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Zmej

Zmej

Other names: zmaj (Serbian) змај, (Croatian and Bosnian), zmaj (Slovene), zmey, змей (Bulgarian, Russian), zmiy (Old Church Slavonic), змеj (Macedonian), żmij (Polish), змій (Ukrainian)

It should be noted that most of these words are the masculine forms for the Slavic word “snake.” In Russian, the feminine is zmeya. Other names include zmajček or zmajić that is used as a diminutive form of endearment.

Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent

In the Slavic language, a dragon is called a Zmej. It appears as multi-headed dragon with three, seven or nine heads that are capable of breathing fire. The Eastern Slavic dragons are believed to be able to regrow their heads like a hydra if one head is chopped off. In all cases, their large size makes them fearsome foes.

The Zmej is primarily associated with fire, like a good many other dragons of European folklore. It either breathes fire or it can throw fiery arrows or lightning bolts. It is exceedingly strong and the Zmej’s strength can be taken by a person who eats the dragon’s heart. That puts a whole new light on the movie Dragon Heart. The precise abilities of the Slavic dragons vary by locality and country.

The male Zmej were often portrayed in a positive light, acting as protectors of their family and tribe. He was seen as a good demonic force, using the power of weather in the way of hail, storms and strong winds to protect crops and harvests from getting ruined. Among the Southern Slavs, it’s very common to see the imagery of a dragon representing a good demonic force.

While I note the use of the word and spelling demonic to describe the Zmej; given the context and influence of Christianity upon an older Pagan religion, beliefs and traditions; it is very likely that the Greek term and usage of daimon is more appropriate.

You Called Him A Daimon!

Yes, as in the Greek term and meaning for the word spirit. It is Christianity that takes and twists the word and meaning to Demon, for an evil spirit or being.

Among the ancient Greeks, the word daimon means spirit or “replete with knowledge.” They recognized both good (eudemons) and bad (cacodemons). The word or term daimon also means “divine power,” “fate,” or “god.” And in Greek mythology, daimons could also include deified heroes.

Daimons functioned as messengers or intermediary spirits between men and gods. The good daimons were viewed as guardian spirits who gave guidance and protection to those they watched over. The bad daimons, naturally, weren’t so nice and could mislead people, getting them into trouble.

Romanian Similarities

 Sometimes the Zmej also appears as an anthropomorphic dragon man, much like the Romanian Zmeu, seen as very intelligent, wise and knowledgeable with great magical proficiency, breath fire and superhuman strength. Like the Romanian Zmeu, the Slavic Zmej was also known for being very wealthy with castles and realms in otherworlds. They too lusted after women with home they could bear children. Respect was always given to these Zmej as one never knew what to expect in terms of behavior.

National And Folk Heroes

A good many heroes were considered dragons or the son of a Zmej. A number of these heroes include:

Husein-Kapetan Gradaščević – A successful Bosniak general who fought for the independence of the Ottoman Empire from Bosnia. He is known as “Zmaj od Bosnia,” or “The Dragon of Bosnia.”

Vlad III Dracula – A Romanian Hero and more infamously known as Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s book Dracula and depicted as a Vampire. Among the Romanians of Wallachia, Vlad is a hero, having been inducted into the Order of the Dragon by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend a Christian Europe against the Ottoman Empire.

Vuk Grgurević – A Serbian Despot known as “Zmaj-Ognjeni Vuk” or “Vuk the Fiery-Dragon” due to the vicioness of his rule and his many battles against the Turks.

Bulgarian Folklore

In the folk songs of Bulgaria, the Zmej appears as a popular motif as a Draconic Lover. Most of these songs featuring a Dragon Love, have a male Zmej. More heroic songs involving a Zmej will be female.

It’s interesting to note a very stark contrast and distinction male and female dragons in Bulgarian folklore. For one, the male and female dragons were seen as brother and sister. Yet for all this, they were very staunchly opposed to each other. The female dragons were known for representing the destructive weather that would destroy crops and agriculture. Whereas, the male dragons protected the fields and crops for harvest. Such that the two often fought each other, representing the dueling, opposing forces of female/water with male/fire symbolism.

Macedonia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro Folklore

In these Eastern Slavic countries and areas, a dragon is known by the name of zmaj, zmej and lamja. Similar to the Russian dragons, it has three, seven or even nine heads, all of which breathe fire. Additionally, in Serbia the dragon is called aždaja or hala and in Bosnia is called aždaha.

Polish And Belarussian Folklore

In both of these cultures, aside from Zmej, they also have the word smok, coming from the Indo-Iranian word for swallow. Other spellings for smok are: смок and цмок.

Romanian Folklore

As previously mentioned, there is a very similar dragon-like creature in Romania with an equally similar name called the Zmeu. It is distinguished from many of the Slavic Zmej as it is anthropomorphic in nature and always a destructive force.

Russian And Ukrainian Folklore

Representing the Eastern Slavic people, there are a few different dragons found in their folklore. A number of prehistoric sites such as the Serpent’s Wall near Kiev have associations with dragons and act as symbols for foreign people. The Russian dragons are known to have heads that come in multiples of three and will grow back if every single head isn’t chopped off or promptly covered in ash or burnt.

Zmey Gorynych – This green colored dragon has three heads and walks on two back paws with two smaller front paws. Like many dragons, it breathes fire. The hero Dobrynya Nikitich is who killed this dragon.

Tugarin Zmeyevich – This dragon very strongly represented the Mongols and other Steppe peoples who often threatened the borders of Russia. Tugarin’s name is Turkic in origin. He was defeated by the hero Alyosha Popovich.

Saint George And The Dragon – It is without question that the hero Saint George symbolizes Christianity and that his killing of the Dragon symbolizes the Devil or Satan. It is a motif often portrayed on the coat of arms for Moscow.

Serbian Folklore

The Serbian folklore for dragons is very similar to that of Bulgarian folklore. Essentially the differences come down to the different countries and regions’ name for them. Here, the Zmaj or Zmey is seen as very intelligent with superhuman strength and well versed in the use of magic. Like many European dragons, they breath fire and lust over young women. An image that sounds very much so like the Romanian Zmeu. The big difference here is that the Zmaj or Zmey are defenders of the crops and fight against a demon known as Ala that they attack using lightning.

Slovenia Folklore

The Slovene word of zmaj is of an uncertain, archaic origin. Another word used for dragons is pozoj. Like many European dragons, the zmaj are often seen in a negative light and associated with Saint George in his slaying the dragon.

There are other Pre-Christian Folk Tales involving dragons.

Ljubljana Dragon – This dragon features on the city of Ljubljana’s coat of arms that it guarded over and protected.

Wawel Dragon – This Polish dragon is often defeated by tricking it into eating a lime. It should be noted that this dragon isn’t always harmful towards people.

Aždaja

Also known as aždaha, ala or hala in Persian mythology. Some Southern Slavic countries will mention Aždaja as a type of dragon. Its true nature is considered to be drastically different than that of a real dragon and considered separate. While the Zmej is often seen as a positive force, the Aždaja is seen as a negative force and woefully evil. Ultimately the nature of the Aždaja seems contradictory and should be a type of dragon as it shares all of the hall marks of the European dragons that are often sinister in nature. After all, the Aždaja is draconic in appearance, they live in dark places such as caves. Like many other Slavic dragons, the Aždaja is frequently multi-headed with three, seven or nine heads and breathes fire. In some of the Christian mythologies of Saint George, he is shown slaying the Aždaja and not Zmej.

Lamya

While the Zmej is male, the Southern Slavic folklore makes mention of a female version known as Lamya. This name derives from the name Lamia, a Queen and former lover of the god Zeus who turns into a daemon that devours children and in some versions of her story, Lamia becomes more serpentine. Later stories will equate Lamia to vampires and succubae.

In Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a Bulgarian legend about the hero Mavrud who succeeds in cutting off all of the heads of Lamya; who appears in this story as a hydra-like dragon. It has been commented that this story seems to symbolize the pruning of grape vines. Further, there is a variety of Bulgarian grapes known as Mavrud.

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Zmeu

ZmeuOther names: smeu, zmei (plural) and zmeoaică or zmeoaice (feminine)

Etymology – Dragon, Snake or Serpent

The Zmeu is a draconic being found in Romanian folklore and is often compared to other supernatural creatures such as the balaur, a type of dragon and the vârcolac, a werewolf. Due to the similarity of names, the Zmeu resembles the Slavic dragons, Zmej in their ability to fly and breathe fire.

Unlike other dragons, the Zmeu is often described as having anthropomorphic features as it is very human-like having arms and legs and is able to use or create human-like tools. It is also anthropomorphized due to the Zmeu’s desire to marry human maidens.

Dacian Etymology, Origins & Disputes

The biggest problem with trying to prove a connection to the Dacian-Thracian languages is due to a lack of written language from them and only a handful of words are known for certain. And it gets argued that Zmeu is not of Dacian origins. Instead, the word “Zmei” or “Zmeu” is of Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian origins. In all of these languages, “Zmei” means “snake.” The argument further continues that “Zmei” is of Slavic origin and comes from the Slavic word for earth, “Zemia.” The Proto-Slavic root is “zm” or “zum” So Zmei means a snake or an animal that lives close to the ground or earth, “Zemia.”

Paliga – The linguist, Sorin Paliga, believes that the word Zmeu and the very similar Slavic word Zmey may have come from the Dacian language. He even tries extensively to connect the word to the Romanian word for Earth and Subterranean features. Since then, Paliga’s idea have become contested and disputed.

English – Not really a linguist connection other than how the word translates. The name Zmeu is sometimes translated to refer to a type of ogre or giant due to the Zmeu’s tendency to kidnap a young maiden to be his wife in an otherworldly realm.

Romanian – Another source for the etymology of Zmeu is suggesting a relation to the Romanian word zmeura, meaning “raspberry.” It has been suggested that this may indicate a double meaning for the name Zmeu and is indicator of its true nature and color as a red colored dragon. Additionally, the name Zmeu also refers to a children’s kite. The folklore for Zmeu is also very similar to folklore found in Bulgaria.

Folklore And Legend

In many of the Romanian and Bulgarian stories, the Zmeu is a fierce being known for its cunning, intelligence and dangerous, destructive levels of greed and selfishness. Some of the stories told about the Zmeu, they appear in the sky like a dragon, flying and breathing out a gout of fire. Other stories make mention of the Zmeu having a magical gemstone in its head that shines as brightly as the sun. Aside from its tremendous supernatural strength, the Zmeu is also capable of great feats of magic that can allow it to steal the sun and moon from the sky.

The stories also go on to tell how the Zmeu can shapeshift into human form or as various, different animals. The Zmeu’s natural form is that of a dragon, specifically an anthropomorphized dragon man.

Like many dragons in European folklore, the Zmeu is particularly fond of beautiful young maidens, whom it kidnaps and carries way to its otherworldly realm. And also like in much of European folklore, the maiden is often rescued by a brave prince or knight-errant who manages to defeat the Zmeu.

Many Romanian stories depict the Zmeu as the destructive forces of greed and selfishness incarnated. The Zmeu will steal something of immense value that only the Romanian “Fat-Frumos” or “Prince Charming,” a literal translation is “handsome youth” who will be the only one who that can retrieve this valuable object back through his acts of great, selfless bravery. Often times, the Zmeu lives in an otherworldly realm, Celalalt Tarâm where Fat-Frumos must travel to in order to battle with the Zmeu. With descriptions of the Zmeu’s lair being dark, its often thought to imply that the Zmeu lives underground.

Ballad Of The Knight Greuceanu – In this story, the Zmeu steals the sun and moon from the sky and thus envelopes all of the earth and humankind under a cloak of darkness.

Prâslea The Brave And The Golden Apples – In this story, the Zmeu robs a king of his golden apples. This story that has been remarked to bear similarities to the German Fairy Tale of “The Golden Bird,” the Russian story of “Tsarevitch Ivan, The Fire Bird And The Gray Wolf” and the Bulgarian folktale of “The Nine Peahens And The Golden Apples.” In the later stories, the thief is a bird, though in some retellings of the Romanian tale, the Zmeu transforms into a bird in order to steal the apples.

Moldavian Vampire!?!

In Moldavia, the Zmeu is a vampiric or Incubus type figure. It will take the form of a flame and enter the room of a young woman or widow. Once in the room, the flame then becomes a man who seduces the woman.

Huma

Huma Bird

Other names: Bulah (Arabic), Homa, Homajo (Avestan), Huma, Kumay (Turkic), Umay (Turkic), Hurruz, The Bird Of The Paradise

Pronunciation: Homa

Etymology – Fabulous Bird in the Persian language.

The Sufi teacher, Inayat Khan put forward the idea that the word huma breaks down to two parts. The first hu, which means spirit and the second, mah, from the Arabic word: “Ma’a” which means water.

Found in Iranian legends and stories, the Huma or Homa bird is a common motif of Sufi and Diwan poetry.

The Legend

While there a good many stories and legends of the Huma, they all share in common that the bird never lands on the ground and lives its entire life flying high above the earth where it is invisible. Some versions of the legends will state that the reason that Huma never lands is that it has no legs.

Other stories of the Huma say that they are hermaphrodites in that they have both male and female features represented by one wing and leg being male and other female. The Huma is seen as a being of compassion and a “bird of fortune” for to see its shadow or to be touched by one is considered auspicious.

The Bird Of Kings

One of the most important aspects of the Huma is its role as bestowing and confirming the right of rule and kingship. Most of the legends have the Huma landing on a person’s hand, head or shoulder to confirm their right to rule.

The Sufi teacher Inayat Khan gives the Huma’s kingship bestowing a spiritual explanation. In his explanation, he states: “Its true meaning is that when a person’s thoughts so evolve that they break all limitation, then he becomes as a king. It is the limitation of language that it can only describe the Most High as something like a king.”

Rising From The Ashes

In some versions of the legends surrounding the Huma, it is perceived as being like a phoenix in that it will consume itself in fire every few hundred years and then rise again whole from the ashes.

Indian Folklore

Mughal Era – The Huma’s aspects for bestowing the rights of kingship appear during this time. Aside from landing on a person’s head or shoulder, the shadow of the Huma passing over the head or shoulder would be enough to confirm kingship. Additionally, the feathers used to adorn the turbans of the kings were believed to be plumage from a Huma bird.

Folk Legend – In India, there is a folk story from Kashmir that tells the story of a poor man who struggled and toiled each day in the forests chopping wood. One day a Huma passed by and wanting to help him in some way, laid and dropped a golden egg next to him. When the man awoke, he found the egg and took it to a merchant who realized the significance of the egg and wanted the man to bring him another golden egg and the bird as well. The man returned to the forest and soon enough, the Huma found him again. Seeing that he was still poor, the Huma laid another egg for him. The man jumped up and grabbed the bird.

The bird pleaded with the man to let her go, promising him a feather that if he burned it, would take him up to Koh-I-Quaf where her mother lived who would reward him better. Disbelieving her, the man tied up the bird and ran to fetch the merchant. When he returned with the merchant, the bird was died from her struggles to break free. Enraged, the merchant told the man to never bother him again and the man lived out the rest of his days poor and continuing to struggle.

Iranian Literature & History

The Huma bird is often associated with pre-Islamic monarchs and stands vis-a-vis ravens, a metaphor for Arabs. In these pre-Islamic traditions, the Huma bestows the right of kingship to people.

Dating to 500 B.C.E., the Griffin-like statuary found in Persepolis, Iran are generally viewed and regarded as being Huma.

Sufi Traditions

Catching a Huma is seen as achieving the impossible. Just getting a glimpse of one, even if just the Huma’ shadow is believed to make a person happy for the rest of their life. Further, tradition holds that a Huma cannot be caught alive and the person who ends up killing a Huma in this way will die within forty days.

Attar of Nishapur’s “The Conference of the Birds,” the Huma is depicted as a pupil who refuses to take on a journey because the task would compromise its right to bestow kingship upon those whom it flew over.

Turkish Folklore

Huma, known as Kumay or Umay in Turkish mythology. It was used as a symbol of the Cepni, one of 24 tribal groups under the Oghuz Turks. The imagery of the Huma is used a lot in Turkey’s Diwan poetry.

Interestingly, Umay is the goddess of fertility and virginity in Turkish mythology and Tengriism.

In the Ottoman era poetry, the Huma is called a “bird of paradise.” Early European descriptions of the Paradisaeidae species of bird show these birds as having no wings or legs. Because of this, the birds were believed to always be inflight their whole lives.

In Turkish folk literature, the Huma symbolizes unreachable highness. References to the Huma also appear in Sindhi literature and like diwan traditions, the bird is a harbinger of great fortune.

A letter addressed to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in the Zafarnama of Guru Gobind Singh, makes a reference to the Huma as being a mighty and auspicious bird. In the same letter, the Huma is also referred to as an Osprey.

In the Memalik ul Mirat by the Ottoman admiral: Sisi Ali Reis, the Huma is also referred to as Hurruz. It has been suggested that Sisi Ali Reis’ account, the Hurruz that he observed on his return trip from India to Istanbul, is a vulture. This reference is seen as noteworthy as vultures, like many other birds were revered in Zoroastrianism.

Zoroastrianism

In my researching the Huma, I found a few references linking the bird to the Zoroastrian religion. The references are rather tentative and I’ll post them here as I don’t have enough information to properly confirm or dispute them.

The first account for a reference seems to be a mis-translation due to similar sounding words where a Huma tree is mentioned and that Zoroaster himself is to have been born from one. The same reference mentions the Biblical, New Testament verse of John 3:5, “Except that a man be born of Water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

Just how much owes to mis-translation or misunderstanding, I’m not sure. In keeping with the Biblical verse of Water and Spirit, the same reference source takes note of the translation for Huma from the Arabic words of “Hu” for “Spirit” and “Mah” for “Water.”

The other reference for the Huma with Zoroastrianism is previous mention of the bird in Sisi Ali Reis’ Memalik ul Mirat where the suggestion of the bird is actually a vulture. This source goes on to mention how vultures were particularly revered in Zoroastrianism as a bird of compassion who refuses to hunt and instead feeds on carrion. And that vultures are found referenced in The Towers of Silence in Mumbai where they dispose of the dead.

What’s In A Name?

In several Persian dialects, the name Homa is sometimes used to refer to the Bearded Vultures and not just the mythical Homa. This could explain some legends that say the Homa is a bird of compassion that avoids killing for food and instead feeds on carrion.

Idaea

Idaea

Other names: Ida, Idaia

Pronunciation: /ɪˈdiːə/ or /aɪˈdiːə/

Etymology – Ida (Greek) “Wooded Mountain”

Idaea is either the name of several different mountain nymphs or an epithet of the goddess Cybele in Greek mythology. Most of the stories about all of these different nymphs named Idaea tend to be foundation myths linking the start or beginning of different tribes and their corresponding kingdoms with older, local beliefs and traditions before the Hellenic era of Greek history.

Epithet Of Cybele

As an epithet, the name Idaea refers to Cybele’s connection to Mount Ida within Asia Minor where there was an ancient site of worship.

Mount Idaea

The Homeric Hymns describe Mount Ida or Idaeas as a “shadowy mountain” with “lofty peaks where many fountains flow.” The mountain nymph who resided here was described as the mother of beasts.

There are two mountain nymphs of the same name who lived on Mount Idaea or Ida.

Cretan Nymph –

The first nymph lived on the highest mountain or elevation in Crete. Nowadays, this mountain is known as Mount Psiloritis.

In the mythological stories from Crete, Idaea was the daughter of Corybas, a priest of the goddess Cybele, who was worshiped as fertility god and the progenitor of the Corybantes. The Corybantes were a group of mountain gods or daimons from Asia Minor and whom, in Crete, are associated with the Curetes.

Another version of the stories state that Idaea was the wife of Lycastos, the son of King Minos and the nymph Itone who would later become s Minos’ successor to the throne. Sometimes this lineage is reversed and Idaea and Lycastos are the parents of Minos.

Other variations of the stories place Idaea and Zeus as the parents of Cres, the father of the Cretan tribe.

The Birthplace Of Zeus – The Idaean Cave found in Crete below the summit of Mount Ida is known as the birthplace for the infant god Zeus. Ida and her sister Adrasteia took care of the infant as his nannies and wet-nurses, guarding him until he was old enough.

Lover’s Tryst – The ancient Hesiod tells of a love story between the goddess Demeter and the hero Jason of Argonaut fame meeting on the mountain side of Mount Ida.

Phrygian Nymph –

The second nymph lived on the Mount Ida found within ancient Phrygia near the city of Troy found in Troad. In modern times, this place is located in the north-western region of Turkey. Mount Ida is now known in modern times as Mount Kaz Gagi.

The Phrygian Idaea was known as the Idean Mother, a Mother Goddess. In these stories she is noted as being the daughter of the river god Scamander. In addition, Idaea is the mother of the first king of Troy, Teucer.

Scamander – Another version places Idaea as being a river-nymph or mountain nymph. When Scamander jumps into the river Xanthus, she becomes his wife or mate and through that connection, Teucer’s mother. In either event, Teucer is the forefather to the kings of Troy and Dardania.

Zeus And Mount Ida – In Homer’s writings, Zeus lived on Mount Ida and whenever a storm gathered, the other gods and goddess would often be in attendance.

Dardanus – Zeus And Electra had an affair in which Dardanus was born. When sailing away during the Flood from his home island of Samothrace to Phrygia, Dardanus married the daughter of King Teucros. Dardanus goes on to become the founder of Dardania within the region of Troad.

Scythian Princess – There is, in this lineage with Dardanus, an Idaea who is the great-granddaughter of Bateia and Dardanus and who is also the second wife of Phineus. With Phineus, she is the mother of Mariandynus and Thynius

As the second wife of Phineus, Idaea accused her stepsons of rape. As a result, Phineus had them blinded. Later, when Phineus is killed, Idaea returned to her people and her father, Dardanus killed Idaea for the way she had treated her stepsons.

Ganymede In the story of Ganymede, it is on Mount Ida that Zeus comes in the form of an eagle or sends one to abduct the youth to Mount Olympus.

Paris – In the stories from the Trojan War, Paris lived in exile on this sacred mountain as a shepherd. He had been left there by Priam to die of exposure after an ill-boding prophecy told of Paris’ part in the story of Troy. Obviously Paris lived and would return.

Other stories involving Paris during his time on Mount Ida have the goddesses Hera and Aphrodite coming to have him decides which of the goddesses was the most beautiful.

 

Amu Nowruz

Amu Nowruz

Alternate Spelling: Uncle Nowruz

Also called: Persian – عمو نوروز

Etymology: Uncle Nowruz or Uncle New Year.

The figure of Amu Nowruz is a familiar one in Iranian and other Middle Eastern cultures for their celebrations of 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.

Naneh Sarma And Amu Nowruz

One thing I found of interest is learning about Amu Nowruz’s wife, Naneh Sarma. There’s a love story wherein they only meet each other once a year.

According to the one story found, every year, on the Spring Equinox, Mother Simorq flies down from Mount Qâf with Amu Nowruz, the Young Man Spring. Once Simorq has dropped off Amu Nowruz, he heads for a chestnut colored horse waiting for him. Amu Nowruz will then ride the horse out over the plains towards the city gates where he will meet Naneh Sarma, Grandmother Frost in her orchard just outside the city walls.

Amu Nowruz and Naneh Sarma were madly in love with each other and the first day of Spring,  Naneh Sarma cleans her house and prepares for Amu Nowruz’ arrival. Naneh Sarma waits a long time for Amu Nowruz’s arrival. Long enough that she falls asleep.

By the time Amu Nowruz arrives, he finds Naneh Sarma fast asleep. Instead of waking her, Amu Nowruz leaves a flower he picked for Naneh Sarma on her lap. He then proceeds make himself a glass of tea and stoke the fire so it doesn’t die down. After all this, Amu Nowruz then heads on into the city, bringing Spring time with him.

Shortly after, Naneh Sarma wakes up and finds the flower that Amu Nowruz left and the other signs of his having been there. She weeps finding that her lover has come and gone again. Mother Simorq comes to Naneh Sarma to comfort and remind her that she will have to wait another year for Amu Nowruz’s arrival without falling asleep.

Mother Simorq then carries Naneh Sarma back up to Mount Qâf as she begins to melt. On the top of the Mountain, Mother Simorq lays Naneh Sarma down as she completely melts, knowing that if Naneh Sarma and Amu Nowruz should ever meet, the world would end.

Nowruz – The Persian New Year

Amu Nowruz’s role in the New Year’s celebration is one very similar to that of Santa Claus or Sinterklaas with the celebration of Christmas in that of one whom is bringing gifts. Depending on the country and the calendar used, Nowruz is celebrated close to the Spring or Vernal Equinox, often close to somewhere between March 19 to March 22.

Nowruz is Persian for “New Day,” marking the first day of the month Farvardin and the first day of Spring in the Iranian calendar. The celebration of Nowruz has its roots in ancient Persian traditions of Zoroastrian religion. Some scholars suggest that the celebration may even be older and have roots in Mithraism. It has survived some 3,000 years and varies a bit in celebration from one country to another, especially among the Middle Eastern cultures, mainly Iranian.

Heralding the start of Nowruz, Hajji Firuz is often seen parading through the city with a troupe of singers and dancers following him. Accompanying him is Amu Nowruz bringing and bearing gifts where Hajji Firuz is the one to demand and expect them.

With Nowruz, the New Year’s Day must start off with an atmosphere of joy and happiness so that families may continue to know joy throughout the coming year. The arrival of Hajji Firuz is important for bringing the necessary spirit of joy and happiness to accompany the New Year. This same spirit of joy and happiness is necessary too, for without it, the faravahars (similar to guardian spirits or angels) will leave the household, taking with them the family’s blessings, abundance and luck for the coming year.

Shahnameh – The Book Of Kings

The Shahnameh is an epic poem written by the Persian poet, Ferdowsi sometime between 977 and 1010 C.E.

What’s significant is that this poem dates the celebration of Nowruz to the reign of Jamshid, who in Zorastrian texts saves all of mankind from a killer winter that would have killed every living creature. This mythical Persian King likely represents or symbolizes the transition of people going from animal hunting to animal husbandry and the eventual more settled, civilized eras of human history.

Jamshid is credited with the founding of celebrating Nowruz. According to the text of the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, Jamshid created a throne embedded with gemstones. Sitting on the throne, he had demons raise him up above the earth into the heavens where he sat like the sun, shining brightly. The creatures of the world would gather around Jamshid and scatter gems around him. This started the day known as the New Day or Nowruz and marking the first day of the month of Farvardin.

Persian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni, about 10th century C.E. notes in his Kitab al-Tafhim li Awa’il Sina’at al-Tanjim, the Persian belief that Nowruz marks the first day that the universe begins.

UN Recognition Of Nowruz

While it goes slightly off topic of focusing on Amu Nowruz, I feel it’s important to mention that in 2010, the UN General Assembly recognized March 21st as the International Day of Nowruz. It is recognized as an ancient Persian festival for Spring that has been celebrated for over 3,000 years.

Where for Christians, the celebration of Christmas is often used to promote peace and goodwill, so too does the celebration of Nowruz during Spring. That having more of the world, the global community be better familiar with the significance of Nowruz and its meaning, it will help promote more cultural understandings, friendships, peace and hopefully long lasting respect.

Zinkibaru

Zinkibaru

Also known and spelled as: Zin, Zin Kibaru or Zin-Kibaru

Etymology – It has been suggested that the name Zin probably comes from the Arabic Djinn.

Zinkibaru is the name of the water spirit from Songhay folklore that the hero Fara Maka does battle with. As a water spirit, Zinkibaru is the blind Master of Fish who resides in the Niger River.

Zinkibaru owned a magic guitar that he used to enchant and command the creatures of the river. He commanded the fish to eat Fara Maka’s rice plants. In retaliation, Fara Maka sought out Zinkibaru to fight him. In the end, Fara Maka won and claimed the spirit’s guitar for his own; thus gaining control of the river creatures.

Fara Maka

Faran Maka

Also called: Faran Maka, Faran Maka Bote

Among the Songhay people of Africa, Fara Maka is a significant culture hero. He is described as being a giant of a man who fished and grew rice for a living. Stories about Fara Maka have him using his long beard to catch fish and to eat at least one hippopotamus a day. As a result of his divine heritage, Fara Maka also had magical powers.

Songhay Origins

The Songhay are able to trace their origins back to the 8th century B.C.E. when Aliman Dia came to the Niger River. Aliman Dia had iron weapons that enabled him to overpower the people living there along the river. Namely the sorko or fishers and the gow or hunters. By uniting the different villages in the area, Aliman Dia founded the first Songhay dynasty.

Aliman Dia’s descendants ruled until around the 15th century when the Sonni replaced them.

Parentage and Family

Parents

Fara Maka’s father was a mortal man by the name of Nisili Bote, a fisherman by trade.

His mother’s name is Maka, a river spirit. As a result, this is whom Fara got his mystical and divine heritage from.

Consort

This one is a bit odd, Fara Maka found a girl in a termite mound who gave birth to his two children.

Among the Mali people, Fara Maka or Fara Maka’s wife’s name is Nana Miriam.

Children

Fara Maka is the father of Wango and Weikare. Not a whole lot else is known about them other than their children in turn become the sorko of the Songhay tribe.

Fara Maka Vs. Zinkibaru

The most significant story involving Fara Maka is that of his battle with the water spirit Zinkibaru for control of the Niger River.

Zinkibaru has caused the fish to eat Fara Maka’s rice crops. In response to this, Fara Maka fought the water spirit and in the process, won a magical guitar from it.

Getting Overconfident

After his battle with the river spirit Zinkibaru, Fara Maka soon got too overconfident with his abilities and victory. This angered Dongo, the god of lightning and thunder. Dongo displayed his anger towards Fara by burning many Songhay villages and people.

Eventually Dongo cooled down enough and summoned Fara to him. Dongo demanded that Fara humble himself in order to stop the attacks on the villages by offering up music, praise-poems and animal sacrifices. Dongo further told Faran that if he would organize these festivals, that he, Dongo would enter into the bodies of the dancers for a spiritual ecstasy and help all those living along the Niger River.

Songhay Possession Ceremony

After Dongo’s forced meeting with Fara Maka, the first Songhay Possession Ceremony was held. Even today in modern era, this ceremony is still performed. The most important people of the Songhay Possession Troupe are the Sorko, the praise-singers to the spirits. The Sorko are direct descendants of Fara Maka Bote, keeping alive the traditions, folklore and religion of the Songhay.

Fara Maka And Mali

Among the people of Mali, Fara Maka is a hero who slew a monstrous hippopotamus known as Mali.

Mali had eaten all of Fara Maka’s crops. Fara Maka tried to kill the monster hippo using his spear and sending out as many 120 black hounds to attack the beast. Fara Maka failed and was eaten in the process by some accounts. His wife, Nana Miriam used a spell to paralyze the monster Mali and finally defeating it.

Shujun

Shujun

Also known as: 叔均 (Chinese), Shangjun and Yijun

Shujun is one of many Agricultural deities that China has. Others include Di Jun, Houji, Shennong to name a few. Shujun specifically, is the god of farming and cultivation. He is also credited with the invention of using a draft animal such as oxen to pull a plow when tilling the fields.

Cultural Hero

An alternative to Shujun’s story is that he is a cultural hero who descends from a line of emperors known as the Yellow Emperor or Huangdi.

Qiaorui – He is a famous craftsman who invented a number of different crafts such as the bell, boat, and a plow-like farm tool for people. Shujun has sometimes been identified with him.

The Yellow Emperor

The Yellow Emperor is a title of the dynasty who ruled China after the first defeated the last of the Flame Emperors or Yandi.

Huangdi – Also known as “The Yellow Emperor,” was known to be a friend and fellow scholar with Shennong despite there being some 500 years’ distance between the two. Both Huangdi and Shennong are said to have shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality and making gold.

Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) – By the 8th Century C.E. historian Sima Zhen, Shennong is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and the ancestor or patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regard both Shennong and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors.

Divine Family

Aside from the Yellow Emperor, Shujun is also said to be related to Di Jun, or the Emperor Jun and Houji, a minister of Huangdi.

Alternatively, Shujun is the son of Houji. Sometimes Shujun is even Houji’s nephew through his younger brother Taixi.

God Of Farming And Cultivation

In either event, whether as son or nephew, Shujun takes Houji and/or Taixi’s place with sowing a variety of different grains and the invention of the plowing with draft animals.

Shennong

Shennong

Alternate Spellings: Shen-Nung

Also known as: 神農 (Traditional Chinese), 神农 (Simplified Chinese), Thần Nông

(Vietnamese), Hangul (신농 Korean), 神農 (Japanese), The Emperor of the Five Grains (Wǔgǔxiāndì), Shen-Nung, Sheng-Nong, Shen-Nong-Shi, Yan-Di, Yandi, Flame Emperor, Lord of the Burning Wind, Holy Plowman King

Pronunciation: shin nung

Etymology: Divine Farmer or Divine Husbandman

In Chinese mythology, Shennong is one of several important deities who introduced and brought agriculture to the Chinese people. Shennong is one of the three noble ones known as the San-huang. In art, Shennong is sometimes depicted with the head of an ox or bull.

Shennong is credited with having invented the plow and teaching people agriculture and the cultivation of forests. In addition, Shennong also introduced the use of medicines and herbs.

Cultural Hero

Shennong is the second of three legendary Emperors of China and an important cultural hero. Tradition has him being born in the 28th century B.C.E. with the head of a bull and the body of a man.

What makes Shennong such an important hero is not only his introduction and use of agriculture but his identifying the use of hundreds of medical and poisonous plants that are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. He went about this by testing the effects of these plants on himself.

Chinese legends tell how Shennong had a transparent body that allowed him to see the effects that different plants and substances had on him. Another legend tells how during his research, Shennong poisoned himself a total of seventy-two times during the course of a single day. Fortunately, and Shennong credited his anecdotal tea preventing him from suffering any long-term complications or side-effects.

Tea, a discovery attributed to Shennong, was believed to act as an antidote to some seventy different herbs. Shennong traditionally held to have discovered tea and to have first tasted it sometime around 2437 B.C.E. when the burning leaves of a tea tree were lifted up by the hot air from a fire and fell into a cauldron of boiling water.

Another discovery attributed to Shennong is that of acupuncture. Further, stories of Shennong’s youth have him speaking after three days, walking within the week and that he could plow a field by the time he was three.

 Shennong’s Death

Depending on the version of the story told and the accounts given, Shennong died as a result of his testing the effects of plants on himself. One of his experiments didn’t agree with him when he ate a yellow flower from a weed that caused his intestines to rupture before Shennong had time to take his anecdotal tea.

This wouldn’t be the end for Shennong as he was given special honors and worshiped as the Medicine King and Father of Chinese Medicine.

God Of Agriculture & Medicine

When Shennong is worshipped and mentioned as a deity, he is the god of the burning wind and the patron of farmers, pharmacists, rice traders and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

As a god of agriculture, Shennong is one of many cultural heroes and deities credited with different, various inventions such as the axe, the hoe, the plow (both leisi and the plowshare), digging wells, irrigations, the use of boiled horse urine to store seeds, weekly farmers’ markets, the Chinese calendar, acupuncture, therapeutic use of taking pulse measurements, moxibustion and instituting the harvest thanksgiving ceremony of Zhaji Sacrificial Rite, later known as the Laji Rite.

Burning Wind – This term refers to the type of agriculture that is slash and burn. The ash from the resulting fire is then used to fertilize the fields.

Worship – As Shennong is often depicted as being ox-headed, the sacrifice and offerings of cattle is never acceptable. However, the sacrifice of pigs and sheep is acceptable. In addition, the use and offerings of fireworks and incense is used at Shennong’s statues, particularly on the lunar calendar for April 26th for his birthday. There are a number of temples and places dedicated to the commemoration of Shennong.

Divine Family – This part is rather tentative and relies on accepting Shennong as a defied human. A couple sources will list Shennong as having married a Sien-Tsang, the goddess of Weaving and Crafts. They had a son, Qi-Yu (alternatively Chi-Yu) a rain god and who is half bull like his father.

San-Huang – The Three Sovereigns

Also known as the Three Emperors, they are a group of pseudo-mythological and sage-like emperors who are believed to have lived some 4,500 years ago. Shennong is counted as being part of this group and the second of their number to have once ruled over China.

The Flame Emperor

Or Yan di, the Chinese accounts can sometimes get confused as to who exactly the Yan Emperor is or was.

Some accounts of Shennong’s legend place him as a relative to the Yan Emperor. Other accounts place him as the first Yan Emperor and that Shennong appointed one of his ministers, Chi You who was also ox-headed with sharp horns, bronze forehead and iron skulled.

Another account has posited that the Flame Emperor was a title, held by the dynastic succession with Shennong holding the title of Yandi posthumously. The last Yan Emperor was defeated by Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor) about 500 years later.

The Yan di were regarded as masters of fire and thus used fire in their names. The Yan di was also known as the Emperor of the South. With the Yan di defeat by the Huangdi, the title of Yan passed out of usage. Their descendants though intermarried with the Huangdi.

Shennong, along with Fuxi and the Yellow Emperor are credited with the creation of the Gugin.

The Yellow Emperor

Huangdi – Also known as “The Yellow Emperor,” was known to be a friend and fellow scholar with Shennong despite there being some 500 years’ distance between the two. Both Huangdi and Shennong are said to have shared the alchemical secrets of medicine, immortality and making gold.

Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) – By the 8th Century C.E. historian Sima Zhen, Shennong is a kinsman of the Yellow Emperor and the ancestor or patriarch of the Chinese. The Han Chinese regard both Shennong and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors.

Aside from the Han, the Song Dynasty General Yue Fei also traced his lineage to Shennong.

Possible Reality Behind The Legends

Getting anything for reliable accuracy and the historical context of China before the 13th century B.C.E. is fairly 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, a successor to Shennong is hard to find, even with Chinese archaeologist trying to link this dynasty to the Bronze Age Erlitou sites.

Despite a lack of hard evidence, Shennong remains an important individual and even his clan share a prominent place in the history of China’s culture for mythology, popular culture and historical literature.

Shennong-shi – Shennong’s name can also refer to his people. The “shi” can mean both “clan” and “surname” as well as an honorific like “sir” or “mister.”

Sima Qian comments how the rulers directly following the Yellow Emperor were all of Shennong’s house or social group. Sima Zhen in his prologue for his Shiji says that Shennong’s surname was Jiang before going on to list all of his successors.

Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Remedies

The Chinese have a rich history and use of traditional remedies and herbs that dates back more than 5,000 years. With the use of oral history and stories by word of mouth, many of the stories attribute Shennong as the father of medicine. Like Shennong, Chinese people have tested the effects of different plants and herbs on themselves for their medicinal values over the millennia. These years of experimentation allowed for an increased understanding of pharmacology for the uses, dosages and toxicity of different herbal medicines.

Huainanzi – This is an older and more famous reference document. In it, before Shennong came along, people were constantly sick, starving, diseased and always suffering. When Shennong came along, he taught the people the art of agriculture and through his own research, the use of plants for medicine. Shennong did this feat by consuming hundreds of plants, testing them on himself. He is even said to have eaten some seventy poisons in one day.

Huang Ti Nei Ching – The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine – This book comprises of the theories of the legendary emperor Huang Ti 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 Ti and his minister, Qibo. The second one has the descriptions of anatomy, medical physiology and acupuncture. The real author of this book is unknown.

I Ching – The Book of Changes, Shennong is mentioned in this book coming into power after the end of the house or reigning period of Paoxi (Fu Xi). He is mentioned here as having invented the bent-wood plow, a cut-wood rake and having taught these skills to other people. Shennong is also credited with establishing of noonday markets.

Lüshi Chunqiu – This document mentions the violence of the rise of Shennong’s house and its lasting for seventeen generations.

Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng – Also called: “The Divine Farmer’s Herb-Root Classic” or “The Classic of Herbal Medicine” and “Shen-nung Pen-tsao Ching.” This book on agriculture and medicinal plants is the most well-known work attributed to Shennong. Research has found and suggested that this book is a compilation of oral traditions dating to between 200 and 250 C.E. during the end of the Western Han Dynasty.

Unfortunately, the original book no longer exists, but it believed it was written in three volumes with some 365 entries. The books list numerous, different herbs said to be discovered by Shennong. As the earliest pharmacopoeia reference, there are hundreds of different medicines derived from various animals, minerals and plants.

The first volume included 120 herbs and drugs deemed to be harmless to humans as they were stimulants such as reishi, ginseng, jujube, the orange, Chinese cinnamon, Eucommia bark and liquorice root. All of these herbs were regarded as “noble” or “upper herbs.”

The second volume has 120 therapeutic entries intended to treat the sick. All of them though have toxic or potentially toxic effects. Entries include cucumber, ginger and peonies. All of these entries were considered to be “human,” “commoner” or “middle herbs.”

The last volume has 125 entries for those herbs and substances that have strong or violent effects on physiological functions and seen as poisonous. Entries in this volume include rhubarb, various pitted fruits and peaches. All of these herbs are considered “low herbs.”

Wu Shi Er Bing Fang – Prescriptions for Fifty-Two Diseases, this book is ultimately the first written treatise on herbal medicine that dates to between 1065-771 B.C.E. It was discovered in 1973 during that excavation of Ma Wang Dui’s tomb in Changsha, Hunan province. It beats out the Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng which is figured to have been written between 200 and 250 C.E.

Geography Connections

Many places in China have connections to Shennong.

Shennongjia – This mountain range located in Hubei is where Shennong is to have climbed up a rattan ladder that turns into a vast forest.

Shennongding – “Shennong’s Peak” – This is the specific mountain that Shennong climbed up and down with his ladder.

Shennong Stream – Named for Shennong, this stream flows into the Yangtze River.

Shennong Temple – Located in Taiwan, Shennong is worshiped here under a number of different names such as King Yan, the God of Five Grains, Shennong the Great Emperor, the Ancestor of Farming, Great Emperor of Medicine, God of Earth, and the God of Fields.

Zwarte Piet

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Also called: Black Pete, Black Peter, Père Fouettard, Schwaarze Péiter

Etymology: Black Peter

December has come and with it many familiar Winter Celebrations and Holidays.

The Dutch character of Zwarte Piet is one mired in controversy and folklore. In the folklore of the Low Countries of Europe, Zwarte Piet is a companion to Saint Nicholas or Sinterklaas if you please in Dutch. Saint Nicholas is also synonymous with Santa Claus for those living in the US. Unfortunately for the character of Zwarte Piet, he has come under a lot of controversy and allegations of racism in recent years, especially among the Netherland’s migrant community.

Zwarte Piet is traditionally depicted as being black as he’s said to either be a Moor from Spain or to have gotten black from going down chimneys delivering presents. Many people who dress up as Zwarte Piet, dress in colorful Renaissance Page outfits, blackface makeup, curly wigs, red lipstick and earrings. The character of Zwarte Piet that most people in the Netherlands have become familiar with first appeared in a book written by Jan Schenkman in 1850.

The Feast Of Saint Nicholas – December 5-6th

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). His arrival is accompanied by Zwarte Piet (Zwarte Pieten for plural) who hands out sweets and presents to many children. Zwarte Pieten will begin to make their appearances in the weeks before Saint Nicholas’ Feast. Their first appearance is when Saint Nicholas arrives and is greeted with a parade. In some parts of the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will arrive by boat, having come all the way from Madrid, Spain. The Zwarte Pieten’s job then is to entertain the children, handing out sweets known as pepernoten, kruidnoten and strooigoed as Saint Nicholas makes his rounds.

Zwarte Piet’s Origins – Clash Of Cultures, Religion & Traditions

For anyone who even does just a cursory study of the Winter Celebrations of Christmas and the numerous related holidays for this time of year, can see that there has been a constant, evolving and changing view of how the Winter Holidays and Traditions have changed or adapted over the centuries and even millennia.

Many people can easily find and take note of Pagan elements for the holidays and why they were celebrated. The arrival of a new religion, Christianity as it spread and took over, clearly supplanted many of these older holidays and often the older Pagan traditions were adapted to the Christian celebrations of Christmas with new Christian imagery and symbolisms.

Sometimes the origin and introduction of one tradition are clear cut and easy to point out and other times the passage of time has made it murky and there tends to be a lot of guess work and overlay that makes it harder to separate all of the different elements. Ultimately it is a mixture and grab bag of different religions and traditions that have mixed together and changed over the years.

The Wild Hunt – Odin

I’ll include this connection as it is one that is often passed around and it does appear to bear merit.

The Wild Hunt is a phenomenon found in many different European countries and cultures of 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. One connection made is that of Woden or Odin in Germanic folklore. On New Year’s Eve, Woden would ride out during the night on his white, eight-legged steed Sleipnir. Woden or Odin is always accompanied by his two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These two ravens would sit at the edge of a chimney, listening to those within and then tell Woden of any good or bad behavior of those living in the dwelling. This report would determine if Woden left any gifts or chased down and abducted the unruly mortal with his Wild Hunt.

Middle Eastern Connections?

I came across this when doing research for the figure of Hajji Firuz.

Just as Zwarte Piet is paired up with Sinterklaas, so too is Hajji Firuz paired up with Amu Nowruz.

Where Sinterklaas is known to give gifts out to children, so too does Amu Nowruz give out gifts to children on Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Amu Nowruz’s name means “Uncle Nowruz.” The Russians hold a similar tradition of the “Grandfathers” for both Winter and Spring who die and are replaced by the other or reborn. The tradition of gift giving doesn’t become associated with some of the European deities until the arrival of Christianity.

The character of Hajji Firuz has also been under similar attacks by people who see a negative racist implication in some countries such as Iran. Despite this, many people still love Hajji Firuz and the air of festivities he brings. His darkened skin is often seen as only face paint representing soot from a fire.

Exactly how good of a connection there is between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet with Amu Nowruz and Hajji Firuz? It’s hard to say, though the similarities between the two are interesting to note.

Sinterklaas, You’re The Devil

To better understand Zwarte Piet, one needs to understand who Sinterklaas is. Unlike the American Santa Claus who is seen as fat and jolly, Sinterklaas is a thin and stern man who is a combined figure of both Saint Nicholas from Turkey and the Germanic god Woden.

Saint Nicholas – 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, sailors and the city of Amsterdam. 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.

Woden – 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. Even Sinterklaas’ hat and staff are a reflection of Woden and not just that of Saint Nicholas, a stern catholic bishop riding on his white horse. Though the horse too is a reflection of Woden’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir that he rides. Woden’s helpers are the ravens, Huginn and Muninn who report back to him of all of men’s deeds.

The connections of Sinterklaas traditions to Pagan Europe before its Christianization is fairly well known. And since then, there has been a further, continued mixing of Christian elements to a Pagan figure. Some of which haven’t always been completely smooth or “nice and tidy” changes. Nor has the image of Sinterklaas always been so benign.

Before the appearance of any companions for Sinterklaas, he would be the one to deliver gifts to good children or coal and switches to naughty children. At this point, he pretty much worked alone.

Sinterklaas wasn’t a very nice figure and one whom could also provide a lot of nightmares. With the influence of Christianity and wanting everything in absolutes of black and white, the imagery of Sinterklaas chaining the devil became prominent as the triumph of light over darkness. This is a theme very central to the Yule-tide celebrations for the turning of the year as the nights now begin to grow shorter and the days longer.

Medieval Times – Enslaving The Devil

During the Medieval Times of Europe, Saint Nicholas is sometimes shown as having tamed or chained the devil. This figure may or may not necessarily be black. For the Netherlands, there is no mention of any devil, servant or any sort of companion for Saint Nicholas between the 16th and up to the last half of the 19th centuries.

A long-standing theory then has suggested that Zwarte Piet and many of the similar characters found in Germanic Europe such as Krampus in Austria, Ruprecht in Germany, Père Fouettard and Housécker (Mr. Bogeyman has been offered translation of this name) in France and Luxembourg, and Schmutzli in Switzerland to name a few.

While all the others dark helpers of Sinterklaas are outright devils or dark, soot covered men, the image of Zwarte Piet is the only one who seems to have changed to become an outright black person. That when we get to the 19th and 20th century Netherlands, Piet has become a Moor and servant to Saint Nicholas who helps the old man out on his nightly rounds.

Zwarte Piet’s Arrival To Dutch Traditions

By the time Zwarte Piet is introduced to the mythos of Christmas as a companion of Sinterklass, there has been a change in the overall attitude of Sinterklaas’ nature and character. Before Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas was seen as something of a bogeyman. Was he bringing presents, coal, a beating with a switch or worse yet, carrying you away in his bag never to be seen again?

With the introduction of Zwarte Piet, some of the darker, more terrifying attributes of Sinterklaas were now part of Zwarte Piet’s character. This change owes a lot to the Christian dichotomy of Good and Evil with no in-betweens. While Zwarte Piet is introduced as Sinterklaas’ servant, it is still very much connected to the previously mentioned concept of chaining and enslaving the devil.

Unfortunately, with Zwarte Piet now getting all of these negative characteristics, many children became afraid of Zwarte Piet as he’s the one who now punishes and a bogeyman to be avoided. This again was changed around the 1950’s and 1960’s with Sinterklaas again becoming the sterner and dour of the two while Zwarte Piet becomes more of a benign figure passing out gifts and treats along with behaving in a clownish manner that children love.

Codifying A Legend

The earliest mention of Sinterklaas having a companion or servant is in 1850 when a school teacher, Jan Schenkman published the book: “Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht” (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”). At first, this early servant is a page boy, a dark-skinned person wearing the clothing of the Moors. This book introduced the tradition of Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. This version of Saint Nicholas has no mention to his Turkish connection in Myra.

In the first edition of Schenkman’s book, the servant is shown dressed in simple white clothing with red piping. Beginning with the second edition of the book in 1858, the servant’s page outfit becomes more colorful that is more typical of early Spanish fashions. Schenkman’s book stayed in print until 1950 and has shaped much of the Netherland traditions and celebrations of Saint Nicholas’ Day.

What’s In A Name?

The one thing to note is that in Schenkman’s book, Sinterklaas’ servant isn’t named. However, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm had made reference to Sinterklaas’ companion being named Pieter-me-knecht in a note written to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Alberdingk Thijm later wrote in 1884 remembering how as a child in 1828, he had gone to a Saint Nicholas celebration at the home of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant living in Amsterdam. He recalled that during this time, Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro”, who, instead of a switch to punish children with, carried a large basket filled with presents.

The Dutch newspaper, De Tijd in 1859 took note of how Saint Nicholas was often seen in the company of “a Negro, who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself.”

By 1891, the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas names Sinterklaas’ servant Pieter. Up until around 1920, there had been a number of books giving this servant varying names and even appearances.

By 1920, as the Dutch celebrations of Sinterklaas became more standardized, the name of this servant became Zwarte Piet. At first, he was portrayed as being dull-witted, clumsy and speaking broken-Dutch.

By 1968, another change came and instead of one Piet, there were numerous Pieten who all have different tasks and roles in helping Sinterklaas. Some of these other Pieten are: Hoofdpiet, Navigation Piet, Present-Wrapping Piet, Pepernoten Piet and so on. The antics of Piet have also taken on being more silly and clownish to entertain children.

This change with more than one Piet comes after World War II with the liberation of the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers helping to organize the Saint Nicholas celebration and distribute out presents, dressed up Zwarte Piet. As the numerous Zwarte Pieten moved through Amsterdam passing out their gifts, the idea of more than one Piet stuck and has continued.

A Saint’s Miracle and Dutch Slavery

Unfortunately, this is a fact of history and since the codification of Zwarte Piet to be seen as black and a servant of Saint Nicholas, somewhere along the lines it has clearly become confused. The Christian belief of Saint Nicholas chaining the devil has likely, subconsciously gotten confused with the actual slavery. In the 15th century, the name of Black Peter was an alternative name for the devil.

Contributing to this legend is a story from the Legenda Aurea as retold by Eelco Verwijs in 1863, one of the miraculous deeds performed by the Saint after his death is that of freeing a slave boy in the “Emperor of Babylon’s” court and returning him to his parents. In this story, there is no mention at all of the child’s skin color.

Another thing to be noted about the date of 1863, is that this is when the Dutch abolished slavery, though it would still take a little bit of time for the last slave to fully be free.

Later books found in the 20th century of both fiction and non-fiction began to appear wherein Zwarte Piet is mentioned as a former slave that had been freed by Saint Nicholas and then stays on to become a friend and companion, helping him out in the Saint’s annual visits to the children.

During the 1500’s to 1850 roughly, the Dutch did engage in slavery that helped to build up their empire over three continents and places like Suriname and Indonesia. It’s surprising to see that for a nation that had such a deep investment with slavery, that it is largely still glossed over in the classrooms for history. While the Dutch did not keep many slaves, the West India Trade Company did transport thousands of slaves to other parts of the world.

Other Takes On Zwarte Piet

High Barbary – Piracy – One take on explaining Zwarte Piet as black is that he’s a Moor from Spain. A few stories of Zwarte Piet’s origins connect him with piracy and the raids that the Moors would conduct along the coasts of Europe. So if Piet isn’t wearing a page’s outfit, he’s dressed as either a Moor or in a pirate’s garb. Hence the gold earrings that Piet used to wear.

Chimney Sweep – In the 1950’s, another explanation often given to try and soften the image of Zwarte Piet and resolve the issue of slavery is that Zwarte Piet is a chimney sweep. So Piet’s skin is black from going down the chimneys delivering gifts to children. In places like Belgium, Zwarte Piet will leave the gifts in children’s shoes much like La Befana leaves gifts in the shoes of Italian children.

This explanation of soot often isn’t accepted as people will point out that Piet still has curly or frizzy black hair, red lips and more importantly, that his clothes are still immaculately clean.

Crime & Punishment

Before being a gift giver of Sinterklass, Zwarte Piet would be the one to punish naughty children. Some of the punishments he would dole out are:

*The least of a child’s worries is receiving a lump of coal as a reminder to be good.

*Some bad children will get a “roe” – which is a bundle of twigs or switches.

*If a child was really naughty, he or she might be hit with that roe or switch.

*Particularly bad children get carried away back to Spain where Sinterklaas lives. This part of the legend and punishment is a reference to the times when the Moors raided along the European coasts and would abduct people into slavery.

Also, depending on the version of this part of the myth being told, the bad children carried away in the sack either become Pieten themselves or get eaten.

Signs & Changes Of The Times

Of course, once the image of Zwarte Piet became standardized, it took off in the Netherlands in the early 20th century and instead of doling out punishments, Zwarte Piet hands out treats from his bag and continues his role as Sinterklaas’ helper.

Controversy

Towards the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century, the character of Zwarte Piet has come under attack as many people see the character to be very racist in some very negative portrayals of stereotypes. At current there has been discussions on how to update the image of Piet to try and remove the racist elements to others out right calling for Piet’s being banned from the Saint Nicholas celebrations.

There have been efforts to try and ease this problem, some like the NPS replacing the black Pieten with a rainbow of Pieten. Others have called for alterations to characteristics of Zwarte Piet to be changed such as the frizzy hair, red lips and no earrings. Other proposed changes put forth by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism have been to stop the portrayals of Zwarte Piet as being “stupid, inferior or a dangerous black man.” Even the use of blackface makeup with Zwarte Piet has caused a lot of debate. If Piet is supposed to be black from the soot while going down chimneys, he should only look smudged, not totally black. And certainly other countries such as the US and the UK when first encountering Zwarte Piet see a very strong negative connotation with the use of blackface when portraying a black person.

Caricaturing

 There are many Dutch and those who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in places such as Aruba, Curaçao, Indonesia, Sint Maarten, and Suriname who do not see a problem with Zwarte Piet and accept an evolution of a character to become a friend of children and a positive representation of color in the Christmas/Winter traditions. To them, he’s just black, but not necessarily of African descent and is more of a fairy tale type figure who delivers gifts and has become removed from the enslaved devil he once was.

The argument then is trying to get an awareness that how Zwarte Piet has been depicted is a caricature and very much so negative stereotypes of black people. Namely with the afro hair, thick red lips and being shown as too buffoonish.

While there are efforts to try and make changes to how Zwarte Piet is depicted, there are still protests and demonstrations against Zwarte Piet. The protesters cite the racism in Zwarte Piet’s depictions as being a very lazy, clownish black stereotype that in other settings and countries, would be very offensive. Articles have recounted examples of children from African decent being bullied. Adults and children alike of African descent who get called Zwarte Piet and any possible unspoken and underlying implications of what’s being referred to with the comment of slaves, someone who is foolish, stupid, lazy or dangerous, who’s only purpose is to be there for someone else’s entertainment.

And as has been noted in comments and articles while reading up on Zwarte Piet, it hasn’t been until the last couple of generations that there as more and more immigrants and people of other ethnic groups moving to the Netherlands that, the Dutch mindset of what is appropriate and what’s seen as racist is currently being challenged by outsiders.

Cultural & Historical Disconnect

It has been commented on by one journalist, Dimitri Tokmetzis, “”I don’t think the Dutch want to offend black people with Zwarte Piet. We don’t have a history with blackface, on the other hand, there are clearly some racist undertones that many people won’t recognize. Zwarte Piet is always depicted as stupid and one song even states that although Zwarte Piet is black, you can basically trust him because he means well. So there is this disconnect between the intentions of most people and how it comes across to those who are more sensitive to racial issues.”

Which would be the heart of it, a disconnect and denial by some who don’t see or fail to see the racist implications in the figure of Zwarte Piet as he is currently represented. Other commentary has pointed out a lack of the Netherlands own sensitivity to their colonial history and the impact it has had. Not surprising when others have pointed that in history books in school, the subject barely gets covered or glossed over.

The flip side to why many Dutch may have a hard time accepting the racist elements is that Zwarte Piet is so closely tied to a children’s celebration and it feels so much like an attack on childhood memories and nostalgia. It can be very difficult to have an ugly truth of what was once thought socially acceptable be pointed out as no it’s not.

Movie Time! – Santa & Pete

I was delighted one year when visiting an Aunt of mine during the holidays, that when searching for a Christmas movie to watch, we came across the movie of Santa & Pete with James Earl Jones staring as the Grandfather and narrator of the story as he tells his grandson of their family history.

I had already come across the figure of Zwarte Piet when reading the book of “When Santa was a Shaman.” I had been worried this would show some of the more negative associations and connotations with Piet. To my relief, the movie shows a very positive portrayal of the character and showing both Santa and Pete as friends and equals in their work to visit the children at Christmas and passing out gifts.

Which is what I see, if the more positive aspects of Zwarte Piet can get focused on, as a friend to children and gift giver, we have a positive representation of someone of color within the overall Christmas mythos and celebrations.

As it stands, when reading the various articles and controversies regarding Zwarte Piet, there are still a lot of the more negative associations attached to him and no one is quite sure how to make the appropriate changes to the character in order to keep him while others are calling for his complete banning and removal from Dutch traditions.