Category Archives: Witch
Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and -mundr (Old Norse) “Protector”
Pronunciation: Zeek-muwnt (German), Seeg-mund (Swedish), Sig-mənd (English)
Also known as: Siegmund
Alternate Spellings: Sigmundr (Old Norse), Sigimund, Sigismund (Ancient Germanic), Sigmundr (Ancient Scandinavian), Zikmund (Czech), Siegmund, Sigismund (German), Zsigmond, Zsiga (Hungarian), Sigismondo (Italian), Zygmunt (Polish), Žigmund (Slovak), Žiga (Slovene), Segismundo (Spanish), Sigge (Swedish)
The hero Sigmund is best known from his exploits in the Völsunga saga. Sigmund’s fame comes from being the one who could pull the sword, Gram from a tree and being the father of another hero, Sigurd.
Parentage and Family
Father – Völsung, for whom the Völsunga saga is named.
Mother – Ljod, also spelled Hljod, Sigmund’s mother in the Völsunga.
Borghild – His first wife.
Sieglind – His wife in the Nibelungenlied.
Sisibe – His wife in the Thiðrekssaga.
Brother – It’s mentioned that Sigmund has nine brothers, though none of them are ever given any names.
Sister – Signý, his twin
Helgi – Son by way of Borghild.
Sigurd – Son by way of Hljod. A famous dragon-slayer of many Norse, Scandinavian and German sagas.
Sinfjötli – Son by way of incest with his sister Signý.
Hamund and Helgi – Sons by way of Borghild.
The oldest source for Sigmund’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. based on events from the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.
This is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that follows several generations of Völsung’s lineage. While this saga is best known for the story of Sigurd and Brunhildr and the destruction of the Burgundians, this is the main source for the story regarding Sigmund.
Backing up a little bit, the saga begins with Völsung, known of his great strength and size, who is the king of Hunland. Völsung marries Hljod with whom he fathers ten sons and a daughter, Signý, the twin to Sigmund.
So great is Signý’s beauty, that King Siggeir of Gautland (Västergötland) sends a missive to King Völsung requesting his daughter Signý’s hand in marriage. Now, Siggeir had a reputation for being fierce in battle and Völsung and his sons knew that they couldn’t hope to fend off Siggeir and his men once they saw them. Add to this, Signý doesn’t want to marry Siggeir.
Against her better judgment, Signý marries Siggeir. A wedding feast, one that would last for several days commenced shortly after. At a time when both Völsung and Sigmund are in attendance, the god Odin came, disguised as a beggar and thrust the sword Gram into the a large oak tree known as Barnstock. Völsung’s hall was built around this large oak. The beggar (Odin) announces that the man who is able to pull the sword free may have it as a gift. Of all the men present, only Sigmund succeeded in pulling the sword free.
Signý’s new husband, Siggeir became very envious and greedy for Sigmund’s sword. When Sigmund refused an offer to buy the sword, Siggeir than invites Völsung, Sigmund and his nine other brothers to come visit him and Signý a few months later in Gautland.
When Völsung and the rest of his clan arrived, they are attacked by Siggeir’s men. In the fight that followed, Völsung is killed and his sons captured. Signý pleaded with Siggeir to spare her brothers, to have them placed in stocks instead of killing them outright. Siggeir agreed to Signý’s pleas only because it went along with his ideas of torturing the brothers before killing them.
It turns out that Siggeir has a mother who can shape-shift into a wolf. He lets dear old mother kill one of the Völsung brothers each night. Signý, much as she tries, is unable to save her brothers. One by one they are killed by this she-wolf until finally only Sigmund remains.
With only last chance to save any of her brothers, Signý gets a servant to smear some honey on Sigmund’s face. When Siggeir’s shape-shifted mother arrives that night, the she-wolf licks the honey off Sigmund’s face, causing her tongue to stick to the roof of her mouth. The opportunity allowed Sigmund to bite off the she-wolf’s tongue. The resulting blood loss killed the wolf. Shortly after, he freed himself and Sigmund took off to hide in the forest.
Hidden safely in the woods, Sigmund has everything he needs and what he doesn’t have, Signý would bring to him. Seeking revenge for the death of their father herself, Signý would send her sons out to the forest to be tested by their uncle. As each one failed the test, Sigmund would kill them until he finally had enough of it and refused to kill any more children. A distraught Signý came to Sigmund disguised as a völva (a type of Scandinavian Witch or Shaman). Disguised, Signý gave birth to Sinfjötli, whom, a child of incest is able to pass Sigmund’s test.
Living the life of outlaws, both Sigmund and Sinfjötli lived in the forest. During their time, the two came across some men sleeping in some wolf skins. The two kill the men and on donning the wolf skins for themselves, discover that the skins are cursed. With their new-found abilities or curse, Sigmund and Sinfjötli are able to avenge Völsung when they kill Siggeir by way of setting his place on fire. The only person to escape the blaze was Signý, whom if Sigmund hadn’t known the truth about his nephew/son Sinfjötli, she now came clean to tell him she had tricked Sigmund into sleeping with her. After revealing the truth, Signý walked back into the raging fire to die with Siggeir.
Returning To Hunland
The story doesn’t end there as both Sigmund and Sinfjötli continue their exploits of banditry when they return to Hunland. Sigmund’s plan is to reclaim his lands from the king who took over after Völsung’s death. After reclaiming his rightful throne, Sigmund marries Borghild and they have two sons, Hamund and Helgi.
It’s known that Helgi, at the age of fifteen would go on to fight many battles and win his own kingdom. He earned the name Helgi Hundingsbani when he killed Hunding and his sons after two battles. Helgi wasn’t done yet and would continue on to defeat Hodbrodd and Grannar in order to win the hand of Sigrun, the daughter of King Hogni in marriage. This is a story for another post.
Borghild became jealous of her stepson Sinfjötli’s abilities and when he killed her brother, she plotted Sinfjötli’s demise. Both Sinfjötli and her brother had been competing for the hand of the same woman. Killing Sinfjötli wouldn’t be easy for Borghild as he was immune to all poison. That didn’t stop Borghild from trying. She offered Sinfjötli two cups of poisoned wine that he drank without problem. However, with the third cup, that did Sinfjötli in. For her efforts, Borghild was banished from Hunland.
The narrative continues that Sigmund carried Sinfjötli’s body into the forest where he meets a ferryman at a fjord. The ferryman had only enough room on his boat for one passenger at a time and offered to take Sinfjötli’s body across first and come back for Sigmund. When the boat reached the middle of the fjord, it vanished along with the ferryman and Sinfjötli’s body. This ferryman would be none other than Odin in disguise, come to personally take his descendant to Valhalla despite not meeting the prerequisite to die in battle.
Marrying Hjördís & Sigmund’s Doom
Sigmund goes on to marry again, this time to Hjördís, daughter of King Eylimi. Hjördís had another suitor who sought her hand in marriage, King Lyngi along with other suitors. The would be suitors competed for Hjördís’s hand in marriage and Sigmund won, despite being much older than other kings. Lyngi refused to give up and concede to Sigmund.
After enjoying a brief period of peace, Sigmund’s kingdom is attacked by King Lyngi as he was jealous and wanted revenge on Hjördís for marrying Sigmund.
It is during this battle, Sigmund fought alongside his father-in-law, King Eylimi who is killed. It is this day, that the Norns have decreed will be when Sigmund dies. The god Odin returns in this battle, disguised as a beggar and when he comes face to face with Sigmund, the sword Gram is shattered by his spear Gungnir.
The sword shattered, Sigmund easily falls at the hands of others in battle. As he lays dying, Sigmund tells Hjördís that she is pregnant, and their son will one day receive the broken remains of his sword. That their son will be named Sigurd who would go on to avenge his father’s death and slay the dragon Fafnir.
As to Lyngi, he was thwarted in trying to win Hjördís for she had fled and was found by King Alf who married and took her and her unborn son in.
Other Germanic Sagas
In many of the sagas about the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), Sigmund or Siegmund is often cited as being Sigurd’s father. None of these other sagas have the same level of detail regarding Sigmund that is found within the Völsunga.
Nibelungenlied – In this saga, his wife was Sieglind
Thiðrekssaga – In this saga, Sigmund is the son of Sifjan, the king of Tarlungland. He has a son with Sisibe, the daughter of King Nidung of Spain.
This is an Old English poem. In the story Beowulf, the story of Sigemund is told to the title character and involves the slaying of a dragon, not unlike that of Sigurd slaying a dragon. The child conceived by Signý and Sigemund the Wælsing is known as Fitela, not Sinfjötli.
The Sword In The Tree – Arthurian Legend!?!
The Branstock tree was a massive oak tree that Völsung built his hall around.
For those familiar with Arthurian legend, Sigmund’s pulling the sword Gram from the Branstock tree sounds very familiar to the story of Arthur pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone.
In addition, it’s been noted that the characters of Sinfjötli and Mordred are both nephew and son to the respective figures of Sigmund and Arthur.
Gram – A Gift From Odin
In the Völsunga saga, the name of Sigmund’s sword is Gram. Other Norse sagas will give the name of Balmung for Sigmund’s sword. Gram’s name means: “wrath.”
Being an enchanted sword gifted by the god Odin, Gram holds the magical ability of giving its wielder the power to win all their battles.
As for who forged Gram, the myths and legends say that Volund, or Wayland the Smith is who crafted this blade. In the Nibelungenlied, Gram is known by the name of Balmung and Mimung in Germanic myths. In Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” the sword is known as Nothung.
It was said that Volund (or Wayland the Smith) made the sword, and the magic sword was later called Gram (Balmung or Mimung in German myth).
Tolkien Middle Earth Connection – I mentioned in my post for Sigurd that the shattering of Gram served as the inspiration for Aragorn’s shattered sword that he reforges.
Odin’s Role In The Völsunga
It should be noted that Odin is the great grandfather of Völsung who founds the clan of the same name. Effectively making Völsung at least a demigod of sorts and later descendants being more extraordinary in their deeds and destiny.
So, it makes sense at the first, that Odin would appear, favoring the Völsung’s when he impales the sword Gram into the Branstock tree, saying that whoever can pull this sword can have it and it’s Sigmund who succeeds.
However later, Sigmund appears to fall out of favor with Odin when the god shatters Gram and leaves Sigmund to fall at the hands of his enemies.
God of Prophesy
Surely a god of prophesy would know what events would transpire. Which could mean that’s exactly what Odin wanted to have happen. Or he’s trying to change the fates of his kinsmen even though the Norns have told Odin that no, you can’t change fate, no you won’t get your descendant at all. That as punishment, Sigmund won’t die in battle at all.
Even a god can try?
If a person’s fate is truly set and there’s no avoiding destiny or changing one’s stars, even a god of prophesy would know you can’t change the future. Unless predicting the future is nothing more than being able to see what the most likely outcomes and probabilities are. That if you don’t change the variables, X event is the most likely event and course of action to happen.
Of course, the other thing to remember, is that Odin is also a god of battle and as such, like many other war gods, he thrives on the conflicts and strife that happen. Even if only for the sake of it.
With the whole impending doom of the gods and Ragnarok among the Norse, Odin is going to try and bolster his forces by recruiting from the various fields of battle, the fallen and slain warriors. Isn’t that what the Valkyries are for? Well sure, so unless there’s a constant steady source of conflicts and battles, the Valkyries aren’t likely to be doing much recruiting. One can see Odin going about instigating some of these conflicts, so he can try to recruit promising warriors for his Einherjar, ya’ know, the slain warriors of Valhalla. And let’s not forget that Freya is going to get half of those warriors for her hall of Folkvangr.
Sigmund! I don’t choose you!
Sigmund also has a date with destiny, for the Norns have decreed that he would die on that day. There is however a hitch to this, so long as Sigmund has the sword Gram, there’s no way he’s going to loose or die. So there’s Odin off to the field of battle to make sure that Sigmund can meet destiny by making sure he doesn’t have the sword.
Now it could be that he has angered Odin when Sigmund tries to interfere with protecting his father-in-law, King Eylimi during the battle against King Lyngi. Odin attacks Sigmund, shattering the sword Gram and leaves him to die.
It might be too how dare a descendant of his defy the mighty Odin and shatter the sword, hoping somehow that Sigmund will die in battle to join his forces in Valhalla. Odin’s efforts to sow contention earlier at a wedding only resulted in nine other of his grandsons getting killed by a wolf while tied up. That’s not exactly the heat of battle there and the loss of nine potential warriors to join him.
So, Odin cuts his losses with Sigmund and gifts a final prophesy to his grandson about the birth of Sigurd and that Gram will be reforged and passed on to another hero.
Lastly, the Völsunga saga was written in the 13th century C.E. several centuries from when the events are to have initially occurred. That’s more than enough time for the skalds to have embellished the stories. To add Odin to the events in an effort to make sense of narrative as well as give a more mythic quality to the tales to explain why events turn out the way they did.
Etymology – Sown-Ones or Sown Men. From the Greek word: σπείρω, speírō, meaning: “to sow.”
Also known as: Σπαρτοί (Spartos), Σπαρτος (Spartoi), Spartus, Spartes, Sparti, Serpent’s Race, Ophion’s Race, Gegenees (Earth-Born), Gigantes, Terrigenae (Earth-Born)
In Greek mythology, the Spartoi are the earth-born warriors of the war god, Ares. When the teeth of the slain dragon Dracon were planted in a field sacred to Ares, a warrior springs up from the ground fully grown, armed and ready for battle from each tooth. As such, the Spartoi are seen as the sons of Ares.
Spartoi Of Thebes
The famous hero Cadmus is perhaps the most well-known for having planted and created such an army in his founding of Thebes.
As the story goes, Cadmus was the son of King Agenor and Queen Telephassa in Tyre. After his sister Europa had been kidnapped by the god Zeus, Agenor sent Cadmus and his other brothers to search for her. Eventually all the brothers gave up their search and began to find other places to settle since they couldn’t return home to Tyre.
Cadmus had been told by an oracle at Delphi, to found a city where ever a cow would stop and lay down. After a good long while, the cow finally lay down and Cadmus sent his men off to the nearby spring of Ismene to fetch water as part of sacrificing the cow to Athena. As it would be, this particular spring was guarded by a dragon or serpent, Drakon that killed many of Cadmus’ men before he finally slew it with his sword.
Now a couple of different things happened. First, Athena appeared to Cadmus and gave him half of the dragon’s teeth, instructing him to plant them. As Cadmus did so on the Aonian plain, from each tooth sprang up a fully armed warrior. Fearing for his life, Cadmus threw a stone in amongst the warriors and they began to fight each other. Each thinking the stone had been thrown by another warrior. These warriors fought until there were only five of them left standing. Sometimes, depending on who’s telling the story, Athena instructed Cadmus to leave only five living Spartoi. These five remaining warriors’ names were: Chthonius, Echion, Hyperenor, Pelorus and Udeus. At Cadmus’ instructions, they helped him to found and build the city of Thebes.
Secondly, with the dragon being sacred to Ares, Cadmus was forced to be a servant to the god for an “everlasting year,” such a time period was the equivalent of eight years as repayment for killing it. At the end of that time, Cadmus was married to Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Cadmus and Harmonia had four daughters, Agave, Autonoe, Ino and Semele.
In his writings, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth, only five warriors sprang up from the ground. There was no fighting it out among them. In addition, Hellanicus has Zeus step in to save Cadmus from the Ares’ wrath as the war god wanted to kill the mortal. And the Spartoi, Echion marries Cadmus’ daughter Agave and their son, Pentheus succeeds Cadmus to become king.
Royal Family Of Thebes
The five surviving Spartoi from the dragon’s teeth that Cadmus sowed, go on to become the ancestors and founding families of Thebes. Additionally, whenever the Theban seer summons the ghosts of heroes past, it is the Spartoi who appear.
The descendants of the Spartoi all bear distinctive birth marks that identified them as such. Some thought is that these birth marks looked like serpents or dragons. Another source sites that this birth mark appeared as a spear.
Khthonios – (Χθονιος, Chthonius) “Of the Earth.” He has two known sons, Nykteus and Lykos. His granddaughter Nykteis marries Polydorus from Ekhiôn’s line and uniting these two families to the royal ruling line of Cadmus for Thebes.
Ekhiôn – (Εχιων, Echion – Latin) “Of the Viper,” He marries Agave, Cadmus’ daughter and their son Pentheus goes on to become king after Cadmus. He also believed to have dedicated a temple to Cybele in Boeotia.
Further descendants of Ekhiôn after Pentheus’ reign are: Polydorus who married Nykteis, a daughter of Nykteus, the son of Khthonios. They in turn had Labdakos who died soon after Pentheus’ death but not before leaving behind a year-old son Laios. At this time, Thebes was ruled by a regent, Lykos until Laios came of age.
Hyperênôr – (Ὑπερηνωρ, Hyperenor) “Overbearing”
Pelôros – (Πελωρος, Pelorus, Pelor) “Huge” or “Gigantic”
Oudaios – (Ουδαιος, Udaeus – Latin) “Of the Earth.” From his linage, there is a soothsayer, Teiresias, son of Everes and the nymph Khariklo.
Seven Against Thebes
In Aeschylus’ tragedy from 5th century B.C.E., the whole dilemma comes about because Oedipus marries his mother Jocasta without knowing it. Oedipus and Jocasta had four children of which, the incest and inbreeding caused huge problems for the people of Thebes as they saw their crops begin to fail. In response, Oedipus blinded himself out of shame and cursed his two sons: Eteocles and Polynices to figure out who would succeed as ruler of Thebes through war.
All started out well as at first, Eteocles and Polynices decided they would avoid any bloodshed over their kingdom by alternating who ruled each year. Eventually, Eteocles refused to step down as king and his brother Polynices raised an army to confront his brother, leading to the story of the Seven Against Thebes.
Much of Aeschylus’ tragedy is mainly dialogue that delves into depth many of the characters of his story until it resolves at the end with a messenger coming and saying that the army has left and both Eteocles and Polynices are now dead.
There are a number of scenes in which descendants of the Spartoi are made mention of. One scene has a Tydeus, son of Astakos and ultimately descended from the Spartoi is set to guard a gate. Another scene has a Megareus, also descended from the Spartoi sent out to confront Eteoklos after he taunts Ares, the god of War as being unable to throw him from the battlements.
When the Thebans consulted their prophets, Teiresias told them that they would win the battle if Kreon’s son, Menoikeus and the father of Jocasta, a descendant of the Spartoi, offered up his life to Ares at the spring of Dirke or the Dragon’s hole. Menoikeus did so, pulling out a sword that was already stabbed into him and killing himself. Another variation to this story has Menoikeus throwing himself from a wall to ensure the Thebans victory after hearing Teiresias’ prophesy how if any of the descendants of the Spartoi should die, Thebes would be saved.
The Haunted Fields Of Thebes
Continuing Teiresias’ part in the story of the Seven Against Thebes, the Roman tragedy of Oedipus has the seer performing Necromancy and summoning the ghosts of the Spartoi, the Theban ancestors aid their living kinsmen against their attackers.
In Statius’ poem Thebaid the summoned ghosts of Spartoi are a bit vampiric as they are made mention of draining the blood of the living. That could just be the poetic phrasing on his account for the nature of war. Statius also continues to mention in his poem how the fields surrounding Thebes, particularly the plain sacred to Ares were haunted and the ghosts of Spartoi would appear to frighten off Farmers from tilling the land.
Other Descendants Of The Spartoi
There is a grave marker for the historical Theban Epaminondas with a shield of a dragon or serpent on it. The relief symbol indicates that Epaminondas was descended from the Spartoi.
The Roman mythographer, Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, when writing about Antigona (Antigone) and her son Haemon. When Haemon came of age, he went to Thebes for their annual Games and Kreon, his grandfather recognized him due to his birthmark that all those of Spartoi linage have.
In Plato’s Sophist, he comments that the Spartoi were so earthy and unable to grasp any philosophical concepts. Saying that anything they couldn’t hold in their hands, had no existence.
Spartoi Of Colchis
As to the other half of the dragon’s teeth that Athena hung onto, she gave those to King Aeetes of Colchis near the Black Sea. When Jason and his Argonauts came to Colchis seeking out the Golden Fleece, King Aeetes set Jason what he thought would be an impossible task in order to earn it. He was to sow the dragon’s teeth and slay all the arising Spartoi from them before the end of the day.
Jason was instructed by King Aeetes to sow the teeth of a Drakon in a field sacred to the god Ares. In this case, the task wasn’t as simple as that of plowing the field, Jason was to use a pair of metallic bulls who breathed fire constructed by the god Hephaestus to plow and sow the dragon’s teeth. Making the task more daunting is that the bulls had never been tamed or yoked for doing farm labor before. So much of Jason’s time, with the aid of his fellow Argonauts, was spent in taming these fearsome, wild bulls.
As the field was plowed, Jason sowed the dragon’s teeth and as it happened before with Cadmus, an army of Spartoi rose up from the earth, fully armed and ready for battle. Just as Cadmus had done before with his task, Jason also threw a stone into the middle of the newly sprung up Spartoi. As with the previous group of Spartoi, this new group also fought each other over who threw the stone. In some instances of this story’s retelling, Jason has the help of a witch, Medeia, who uses salves, herbs and charms to protect him from the spears and weapons of the Spartoi. As this new sprung group of Spartoi rose up and fought each other, the hero Jason slew and attacked many of them in order to fulfill his task from King Aeetes and win from him the Golden Fleece.
To Sow Dragon’s Teeth
This phrase has come to be a poetic way saying that someone is fomenting chaos, contention and stirring up strife or war. More specifically, the phrase refers to a fight or problem that is to have already been taken care of and laid to rest yet pops back up anew. The original example being Cadmus’ slaying the dragon and then sowing its teeth to create an army ready to fight. In other words, the problems of the past keep getting brought up and no one is willing to move on.
Poetically, the term Dragon’s Teeth refers to subjects or people of civil strife, for whatever cause and reason cause people to have to rise up and take arms.
Other phrases or words from the story of the Theban Spartoi is the word Cadmeian (or Kadmeian). It is used to mean any victory in war often has more losses instead of gains.
Marvel Comics And Guardians Of The Galaxy
For those who’ve enjoyed the movie and read the comics, the Spartoi are an alien and cousin race to the Shi’ar with whom they have had unsteady alliances with in the past. The Spartoi come from a planet known as Spartax and have built an empire that spans hundreds of worlds. Compared to humans, the Spartoi are very long lived. J’son or Jason of Sparta and a prince is the father of Peter Quill or Star Lord in the comics. The basic concept of the Spartoi in Marvel Comics was very closely tied to Greek mythology.
The story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one that I found while looking up another article on an American Folklore site. The imagery that came to mind while reading the story caught my imagination and I set it to the side while I worked on other projects for Brickthology before coming back to it.
Now, sometime later as I began working on this post, I find that the story of “Aunty Greenleaf and the White Deer” is one of several stories from S.E. Schlosser’s “Spooky New York” which is a collection of ghost stories and folklore from around New York State.
Further, is that many of the sites that mention and reference this story, merely reprint it. Only one additional mention is of Aunty Greenleaf appearing as a character in Fables’ “The Wolf Among Us” game. It does leave me to question the validity of Aunty Greenleaf as an actual folkloric figure or if she can be considered a newer folkloric and literary character who first makes her appearance in 1995.
Even if Aunty Greenleaf doesn’t appear before Schlosser’s “Spooky New York,” this is how new mythological characters find their place. Enough people who want to view the story of Aunty Greenleaf as a literary source and new piece of folklore will certainly succeed.
The story of Aunty Greenleaf goes as follows: she is your typical elderly woman who lived alone in a small house outside the town of Brookhaven. She was known as a witch who people avoided except for when they needed her knowledge of herbs and healing. Like many suspected and accused witches, the townspeople accused Aunty Greenleaf of being in league with the devil.
Typical accusations against Aunty Greenleaf included claims that she had hexed a farmer’s pigs so that they all died after he had spoken ill of her. Another accusation involved a prominent townswoman who claimed to have dreamt of Aunty Greenleaf and the next morning, her daughter fell deathly ill. Another wild claim placed Aunty Greenleaf and her fellow witches crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an egg shell for a Sabbath in England before returning at sunrise.
This is typical of people during Colonial times in the Americas or even in Europe. Superstitions and fear when anything bad happens or a streak of misfortunes and it’s easier to blame the town outcast or someone who doesn’t quite fit in.
Aunty Greenleaf’s story picks up and get more interesting one year during early fall when people started talking about a large, white deer that has been seen in the surrounding forest of Brookhaven. Several large hunting parties were organized by the townsfolk to hunt down this white deer. It soon became clear that this white deer was impervious to bullets and people started to believe this deer to be supernatural in nature.
It wasn’t long after, that the women of Brookhaven also began having problems with churning their butter and a number of livestock sickened and died. It wasn’t too difficult for the people to blame the presence of the white deer. Added to this, those people affected had had run-ins with Aunty Greenleaf at one point or another during the past month.
Finally, a hunting party was put together in earnest and the people of Brookhaven really began hunting the white deer. They had gone all day and most of the night hunting the deer before it was finally spotted. It was the largest and fastest that anyone has seen. The hunting party was hard pressed to keep up. Several people fired at the deer, but it kept on running and the hunting party soon return empty-handed.
One farmer became rather obsessed with hunting the white deer, every chance he had when he wasn’t busy with his farm. It was this farmer who decided there must be some connection between the white deer and witchcraft. The farmer took some silver and melted it down to make bullets.
Ah! But aren’t silver bullets only for werewolves? Yes and no. Silver is a sacred metal, connected to the moon and there is folklore silver to harming other supernatural creatures such as vampires and witches who turn into rabbits.
Anyhow, rifle in hand, the farmer went hunting the white deer. This time he succeeded in hitting the deer with one of his shots. The farmer managed to track the deer close to Aunty Greenleaf’s house before it vanished in the growing darkness of night.
The next day, the farmer learned that Aunty Greenleaf was ill. From the moment she took to her bed, the local farm animals stopped dying and the families who were having trouble with their churning were back to normal. Less than a week later, Aunty Greenleaf died and the doctor who cared for her told the minister he found three silver bullets in her spine.
After the death of Aunty Greenleaf, the phantom white deer was never heard of or seen again in Brookhaven.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”