter and Poseidon Hippios or Horse Poseidon give birth to a daughter, Despoina, who is a goddess in her own right before some of the myths confuse her with Persephone or make her an epitaph of Demeter.
In this myth, Poseidon is a river spirit of the Underworld, appearing as a horse. In this form, Poseidon pursues Demeter, who is also in horse form. Demeter hid among the horses of King Onkios. Due to her divinity, Demeter couldn’t remain hidden for long and Poseidon caught up with her and forced himself on her. When the two gods copulate, Demeter gives birth to a goddess who is also in horse or mare form. This is a myth that sounds very similar to another one between Poseidon and Athena and more accurately, Philyra and Cronos when Chiron is born. The horse motif is very common in norther-European myths and folklore.
As a mare-goddess, Demeter is known first as Demeter Erinys due to her fury with Poseidon for forcing himself on her. She becomes Demeter Lousia, “the bathed Demeter” after washing away her anger in the River Ladon. There’s something to be said for this as you can’t hold onto your anger forever, you must let it go or otherwise it consumes you.
The whole myth of pairing up Demeter and Poseidon is to connect Demeter as a Goddess of the Earth and Poseidon as a God of Water with their connection over nature. Despoina is the daughter who results from their union and whose name could not be spoken outside of the Arcadian Mysteries. Demeter and Poseidon also have another child, a horse by the name of Arion who is noted being able to speak, being immortal, really swift and for having a black mane and tail.
The effigy or imagery of Demeter worshiped in Arcadia depicts her as a gorgon or medusa-like with a horse’s head and snake hair while holding a dove and dolphin that likely represented her power over air and water. Close to the Arcadian city of Phigaleia, there is Mt. Elaios where a cave held sacred to Demeter is found. Here, an image of Demeter Melaine is seated showing the goddess dressed in black with a horse’s head and snake hair. According to Pausanias’ Description of Greece, when the statue caught fire and was destroyed, the Phigalians failed to make a new statue for Demeter, eventually leading to neglecting her sacrifices and festivals, the land became barren.
Demeter & Ascaelabus
I assume this is an episode set during when Demeter is searching for her daughter. When Demeter stopped at one point to kneel by a spring to quench her thirst, a man by the name of Ascaelabus began laughing when he heard the sound of Demeter’s gulping. Angry and embarrassed, Demeter turned the man into a lizard for his rudeness.
Demeter & Triopas
Considered the father of the Thessalians, Triopas was cursed by Demeter after he destroyed one of her temples. In retaliation, Demeter sent a huge serpent to kill Triopas. Even in death, Demeter wasn’t finished and she set Triopas up among the heavens as a constellation where the serpent could forever torment him.
Demeter & Erysichthon
Erysichthon was a Thessalian hero who decided to build himself a palace. Unfortunately for Erysichthon, the grove of trees he chose were sacred to Demeter. As Erysichthon set about to cut down the trees, Demeter came in disguise as a priestess by the name of Nikippe to try and warn Erysichthon not to cut the trees.
Nikippe is also the name of a nymph who lived in the grove. So when Erysichthon ignores the warning and chops down the tree, killing Nikippe, Demeter became very wroth and cursed Erysichthon with an insatiable hunger.
The more that Erysichthon ate, the thinner he became. In addition, when he had spent all of his money to try and sate his insatiable hunger, Erysichthon turned to selling his daughter Mestra into slavery.
Luckily for Mestra, she was a mistress of Poseidon and he granted the powers of shape-shifting into animals. Using this ability, Mestra would be able to escape slavery every time her father sold her.
In New Age, Pagan and Wiccan practices, Demeter is often seen as the Mother aspect of the “Triple Goddess” with Persephone representing the Maiden and Hecate the Crone.
Virgo Zodiac Constellation
The constellation of Virgo is the sixth sign of twelve that form the classical Greek Zodiac. For those who study and are into the classical Greek Zodiacs, this time is typically said to be from August 23 to September 22. Virgo is often depicted as a Winged Maiden holding a stalk or sheaf of wheat or some other grain in her hand. This figure is sometimes identified with that of Demeter, most notably by Marcus Manilus in his Astronomicon in 1st century Rome.
Ceres – Roman Goddess
Ceres is the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, fertility, and motherhood and equated with Demeter. Similarly, Ceres has a daughter by the name of Proserpina is also abducted by Pluto down to the Underworld to become Queen of the Dead. The biggest difference in the myth is that Pluto is struck by an arrow from Cupid after his mother Venus told him to do. This is what causes the God of the Dead to fall madly in love with Proserpina. The other difference is that Cere’s celebrations and festivals come during the Spring while Demeter is venerated in Fall with the Harvest.
Cybele – Phrygian & Roman Goddess
The Greeks are who make the connection and equate Cybele with Demeter and Rhea, seeing in her a Mother Goddess. While Cybele does have her origins in Phrygian worship, when the Greeks encountered her, they just saw another deity like their own, just under a different name. Yes, all three are a Mother Goddess and Goddess of the Earth, you can see why the Greeks would equate all three together.
The Romans are clearer in acknowledging more clearly the genealogy of the Greek pantheon and equating Cybele whom they readily adopted as their own with Rhea and then equating Demeter with Ceres, a Roman Harvest goddess.
Antaea – This name and epitaph is one that is applied equally to Cybele, Demeter and Rhea by the Greeks. The meaning of the name is unclear, though it does denote a name for a goddess whom people could approach in prayer.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
The Greeks are who equate Demeter with her mother, Rhea, a Titaness, mother of the gods who is also a goddess of the earth and fertility. As I previously mentioned with the name of Antaea, that epitaph could be applied to Demeter, Cybele and Rhea equally. It works if you’re just seeing all the gods as different aspects of the divine and not making any distinction. It’s possible that’s just remnants of an older belief and religion that the Greeks replaced with their own.
Gaia – Greek Goddess
I’m my own Grandma!
Not really, leave it to the Greeks to continue with blending all their deities as being one and the same, to blur or ignore their own genealogies for their Pantheon. Gaia is the primordial goddess of the Earth and from whom all life sprang forth. Again, it works if you’re just seeing all of these deities as just different aspects of the divine.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts 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 turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became 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 clergies 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.
Also known as: 布袋, 笑佛 (Laughing Buddha), Hasne Buddha (Nepal), 胖佛 (Fat Buddha), Hotei (“cloth bag”) Japanese, Hotei-Osho (Japanese), Bo Dai or Bố Đại (Vietnamese), Hangul (Korean), Pu-Tai, Wagon Priest, Budai Luohan
Etymology: Laughing Buddha, Fat Buddha, Cloth Sack
In Chinese folklore, Budai is a Buddhist deity who has been integrated into Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto religions. The historical Budai lived during the 10th century C.E.
In art, Budai is often shown as being a very fat, bald man wearing a robe, either wearing or carrying prayer beads and has a huge belly; seen as the symbol of abundance, contentment, happiness, luck and generosity. He carries a large linen bag holding a number of precious things, even children on his back. This same bag is the source of Budai’s name. Sometimes Budai is shown sitting in a cart being pulled by boys where he is known as the Wagon Priest.
With his nickname of the Laughing Buddha, Budai is frequently shown smiling or laughing. Budai’s image is often confused with that of Gautama Buddha with Westerners, where he gets the name of the Fat Buddha. In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei and is one of the Seven Lucky Gods or Shichi Fukujin.
Budai Statues & Depictions
As already said, Budai is nearly always shown carrying a sack that is filled with a number of precious things such as rice plants, candy for children, food and the sadness of the world.
In Buddhist temples throughout China, statues of Budai are placed in the front part of the entrance halls. Budai is frequently shown as a stough, smiling or laughing man wearing a robe that is unable to cover his large belly. This large belly represents happiness, good luck and abundance. Some Budai statues will have small children gathered around at his feet. Another common feature of Budai statues is a begging bowl, that clearly shows him to be a Buddhist.
Because of Budai’s great association with happiness and wealth, statues of Budai can be found in many businesses and homes in China and Japan.
I Kuan Tao – Budai statues are a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines. Here, Budai is known by his Sanskrit name of Maitreya.
Budai represents the teachings of contentment, generosity, wisdom and kind-heartedness. He is also associated with luck and abundance.
Budai is the guardian and protector of children, the weak and poor. As a wandering monk, Budai is known to take sadness from people and bring them happiness.
Chinese history holds that Budai had been an eccentric Chan monk who lived during the late Liang dynasty. He had been a native of Zhejiang or Fenghua and his Buddhist name was Qieci, meaning: “Promise This.” Budai or Qieci was regarded as a man of good and loving character.
In Buddhism, the term Buddha means: “one who is awake,” as in awakened to enlightenment. There have been many figures in Buddhism who have all been revered as Buddhas. The Chan school of Buddhism teaches that all beings possess a Buddha nature within them and thus, already enlightened, they just have yet to realize it.
A few Buddhist traditions view Budai as an incarnation of Buddha or a bodhisattva.
Angida Arhat – One of the original Eighteen Arhats, meaning one who is worth or a perfected person, much like the Saints of Western Culture. In the Sakyamuni Buddhism, there is a legend wherein Angida is a talented Indian snake catcher would catch venomous snakes, thereby preventing them from biting travelers. Angida would remove the snake’s venomous fangs before releasing them. Due to these acts of kindness, Angida was able to attain bodhi or nirvana. In Chinese art, Angiha is sometimes depicted as Budhai; being rotund, mirthful and carrying a bag.
Gautama Buddha – The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived during the 6th century B.C.E. in India, Nepal and much of southeast Asia. Here, Gautama is shown as being tall and slender in appearance. Whereas in China and other areas, Budai is consistently shown as being short and rotund. Both of these descriptions have been noted as being the idealized imagery of the different religions, cultural and folkloric traditions of the countries and regions after the two monks’ deaths. Many Westerners too, often confuse Budai with Gautama and Budai often does get equated or replace Gautama.
Maitreya – The Future Buddha
Budai is identified or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. In China, Budai’s image is often the main used to depict Maitreya. Among the Japanese, Maitreya is known as Miroku. There is a Buddhist hymn that Budai is to have spoken at his death that identifies him with Maitreya:
Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
Other times they do not recognize him.
Mi-Lo-Fo – As Hotei, Budai is often confused with the Buddhist deity known as Mi-lo-Fo.
Pu-Tai – A Chinese monk that Budai came to be associated with, who due to their good nature, was seen as the incarnation for the bodhisattva or future Buddha, Maitreya. Due to how Pu-Tai is also portrayed with having a large, rotund belly, its easy to see how he came to be known as the Laughing Buddha and connected to Budai.
Chan, Seon And Zen
Chan is Chinese, Seon is Korean and Zen is Japanese, all three are the same philosophy.
The following koan, or short story is often told about Budai. One day, Budai was out traveling, giving candy to poor children. He would only a penny from any monks or lay practitioners he met with. One day, a monk approaches Budai and asks: “What is the meaning of Zen?” (Or Chan or Seon). Budai responded by dropping his bag. The monk continued with his questions. “How does one realize Zen?” At that, Budai picked up his bag and continued on his way.
Budai is greatly admired for his congenial and jovial attitude, along with his generosity and philosophy of contentment.
One of the most persistent and popular beliefs is that of rubbing the statues of Budai to bring wealth, good luck and even prosperity.
Japanese Religion & Folklore
In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei who was a Buddhist monk that lived during the 16th century. Like Budai, Hotei is still greatly associated with laughter and being called the Laughing Buddha. Chinese legend holds that Hotei had been a real person, whose name was Kaishi. While the date of his birth is unknown, Hotei death is given as being March 916. The Japanese began to believe in Hotei during the Edo era. Hotei was once a Zen priest who appearance and actions didn’t go along with his fellow Zen priests. He always looked like he was up to mischief and never had a permanent place to sleep. Hotei had no desire to be a Zen Master or to gather a following of disciples. He was known for walking the streets with a sack full of candy, fruits and doughnuts that he would give out to children. His bag would also hold the fortunes for those who believe in him. Among the Chinese, he is nicknamed: Cho-Tei-Shi or Ho-Tei-Shi, which means “bag of old clothes.”
According to Japanese legend, before Zen Buddhism came to the islands, another Buddhist philosophy of questionable aesthetics was prevalent. This philosophy originated with the priest Miroku. Miroku was the patron of those who couldn’t be saved by the beliefs of Buddha. Later, Hotei’s arrival was seen and accepted by the Japanese as a second Miroku.
Laughter – This is Hotei’s essence and teachings, he used laughter to impart wisdom. This was not the laughter of laughing at jokes or making fun of others. Hotei would laugh at himself and laugh for the mere celebration of life and existence, for the joy of life. Hotei has no other philosophy, scriptures, dogmas, ideologies or any other precepts to teach. Hotei’s laughter is considered a form of meditation, to experience the joy of living and to just be living and being present in the moment.
People would gather around Hotei as at first, they thought he was mad with how often he laugh and his laugh was known for being infectious in that others would soon laugh along with him. Such was Hotei’s laughter that people would cease to be judgmental or ask questions about enlightened. People would wait for Hotei and his laughter as they found it to have a purifying quality to it that would impart a deep sense of well-being.
One story about Hotei has a villager finding him sitting beneath a tree with his eyes closed. When the villager asked why Hotei wasn’t smiling or laughing, Hotei answered that he was preparing, preparing himself for laughter as he needed go within, forget the world without and recharge himself with rest. Once he was well rested, Hotei would be ready to laugh again.
Thailand Religion & Folklore
Phra Sangkajai – Also spelled Phra Sangkachai. Budai is sometimes equated with the monk Phra Sangkajai. Both Budai and Phra Sangkajai can be found Thai and Chinese temples. Though Phra Sangkajai can be found more often in Thai temples and Budai in Chinese temples. While very similar in appearance, Phra Sangkajai is distinguished from Budai in that he has a thin trace of hair while Budai is bald. Their styles of dress are also different, Phra Sangkajai is dressed in robes folded across one shoulder, with the other bare. Budai’s robes are clearly a Chinese style that covers both of his arms and front part of his upper body uncovered.
Phra Sangkajai is credited with composing the Madhupinadika Sutra. Buddha is said to have praised Phra Sangkajai for his excellence and understanding with explaining the more sophisticated dharma in easy and correct, understandable manners.
A folk story about Phra Sangkajai tells how he was so handsome, that a man once wanted to marry Phra Sangkajai and take him for a wife. To avoid this situation, Phra Sangkajai changed his appearance to that of a fat monk. Another story tells how Phra Sangkajai was found to be so attractive, that both men and angels would compare him to the Buddha. Phra Sangkajai considered this inappropriate, changed his body so he would be rather fat.
First off, Yiguandao is a folk religion out of China that got started around the late 19th century.
In many Yiguandao shrines, statues of Budai or Maitreya as he is known can be found. In Yiguandao, Maitreya represents a number of teachings such as: contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kind-heartedness. It is believed that Maitreya will succeed Gautama Buddha as the next Buddha and help people to realize their own spiritual essence within that connects everyone.
Shichi Fukujin – Seven Lucky Gods
In Japan, the Seven Lucky Gods or Seven Gods of Fortune, known as Shichi Fukujin are believed to granters of good luck and fortune. The Shichi Fukujin are often depicted in Japanese art and engravings known as netsuke. While many of the Shichi Fukujin are believed to be mythical in nature, one Shichi Fukujin is a known historical figure. Over the course of Japan’s history, the Shichi Fukujin became more associated with specific professions and aspects. Many of these same gods also originate from different countries and religions such as Hinduism and India to Chinese Buddhism and Taoism before coming to Japan. There are also seven Shichi Fukujin as seven in Japan is a lucky number.
While the gods had been worshipped for over a thousand years, mainly by merchants, they were first collectively called the Shichi Fukujin in 1420 C.E. It’s believed the Buddhist priest Tenkai arranged and selected these deities after talking with the shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa. The selection was based on the following virtues of: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity.
Benzaiten – Often claimed as the only female deity among the Shichi Fukujin, Benzaiten originates in Hinduism where she had been the goddess Saraswati. Other names for Benzaiten are: Benten, Bentensama and Benzaitennyo. When she was adopted into Buddhism, Benzaiten became the associated with talent, beauty and music. Benzaiten is the patron of artists, writers, dancers and geishas. She is often seen as an intelligent, beautiful woman standing before a Torri, carrying a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute-style instrument and is accompanied by a white snake.
Bishamonten – A god originating in Hinduism where he had been the god Kubera and Vaisravana before becoming Bishamonten in Japanese culture. Bishamonten is the god of fortune in war and battles. He is also associated with authority and dignity, the protector of those who follow the rules and hold themselves accordingly. He is the protector of holy sites and other important places. Bishamonten is the patron of fighters and is often shown dressed in armor and helmet, carrying a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right hand to battle evil spirits. Bishamonten is also shown with a hoop of fire.
Daikokuten – The god of commerce and prosperity. He was also known as the patron of cooks, farmers, bankers and protected crops. Daikokuten was known too for hunting demons. There is a legend of how Daikokuten hung a sacred talisman from a tree branch in his garden to use as a trap for catching a demon. Daikokuten is often depicted with short legs, perpetual smile and wearing a hat on his head and often carrying a bag full of valuables.
Ebisu – The only purely Japanese god in the group, he is the god of prosperity, wealth in business, abundance in crops, cereals and food. Ebisu is the patron of fishermen and he is often dressed as a fisherman carrying a fishing rod in his right hand and the left holding a fish. Ebisu’s figure can often be found in restaurants where fish is served or in kitchens.
Fukurokuju – Originating in China, Fukurokuju is believed to have once been a hermit who lived during the Song dynasty. Fukurokuju is seen as the reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu. As a god, Fukurokuju is the god of wisom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness. In addition, he is thought to be one of the Chinese philosophers who could live without eating and was able to resurrect the dead. Fukurokuju is noted for having a head that is almost the same size as his body. He is often shown dressed in traditional Chinese attire, carrying a cane in one hand and a scroll containing historical writings. Fukurokuju is often shown being accompanied by a turtle, crow or deer, all animals that represent a long life. With a strong love for chess, Fukurokuju is also the patron of chess players. Fukurokuju, along with Jurojin both overlap with their origins with the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. Due to this overlapping, Fukurokuju’s position as one of the Shichi Fukujin is sometimes given to the goddess Kichijoten in the Butsuzozu compendium.
Hotei – This is the Japanese name for Budai. As Hotei, he is the god of fortune, the guardian of children, happiness, laughter, popularity and the patron of diviners and barmen. Hotei is often shown as a fat, smiling bald man with a curly mustache. Because he is so fat, Hotei is often shown as being half naked as his clothes aren’t quite big enough to cover his large belly.
Jurojin – Like Fukurokujin, he has his origins in the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. He is the god of the elderly and longevity in the Japanese Buddhist mythology. Jurojin is believed to be based on a real person, he was very tall, 1.82 meters with a very long head, much like Fukurokuju. Aside from his elongated skull, Jurojin is also shown to have a long white beard and rides a deer and is sometimes accompanied by a crane and tortoise, all animals that represent a long life. Jurojin is sometimes shown sitting under a peach tree, another symbol of long life. In one hand, he holds a cane, in the other he holds either a book or scroll containing the wisdom of the world. Jurojin is known to enjoy rice and wine and has a rather cheerful disposition. Finally, Jurojin is an incarnation of the southern polestar.
Kichijoten – Also known as Kisshoten or Kisshoutennyo. Kichijoten was adopted into Buddhism from the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Kichijoten is shown holding a Nyoihoju gem in her hand. The Butsuzozu compendium from 1783 lists and has Kichijoten replace Fukurokuju as one of the seven Shichi Fukujin. By this accounting, Daikoku is portrayed as being feminine and all three of the Hindu Tridevi goddesses are seen represented among the Shichi Fukujin.
Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter
Etymology: Black Peter
December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.
Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.
The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions
For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.
Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guesswork and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.
The Wild Hunt – Odin
I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.
Middle Eastern Connections?
I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.
Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.
Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift-giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.
The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.
Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.
Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil
To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.
Saint Nicholas – From Myra, Turkey, Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that has contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas.
Woden – It has been pointed out that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of mens’ deeds.
The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.
Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.
Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one who could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.
Sidenote: I had notes say the pepernoot would have letters on them and made of chocolate. The pepernoot doesn’t have to be made of chocolate. That these letters represented runes that Woden would pass out to men. I did find, looking at this closer, that the tossing of pepernoten at children, especially a baby stems from an old fertility rite where Sinterklaas is blessing them.
Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil
During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.
A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.
While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.
Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions
By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?
With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.
Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.
Codifying A Legend
The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.
In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.
What’s In A Name?
The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.
The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”
By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.
By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.
WWII – After the liberation of the Netherlands, Canadian soldiers who were helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. As these numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.
All of these Pieten all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.
A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery
Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.
Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.
Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.
Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.
During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.
Other Takes On Zwarte Piet
High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.
Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.
This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.
Crime & Punishment
Before being a gift-giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:
*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.
*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.
*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.
*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.
Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.
Signs & Changes Of The Times
Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.
Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current, there have been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others outright calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.
There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips, and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.
There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.
The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.
While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.
And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.
Cultural & Historical Disconnect
It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”
Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Another commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed out that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.
The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.
Movie Time! – Santa & Pete
I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.
I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.
This is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.
As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure on how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.
Also known as: Bullet Baba, Om Bana
Now get this, the story as it goes, on December 2nd, 1988, Om Banna (alias Om Singh) was riding from the town of Bangi when he lost control of his motorcycle and died instantly on collision with a tree. Om Banna’s bullet motorcycle however, fell into a roadside ditch.
The next morning, the police came and took the motorcycle back to their station. Mysteriously, the motorcycle disappeared and was found back at the site of the accident the following day. Once more, the police took the motorcycle and returned it to the station. This time, they emptied the motorcycle’s fuel tank and placed it under lock & chain to prevent it from being taken.
Once again, the motorcycle was gone and found again at the site of the accident. The locals came to see this event as a miracle. A growing legend states how the motorcycle kept returning to the same ditch, no matter how many times the police came to take it, the motorcycle always returned to the same spot before dawn.
The story of the motorcycle spread and people began to come and worship the “Bullet Bike.” A temple was built, becoming the Bullet Baba’s Temple. Local belief holds that Om Banna’s spirit aids and protects travelers.
Bullet Baba’s Temple
The temple to Om Banna is more of a wooden shed that houses the Bullet Bike. The bik itself is now enclosed in a glass box. Hundreds of people come every day seeking blessings and praying for a safe journey. Many will bring offerings of liquor and alcohol. Not to pray or seek blessings is believed to invite disaster.
In addition, the tree that Om Banna died on, has been decorated with offerings of scarves, rope and other bangles. Outside the temple, there is a large picture of Om Singh who has come to be known as Om Banna on display.
For the past twenty years, a lone priest, Poonam Giri has tended to the temple and maintained its grounds. Many shops sell incense sticks, flowers, coconut and red thread for use as prayer offerings. Folk songs are sung in Om Banna’s name.
The prayer of: “j ay shri om Banna. Me aaj Jo bhi hu aap hi Ki karpa se hu” is usually spoken by those who visit the shrine.
Local Customs, Stories And Traditions
A few customs have begun at the shrine. Some of the more notable ones are as follows:
The first tradition or story is that Om Banna’s grandmother had a dream, wherein he had come to her requesting two yards of land on which to build the temple. This is supposed to be the story and belief that brought about the construction of the temple in the first place.
Another tradition holds that the sound of the Bullet Bike can be heard on the anniversary of Om Banna’s death.
On Ashatmi day, the Bullet Bike is said to start its own engine, even without any fuel or ignition.
Further, Grooms and Brides will come to the temple seeking blessings and families will bring their newborns to be blessed as well.
Location Of The Shrine
The Om Banna shrine is found in the Pali district near Jodhpur, India. It’s about 20 km (12 miles) from Pali and 50 km (31 miles) from Jodhpur along the Pali-Jodhpur highway close to the Chotila village.
Spiritride – The SERRAted Edge
I just think it’s an interesting connection. The author Mark Sheppard in his book, Spiritride wrote about a motorcyclist who died in an accident. The motorcyclist’s spirit along with many others act as guardians, protecting other motorcyclists when out on the road. Mercedes Lackey uses the idea again later in the Bedlam Bard series.