Category Archives: Witch
Etymology: “Bright One”, peraht (Old High German meaning “brilliant”). “Hidden” or “Covered,” pergan (Old High German)
Also Called: Behrta, Berchta, Berigl, Bertha (English), Bechtrababa, Berchtlmuada, Berchte, Butzen-Bercht, Frau Berchta, Frau Faste (the Lady of Ember Days), Frau Perchta, Fronfastenweiber, Kvaternica (Slovene), Lutzl, Pehta, Perchta, Perahta, Perhta-Baba, Posterli, Pudelfrau, Quatemberca, Rauweib. Sampa, Stampa, Spinnstubenfrau (“Spinning Room Lady”), Zamperin, Zampermuatta, Zlobna Pehta, The Lady of the Beasts, The Belly Slitter
Perchta has her beginnings and roots as an Alpine goddess worshiped in the Germanic countries where she protected the forests and animals. Later, as Christian influences increased, Perchta would take on a more sinister appearance and role, especially during the dark winter months where she would become a boogeyman type figure used to scare children into good behavior.
This is one of those confusing ones. Is Perchta a goddess, a witch, demon, or something else?
To answer that, we start at the beginning.
Animal: Goose, Swan
Day of the Week: Friday
Sphere of Influence: Nature, Forests, Wildlife, Spinning, Weaving
Symbols: Staff, Knife,
What’s In A Name?
The meaning for Perchta’s name is fairly easy to find, it comes the Old High Germanic words “beraht” and “bereht” meaning bright, light, flame and white. The word percht was meant as a warning for the sin of vanity. Another potential word in Old High German is the verb pergan, meaning “Hidden” or Covered” as the origin for Perchta’s name.
Given the many different eras and regions of Germany, Perchta is known by several different names. In southern Austria, there is a male form of Perchta known as Quantembermann (German), or Kvaternik (Slovene), meaning “The man of the Four Ember Days.” Jacob Grimm holds the idea that Perchta’s male counterpart is Berchtold.
Perchta is notable for a dual nature where she will have one of two forms that people see her in. During the Spring and Summer months, Perchta takes on the form of a lovely, young maiden dressed in white, or during the colder, autumn and winter months, she is seen as an ugly old hag with a hooked nose and tattered, worn clothing as she carries either a knife or scissors to slit open people’s bellies. Some perchten masks showing the ugly crone aspect give Perchta an iron face and beak-like nose.
Jacob Grimm of the Grimm Brothers fame tries to say that Perchta is an ancient goddess. In some stories, Perchta will be described as having a goose or swan foot; this imagery connects her to having a higher nature and the ability to shape-shift. This same goose foot could also be the splay foot that a spinner develops with one foot pumping the pedal of a spinning wheel.
Swan Maiden – It has been noted that in several languages, that Perchta or Bertha is also referred to by her peculiar foot. Berhte mit dem fuoze in German, Bertha au grand pied in French and Berhta cum magno pede in Latin. The idea given by Jacob Grimm is that foot means that Perchta is a Swan Maiden.
Woodcut – There is a notable woodcut from 1750 that depicts Perchta as “Butzen-Bercht.” The word Butzen is noted to mean “bogeyman.” The woodcut shows Perchta as a crone with a wart on her nose as she carries a basket filled with screaming children, all of them girls. Perchta also holds a staff as she stands before a door to a house where there are more frightened young girls.
The earliest depictions and mentions of Perchta, date her to during the Middle Ages, first in around 1200 and then later in the 1400’s when mention of Perchta becomes more prominent. Perchta served as an enforcer of communal taboos. One such taboo is weaving on sacred days or not joining in the feasts enthusiastically enough. Many of Perchta’s punishments stem out of punishing those who are lazy and haven’t done the proper work.
As to Perchta’s retinue that accompanies her, the first reference to them is in 1468, however, these are the souls of the dead. With the passage of time, this retinue would become demons, and then by the coming of the 15th century, they would become the familiar horned figures of the perchten and the first mentions of costumed processions and parades would appear.
In Hans Vintler’s Die Pluemen der Tugent (“The Flowers of Virtue”) written in 1411, we have the first illustration of Perchta and more accurately someone in a mask posing as “Percht with the iron nose.”
Counter-Reformations & Witchtrials – It has been noted that the era of history that Perchta first emerges also overlaps and coincides with the Reformations and Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants over how Christianity should be observed and practiced along with trying to stamp out other non-Christian religions and practices through Europe.
Among Wiccans and Pagans, the period between 1450 and 1700’s is called The Burning Times when thousands of men and women, upwards of around 100,000 were executed and burned at the stake for the crime of witchcraft. Germany had the worst of it with historians reporting that entire villages could see their population of women gone. There’s some sense to Perchta appearing as a dark figure who carried off girls who didn’t behave and the changes to her appearance during this era.
In the southern parts of Germany and Austria, the name Frau Perchta is attributed to a witch who comes during the twelve days of Christmas, spanning from December 25th to January 6th for Epiphany. If a person is naughty or sinful, Frau Perchta is fierce and terrible with the punishment she will hand out. We are talking she will rip out a person’s intestines and other internal organs to replace with straw, rocks, and other garbage. In this terrible, punishing aspect, this image of Perchta looks very similar to that of Krampus, and figures dressed as her, called perchten are known to also appear in the annual Krampus parades held in several Alpine towns.
Before her darker imagery took hold, Perchta was held in a more benevolent light. Many of her positive attributes would be twisted under Christian influence causing many people to associate Perchta as a dark, Wintertime, Christmas entity to be feared. The influence of Christianity also creates a seeming, conflicting goddess with a dual identity.
Given when the change to her darker appearance happens, Winter when the nights are longer, when it is cold, and nature becomes that much more precarious if people haven’t properly prepared for the cold months. When evil spirits are thought to roam.
Protector Of Women & Children
In this role, Perchta is a goddess who protects women, children, and infants. For those children and infants who died, Perchta is a psychopomp who guided their souls to the Afterlife.
Goddess Of Nature
In this role, Perchta was mainly concerned with tending to her forests and taking care of nature. As a nature goddess or spirit, Perchta was known as “The Lady of the Beasts.” In this aspect, Perchta holds some similarities with Holda and Germany’s ancient hunting cultures.
It was only during wintertime and Christmas, the Winter Solstice that Perchta would concern herself with the affairs of humans. During Winter, Perchta will withdraw up into the mountains where she will create snow. In addition, Perchta will protect her followers by removing evil spirits as they travel.
In this role and aspect, Perchta not only governs the mundane arts of weaving and spinning, but she also presides over fate, much like the Moirai or Fates of Greek mythology.
During the Summer months, Perchta is believed to live in the depths of various lakes, during which time she busies herself with spinning flax upon her golden spindle. During the night, Perchta can be encountered walking along the steep slopes of the alps carrying her spindle. Those who approach Perchta with their flocks can get her to bless them.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. Jacob Grimm of Grimms Brothers fame makes a connection of Herne to the Wild Hunt due to the epitaph of “the Hunter.” That does seem to work, a Huntsman, connect him to the Wild Hunt and for Britain, the idea really jells of a local person who becomes a lost soul, doomed to forever ride with the Hunt.
According to Jacob Grimm, Perchta is one potential leader of the Wild Hunt. Given that during Midwinter, Perchta is known to wander around the countryside at this time with her entourage of perchten, it’s no surprise to see Perchta be suggested as a leader of the Wild Hunt.
Ultimately, just who leads the Wild Hunt will vary from country to country. In Welsh mythology, it is Gwyn ap Nudd or Annwn who lead the hunt with a pack of spectral hounds to collect unlucky souls. The Anglo-Saxons of Britain hold that it is Woden who leads the hunt at midwinter. Herne the Hunter has been given as the name for another leader of the Wild Hunt. Wotan is very similar to Odin (just another name for the same deity really), Herne has been linked to them as both have been hung from a tree.
The arrival of Christianity is about when we see Perchta become a minor deity and then diminished to be some sort of magical creature or spirit. As more time passed, Perchta would then become an evil witch or sorceress. Later, Christian clergy would equate Perchta in official documents as being synonymous with other female spirits and goddesses such as Abundia, Diana, Herodias, Holda, and Richella.
Thesaurus Pauperum – This text and collection of recipes and natural cures was written by prominent Catholic officials for use by the poor. This text mentioned a Cult of Perchta who would leave out food and drink for Perchta on Epiphany for wealth and abundance. This same document would be used to Perchta’s cult in Bavaria in 1468. In 1439, Thomas Ebendorfer von Haselbach in De decem praeceptis also condemned this practice.
Frau Perchta – Christmas Witch & Bogeyman
During wintertime, especially during the month of December and Yule, as Frau Perchta, she becomes a fierce some looking hag or witch with two faces. Those children who are good and have behaved, have nothing to fear from Frau Perchta. However, for those who are deemed bad and have misbehaved, Frau Perchta is known for slitting open the stomachs of people and pulling out all of their organs to replace them with straw, stones, and garbage.
These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, for the Twelfth Night. The percht are an offshoot of the older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions where she guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. It is in the late 20th century that both Perchten and Krampus appear together in the same processions so that the two have become indistinguishable from one another. The wooden masks worn for these processions are called perchten.
Originally, the term perchten, (the plural for Perchta), referred to the female masks that represent the entourage of spirits accompanying Frau Perchta or Pehta Baba in Slovenia. The perchten are associated with midwinter where they personify fate and the souls of the dead. There are several regional names and variations for the perchten. Their names include: Bechtrababa, Berchta, Berchtlmuada, Berigl, Pehta, Lutzl, Perhta-Baba, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Sampa, Stampa, Zamperin, Zampermuatta, and Zlobna Pehta.
Other Perchten names are:
Glöcklerlaufen – “bell-running” from the Salzkammergut region.
Schiachperchten – Or “ugly Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. They have fangs, tusks and horse or otherwise ugly features. These perchten, despite their appearance, come to drive off evil spirits and demons as they go from house to house.
Schnabelpercht – Or “trunked Percht” from the Unterinntal region.
Schönperchten – Or “beautiful Perchten,” they come from the Pongau region of Austria. These perchten come during the Twelve Nights and festivals to bestow luck and wealth to the people.
Tresterer – From Pinzgau region of Austria.
Sometimes the spirits that accompany Perchta will be those of children, particularly unbaptized children in Christian beliefs. Food offerings left out for Perchta and her retinue are said to be consumed by these Heimchen.
For many women, before the arrival of modern medicine, there was a high infant and child mortality rate. Having a benevolent goddess who would come and take care of their children was likely very comforting for many women, to think of their child in a better place or in better hands.
This period is also known as the Twelve Days of Christmas. These nights are also known as Magic Nights when Perchta leading the Wild Hunt are known to ride.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions during the last week of December and through the first week of January up to January 6th for Twelfth Night or Epiphany. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas rewarding children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior. People dress as perchten with masks made of wood with brown or white sheep’s wool.
For a while, the Roman Catholic Church tried to prohibit the practice of Perchtenlauf during the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its best efforts, the parade and processions continued either in secret or as a result have made a resurgence in later centuries.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Also known as Little Christmas in Italy, Old Christmas in Ireland or Epiphany, this holiday is held on January 6th. The feast held on this day is called Berchtentag. In Salzburg, Austria, Perchta is believed to wander the halls of Hohensalzburg Castle during the night.
In Germany, this is when Perchta will go about collecting her offerings, where she will reward her followers, often with a silver coin or other small gifts, and punish those who haven’t observed certain practices and traditions. This is where Perchta, as Frau Perchta appears in her fearsome guise mentioned earlier to slit open the bellies of wrongdoers and those deemed naughty, only to stuff them full of straw, rocks, and garbage. Perchta would also be interested in making sure that women had spun the wool needed for the year.
In observance of this holiday, there would be a feast held with a ceremonial dance. Several people would dress up, pretending to be evil spirits that someone dressed as Perchta would then chase away, “slaying” the evil spirits in a pageant to invoke a ritual to protect the people of the village.
A special porridge consisting of gruel or dumplings and fish called Perchtenmilch would be eaten during this time. While the family ate, an additional bowl would be left out for Perchta and her entourage. If this traditional meal is forgotten, it is one of the taboos that angers Perchta so that she will cut open people’s stomachs and stuff them with straw.
Note: My earlier section for Frau Perchta gives the time for this celebration closer to Yule in December. Given multiple sources, this change of observances could easily be people conforming old traditions to those of the newer, incoming Christian religion and observance of Christmas along with a change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as: Bechtelistag, Bächtelistag, Berchtelistag, Bärzelistag, Bechtelstag, Bechtle. It is a celebration typically observed on January 2nd in Liechtenstein and Switzerland and has been happening since at least the 14th century. There are various theories about the origin of this holiday. There is a Blessed Bertchtold of the Engelberg abbey who died on November 2nd of 1197. Another theory holds that it commemorates the first animal killed during Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen’s hunt and the naming of his new city.
Like the English practice of mummery, another idea is that this holiday comes from the word: berchten” meaning to “walk around, begging for food.” Obviously, there is also Perchta given the similarity of the names and that when the celebrations of Epiphany were abolished by the various Protestant regions, those refusing to give up the Twelfth Night traditions, simply moved them to the day after New Year’s to gain another day off. There is a “nut feast” where children build hocks of four nuts with a fifth nut balanced on top. Masked parades are held, along with folk dances and families going out to the pubs to eat.
Translating to mean “Fast Night” or “Almost Night,” this is a celebration that is held on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and Lent. It is a night where people eat the best foods possible, and yes, the preferred food is doughnuts. A procession of perchten is known for showing up in some modern celebrations.
This is a dominion of Heathenry inspired by the Pennsylvania Dutch culture. In it, Perchta or rather, Berchta is a major goddess instead of a minor. The eleventh day (Elfder Daag) and twelfth night (Zwelfdi Nacht) are notable days for the Yuletide celebrations that fall on December 31st. In Urglaawe tradition, this feast day is known as Berchtaslaaf.
In this tradition, Berchta is held as either another name for the goddess Holle or is her sister. In this respect, Berchta becomes a goddess of order, notably for one’s own actions, thoughts, and behaviors. Owls are held sacred to her and are her messengers. In the Deitsch lunar zodiac, the Eil or Owl symbol occurs near Yuletide. Like many various cultures, the owl tends to be a symbol and warning of death and danger.
Syno-Deities & Figures
Freyja – Norse
Sometimes a connection of Perchta to this Norse goddess is made, however it’s noted to be rather dubious at best as Freyja and Frigg are often confused together as being the same goddess.
Frigg – Norse
The wife of Odin, placing he as the mother of the Gods, she is associated with marriage, prophesy, clairvoyance, and motherhood along with spinning. Frigg is more likely to be whom Perchta is associated with or stems from.
Holda – Germanic
The goddess Holda has been equated as the southern cousin or a syno-deity to Perchta as they both hold the same function as a guardian of the animals and come during the Twelve Days of Christmas to inspect the spinning.
La Befana – Italy
The Italian Christmas Witch is sometimes compared with Perchta during Winter celebrations. This is more the contrast of where La Befana is portrayed as an ugly, yet good witch and Perchta is in her more monstrous appearance.
Saint Lucy – Germany
A local Saint whose feast day fell near the Winter Solstice. She is primarily known and revered in Bavaria and German Bohemia. Saint Lucy is often equated with Perchta.
A type of fairy or enchanted being, these white women are a variety of light elves. Jacob Grimm saw connection between the goddesses Holda and Perchta in their white forms with these beings.
Other Names: All-Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Donnerbesen, Druid’s Herb, Golden Bough, Herbe de la Croix, Holy Wood, Lignum Sanctae Crucis, Misseltoe, Mistillteinn, Mystyldyne, Thunderbesem, Witches’ Broom, Wood of the Cross,
Deity: Apollo, Balder, Cerridwen, Freya, Frigga, Odin, Taranis, Thor, Venus
Sphere of Influence: Defense, Dreams, Exorcism, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Invisibility, Locks, Love, and Protection
Symbols: Friendship, Peace
Victorian Language of Flowers: “I surmount difficulties, I send you a thousand kisses.”
What Is It?
Mistletoe is the common name for plant that is parasitic (hemiparasite) in that it grows by attaching itself to the branches of a tree or shrub, taking water and nutrients from the host plant. The mistletoe species, Viscum album is the one referred to in folklore is that is native to Great Britain and most of Europe. It is characterized by having a smooth-edged, oval shaped evergreen leaves set in pairs along the stem and white berries that are known to be poisonous.
There are a variety of other species of mistletoe plants found in other countries of Europe such as Spain and Portugal and on other continents. American Mistletoe is also known as False Mistletoe as the homeopathic remedies and uses are different from the European Mistletoe. Over time, the term mistletoe has come to include other species of parasitic plants. Even plants get parasites…
Despite mistletoe’s parasitic nature, it does have an ecological benefit with being a keystone species in that it provides food for a variety of animals that feed on it as well as providing nesting material for various birds.
There used to be all sorts of folkloric beliefs about how mistletoe would come to grow on various shrubs and trees. By the sixteenth, botanists had it figured out that seeds were passed by the digestive tracts of birds who fed on mistletoe or by the birds rubbing their bills on trees to get rid of the sticky seeds. An early reference to this is in 1532, an Herbal book by Turner.
What’s In A Name
One etymology for mistletoe that seems fairly accurate are the Anglo-Saxon words for “mistel” meaning “dung” and “tan” meaning “twig.” Making the meaning of mistletoe as “dung-on-a-twig.” Which makes sense, people observed that mistletoe grew wherever birds roosted and thus did their business.
The Latin word “viscusas” and the Greek word “ixias” both refer to the white coloration of mistletoe berries and being thought of to resemble sperm. The same words “visand ischu” mean “strength” In the Greek and Roman mindsets, sperm was connected to strength and vitality and thus to fertility for life springing seemingly out of nowhere. Mistletoe berries harvested from Oak trees were believed to have regenerative powers.
Mistletoe is a plant strongly associated with Christmas, Yule and other Winter Celebrations where it is used in decorations for its evergreen leaves that symbolize the promised return of spring.
Hanging Mistletoe – Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe can expect to be kissed. This probably originates in Druidic beliefs where mistletoe is strongly connected with fertility as the white berries of the mistletoe resembled semen. Now, proper etiquette says that when someone is kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry needs to be removed until all have been plucked, at which point, there are no more kisses.
One tradition holds that if any unmarried woman went unkissed after the hanging of the mistletoe, they would not be able to marry for a year.
British farmers would feed a bough of mistletoe to their livestock on January 1st, believing it would ward off any bad luck for the coming year. Alternatively, a farmer feeding mistletoe to the first cow calving in the New Year was what brought good luck.
In some regions of Britain, mistletoe would be burned on the twelfth night after Christmas to ensure any boys or girls who didn’t get kissed could still marry.
Celtic Druidic Mythology & Traditions
In the Celtic language, the name for mistletoe translates to “All-Heal” as they believed this plant to have healing powers that could cure a number of ailments and held the soul of the host tree. By Mistletoe was held the chief of the Druid’s sacred seven herbs. The other sacred plants were: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover and wolf’s bane.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the Druids who held the plant as being sacred. It held a magical virtue and served as a remedy to protect against evil. Mistletoe found growing on Oaks were especially sacred. Ovid’s writings mention how Druids would dance around oak trees with mistletoe growing on them. If mistletoe were to fall to the ground without being cut, it was considered an ill omen.
In Between – Seen as a tree that was not a tree. One of the things making mistletoe sacred was its seeming ability to spring forth out of nowhere. It represented the “in between” or a gateway to other worlds and spirit.
Harvesting – Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, circa 77 C.E. notes how the Druids revered the mistletoe. Pliny goes on to explain how white-clad Druids would use a golden sickle when harvesting mistletoe; taking great care to make sure that none hit the ground, believing that the plant would lose its potency and sacred powers. The sacrifice of two white bulls would follow. Pliny’s accounts are the most well-known documentation of Druid beliefs regarding the sacredness of mistletoe. Either the Midsummer or the Winter Solstice were the times to harvest and collect mistletoe. Better when done so on the sixth day after a waning moon.
Oak King & Holly King – This is a particularly old folkloric belief. With the Oak King and Holly King being personifications for the cycle of the year. Mistletoe berries found on an Oak tree were thought to be representative of the Oak King’s semen. So when the Oak King’s power waned and gave way to the Holly King, the harvesting of mistletoe and it’s berries off of Oak trees was symbolic of emasculating the Oak King. Hence, why two bulls would be sacrificed, to compensate the Oak King.
The white berries of mistletoe would be made into fertility potions as they were thought to be regenerative as on the Winter Solstice, the Oak King would be reborn, gaining power again as the new year progressed.
Fire & Lightning – It was thought that mistletoe would grow on an Oak tree that had been struck by lightning. For this, mistletoe was believed to be able to stop fires.
French farmers would burn mistletoe in their fields in order to have a successful harvest with the coming year.
Maidens would place a sprig of mistletoe beneath their pillows so they could dream of their future husband.
Herbe de la Croix – In Brittany, there is a legend how the cross that Jesus is to have been hung on was made from the wood of mistletoe. After Christ’s death, mistletoe is said to have been cursed or degraded to become a parasitic plant. Now days, thanks to 16th century Botanists discoveries, it’s better understood how the seeds of mistletoe or spread.
Immortality – Asclepius, the son of Apollo and god of medicine was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead. This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called onto the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
This herb is said to have been mistletoe. Now armed with this knowledge, Asclepius brought Glaucus back to life. Later, he would bring Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
This angered Hades enough that he complained to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be anyone entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Golden Bough or Mistletoe is the plant Aeneas uses to enter the Underworld to Hades’ realm.
Saturnalia – Many traditions regarding mistletoe and the Christmas traditions are believed to trace their origins to this ancient Roman festival once held on December 17th of the old Julian calendar.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg, the goddess of Love had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death, who was the most beloved of all the gods. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg got an oath from all living things that they wouldn’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small and inconsequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this oversight and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
Some variations to this legend have mistletoe becoming the symbol of peace and friendship to make-up for it’s part in Balder’s death.
In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
The white berries of mistletoe are to have formed from Frigg’s tears when she mourned Balder’s death. Shakespeare makes an allusion to the story of Balder’s death by referring to mistletoe as “baleful.”
Peace & Love
Due to the above story, the Norse held the belief that hanging the mistletoe would be a symbol of peace, indicating that any past hurts and anger would be forgiven. Enemies would cease fighting each other for the day.
Under the incoming Christian religion as it spread throughout Europe, the symbolism of the mistletoe would be converted to have Christian meanings as older pagan beliefs and traditions would get adapted and changed.
For example, in the Norse story with the death of Balder, mistletoe would keep its meanings as a symbol of life and fertility.
Wearing sprigs of mistletoe is believed to help conceive, attract love and for protection.
During Medieval times or Antiquity, branches of mistletoe would be hung to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe would be hung over the house and stable doors to protect from witches and keep them from entering.
Mistletoe could also be worn in amulets, bracelets, and rings for its magical qualities of protecting from evil, witches, poisoning and even werewolves!
Yes, there are medical uses for mistletoe. However, the white berries are poisonous as they do cause epileptic type seizures and convulsions. Keep the white berries away from small children and pets who might decide to try and eat them.
Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some information has changed.
Homeopathic Remedies – Due to the nature of the poisonous berries, it causes many cultures such as the ancient Celts to use mistletoe berries in remedies for treating convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and heart conditions. Some Native American tribes used a tea wash for bathing the head to treat headaches and infusions for lowering blood pressure and treating lung problems.
Warning – Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some medical experts disagree about the applications of homeopathic remedies and information is likely to change with better data and research.
Mistletoe is seen as an all-purpose plant and has been attributed a wide variety of magical uses and even a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies. A lot of it ending up very contradictory and suspect as to which to see as accurate. Further, you want to make sure you have the right mistletoe species.
Also called: Krampusz (Hungarian)
Etymology: Claw (Old High German, Krampen)
Also Known As: Bartl or Bartel, Klaubauf (Austria), Krampusz (Hungarian,) Niglobartl, Parkelj (Slovenian,) and Wubartl
Once more December is upon us with its many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.
In the Alpine regions of Austria and Germany, and even to Bavaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, northern Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland, there is the familiar horned and sometimes hairy figure of Krampus who arrives on Krampus Night to punish misbehaving children. Where Saint Nicholas is who gives gifts to good children. Krampus, like Zwarte Piet and other characters of Christmas are seen as the companions of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas.
Krampus is a figure who seems to originate in Germanic paganism before the arrival of Christianity in the region.
While there are a few variations to the appearance of Krampus, many descriptions do agree on this figure being very hairy with brown, black or gray fur, cloven hooves, and horns of a goat. He will have a particularly longer than usual tongue that hangs out.
Krampus will also be carrying or wearing chains that symbolize the binding of the Devil by Saint Nicholas. These chains will be shaken and sometimes have bells on them. The other items that Krampus is known to carry are ruten or bundles of birch branches that he will either hand out to naughty children or beat them with. Sometimes this branch is replaced with a whip instead. Krampus can also be seen carrying a sack or washtub on his back that he uses to carry off naughty children whom he either eats, drowns, or takes to Hell.
Crime & Punishment
On December 5th, Krampusnacht, the figure of Krampus is known for going about and punishing naughty children, similar to the role that Zwarte Piet has in the Netherlands. Unlike Zwarte Piet, Krampus never gives out treats or gifts. They are one of the original Nightmares before Christmas. Or, if we do like with the 2015 Krampus movie, Krampus is who comes when all hope dies at Christmas.
Some of the punishments that children might expect are:
- If a child is lucky, they only get handed a birch branch.
- If said child was particularly naughty, they could expect to be beaten with the birch branch.
- In the cases where children were extremely naughty, they would get carried off by Krampus in either a sack or washtub that he carries on his back. What happens now to the child varies on the legend. In some cases, Krampus might eat the child, drown them or simply carry them off to Hell. These older legends where Krampus carries off a child do make a connection to the time when Moors would raid the European coast and carry off people into slavery. A connection also seen with the previously mentioned Zwarte Piet.
The history of Krampus is a bit murky and many scholars do agree that this figure has to date before pre-Christianity. Some try to make a connection back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and Endiku, the original Wild Man. Even if that source is flimsy and suspect, the European traditions of going out in disguises and mummery have long been a part of the Winter Solstice celebrations and have survived in some form or another.
The description of Krampus shows him as being demonic with a half human, half goat appearance for the long fur, horns, and hooves. It has been theorized that Krampus may have been a fertility deity before the arrival of Christianity to the region. At this point, anything that didn’t fit under the umbrella of Christian beliefs or couldn’t be incorporated, tends to be labeled as evil and demonic.
God of the Witches – This connection seems a bit speculative. Maurice Bruce makes a connection of Krampus with the Horned God of the Witches. That the birch branches may have been part of initiation rites into a coven. That the chains that Krampus carries are part of the Christian tradition of “binding the Devil” much like Sinterklaas is to have done with Zwarte Piet with binding the devil. It’s easy to see a connection of the horns and hooves, woodland entity and connect Krampus to satyrs, fauns and possibly Pan. A horned god of the forest is a fairly common image in many of the early European religions and beliefs.
The Son Of Hel
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and was likely introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: Th
This aspect of the myth is fairly recent and is introduced in Gerald Brom’s 2012 novel “Krampus: The Yule Lord.” In it, Krampus is stated to be the son of Hel, the Norse goddess of death. Even if it’s a recent addition, it does show an expanding and evolving folklore surrounding Krampus that seems to be gaining popularity.
However, do note that many serious scholars of Norse and Germanic mythology do not accept this connection of Hel and Krampus.
Mileage will vary, this is a decent book that expands on the conflict that Krampus and Santa Claus have with each other over Christmas and Yule celebrations.
The Wild Hunt
The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures. It is a nightmarish, supernatural force led by some dark spectral hunter on horseback and accompanied by a host of other riders and hounds as they chase down unlucky mortals, either until they drop dead of exhaustion, are caught, and forced to join the Wild Hunt or if they can evade the Hunt until dawn.
Just exactly who it is that leads the Hunt does vary country by country in Europe. The Wild Hunt is known for making its ride during the Winter Solstice or New Year’s Eve. It’s possible that Krampus is a representative or aspect of the darker and harsher winter months.
It does tie in for one legend that the Krampus parades stem from an ancient rite to parade through town and run off ghosts. This seems further tied in as an explanation for the bells on the Krampus’ chains as there are traditions that the ringing of bells at the Solstice would scare off or banish evil spirits.
A Krampus By Any Other Name…
There are a few other figures in the Saint Nicholas/Winter Solstice celebrations who are similar to Krampus.
Bartel – Also called Bartl is a local name or variation for Krampus in Styria.
Hans Trapp – A sinister scarecrow from France that scares children around Christmas time.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Knecht Ruprecht – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Percht – The percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus.
Ru Klaas – Another figure from Germany who punishes children.
Schabmänner or Rauhen – In the Austrian state Styria, these “Wild Man” figures will appear in addition to Krampus to dole out birch rods and punishments.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
Krampusnacht & The Feast Of Saint Nicholas
Where many American children get excited for Santa Claus on December 25th, in Europe, children get excited for Saint Nicholas’ arrival on December 5th (Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands) or 6th (Belgium and Luxembourg). The celebrations of Saint Nicholas gained popularity in Germany right around the eleventh century. It is also around this time, that the patron saint of children would get paired up with a dark counterpart. With Saint Nicholas giving gifts to good children and Krampus punishing the bad children.
In Germany, things are a little different. The night before Saint Nicholas’ Day is December 5th, all well and good for the most part. However, December 5th though is known as Krampusnacht or Krampus Night and is a night of riotous revelry and fear for Krampus is known to come, punishing naughty children, or carrying them away in a basket on his back.
The next morning on December 6th, children will look to see if their shoe or stocking has gifts and presents in it or if a rod or twigs have been left for them.
Austrian Urban Centers – In many Christmas markets, watered or toned-down images of Krampus will be sold, presenting him in a humorous light to tourists. Some people have complained that by softening the image of Krampus, he may be getting too commercialized.
Bavaria – The celebrations surrounding Krampus have seen revivals that include artistic traditions of hand-carved wooden masks.
Croatia – Here, Krampus is described as wearing sackcloth around his waist and chains on his wrists and ankles, not just around his neck. If a child misbehaves too badly, Krampus will keep the gifts that Saint Nicholas would have given for himself and leave a silver birch branch behind.
Northern Italy – In the Udine province of Italy, there is the Cave del Predil. An annual Krampus festival is held here where the Krampus comes out just before sunset to chase children and whip them. To satiate the Krampus’ anger, children and young people would need to recite a prayer.
Slovenia – In many areas of Slovenia, Krampus is called Parkeli and is one of the companions of Miklavž, the Slovenian name for Saint Nicholas.
Styria – In this Austrian state, Krampus has a few different appearances. Here, Krampus will present a bundle of birch rods, painted gold to families so they can be hung in the house as a reminder to children to be on their best behavior. In smaller, more remote villages, other horned or antlered figures known as Schabmänner or Rauhen, “the Wild Man” will make appearances too in addition to Krampus.
United States –The figure of Krampus is catching on in many places and there are more and more movies and shows that will feature Krampus as a main antagonist, even if for one episode. Some cities will hold their own Krampus Runs and there are parties held celebrating Krampus, even if they are nothing more than an excuse to drink.
“The Great War On Christmas”
In the 12th century C.E., the Catholic Church tried to banish the Krampus celebrations due to their pagan elements and Krampus’ resemblance to the devil. This would prove difficult as people in the more rural areas would keep alive their traditions.
People wearing devil masks and acting riotously with drunken revelries and causing trouble have been recorded since the sixteenth century. It was not uncommon for animal masked devils to appear in Medieval Christian church plays. So, the appearances of Krampus masks at this time may very well have been part of these celebrations and the mummery that happens with many Winter festivals. The 17th century would see a full integration of pairing Saint Nicholas with Krampus. If they couldn’t stamp the Krampus traditions out, they would adapt him to the Christian religious observances.
When we get to the 20th century, the Austrian governments tried once more to prohibit the Krampus antics and displays. After the 1934 Austrian Civil War, the Dollfuss regime with the Fatherland’s Front and Christian Social Party tried to ban the Krampus traditions. The 1950’s saw the publication of government-issued pamphlets titled: “Krampus is an Evil Man.”
But you can’t keep a good Krampus down and by the end of the 20th century, Krampus celebrations and parades came back in force. So much so, that Krampus celebrations have been spreading around the world to places like the United States as part of an “anti-Christmas celebration.” He certainly does represent a darker side to the holiday where not everything is not always so joyous. It does play to earlier celebrations of Christmas with drunk revelries and anyone wanting to push back again the heavy, over-commercialization of Christmas.
Also known as Kränchen, this is a village-wide celebration held in southeast Austria. It is often held on the Saturday after Krampus Day. These festivities are typically held at local community centers, schools, or any facility large enough to hold some 300+ drunk revelers. Sometimes, Kränchen will be held a week before or after Krampus Day. It’s a way that some villages will turn Krampus Day into a three weekend-long celebration, particularly one for drinking and booze.
The great Krampus run is an annual parade held every year in many Alpine towns. For the first two weeks, especially on the eve of December 6th, young people will dress in Krampus costumes and parade through the town, ringing bells and scaring parade watchers. Some participants may dress up as perchten, a wild female spirit from Germanic folklore. Alcoholic beverages of Krampus schnapps and brandy are common during this celebration.
Perchten – These wild spirits are known to be active between the Winter Solstice and up to around January 6th, Epiphany if you were in Italy.
These are the holiday greeting cards that feature Krampus on them. Krampus cards have been exchanged since the 1800’s during the Holiday Season. A typical greeting card reads: “Gruß vom Krampus” or “Greetings from the Krampus” and likely accompanied with some humorous rhymes or poems within.
Older versions of Krampus cards are likely to show a more sinister and frightening Krampus while newer, modern cards might show a more toned down, cuter, or humorous looking Krampus figure.
This is a seasonal play that is found throughout the Alpine regions. It was known as Nikolausspiel or “Nicholas’ Play” at one time. These plays stem from the Medieval Morality Plays from Antiquity. The Nicholas plays feature Saint Nicholas reward children for their scholarly efforts instead of good behavior.
As I mentioned above, the percht are an offshoot of an older goddess, Perchta from the Alpine regions who guarded the beasts of the forest. The percht would be depicted as humanoid goats with elongated necks and wearing animal furs. These same percht are believed to become the basis for Krampus. Villagers living in the more remote regions of the Alpines would parade around in percht guises.
Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”
Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.
The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”
This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.
The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.
Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.
Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.
Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla and Leppalúði having nineteen children.
Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.
Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.
Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.
Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.
Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.
The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.
Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.
Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.
Jólakötturinn – The Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!
Dark Winter Spirits
This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.
Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.
The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.
Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.
It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”
In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.
A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.
A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.
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 make 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!”