Category Archives: Writing
Also Known As: Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Santa (Santy in Hiberno-English), Mikulás (Hungary), Weihnachtsmann “Christmas man” (German)
That’s right, the jolly, big man in red who brings presents to all of the good boys & girls around the world on Christmas Eve or December 24th for Christmas Day.
The American Santa Claus that many have come to know and love, is often shown as a jolly, stout or portly man with a white beard who wears a red coat and pants with white trim, black boots and belt with a large sack of gifts ready to pass out for children. This imagery of Santa Claus became ingrained in the American psyche with Clement Clark Moore’s poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
But how did we get here to this beloved holiday figure?
A Santa By Any Other Name….
The mythos of Santa that we have all come to know and love is ultimately a composite and influenced by many numerous cultures, especially those found throughout Europe.
Amu Nowruz – This was the most interesting one to learn about. The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of the New Year that coincides with the official start of Spring. In Iranian tradition, Amu Nowruz appears every year at the start of Spring along with his companion Haji Firuz. Their appearance marks the beginning of Nowruz, the New Year. Amu Nowruz is often depicted as an elderly, silver or white-haired man wearing a felt hat, long blue clock, sash, pants, sandals, and carrying a walking stick. Amu Nowruz’s role is to pass on the story of Nowruz to the young.
I mention bring up Amu Nowruz because of the timing for the Christmas celebrations and how close it is to the European celebrations of the New Year. Anyone who looks at Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ, knows that shepherds guard their flocks in the springtime, when its lambing season. If you study the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, you know that the date for the start of the New Year was altered.
Father Christmas – The British Santa who dates to 16th century England during King Henry VIII’s reign. Father Christmas is depicted as a large man dressed in green or scarlet robes lined with fur and is seen as the spirit of good cheer during Christmas, bringing joy, food, drink and revelry much like the Spirit of Christmas Present in Dickenson’s “A Christmas Carol.” By this time, England no longer observed Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. The Victorian revival of Christmas, has Father Christmas as a symbol of “good cheer.” Along with the Dutch Sinterklaas, Father Christmas is a major influence on the imagery of the American Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas – The historical Santa Claus that many love to point out. Saint Nicholas was a 4th century Greek bishop from Myra, Turkey. Saint Nicholas is a Catholic Bishop who rides on his white horse, Amerigo as he travels. He is the patron saint of children, archers, pawnbrokers, sailors and the cities of Amsterdam and Moscow. There are stories of Saint Nicholas leaving gifts in choir boys’ shoes and throwing money down chimneys to pay for a girl’s dowry that have contributed to the modern celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day and Christmas. Saint Nicholas’ Day is celebrated on the 6th of December by many instead of having him come on the 24th and 25th. Martin Luther suggested the Christ kind or Christ Child is who brings presents on Christmas Day.
Sinterklaas – A figure from the Netherlands and Belgium who is a tall, stern figure known for handing out gifts to good children and switches to the naughty ones. Sinterklass rides a horse named Amerigo or Slecht Weer Vandaag. Next to Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass is another prominent figure whom many point to as the most likely progenitor to Santa Claus. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman, “the Christmas man.” In French, Santa Claus is known as Père Noël or “Father Christmas.” Sinterklass is most noted too for his assistant(s) known as Zwarte Pieten or Pères Fouettard in French. Sinterklaas has a strong connection and influence with Saint Nicholas and his festival in Myra, Turkey. Santa Claus’ name has been pointed out as an easy phonetic spelling from the Dutch into English when Dutch immigrants in the 17th & 18th century brought their Christmas traditions and thus Sinterklaas with them to America.
Woden – Or Odin, is a Germanic god. Before the Christianization of Europe, the Germanic peoples celebrated a midwinter holiday known as Yule. Many of the Yule traditions have easily found themselves incorporated into the modern celebrations of Christmas. Yule was also a time for when the Wild Hunt would ride throughout the land. Other supernatural and ghostly happenings were to occur as well. The leader of this hunt would be Woden. Additionally, it has been pointed out, that Woden is a god of poetry and wisdom. He is also the god who brought and introduced runes, the writing system. This is seen in the Dutch traditions of singing songs, writing poems and the passing out of pepernoten which are chocolate letters, what used to be runes that Woden would pass out to men. It has been theorized by many that Woden has influenced the imagery associated with Saint Nicholas as seen with the white beard and the horse he rides.
Other Pagan Figures – There are a number of other pagan deities such as the Roman god Saturn and his celebration of Saturnalia, the Greek god Cronos, the Holly King of Celtic mythology who signifies the dying year, the Norse god Frey, even Thor who all have some influence into the modern portrayal of Santa Claus and Christmas time celebrations.
Codifying A Legend
It’s generally agreed by many that the figures of Saint Nicholas, Sinterklass and Father Christmas all play a part in merging together to create the American Santa Claus, with a few remembering Woden’s part in it too. After all, the name Santa Claus can be pointed out as a variant spelling and pronunciation to Sinterklass. The first real mention of “Santa Claus” is in 1773 in any American publications.
History of New York – A book by Washington Irving, writing in 1809, intended as a satire of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, he is pictured as being a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe wearing a green winter coat.
A New-Year’s Present – A book published in 1821 for children, it has the poem: “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight” written by an anonymous author. Here, Santeclaus is described as riding a reindeer pulled sleigh as he brings gifts for children.
A Visit From St. Nicholas – Better known as “The Night Before Christmas” written by Clement Clark Moore in 1823. There’s a bit of dispute, that a Henry Livingston, Jr. who passed away nine years earlier is the actual author. This book really codified and made much of Santa’s appearance lore surrounding him cannon. Here, Santa or St. Nick is described as: “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with a round belly. He is also assumed to be small in stature given the description of his sleigh as miniature and being pulled by tiny reindeer. This story also gives us the names for the eight reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Additionally, their names had been the Dutch variations of Dunder and Blixem before getting changed.
William Gilley – A friend and neighbor to Clement Clark Moore. Gilley wrote a poem in 1821 titled Sancte Claus that also describes a Santa Claus who drives a reindeer pulled sleigh and delivers gifts by going down a chimney.
Kris Kringle – By 1845, Santa was also known by the name of Kris Kringle. Some places in the U.S. such as Pennsylvania, Santa was known as Krishkinkle.
Thomas Nast – An American cartoonist who defined the image of the American Santa as being large and heavy set. Nast did an illustration for Harper’s Weekly on January 3rd of 1863 where Santa is dressed in an American flag and a puppet by the name of “Jeff.” This was a reflection of that publication’s Civil War articles. Nast is likely the source for the part of Christmas lore that Santa lives at the North Pole with his illustration on December 29th, 1866 captioned Santa Clausville along with several other illustrations showing Santa in his workshop. Nast’s influence is been so great, that later songs, children’s books, movies, T.V. specials and even advertising continue to use it.
George P. Webster – In the same 1869 Harper Weekly publication, Webster had a poem appearing alongside some of Nast’s illustrations where Santa is described living near the North Pole, to the point, that this bit of lore has become well established in the Holiday Mythos surrounding Christmas time.
Coca-Cola Santa! – Another change to Santa’s image came in the 1930’s with Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of Santa. This of course, has led many to jump a band wagon conspiracy theory that the Coca-Cola Company invented Santa as the colors of red & white that Santa wears are the same colors as the Coca-Cola brand.
To put this conspiracy to rest, Coca-Cola is not the first soft drink company to use Santa in his familiar red & white get up to promote their products. White Rock Beverages did so in 1915 for their mineral water and then later in 1923 for ginger ale. In addition, Puck magazines used a red & white garbed Santa on their covers for the first few years of the 20th century.
He’s Making A List!
One of the things Santa is known for is maintaining a list of who all the good children are and who the naughty ones are. The good children of course get presents and the naughty ones get coal.
Letters To Santa
This is one of many traditions done by children at Christmas time. Frequently this letter is a wish list of what they hope that Santa will bring them. Wise children will know to keep the list short and not to get too greedy with their wants. Many children will also assure Santa that they’ve been doing their best to be good. Many different post offices and services will accept the letters that children have written for Santa.
The Spirit Of Giving
The very image of Santa as a gift giver has been strongly tied to many charity organizations such as Salvation Army and the number of people who seek during the holiday season to help out others. Department Store Santas and just about anyone dressed as Santa to bring gifts or to aid in fundraising efforts for those in need. In this respect, Santa Claus keeps strong connections to Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas with promoting goodwill and people being more giving and caring during this time of the year.
Whether it’s Yule or Christmas, it goes without saying, we should always be showing goodwill, giving and caring about others all year long. Since the Christmas celebrations take place in Winter, it’s especially important to remember those in need. Which is where Santa’s role as a patron Saint of Children comes into play: giving to those in need and helping to keep the magic of wonder, belief, innocence, giving and love. Life gets rough and it can get hard during the dark, cold winter months.
Coming Down The Chimney – The idea of Santa coming down the chimney to deliver his gifts, clearly connects him to his older European roots with those like Odin who would come down the chimneys on the winter solstice or the stories of Saint Nicholas where he tosses down bags of coins through a window or down a chimney to pay for a daughter’s dowry if she came from a poor family. In much of ancient European folklore, the hearth or fire place is a sacred place where the guardian spirit or fairies of a household would bring their gifts.
Stockings Hung By The Chimney With Care
Many families who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition with leaving stockings hung up by the fire place or laid out. This naturally references back to Saint Nicholas who was known for leaving gifts in children’s socks or shoes.
Lumps Of Coal – If a child has been particularly naughty, he or she may receive lumps of coal or a switch instead. Granted that doesn’t usually happen and is more of a warning for children to always do their best to be good.
Cookies For Santa
An offering of cookies and milk Santa Claus when he visits is fairly standard among many American families. Some will leave a carrot or two for the reindeer too.
Just what is left or offered can vary too by country.
Australia & Britain – Sherry or Beer along with mince pies are left out.
Canada & United States – Milk and Cookies are the norm.
Denmark, Norway & Sweden – Rice porridge with cinnamon sugar is left out.
Ireland – Guinness or Milk along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
“Ho, Ho, Ho! Merry Christmas” is perhaps the most iconic saying associated with Santa Claus. No just any laugh, but a deep belly laugh that is associated with happiness. Anything less, just isn’t Santa. The imagery of Santa Claus be rather rotund is seen as an important attribute of his and immortalized in Clement’s iconic poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the classic lines:
“. . . a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly”
The North Pole
The north pole is where Santa is said to reside, far away from much of the world so he and especially his elves can craft toys to be delivered. The idea of Santa living at the North Pole likely originated with the artist Thomas Nast and author George P. Webster. This locality has grown up from a simple House and Workshop to a full-blown village where Santa and his helpers live.
Canada – According to the Canadian Post, Santa Claus’ postal code is H0H 0H0, as in his traditional “Ho, Ho, Ho” laugh that Santa is well known for. In 2008, Santa Claus was awarded Canadian citizenship by the Canadian minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney. This way, after Santa Claus finishes his annual, nightly rounds, he can return straight home to Canada and the North Pole without hassle.
Kyrgyzstan – There is a mountain peak named for Santa Claus. A Swedish company suggested that this mountain was more likely to be a better place for Santa to launch is gift-giving campaign from to all over the world. In 2007, a Santa Claus Festival was held in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. 2008 was declared the Year of Santa Claus.
Lapland – A region in Finland. It was pointed out in 1925 that Santa couldn’t possibly live at the North Pole as his reindeer would nowhere to graze. Radio Host “Uncle Markus” Rautio for the Finnish radio show the “Children’s Hour” revealed that Santa lives in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, meaning “Ear Fell.” It makes sense as the whole of Lapland has been pointed out to be shaped like a rabbit’s ear and it would enable to Santa to be able to hear the Christmas wishes of children the world over.
Nordic Claims – Several Nordic countries claim that Santa lives within their borders. Norway for example says that Santa lives in Drøbak. Meanwhile, Denmark claims that Santa lives in Greenland. In Finland, Korvatunturi is claimed as Santa’s home.
At first, early depictions of Santa show him making his gifts by hand in a workshop. Later, Santa is shown with a number of helpers in his annual, nightly task. After all, Santa can’t be everywhere, though he’ll do his best.
Babouschka – In Russia, Babouschka is an elderly woman who misled the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem. Later, she regretted the decision and unable to find the Wise Men, Babouschka has since then, visited the homes of Russian children, hoping that one of them is the baby Jesus when she leaves her gifts.
Belsnickel – A figure who follows Santa Claus in some regions of Europe such as Germany and Austria, he is similar to Krampus in that he will punish naughty children.
Christkind – Or Kris Kringle is known to deliver gifts to children to Switzerland and Germany. Christkind, meaning “Christ child” is an angelic being who helps Santa.
Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden – Ded Moroz or Grandfather Frost is accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka the Snow Maiden in the Slavic countries. Ded Moroz was once an evil wizard who kidnapped children. Ded Moroz and his granddaughter arrive on the New Year’s Eve or Day bringing gifts as he tries to atone for his one evil ways.
Elves – To make all of the toys that Santa gives out on Christmas Eve, he has the aid of a number of elves who work in his workshop. As time went on and moved into the industrial era, the means by which the elves craft and then manufacture the toys has changed.
Fake Santas! – No! That can’t be! Yet, inevitably, some bright and clever child will point out that the Mall Santa isn’t really Santa Claus. As a wise adult will point out and counter, that is because Santa Claus can’t be everywhere and that the adult dressed as Santa is just one of many, numerous helpers throughout a busy and chaotic holiday season. Many young children will generally except this explanation without question. Though older children do seem more prone to skepticism.
Father Christmas – Father Christmas, however similar to Santa he is, it is Father Christmas who comes filling stockings in Britain.
Jultomten – If you’re in Scandinavia, an elf by the name of Jultomten is who brings gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats.
Krampus – German for “claw,” the figure of Krampus hails from the Alpine countries in Austria and Germany. Krampus has seen a revival in more recent years as a dark figure and companion to Santa Claus where he scares or beats naughty children into behaving.
La Befana – The Italian Christmas Witch, La Befana is very similar to Babouschka as she too searches for the baby Jesus and delivers gifts to children on January 6th, the Epiphany.
La Pere Fouettard – “The Whipping Father,” Pere Fouettard accompanies the French Pere Noel on his nightly visit of December 5th where like Belsnickel, Krampus and Zwarte Piete, he will punish naughty children.
Pere Noel – Or Papa Noel, is a figure like Father Christmas and Santa, he is who comes bringing gifts to children in France. Instead of reindeer, Pere Noel rides a donkey named Gui, meaning “mistletoe.”
Reindeer – And not just any reindeer, eight of them that help pull Santa’s sleigh and fly through the night delivering gifts. The eight reindeer are as follows: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. It should be noted that Donner and Blitzen names mean thunder and lightning in German. Further, only female reindeer keep their antlers in winter.
Rudolph – The ninth reindeer who has a glowing nose. Rudolph entered the Santa Claus mythos in 1939 when Robert L. May wrote the story for the Montgomery Ward department store to help drive up holiday traffic and sales. May used a similar rhyme like Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to tell Rudolph’s story. Later, one of May’s friends, Johnny Marks turns Rudolph’s story into a well familiar song. The rest is history as there are television specials and books featuring Rudolph and his adventures.
Tomte – Hailing from the Scandinavian countries, the Tomte or Nisse as small gnome-like characters who bring gifts.
Zwarte Piete – A helper and companion to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Early depictions of Zwarte Piete show him as a punisher while later depictions have tried to soften the image.
What About Mrs. Claus?
As this seems to have been a thing that weighs on some people’s minds, many authors have written, saying that yes, Santa Claus is married.
Just what does she do? Besides stay home and take care of the house and all of the elves? I personally imagine her being La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch. Hey, not everyone believes in Santa and there’s other Christmas time figures who all likely deliver gifts to their respective areas and those who believe in them.
Tracking Santa On His Nightly Runs
With the arrival of the internet age, there have come many websites and even a few T.V. programs that will track Santa Claus on his nightly run during Christmas. Many of these sites have come and gone over the years. The most amusing origin of one such site, NORAD came about when in 1955, a Sears ad misprinted the phone number that had children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) instead on Christmas Eve. When Colonel Harry Shoup, the then Director of Operations received the first phone call, he told children that there were indeed signs of Santa heading south. This kicked off a whole tradition of tracking Santa with NORAD when later in 1958, Canada and the United States created the North American Air Defense Command.
Many parents will use the websites as a means of enforcing a bedtime. That Santa can’t come if you’re still awake.
The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus
Written by L. Frank Baum who also wrote the Wizard of Oz series, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” was written in 1902 before much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus became cannon. It tells of Santa, then known as Neclaus, meaning “Necile’s Little One” how he was raised among the immortal fairy and would latter take on the role of Santa Claus after Ak, the Master Woodsman shows Neclaus the misery and poverty that other humans know.
There has been a Rankin/Bass Stop-Motion animation adaptation of this story as well as a traditionally animated adaptation of this story. Since so much of the lore surrounding Santa Claus seems pretty well set and known, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” often provides an alternative spin and take on the Santa legend. To me, it’s rather satisfactory in answering how Santa got his start and became the well-known, beloved Holiday figure he is today.
With the strong connections to Wodin/Odin in the mythology behind Santa Claus, many have pointed out the more pagan origins of Christmas, of which there are indeed a lot. With Santa Claus, they will point that his garb is reminiscent of what Shamans would wear.
It was true way back then, when the colonists, mainly Puritans arrived in North American during the 17th century and first founded the American Colonies; that would later become the United States, that Santa Claus wasn’t welcomed and even banned. For the Puritans, the image of Santa Claus was too pagan, too much a part of the Roman Catholic Church and took away from the celebration of Christmas, focusing on the birth of Jesus Christ. Hell, Christmas celebrations were even banned at first. The celebrations at this time involved a lot of riotous, drunkenness and public displays of disorder. Christmas as it would be known today didn’t exist.
At this time, with the harvest season clearly over, many of the lower class laborers coming in from the fields now had plenty of leisure time. Workers and Servants alike sought to take the upper hand with the higher-ups, demanding largess in the way of money and food. Industrialists in America were all too willing to increase the work hours and fewer holidays than in Europe.
I get it, Christmas got started in the first place with the Roman Catholic Church trying to appease and convert Pagans to Christianity. Many pagan holidays got replaced with those of Christian ones, the imagery from Pagan ones replaced with Christian ones. So you clearly get a Pagan and Christian side to the celebration of Christmas. One that can get some strongly devout followers trying to denounce the more pagan overtones, of which, Santa Claus is just one of may holiday symbols caught in the crossfire of a millennia old religious and holiday feud. Combined with the riotous drunken revelries, its easy to see why early devout Puritans and Calvinists didn’t want to observe Christmas.
Not until after the Revolutionary War did Christmas start being celebrated, this time they included Santa Claus. We can thank all the later immigrants who brought their Christmas traditions and brought Father Christmas and Sinterklaas who would blend together to become the familiar, beloved Santa Claus. Otherwise, Christmas as many in the U.S. would come to know it, wouldn’t exist.
The 19th century saw a cultural change. There was getting to be more focus on family home life and seeing childhood as a precious time to be protected. Part of this saw Christmas become “tamed” and the image of Santa Claus as a friend and protector of children became prominent.
Even today, the controversy continues, you still have those who feel that Santa Claus’ presence takes away from the focus of the season, that he’s too pagan. It didn’t stop some like Reverend Nedergaard, from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1958 calling Santa a “pagan goblin.” Really?
You have those, rightfully so, who feel the holiday has gotten far too commercialized and materialistic. You can’t blame them as many retailers do take advantage of the holiday as a time to boost and market sales. So yes, you can reclaim the holiday by making sure to give others and charity, spending time with family and spend less on pricey gifts so that they are more meaningful.
Then you get into those clergies and parents who feel you shouldn’t lie to children about Santa Claus being real. Which is hard, because, you can certainly point towards the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, Turkey. He was real and lived. If you’re Christian, he became a Saint for his actions, a patron saint of children.
In a twist of irony, while some Churches still try to stamp out Santa Claus, others have found that having Santa there along with a Christmas tree and gifts actually gets people coming in. Go figure.
Childhood should be a time of wonder and hope. Yes, this is the time when many beliefs and conceptions about the world will be formed. Many children will figure out the reality of Santa Claus on their own. It should be a parent who decides to inform their child or not. Not some random stranger with a grudge who must go out of their way to destroy someone else’s fun, festivities and celebrations by enforcing their views.
In theater, we have the “Suspension of Disbelief.” You can at least do that before destroying someone else’s holiday good cheer. Go take over and live in the Grinch’s cave if you’re going to have to bah humbug the holiday season.
Alternate Spellings: 黄帝, Huang Di, Huangdi
Also known as: Gongsun, Kung-sun, Xuanyuan, Xuan Yuan, Hsuan-yuan, Huang Ti, Hwang Ti, Yellow Emperor, Yellow Thearch, the Yellow God, the Yellow Lord
Etymology: the Yellow Emperor, The character 黄 Huang, means “yellow” and is a homophony for the character, 皇 Huang, meaning, “august”, “creator” and “radiant”, Di “emperor”
Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor ruled during a golden age of Chinese history and mythology. He is the first of five legendary Chinese emperors. Tradition has Huang-Di beginning his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
There are a number of different legends surrounding Huang-Di that tell of his greatness as a benevolent ruler and establishing Chinese civilization. Huang-Di is to have ruled in a Golden Era of history before written Chinese history was established so many of his stories were passed down orally first. Just as Britain has its King Arthur, China has Huang-Di, the greatest ruler of all time that everyone looks up to and reveres.
What’s In A Name?
This gets a little tricky. Depending on the Chinese character used and its pronunciation; depends on what the word is translated to mean.
The character for Di, is used to refer to the highest deity from the Shang dynasty. During the Warring States period, the term Di came to be associated with the gods of the five sacred mountains and colors. After this era, about 221 B.C.E. the term Di came to refer to earthly emperors.
The character for Huang can be translated a couple different ways. Either Yellow or August. Scholars and historians seeking to emphasize the more religious meaning to the name Huaung-Di will translate the name to mean “Yellow Thearch” or “August Thearch.”
Some scholars such as Sima Qian in his “Records of the Grand Historian” compiled in 1st century B.C.E. have given Huang-Di’s name as Xuanyuan. The 3rd century scholar Huangfu Mi have said that this is to be the very same hill that Huang-Di lived and takes his name from. Liang Yusheng, from the Qing dynasty has argued that the hill is named after the Huang-Di. In Chinese astronomy, Xuanyan is the name for the star Alpha Leonis or Regulus.
The name Xuanyuan is also references Huang-Di’s birthplace. Huang-Di’s surname was Gongsun or Ji.
The name Youxiong is thought to be either a place name or clan name. Several Western scholars and translators have given their ideas on what Youxiong translate to. The British sinologist, Herbert Allen Giles says the name is from Huang-Di’s principal heritage. William Nienhauser, in translating the “Records of the Grand Historian” has put forth that Huang-Di is the head of the Youxiong clan who lived near Xinzheng in Henan. The French historian, Rémi Mathieu translates the name Youxiong to mean “possessor of bears” and linking Huang-Di in mythology to bears. Rémi isn’t the only one to make a connection to bears. Ye Shuxian also makes a connection with Huang-Di to the bear legends found throughout northeast Asia and the Dangun legend.
As a culture hero, Huang-Di is seen as a wise and benevolent ruler who introduced government and laws. He is also seen as having taught people several different skills and to have invented several things such as clothing, building permanent structures such as palaces and houses, music, the wheel, armor & weapons, carts, ships, writing, digging wells, agriculture, taming and domesticating animals, astronomy, calendars, mathematics, cuju (a sport similar to football), the compass and currency.
At some time during Huang-Di’s rule, he reputed to have visited the Eastern sea where he met Bai Ze, a supernatural talking beast that taught him the knowledge of all supernatural creatures. Bai Ze explained to Huang-Di there were 11,522 (or 1,522) different types of supernatural beings.
San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns
Also, known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of god-kings and demigod emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Huang-Di is counted as being part of this group and the leader of their number to have once ruled over China. Other’s counted among this number are Fu Xi, Nuwa and Shennong.
This is another mythological and historical group of rulers important to Chinese culture. These five emperors were virtuous rulers of outstanding moral character. Taihao, the Yan Emperor, the Yellow Emperor (Huang-Di), Shaohao and Zhuanxu are considered among the Five Emperors in this group.
But that makes four with the Three Sovereigns! The math is off! There are a number of variations as to who is counted among these numbers and it all depends on which text and source is used. It will even flip-flop too as to where Huang-Di is placed as either one of the Three Sovereigns or Five Emperors.
Parentage and Family
Huang-Di’ parents are given as Shaodian as his father and Fu Pao as his mother.
According to the “Discourses of the States”, Shaodian is sometimes mentioned as being Huang-Di’s step-father.
Huang-Di seems to have had several different wives:
Leizu – Of Xiling, she is the first wife, she is the most notable with any information as she is the first person to have domesticated silk worms for their silk. With Leizu, Huang-Di had two sons.
Fenglei – Second wife
Tongyu – Third wife
Momu – Fourth wife
Huang-Di is reputed to have had 25 sons. 14 of these sons all started clans of their own with their own surnames.
Shaohao – Also known as Xuanxiao, he would become the Emperor after Huang-Di’s death.
Changyi, who in turn is the father of Zhuanxu who would succeed his uncle, Shaohao as the next Emperor.
Ancestor Of The Chinese
A lot of emphasis and importance has been placed on Huang-Di as many Chinese dynasty rulers would trace the rights of their sovereignty to him. The Chinese Han claim being descendants of both Yandi (The Flame Emperor) and Huang-Di. Eventually, Huang-Di would be seen as the ancestor to all Chinese. A many Dynasty Emperors would all lay claim to Huang-Di’s legacy to prove their rightful claim to the throne.
It should be noted that the earlier mentions of Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor is on a fourth century bronze inscription for the royal house of the Qi. This inscription claims Huang-Di as an ancestor to the Qi. The scholar, Lothar von Falkenhausen has suggested that Huang-Di is likely created as an ancestral figure in order to claim that all the ruling clans from the Zhou share a common ancestor.
Birth Of A Legend
Per myth and legend, Huang-Di is the result of a virgin birth. His mother, Fubao become pregnant with him while walking out in the countryside and was struck by lightning from the Big Dipper constellation. Fubao would give birth to her son after a period of twenty-four months on either Mount Shou or Mount Xuanyuan. It is for mount Xuanyan that Huang-Di would be named.
In Huangfu Mi’s account, Huang-Di is born at Shou Qiu or Longevity Hill near the outskirts of Qufu in Shandong by modern times. Huang-Di lived with his tribe near the Ji River, a mythological river and later migrated with his tribe to Zhuolu near modern Hebei. As a cultural hero, Huang-Di tames six different animals, the bear, the brown bear, the pi and xiu. The pi and xiu get combined to become a mythological animal known as the Pixiu. He also tames the chu and tiger. I’m not sure which creatures all of these are or the difference between a bear and brown bear is, but there we have it.
Other legends surrounding Huang-Di hold that he could speak shortly after his birth. That when he was fifteen years old, there was nothing that he didn’t know. Huang-Di would eventually hold the Xiong throne.
Trouble In Paradise
Huang-Di’s rule wasn’t completely problem free. One god decided to challenge Huang-Di’s sovereignty. This god was helped by the emperor’s son, Fei Lian, the Lord of the Wind. Fei Lian sent fog and heavy rain to try and drown the Imperial Armies. The emperor’s daughter, Ba (meaning drought) put an end to the rain and helped to defeat Fei Lian and his forces.
The Yellow Emperor And The Yan Emperor
Despite there being some 500 years between Huang-Di and Shennong rules, both of these emperors’ rules near the Yellow River. Shennong hailed from another are up around the Jiang River. Shennong having trouble with keeping order within his borders, begged the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di for help against the “Nine Li” lead by Chi You and his some 81 brothers who all have horns and four eyes.
Battle of Zhuolu – Shennong was forced to flee Zhuolu before begging for help. Huang-Di used his tame animals against Chi You who darkened the sky by breathing out a thick fog. Huang-Di then invented the south-point chariot to lead his army out of the miasma of fog.
In order to defeat Chi You, Huang-Di calls on a drought demon, Nüba to get rid of Chi You’s storm.
This story sounds a lot like a variation of the previous story where Huang-Di calls for his daughter Ba to defeat Fe Lian.
Battle of Banquan – It is at this battle, that both Huang-Di and Shennong finally defeat Chi You and his forces and replace him as ruler.
Death & Immortality
Huang-Di ruled for many years and is thought to have died in 2598 B.C.E. Legend holds Huang-Di lived over a hundred years, by some accounts this was 110 years. Before he died, Huang-Di met a phoenix and qilin before he rose to the heavens to become an immortal or Xian. He is considered the very archetype of a human who merges their self with the self of the Universal God; how a person reaches enlightenment and immortality.
Another account of Huang-Di’s death is that a yellow dragon from Heaven flew down to take up Huang-Di up. Huang-Di knew that he could not deny destiny and went with the dragon. On their way to fly back to Heaven, they flew over Mount Qiao where Huang-Di asked to be able to say goodbye to his people. The people cried out, not wanting Huang-Di to leave them and they pulled on his clothing to try and keep. Surprisingly, Huang-Di slipped free of his clothing and got back on the dragon to fly up to the heavens. As to his clothing, they were buried in a mausoleum built at Mount Qiao.
Two tombs commemorating Huang-Di were built in Shaanxi within the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Other tombs were built in Henan, Hebei and Gansu.
Huang-Di is the founder of Taoism, one of the main philosophies and religions found in China.
As Huang-Di began to age, he began to allow his court officials to handle matters and make decisions. Huang-Di moved out into a simple hut in his courtyard. There, as he fasted, prayed and meditated, Huang-Di discovered Tao, or the way, a philosophy that would lead to the ideal state of being.
In some of the older accounts with Huang-Di, he is identified as a god of light and thunder. The name Huang and Guang, meaning “light,” making him a Thunder God. However, Lei Gong or Leishen is the name of another deity and he is seen as Huang-Di’s student.
The legend and origins for Haung-Di have been cast into doubt by many. The scholar Yang Kuan, a member of the Doubting Antiquity School has argued that Huang-Di is derived from the god, Shang-Di from the Shang dynasty. Yang says that the etymology of Shang-Di, Huang Shang-Di and Huang-Di all have a connection to the Chinese character of 黄 Huang, which means “yellow” and its homophony of, 皇 Huang, which means “august,” that to use the character for 皇 Huang, was considered taboo.
Other historians have disputed this claim like Mark Edward Lewis and Michael Puett. While Mark Edward Lewis agrees that the two characters are interchangeable, he has suggested that the character 黄 Huang is closer to the character wang phonetically. Lewis puts forth the idea that Huang might have referred to a “rainmaking shaman” and “rainmaking rituals.” He uses the Warring States and Han era myths for Huang-Di, in that these were ancient rainmaking rituals, as Huang-Di held power over the clouds and rains. Huang-Di’s rival, Chiyou or Yandi held power over fires and drought.
Lord Of The Underworld Or The Yellow Springs
Further disagreements with Yang Kuan’s idea of equating Haung-Di with Shang-Di is the Western scholar, Sarah Allen who has stated that the pre-Shang myths and history can be seen as changes to Shang’s mythology.
By this argument, Huang-Di was originally an unnamed Lord of the Underworld or Yellow Springs, the counterpart to Shang-Di in his role as the supreme deity of the sky. Continuing this theme, the Shang rulers claimed their ancestor as the “the ten suns, birds, east, life and the Lord on High. Shang-Di had defeated an earlier group of people who were associated with the Underworld, Dragons and the West.
After the Zhou dynasty overthrew the Shang dynasty in the eleventh century B.C.E., the Zhou rulers began to change out the myth, changing the Shang to the Xia dynasty. By the time of the Han, according to Sima Qian’s Shiji, Huang-Di as Lord of the Underworld had now become a historical ruler.
During the Warring States era of texts, the figure of Huan-Di appears intermittently. Sima Qian’s text, Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) is the first work to gather all of the fragments and myths surrounding Huan-Di into a coherent form and narrative. The Shiji would become a very important and influential text for the Chinese and the start of their history.
In the Shiji, Sima Qian he says that the state of Qin began worshiping Huang-Di during the fifth century B.C.E. along with Yandi, the Flame Emperor. Alters had been established in Yong, the capital of Qin. By the time of King Zheng in 247 B.C.E., Huang-Di had become the most important of the four “thearchs” worshiped in Yong.
During the late Warring States and early Han eras, Huang-Di’s cult became very prominent as he is regarded as the founder of the arts, civilization, governing and a supreme god. There have been a number of texts such as the Huangdi Neijing, a classic medical text, and the Huangdi Sijing, a group of political treatises that Huang-Di is credited with having written.
While his influence has waned for a period, the early twentieth century saw Huang-Di become an important figure for the Han Chinese when trying to overthrow the Qing dynasty. For some, Huang-Di is still an important, nationalist symbol.
Huángdì Sìmiàn – Yellow Emperor with Four Faces
In the Shizi, Huang-Di is known as the Yellow Emperor with Four Faces. Other names that Huang-Di is known by are: Sìmiànshén, Four-Faced God or the Ubiquitous God. The name Sìmiànshén is also the name for Brahma in Chinese.
As Huángdì Sìmiàn, Huang-Di represented the center of the universe and his four faces allowed him to see in everything that happened around him and in the world. In this aspect, he communicated directly with the gods for prayer and sacrifice. When traveling, Huang-Di rode in an ivory chariot pulled by dragons and an elephant. He would be accompanied by a troop of tigers, wolves, snakes and flocks of phoenix.
Wufang Shangdi – Five Forms of the Highest Deity
In Chinese texts and common beliefs, the Wudi (“Five Deities”) or Wushen (“Five Gods”) are five main deities who are personifications or extensions of a main deity.
Zhōngyuèdàdì – Huang-Di, when he becomes an Immortal or Xian and deified, is one of the Wudi. As Zhōngyuèdàdì, the “Great Deity of the Central Peak”, he is the most important of the Wudi, representing the element of earth, the color yellow and the Yellow Dragon. He is the hub and center of all creation upon which the divine order found within physical reality makes way for possible immorality. Huang-Di is the god of the governing the material world, the creator of the Huaxia (Chinese) civilization, marriage, morality, language, lineage and the primal ancestor to all Chinese people. In addition, he is a Sun God and associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Huángshén Běidǒu – the “Yellow God of the Northern Dipper”, connected to this constellation, Huang-Di becomes identified as Shangdi or Tiandi, the supreme God or “Highest Deity.”
Further, Huang-Di is the representation for the hub of creation, the divine center and the axis mundi for the divine order in physical reality which opens the way to immortality. He is the god who is the center of the cosmos that connects the San-Huang and the Wudi.
Huángdì Nèijing – The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon
Also, spelled as Huang Ti Nei Ching (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine).
This medical text forms the foundation for traditional Chinese Medicine. it comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Di who lived around 2600 B.C.E. This tome preserved a lot of ancient medical knowledge and is compose of two volumes. The first one is a dialogue between Huang Di and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.
Huangdi Sijing – Four Scriptures of the Yellow Emperor
In this text, it is explained how regulating the heart and one’s emotions, they will never allow oneself to get overly emotional and carried away. Huang-Di had accomplished doing this during his three years at the refuge at Mount Bowang in order to find himself. Doing this, creates an internal void where all the forces of creation gather, where the indeterminate they stay, the more powerful these forces of creation will be. In more simpler terms, this is self-mastery and self-control.
Other Books –
Other books attributed to Huang Di are: Huángdì Yinfújing (Yellow Emperor’s Book of the Hidden Symbol) and the Yellow Emperor’s Four Seasons Poem that is found contained in the Tung Shing fortune-telling almanac.
As a Sun God, Huang-Di as Zhōngyuèdàdì is associated astrally with the planet Saturn, the star Regulus and the constellations Leo and Lynx. The constellation Lynx in Chinese star lore, represents the body of the Yellow Dragon.
Going Back To Where It All Began!
As previously mentioned earlier, tradition has Huang-Di begin his rule during 2697 B.C.E. and ending in 2597. An alternate date is 2698-2598 B.C.E. These dates were first calculated by Jesuit missionaries studying the Chinese chronicles. They have been accepted by later scholars looking to try and establish a universal calendar.
It should be noted that the traditional Chinese calendar didn’t mark years consecutively. Some Han-dynasty astronomers have tried to determine when Huang-Di ruled. Under the reign of Emperor Zhao in 78 B.C.E. a court official, Zhang Shouwang calculated that some 6,000 years had passed since the time of Huang-Di rule. The court however rejected this claim and said that only 3,629 years had passed. Comparisons with the Western, Julian calendar place the court’s calculations to the late 38th century B.C.E. for Huang-Di. Nowadays, the 27th century B.C.E. is accepted by many.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is difficult. There is a lot of reliance on what archaeology can provide and prove. The earliest Chinese writing and records date to the Shang dynasty around 1200 B.C.E. This system of writing is the use of bones for oracles. Even any hard evidence for the Xia dynasty is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologists trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.
Many Chinese historians view Huang-Di to have a stronger historical basis than other legendary figures like Fu Xi, Nuwa and the Yan Emperor. While many legendary figures and ancient sages have all been considered to be historical figures, it is not until the 1920’s that members of the Doubting Antiquity School in China began to question the accuracy of these legends and claims.
Warring States Era
These early figures of Chinese history, as Gu Jiegang from the Doubting Antiquity School, as stated are mythological in origin. They started off as gods and then became depicted as mortal during the Warring States era by intellectuals.
Yang Kuan, another member of the Doubting Antiquity School, has commented that it is only during the Warring States era that Huang-Di is mentioned as the first ruler of China. Yang goes on to argue that Huang-Di is really the supreme god, Shang-Di, the god of the Shang pantheon.
Even the French scholars Henri Maspero and Marcel Granet, in their “Danses et légendes de la Chine ancienne” (“Dances and legends of ancient China”) have commented that early Chinese legends have more to do with the period to when they were written than to when they are supposed to have happened.
From God To Man
Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the 2nd century C.E. with the rise and reverence of Laozi. Huang Di will still be regarded as an immortal and the master of the longevity techniques and a deity who would reveal new teachings in the form of books like the Huang Di Yinfujing in the 6th century C.E.
Nowadays, many scholars accept the view that Huang-Di and other figures like him started off as a god of religious importance and then become humanized, mortal during the Warring States and Han periods. Even though Huang Di’s status as a god faded during the
Chang Tsung-tung, a Taiwanese scholar has argued, that based on a vocabulary comparison between Bernhard Karlgren’s Grammata Serica and Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, there is a connection with the Old Chinese and the Proto-Indo-European etymologies. That there is a strong influence of Indo-European languages on the Old Chinese language around 2400 B.C.E. Chang goes on to say that the Shang dynasty was founded by Indo-European conquerors and identifies Huang-Di as an Indo-European god. Chang says that the “yellow” in Huang-Di’s name should be interpreted as referring to blond hair. That as a nomad of the steppes, Huang-Di encouraged road construction and horse-drawn carriages to establish a central state.
This idea, to me, seems farfetched. Since it is one of the ideas I came across, I’ll include it here.
Thanks to the French scholar, Albert Terrien de Lacouperie, many Chinese historians got hooked on the idea Chinese civilization getting its start in 2300 B.C.E. by Babylonian immigrants and that Huang Di would have been a Mesopotamian tribal leader. This idea has been rejected by European sinologists, however the idea was advocated for again by two Japanese scholars Shirakawa Jiro and Kokubu Tanenori in 1900.
The ideas certainly seem to held on to by anti-Manchu intellectuals who are looking for the truth of China’s history and wanting to prove the superiority of the Han over the Manchu and the importance of Huang Di as the ancestor of all Chinese.
The Mausoleum Of The Yellow Emperor
Also called Xuanyuan Temple, this mausoleum is the most important of ancient mausoleums in China and praised as “the First Mausoleum in China.” The mausoleum is located at Mount Qiao, north of the Huangling County of Yan’an some 200 kilometers north of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province. According to historians, the mausoleum was first built on the western side of Qiao during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) It was later restored during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) It had been damaged by floods and moved to Qiao’s eastern side by the Emperor Song Taizu of the Song Dynasty (960 – 1234 C.E.)
During the Qingming Festival that is held on April 5th, Chinese people from all over gather to hold a memorial ceremony to commemorate the Yellow Emperor, Huang-Di. Yan’an also earns the distinction of being considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference about Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. A last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There’s typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer or Hesiod mention him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue their true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to god and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Other gifts that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play. Calliope, as Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophesy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations to how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bringing his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, that he looked back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would than later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld and that of Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay or other supernatural being.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as whey would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death for Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophesies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures of Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their decent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.