Category Archives: Wisdom
Also called: Ananse (Trinidad and Tobago), Annancy or Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua), Anansi Drew (The Bahamas), Anansi Kokroko (Wise Spider), Anancyi, Ananansa, Annecy (West Indian), Ayiyi, Kacou Ananzè, Ba Anansi (Suriname), Ba Yentay (South Carolina), Bra Anansi, Hapanzi, Nansi or bra spaida (Jamaica, Sierra Leone), Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire), Bru Nansi (Virgin Islands), Kwaku Anansi (Akan-Ashante), Nanzi, Nancy, Aunt Nancy (Gullah; South Carolina), Miss Nancy, Sis’ Nancy, Kuenta di Nanzi, Spider (Temne), Cha Nanzi (Aruba), Hanansi, Pablo Barnansi (S. Quanderer), Compé Anansi, Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire), Gede Zariyen, Zarenyen, or Ti Malice (Haiti)
Etymology: Spider (Akan)
Anansi is the spider trickster god of the Akan, Ashanti people in Ghana and several West African folklore and folktales. As a trickster, he is able to shape-shift into a human form. His presence as an important cultural figure has made his way into Caribbean mythology, spreading to Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, over to the Netherlands Antilles, the West Indies, Suriname, Sierra Leone and likely several other places. Like a good many trickster figures, Anansi is known for causing and getting into mischief or trouble before using his wits, cunning and guile to wheedle his way out of the troubles and problems. His stories and exploits are numerous, with many regional variations to his tales. As a trickster, Anansi is just as likely to help as to hinder someone.
As with all good stories, Anansi tales began with being told in oral traditions, survived, thrived, and made their way across the Atlantic Ocean to North America during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade era. These stories would play an important part to maintaining cultural identities for many enslaved West Africans. Many of these Anansi stories would be stories and lessons of how to rise up and outsmart those who would harm and oppress the less powerful.
Animal: Fox, Rabbit, Spider
Mineral: Spider Silk
Patron of: Storytellers,
Sphere of Influence: Cunning, Freedom, Messages, Morals, Proverbs, Stories, Trickery, Wisdom, Wits
A trickster, Anansi is often shown in many different forms and representations depending on the artistic source. In many stories, Anansi is a spider while in other stories, he is more anthropomorphized as either a spider with a human face or a human with spider-like features. The original spider-man.
In the Southern United States, when the Anansi came and his named changed to Nancy and Aunt Nancy with anglicized spellings, he became a spider woman and female figure.
One story has Nyame becoming so angry with Anansi’ tricks and antics that he turns Anansi into his spider form.
What’s In A Name?
Letters, letters are in a name…
The name Anansi is the Akan word for spider. Where he is called Kwaku or Kweku Anansi, the word Kweku means Wednesday as that is the day that Anansi’s soul first appeared. Given that Wednesday is named for Woden or Odin, the Norse god of Wisdom, there’s a very good coincidence here for names and meanings.
Parentage and Family
Nyame – Father & Sky-God; some regional variations place Anansi as his son, others don’t.
Ya Nsia – Mother. Asaase Yaa, the Earth Mother is also given as Anansi’s mother.
Where Nyame is given as Anansi’s father. There’s one story where Esum the Night, Osrane the Moon, and Owia the Sun are given as Nyame’s son.
It makes sense to me that these three should be counted as Anansi’s brothers.
Okonore Yaa – Wife, she is also known by the names of Aso, Crooky, Konori or Konoro, and Shi Maria.
The name Konori likely comes from the Hausa word koki for a “female spider.”
Afudohwedohwe – Pot-bellied son.
Anansewa – Anansi’s beautiful daughter, introduced in Efua Sutherland’s stories where Anansi sets out to find his daughter a proper suitor.
Nankonhwea – Son with a spindly neck and legs.
Ntikuma – Firstborn son.
Tikelenkelen – Big-Headed son.
Singular – Obosom
In Akan Spirituality, Anansi is considered an Obosom, a minor deity and spirit. The Abosom are all considered to be children and messengers of the great creator god Nyame. They could be male, female or a mixture of both.
The term Abosom reminds me of the Greek term Daimon (not Demon!) when referring to smaller, lesser & localized gods or spirits. Especially they were likely to be tied to one place such as a river, tree, or mountain.
Abosom is also the Ashanti term for pantheon, so all the gods. Or every divine being who isn’t the great creator Nyame.
With Anansi, he isn’t necessarily revered the same way as the other Abosom in Akan Spirituality or if he’s even seen in the same light. That too can vary and can be up for debate. Which is also understandable, Anansi is a trickster figure. With many trickster figures, you are playing with fire and in Anansi’s case, that’s water that could potentially drown you if you’re not careful. When Anansi does get acknowledged, he is an Obosom of Wisdom.
Just how much of a divine being Anansi will be, varies by region and which stories about him are being told. In some, he’s a human named Spider that has done a few favors for Nyame and is granted extra powers, namely one of t hem being an extended life. He’s a son of Nyame or just one of many beings with some measure of power to separate them from being fully human. Or Anansi is the straight up animal trickster as seen in Native American lore with beings like Coyote and Raven and their stories.
In many of the Anansi stories, the spider is often Nyame’s messenger, acting as his go-between. For many of the Abosom, this is often a role they play for either Nyame, the Sky God or Asaase Yaa, the Earth.
There is a story where Anansi’ antics grew too much for Nyame and he replaced Anansi with Chameleon to be the Sky-God’s new messenger.
Maybe, most of the stories of Anansi aren’t so much as him creating the Universe, but often setting the precedence for why things happen the way they do. Anansi is credited with having created the first man and then Nyame breathing life into them. Or Anansi is convincing Nyame that people need the rain to stop a destructive fire, setting order to the course of the day, ect. Even death if Anansi hadn’t stolen from them.
Like many tricksters, Anansi also has stories revolving around him having brought agriculture, hunting and writing to the Earth for people to use. In the story where Anansi tried to hoard all the world’s wisdom and knowledge, he found it much easier to share and disperse this knowledge for everyone’s use.
As a trickster, Anansi doesn’t just rely on his wits and cunnings to get through scrapes. One of his many tricks is the ability to shape-shift. Not just physically from spider to man but the ability to take seeming weaknesses and turn them into virtues and strengths.
Weakness To Strength
That’s a vital and important lesson to learn. In many stories, Anansi is able to overcome an opponent or situation, not just by his wits but using a seeming weakness to a strength. Similarly, he will exploit an opponent’s weakness against them.
Insatiable Greed – Finding The Angles
That seems to be a reoccurring theme with several Anansi stories, where what he has, isn’t enough and he has to find some way to get more. Oftentimes, that more is food. Anansi is often looking for the angles and finding ways to get others to bring him food or he kills the other animals for food if he’s not outright stealing it.
Sometimes, in the course of Anansi’s covetous and insatiable greed, another character is able trick Anansi instead, outwitting him. That is a classic of trickster tales, where the trickster gets outwitted instead of outwitting everyone else.
Of course, it could be I’m misremembering and thinking far too much of a particular Gargoyles episode “Mark of the Panther” in season 2.
God Of Storytelling & Knowledge
Not only is Anansi the god of storytelling, but he is also the god of knowledge. This makes a lot of sense with how early in human history, much of the history involved, lessons, wisdom and knowledge imparted is through the use of stories.
Meaning Spider Stories in the Ashanti language. The Anansesem stories, like many stories began as an oral tradition. Such is the prominence of the spider stories, that the term Anansesem came to include all the different fables and stories. The Jamaican version of the Anansi stories are the most preserved of the spider stories and have close ties to their Ashanti origins. Especially with how the Anansi stories end with a proverb or moral given at the end.
Anthropologists have studied and found that humans are hard-wired for stories. Stories are important, they are an integral part and parcel of the human experience. They convey who we are as a people, where we came from, morals, lessons and how things came to be.
It seems very poignant, that stories seem very central to the Anansi tales, especially for a keeping one’s cultural identity. Especially in the face of so much adversity and the dark side of history with the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The most well known of the Anansi stories are those from Jamaica.
Like all trickster tales, the Anansesem not only entertain, they are also moral stories that often highlight his greed and other flaws along with his wit. The Anansesem stories cover a wide range of stories from the mundane and the subversive. Anansi as a folk hero is both an ideal as well as a cautionary figure of downfalls to be avoided.
It seems very poignant, that one of the roles that Tricksters carry is that of Culture-Bringer. That the very first story of Anansi, or at least the one to place as chronologically first is how Anansi comes to acquire all the stories. Frequently Trickster stories tell the importance of things, how they came to be, conflicts, shenanigans and more. Without stories to tell us who we are as a people, a great many aspects of history and culture are lost. With Anansesem, all stories, regardless of genre are considered spider stories.
Anansi-Tori – This is the name for the Spider stories among the Surinam people. In the capital city of Paramaribo, the Anansi-tori are a prominent part of the death rites. It’s important that these stories are only told during the night and never during the day, lest the dead come to listen, thereby causing the death of the storyteller or their parents. The Saramaca Bush people have a tradition that during the seven days that a body lays in the village death house, they tell the Anansi-Tori to the dead as entertainment. The Anansi-tori have also come to include the dances and songs sung during these rites.
The Spider stories are called Nansi in Guyana and Kuent’i Nanzi in Curacao.
Vive La Résistance! – The importance of the Anansesem stories is seen as a symbol of resiliency with slave resistance and survival. As a trickster, Anansi is frequently able to get the better of more powerful opponents using his trickery and cunning. As such, slaves used the stories of Anansi as inspiration for finding ways to resist and gain the upper hand on plantations, to give a sense of community, connection to their past in Africa and a way to maintain their cultural identity.
As the King of Stories, Anansi is not only the patron of storytellers, but those who live by their wits. Like many Caribbean deities, Anansi can be summoned with offerings of treats, smokes, and liquor.
Just be aware, if Anansi is bored by the story, he may not hang around for long.
A traditional opening for an Anansi story goes:
“This is my story which I have related. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.”
Another way to traditionally start a story is:
“We do not really mean; we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.”
All The Stories!
Also known as “How the Sky God’s stories became Anansi’s stories.” It is the most retold story of all the Anansi tales.
For you see, once upon a time, there were no stories. None. There were stories, but they were all kept by Nyame, the Sky God who had them all hidden away. Some versions of the story note about here how Anansi is Nyame’s son.
For Anansi, it doesn’t sit well with him that his father should be hoarding all the stories and as the world is a boring place, Anansi decides to find a way to get stories of his own. Using his silk webbing, Anansi climbs up to the heavens where his father is at and tries to buy the stories from Nyame, but Nyame refuses, he didn’t want to share the stories with anyone. Anansi kept insisting he can afford the price for Nyame’s stories. Nyame refutes Anansi still, saying that even the great kingdoms of Kokofu, Bekwai and Asumengya couldn’t afford his stories.
A sudden thought comes to Nyame and he asks Anansi, how he, someone so small and insignificant is going to be able to afford the price where others have failed. Undaunted, Anansi persists, saying he can afford the stories, just name the price.
Amused, Nyame relents and sets as high a price as he can, hoping that these impossible tasks would finally deter the spider. As to what these tasks were to be?
Anansi was to capture four of the most dangerous creatures known in the world. Onini the Python, the Mmoboro Hornets, Osebo the Leopard and lastly, the Fairy Mmoatia.
Smiling, Anansi promises Nyame that he will bring these four back and just for good measure, he will even throw in his own mother, Ya Nsia. Nyame accepted the offer, thinking that would be the end of it and told Anansi to start his quest.
Quest in hand, Anansi returns home to his family so he can consult them about his plan. Anansi talks with his mother, Ya Nsia about his plan to capture Onini the Python first. His wife, Okonore Yaa tells Anansi that he should cut a long branch from a tree and get some vines.
Anansi returns with the branch and vines and Okonore Yaa tells him to head down to the river where Onini lives. As the two pretend to argue, Onini overhears them and comes over, listening over whether Onini’s body was longer than the branch of a tree.
Onini, on hearing what Anansi and Okonore Yaa are arguing about, he quickly agrees to stretch out next to the branch to his full length to prove that he’s longer than the branch. No sooner has Onini stretched out than Anansi takes the vines to tie the python up.
As Anansi carries Onini back to Nyame, the spider cheerfully tells Onini about the bargain that he has made. Nyame nods acknowledgement to Anansi for one task accomplished and reminds the spider that there are still three other tasks to fulfill.
Anansi returns to consult with his family for the next task, which would be capturing the Mmoboro Hornets. Okonore Yaa comes up with an idea for Anansi to get a gourd and fill it with water. Carrying that gourd with him, Anansi went off to pay a visit to the Hornets. Once he arrived, Anansi looked around the bushes where the Hornets. Soon as Anansi spotted them, he carefully sprinkled water on the Hornets and then on himself. Grabbing a palm leaf from a nearby tree, Anansi covered his head just time as the swarm of angry Hornets came his direction. Holding out the wet palm leaf, Anansi explained that it had been raining and that he too was wet.
Anansi explained that this rain would be dangerous and that the Hornets might want to hide inside the gourd he brought. The Hornets agreed and soon had all flown inside to take shelter.
Once all the Hornets were in, Anansi stopped up the mouth of the gourd and proceeded to gloat for falling for his trick. Anansi continued with telling the Hornets about his bargain with Nyame as he carried the gourd with him.
Seeing that another task was completed, Nyame accepted the Hornets. He reminded Anansi that there were still two more tasks to go. Surely one of those tasks would prove to be too much for the Spider, Nyame thought.
Once more Anansi returned home triumphant. Now the task was for Osebo the Leopard. Once more Anansi and Okonore Yaa schemed together on a plan. What’s now considered the oldest trick in the book, Okonore Yaa told Anansi to dig a deep hole in the ground and cover it. Anansi caught on quickly to Okonore Yaa’s plan and told her he could take it from there.
Anansi headed off for the parts of the jungle where he knew Osebo hung around at. There, he proceeded to dig the hole and cover with brushwood as planned. Done, Anansi headed home, knowing that eventually Osebo would wander along and be likely to fall in.
Sure enough, the next morning, when Anansi returned, he found Osebo trapped down in the hole. Feigning sympathy, Anansi asked Osebo why he was trapped down there. Was it because Osebo had been drinking again? It seems this has been a problem of Osebo’s for a while. Continuing his act, Anansi asked Osebo if he wanted help. Despite Anansi’s suspicions, Osebo assured the spider that he wouldn’t eat them.
With Osebo knocked out, Anansi made a ladder and climbed down to tie up the leopard and cart him off to Nyame. All the while, Anansi gloated to Osebo when he woke about his bargain with the Sky God. Just like before, Nyame accepted Osebo from the spider and reminded Anansi that there were still more tasks to do.
Eventually Anansi agreed to “help” Osebo and got two long sticks that he cut with a knife. Anansi told Osebo to stretch out his arms, wide. This would leave Osebo vulnerable, who was unaware of Anansi’ plan. The wily spider threw his knife at Osebo when he attempted to climb out, the hilt of the knife hitting the leopard square on the head, hard enough to knock him out.
Once more Nyame accepted the latest of Anansi’s accomplishments. Just like before, Nyame reminded the spider that there were still a couple more tasks to complete. Anansi had not forgotten the deal and set off again back home.
The penultimate task, capturing the Mmoatia, the Fairy. This one won’t be so easy and Anansi sits down to think a while on the matter. After a time, Anansi goes and carves an Akua doll and then cover it the sap of a gum tree. That done, Anansi took some yams and mashed them up to place in the doll’s hand while the rest went into a bowl. Finally, Anansi took some string to tie around the doll’s waist so he could manipulate it.
Ready, Anansi took the doll down to the Odum tree where fairies were known to gather. The wily spider set up the doll and the bowl of mashed yams and then went to hide out of sight. Soon, Mmoatia appeared, lured away from her sisters by the smell of the yams.
Believing the doll to be a real person, Mmoatia asked if she could have some of the yams. Hidden, Anansi pulled on the string, making the doll nod it’s head. Delighted, Mmoatia went back to her sisters, asking if she’d be allowed to have some of the yams.
The sisters said yes and Mmoatia soon returned to the Akua doll and began to eat all the mashed yams. When she had finished, Mmoatia thanked the doll, however this time, Anansi didn’t pull on the string, so the doll didn’t respond. Infuriated at the doll’s lack of response, Mmoatia went to her sisters to complain about the lack of response.
Mmoatia’s sisters tell her to go back and slap the person for their insolence. Back she goes and on promptly slapping the doll, Mmoatia’s hand gets stuck from the sticky sap covering the doll. Stuck, Mmoatia complains again to her sisters, with one of her sisters commenting to slap the doll with her other hand. Mmoatia does so and that hand too, becomes stuck.
There is something remarkably hysterical about this, I can see the sisters realizing what’s going on, maybe they don’t like Mmoatia for some reason and she’s too insolent and arrogant to really understand that she’s getting tricked and that at this point, the sisters are getting in on it too.
I can just see where Mmoatia complains yet again that both hands are now stuck and the sisters, incredulous to the fact that she’s listened to them and gotten stuck, tell her to hit the doll again with her whole body. This has got to be a scene of where the sisters are looking to see if Mmoatia is really going to be that arrogant, insolent, even dumb enough to listen and they want to see if she’ll do it.
And yes, Mmoatia hits the Akua doll with her whole body, getting well and thoroughly stuck. Hilarity ensues, I can see all of Mmoatia’s sisters flying off in fits of laughter as Anansi emerges from where he’s been hiding to gloat over his success.
Just like the others, Anansi tied up Mmoatia and carried her off back to Nyame. Anansi also stopped on the way home to tell his mother Ya Nsia about the last task he had told the Sky-God he would do and that was to bring his own mother. I can see Mom rolling her eyes and “Yes child, of course child” as she accompanies Anansi back to Nyame.
Impressed by Anansi’ persistence, Nyame upheld his end of the bargain, bringing all the elders, the Kontire and Akwam chiefs, the Adontem, general of his army, the Gyase, the Oyoko, Ankobea and Kyidom. Nyame told all those present of Anansi’s deeds that no one else in the kingdom had been able to do. Nyame showed off each of the four, along with Anansi’ own mother. Everyone cheered as Nyame gifts all his stories, to now be known as Spider Stories to Anansi, naming him the Keeper of Stories and God of Storytelling
Variants – There are numerous variations to this story. Some retellings will omit involving Anansi’s wife and mother in the story. In some of the Caribbean stories, it is a Tiger from whom the stories originate. Other stories, the fairy Mmoatia will be solitary or a dwarf who can turn invisible. Sometimes the task of capturing the Python isn’t mentioned. In yet other stories, Osebo, the Panther is caught, getting tangled up in Anansi’ webs when trying to climb out of the pit. Or, Anansi captures Osebo when he offers to help the panther when he lowers a long branch down and tells Osebo to tie his tail to the branch. In this one, Osebo is killed and skinned by Anansi.
Anansi And The Dispersal Of Wisdom
Now that Anansi has all the stories, you’d think he’d go spread them around to tell and pass on the wisdom that they hold. Well no…
It seems Anansi was trying to hoard all that wisdom in a pot. The knowledge he has isn’t enough and he wants even more of it, just collecting it all. After a time, Anansi decides the pot isn’t safe enough to store all this wisdom and knowledge in and takes it to hide in a tall, thorny tree in the forest. Some accounts say this tree is a Silk Cotton Tree.
Anansi’s son, Ntikuma saw his father up to something and decided to follow at a distance to find out what was up. Staying hidden, Ntikuma saw that this pot was the largest one he had ever seen. As he watched, Ntikuma watched as his father struggled with carrying the pot up. Anansi tried tying the pot in front of him to no avail.
As Anansi grew ever more frustrated by his inability to carry the pot up, Ntikuma couldn’t help himself but laugh!
“Try tying the pot behind you and then climb!” Ntikuma called out.
So frustrated with his failed attempts to climb the tree, it perturbed Anansi more to realize that his own son was right behind him. In his frustration, the pot slipped from Anansi’s grip and fell, hitting the ground with all the wisdom spilling out of it.
Making matters worse, a storm was arriving, and the rain washed all the wisdom down to a nearby river stream. From there, the currents carried the wisdom out to the sea and spreading throughout the world.
Seeing what happened, an angry Anansi chased his son, Ntikuma all the way home through the downpour of rain. When Anansi caught up with his son, the spider realized what was the use of all that wisdom if all it takes is a child to put you in your place?
As for the wisdom, because it mixed with the water, that’s why everyone has a little bit within them, but not all of it.
Variation – A minor variation is that instead of getting angry with his son, Anansi listens, carrying the pot up the tree by the means suggested. While he is sitting there, Anansi comes to the realization that try as he might to know everything, there were still things that others could teach or tell him and the wily spider comes to an epiphany to dump the pot out for everyone who has need, to be able to have access to it when the wisdom mixed with the wind and water.
How Anansi Comes To Have A Long Hind End & How His Head Became Small
In this story, a famine comes to the land and Anansi tells his family that he’s going in search of food for them. On his way, Anansi comes to a stream where there are some people who end up being spirits. It seems these spirits were draining the water in hopes of being able to catch some fish. Intrigued, Anansi asks if he could join the spirits.
The spirits invited Anansi to join them and he soon saw that they were using their skulls to drain the river. That’s interesting. The spirits asked Anansi if they could remove his own skull so that he could help drain the river.
As they drained the water, the spirits sang a song: “We, the Spirits, when we splash the river-bed dry to catch fish, we use our heads to splash the water. Oh, the Spirits, we are splashing the water.”
Anansi liked the song and asked if he could sing it with them and the spirits agreed.
And so, Anansi and the spirits sang as they drained the stream enough that they could catch some fish. The spirits gave Anansi his share of the fish in a basket to take home. As they restored Anansi’s skull, the spirits warned him not to sing the song again that day or his skull would open and fall off.
Anansi assured the spirits that he wouldn’t sing that song again as he had more than enough fish. Soon, Anansi and the spirits parted ways.
The spirits began to sing their song again. Overhearing the song, Anansi began to sing along as well and presently, his skull fell off. Just as he had been warned. Anansi picked up his skull and cried out in embarrassment to the spirits that his head had fallen off!
The spirits heard him and came back. As they listened to Anansi apologize and beg for help, the spirits agreed to help him. As they restored Anansi’s skull, they warned him not to sing the song again as they would not return to help him.
No sooner had they parted ways, than the spirits began singing and Anansi over hearing them, just couldn’t help himself and started singing along. It must have had a catchy tune.
This time, as Anansi’s skull fell, he caught it with his rear end and ran from the stream. And that, is how Anansi comes to have such a small head and huge behind, due to his hard-headedness.
Nyame’s Messenger, Anansi; Why Men Commit Evil At Night, Children Play In Moonlight, And Why Disputes Are Settled During The Day
That, is a lengthy title for a story…
The Sky-God Nyame sired three children one day; Esum the Night, Osrane the Moon, and Owia the Sun. When each of the children came of age, Nyame sent them out on their own where they founded their own village. Of these children, Owia was Nyame’s favorite and decided that they should become chief.
Nyame devised a plan, wherein he secretly harvested a yam or “Kintinkyi.” The task was, that the son who could guess what Nyame had harvested, would become the next chief. In addition, the winner would receive Nyame’s royal stool.
As Nyame set about blackening his stool, his subjects were nearby and Nyame asked if any of them could guess his thoughts. Anansi happened to be there and said that he knew. Nyame then sent Anansi to go gather his sons from their villages. The plot twist here, is that Anansi didn’t really know what Nyame’s thoughts were and decided he would try to find out.
Anansi then took feathers from every known bird and covered himself with them. Then he flew high above Nyame’s village, startling the villagers. This brought Nyame out, who didn’t recognize Anansi’s disguise.
But, Nyame thought to himself, if Anansi were present, he’d know the name of this bird as the crafty spider had known that Nyame wanted his son Owia to win his royal stool. That all they had to do was guess the name of the yam. As Nyame pondered and mused to himself, it allowed for Anansi to overhear the Sky-God’s plan.
Away Anansi flew until he was far enough away to ditch his disguise. From there, Anansi went to Esum’s village and told them that their father wished to see them. Anansi made no mention of Nyami’s plans. Esum gave Anansi roasted corn by way of thanks. Soon after, Anansi made his way to Osrane’s village, delivering the same news he had told Esum. Osrane gave Anansi yam in thanks and again, shortly after, Anansi headed for Owia’s village.
Things were different at Owia’s village when Anansi arrived, bringing the news of Nyame’s desire to see his sons. Owia mentioned to Anansi that he wished his father would know of Owia’s accomplishments. Owia decided to treat Anansi as if he were his own father come and prepared the best feast that he could with sheep. With that treatment, Anansi decided to fill Owia in on what he hadn’t told the other brothers. That being the name of Nyame’s yam that he had harvested.
Anansi then fashioned a pair of drums that would beat out the yam’s name, Kintinkyi to help Owia remember. Anansi with Owia in tow, then went to collect up the other brothers as they returned to bring them to Nyame.
Nyame called an assembly as Anansi presented his three sons before everyone. The contest of guessing the yam’s name was then revealed to each of the sons. The eldest, Esum was allowed to guess first and he said “Pona.” Osrane, the second eldest then took his turn to guess and gave the name of “Asante.” Finally, it was Owia’s turn and remembering what Anansi had told him, said the name “Kintinkyi.” Everyone present cheered Owia’s success.
Nyame then took his eldest son, Esum and told him that as he had not paid attention when growing up, that Nighttime would be when evil deeds would be done. To Osrane, Nyame said that as he had not listened when growing up, only children would play during his time. To his youngest son, Owia, Nyame praised him and made him the chief, decreeing that any issue that needed to be settled, would be done so during the day. To protect himself from his brothers, Nyame gave Owia the rainbow.
Lastly, to Anansi, Nyame blessed the spider for knowing his inner-most thoughts and said that from then on, that Anansi would be Nyame’s messenger.
The Arrival Of Disease
Oh yes, Anansi appeared before Nyame one day asking if he could one of Nyame’s sheep, Kra Kwame and eat it. Anansi said that he would bring a maiden from one of the villages as a gift in exchange for the sheep. This seemed reasonable enough and Nyame agreed to the exchange, giving Anansi the sheep while he waited for the maiden’s arrival.
As it were, Anansi took the sheep home and prepared it for eating. Once he was done, Anansi then went in search of a maiden. In his search, Anansi found a village where only women lived. Seeing an opportunity, Anansi moved there and offered each woman some of the sheep and marrying everyone.
It’s not hard to see that Anansi broke his word with Nyame. It wasn’t long after, that a hunter stopped in the village and saw what happened. The hunter back to Nyame and reported what he had seen in the village. Nyame became furious on learning what Anansi had done and sent his messengers to the village to take every woman living there.
Off the messengers went, seizing every woman in the village except for one who was ill at the time to bring back to Nyame. Anansi pondered what to do, as his remaining wife was very ill. The wife told Anansi to bathe her and then fill a gourd with water from the bathwater. This water would hold all the diseases that afflicted the wife.
See his wife after she was bathed, Anansi saw how beautiful she was, more so than all the other wives in the village. Anansi remarried her right there on the spot. It wouldn’t take long for another hunter to pass by the village and to see Anansi and his wife together.
This hunter returned to Nyame, giving the Sky-God a report of this extremely beautiful woman. Obviously Anansi had tricked Nyame as this woman was more beautiful than all the other women that were taken.
Angry again, Nyame ordered his messengers to go take Anansi’s wife. When the messengers got there, Anansi confronted them and they told Anansi of what Nyame’s desires were. Anansi nodded and complied with the messengers, taking them to where his wife was at.
Anansi had his own plans once the messengers left. He found the gourd holding the diseased water and took a skin by which to fashion a drum. Anansi then set about to make a second drum. Done, Anansi called for his son, Ntikuma and together they began to beat the drums and dance around while singing vulgarities.
Another messenger of Nyame’s, Anene the crow saw what Anansi was doing and went back to report about what he saw. Intrigued, Nyame sent more messengers to ask Anansi to come and perform his songs for him.
Ah, Anansi said, he could only perform his song and dance if all of his wives were present. Anansi promised to perform for Nyame if he could have his wives and his drum. The messengers relayed Anansi’s message back to Nyame and he agreed.
Anansi was brough to the harem where all of his wives were being kept and he began to sing and beat his drum. Nyame soon joined in the merriment with Anansi while the wives joined in too.
However, Anansi’ last wife recognized the gourd that Anansi’s drum was made from. She suspected what mischief Anansi had planned and decided not to join in dancing. Nyame tried to coax the last wife into dancing, but before she could, Anansi cut open his drum and tossed all the water out. All the diseases that had once been washed away now returned and a sickness fell upon the tribe.
So out of revenge, Anansi brought illness and disease to the world. Though to be fair, if Anansi had kept his word with Nyame from the start and brought him a maiden as promised, none of this would have happened.
Kwaku Anansi Takes Aso To Wife & How Jealousy Arrives In The Tribe
In this story, Anansi isn’t yet married to Aso as she is married to another man, known as Akwasi-The-Jealous-One.
True to his name, Akwasi was very possessive of Aso and forbad anyone from seeing or talking to her. Such, that Akwasi built a small village where only the two of them lived. The reason for Akwasi’s jealousy is that he is sterile and worried that Aso would be taken from him if they lived among other people.
Well hey, somebody knew or was paying attention. Nyame got tired of Akwasi’s lack of or failure to father any children with Aso. And if Akwasi isn’t siring any children, than Aso is fair game and Nyame tells the other young men in the village about Akwasi’ marriage to Aso and tells them, that the first man to successfully take Aso away and get her with child, can marry and take her to wife.
That is very much so a cultural thing. Doesn’t Aso get a say in who she’s married to and want to be with?
The challenge proves to be more difficult than expected and all the young men who’ve tried to seize Aso, all fail. Anansi was watching all this and after the latest failure from a young man, Anansi went before Nyame. The crafty spider tells Nyame that he’ll be able to accomplish this task to capture Aso.
Just give Anansi the items he requests to help him. Specifically, medicine, rifles and and bullets.
Off Anansi goes, passing through several villages, passing out the black powder, bullets and guns, telling people how Nyame has sent those to go hunting on the god’s behalf. Sweet! Anansi says he’ll come back later to collect up the meat for Nyame.
While everyone’s off hunting, Anansi makes a basket to hold all the meat in when he returns. It’s either a basket of holding, a very large basket or there’s several small baskets to hold meat in. Either way, Anansi collects up the meat and heads off for Akwasi-The-Jealous-One’s village.
Anansi reaches the river where Akwasi and Aso get their water and he takes out some of the meat, placing it in the water. He then continues up to where Akwasi lives, carrying the basket still. Aso spots Anansi’s arrival and calls out to her husband, who is surprised that they have a visitor. Akwasi comes out to find out who this person is.
Anansi tells Akwasi that he’s been sent by Nyame to this place to rest during his journey. This pleases Akwasi as he welcomes the spider into his village. While this is happening, Aso notices the meat that Anansi left in the river and says something. Anansi tells Aso she’s welcome to it as he doesn’t need it. That she can feed it to any pets they have.
Aso comes back with the meat and shows it to Akwasi. Anansi asks Aso if she would cook some food for him and she sets about preparing a dish known as Fufu. As she is preparing the meal, Anansi tells Aso that it won’t be enough and tells her to use a bigger pot as he offers up more of the meat. The catch is, she is to cook only the thighs, of which there are 40.
With the meal prepared, everyone sits down to eat. As they’re eating, Anansi complains, saying that the fufu Aso made lacks salt. At this, Akwasi commands Aso to bring some salt. Anansi spoke up, saying that wasn’t proper, Aso is eating and that Akwasi should be the one who goes and gets the salt. When Akwasi leaves, Anansi pulls some medicine out of his pouch and puts it in Akwasi’s fufu.
Akwasi returns with the salt and Anansi announces that he’s now full and doesn’t need the salt anymore. I’m sure Akwasi may have grumbled at this, but he set down again and finished his fufu, unaware of what Anansi has done.
As he’s eating, it occurs to Akwasi that he hasn’t asked for Anansi’s name yet. Anansi responds by saying that his name is “Rise-up-and-make-love-to-Aso.” This confuses Akwasi who asks Aso if she had heard the name too. Aso assures her husband that she did and Akwasi gets up to go prepare a room for Anansi. The spider says he can’t sleep in the room, he as to sleep in a room with an open veranda as he is Nyame’s Soul-Washer. Apparently, Anansi’s parents are to have conceived him in an open room, so he can’t sleep in a closed room.
Right, so where does Anansi want to sleep then? It must be an open room in a house that belongs to Nyame and asks for a sleeping mat so he can sleep in front of their room. When Anansi was certain that the two were asleep, he pulled out his sepirewa out to play, singing: “Akuamoa Ananse, today we shall achieve something today. Ananse, the child of Nsia, the mother of Nyame, the Sky-god; today, we shall achieve something, to-day. Ananse, the Soul-washer to the Nyame, the Sky-god, today, I shall see something.” Once the song finished, Anansi went to sleep.
Anansi was awoken by Akwasi calling out for him. But as he didn’t like the name that Anansi had told him, the spider remained silent. The medicine that Anansi had put into Akwasi’s food was working. After a few more attempts to rouse a sleeping Anansi, Akwasi finally used the name “Rise-up-and-make-love-to-Aso.”
Now Anansi responded to Akwasi’s calls, asking what troubled him. Akwasi said he needed. Akwasi replied that he needed to leave for a moment and left.
Entering the room, Anansi saw that Aso was awake and he asked if she had heard what Akwasi said. Aso asked in turn of Anansi what Akwasi had said. So Anansi obliged with the name he’d given, implying that it was a command, not his name. Wink, wink.
The two then made passionate love with each other before going back to sleep and before Akwasi returned. The medicine or poison that Anansi used was rather potent and Akwasi would be getting up eight more times, where once again, Anansi and Aso would make love before he returned. Come the morning, Anansi was on his way.
Two moon later, Aso begins to start showing that she’s pregnant. This gets Akwasi suspicious of how his wife got pregnant given that he’s sterile and can’t father any children. Aso takes the opportunity to tell Akwasi that it was by his own commands that she had made love to Anansi and that the child is his.
Angry, Akwasi takes Aso with him to go to Nyame’s village to complain. On the way, Aso gave birth and the two took the baby with them. On hearing the story, Nyame didn’t believe the two, saying no one had left his village and asked them to point out the person to him.
Aso did so, looking around the village until she spotted Anansi sitting on a ridgepole. She told Nyame that’s the one who impregnated her. Anansi slid down the ridgepole, attempting to hide, but Aso found him again, causing Anansi to fall over and dirty himself.
Now Anansi complained, how Aso and Akwasi’s actions defiled him. That he was Nyame’s Soul-Washer and that his desires had been ignored. Hearing this, Akwasi was seized by Nyame’s other subjects for disobeying a god’s commands. That as punishment, Akwasi was to sacrifice a sheep as penance. Embarrased, Akwasi performed the sacrifice and then told Nyame that Anansi could take Aso as his wife.
Sadly, the baby that Anansi fathered with Aso was taken and killed, their remains scattered about Nyame’s village as a reminder. And that, is how Aso becomes Anansi’s wife and how jealousy entered the tribe.
Anansi’s Bald Head
Sometime after Anansi and Aso were married, when they returned from visiting a plantation outside of the village, a messenger arrived. Anansi greeted the messenger and asked why they had come. The messenger replied that Anansi’ mother-in-law had died the previous day. Anansi informed his Aso of what happened, and plans were made to go to the village to mourn.
The next morning, Anansi went down to the village, looking for some favors. He soon found: Odwan the Sheep, Okra the Cat, Okraman the Dog, Akoko the Fowl, and Aberekyie the Goat. Anansi told all of them how his mother-in-law had died and asked if they would accompany him to her funeral. They all agreed, and Anansi returned home to prepare for the journey.
Anansi prepared funeral clothing, consisting of a leopard skin hat and russet colored clothing. The day of the mother-in-law’s funeral came, and Anansi called upon those he’d asked to come. They brought several supplies with them as well, consisting of guns, drums, palm-wine, and other things that they would share with those attending as they celebrated his mother-in-law’s memory.
Soon they arrived at the village and they fired off their guns to signal that they had arrived. Then Anansi and his company went to the home of his mother-in-law for her wake. Anansi shared out everything that he had brought. Anansi also then presented his offerings to help pay for the funeral.
The next morning, as everyone ate, they invited Anansi to join them. Anansi declined, saying he was forbidden from doing so as it is his mother-in-law’s funeral, that he would not eat until the eighth day. Food was then gathered for his companions who accompanied him for the funeral before they departed back for their own village.
Days passed as Anansi fasted, finally on the fourth day he was too hungry, and he went into the house where he was staying to find food. In the kitchen, he found a fire going with beans in a pot boiling. Anansi ate those, scooping some into his leopard hat after making sure no one was watching. No sooner had Anansi placed his hat back on his head to hide the beans, then Aso entered. Thinking fast, Anansi told Aso that there was a Hat-Shaking Festival taking place at his father’s village and that he was going to go.
Now Aso was suspicious. Who wouldn’t be? Especially when married to a trickster. She asked Anansi why he hadn’t told before of this festival. She also reminded Anansi that he hadn’t eatten anything yet and that he really should wait for the next day. Anansi refused to wait and headed off.
Aso went and gathered up everyone in the village, telling them that Anansi was up to something and that they had to keep him from leaving. As Aso went back after her husband, Anansi grabbed his hat and sang: “Just now at my father’s village they are shaking hats! Saworowa, they are shaking hats! E, they are shaking hats, o, they are shaking hats! Saworowa!”
Anansi began to panic too, for the beans were hot and burning his scalp. He bid his wife and everyone goodbye, that he was leaving. However, everyone began to follow after him, knowing what Aso had told them. Paniced, Anansi told everyone to leave and he sang more: “Turn back, because: Just now at my father’s village they are shaking hats! Saworowa, they are shaking hats! E, they are shaking hats, o, they are shaking hats! Saworowa!”
Eventually, Anansi couldn’t stand the heat from the beans and he pulled them off his head with the hat. Now that everyone could see what Anansi had done, Aso and the villagers began to boo him, such that he took off running.
Anansi promised the road he would thank it if it helped him flee. The road agreed and Anansi mad his way back home and access to some sorely needed medicine for his head. Alas, Anansi’ hair never did grow back.
Why Anansi Runs When He’s On The Water’s Surface
With this story, Anansi goes to Okraman, the Dog and tells him how he plans to build a new village. That sounds sensible and Okraman agreed. Okraman would gather some rope-creepr vines and Anansi would also do the same and they would meet up again on the following Monday. They would also bring a gourd filled with water in case where they met up didn’t have any. As an added measure, Anansi put some honey into his gouard.
Anansi and Okraman met each other at the half-way point to their destination. As they continued to travel, they became tired and Okraman said they should rest a bit and drink some of the water they brought with them.
Now it gets a little weird. As the two rested, Anansi said they should play a game to pass the time while they rested. Well type of game Okraman wanted to know. A binding game, where they would take turns tie each other up. The one tied, would then have to escape. After a bit of disagreement on who would get tied up first, Anansi said he would go first.
Once Okraman had Anansi bound, he decided he was so hungry that he didn’t really want to play anymore. Instead, he picked up the trussed-up Spider and carried him away to go sell for food. When Anansi realized what was happening, he began to complain, making a ruckus until they reached a stream.
Odenkyem the Crocodile heard them and asked Okraman what was going on. Okraman was too frightened to answer and dropped the bound Anansi while he fled. Laughing, Odenkyem freed Anansi from his bounds while Anansi thanked him, asking if there were any way to repay the crocodile. Odenkyem declined, saying he didn’t want anything in return. Anansi insisted, saying if Odenkyem had any children, they come, and he would dress and style their hair. Odenkyem accepted this offer, not suspecting that Anansi would be up to any deception.
Anansi returns home, telling Aso that he needs palm-nuts and onions for a stew and that he’s going to bring back crocodile to provide the meat.
That does not sound like a way to repay someone for rescuing you.
Aso gathers up the ingredients asked for as Anansi sharpens a knife. He mashes up some eto and carries it down to the stream where Odenkyem lives. Anansi calls out for the crocodile, saying he’s got a reward for them and sets the eto in the water. Odenkyem comes, having heard Anansi and just as he’s about to take the gift; Anansi flings his knife at the crocodile.
Thinking he’s dealt Odenkyem a lethal blow, Anansi heads home. Aso notices this and asks where’s the crocodile meat? You didn’t get it? Anansi brushes her off, yelling at her and gives her the silent treatment the rest of the night.
The next morning, Aso went down to the river. There, she spoted the crocodile laying still with flies buzzing around him. Seeing this, Aso returned home to tell Anansi what she saw. Anansi explains that he used a special medicine to kill Odenkyem and it will take another day for the full effect and before he can collect up the meat. Anansi thanked Aso for confirming the kill.
Anansi headed down to the river, taking with him a long stick. Seeing the crocodile laying there still in the riverbank, Anansi carefully walked over and poked Odenkyem. As Anansi continued to poke the big crocodile with his stick and roll the body over, the Spider decided to edge closer. When Anansi got close enough and reached out to touch Odenkyem’s body with his hand, that’s when the big crocodile his own trap and snapped his jaws on Anansi’s arm.
That two wrestled for a while and eventually Anansi squirmed free of Odenkyem’s grasp and fled. Now, everytime Anansi crosses a river, he runs for it, never letting Odenkyem get a second chance.
That wouldn’t be the lesson I’d take from here though.
Note: My intention was to include all the Anansi stories that I could find. However, there are just so many variations and stories from Ghana to the Caribbean and even to North America. I could spend whole volumes and books on his stories and likely still not have found them all as he is still very much so active. So I find myself having to make a cutoff point of what do I include? Obviously, if you like Anansi want to read more of his stories or find a storyteller to tell his stories, you will do so.
And of course, the traditional ending to an Anansi story:
“This is my story which I have related. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.”
Just a few little odds & ends that I couldn’t figure out where to fit them in at.
“No one goes to the house of the spider Ananse to teach him wisdom.”
“No one tells stories to Ntikuma” refers to someone who has heard it all.
Other West African tricksters that share many similar stories to Anansi are Br’er Rabbit and Leuk Rabbit.
Br’er Rabbit – The similarities between Anansi and Br’er Rabbit, the trickster figure who originates among the Bantu speaking people of South and Central Africa. Just like Anansi, Br’er Rabbit was brought to the Americas with the slave trade where his stories thrived and became a means by which he uses his wits and cunning to outsmart larger creatures. Stories of Br’er Rabbit are found in the French-speaking islands of the Caribbean where he is known as “Compare Lapin.” The most obvious story to compare Anansi and Br’er Rabbit with is that story of Anansi and his capturing the Mmoatia fairy with the Akua doll and the story of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby. The Br-er Rabbit stories were collected up into the Uncle Remus stories by the American Journalist Joel Chandler Harris between 1870 to 1906.
Gede Lwa – In Haitian Voudo, Anansi is worshipped as a loa of this name and he is the intermediary between ancestors and the living. We also see in Haitian folklore, the figures of Ti Bouki, Ti Malice or Uncle Mischief who are other variations of Anansi.
Gizo – A spider trickster-hero of the Housa. His wife is Koki. He’s been equated with Anansi stories and sometimes called the Yoruba Anansi.
Iktomi – A Native American Spider figure whom many have noted similarities with Anansi.
Nambo-Nansi – A Haitian Loa, based on the figure of Anansi.
The Father Of Gods & Heroes
Some of Zeus’ “romantic conquests” are also how many of Greece’s heroes are born, giving them some divine might and heroic destiny for their exploits. It is very likely that many of these stories are just wish fulfillment to connect early Greeks to the gods and explain why many early heroes appear to have divine destinies and beyond human attributes.
As the Father and King of the Gods, even those deities not directly related to Zeus as his children would likely refer him to Father.
A good number of the myths and stories of the Greek gods and heroes tend to place Zeus having some prominence, even if it’s as a cameo appearance.
I will admit that many of the myths about the Olympians I grew up with only ever mention Hera as Zeus’ wife. Then throwing in all of the numerous “affairs” of Zeus as just his many flings by whom the different gods and heroes of Greek mythology are born.
Clean, sanitized versions of the myths. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article series, there are at least three main sources for Zeus’ origins and myths. A couple of sources mentioned give Metis as Zeus’ first wife and that Hera is the second wife. So maybe Hera’s jealousy is not wanting to get replaced? Or just the rewrites that come later that say Hera has to be jealous of Zeus’ affairs.
I did come across one source that gives several wives for Zeus, starting with Metis, then the titaness Themis, Eurynome, Demeter, Mnemosyne, Leto, and lastly Hera.
Zeus & Callisto
This poor nymph found herself transformed into a bear along with her son Arcas by Artemis after an affair with Zeus. In compensation, Zeus placed both Callisto and Arcas up into the heavens to become the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Zeus & Danae
Zeus & Europa
In Greek mythology, Zeus in many of his various affairs; had fallen love with Europa, the daughter of Agenor, a King of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia. The problem with Zeus getting close to show his affection is that Europa was always guarded by her father’s servants. Being a god and a shape-shifter, Zeus changed himself into the form of a handsome white bull with golden horns.
That accomplished, Zeus in his white bull form then mingles with the King’s royal herds grazing in a large field near the sea. While a walk along the beach, Europe noticed the handsome white bull and couldn’t resist going up to feed it. The bull was so very friendly and gentle, that Europe climbed up on its back when it lay down; taking hold of the golden horns.
Once she was on the bull’s back, it stood up and the white bull wandered closer and closer to the sea and then when they approached the beach, took off running for the water. Once in the sea, the bull starts swimming towards the island of Crete. And for Europa, it was too late to get off now.
When they arrived in Crete, Zeus changed back into his own form, revealing himself to Europa. As he’s already married to Hera, Zeus gives Europa instead in marriage to Asterius, the King of Crete.
In slightly different versions of this story, Zeus and Europa have three children together. One of whom is Minos who grows up and goes on to be a famous king of Crete. He had the palace in Knossos built where bull games were held and is more infamous for the sacrifice of fourteen youths (seven boys and seven girls) to his Minotaur in a labyrinth every year. In either event, Zeus is said to have commemorated the white bull he turned into by placing it up among the heavens as the constellation Taurus.
Zeus & Leda
This story is connected to the Cygnus constellation. In this story, Zeus disguised himself as a swan in order to seduce Leda. In this guise, Zeus behaved much like a swain, which means a lover or wooer.
Leda was the wife of the Spartan King Tyndareus. She’s known for giving birth to two sets of twins; the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), and Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra. When Leda laid with Zeus, their union produced an egg. Later that night, when she laid with her lawful husband Tyndareus, their union resulted in another egg. The immortal twins Pollux and Helen are said to have been fathered by Zeus while the mortal twins Castor and Clytemnestra were fathered by Tyndareus.
Zeus & Nemesis
A variation to the above myth is that instead of Zeus seducing Leda, he seduces Nemesis, the goddess of divine justice and retribution. She was also the goddess of the Pelopennesian cult. Other sources are clearer that Nemesis lived in Rhamnus (located to the North-East of Athens) where this cult may have been. When Zeus went to seduce Nemesis, she changed herself into a variety of different animals before taking the form of a goose to escape him. Zeus continued to pursue Nemesis, each time taking the form of a larger, swifter animal until he turned into a swan before he was able to catch and rape her.
A variation of the story with Nemesis that’s told by Hyginus is that Zeus had turned himself into a swan and pretends to be escaping from an eagle. Nemesis protected the bird, offering sanctuary. It’s after words, when Nemesis has gone to sleep with the swan on her lap that she discovers the truth of who the bird really is.
In either version of the story told, Nemesis ends up laying an egg that she leaves in a swamp. This egg was found either by Hermes or a shepherd who brings it to Leda who keeps the egg in a chest until it hatches. It is from this egg that Helen of Troy is hatched. As a result of his success, Zeus placed an image of the swan up into the heavens.
Zeus & Leto
Another of Zeus’ affairs is with Leto and the resultant children would be the twin deities Apollo and Artemis.
From the surviving stories we have, a jealous Hera forced Leto to roam the earth to safely give birth. Hera had commanded that the earth and sea refuse Leto any safe refuge. Eventually, Leto came to the floating island of Delos and was able to safely give birth to her twin children.
Zeus & Ganymede
This is an oddball myth in that Zeus falls in love with a particularly handsome youth, Ganymede while he is out watching his father’s sheep. Zeus either transforms into or sends an eagle to come carry the youth off to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus grants Ganymede immortality and makes him a cup-bearer to the gods, replacing Hebe after she spilled some of the nectar and causing Hera a lot of anger over the replacement.
Depending on how you interpret this myth, this is Zeus wanting to grant immortality to a worthy descendant of his or how the ancient Greeks were justifying homosexuality in their culture.
Zeus & Semele
In this myth, Semele, the daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia is “seduced” by Zeus. The mighty Zeus promised the young Semele to reveal himself in all of his godly glory, however she dies when Zeus reveals himself as thunder and lightning to her. Their union results in the birth of the young Dionysus.
Herakles – The Favored Son
Of all of the many children that Zeus is to have sired, Herakles (or Hercules for the Roman spelling) is the son of Zeus and Alcmene. Even though, Herakles’ name means: “Glory of Hera,” Hera was not too pleased with the birth of this demigod and tried to kill him. Herakles would go on to become one of the best well known heroes in Greek & Roman mythology.
One such adventure between father and son is when they team up against a tribe of earth-born Giants threatening Olympus. The Delphi Oracle had decreed that only a single god and mortal would be able to defeat these monsters. Zeus and Hercules proved their mettle and overcame the monsters, defeating them.
Truth, Justice And The Olympian Way!
As King of the gods and their ruler, Zeus is the one who also gets to determine and uphold the laws, mete out justice, mercy, and morals. He punishes oath breakers and liars by hurling bolts of lightning to strike them down! It is Zeus’ place to maintain these laws, both in the heavens and on the earth, to protect his worshipers, preside over the various festivals and handle the governing of prophecies.
Given how often the gods, as a whole, are said to be petty and Zeus’ reputation for his numerous affairs (*coughs* rapes), I’m not sure I really buy this?
Hesiod in his “Work and Days” does describe Zeus as being a carefree god who loves to laugh aloud. Zeus was known for being wise, fair, just, merciful, and prudent despite supposedly having an unpredictable nature as no one knew what decrees he would give. A lord of justice who brought peace instead of violence.
Now we do have in the story of Ixion, what happens when someone violates the Host-Guest laws and proves to be a bad guest. Zeus comes through with laying down the law there.
Protector of Kings – Zeus was known to be a protector, particularly of kings and rulers. Once Greece shifted away from Kings and more towards democracy, Zeus then becomes the chief judge and peace maker.
Morals – For all of his affairs, if Zeus is to be setting the example for morals, it is small wonder that Hera comes across as angry and jealous all the time. Someone needs to keep him in line.
The show “Hercules: The Legendary Journey” is the only series that comes to mind that tried any meaningful reconciliation between Zeus and Hera about his numerous affairs. It was a very cheap shot with having Hera get amnesia as it didn’t really resolve the issues. Just lazy writing on the part of the screen writers. Most other shows and movies tend to gloss over the moral and marital problems as that usually is not the focus of the story at hand that writers want to tackle and tell.
I can’t help but feel that somewhere along the line, people twisted this view of justice and started recreating Zeus in their image. After all, people are mortal, and they’ll end up following after deities that appeal to their natures and what they want.
A Partial List Of Zeus’ Many Judgments & Punishments
I’m bound to miss a few, the stories involving Zeus are many, even if we’re counting the ones where he has a small bit part or cameo.
- At Hades’ request, Asclepius was killed by thunderbolt after his medical knowledge enabled the dead to return to life.
- Forcing Atlas to hold up the world on his shoulders after his part in the Titanomachy.
- Turning the nymph Chelone into a tortoise after she refused to attend the marriage of Hera and Zeus.
- Turning both King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains. Your mileage may vary depending on if these are the Balkan Mountains, Stara Planina or Rhodope mountains, all for the crime of being too vain.
- Punishing Hera by hanging her upside down from the sky after she attempted to drown Heracles in a storm. His own wife.
- Throwing Hephaestus off the top of Mount Olympus as the baby was too repulsive looking.
- Lycaon was turned into a wolf after daring to serve Zeus human flesh to eat.
- Turning Pandareus to stone after he stole the golden dog that had guarded him as an infant in the holy Dictaeon Cave of Crete.
- Pandora was given a box, that when opened cursed mankind with all the evils and diseases after Prometheus gave humans the gift of fire.
- Turning Periphas into an eagle, thus making him the king of birds after Apollo intervened and said not to kill him.
- Blinding the seer Phineus and sending the harpies to harass him after revealing divine secrets. In some cases, for blinding his own sons.
- Killing Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to impersonate him, riding around in a bronze chariot and loudly imitating thunder.
- Sisyphus was condemned to spend all of eternity in the Underworld to roll a stone up hill.
- Condemning Tantalus to eternal torture in the depths of Tartarus after he tried to trick the gods into eating the flesh of his son Pelops.
- Sinking the Telchines into the sea.
Callirrhoe – Not everything was divine retribution… Zeus does grant Callirrhoe’s prayer that her sons be able to grow up swiftly so they can get revenge on Phegeus and his two sons for the death of their father.
Ixion – One really sees Zeus’ role as a god of justice and distributer of divine justice in the story of Ixion. How Ixion committed murder after refusing to pay a bride price. Ixion went everywhere he could think of to be purified and absolved of this grievous sin. Eventually Zeus said he could purify Ixion and then invited the mortal up to Mount Olympus.
While there, Ixion tried putting some moves on Hera who complained to her husband, Zeus. In response, Zeus created a cloud named Nephele in Hera’s likeness. When Zeus caught Ixion trying to put some unwanted moves on Nephele, Zeus sentenced Ixion down to Tartarus to spin forever on a flaming wheel crying out how you should always show gratitude to your benefactor.
The Myrmidons – After the death of his son, King Aeacus, Zeus turned the Myrmidons into ants. Later, Achilles would lead them into battle during the Trojan War.
Porphyrion – Ixion wasn’t the only one to get punished by Zeus for daring to look at his wife. The giant Porphyrion was struck down by lightning bolt after lusting for Hera.
Prometheus – This is another of the more famous of those punished by Zeus. In sum, the titan Prometheus had gifted humankind with fire. Not just fire, but divine fire after all the other animals received their gifts. Prometheus’ punishment is to be chained to a rock for all eternity while every day a vulture comes and eats his liver.
Most of the stories don’t mention that there was also a woman, by the name of Thetis whose identify that Prometheus was keeping from Zeus. That age-old prophecy plaguing Zeus that a son of his would be born greater than him who would overthrow the mighty Zeus and take his throne. After torturing Prometheus for a while, the titan tells Zeus that if he pursues Thetis, she will bear him the aforementioned, prophesied son. Hearing the news, Zeus decides to pass off Thetis to Peleus and it is from that union, that the hero Achilles is born.
Birth Of A God
We start with Cronus and Rhea, the parents of Zeus and all his siblings.
As the story goes, Cronus defeated his father, Uranus, overthrowing him to become the leader and King of the Titans. Shortly after, Cronus receives a prophesy that just as he killed his father, so too, would a child of his kill him.
This prompts Cronus to decide to devour his children whole as soon as they are born. This happens five times. Poor Rhea just gets to where she can’t take it anymore. With the birth of her sixth child, Zeus, Rhea, with the help of Gaia hides him away and manages to convince Cronus that this large stone is their latest child. Bon Appetite, Cronus eats the “stone baby” none the wiser that he’s been tricked.
Here, it gets a little muddled as to what exactly happens next for Zeus’ infancy and being raised in secret before returning to reclaim his birthright.
It largely depends on which accounts of the story you read.
At Rhea’s behest, Gaia takes the infant Zeus to Crete where she hides in a cave located on Mount Dicte or Mount Ida.
There, Gaia raised the child with the divine goat, Amalthea providing milk for the infant Zeus. The Kouretes, soldiers or minor gods would dance, shout and clash their spears to hide the sounds of the baby’s cries from Cronus.
If Amalthea is instead a nymph, she raises a young Zeus in a cave called Dictaeon Andron on the Lasithi plateau.
Sounding a little more messed up, in Hyginus’ Fabulae, another nymph Adamanthea is who takes and raises Zeus. She dangled the infant on a rope between the heavens and sea as Cronus ruled over the earth, thus preventing him from discovering his son. Yay?
Cynosura is sometimes said to have raised Zeus and in thanks, he placed her up in the heavens to become a constellation.
Then there’s Melissa who nursed the infant on goat milk and honey.
The Promise They Were Sheeped
And while they’re not nymphs, a family of shepherds raises the baby with the promise that their flock of sheep would be protected from wolves.
Claiming His Birthright
An older Zeus returns to fulfill the prophecy killing his father Cronus. With either Gaia or Metis’ help, Zeus is able to administer a potion that causes Cronus to regurgitate all of his siblings along with the stone that was swallowed.
An alternate scenario has Zeus splitting open Cronus’ stomach, freeing all of his brothers and sisters: Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia. Incidentally, Hades is the last of Cronus’ children that is either regurgitated or comes out after Zeus splits their father open.
There is a ten-year long divine war known as the Titanomachy, that by the end, Zeus takes his place as ruler and king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Hades and the other gods take up their roles as part of the newly formed Pantheon.
During the war, Gaia gave a prophesy to Zeus that he would have victory over the Titans by freeing the Cyclops who were then prisoners in Tartaros. Zeus slew Campe, the jail-keeper of the Cyclops. As a reward and thanks for releasing them, the Cyclcops forged weapons for the three brothers. Thunderbolts for Zeus, a Trident for Poseidon and a Bident for Hades along with a magical helmet of invisibility.
During this war, Hades used his helmet of invisibility to sneak into the Titans’ camp and destroy their weapons. After the war, the Titans were imprisoned within Tartoros and the Hecatoncheires were placed in charge of guarding the new prisoners. One titan, Atlas would be punished by forever having to hold the earth up.
Dividing the Spoils of War – After defeating Cronus and all of his father’s followers, the three brothers, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus divided up ruler-ship of the cosmos between them. Hades would become ruler of the Underworld; Poseidon would become ruler of the seas and Zeus would become ruler of the air. The earth, the domain of Gaia, would be available to all three gods.
Iliad – The Iliad describes the three brothers as pulling lots to determine who would rule which realm.
Hades & Typhon – While not exactly a flattering story of Hades; the story is that of Zeus battling the giant monstrous serpent Typhon during or after the Titanomachy. Hesiod’s Theogony describes Hades as cowering down below in the Underworld while Zeus is busy hurling thunder bolts and battling Typhon to take his place as king of the Olympian gods.
Gigantomachy – Battle For The Heavens!
While the Titans would be defeated, Zeus would still have to contend with other beings to secure his throne. Namely, because Gaia wasn’t happy with how her children, the Titans were treated and imprisoned in Tartarus. There would come a series of three additional attacks.
If that doesn’t have parallels with the story of Marduk and Tiamat.
The first were the Gigantes, another of Gaia’s children who would be defeated and sent to Tartarus.
Typhon & Echidna
Second would come the mighty Typhon, husband to Echidna and Father of All Monsters. Typhon or Typhoeus is described as a serpentine monster that breathes fire. Zeus fought him using his thunder bolts and aegis.
Eventually Zeus would defeat Typhon and trap him under Mount Etna. Echidna would be allowed to live along with her monstrous children. In Grecian myths, this is how Mount Etna became a volcano. Other versions of the myth, the gods Hermes and Pan would come to Zeus’ aid.
The third would be the twin brothers. These two would attempt to gain entrance to the heavens by stacking Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympus. Then by stacking Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa.
That doesn’t seem like it would work. Zeus manages to defeat the Aloadae and just as he had with the Titans, he banished them too down to Tartarus.
One Last Final Challenge
It is curious that only when I went researching Zeus that I came across this story for the first time.
Sometime after Zeus has succeeded over coming all the previous challenges from Gaia, the various giants and titans to become ruler of the heavens, a young Zeus had gotten rather prideful, temperamental and arrogant in his rulership.
Enter Apollo, Hera and Poseidon (and depending on the source, all the other gods except Hestia join in) decide that Zeus needs to be taught a lesson.
While Zeus is sleeping, they come in to steal his thunderbolts and tie him up with some one hundred knots. Powerless, Zeus lays there until the Nereid, Thetis comes and seeing the god’s predicament, call the Hecatoncheire, Briareus who comes and unties Zeus.
With Briareus’ support, Zeus is able to put an end to the rebellion and punish those involved. Most notable, Hera who is punished as she led the rebellion. Zeus only relents and ends the punishments after Hera and all the gods swear never to rise up against him again.
Metis – First Marriage (Birth Of Athena)
Most mythological accounts jump straight to Zeus being married to Hera. Before that, there was Metis, the daughter of the Ocean and goddess of Wisdom, Prudence and Cunning.
Metis resisted Zeus’ advances at first but eventually she gives into him and from their union would eventually come Athena. Just not a normal birth would follow for Athena.
Sins Of The Father – Now, just as Cronus did to his father Uranis and Zeus did to Cronus in time… Gaia informed Zeus that Metis would bear a daughter and from her, there would be a son who would over throw him.
Thinking he’s clever and going to break the cycle of constant fratricide, Zeus goes and swallows Metis whole on the belief that this would prevent the unwanted birth or because he gives birth to a child, it will prevent prophecy.
Birth Of Athena – By swallowing Metis, Zeus will either give birth to Athena, causing a lot of anger and outrage from Hera as this is Zeus circumventing the entire birthing process.
Hera is so angry with Zeus over this, that she gives birth to Hephaestus by immaculate conception or parthenogenetically, take your pick. Either way, Hera gives birth without the need for sex.
Sometime later, Zeus is experiencing a skull splitting headache. When he goes to seek relief and splits open his head with Hephaestus’ help, out pops Athena fully clothed, armed and already an adult.
Good thing Hera gave birth to Hephaestus. Who knows what Zeus would have done to alleviate his splitting headache?
The other version that I’m familiar with, Metis is swallowed with Zeus never knowing that she was ever pregnant to begin with.
I Have A Gut Feeling – I’ve found this story a bit curious in swallowing Metis. The ancient Greeks believed that the stomach rather than the brain were the source of intellect and emotions. With this belief, mindset in mind, it makes sense why Zeus would swallow Metis, that way, her powers of wisdom existed in some form inside him.
It gives a new meaning to the phrase: “thinking with one’s stomach” or “listening to one’s gut” would come from.
Hera – Second Marriage
Going back to the normal course of events with Greek myths, Zeus is married to his sister Hera. For gods and immortals, this works out. There just weren’t very many other options. For those who are mortal and human, ewww…. Inbreeding. Don’t do it!
Naturally, being his wife, goddess of marriage, birth, women, and fidelity, I do not blame Hera for getting angry with Zeus. The myths will say she was jealous and vengeful towards Zeus’ lovers and numerous children. Hera’s myths likely reflect what life was like for woman of the day. If she couldn’t punish her husband outright, she took her anger out on his lovers and any resulting children.
Zeus had to trick Hera into marrying him too. Knowing that Hera holds an affinity for animals, the god came to her in the form of a cuckoo. When Hera picked up the bird to hold close to her, Zeus transformed back his godly form and shamed her into having to marry him.
I really just don’t see how that will be a lasting or happy marriage.
Hera & Echo – This is one of the more famous stories depicting Hera’s anger and jealously. The nymph Echo was instructed by Zeus to distract Hera while he was out having his many “affairs.” Since Hera couldn’t punish Zeus, she would punish others. In Echo’s case, she was cursed to forever repeat what was said to her.
There’s plenty of studies to show and suggest that the Greeks were originally a matriarchal people. As patriarchy took over and the myths are rewritten, the resistance of the older religion and people twists these myths and stories around to make Hera look jealous and petty as so many of the Greek gods appear to be when their myths, especially original ones get co-opted and rewritten.
Battle Of The Sexes – If you don’t already have an idea of Zeus’ amorous reputation in mythology, keep reading, you will…
Hera would be rather upset and angry with her husband from his numerous affairs. I can only imagine, that as the goddess of marriage, Hera would try to have it out with Zeus over having sex and who got the most pleasure out of it.
The mortal Tiresias was given the job of acting as judge for this contest. When he ruled in favor of Zeus that men have more pleasure in having sex, Tiresias was rewarded with getting to live three times longer than other mortals.
Your Reputation Precedes You Sir!
Politely put, Zeus has quite a reputation with all of the “love interests” and “affairs” and the vast number of children he is to have fathered over the millennia. Zeus is rather busy for a married man, I mean god.
There are numerous stories of Zeus’ many love affairs, romances and some of which that are just outright rape stories no matter how euphemistically later rewrites try to retell them.
There’s a certain prestige, especially seen in the ancient Egyptian culture where all the Pharaohs are earthly incarnations of Ra. This divine birthright is what justifies them to be the rulers over the common, ordinary people.
I can imagine a similar thing happening among the Greeks where they want to claim a divine heritage to justify their rule over various cities states. Stories that often just served to explain how a thing came to be, why something is and to explain divine right of rulership.
We also know there’s two major areas of Greek history, the Mycenean Greek era and the those whom we think of as the Ancient or Classical Greeks with a dark age period in between. If you look at the myths carefully from these periods, Poseidon had been the ruler of the Olympian gods during the Mycenean era of Greek history. This later changes to Zeus being the head of the pantheon.
There is also a Neolithic, Cycladic culture that is best known for its female idols. Couple this with Hera and her vehemence towards Zeus and his numerous affairs. Now it appears to be clear that the Greek myths we get of Zeus are the result of revisionist history and storytelling.
As there’s a theological takeover of replacing Poseidon with Zeus as the head of the pantheon and a patriarchal takeover of the regions that reduces goddesses like Hera’s importance. Just taking a close look at some of these myths, you can see the hints of it and some of the discrepancies that come up as Greece and then Rome expanded, trying to absorb all of these locals myths and to equate local deities and variations with their own.
The most obvious being the Titanomachy story where Zeus and his siblings all displace the older pantheon and the survivors get absorbed into the new divine order.
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Also known as: 布袋, 笑佛 (Laughing Buddha), Hasne Buddha (Nepal), 胖佛 (Fat Buddha), Hotei (“cloth bag”) Japanese, Hotei-Osho (Japanese), Bo Dai or Bố Đại (Vietnamese), Hangul (Korean), Pu-Tai, Wagon Priest, Budai Luohan
Etymology: Laughing Buddha, Fat Buddha, Cloth Sack
In Chinese folklore, Budai is a Buddhist deity who has been integrated into Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto religions. The historical Budai lived during the 10th century C.E.
In art, Budai is often shown as being a very fat, bald man wearing a robe, either wearing or carrying prayer beads and has a huge belly; seen as the symbol of abundance, contentment, happiness, luck and generosity. He carries a large linen bag holding a number of precious things, even children on his back. This same bag is the source of Budai’s name. Sometimes Budai is shown sitting in a cart being pulled by boys where he is known as the Wagon Priest.
With his nickname of the Laughing Buddha, Budai is frequently shown smiling or laughing. Budai’s image is often confused with that of Gautama Buddha with Westerners, where he gets the name of the Fat Buddha. In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei and is one of the Seven Lucky Gods or Shichi Fukujin.
Budai Statues & Depictions
As already said, Budai is nearly always shown carrying a sack that is filled with a number of precious things such as rice plants, candy for children, food and the sadness of the world.
In Buddhist temples throughout China, statues of Budai are placed in the front part of the entrance halls. Budai is frequently shown as a stough, smiling or laughing man wearing a robe that is unable to cover his large belly. This large belly represents happiness, good luck and abundance. Some Budai statues will have small children gathered around at his feet. Another common feature of Budai statues is a begging bowl, that clearly shows him to be a Buddhist.
Because of Budai’s great association with happiness and wealth, statues of Budai can be found in many businesses and homes in China and Japan.
I Kuan Tao – Budai statues are a central part of I Kuan Tao shrines. Here, Budai is known by his Sanskrit name of Maitreya.
Budai represents the teachings of contentment, generosity, wisdom and kind-heartedness. He is also associated with luck and abundance.
Budai is the guardian and protector of children, the weak and poor. As a wandering monk, Budai is known to take sadness from people and bring them happiness.
Chinese history holds that Budai had been an eccentric Chan monk who lived during the late Liang dynasty. He had been a native of Zhejiang or Fenghua and his Buddhist name was Qieci, meaning: “Promise This.” Budai or Qieci was regarded as a man of good and loving character.
In Buddhism, the term Buddha means: “one who is awake,” as in awakened to enlightenment. There have been many figures in Buddhism who have all been revered as Buddhas. The Chan school of Buddhism teaches that all beings possess a Buddha nature within them and thus, already enlightened, they just have yet to realize it.
A few Buddhist traditions view Budai as an incarnation of Buddha or a bodhisattva.
Angida Arhat – One of the original Eighteen Arhats, meaning one who is worth or a perfected person, much like the Saints of Western Culture. In the Sakyamuni Buddhism, there is a legend wherein Angida is a talented Indian snake catcher would catch venomous snakes, thereby preventing them from biting travelers. Angida would remove the snake’s venomous fangs before releasing them. Due to these acts of kindness, Angida was able to attain bodhi or nirvana. In Chinese art, Angiha is sometimes depicted as Budhai; being rotund, mirthful and carrying a bag.
Gautama Buddha – The historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama lived during the 6th century B.C.E. in India, Nepal and much of southeast Asia. Here, Gautama is shown as being tall and slender in appearance. Whereas in China and other areas, Budai is consistently shown as being short and rotund. Both of these descriptions have been noted as being the idealized imagery of the different religions, cultural and folkloric traditions of the countries and regions after the two monks’ deaths. Many Westerners too, often confuse Budai with Gautama and Budai often does get equated or replace Gautama.
Maitreya – The Future Buddha
Budai is identified or seen as an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha. In China, Budai’s image is often the main used to depict Maitreya. Among the Japanese, Maitreya is known as Miroku. There is a Buddhist hymn that Budai is to have spoken at his death that identifies him with Maitreya:
Maitreya, the true Maitreya
has billions of incarnations.
Often he is shown to people at the time;
Other times they do not recognize him.
Mi-Lo-Fo – As Hotei, Budai is often confused with the Buddhist deity known as Mi-lo-Fo.
Pu-Tai – A Chinese monk that Budai came to be associated with, who due to their good nature, was seen as the incarnation for the bodhisattva or future Buddha, Maitreya. Due to how Pu-Tai is also portrayed with having a large, rotund belly, its easy to see how he came to be known as the Laughing Buddha and connected to Budai.
Chan, Seon And Zen
Chan is Chinese, Seon is Korean and Zen is Japanese, all three are the same philosophy.
The following koan, or short story is often told about Budai. One day, Budai was out traveling, giving candy to poor children. He would only a penny from any monks or lay practitioners he met with. One day, a monk approaches Budai and asks: “What is the meaning of Zen?” (Or Chan or Seon). Budai responded by dropping his bag. The monk continued with his questions. “How does one realize Zen?” At that, Budai picked up his bag and continued on his way.
Budai is greatly admired for his congenial and jovial attitude, along with his generosity and philosophy of contentment.
One of the most persistent and popular beliefs is that of rubbing the statues of Budai to bring wealth, good luck and even prosperity.
Japanese Religion & Folklore
In Japan, Budai becomes known as Hotei who was a Buddhist monk that lived during the 16th century. Like Budai, Hotei is still greatly associated with laughter and being called the Laughing Buddha. Chinese legend holds that Hotei had been a real person, whose name was Kaishi. While the date of his birth is unknown, Hotei death is given as being March 916. The Japanese began to believe in Hotei during the Edo era. Hotei was once a Zen priest who appearance and actions didn’t go along with his fellow Zen priests. He always looked like he was up to mischief and never had a permanent place to sleep. Hotei had no desire to be a Zen Master or to gather a following of disciples. He was known for walking the streets with a sack full of candy, fruits and doughnuts that he would give out to children. His bag would also hold the fortunes for those who believe in him. Among the Chinese, he is nicknamed: Cho-Tei-Shi or Ho-Tei-Shi, which means “bag of old clothes.”
According to Japanese legend, before Zen Buddhism came to the islands, another Buddhist philosophy of questionable aesthetics was prevalent. This philosophy originated with the priest Miroku. Miroku was the patron of those who couldn’t be saved by the beliefs of Buddha. Later, Hotei’s arrival was seen and accepted by the Japanese as a second Miroku.
Laughter – This is Hotei’s essence and teachings, he used laughter to impart wisdom. This was not the laughter of laughing at jokes or making fun of others. Hotei would laugh at himself and laugh for the mere celebration of life and existence, for the joy of life. Hotei has no other philosophy, scriptures, dogmas, ideologies or any other precepts to teach. Hotei’s laughter is considered a form of meditation, to experience the joy of living and to just be living and being present in the moment.
People would gather around Hotei as at first, they thought he was mad with how often he laugh and his laugh was known for being infectious in that others would soon laugh along with him. Such was Hotei’s laughter that people would cease to be judgmental or ask questions about enlightened. People would wait for Hotei and his laughter as they found it to have a purifying quality to it that would impart a deep sense of well-being.
One story about Hotei has a villager finding him sitting beneath a tree with his eyes closed. When the villager asked why Hotei wasn’t smiling or laughing, Hotei answered that he was preparing, preparing himself for laughter as he needed go within, forget the world without and recharge himself with rest. Once he was well rested, Hotei would be ready to laugh again.
Thailand Religion & Folklore
Phra Sangkajai – Also spelled Phra Sangkachai. Budai is sometimes equated with the monk Phra Sangkajai. Both Budai and Phra Sangkajai can be found Thai and Chinese temples. Though Phra Sangkajai can be found more often in Thai temples and Budai in Chinese temples. While very similar in appearance, Phra Sangkajai is distinguished from Budai in that he has a thin trace of hair while Budai is bald. Their styles of dress are also different, Phra Sangkajai is dressed in robes folded across one shoulder, with the other bare. Budai’s robes are clearly a Chinese style that covers both of his arms and front part of his upper body uncovered.
Phra Sangkajai is credited with composing the Madhupinadika Sutra. Buddha is said to have praised Phra Sangkajai for his excellence and understanding with explaining the more sophisticated dharma in easy and correct, understandable manners.
A folk story about Phra Sangkajai tells how he was so handsome, that a man once wanted to marry Phra Sangkajai and take him for a wife. To avoid this situation, Phra Sangkajai changed his appearance to that of a fat monk. Another story tells how Phra Sangkajai was found to be so attractive, that both men and angels would compare him to the Buddha. Phra Sangkajai considered this inappropriate, changed his body so he would be rather fat.
First off, Yiguandao is a folk religion out of China that got started around the late 19th century.
In many Yiguandao shrines, statues of Budai or Maitreya as he is known can be found. In Yiguandao, Maitreya represents a number of teachings such as: contentment, generosity, wisdom and open kind-heartedness. It is believed that Maitreya will succeed Gautama Buddha as the next Buddha and help people to realize their own spiritual essence within that connects everyone.
Shichi Fukujin – Seven Lucky Gods
In Japan, the Seven Lucky Gods or Seven Gods of Fortune, known as Shichi Fukujin are believed to granters of good luck and fortune. The Shichi Fukujin are often depicted in Japanese art and engravings known as netsuke. While many of the Shichi Fukujin are believed to be mythical in nature, one Shichi Fukujin is a known historical figure. Over the course of Japan’s history, the Shichi Fukujin became more associated with specific professions and aspects. Many of these same gods also originate from different countries and religions such as Hinduism and India to Chinese Buddhism and Taoism before coming to Japan. There are also seven Shichi Fukujin as seven in Japan is a lucky number.
While the gods had been worshipped for over a thousand years, mainly by merchants, they were first collectively called the Shichi Fukujin in 1420 C.E. It’s believed the Buddhist priest Tenkai arranged and selected these deities after talking with the shogun, Iemitsu Tokugawa. The selection was based on the following virtues of: longevity, fortune, popularity, sincerity, kindness, dignity and magnanimity.
Benzaiten – Often claimed as the only female deity among the Shichi Fukujin, Benzaiten originates in Hinduism where she had been the goddess Saraswati. Other names for Benzaiten are: Benten, Bentensama and Benzaitennyo. When she was adopted into Buddhism, Benzaiten became the associated with talent, beauty and music. Benzaiten is the patron of artists, writers, dancers and geishas. She is often seen as an intelligent, beautiful woman standing before a Torri, carrying a biwa, a traditional Japanese lute-style instrument and is accompanied by a white snake.
Bishamonten – A god originating in Hinduism where he had been the god Kubera and Vaisravana before becoming Bishamonten in Japanese culture. Bishamonten is the god of fortune in war and battles. He is also associated with authority and dignity, the protector of those who follow the rules and hold themselves accordingly. He is the protector of holy sites and other important places. Bishamonten is the patron of fighters and is often shown dressed in armor and helmet, carrying a pagoda in his left hand and a spear in his right hand to battle evil spirits. Bishamonten is also shown with a hoop of fire.
Daikokuten – The god of commerce and prosperity. He was also known as the patron of cooks, farmers, bankers and protected crops. Daikokuten was known too for hunting demons. There is a legend of how Daikokuten hung a sacred talisman from a tree branch in his garden to use as a trap for catching a demon. Daikokuten is often depicted with short legs, perpetual smile and wearing a hat on his head and often carrying a bag full of valuables.
Ebisu – The only purely Japanese god in the group, he is the god of prosperity, wealth in business, abundance in crops, cereals and food. Ebisu is the patron of fishermen and he is often dressed as a fisherman carrying a fishing rod in his right hand and the left holding a fish. Ebisu’s figure can often be found in restaurants where fish is served or in kitchens.
Fukurokuju – Originating in China, Fukurokuju is believed to have once been a hermit who lived during the Song dynasty. Fukurokuju is seen as the reincarnation of the Taoist god Hsuan-wu. As a god, Fukurokuju is the god of wisom, luck, longevity, wealth and happiness. In addition, he is thought to be one of the Chinese philosophers who could live without eating and was able to resurrect the dead. Fukurokuju is noted for having a head that is almost the same size as his body. He is often shown dressed in traditional Chinese attire, carrying a cane in one hand and a scroll containing historical writings. Fukurokuju is often shown being accompanied by a turtle, crow or deer, all animals that represent a long life. With a strong love for chess, Fukurokuju is also the patron of chess players. Fukurokuju, along with Jurojin both overlap with their origins with the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. Due to this overlapping, Fukurokuju’s position as one of the Shichi Fukujin is sometimes given to the goddess Kichijoten in the Butsuzozu compendium.
Hotei – This is the Japanese name for Budai. As Hotei, he is the god of fortune, the guardian of children, happiness, laughter, popularity and the patron of diviners and barmen. Hotei is often shown as a fat, smiling bald man with a curly mustache. Because he is so fat, Hotei is often shown as being half naked as his clothes aren’t quite big enough to cover his large belly.
Jurojin – Like Fukurokujin, he has his origins in the Chinese Taoist god Nanjilaoren. He is the god of the elderly and longevity in the Japanese Buddhist mythology. Jurojin is believed to be based on a real person, he was very tall, 1.82 meters with a very long head, much like Fukurokuju. Aside from his elongated skull, Jurojin is also shown to have a long white beard and rides a deer and is sometimes accompanied by a crane and tortoise, all animals that represent a long life. Jurojin is sometimes shown sitting under a peach tree, another symbol of long life. In one hand, he holds a cane, in the other he holds either a book or scroll containing the wisdom of the world. Jurojin is known to enjoy rice and wine and has a rather cheerful disposition. Finally, Jurojin is an incarnation of the southern polestar.
Kichijoten – Also known as Kisshoten or Kisshoutennyo. Kichijoten was adopted into Buddhism from the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Kichijoten is shown holding a Nyoihoju gem in her hand. The Butsuzozu compendium from 1783 lists and has Kichijoten replace Fukurokuju as one of the seven Shichi Fukujin. By this accounting, Daikoku is portrayed as being feminine and all three of the Hindu Tridevi goddesses are seen represented among the Shichi Fukujin.