Category Archives: Wild
Alternative Spellings: 狐狸精, 狐, きつね
Alternative Names: Kitsune-Tsuki
Hailing from the island nation of Japan or Nihon comes the mystical and mischievous kitsune! Stories of fox spirits or kitsune are rather common and popular and feature in a good number of manga, anime, and video games. So much so they have even become a popular staple even in Western literature and stories. The mystical, shape-shifting kitsune are seen as akin and like the stories of European faeries. One can usually tell if they’re dealing with a kitsune spirit or yokai rather than an ordinary fox by the number of tails that they have. The number of tails can denote a kitsune’s age and thus the wisdom and magical powers they’re reputed to possess.
What’s In A Name
The Japanese or Nihonjin word for fox is kitsune. Now, depending on how the word is used and the context in which it is used, with emphasis on the syllables and vowels, kitsune can refer to an ordinary animal or the supernatural fox entity.
A fun thing to discover and note is that the usage of the word spirit, when it comes from an Eastern meaning, refers to a state of knowledge or enlightenment. When we look at Japan, they have a lot of stories about animals and even objects that when they gain a certain age, become sentient and powerful. Some will become yokai or monsters and others are more benevolent. Focusing on the fox spirits, there are two types of kitsune, the myobu or the celestial fox who are associated with Inari or there are the nogitsune, the wild foxes are far more unpredictable and malicious in their tricks and antics.
For the ordinary animal, there is the Red Fox and the Hondo Kitsune found in Japan and both lend a paw and inspiration to the spirit, mystical foxes.
While it is easy enough to give a fairly direct translation of kitsune into English, there is more to the word. Some of the etymological suggestions for the word seem contradictory among various scholars. Nozaki says that kitsune is an onomatopoeia for the sound that a fox makes when it cries seen in the word “kitsu” and that the last part “ne” is an affix for an honorific. In this respect, kitsu is an archaic word for a fox’s cry and modern Japanese words used are kon kon or gon gon. Interestingly enough, I have found that kitsu also means “come here.”
Other etymologies are from Myogoki in 1268 who says that kitsune comes from the words “tsune” or “always” and “ki” or “yellow.” Arai Hakuseki in Toga, 1717 says that “ki” means “stench” and “tsu” is a possessive part and “ne” as in “inu” for “dog.” Then there is Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777-1887) who agrees about “ki” meaning “yellow,” “tsu” is still a possessive part and “ne” is from neko, for cat.
In the numerous folktales told of kitsune, these are foxes that are intelligent and hold great magical or mystical powers. This power only increases as the fox gets older. When a kitsune becomes old enough, sometimes 50 years of age, other stories say 100 years, a kitsune gains or learns the ability to transform into a human. Frequently, it is a female kitsune who will transform into a young human woman. In this guise, the kitsune is sometimes portrayed as a lover or wife until she is discovered and the kitsune runs away back to the wilds in its fox form. Other times the kitsune acts as a protector or guardian. Because of the kitsune’s power and abilities, some people would make offerings to them much like they would deities.
Fox Tails – One way to gauge how old and thus powerful a kitsune is, is to count the number of tails. The more tails, the more powerful a kitsune will be. Fortunately, this power tops out at nine tails, but that is still a formidable being to encounter. Other folktales say that a kitsune gains one tail for every hundred years of life until they’ve reached 1,000 years of age. Other stories say that a kitsune gains their extra tails from Inari for their deeds and actions. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, they are believed to have its fur turn silver, white, or gold. These kyubi no kitsune or nine-tailed foxes are particularly powerful in that they can hear and see anything happening around the world. These foxes are also known for their infinite wisdom.
Illusions – Kitsune can create illusions that are incredibly realistic. As an offshoot of this power, other sources have tried to say the kitsune ability to bend reality, drive people mad, take on various shapes, or create a second moon. These may just be an extent to how realistic kitsune illusions can be.
Kitsune-Bi – Or foxfire, this is the ability of kitsune to create fire from their tails or to breathe fire. This foxfire has also been compared to will-o-wisps.
Hoshi no tama – This is similar to the kitsune-bi or foxfire. Some depictions of kitsune show them carrying around a white ball or hoshi no tama (star ball). These star balls are often glowing with foxfire. When in its fox form, a kitsune will keep or carry this star ball around in their mouth. When they’re in the guise of a human, this star ball may take the form of a jewel or piece of jewelry. There is a belief that this star ball holds part of the kitsune’s power or when the star ball is described as a pearl, a part of the kitsune’s soul and that the kitsune will die if they are separated too long from their jewel. Those who can get hold of a kitsune’s hoshi no tama can potentially get a favor from the kitsune.
Kitsune-ken – Translated as fox-fist, this refers to a kitsune’s power over humans. There is a game similar to rock, paper, and scissors, however, these three hand positions signify a fox, hunter, and village headman. The headman beats the hunter, the hunter beats the fox, and the fox beats the headman.
Shapeshifters – Aside from an increased number of tails, depending on the story, after a kitsune has reached the age 50 or 100, they are able to shapeshift into a human. Often, they will change into the form of a beautiful young woman or an old man.
Mirrors & Shadows – There is a limit to this shapeshifting, a fox will need to place reeds, a broad leaf or skull over their head to shapeshift. Another limit in folk tales is to look for the fox tail that a disguised kitsune will try to hide and other stories hold that looking at a person’s shadow will reveal if they’re a shapeshifted kitsune or not. Sometimes a shapeshifted kitsune’s true form will be revealed if they look into a mirror or other reflective surface.
Kitsune-gao – Or fox-faced, this is in reference to human women who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones. These facial features are considered attractive, and some stories hold that this is a sign of a fox in human form.
Tricksters – With their use of shapeshifting and illusions, it’s easy to see how kitsune are known for their mischievous natures and playing tricks on people. The more benevolent kitsune are prone to pranks and tricks on those that need to be taken down a notch while more malevolent kitsune are going to have more harmful tricks that they pull.
Like the Fae of Ireland, kitsune will keep a promise or oath given, seeking to repay any favor or debt that is owed. A kitsune may even go so far as to guard a particular individual or household and so long as they’re treated with respect, they will benefit their chosen companions.
Vampire Foxes – Some stories will depict kitsune-like vampires or succubus & incubuses who feed on the life energy or spirit of humans, most often through sex. These could be stories that are actually Kumiho or Huli jing.
Dogs – Kitsune are believed to have a fear and hatred of dogs even in their human guises. Some transformed kitsune will become so frightened that they will change back to their fox form to escape.
Food – I’m not sure if I would call this a weakness. Kitsune are known for having a fondness for deep-fried tofu which can be seen in the number of Japanese dishes that have deep-fried tofu and names such as Kitsune Udon and Inari zushi. Any dish that has red beans and deep-fried tofu is sure to be a favorite of a mischievous kitsune.
Old Fashion Speech – Some folklore suggests that kitsune only have interactions with humans every hundred years and for this reason, they have antiquated, outdated speech. Close to this is that kitsune have certain words that they have trouble pronouncing certain words. One of these words is “moshi,” so many Japanese have taken to answering their doors and phones with the greeting “moshi moshi!” to make sure a potential guess isn’t a kitsune.
As popular and old as the numerous legends and folklore of kitsune in Japan are, many scholars believe that all these stories likely trace their origins back to China, Korea, and possibly even India. The earliest collection of stories that we have were written down in the 11th-century manuscript, the Konjaku Monogatari, with stories hailing from China, India, and Japan.
Chinese folklore has stories of fox spirits known as Huli Jing and in Korea, there is the Kumiho both have strong similarities to the Japanese kitsune. There are similarities in the stories of these fox spirits with those from Japan, however, those attributes are negative ones.
There are some scholars who disagree on the origins of kitsune, whether that’s China and Korea or if they’re solely Japanese in origin. The Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki sees the kitsune as being held in a positive light in the 4th century C.E. and the negative traits from China and Korea are later additions.
Some scholars say that the kitsune can trace their origins to India where the fox has a role as a trickster in Indian spirituality. In this respect, the kitsune is compared to the Ruksasha. The Chinese story of the “White Ghost Tiger” of China as an enemy of the Chinese fox is likely a translation from India that the fox and Ruksasha have. The kitsune powers of illusion also have in common with the illusion powers of Ruksasha. Lastly, we see a connection between the Ruksasha’s tendency to devour humans has been compared to the vampiric traits seen with the huli jing and kumiho that are associated with kitsune.
Nozaki says that in the 16th-century book of records, Nihon Ryakki, foxes and humans have lived in close proximity to each other in ancient Japan. The Inari scholar Karen Smyers takes note that foxes being portrayed as seductresses have a connection to fox myths in Buddhism and were then introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese folklore.
Kami Or Yokai?
Depending on the source, kitsune can be classified as either a kami or a yokai. The name yokai is a broad general term and category for a good number of various supernatural monsters and spirits within Japanese mythology. The word Kami refers to the deities, any divine being, and spirits that are considered holy. Given the nature of kitsune and that not all of them will be divine and can be more negative in their antics, such as the nogitsune, it is easy to why the term yokai applies more to the mischievous shape-shifting kitsune. With the term kami, depending on the inflection or with a lowercase spelling, the word kami refers to a lesser spirit.
Are You A Good Fox Or A Bad Fox?
Within Japanese mythology and folklore, there are said to be thirteen types of kitsune, all of which correspond to different element such as celestial, wind, spirit, darkness, fire, earth, river, ocean, forest, mountain, thunder, sound, and time. In broad terms, these various kitsune can be divided into two groups of zenko (good) and nogitsune (bad) kitsune.
Kyubi no Kitsune – The nine-tailed foxes that many people will think of as kitsune. These are kitsune who have lived over a thousand years, gaining infinite wisdom. The kyubi no kitsune’s fur is often either silver, white or gold from their extreme age and they have the ability to see and hear anything happening around the world.
Myobu – The celestial fox, they are associated and aligned with the goddess Inari.
Ninko – They are an invisible fox spirit that people can perceive and only once it possesses them.
Yako – Translating to “field fox.” They are also known as Nogitsune. These kitsune are considered dangerous in that their tricks and mischievousness are more malevolent.
Zenko – These kitsune are considered good or benevolent and helpful. Most of the zenko kitsune will be aligned with the goddess Inari.
Also spelled as kitsune-tsuki, translates to fox possession. With kitsunetsuki, what happens, is a fox spirit will possess someone, who is always a young woman. The fox spirit is believed to enter through either beneath the fingernails or her breasts. A woman’s facial expressions are believed to have changed, becoming more fox-like. Other beliefs are that a person who was illiterate could gain the ability to read. A victim of kitsunetsuki will have a craving for rice or sweet red beans, become listless, restless and have an aversion to eye contact.
All kitsune can possess a person according to folklore, though they will only do so if someone agrees and lets them.
Japanese Witchcraft – Those who force a fox possession are those of a hereditary fox employee or tsukimono-suji. This does take us a step in the direction of looking at superstition. In Japan, a familiar would be the source of a person’s magical power. While nearly any animal could be a witch’s familiar, foxes and snakes are the most noted. There for a familiar acting as a tsukemono or “possessing being” would be used to explain a sudden illness, floods, and any number of misfortunes that could be attributed to evil spirits.
Insanity – With the hereditary fox possession, this would have explained mental illness, especially where it is hereditary. The victim of kitsunetsuki would frequently be treated cruelly in an effort of trying to drive out the possessing spirit. A victim would be taken to an Inari shrine in hopes that a priest would be able to perform an exorcism. If such a priest could not be found, then people would either beat or burn the victim in the hopes to drive out the fox spirit. There are some cases where an entire family could be ostracized if someone was believed to be kitsunetsuki.
Records of fox possession date from the Heian era and continue until the 20th century as a common diagnosis for insanity. Diagnosis’ of kitsunetsuki is specific to Japanese culture like clinical lycanthropy among Westerners. Stories of fox possession can still appear in tabloid media and other forums.
I say that as it puts me to the mind of fairy gold, where a person is paid in gold by a fae, and in the morning, the gold coins have turned to leaves and twigs.
The same thing happens with kitsune. Any payment or reward that involves money from a kitsune is going turn out to be the same thing. Pieces of paper, leaves, twigs, stones, and other similar junk items under an illusion. A kitsune sincere in their rewards and not tricking a human is more likely to offer intangible rewards such as protection, knowledge, and a long life.
As previously mentioned, the kitsune known as zenko are associated with the Shinto kami known as Inari, a deity of rice and such association has only reinforced the kitsune’s connection to the supernatural. These kitsune serve as Inari’s messengers and there are times that Inari themself is depicted as a fox. These kitsune also worship Inari and can be found in shrines and cemeteries. Devotees to Inari will also leave offerings of fried tofu and udon in offering for the fox spirits who they might petition to aid and protect against the nogitsune. The zenko or Inari kitsune can be identified by the red bibs that they were and that they cannot bring harm to humans. These kitsune will be white in color and seen as a good omen. In the same vein, black foxes and nine-tailed kitsune are also regarded as good omens. There is some speculation among folklorists on if there was another Shinto fox deity that existed prior to Inari and his association with kitsune.
Better known as fusui in Japan, it is believed that a statue of a fox is able to repel evil kimon or energy that comes from the northeast. There are many Inari shrines, notable is the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto where there large numbers of kitsune statues.
In the Buddhist religion, the goddess Dakiniten is seen as Inari’s female aspect. Dakiniten is often shown as a female boddhisattva riding a flying white fox as she wields a sword.
This is an old card game whose name translates to either “Ghost” or “Monster Cards” that people would play during the Edo period in the 19th century. Players would try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that collect and showcase different, various monsters. At any rate, one such obake karuta has a picture of a kitsune on it.
The Kitsune’s Hoshi no Tama
This is a 12th-century story where a man was able to gain a kitsune’s favor after taking their hoshi no tama or star ball. The kitsune pleaded with the man who ignored them. After a bit, the fox told the man that star ball wouldn’t do them any good and that if the man didn’t give him the star ball back, he would have a terrible enemy. However, if the man gave the star ball back, the kitsune promised to be a protector deity. The man gave the star ball back and the fox did indeed save his life by guiding the man past a band of robbers.
This is the name of a popular figure in folklore and kabuki plays, they always cast a fox’s shadow, even in their human form.
Lovers & Wives
It should come as no surprise that with kitsune being known to primarily shapeshift into beautiful women, they also frequently take on the roles of lovers or seductresses and wives. In many of these stories, sometimes a young man will unknowingly marry a kitsune, eventually, he learns of her real nature and she is forced to flee, reverting back to her fox form.
Sometimes the man will wake up finding himself in a fox den or some other place far from home, filthy and dirty. Other stories have the fox wife bearing the man children who inherit the kitsune abilities. There are several historical Japanese reputed to have been born of a kitsune mother. One such figure is the astrologer and magician Abe no Seimei.
Kitsune Wedding – When rain falls from a clear sky, this is called a kitsune no yomeiri or the kitsune’s wedding. There is a folktale where a kitsune wedding is described as happening in just such conditions. The events are considered good omens and the kitsune seek retribution on any who are uninvited.
For the versions of the kitsune reported to be a type of energy vampire or succubae/incubi, this makes sense for them to go this route in order to get close to their prey and feed.
This story concerns a historical person by the name of Koan who had been staying in the home of one of his devotees. As Koan entered the bathhouse, he scaled his foot after the water had been drawn too hot. Yelping in pain, Koan fled the bathhouse naked and the people present who saw him were astonished to see fur covering much of his body and a fox’s tail. Koan transformed into a fox in front of everyone into an elderly fox before running away.
An Old Fox Tale
This story is one of the oldest surviving kitsune tales that date to C.E. 545. It is found in the Nihon Ryouiki or “Japanese Ghost Stories” collection. There are many numerous stories of kitsune appearing to a human man as a woman and then her fox nature is revealed that she must flee and run away. This story is slightly different from how it ends.
A man by the name of Ono who lived on the island of Mino, spent years longing for his ideal image of feminine beauty. One evening, Ono met a beautiful woman out on a moor and married her after proposing to her on the spot and detailing all the ways in which he would take care of her. At the time of the birth of their son, Ono’s dog also gave birth to a pup. As the pup grew, it became more and more hostile to the woman. She begged Ono to kill the pup, but he refused. One day, the dog attacked the woman so aggressively that she became frightened, transforming into a kitsune with nine tails who to lept over a fence as she fled.
Ono called after the fox that “You may be a fox! But you are the mother of my son and I love you! Come back when you please, you will always be welcome!”
So, the fox did, every evening she would return to sleep in Ono’s arms and then leave in the morning.
In this story, it is noted there is an old etymology for kitsune with kitsu-ne meaning “come and sleep,” and ki-tsune meaning “always comes.” Which I find interesting depending on the emphasis for the syllables.
Kitsune Versus Tanuki Rivalries
The tanuki or raccoon dogs of Japan are another notable trickster, and they share a lot of traits in common with kitsune such as shapeshifting. There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover. A kitsune is often more snobbish and someone said to have a triangular, foxlike or kitsune-face is given as a compliment. In comparison, the tanuki is regarded as clumsier or a bit of a slop and to say that someone is tanuki-faced, having a more squarish or round face is to say they’re silly.
I find it interesting to learn that when you take the kanji for kitsune (狐) and the kanji for tanuki (狸) and put them together to form 狐狸, this reads as kori and is a metaphor for a “sly person.” Then, when you place the kanji for dog or inu (狗) between those kanji, you get the word kokkuri (狐狗狸), which is the name for a Japanese divination game much like the party atmosphere use of Ouija boards.
There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover.
Other Fox Spirits
Hồ ly tinh – This is the name for the Vietnamese fox spirit.
Hulijing – These more dangerous fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from China.
Komihu – These fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from Korea.
Reynard the Fox – The familiar fox trickster from Western literature. Reynard is the name of the fox in the French The Beast Epic. The name Reynard is often the stock name for a fox character.
Alternative Names: Aschenklas, Bûr, Bullerclås, De hêle Christ (“The Holy Christ” in Mittelmark). Farmhand Robert, Farmhand Rupert, Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, Servant Robert, Servant Rupert, Rû Clås, Ru Klaus (“Rough Nicholas”), Pelz Nicholas (“Fur Nicholas”)
The figure of Knecht Ruprecht is another character who appears within the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions as another companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany.
Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing black or brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a childhood injury. Due to this limp, Ruprecht carries a long staff, he also has a bag of ashes, a whip, a stick, a sack for hauling away naughty children, and sometimes small bells on his clothing. Further details are that he may be shown riding a white horse or that he may be accompanied by fairies or by men dressed as old women with blackened faces.
The Devil You Know
In Germanic folklore, Ruprecht is the German name for the English Robert and a common name for the devil.
In this respect, Reprecht is a lot like the earlier forms of Zwarte Piet as the devil. This fits those traditions with figures like Krampus and Zwarte Piet where Saint Nicholas is to have chained and enslaved the devil.
This devil figure is then who punishes misbehaving children with whippings, handing them a switch or coal.
When it comes to Germany, several various dark figures lend themselves to the wintertime, Saint Nicholas Day, and Christmas traditions. At first glance, it’s easy to distinguish all of them as they all have different names and appearances. Then when you get into the various traditions surrounding each figure, they do hold similar roles. Some folklorists will state that the different names are regional variations of the same figure.
Maybe, but some of them like Krampus, Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht and Hans Trapp are way too distinct in their descriptions and frequently their origins to really see them all as being the same being. And maybe there is some comfort in seeing only one Christmastime bogeyman to be afraid of instead of several.
With variations in names, some of them do end up blending Knecht Ruprecht with Saint Nicholas so he is known as Ru Klaus or “Rough Nicholas” or Pelz Nicholas or “Fur Nicholas.” As Pelz Nicholas, we see Knecht Ruprecht get blended with the figure of Belsnickel. Even further names are Aschenklas or “Ash Nicholas” in reference to the bag of ash that Knecht Ruprecht carries. There a couple sources that give alternate names of Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” when the figures of Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Martin are blended together.
Knecht Ruprecht is a dark helper and companion with a similar role to those of Krampus and Zwart Piet. It’s essentially a good cop, bad cop routine they share where Saint Nicholas is the gift giver who rewards while Knecht Ruprecht and others threaten punishment in the form of either thrashings or kidnapping.
Belsnickel – Knecht Ruprecht has also been identified as just another name for this gift-giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. The two are frequently confused and identified with each other.
Kobolds – Jacob Grimm in his “Deutsche Mythologie” says that Knecht Ruprecht and other punishing type companions are like Kobolds who could be either helpful or not so helpful.
So, what’s a kobold? Those are a type of household spirit in pre-Christian beliefs that could be either beneficial or malicious depending on how they were treated. After the arrival of Christianity, these types of spirits were said to be more mischievous when they weren’t helping or not properly given respect.
Robin Goodfellow – Jacob Grimm also goes on to say that this is the same person as Knecht Ruprecht and just another name that all these house spirits are known as.
Crime & Punishment
On December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, Knecht Ruprecht will ask children if they are able to pray. If the child demonstrates that they can, they are rewarded with gifts of apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If the child is not able to recite a prayer, Knecht Ruprecht will hit them with his bag of ashes.
Particularly naughty children will be given lumps of coal, sticks, and stones while good children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas in their shoes that they leave out. The absolute worst would be tied up in a sack and thrown into a river.
Nuremberg Christmas Procession
Knecht Ruprecht makes his first appearance in the 17th century during the Nuremberg Christmas Procession where he is a companion to Santa Claus. This is the first concrete documentation of this figure and their association with Saint Nicholas and the Christmas traditions.
According to traditions and stories, Ruprecht is either a farmhand or in other stories, a foundling that Saint Nicholas finds and raises as his own son. The German philosopher Alexander Tille has commented that Knecht Ruprecht represents the archetypical manservant much like stock characters Junker Hanns and Bauer Michel who represent the Nobility and are defined by their social rankings with no individuality.
In the High Alps, Knecht Ruprecht takes on more of the role of Saint Nicholas’ assistant, keeping an eye out for the Saint’s arrival. This is where both Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Nicholas can get blended together to be known as Ru Klaus as both are accompanied by troops of the goat-like creatures known as Krampus who will terrorize any misbehaving children.
Knecht Ruprecht has been the subject of a piano piece by the German composer Robert Schumann in 1848. The German poet and novelist, Theodor Storm wrote a poem called “Knecht Ruprecht” in 1862
For Knecht Ruprecht, not really. He’s much newer compared to the figures of Krampus and Perchta. However, as a collective whole with Zwarte Piet and Belsnickel, then yes, there is an argument to be made with connecting Knecht Ruprecht to older pagan traditions for the dangerous time that Winter can be. So, it’s fair to say we can see the ever-evolving Christian influence to try and tame the more wilder, dangerous Yuletide figures and monsters. Connecting him to the Norse Odin seems more of a stretch as I’ll give that one more to Saint Nicholas.
Saint Martin’s Day
Or Martinmas, which is sometimes also called Old Halloween or Old Hallowmas Eve and was celebrated on November 11th to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of winter. Traditions involve feasting on the Martinmas goose or Martinmas beef, drinking wine, bonfires, mummery, and Saint Martin going around on horseback to bestow gifts of apples, nuts, cakes, and other sweets to children who hung their stockings with hay for Saint Martin’s horse.
Saint Martin is also sometimes called Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” and seems to be a figure similar to Saint Nicholas in their gift-giving roles. As a result, Knecht Ruprecht is said to sometimes be a companion to Saint Martin.
With the growing Christian influence in Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is also known to accompany Saint Peter, Saint Rupert, and even the Christkindel, or “Christ Child” during their gift-giving journey on Christmas.
Also Known As: Benec, Vėlinas (Baltic, Lithuanian),Volos, Volusu, Volusu, Vyeles, Ganyklos (Lithuanian), Vlas (Russian), Walgino, Weles
Epitaphs: King of Bears, Lord of all Wolves, Master of the Forest, “Skotiybog“ (God of Cattle)
Etymology: “Uel-“ to see, fields, spirits of the dead. Also likely from the proto-Indo-European word “wel-“ wool
In Slavic beliefs, folklore, and mythology, Veles is a god of many things from storms and trickery to God of the underworld and domestic animals as well as the god of the earth and water. Veles is indeed a significant and major supernatural force within Slavic mythology and beliefs. Depending upon your source, some of it can seem rather contradictory.
Given the nature of Slavic beliefs, there isn’t much concrete documentation. There is still a lot of oral history and traditions about Veles found in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. All of this can get very confusing as for the longest time, first with the arrival of Christianity, a lot of local Slavic pagan beliefs were done away with and made to be seen as aspects of evil and the devil. Then later, when that’s no longer so prominent, there just isn’t a lot that has been documented and what survives has been by oral tradition and that, can vary widely by local, regional traditions that have managed to get passed on. We also hit on several dubious sources that over time have proven not to be reliable.
Naturally, this will be where I’ve got some mistakes and expect I Veles to be a post I will come back to correct several times and update.
Animal: Bear, Cattle, Crows, Dragons, Owl, Ravens, Rooster, Serpents, Wolf
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red
Day of the Week: Sunday
Directions: North, West
Element: Earth, Water
Gemstones: Bloodstone, Garnet, Jasper, Jet, Obsidian, Onyx
Incense: Cedar, Clove, Ginger, Wormwood
Month: February, March
Plant: Cedar, Hawthorne, Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Pine, Wheat, Willow
Sphere of Influence: Cattle, Commerce, Divination, Fertility, Magic, Medicine, Music, Pastures, Underworld, Wealth, Wildlife
Symbols: Cattle, Horns, Serpents, Wool
Tarot: Cups, Pentacles
In some sources, Veles is described as a wolf-headed god. In other sources, Veles is described as a large serpent with horns that lives in the water or is pictured at the bottom of the Slavic World Tree with Perun in his eagle form at the top. Frequently, Veles is depicted as an elderly man with a gray beard and hair. As a shapeshifter, Veles often takes on the traits of those animals favored or associated with him such as horns and bear fur.
When in the form of a bear, Veles is regarded as the King of Bears. As a wolf, among the southern Slavs, Veles is the lord of all wolves.
Velinas – In the Balto-Slavic regions, a description is given that describes him as being a one-eyed god with a gift for divination and leader of the Wild Hunt, lord of the dead, and to whom people sacrificed to were killed with a spear. This version of Veles warrants having its own post as one source found, discusses Velinas as similar to, yet clearly different from Veles. Taking a look at the Mediterranean region among the Greek and Roman cultures, there were other culture groups like the Etruscans, the Dacians, Phrygians who have their own local deities who were similar to those of the Greek and Roman deities and would frequently be absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheons and survive as epitaphs for the local region.
What’s In A Name?
According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, the name Veles comes from the word “uel-“ and “esu-“ while the name Volos comes from another root word for where “-el” changes to “olo.” The root word “uel” or “wel-“ can have variable meanings and refer to any number of words such as “to die,” “grass,” “to see,” “to want,” “to turn,” “to cull,” “tepid”, “hair,” “wool,” “forest,” and “deception” as in magical deceptions. The book “The Mythology of All Races” published in 1918 says that Veles’ name comes from “weles” for wolf.
The root word “uel” is also related to the proto-Germanic word “walaz” that is also seen in the old Norse “valr,” “valkyria,” and “Valholl” all words related to the Norse god Odin who is known too by the name “Valfǫðr.” In the Baltic dialects and language, we see this reflected in the word “vėlės/veļi” for the “spirits of the dead,” “shade of the deceased,” and “shadow of death.”. This is reflected in the Baltic god’s names of Vėlinas, Velnias, and Velns. A connection of the word “uel” from “ṷélsu-“ for meadow or pasture has been made with the Greek Elysium, the fields of the blessed dead.
Where “uel-“ relates with “to see,” there is a connection in the name of the seeress Veleda. Going off this, in Norse mythology there is a “Völva,” a seeress connected to water and foretelling known as “Völuspa.” The word “Völuspa” is connected to spinning or braiding the Thread of Fate of those whose futures have been seen. “Völva” is also the cognate for a “Wheel” or “Spinning Wheel.”
In the proto-Indo-European language, etymologists have found the root word “wel-“ meaning wool and likely where the English word “wool” comes from. The Russian word for “hair” is “volos.” As a god of horned cattle and other livestock, this makes sense.
First off, “The Primary Chronicle” is the main source and historical record that provides us with evidence for Veles’ importance and worship. Veles is one of the Slavic gods that can be concretely confirmed while there are several others that have been disproved or there’s still information being gathered to confirm them.
Veles is worshiped in two distinct forms. One as Veles and one as Volos. This makes sense as that can be a way to break down all the aspects of what Veles is a god of and the domains he presides over. Scholars and etymologists suggest that Veles and Volos are two different gods being referred to. However, that does make sense for a need to see two different deities once the Slavic regions began to be Christianized and there’s a split of Veles’ dualistic nature.
Cocks or Roosters would be sacrificed to Veles at the rivers or lakes sacred to him.
During the later 10th century, Vladimir I, the Prince of Kiev erected seven statues in his city, of which Veles was one of them. However, Veles’ statue is the only one that didn’t stand up on the hill next to the other statues and castle. Instead, Veles’ statue could be found in the city in the marketplace. This placement indicates strongly Veles’ importance to commerce. Plus, it also shows that the worship of Perun and Veles needed to be kept separate as Perun’s shrines and worship were to be conducted up high with Veles’ place down in the lowlands. Among the Southern Slavs, Veles’ name is often found in place names.
Triglav – Veles was worshipped as an aspect of the three-headed Slavic god Triglav and the Slavic trinity consisting of Perun, Veles, and Svarog.
With the arrival of Christianity in the Slavic regions and countries, the aspect of Veles has largely been suppressed, at least the aspects connecting him to the Underworld and as a trickster. He has been equated with the Devil with his name becoming the same word for ghosts and devils. There is a record of Czech’s referring to Veles as a devil in the 16th century. An idol was thrown in the Pocayna River. Veles is used frequently in medieval curses from Bohemia.
Due to Veles’ dualistic nature, we see a split in his name with Veles and Volos. The name Veles under Christian influence holding a more negative connotations and associations. Whereas with Volos, he is held more benignly, and this aspect survives, becoming associated with different Saints.
St. Blaise – Or Saint Vlas, Saint Vlaho, St. Blaz, or St. Vlasiy, he is connected more to the aspect of Volos, he is a shepherd and patron saint cattle and domestic animals. Icons of St. Vlas were placed in cattle sheds for their protection. The Saint’s name day is February 12th and, on this day, cattle are treated to a special feed to eat. In Yaroslavl, the church built on the site of Vele’s shrine was dedicated to St. Blaise.
St. Nicholas – Veles is associated with this saint who is a patron of merchants, fishermen, and mariners. There is also this connection due to the association with water and being a snake who is slain by St. George, a motif similar to the enmity between Perun and Veles.
Parentage and Family
Father – Rod, the creator god in Slavic beliefs.
Mother – Zemun, a divine or celestial cow.
Sometimes Veles’ parents are given as Svarog and Lada.
Perun and Dażbóg
Depending on the region or the source cited, Veles is married either to Mokosh, the goddess of the earth, or to Devana, a goddess of the wilds and hunt.
Mokosh – She is somewhat conflicting as in other stories Mokosh is the wife to Perun and whom Veles kidnaps in their never-ending feud.
Devana – Or Dziewanna was forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun.
Jarilo – A fertility god raised by Veles after being kidnapped. So he may not really count.
The struggle against Chaos; this is a familiar motif found throughout the world in many different regions and mythologies of a culture hero or God going up against a creature of chaos. This creature is often shown as and takes the form of a great serpent or dragon. This is the familiar Knight slaying the Dragon seen in many European mythologies. Parallels to this concept are even found in other cultures.
This aspect is seen in the descriptions of Veles where he is a serpent with horns and the battle that he has with Perun. It’s a dragon or serpent-slaying motif seen with the story of Saint George slaying the dragon.
Storm Myth – Battle With Perun, the Storm God
As previously mentioned above under Chaoskampf, this story is perhaps the best-known Slavic story, especially as it fits into the Christian ideas of a hero slaying the dragon or evil or order triumphing over chaos.
Russian scholars and philologists Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov have reconstructed this mythical battle of Perun and Veles with comparative studies to various Indo-European myths, Slavic folk tales, and songs.
Perun, the god of thunder battles against Veles in his dragon form. Depending on the story, Veles has stolen either Perun’s son, wife, or cattle which leads to their conflict.
As a challenge, in the shape of a huge serpent, Veles comes up from the underworld of Nav and wind his way up the Slave World Tree towards the heavens and Perun’s domain. Naturally, Perun responds by sending lightning bolts so that Veles flees back down and turns himself into various animals, people, and even trees to escape from or ambush Perun as they battle it out.
In the end, Veles is slain by Perun and the person or thing that Veles is to have stolen is released from within his body and it comes out in the form of falling rain from the heavens.
Scholars have commented that this “Storm Myth” is probably how the ancient Slavs would explain the changing of the seasons throughout the year. Any dry periods would be seen as Veles’ theft with the storms and lightning being interpreted as a divine battle up in the heavens and Perun’s ultimate triumph over Veles with the arrival of rain and Perun establishing order over chaos.
The Slavs have a saying that wherever lighting strikes, that is Perun attacking Veles.
Variation 1 – In the stories where Veles kidnaps Perun’s son, it is Jarilo, the tenth son who is stolen. Veles then raises Jarilo as his own son, who when he is older, becomes a god of fertility and heralds the arrival of spring when he returns to the lands of the living.
Variation 2 – It is Perun who is stolen as an infant and raised in the underworld. Once Perun is grown, he battles many creatures in order to fight his way back up to the mortal world.
Since the “Storm Myth” is cyclical and repeats every year. It connects Veles as a god of fertility and a god who dies and then is resurrected. The snake or serpent aspect of Veles would be him shedding his old skin or old life to be reborn as the year changes.
The “Storm Myth” and battle with Perun places Veles in a more negative role as one who brings chaos. Certainly, change is chaotic, but there is a pattern that emerges and soon you can make sense of that pattern and bring about a certain order to things so it doesn’t get destructive.
For the ancient Slavs, Veles wasn’t evil, he was the god of the wilds and nature which can appear to be very unpredictable if you’re not careful or respectful.
Later Christian influences will place him as evil and why in so many places Veles’ name does become synonymous with the devil and evil. But we do see where Veles appears as a Saint such as Saint Nicholas to save a poor farmer’s cattle from the destructiveness of St. Elias, a representative of Perun.
While Perun is more associated with agriculture, there is a Russian custom during harvest season to cut the first ear of wheat and tie it into an amulet that would protect crops from evil spirits. This was known as “tying the beard of Veles” which meant to invoke good fortune and wealth.
Duality – Ultimately the conflict of Perun and Veles is the duality in the clash of good and evil and the cyclical nature of the passing of the seasons and year. Veles represents the earth, water, and physical world and Perun represents fire, the heavens, and spirit.
Marriage To Devana
Also known as Dziewanna, she is a goddess of the wilds and hunt. As punishment, Devana found herself forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun. Wanting to be wild and free, Devana didn’t initially love Veles at first despite the two having a domain that’s very similar to each other. After a bit of thought, Veles managed to win Devana over when he changed into a basil flower and calmed her. While they’re still not really in love, together they do watch over the lowlands of the wilds and are a force not to be taken lightly.
God of Mischief
Like Loki, Veles is considered a god of mischief and trickery. This ties strongly to the association of Veles’ use of magic, shapeshifting, and the arts. This aspect holds where Veles is seen as a god of chaos and a disruption during any long periods of dryness, or no rain as primarily seen in the “Storm Myth.”
Magic & The Arts
In this aspect, we see Veles the god of divination, magic, music, poetry, the earth, and water. Oaths would be sworn in Veles’ name. Traveling musicians, skalds, bards, and poets were known to pray to Veles for his protection as they traveled.
As a god of poetry, divination, and the arts, Veles has been equated with the Norse Odin. There is a 12th-century Russian epic, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” where the character Boyan the wizard is referred to as Vele’s grandson. Poetry, music, and magic were closely linked in both Nordic and Slavic beliefs.
Veles is regarded as a protector of traveling musicians. Up into the 20th century, in some wedding ceremonies held in northern Croatia, the music won’t begin playing unless the groom while making a toast, spills some of the wine onto the ground, especially near the roots of a tree. This tradition would be musicians making a toast to their patron deity.
The Slavic magician-priests were called: volhov, volchvi, vlъsvi and volъsvi. They were not priests of an elite religion like those belonging to Perun. Rather, these magician-priests were known to be seers, soothsayers, poets, magicians and sorcerers as well as healers and herbalists. It is thought the etymology of volchys connects them to Volos.
God of the Underworld
Veles is a god of the Underworld, in charge of the spirits of the dead whom he would send out as his messengers. In his connection to the earth, Veles is also a god of all the bounties and riches of the earth, growing above and found below.
Nav – Also known as Nawia, this is Veles’ abode in the underworld. Incidentally, the word nav could also refer to the spirits or souls of the deceased who had premature deaths or poor deaths such as drowning, or being murdered, or if you were a murderer or warlock, these were all spirits that would come back as demons to afflict the living. The navias could take the form of birds. In Bulgaria, there is folklore that says twelve navias could suck the blood from a pregnant woman. The navias were also the demonic representation of the 1092 plague in Polotsk, Belarus.
Very similar to Norse beliefs, the Slavs also believed a huge world tree connected the mortal world to the heavens and the underworld. The roots of the world tree formed the roof of the underworld as they stretched out.
Where Perun was seen as either a hawk or eagle sitting in the branches of the world tree looking out over the heavens, Veles was seen as a huge serpent coiled around the roots ruling over the underworld.
Unlike descriptions of other underworlds, Nav was viewed as a beautiful place in folktales as a place where it’s forever Spring with green, grassy plains and plenty of water. Many fantastical creatures could be found here, not just the spirits of the dead who watched over Veles’ herds of cattle.
For the Slavs, Nav was described as being somewhere “across the sea” and was the place where migrating birds would go to every winter. In folktales, we find a different name, Virey or Iriv and that Jarilo, the god of fertility and vegetation lived here during winter and would return when it was time for spring. Jarilo would cross the seas, returning to the lands of the living bringing spring and birds back.
The Separation Of The Human World & Underworld
This story concerns the separation and boundary separating the mortal, living world with that of the underworld and lands of the dead. A shepherd pledged to Veles to sacrifice his best cow and to keep the god’s prohibitions. From this, Veles divides the human world and the underworld with either a furrow that he plows or groove over the road that the shepherd carves with a knife to prevent evil or negative powers from crossing.
God of Cattle
As Volos, he is known as “skotiybog,“ the god of cattle who watches over and protects flocks, cattle and all domestic animals, keeping them from harm. The name skotnyi bog is also the name for livestock in general. This aspect of Veles survives and continued under Christian influence well into the 18th century as Saint Blaise where he is a protector of shepherds and their flocks or cattle.
It must be noted too that it isn’t just domestic animals that Volos watches over, but all wild animals, connecting him to the image of him as a horned serpent and thus, horned gods like Pan or Cernunnos who watch over the forests and animals. In addition to the horns associated with either a bull or ram, there is also sheep’s wool that is used as a symbol for Veles.
The Koledari would sing that they come to “weaving black wool.” There is some folklore involving wool and the expressions, “presti vunu” meaning weaving wool, and “crnu vunu presti” meaning the weaving of black wool. These are illusions to magical crafts and Veles’ role as a god of magic.
God of Commerce & Wealth
Given how cattle were regarded as a sign of wealth and influence, it’s not hard to see Volos become the god and patron of commerce, business, prosperity, trade, and wealth. Merchants would seal their agreements by swearing Volos’ name and even legal documents would sometimes have oaths to him. If you broke an oath, you could be sure of Volos’ punishment and retribution.
A Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971 is the earliest record we have where signers swore by Vele’s name with violators being warned of a punishment. They would be killed by their own weapons that would become “yellow as gold.” It is thought that this meant they would be cursed with a disease.
Veles’ Feast Day
Or the Festival of Veles, this festival is celebrated either February 11th or 24th for the observance of midwinter. In Christian folk rituals, this festival corresponds with Saint Blaise’s feast day. In the Orthodox traditions, St. Blaise as the protector of cattle is said to have defeated Winter or Morana. Among Catholic traditions, St. Blaise is the patron of throat diseases and apples and candles are blessed to provide protection from those diseases. In Catholic tradition, St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3rd and apples would be sacrificed to him by feeding them to cattle.
Prayers would be offered to Veles for the protection of livestock and their health by sacrificing milk. The festival would be held near a place of worship. During this time, it is forbidden to eat veal. The food eaten during this time is groats seasoned with fat. Ritual fights would also be held during this festival.
The best part is knowing that this held close to Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia!
The Great Night, in Slavic beliefs, following a lunar calendar, the first day of the New Year would begin on what corresponds with the Gregorian calendar of March 1st to celebrate the end of Winter and return of Spring. This festival could last from Christmas all the way to the end of February. After the arrival and Christianization of many Slavic countries, for those Slavs falling under the Orthodox Churches, this day came to be known as Velik Dan or the Great Day. For the Catholic Slavs, this day became Velika Noc, still the Great Night. Both names correspond with the day or the week in which Easter is observed.
In pre-Christian worship, Velja Noc is the night that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and would enter villages and homes to celebrate the New Year with their living relatives. It is believed that Veles, as the god of the underworld would send out the souls of the dead to the living world to act as his messengers. One tradition has young men known as koledari or vucari would dress up in long coats of sheep wool and wear grotesque masks as they went around the villages making a lot of noise and singing songs. They would be wet and muddy to symbolize the wet underworld of Nav and the ghosts of the dead. In the koledari traditions, they would visit different homes and people presented them with gifts as if they were messengers from Veles to gain his favor for wealth and fortune in the following year.
Which I find very fascinating as this all sounds very much like the Irish celebration of Samhain and Halloween with spirits of the dead passing over to the world of the living and dressing up in costume. Plus, the spirits visiting living relatives is a lot like celebrations of Día de Los Muertos in Mexico and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, France.
Apsat – A Georgian or Sarmatian deity and god of cattle and herds who has been equated with Velese.
Cernunnos – A god of the druids in Celtic myth, he is symbolized as a horned snake and god of nature and horned animals.
Hermes – A trickster god and messenger of the Greek pantheon, Veles has been compared to them.
Loki – Veles has been compared to the trickster god Loki from Norse mythology.
Mercury – The trickster and messenger god of the Roman pantheon.
Odin – Some descriptions of Veles also sound just like Odin with his one-eye and gift of prophecy.
Triglav – A three-headed underworld god worshiped by the Pomeranians and some of the Polabian Slavs in Szczecin, Wolin and Brandenburg. It was a short-lived cult confirmed by St. Otto of Bamberg in his biographies.
Vala – A demon who opposes the thunder god Indra in the Vedas.
Vėlinas – A Baltic deity who is very similar in appearance to the Norse Odin and not just Veles.
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is 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. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas, are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half-human, half-goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity in the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity, and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns, and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is 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 if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
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.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
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.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
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.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
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). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal-masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous-looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
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 vary. 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 prophecy 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 pomegranates, 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 a 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 are 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 partygoers. 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.
Etymology: From the Greek word “pantes” meaning: All, everything, rustic
Other Spellings: Πάν
Other Names and Epithets: Aegocerus (“Goat-Horned”), Agreus (the Hunter), Faunus, Haliplanktos (Sea-Roaming), Innus, Kronios, Nomios (the Shepherd), Sinoeis
Pan is a familiar, half-goat, half-man or satyr deity in Greek mythology. As a god of forests and wilderness, he’s known too for inhabiting grottoes too. In his ancient Arcadian home, Pan is said to have wandered the mountain sides playing his reed pipes, aiding or hindering hunters, guarding shepherds and their flocks and his never-ending pursuit and dancing with nymphs.
Animal: Goat, Tortoise
Patron of: Shepherds
Plant: Pine, Mountain Beech, Water-Reed
Sphere of Influence: Fertility, Flocks, Rustic Music, Wilderness
Symbols: Reed Pipe, Phallus, Lagobolon (Hare Trap)
Pan is the Greek half-man, half-goat god of shepherds and flocks. A god of fertility and the wilds.
What’s In A Name?
The Latin words of the verb paô and pasco connect Pan’s name to mean “all” or the universe. The Arcadians used the word pan meaning rustic, for anything out in the country, wild and untamed.
The idea of the Greek word pan for “all” comes from Homeric Hymn where Pan is described as delighting all the gods. This word ends up being used in word play in Plato’s Cratylus where he describes Pan as a dual-natured god, a personification of the cosmos.
The Greek word: “pa” is a more likely source for Pan’s name as it translates into “Guardian of the flocks,” certainly one of the things he is known for. Interestingly “pa-on” meaning: “herdsman” is a closely related word and where the Latin pastor and the modern English word “pasture” come from.
Another source says that Pan’s name comes from the Greek word: “paein” meaning “to pasture.” Furthering the ideas, Edwin L. Brown puts forward the idea that Pan is likely a cognate to the Greek word: ὀπάων, meaning “companion.”
Early Greek Depictions
It is around 500 B.C.E. that Pan appears in Greek art. These early depictions of Pan show him as a black goat standing upright on hind legs.
Later red-figure pottery shows Pan’s image change to that of a satyr. Some might even say the father of all satyrs. He is often shown having a wrinkled face with a prominent, bearded chin, snub nose, pointed ears, goat-like horns with hairy legs and cloven hooves like a goat. playing a reed pipe. Sometimes he is shown with a shepherd’s crook and a pine branch or a crown made of pine. Often times he’s in the company of fellow satyrs and Maenads.
Coinage – In 4th century B.C.E., Pan’s image is found on coinage in Pantikapaion, for the Arcadian League.
Dual Nature – Plato’s Cratylus
This one’s interesting. Socrates discusses how Pan is a duel-nature son of Hermes. That makes sense as Pan is half man, half goat after all. Socrates goes on to explain how Hermes’ name comes from the word for “speech.” That Pan, the all things known, both true and false. The true part of Pan is the part that is smooth and divine and that he lives with the gods. The false part is the lower part that is goat, representing the baser, common man who are rough and like the tragic goat. I presume this comes from the origin for the word tragedy or tragikos, goat-song and is in reference to early, primitive performances where people wore goat-skins. A roundabout way of saying that life is nasty, short and brutish. It is among mankind that tales and falsehoods can be found.
While we’re at it, Pan was also the god of theatrical criticism.
Considered a pastoral paradise in Ancient Greece, the land “that existed before the moon,” this is the place where Pan is said to have been born, specifically on Mount Lycaeum.
Arcadia is mountainous and fertile area located in central Peloponnessus. This place is found to the south of modern-day Greece. This is the location where the seat of the ancient Greek empire once lay.
For the ancient Greeks of their day, they viewed Arcadia and those who lived there as being backwards and primitive. They weren’t held in the same light as more civilized Greeks. Outside of Greece, Pan’s worship spread as far as Egypt and other local, neighboring countries.
Athens – Around the fifth century B.C.E., after the Battle of Marathon, Pan’s worshipped arrived in this City-State.
The story goes that Pheidippides, an Athenian was to Sparta to enlist their aid against the Persians, Pan appeared before him and promised that he would terrify or panic the invaders. In return, the Athenians would begin honoring and worshipping Pan.
Shrines & Temples
Even after the Greeks began worshiping other gods and adding them to their pantheon, Pan still had shrines built, honoring and venerating him. Many of these shrines and sacred places to Pan were often in caves and grottos. There were many sanctuaries and temples dedicated to Pan throughout Arcadia, including some in places like Athens, Heraea, Homala in Turkey, Megalopolis, Mount Parthenius, Oropus, the island of Psyttaleia, and Troezene to name a few. The Korkykeion cave found on Mount Parnassos and the Vari cave in Attica are a couple of the places dedicated to Pan.
According to the ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, the Egyptians had a good number of statues of Pan in many of their temples. In Thebes, the city of Chemmis was also known as the city of Pan or Panopolis.
Caves & Grottos
Many of Pan’s sacred places were found in caves and grottos. Pan’s sacred shrines and grottos weren’t solely dedicated to him, sometimes he shared it with a local deity or nymph in the region. Sacrifices offered up to Pan included cows, rams, lambs, milk and lamb. These sacrifices would also be offered up to Pan in conjunction with Dionysus and the nymphs. Other sacrifices to Pan included statues of herdsmen, vases, lamps and gold grasshoppers. Goat sacrifices and torch races were also part of Pan’s worship at Delphi and Athens.
A few other locations for Pan’s shrines or temples are:
Acacesium – A perpetual fire was kept burning here in this time. Also at this time, there was an oracle where the nymph Erato was Pan’s priestess.
Acropolis – This shrine to Pan is hidden away in a shallow cave beneath the Acropolis in a place still wild and untamed.
Apollonopolis Magna, Egypt – A Temple of Pan is found here.
Corycian Grotto – Located near Mount Parnassus.
Nomian Hill – A shrine was located here near Lycosura.
Peloponnese – A Temple of Pan was located here on the Neda River gorge.
Well of Eresinus – Located between Argos and Tegea
Mystery Cults – During the Hellenistic era, Pan becomes a cognate to the Phanes/Protogonos, Eros, Dionysus and Zeus.
Youngest To Oldest
In the Greek pantheon, Pan is considered the youngest of the gods. That makes sense if Hermes is Pan’s father. Making Zeus his great grandfather and Apollo his grandfather. At the same time, Pan is also considered the oldest god as records of his worship date to the 6th century B.C.E. in Arcadia. Mythical evidence seems to back this with Pan being the one who gives Artemis her hunting dogs and teaches Apollo the secrets to prophecy.
This likely makes sense too that for all that Pan being a rustic, rural god, was seen by the Greeks as representing the connection between the wildernesses and civilization. In Arcadia he would enjoy being a major god, but else where he was reduced to a minor god and not counted among the twelve major Olympian gods. So how ever minor his role seemed to have taken on, his influence and importance were not denied or forgotten.
Parentage and Family
Grandfather or Great Grandfather
As the grandson or great grandson of Cronos, Pan is known as Kronios.
The parentage for Pan is greatly varied and murky. Depending on the source that one uses, a different set of parents will be mentioned. That kind of makes sense when seeing Pan as a nature god, that he could be older than the other Olympian deities. Depending on which one you read, will be which one you decide to go with.
Father – Hermes, nearly every myth concerning Pan’s birth agrees on this. Sometimes another deity, Aegipan is given as Pan’s father. Even the gods Apollo, Cronus, Dionysus, Uranus, or Zeus could be mentioned as Pan’s father. Others like Amphinomos, Antinoos and Odysseseus are mentioned as Pan’s father.
According to Euhemerus, a 4th century B.C.E. mythographer, Aegipan (or Pan) was married to Aex and when she had an affair with Zeus, she bore the god Pan to him. In this instance, Pan was called Aegipan.
Mother – There are many different myths regarding who Pan’s mother is.
In no particular order, they are: Dryope the daughter of Dryopos, Thymbris, Penelope (There are two Penelopes of note here. The first one, Hermes visited in the form of a ram. The second Penelope is of Odysseus fame as she proved to be unfaithful while she waited for Odysseus to return home). Nonnus’ Dionysiacs is where Penelope of Mantineia in Arcadia, a nymph. This Penelope is later confused or combined with the Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Oeneios, some random Nereid, Sose, and Callisto. Even the goddesses Aprodite and Hecate are sometimes mentioned as being Pan’s mother.
Sometimes Pan’s parentage is given as being Uranus and Ge or that of Aether and Oeneios.
That seems a little odd to think of Pan as having any spouse. Given Pan’s later reputation for chasing around after all the Nymphs and seducing anyone who’s female…. There’s actually a few that Pan actually truly loved.
Aix – Also spelled Aex, she is a goat or a nymph who took the shape of a goat. Her connection to Pan seems more sure if you count Aegipan and Pan as being one and the same person.
Echo – This one is rather tragic, the story is given in full later.
Pitys – A nymph who turned herself into a pine in order to elude Pan’s advances.
Syrinx – A more well known Syrinx who changed herself into a bed of reeds to escape from Pan’s unwanted advances.
The satyrs in general were all considered kin to Pan, if not his sons, Laertes, Circe and the Maenads.
Agreus – A half-brother by way of Hermes, part of a “Pan Triad.”
Arcas – the twin brother to Pan, when Zeus is seen as the father. That is, if you accept the source of Kerenyi’s work of Aeschylus in Rheus noting there being two Pans.
Daphnis – A half-brother by way of Hermes.
Nomios – A half-brother by way of Hermes, part of a “Pan Triad.”
Akis – Also spelled Acis, he is the son of Pan (or rather Faunus) and the nymph Symaethis.
Eurymedon – Of the Seven Against Thebes fame, he said to be the son of Pan given how he fought fiercely in battle, causing others to panic.
Iambe – With Echo, Pan is the father of Iambe, a minor goddess of verse.
Iynx – With Echo, Pan is the father of Iynx, a girl who took the form of a bird.
Krenaios – Also spelled Crenaeus, he is the son of Pan (or rather Faunus) and the nymph (more accurately a Nereid) Ismenis. Crenaeus fought fiercely in the Seven Against Thebes, even more so in the river Ismenis of his mother’s name sake.
Krotos – With Eupheme, Pan fathered Krotos, a minor god who invented the hunting bow and rhythmic beats or clapping in music.
Silenus – This one is a bit dubious, as he is sometimes considered older than all of the satyrs and sometimes his parentage is given as being the son of Hermes and Gaia.
The Panes – All the satyr and local woodland deities including the fauns. According to Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, there are twelve Panes who lived in caves and claimed Pan as their father. They are known for having accompanied Dionysus in his War with India. These Panes were:
Aigikoros, Argennon, Argos, Daphoineus, Eugeneios, Glaukos, Kelaineus, Omester, Philamnos, Phobos, Phorbas, and Xanthos
What A Pane
Nearly every region of Ancient Greece had a regional woodland deity, many of them local satyr deities that all came to be identified as just different aspects of Pan. These multiple Pans or Panes were also known as Paniskoi or “little Pans.”
Satyrs weren’t necessarily gods in themselves, but nature spirits known for all sorts of carousing and chasing after nymphs, eating and drinking. The Romans would know these nature spirits by the name of fauns or incubi, the Celts believed in Dusios or dusii for plural. Much like the plural of Pan being Panes, the plural of satyr is Satyri.
This association with these local deities, gave rise to Pan being known by many names and seen as a universal god. Some of these local deities are as follows:
Aegipan – A goat-fish god connected to the constellation Capricorn.
Aristaeus – God of flocks, agriculture, bee-keeping, viticulture in Northern Greece. Like Pan, Aristaeus also held the title of Agreus (the Hunter) and Nomios (the Shepherd).
Marsyas – A Phrygian satyr also known for playing the pan pipes.
Priapus – A local god whose images have been found at Pompeii
Silenus – Knowledge and viticulture
Sybarios – An Italian version of Pan who was worshiped in the Greek colony found at Sybaris, Italy. This Sybarite Pan is the son of a Krathis, a sheperd and a she-goat.
As a triad, Pan was known as Agreus, Nomios, and Phorbas. Each seen as a separate entity and not just as a title of Pan’s.
In Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, two of the Panes, Agreus (Hunter) and Nomios (Shepherd) are merely different aspects of Pan. By the same account, they are the sons of Hermes with two Nymphs. The first is Sose, a prophetess who bore Agreus who inherited Sose’s gift for prophecy and would become a god of the hunt. The second is a nymph by the name of Penelope (not to be confused with the one of Odysseus fame) who bore Nomios known for playing the reed shepherd’s pipes or syrinx, shepherd, and seducing Nymphs. It has been said that many of the stories about Pan are actually about Nomios.
Agreus and Nomios are often taken to be two different aspects of Pan, indicating a dual nature to the half-goat god as both wise prophet and a lusty, amorous beast.
Phorbas would later join these two. Phorbas’ name means “giver of grazing” and has been noted as a play on the word phobos for “fear.”
The Birth Of Pan
Regardless of who is considered Pan’s mother, it’s generally agreed that she ran away at the sight of this already fully developed infant sporting horns, covered in hair, complete with beard, goat tail and legs with cloven hooves. Hermes however, took his son up to Olympus where the other gods were immediately delighted with him, especially Dionysus. The nymphs would raise Pan.
One of the nymphs to raise the infant Pan was Sinoe. From her, Pan received the epitaph of Sinoeis.
As a side note, the Homeric Hymn has the nurse being the one frightened by the sight of Pan and running away.
Where Penelope, the wife of Odysseus is listed as Pan’s mother, she was seduced by Antinous. When Odysseus returned Penelope to her father Ikarios, she gave birth to Pan when she arrived at Mantineia in Arcadia. With Penelope as Pan’s mother, he is clearly a demigod who became fully immortal.
A fertility deity, Pan is known for being very lusty as a symbol of male sexuality and carnal desire. Spring is the time for fertility, so it makes sense that Pan what he’s known for doing best, sex. There’s just no way around it.
Pan is very famous for his stories of endlessly chasing after nymphs who, to elude the lusty, rutting god, would turn into trees and rocks. These same stories were also used by the ancient Greeks to explain the many varieties of plants and natural features with how they came to be.
Nudity was a common thing among the Greeks, seen as being very natural and not holding any of the stigmas against it that are found with later cultural, especially religious taboos. It just is, nothing sexual about it.
Pan on the other hand… Part and parcel to Pan’s sexual prowess, one of his symbols is a phallus. Meant in joking tones, Diogenes of Sinope tells how Pan learned masturbation form his father, Hermes and then went on to teach it to shepherds. As such, it’s not uncommon to find ancient Greek art depicting Pan having an erection, he was just that sexually active.
Sex for the sake of it. That is part of who Pan is, bringing out the wild, untamed natural man to give into primal desires to satisfy momentary, carnal lust. If you want a love god for someone to fall in love with for a life partner, Pan is not your deity. Try Aphrodite or Eros for better results. For the ancient Greeks and Pan especially, he held many sexual partners and would move from one to the next with ease.
Rest assured, the ancient Greeks did see a need for having a main partner and a need to have someone you were with to create a better sense of family and unity. But engaging with a new partner from time to time could lead to something new and a change of pace.
When in Rome, only this was Greece.
Pan & The Nymphs
Pan is often mentioned as a companion to the nymphs of the woods, mountains and rivers. As a god of fertility, Pan also has a reputation that may or may not be deserved as being very lusty and constantly chasing after the nymphs as they flee from his unwanted advances. It all starts off well and good, he would join their dances and play his reed pipes, then soon enough comes the rutting and the chasing after. The nymphs would very likely be the original #MeToo crowd. They do manage to get their revenge on him at one point where they set upon Pan while he’s asleep to tie him up and shaved off his beard.
This part comes from Philostratus the Elder in his Imagines 2 where he describes a painting of the Bucolic Nymphs having tied up Pan and shaved off his beard as they say they will persuade Echo to no longer respond to him.
Even Artemis, the goddess of the Hunt and Moon got fed up with Pan’s behavior as her retinue of virgin followers and nymphs would grow smaller every time Pan or any of the satyrs came around.
Maenads – Aside from the Nymphs, Pan also got on well with the Maenads, the female followers of Dionysus rather well too. Now, either did this one by one or would multiply into a host of Panes to satisfy them all.
Pity – This poor nymph eluded Pan’s advances by turning into a Mountain Fir.
Pan Girls – With Pan’s rather lusty nature, Greek girls back then were known as Pan Girls when they displayed the same behavior.
Where The Wild Things Roam
A nature god, Pan’s domains were all of wildernesses. Grottoes, meadows, forests, beasts and even human nature itself. All of it is Pan’s domain. During the heat of the day, Pan would sleep and didn’t take kindly to anyone who disturbed him. Pan is described too as a god heard, but not seen.
Bees – As a god of nature and wild things, it stands to reason that among many of the things that Pan cared and watched over would include bees too. Like was previously stated, all of wilderness.
Fishing – Coastal areas and the success of local fishermen were also under Pan’s province.
God Of The Hunt – As a god of the wild places, Pan is also a god of the hunt, hunting dogs and he could decide a hunter’s success or not. In Arcadia, hunters would whip or scourge statues of Pan if their hunting failed.
God Of Shepherds And Flocks – In Pan’s homeland of Arcadia, there were many shepherding groups, most of whom herded goats and sheep. Pan protected the herds and flocks both wild and domestic. Pan would even help shepherds find their way back to the towns and cities. This role clearly placed Pan as the guardian of the wilds and civilization.
Panic At The Parthenon!
Pan’s name is the basis by which the word “panic” originates. It is one of the things that Pan is known for, causing a sudden or great fear in people. There are a couple myths given as an explanation for this.
Afternoon Naps – Sleep is good. The afternoons are when Pan is known to take his naps and woe to anyone who disturbed him from his sleep. But hey, who wouldn’t be cranky when woken up from their sleep. That’s right, run for the hills.
Music – Pan’s music that he played on his reed pipes could inspire panic in anyone who heard it. With it, Pan’s music could lower people’s inhibitions, an ecstasy brought on by listening to the music and dancing. A lowered inhibition that could either inspire or bring on a madness.
Panolepsia – During the Hellenistic era, Pan’s popularity increased and it is at this time he became associated with the word panic, an emotion known to overcome soldiers on the battle field. This violent emotion, known as panolepsia could overcome any individual person, inside and outside of battle.
Titanomachy – The first myth given is that Pan was present when Zeus defeated the Titans during the great Titanomachy. The claim then is that Pan’s yelling caused the Titans to flee.
Battle Of Marathon – The Athenians began worshiping Pan after he helped them out with causing panic among the invading Persians.
Nighttime Pranks – The second myth given is that Pan would make noises to scare away travelers in his protected forests.
God Of Rustic Music
When he wasn’t busy chasing nymphs, Pan could be found playing his famous reed pipes and dancing with the wood nymphs. Pan’s skill with music was such that he could cause inspiration, promiscuity or panic depending on what he wanted. The reed pipes were synonymous with rustic music as they were relatively cheap and easy to make with cutting reeds to different lengths and stopping them up with something like wax.
One of Pan’s more famous and well-known myths. Syrinx was just one of many nymphs that Pan would endlessly pursue. She was a water-nymph and the daughter of the river-god Landon. One day, as Syrinx returned from hunting, she encountered Pan who became infatuated with her. To escape his unwanted advances, Syrinx fled from Mount Lycaeum down to the Ladon river, there she pleaded with her sisters (or sometimes Zeus) to change her into a bed of water reeds. When Pan narrowly missed grabbing Syrinx, he discovered that when he blew air through the reeds, they made a noise. A forlorn Pan, mourning the loss of Syrinx, took the reeds and crafted his famous reed pipes or Syrinx from them.
Daphnis – The son of Hermes and a nymph, a shepherd, he invented pastoral poetry. He is one of many whom Pan taught how to play the pan pipes or syrinx.
Pindar – A poet said to be loved by Pan for singing and dancing to his music. Pindar built a sanctuary dedicated to Pan outside his house.
Olympus’ Got Talent!
In the original version of this story, Pan is equated with the Phrygian satyr, Marsyas. In the original telling of events, Marsyas is punished for having challenged the god Apollo.
However, other versions of this story have Pan and Apollo having a music contest with a local deity, Timolus set to be the judge. King Midas (as in the one with the golden touch) was there by happen stance as at this time, he was now a follower of Pan and followed him around.
When Apollo and Pan completed their different musical scores, Timolus was all set to call Apollo the winner. Midas spoke up and said that it should be Pan who was the winner. This angered Apollo and in retribution, he changed Midas’ ears into those of an ass.
You just can’t win.
One version of this story has it that both Apollo and Pan were tied, so they held a second round. This time around, Apollo said that they should play their instruments upside-down. Apollo was unaffected with playing upside-down, Pan however, was unable to play his reed pipes. Thus Apollo won the contest.
The Mother Goddess
In Pindar’ Pythian Ode, Pan is mentioned as a being either a follower or consort to the mother goddess. This is very likely either Cybele or Rhea whom is seen as a synonymous with Cybele.
Pindar makes mention of virgins worshiping Cybele and Pan near his home in Boetia.
Pan and Rhea alike are deities of the mountains and wild places. In a fragment of Pindar’s Maiden Songs, Pan is mentioned as the companion to Rhea and the warder or guardian of holy shrines.
There’s an episode in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica where Rhea becomes angry with the king of Kyzican for killing one of her sacred lions and Pan descending on the city of Kyzikos at night yelling loudly to disturb the flocks to panic and stampede and bring terror to the city in revenge at Rhea’s command.
Another source I found for this, replaced Rhea’s name with that of Cybele’s. This isn’t too surprising, when you see Rhea and Cybele as the same deity, just different names from different Greek and Roman cultures. It almost seems like a matter of preference when someone retelling the Greco-Roman stories flip-flops back and forth with the names used.
Pan is known to be part of Dionysus’ retinue accompanying many other prominent paniskoi, satyrs and rustic deities, causing a lot of rowdy behavior and riots characteristics of such bacchanalias.
Dionysus’ Indian War – When Dionysus went to war with the country of India, Pan was among the many satyroi and panes who accompanied him.
God Of Prophesy
Being the grandson to Apollo, that makes sense that Pan would have inherited some of the family tendency to foretell the future. According to some accounts, Pan is to have taught Apollo the prophetic arts. In the sanctuary of Despoine in Arcadia, the nymph Erato served as one of Pan’s prophetess’. Similarly, the Korykian cave, another Oracular site was held sacred to the nymph Korkykiai and Pan.
Pan & Typhon – Capricorn
In Greek mythology, the constellation, Capricorn is known as Pan and he is usually portrayed as the son of Hermes. He had the upper half of a man and the legs of a goat. How Pan becomes associated with the constellation of Capricorn is that one day when Pan and the other Gods were down by the Nile River, they were attacked by the monster Typhon. The Gods all changed themselves into various animals and forms in order to escape. In the confusion and panic, Pan jumped into the Nile River, intending to change into a fish, but only his lower half changed while his upper half turned into a goat. When the other Gods saw this half-goat, half-fish form of Pans, they laughed so much and decided to place an image of it up among the stars where it becomes the Capricornus or Capricorn constellation.
In a more elaborate retelling of the story of the Greek Gods versus Typhon, while the Gods did change into various animal forms, Zeus changed into the form of the ram, Aries and remained in this form for a while. Other gods like Aphrodite and Eros became a pair of fish that form the constellation of Pisces. Now Aegipan had also transformed himself into an animal to escape Typhon, but he was already halfway submerged in the Nile River when he finally decided what animal form he would be. He had decided to be a goat, but only from the waist up and a fish from the waist down. And its this result of indecision during panic and trying to escape that results in the familiar half-goat, half-fish from of Capricorn.
Zeus finally reappears back in his own form and battles against Typhon, but he was however defeated. Typhon proceeds then to cut out the tendons of Zeus’ hands and feet and therefore unable and helpless to move. Typhon hid the tendons in a cave in the land of Cilicia. The draconic being known as Delphyne, a half-serpent, half-woman creature was tasked by Typhon to guard Zeus’ tendons.
Between the gods Hermes and Aegipan, they were able to steal back Zeus’ tendons and return them, so Zeus could become whole again. With his strength restored, Zeus was now able to battle Typhon again and this time, defeated him hurling thunderbolts at him. For Aegipan’s role in this battle the Titan, Zeus set the Capricorn constellation up in the stars to honor him.
Aegipan or Pan?
Well now that all depends… some scholars will say that Aegipan is a separate deity from Pan like Nomios and Phorbas who are collectively called the Panes. Other scholars will say that the Panes are merely different aspects of the same god, in this case, Pan.
Additionally, Aegipan is sometimes said to be the father of Pan and not Hermes. It can create for a lot of confusion. Which is what Pan is good at and hence the origin of the word panic. There is also a 5th century B.C.E. Greek vase depicting both Pan and Aegipan as separate beings.
Pan And Demeter
In this story, Demeter and Poseidon are married. After a falling out with Poseidon and the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, Demeter became very distraught, clothing herself in black and hiding away in a cave. Because of this, with Demeter being an agricultural and fertility goddess, nothing grew and there came a famine upon the land. None of the gods knew where Demeter had gone. Pan returned to his home of Arcadia and began wandering the country side and mountains. Eventually, Pan made his way to Mount Elaios where he found Demeter hiding in her cave. Pan reported back to Zeus that he had found Demeter and the Moirai was sent to Demeter and negotiated a peace between her and Hades that resulted in the familiar cycle of seasons.
Pan And Echo
Another nymph (a minor mountain deity) by the name of Echo. Most stories have her spurning Pan’s advances and eventually she fades away, leaving behind only her voice to answer or echo Pan’s calls to her.
Beauty Contest – This story tells how Echo, being a rather beautiful nymph and musically inclined; being able to sing and play several different instruments. Like all her nymph sisters, Echo lived deep within the forests, spurning the love of mortals and immortals alike.
Before this, there had been an Achilles, the son of Zeus and the Lamia. Now Achilles was incredibly handsome and along with several others, entered a beauty contest with Aphrodite. Acting as judge was Pan who was the most fairest of them all. Aphrodite grew angry with Pan and she cursed Pan with an unrequited love for Echo, whom he pursued relentlessly.
To try and reconcile this version of the story with the below one in Daphnis & Chloe, it makes sense that in his madness, that Pan would incite his shepherd followers to descend upon Echo to tear her apart.
That afterword, Gaia taking pity and having favored Echo, gathers up the pieces of her broken, scattered body to the earth and that all that remained was Echo’s voice. It really makes sense that in mourning, that Echo is chasing after the sound of Echo’s voice every time he hears her repetitive call. It makes sense for Pan to be mentioned as forever chasing after his student that he can never find.
Daphne & Chloe – This story has Echo getting torn to pieces by shepherds after Pan incites them to riot and Gaia then gathering up the broken pieces of Echo’s body to hide within the earth. That only thing to remain was Echo’s repeating voice.
Thebes, Egypt – Here, there was a cave that was shaped like a shepherd’s pipe and a marble statue of a satyr. Pan visited this cave and was delighted by the music of the flute, yet held firmly to Echo in fear so she wouldn’t echo a response to the marble statue.
Apuleius, The Golden Ass – A 2nd century C.E. Roman novel, the author Apuleius describes Pan as sitting by the banks of a stream with Echo in his arms as he teaches her his music and songs.
Suda – In this fragments of poetry and story, Echo is described as bearing the children Iambe and Iynx to Pan.
There must have been a real relation between Echo and Pan and not just the lusty, rutting of a goat-god. It’s unfortunate as it does seem the ire of Aphrodite cause Pan to go into madness and kill his one real love. Given the lusty reputation of Pan for chasing nymphs, Echo’s demise being caused by Aphrodite seems to have been over looked and lumped in as just another failed conquest.
In this story, Pan is in a rut, chasing after the Queen of Lydia, Omphale. On the night that Pan was to arrive, Omphale persuaded Hercules to switch clothes with her. So when an amorous Pan showed up and slipped into Omphale’s bed, he’s promptly kicked across the room by Hercules.
After that, Pan banned the wearing of any clothes at his religious rites and rumors began spreading about Hercules being a transvestite.
Pan And Selene
Selene is considered perhaps the greatest of Pan’s sexual conquests. He managed to woo and seduce the moon goddess Selene by wearing a sheep skin in order to hide his black goat features. Seeing her reflection in the white sheep skin, Selene came down from the night sky and Pan was able to woo and seduce her. By one account, this is how “The Man in the Moon” came to be.
Pan And Psyche
Thankfully, we can see that Pan isn’t all lusty goat-god out to ravage everyone he sees. After Psyche lost her lover, Eros, she went wandering in great despair. When Psyche’s wandering brought her the banks of a river, she intended to throw herself in it to drown.
Luckily for Psyche, both Pan and Echo were nearby as Pan was teaching Echo his songs. Seeing Psyche in her despair, Pan called her to him. Seeing how love-sick she was, Pan told Psyche not to kill herself but instead to make prayers and seek out the attention of Eros so she could eventually draw him back to her. After receiving the advice, Psyche went on her way.
The idea of Pan’s name becoming associated with the meaning of “all” and Pan being a god of all, a universal deity comes about during Roman times. Over a period as the meanings of a word or words change or become confused.
It makes sense, Pan being a god of the wild places and all of nature, even human nature.
Pan Is Dead!?!
In Plutarch’s “The Obsolescence of Oracle,” he mentions that Pan is the only Greek god who is dead. According to this account, during the reign of Tiberius (between 14-37 C.E.) there had come news of Pan’s death to a sailor by the name of Thamus. The ship that Thamus was one was headed for Italy and when they passed by the Echinades islands, specifically, the island of Paxi, a divine called out to Thamus asking: “Thamus, are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.” The voice is to have called out three time to Thamus and when they reached their destination, Thamus spread the word of Pan’s passing much to others dismay.
The Rumors Of Pan’s Demise….
Now, it has been put forward by others such as Robert Graves, Salomon Reinach and James S. Van Teslaar, that Thamus and those onboard the ship may have misheard what was said. That it was: “the all-great Tammuz is dead” and not “Thamus, Great Pan is dead.” As the phrase spoken, “Thamus Panmegas tethneke” that is to have been said could easily have been misunderstood by those who didn’t speak the language.
When Pausanias traveled through Greece a century later after Plutarch, he discovered that a good many of Pan’s shrines and sacred places were still very much so in use. Jump forward to the 18th century C.E. and Christians have taken Plutarch’s words for gospel truth and have repeated it for history and allegorical truths with the passing of older, ancient orders and for a new age. Poets like John Milton have used the cry of: “Great Pan is dead!” taken to using this line in their poetry.
Are Greatly Exaggerated
To complicate this, even if Pan were dead, he wouldn’t have been the first deity or immortal to die. There’s Chiron, who died of a poisoned arrow and then you have Dionysus who was killed by the Titans. You could count the gorgon Medusa among this number for Greek immortals, only the stories will say she was really just mortal as the Greeks cling to the idea that an immortal can’t really, truly die. That’s only the Greek mythology without touching any other mythologies.
Seeing as this looks like it all stems from a misunderstanding or mistranslation that once the 18th century arrived, took off in people’s imaginations. When looking among the Neopagan, New Age and Wiccan crowd, the veneration and honoring of Pan as an aspect of the Horned God is still very active.
Margaret Murray, in 1933 wrote in her book “The God of the Witches” a theory how Pan was worshiped in Europe by a witch cult. This book is what has contributed to many modern Pagan and Wiccan religions using the Horned God as a symbol of male sexuality and prowess.
The important thing to remember with the 18th century is that this when Pan also makes a come back in literature. He makes an appearance in “The Wind and the Willows.” James Barrie’s famous character of Peter Pan is in part based off of Pan. Not just the last name of Pan, but a strong connection is made in “Peter Pan in Kensington’s Garden” where a young Peter is seen riding a goat.
That’s just a few of the works of literature or poetry to be inspired by and use Pan.
The Devil You Know…
One thing that seems so obvious, when looking at most Christian versions of the devil is the similarity of imagery with Pan, the horns and the cloven hooves. Much of medieval and even post-medieval Christian imagery in literature and art depicts a dark caricature of Pan as the devil or Satan. It really seems unmistakable. Ronald Hutton has noted that this imagery tends to be more modern and is influenced by Pan’s popularity during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Pushan – Hindu God
A Vedic solar god and guardian of flocks and herds. This is more of a modern idea as scholars see Pushan’s name as originating from a Proto-Indo-European god: Péhusōn, an important pastoral deity. It is thought that Péhusōn shares a root word with the English word “pasture.” As a result, the idea then comes that Pushan is a cognate of Pan. The German scholar, Hermann Colitz proposed the idea in 1924 of connecting Pan with Pushan.
Faunus – Roman God
The ancient Romans identified Pan with their own woodland deity of Faunus or Inuus.
Faunus is a vegetation deity as well as a god of prophecy and shepherds, so it’s easy to see how the Romans would come to equate the two gods as being one and the same. It is noteworthy to mention that only after the Faunus’ association with Pan did his depiction in art begin to change and become more like Pan’s with the goat hooves and horns. Some Roman accounts have Faunus as the son of the god Mars (Greek Ares) instead of Mercury (Greek Hermes). Faunus is known as the father of Bona Dea or Fauna.
Inuus being a fertility god and a god of shepherds was often used more as an epitaph of Faunus rather than a separate deity.
Other names: ΑΓΔΙΣΤΙΣ, Ἄγδιστις
Etymology – Of Mount Agdistis
Agdistis is a hermaphroditic deity who originates in Anatolian mythology. They would later be introduced and imported into the Greek and Roman myths, where they would, like a good many other local deities, become absorbed by a more popular deity.
Very simply, as is extrapolated from the mythological evidence and what little is known, Agdistis as a hermaphrodite themselves, they are the deity of hermaphrodites and eunuchs, a deity of healing, benevolent in nature and who’s sacred plant is the Almond tree.
Parentage and Family
Cybele – Like too many Greek stories, Zeus can’t keep his pants zipped and rapes some goddess or mortal woman, if he doesn’t seduce them.
Papas – The best I could find for this, is that the name Papas is a Greek surname meaning Priest. So perhaps one of Cybele’s priests is the parent of Agdistis. Again, by rape or seduction from Zeus, in Greek mythology.
Pausanias Version – The Sky-God Zeus and Earth-Mother Gaia are mentioned as the parents of Agdistis. Though some have noted that Ouranos should be listed as the father and not Zeus. Given the reputation that Zeus has in the mythologies, it seems like everyone is trying to make a connection, no matter how it comes across.
Attis – By way of the river nymph Nana impregnating herself with an almond seed.
Epithet Of Cybele
The name Agdistis is generally taken as an epithet of Cybele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother Goddess of Rome.
In addition, is the theory passed around by scholars that Agdistis may just be part of a continuous line of androgynous deities out of Anatolia. Some of the names are Andistis, the name of a potentially ancient Phrygian deity and Adamma that dates to the Kizzuwatna kingdom during the 2nd millennia B.C.E.
Cults Of Agdistis
This shouldn’t be too surprising Agdistis would have her own worshipers and followers before getting absorbed into the larger myth associated with Cybele.
While some like Hesychius and Strabo make the case for Agdistis being another name that Cybele is known as in their place of worship in Pessinus; there are a number of ancient inscriptions that clearly show the two gods as being separate. Some have been found in Mithymna and Paros.
As an Anatolian goddess, Agdistis’ cults and worship could be found in Attica, Egypt, Lesbos, Panticapeum, Piraeus and Rhamnus at different points in history between 250 B.C.E. and 3 B.C.E.
Agdistis’ shrine in the Philadelphia found in Asia Minor held a strict code of conduct and behavior. Interestingly enough, in other places like Sardis, inscriptions have been found that forbade the priests of Zeus from participating in Agdistis’ mysteries. Not surprising given the nature of some of the stories that would later become connected between the two.
Goddess Of Healing!
There is apparently supposed to be some evidence found among ancient inscriptions that Agdistis may have really been a goddess of healing and one who was good-natured before any later myths do drastic changes to her nature.
As a deity separate from Cybele, Agdistis was a mountain deity found on Mount Dindymus near the city of Pessinus.
You Called Him A Daimon!
Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.
Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.
Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.
Strange Deity In A Strange Land
Most people are familiar with Agdistis’ part in the Greek and Roman myths when she has become combined and subsumed with the myths of Cybele and Attis.
Anatolian Goddess – Before the drastic changes to her myth, Agdistis had been a benevolent goddess of healing. Accepted for as they are until later changes are made and forced to this goddess as she and many others are absorbed into the larger myth of Cybele and adopted by other cultures, namely Greece and Rome.
Agdistis is a hermaphrodite or androgynous being; having both the male and female sexual organs. This dual nature of Agdistis made them symbolic of the wild and uncontrollable nature. This is an aspect that was seen as so threatening to the other gods that they sought to destroy Agdistis. The one explanation found or given is that with Agdistis being a hermaphrodite, they held a huge sexual appetite and the gods were unable to handle it. They felt that this being could and should only be one gender or the other and for the gods, it was easier to remove the male sexual organs.
There are a lot of ancient inscriptions that plainly and clearly show Agdistis as being separate from Cybele. However, later, Agdistis’ name would become one of Cybele’s many epithets. A common occurrence for many localized gods and goddess of Phrygia as gods were imported into Greece and then Rome. Add to this, many deities of a foreign place were often seen as being the same god, just known by another name, particularly with Rome’s penchant for expansion and conquering.
There are multiple versions of the story for how Agdistis is attacked by the other gods and is castrated, how Attis is born and that Agdistis, now Cybele falls in love with the youth Attis, promising to make him immortal.
How in some versions, Attis is punished for falling in love with his mother, how instead of keeping his vow to Cybele to only follow her, that he falls in love with another and that a jealous, angry Cybele drives Attis and the other guests at a wedding mad. How after, regretting her actions that she pleads to Jupiter/Zeus to restore Attis. One version of the story has both Agdistis and Cybele as separate beings who both fall in love with Attis.
Getting absorbed into the greater whole and myths involving Cybele and Attis has meant a lot of changes and not necessarily for the better. The stories now turn this once benevolent goddess of healing into some sort of sex crazed monster that the other gods couldn’t handle. And when Agdistis gives birth or is part of siring a son, Attis, they’re so driven by lust and jealousy they drive their own offspring into madness and suicide. That is not a happy way to end things.
I have to add in the double standards that it’s okay for Pan and the numerous satyrs to be sex-crazed or how about the numerous love affairs that Zeus is credited with? The only thing I can comment on is that this is an ancient people and their different cultures who are long since gone, even though we have their stories.
The Greek Myths
Dionysus & Agdistis – With Agdistis being a hermaphrodite, the other deities of Mount Olympus couldn’t handle the huge sexual appetite that a being like Agdistis is perceived to have.
The solution? Make Agdistis single gender like the other gods.
Dionysus or Liber makes a potion that they mix in with Agdistis’ drink so they pass out asleep. It is then that Dionysus ties Agdistis’ genitals to a tree or sometimes their own foot. This way, when Agdistis jumps up from their sleep, they rip off their own genitals.
From Agdistis’ spilled blood that hit the earth, an almond tree is to have sprung up. The nymph Nana, the daughter of the river god Sangarius is said to have picked some of the almonds and either eat them or when laying them on her lap, becomes pregnant and gives birth to the god Attis.
Attis & Agdistis
The story continues, when Attis grew up, he was considered extremely handsome and Agdistis fell in love with him. Their own child and in many ways creepy. Attis’ adoptive relatives had plans for the youth to marry the daughter of the King of Pessinus. Other, slight variations to this story have the King punishing Attis with marriage to his daughter for the incestuous affair with his mother.
In either event, when the two are making their marriage vows and ceremony, Agdistis appears and causes all of the wedding guests to become mad. Both Attis and the King wind up castrating themselves. The Princess cuts off her own breasts. As a result of the self-inflicted wounds, Attis dies and a suddenly grieving Agdistis pleads with Zeus to restore Attis to life. Zeus intercedes with the promise that Attis won’t die and will be reborn.
Incidentally, a hill or mountain by the same name of Agdistis in Phrygia is where Attis is believed to have been buried.
Other variations to this story have both Agdistis and the goddess Cybele falling in love with Attis.
The Roman Version – In one version of the myths, Cybele, known as Agdistis is thought to have been a hermaphrodite, having been born of the earth where Jupiter’s sperm fell. The gods castrated Agdistis who then becomes the goddess Cybele. Where the severed pieces of Agdistis’ manhood fell, an almond tree grew. The fruit of this tree impregnated the nymph Nana when she placed an almond on her womb. She later gave birth to the god Attis. The baby Attis was abandoned by Nana as she was afraid of her father. The baby Attis was discovered and saved by shepherds. Attis would grow up to become Cybele’s lover.
Pausanias’ Version – Pausanias identifies the Phrygian Sky-God and Earth-Goddess as being Zeus and Gaia.
In Pausanias’ version of the story, while sleeping, Zeus had some of his sperm fall on the ground. This, of course, created a Daimon that was hermaphroditic, having the sexual organs for both male and female. This Daimon would be called Agdistis, another name for Cybele. The other gods feared Agdistis and cut off the male organs. This proceeded to create an almond tree. The daughter of the river Saggarios then took the almond fruit and held it to her bosom where it vanished. The daughter would find later that she was pregnant and give birth to Attis.
Other Versions Of The Story
In one version of the myths, Cybele was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Agdistis. It should be noted, that Attis is very strongly and likely an invention and later addition to Cybele’s myth.
A slight variation to this story is that while Gaia, as the Great Mother slept on a rock called “Agdo,” the god Zeus raped Gaia and brought about Agdistis’ birth.
Depending on the version of the story read, there are different accounts to the sequences of events and who is involved, a river nymph or king’s daughter that Attis marries.
It certainly reads as a very conflicting story that will vary by which author relates it. There have been a good many changes to the story, especially considering how much Attis appears to be a later addition by the Romans. At the same time, myths are evolving and changing and shouldn’t stay completely stagnant.
Hermaphrodite Versus Intersex
The entire story of Agditis reflects people’s limited understanding and dates back several thousands of years ago. It reflects an era of a lack of medical understanding and cognitive and religious biases that people wanted to enforce.
If you came here looking for justification for persisting to use the outdated and older term of Hermaphrodite for today’s usage. Well no. With an increased and better understanding of Medical Science and biology of just what is happening and going on, the proper term to use is Intersex. No two cases will be exactly alike and there’s a lot going on with why it happens.
People are fallible and often, no amount of current, improved, better understanding of Medical Science and Facts will change a viewpoint. Worse, is when a person double downs on their cognitive and religious biases. The equivalent of hands over the ears, screaming “la la la! I can’t hear you!” and they don’t want to budge on what they learned as being true, right, and correct.
Hermaphrodite gets used in the ancient myths, especially those of Greek and Roman stories to reflect the time era, and what was understood and it’s an effort to try and present the myths as found. Hey, look what I found in the dustbin of mythology, and sometimes, it just isn’t pretty of what happens, was believed and justified.
Cybele Part 2
Attis & Cybele
This story is one of the major myths involving Cybele and they often include her relationship with Attis, a youthful consort to the goddess. Attis is noted too as being the name of a Phrygian deity. Further, Attis doesn’t become a part of the myth with Cybele until the Roman poet Catullus references him with Cybele as Magna Mater and as the name of the head priest for the Galli. Additionally, pine cones are used as symbols of Attis’ death and rebirth.
Attis – As a Phrygian deity, Attis is the god of vegetation, his death and resurrection is symbolic of the death and rebirth of vegetation and the harvest with each winter and spring. The name Attis in Phyrgia was a common name and one used for priests. In the myths linking Attis with Cybele as her consort; wherever Cybele’s worship spread, Attis’ worship went as well.
Imagery portraying Attis has been found at a number of Greek sites. Whenever Attis is shown with Cybele, he is shown as a younger, lesser deity to her. He is possibly even one of her priestly attendants. During the mid-2nd century B.C.E., various letters from the king of Pergamum to Cybele’s shrine in Pessinos all address the chief priest as “Attis.” So deity or priest tends to be a matter of personal interpretation with the myths of Attis.
Attis was Cybele’s young lover who had devoted himself to the goddess. He had a made a promise that he would always be faithful. As fate would have it, Attis in time fell in love with a nymph by the name of Sagaritis (or Sagaris) and they decided to marry. When Cybele learned of this marriage, she burst in on the marriage ceremony, inflicting Attis with madness and sending the other guests into a panic.
In his maddened state, Attis fled for the mountains. There, he stopped under a pine tree and proceeded to mutilate himself to the point of castrating himself and bleeding to death there beneath the pine tree.
When Cybele found her lover, the young Attis dead, she mourned her actions and deeply regretted them. She pleaded with the god Jupiter to restore Attis to life. Jupiter vowed that that pine tree would remain sacred and like the tree, Attis would live again. The blood that Attis shed is said to have become the first violets.
In the versions of the myths where Maeon is Cybele’s father – Maeon kills Attis, the baby whom he sires after committing incest with his daughter. Cybele manages, in this myth to restore Attis back to life.
Pausanias’ Version – Another story of Attis, this time with Agdistis as another name for Cybele follows much of the same story as previously mentioned. Only now, when the baby, Attis is born, he is left exposed and a ram comes, standing guard over the child. As the baby grew, his beauty became ever more apparent as more than human. Agdistis saw Attis and fell in love with him.
When Attis finally came of age, he was sent to Pessinos, a city in Phrygia to wed the King’s daughter. After the marriage ceremony was completed, Agdistis appeared, causing Attis, driving him mad in her jealously to the point of cutting off his own genitals. The madness was such, it effected other nearby, that even the king cut off his own genitals.
Shocked, Agdistis sought amends for what she had done and begged Zeus to restore Attis to life so that he would be reborn.
Ovid’s Version – In this one, Attis had fallen in love with Cybele who wanted to keep the boy at her shrine as a guardian. She commanded Attis to always be a boy. Attis declared in kind that if he lied, let the lover he cheated be his last.
As happens with these kinds of stories, Attis does cheat with the Nymph Sagaritis (or Sagaris). Her tree is cut down by Cybele, killing her the Nymph. Attis in response goes mad and hallucinates that the roof to his bedroom is collapsing on him. Attis runs towards Mount Dindymus where he calls out for Cybele to save him.
Hacking away at his own body with a sharp stone, Attis continues to cry out to Cybele that she take his blood as punishment and cuts off his genitals as that is what has caused him to cheat on Cybele.
Ultimately, this story of Attis’ self-mutilation and castration is the basis for the Galli, Cybele’s priest to castrate themselves as a show of devotion to the goddess.
Cybele & Dionysus
Similar to the story of Attis & Cybele, is the story of Dionysus & Cybele. The earliest reference to this myth in Greek mythos is around the 1st century B.C.E. in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
Like Attis, Cybele also cures Dionysus of his madness. Considering she’s the one who caused Attis’ madness, I would hope she would cure it too.
Both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cult shared many similarities. As foreign deities worshiped among the Greeks, both gods would arrive in chariots drawn by large exotic cats. Dionysus would come in his chariot pulled by tigers whereas Cybele’s chariot was drawn by lions. Both deities would be accompanied to the fanfare of wild, raucous music and a parade of exotic foreigners and lower class citizens of Greek society.
For the Hellenic Greeks, these two gods held wild temperaments that didn’t sit well with many affluent Greeks and were thus, warily worshiped.
Due to the similarities of both Dionysus’ and Cybele’s cults, in Athens, by the end of the 1st century B.C.E., the two cults were often combined.
Cybele & Sabazios
Sabazios is the Phrygian version to the Greek Dionysus. Under Greek influence, the name Sabazios is often used as an epithet for Dionysus and the two’s myths have become very intertwined.
Further Greek influences have Cybele equated with Rhea. By Phrygian traditions, Cybele is the mother of Sabazios. When Cybele is equated with Rhea, she is the nurse-maid and tutor to a young Dionysus after his mother Hera rejects him.
Orgia – It is thought that the Orgia, the Orgiastic cult of Dionysos-Sabazios may have originated with Cybele. When Sabazios had been wandering in his madness, he made his way to Cybele in Phrygia where she purified him and taught him the initiation rite for the Orgia. Sabazios is to have received his thyrsus and panther-drawn chariot while he went throughout all of Thrace to spread the Orgia. The Orgia certainly seems to have become associated with the celebrations of Cybele as the Great Mother or Mountain Mother in the writings of Strabo or as Euripides makes mention of in his play Bacchae.
As Nurse-Maid – In a story very similar to Dionysus’ being rejected by his mother Hera, it is Cybele, identified as Rhea and Grandmother to Dionysus who takes up the infant to care for him much like she did her own son Zeus. The god Hermes, tells Cybele how Dionysus will become a god later when he’s grown to manhood. Cybele’s priests the Korybantes use their loud drumming and chanting to drown out the cries of the infant in order to prevent Hera’s wrath from finding him to finish what she had started with trying to kill Dionysus when she cast him out. The story of Dionysus’ youth with Cybele continues with him grabbing lions for the Mother Goddess to hitch up to her chariots and later acquiring a lion-drawn chariot of his own.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
These two were turned into lions in myth by either Cybele or Zeus as punishment for having sex with one of their temples. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
Cybele was also especially noted for being a bee goddess.
Mother Of The Mountain – Goddess Of Mountains And Fortresses
As a goddess of mountains, cities and forts, Cybele’s crown was seen to take the form of a city wall, showing her role as a guardian and protector of Anatolian cities.
There is an inscription of “Matar Kubileya” found at a Phrygian rock shrine dating from the 6th century B.C.E. It is often translated to: “Mother of the Mountain.” It is a name that is consistent with Cybele and a number of other tutelary goddess who are all seen as “mother” and connected to a specific Anatolian mountain or other locations. In this sense, Cybele is seen as a goddess born from stone.
Cybele’s connection and association with hawks, lions and the mountainous regions of Anatolia show her role as a mother of the land in its wild, uninhabited state. She holds the power to rule, moderate or soften the unbridled power and ferocity of nature and to reign it in for the use of civilization.
Idaea – Mountain Goddess & Nymph
Cybele is often connected with Mount Ida in Anatolia where there is an ancient site of worship. Idaea is the name of the local mountain goddess or nymph who resided here. Where many goddess get absorbed into each, the name of one deity, Idaea in this case will become an epithet to the more well-known deity.
Goddess Of Nature And Fertility
As an ancient fertility goddess, Cybele’s worship is believed to have covered from Anatolia to Greece during the Archaic period, roughly 800 to 500 B.C.E and then into the Hellenistic era of 300 to 50 B.C.E.
Lions and sometimes leopards were shown to either side of Cybele to depict her strength.
Cybele is typically seen as a guardian and protector over all of a nature and a goddess of unbridled sex.
Along with Artemis, Cybele is seen as the “Great Huntress” and patron goddess and protector of the Amazons.
Magna Mātēr – The Great Mother
The Romans revered and knew Cyble as Magna Mātēr or the Great Mother, Rome’s protector. They also knew her as Magna Mātēr deorum Idaea, the great Idaean mother of the gods. It is a similar title to the Greek title for Cybele of Mētēr Theon Idaia, Mother of the Gods from Mount Ida. In the early 5th century B.C.E., she was known as Kubelē. In Pindar, she was known as “Mistress Cybele the Mother.” Cybele’s worship among the Greeks saw her easily identified and equated with the Minoan-Greek Goddess Rhea and the grain-goddess Demeter.
As Magna Mātēr, Cybele was symbolized by a throne and lions. She held a frame drum. A bowl used for scrying. A burning torch was also used to symbolize her bull-god husband Attis in his resurrection. For some like Lucretius, Magna Mater represented the world order. Her imagery hold overhead represented the Earth, thought to “hang in the air.” As the mother of all, the lions pulling her chariot represent the offspring’s duty of parental obedience. Magna Mater is seen as un-created and separate from and independent of all of her creations.
Under Imperial Rome, Magna Mater represented Imperial order and Rome’s religious authority throughout its empire. Emperor Augustus, like many of Rome’s leading families, claimed Trojan ancestry and a connection to Magna Mater. His spouse, empress Livia was seen as the earthly equivalent and representation of Magna Mater. Statuary of Magna Mater has Livia’s likeness.
While there are not a lot of documents or myths that survive regarding Cybele, it has been suggested that her Phrygian name of Mātēr indicated a role as a mediator between the boundaries of the known and the unknown, the civilized world and the untamed wilds, the living and the dead. The Imperial Magna Mater protected Rome’s cities and its agriculture. Ovid mentions how barren the earth was before Magna Mater’s arrival. The stories and legend of Magna Mater’s arrival to Rome are used to promote and exemplify its principles and Trojan ancestry.
Megalesia – Festival To Magna Mātēr
Also known as the Megalensia or Megalenses Ludi; under the Roman calendar, Cybele’s Spring festival of Megalesia was celebrated from April 4th to April 10th, a period of six days. This festival celebrated Cybele’s arrival in Rome along with the death and resurrection of her consort, Attis. This festival and the whole month of April were celebrated with an air of rejoicing and lavish feasts.
Exactly how the festival was celebrated is uncertain. What is known is that there were many religiously themed plays, games and activities. There are descriptions of mummery, war dancers wielding shields and knives and a lot of drumming and flute playing. As to the games, slaves were not allowed to participate. On the first day of Megalesia, there would be a feast held. These feasts were known for being very lavish and the Roman Senate passed a law limiting the amount that could be spent on these feasts. On April 10th, Cybele’s image would be publicly paraded to the Circus Maximus, chariot races would be held in her honor. A statue dedicated to Magna Mater with her seat on a lion’s back stood at the side of the race track barrier line.
Hilaria – Holy Week
In addition to the Megalesia festival, there is also a week-long festival known as Holy Week that starts from March 15th, also known as the Ides of March. That really gives a new meaning to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he’s told to beware the Ides of March. The entire festival is meant to have an air of celebration for the arrival of Spring and the Vernal Equinox.
The festival itself seems to have been established by Claudius as a means of claiming and honoring Trojan ancestry. As a result, the festival very likely grew and expanded over time as a celebration for the death and resurrection of Attis.
The Reed Entered – Also known as Canna Intrat, from the 15th to the end of the month, there is festival for Cybele and Attis that starts on the 15th or Ides, with Attis’ birth and his being left along the reed bank of the Sangarius river in Phrygia before either shepherds or Cybele find him. People known as Cannophores will carry away the reeds. During this time, there is a nine-day period of abstinence from eating bread, fish, pomegranates, pork, quinces and likely wine. Only milk was allowed to be drunk during this period.
The Tree Enters – Also known as Arbor Intrat, March 22nd marks the date of Attis’ death under a pine tree. It is observed. People known as Dendrophores or “Tree Bearers,” after sacrificing a ram, will cut down a tree and carry it to Magna Mater’s temple for a mourning period of three days.
Tubilustrium – March 23rd, this is an old, archaic holiday for the Roman god Mars. The tree has now been laid to rest in Magna Mater’s temple. Mars’ priest, the Salii will do a traditional beating of their shields accompanied by trumpets and other loud music from the Corybantes. Overall, this is a day of mourning.
The Day of Blood – Also known as Sanguis, Sanguem or Dies Sanguinis March 24th. The rites can only be described as frenzied as mourners and devotees whip or scourge themselves in order to sprinkle the alters and Attis’ effigy with their blood. Some of the rites involve castration and the tree is buried, symbolizing Attis’ placing within his tomb. This day was also to honor Bellona, a war goddess. Her priests were known as the Bellonarii and practiced mutilation along with using hallucinogenic plants.
The Day of Joy – Also known as Hilaria, on the Roman Calendar this marks the Vernal Equinox. It takes place on March 25th and celebrates Attis’ resurrection. It must be noted that is a day of celebration and not the previous mournful tones and rites. I’m also not the only one to have noted a similarity to the Christian association of Jesus’ resurrection.
Day of Rest – Also known as Requietio, March 26th. What can we say? Partying is hard work.
The Washing – Also known as Lavatio, March 27th. This is when Cybele’s sacred stone, the Pessinos’ black meteor is taken from the Palatine temple to the Porta Capena along a stream called Almo. This stream is a tributary to the Tiber river. Here, the stone would be bathed by a priest. The return trip back to the temple would be conducted by torchlight. It’s noted by Ovid as being an innovation by Augustus.
Initium Caiani – March 28th. This particular part of the festival is found on the Calendar of Philocalus. It is likely an initiation ceremony that was held at the Vatican sanctuary for the mysteries of Magna Mater and Attis.
Pine cones are symbols of Cybele and the related myth of Attis. They are believed to have been worn by Cybele’s priests and followers as one of her symbols. As a protective symbol, a pine cone would be affixed to the top of a pole and placed out in vineyards to protect the crops. Pine cones would also be placed at the entrances to homes, gates and other entrances.
A type of hand drum or tambourine, the tympanon was used by the Greeks to denote worship in a foreign cult or religion. Of the foreign deities the Greek adopted, only Cybele is ever shown holding the tympanon. On the cuirass of Ceasar Augustus’ Prima Porta statue, Cybele’s tympanon is shown lying at the goddess Tellus’ feet.
The Trojan War
Among the Romans, Cybele was rewritten to be a Trojan goddess and thus making her an ancestral goddess through the Trojan prince Aeneas.
The Trojan War was a major and significant war among the Greeks. Many deities got themselves involved. Cybele was one of many such gods to do so. When Prince Aeneas was attacked by Turnus, leading the Rutulians, Cybele prevented Turnus from setting fire to the Trojan fleet by turning all of the ships into nymphs.
Virgil’s Aeneid – As Berecyntian Cybele, she is the mother of Jupiter and the protector of prince Aeneas. Cybele gave the Trojans her sacred tree to use for building their ships. Cybele then pleaded with Jupiter to make the resulting ships indestructible. Aeneas and his men are able to flee Troy, heading for Italy, where Rome would be founded. Once the they arrived in Italy, the ships all turned into sea nymphs or Oceanids.
Yes, you read that correctly. During the early Roman Imperial era, the poet Manilius introduces Cybele into classic Greco-Roman zodiac. It upsets the balance as there’s already twelve zodiac houses represented by a corresponding constellation. Each of which is ruled by a different deity, the Twelve Olympians in Greek and the Di Consentes in Rome. Manilius places Cybele as a co-ruler with Jupiter over Leo the Lion, which is noted for being in direct opposition to Juno who rules Aquarius.
Some modern scholars have taken note of how, as Leo rises over the horizon, that Taurus the Bull sets. Symbolically, this is seen as the lion dominating or defeating the bull. The idea then gets put forth that the celebrations of Megalensia includes this symbolism with lions attacking bulls. As a Spring festival, the date for the celebration of Megalensia is around April 12th when farmers would dig in their vineyards to break up the soil and sow their crops. This would also be when farmers would castrate their cattle and other livestock.
It has been suggested by some scholars that Cybele’s name can be traced to that of Kubaba, a deified queen who ruled during the Kish Dynasty of Sumer. Kubaba was worshipped at Carchemish and would later be Hellenized to the name of Kybebe. Kubaba was also known to the Hittites and Hurrians in the region. There isn’t enough etymological evidence to support this. However the names Kubaba and Matar do seem to have become closely associated. Such as the genital mutilations that are found both within Cybele’s and Kybebe’s cults. Much like many other localized mountain goddesses in Anatolia, who are called “mother” and among many who would become identified with Cybele.
Christianity And The Book Of Revelation
Of interest, is that the author of the Book of Revelations, identified by modern scholars as John of Patmos is likely to have been referring to Cybele when he mentions “the mother of harlots who rides the Beast.”
Christianity – Kept to a nutshell, the early Christians, once Christianity became the state religion of Rome, began to view and regard Cybele’s cult as evil, even demonic. Under Emperor Valentinian II in the 4th century C.E., he officially banned the worship of Cybele and the goddess followers and devotees fell under a lot of hate and persecution. Under the rule of Justinian, objects of worship for Cybele and her temples were destroyed and eventually by the 6th century C.E., Cybele’s cult seems to have vanished.
It has been noted by others how the Basilica of the Vatican is apparently the same exact spot for where Cybele’s Temple once stood and that Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the same place where Attis was once worshiped. Some will even go so far as to suggest that revering the Virgin Mary is merely another aspect of worshiping Cybele and many other ancient Mother Goddesses.
Montanism – Christianity – Also known as New Prophecy – Now I do find it fascinating that around 100 C.E. a former Galli priest of Cybele by the name of Montanus formed a Christian sect that worked to oppose Pauline Christianity.
In Pauline Christianity, those who followed the teachings of the Apostle Paul, it held a major influence into the formation of Christianity in terms of scriptural interpretations, cannon and dogma.
Montanus’ sect was considered very heretical to the Catholic Church and would eventually see all of its followers excommunicated.
In brief, Montanus believed himself to be a prophet of god and that women could also be bishops and presbyters. Where much of early Christian theology diminished the power and presence of women within religion, Montanus’ sought to keep it.
It’s also interesting to note a rather prominent example of a Pagan religion that Christianity and former followers of other religions attempting to adopt and add in their beliefs. Like Montanus equating Jesus with Attis and the celebrating of Easter with the resurrection of Jesus during Holy Week, the days between Good Friday and Easter is also the same period that Hilaria, observing and celebrating Attis’ resurrection was held.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Just as Cybele is the Great Mother of the Roman Pantheon, Rhea, her Grecian counterpart is the Great Mother of the Greek Pantheon of Gods. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Cybele with Rhea.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Like Cybele, Rhea can help in easing the pain of childbirth and soothe the pain and difficulties that come with menstruation.
Demeter – Greek 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.