Etymology: “God of Wealth”
Also Known As: Ts’ai-shen, Tsai Shen Yeh, Zhao Gongming, Bi Gan
Alternative Spellings: T’shai-Shen, 財神 (Traditional Chinese,) 财神 (Simplified Chinese)
In the Taosist and folk religions of China, Caishen is the god of wealth, specifically prosperity who is rather popular that even atheists will worship him from time to time, at least during the Lunar New Year celebrations.
In some depictions, Caishen is shown dressed in exquisite flowing red robes and riding a black tiger. He is said to have a black face with a thick mustache and wears an iron helmet along with holding an iron weapon. Unless this misunderstanding is on my part, Caishen may also be shown with a Ri Yu staff or scepter that he holds. A golden yuanbao (gold ingot, bar of gold) is also shown near to Caishen or he may be holding one. Other imagery of Caishen will show him with several attendants with various gold bars, scrolls and fruit to pass to people that Caishen has blessed.
A temple to Caishen was built in the 2000s in Zhouzhi, Xi’an, Shaanxi. That is fairly recent in the grand scheme of things.
Caishen aids in ensuring that a person will receive profits from any commercial transactions.
Gold – This is rather obvious as a symbol of Caishen. He is often shown with a gold yuanbao or ingot as this holds value. The iron weapon that Caishen is shown holding also sometimes transforms into gold, showing Caishen’s power over wealth and prosperity.
Alchemy – There is sometimes another tool, a golden cudgel that Caishen holds that he can use to turn stone or iron into gold.
Tiger – In Chinese symbolism, the tiger represents persistence and represents that a person must do more than wish for wealth, they must do more and act on it.
Close on the heels of being a god of prosperity, Caishen presides over a bureaucracy with numerous minor deities under him.
Aside from promoting prosperity and wealth, Caishen is known to protect or ward against thunder and lightning.
Lunar New Year
During the Chinese Lunar New Year, Caishen descends from the heavens to come down to the earth and check on his followers.
With the Lunar New Year, this is a good time in the days leading up to it to do some spring cleaning of your home and remove unwanted clutter. Do any repairs that need it and check the lightbulbs, especially for the front door.
Families worship Caishen in the early morning by setting three candles on the dining table and burning three incense sticks of choice as the main entrance and windows are open to invite Caishen into the home. After bowing and inviting Caishen in, it is traditional for the family to set a place for him at the table and to eat dumplings on this day as they look like the gold yuanbao or ingot associated with Caishen. Images of Caishen are also displayed, in more modern times, posters are acceptable.
On the second day of the Lunar New Year, Caishen ascends back up to the heavens, and the pictures used to welcome him on the first day are now burned to see him off. Burning the pictures is part of wishing for a more prosperous and luckier year.
The fifth day of the Lunar New Year is Caishen’s birthday, so its natural to want to celebrate that and wish him a happy birthday too! Cake, dumplings, and fireworks!
It is popular among friends and family to say the traditional New Year greeting of “Gongxi Facai” or “May you become rich!” Admittedly, many Westerners confuse the saying as being equivalent to the English “Happy New Year” when it’s a prayer wishing someone wealth and prosperity.
For those who practice feng shui, an image of Caishen can be displayed in one’s home or office to attract money, good luck or fortune, wealth, and prosperity. Some believe that this can come in the form of a sudden windfall of financial luck. The higher that you are able to place this image of Caishen, the better as that is believed to show more respect for him with the best places being the foyer, entryway, or living room for him.
Among the “Pure Land Buddhists,” they venerate Caishen as a buddha. In esoteric Buddhism, Caishen is identified with Jambhala, the God of Wealth.
In various Chinese and Taosist temples, a statue of Caishen may sometimes stand near a door, usually in conjunction with Randeng Daoren, the Burning-Lamp Taoist.
Under Mao and Communism, the veneration of Caishen in mainland China hasn’t faired too well as the state believes in making it’s own way and luck with money. Several of the temples and statues of Caishen were destroyed during this time.
As luck would have it, 1979 saw a renaissance from the “Four Asian Tigers” of overseas Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea where the veneration of Caishen had been kept alive, finding themselves wealthy and prosperous, even well developed. This wouldn’t be hard for people back in mainland China to see a correlation and have a swift return to using Caishen’s symbols from abroad and to place statues of Caishen in several prominent places, there are shrines, incense burned and statuettes tucked away on a shelf in a restaurant.
Possible Reality Behind The Myth
Many of China’s mythical figures are often said and thought to have once been a living person in life before ascending a deified or higher state. In this case, there are several legends of whom Caishen has been linked to, making it a bit dubious to determine if these were real, living historical people once.
With Caishen, we see him linked to the historical figure of Zhao Xuan-tan or Chao Hsüan-t’an, “General Zhao of the Dark Terrace,” during the Qin Dynasty. As Zhao Xuan-tan, he gained enlightenment on the top of a mountain. While still mortal, Zhao Xuan-tan is said to have assisted Zhang Dao-ling during his search for the Life-Prolonging Elixir.
Bi Gan – The historical figure of Bi Gan is the most ancient person to link Caishan with and the first incarnation. Bi Gan had been married to a woman with the surname of Chen. Their son’s name was Quan. After Bi Gan was sentenced to death by his nephew, King Zhou of Shang, Bi Gan’s wife and son fled to the forest. Bi Gan’s death is noted to mark the collapse of the Shang dynasty. Later, Quan would be revered as the ancestor to the Lins by King Wu of Zhou.
Zhao Gongming – There is a novel written during the Ming dynasty era called Fengshen Yanyi that tells the story of a hermit by the name Zhao Gongming who used magic to support a failing Shang dynasty. Jiang Ziya, who supported the following Zhou dynasty, made a straw effigy of Zhao and after twenty days of spells, prayers and incantations, fired an arrow made of peach tree wood through the heart of this effigy. At the moment the arrow struck, Zhao became ill and died. Later, when Jiang visited the temple of Yuan Shi, he was chastised for causing the death of a virtuous man. Jiang Ziya, having remorse, carried Zhao’s corpse to the Yuan Shi temple to make atonement. As Jiang expounded on Zhao’s virtues, Zhao would become canonized as Caishen, the god of Wealth, and become the president of the Ministry of Wealth. There are some sources that reverse the loyalties of Zhao and Jiang for this story.
The historical figure of Bi Gan is the most ancient person to link Caishan with. Bi Gan had been married to a woman with the surname of Chen. Their son’s name was Quan. After Bi Gan was sentenced to death by his nephew, King Zhou of Shang, Bi Gan’s wife and son fled to the forest. Bi Gan’s death is noted to mark the collapse of the Shang dynasty. Later, Quan would be revered as the ancestor to the Lins by King Wu of Zhou.
Fan Li – During Confucius’ time, Caishen came to be associated with Fan Li, a military strategist, businessman, and advisor to Goujian who ruled over the kingdom of Yue. Both Fan Li and Goujian were taken hostage by the state of Wu and held for three years. After they were freed, Fan Li continued to serve Goujian, carrying his government appointments and reforms that improved the kingdom of Yue. Fan Li’s reforms aided Goujian to be able to conquer the Wu state. After this victory, Fan Li resigned from his position and took on the name Tao Zhu Gong.
Fan Li and his wife, Xi Shi went to live on a boat out on Lake Tai. Fan Li’s success with business and his reforms led to his being defied and regarded as a reincarnation of Caishen.
Caibo Xingjun – This is another name linked to Caishen as a possible historical figure. Originally born Li Guizu, he was born in the Zichuan district in the Shandong Province where he held a position as a magistrate. Due to his service and contributions, Li Guizu was given the title of Caibo Xingjun by the Wude Emperor of the Tang dynasty and the people built a temple to worship him.
These are just some of the stories I was able to find of those historical people who have been linked with Caishen.
The Caishen Of All Directions
With all of these various historical figures linked to Caishen and seeing them as various incarnations; they all lead to the fact that there are multiple Caishen who are associated with the various directions. Additionally, a person wanting Caishen’s aid should pick one of these nine different Caishen to call on.
Center – Zhao Gong Ming, the Military God of Wealth
East – Xiao Sheng, the God of Collecting Treasures
West – Cao Bao, the God of Collecting Valuables
North – Yao Shao Si, the God of Profitability
South – Chen Jiu Gong, the God of Attracting Wealth
South-East – Han Xin Ye, the God of Gambling
South-West – Liu Hai, the God of Luck
North-East – Shen Wanshan, the God of Gold
North-West – Tao Zhugong, the Civil God of Wealth
Also Known As: New Year’s Baby
The figure we know as the Baby New Year is the personification of the New Year.
They are an infant human wearing a diaper, a top hat, and a sash with the date of the new year. Sometimes they are shown as a toddler, already able to stand and walk on their own. Sometimes they will have hair, sometimes not and usually it’s blonde hair when they do. In addition, a cartoon may depict the Baby New Year holding an hourglass and a noisemaker of some sort.
As the months progress, this baby gets older, until the end of December when they are an old man with a long, flowing white beard and it’s time for them to welcome the next year’s Baby New Year.
As an example, seen in “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year,” the Baby New Year will be shown as either a baby in January or as an old man in December when it’s time to welcome the new year and they either retire or die. With the Rankin & Bass Special, other past New Years will have some likeness to the year they represented any key, significant events that happened.
Editorial Cartoons – Newspapers or News sites will frequently have the familiar pictures of the Baby New Year in the first news articles for the start of the New Year. Joseph Christian Levendecker, a cartoonist working for The Saturday Evening Post is the most notable for his drawings of the Baby New Year and for making the image more secular between 1907 and 1943.
Rebirth & New Beginnings
This is the symbolism with the image of the Baby New Year, the “birth” of the next year, and the passing of the old year in a perpetual cycle of rebirth.
It can vary a little bit based on the mythic retelling of explaining the Baby New Year. Most agree that his purpose is to chronicle the year’s events as they pass by or happen.
Dionysus – As I noted when writing the post for Father Time with how he is based off of Cronos and Saturn; the Baby New Year is based on the ancient Greek god Dionysus, notably his role as a deity of Dying and Rebirth, particularly with the crops and harvest season.
With that revelation about the connection to Dionysus, it should come as no surprise that the concept and idea of a Baby New Year has been around since roughly 600 B.C.E. in ancient Greece when the Greeks would celebrate the rebirth of Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. Part of this celebration would be parading a baby through the streets in a basket to represent the infant Dionysus. What’s more, we see an aspect of this tradition, notably in 1400 C.E. Germany, carry on with some early Christian celebrations of the New Year where this baby represents an infant Jesus.
Determining The Start
Most cultures tend to be centered agriculturally for the start of their New Year and Spring as that’s when they can begin farming.
For Western Culture, we go back and credit Julius Caesar for setting January 1st as the New Year, the start of the civil year, the month of the god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, of gateways, comings, and goings. This calendar is called the Julian calendar after Julius Caesar as this was the beginning of the civil year
For Western Culture, celebrations of the New Year have only been celebrated in the last four centuries. During the Middle Ages period in Europe, celebrations of the New Year were deemed too pagan and therefore, unchristian. In 567 C.E., the Roman Catholic church did away with January 1st as the start of the year. During this era, depending on where in Europe you lived, the New Year could be celebrated on December 25th with the birth of Jesus or Christmas, March 1st, March 25th, the Feast of Annunciation, and Easter which still follows a lunar calendar for its date.
It is not until 1582 C.E., that we have Pope Gregory XIII reinstated January 1st as New Year’s with a calendar reform. This new Gregorian calendar would have countries upset as it upended the dates, they celebrated their winter celebrations and the start of the New Year.
In the United States, starting in 1904, New Year’s would see an uptick in the celebrations of New Year’s with the invention of the neon lights, the opening of the first subway line, and the first celebration of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Before this, New Year’s celebrations had been fairly sedate.
Not All New Years Are Created Equal
Some are better…
Nearly every culture and country past and present celebrates the New Year. Depending on the country and civilization in question depend on when their calendar year begins.
Akitu – In ancient Babylon, this festival occurred in March and lasted for eleven days. Statues of the gods would be paraded out from his temples in March in a symbolic victory over the forces of chaos. The king would also come before the statue of Marduk, stripped of his regalia, and swear to the god that he had led the city successfully. A high priest would slap the king and pull on his ears to make them cry. Should the monarch shed tears, that was seen as a sign of Marduk’s favor.
Hogmanay – A Scottish word for the last day of the year and often coincides with New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s traditional to sing the tune “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight, bidding goodbye to the Old Year and bringing in the New Year. Hogmanay is thought to originate in Norse and Gaelic celebrations of the Winter Solstice with gift giving, visiting friends and neighbors to try and be the first visitor to a home as it is thought to bring good fortune.
Janus – Also a celebration for the Roman god of the same name, the ancient Romans would make offerings to the god on January first for good fortune in the coming year.
Lunar New Year – Also known as the Chinese New Year, this celebration coincides with the second Full Moon that will fall somewhere between January and February with current calendars and goes for fifteen days. Legend holds that a fearsome creature known as a Nian would attack villages every year. To ward and scare off the beast, the villagers would trim their homes in red, burn bamboo and make loud noises. This ruse worked and now those colors and fireworks have become part of the celebrations. Nian is also the Chinese word for year. During the fifteen days of celebration, people will focus on their families, have feasts, and do cleanings of their homes to get rid of bad luck and pay off debts.
Nowruz – Meaning “New Day,” this thirteen-day festival is celebrated in many countries throughout the Middle East. Sometimes called the “Persian New Year,” it is believed this festival occurs during the vernal equinox in March and is believed to date back to the 6th century B.C.E. Gifts would be exchanged among family and friends, feasts, bonfires lit, the dying of eggs and sprinkling of water, all symbols for the arrival and rebirth of spring.
Wepet Renpet – Ancient Egyptians, in the month of Tut, corresponding with September, would celebrate the New Year as the start of their agricultural calendar. The dog star Sirius would be up high in the sky, letting Egyptian farmers know the Nile River would be flooding soon. The first month of the year was also so a “Festival of Drunkness” in which the Egyptians would get really hammered, celebrating that time they averted the war goddess Sehkmet from destroying all of mankind by getting her drunk.
Sometimes the Baby New Year will be shown holding an hourglass, strongly alluding to his connection to the figure of Father Time that he often bears a strong resemblance due at the end of December when it’s time to pass on his duties and responsibilities to the incoming Baby New Year.
This hourglass that the Baby New Year is shown with represents the constant progression and march of time, representing the forces of entropy and how eventually everything eventually comes to an end.
It’s not all doom and gloom, time does represent wisdom, especially the wisdom that comes from age and living life. Another thing that is notable is that an hourglass can be turned over, representing the ability to start over or a new generation coming in.
New Year’s Day
Certain cartoons and editorials, most notably “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”, will show Father Time as the Old Year welcoming in the Baby New Year as part of the never-ending progression of years and time. In this role, Father Time will be wearing a sash showing the date of the old year on it. In some beliefs, Father Time is said to pass on all of his knowledge and wisdom to the Baby New Year before they retire or die.
Auld Lang Syne
Scottish for “old long ago,” this is a traditional tune sung during Hogmanay (December 31st) in Scotland. It was collected and written down by Robert Burns in 1788. The song has since found its way to becoming a traditional tune to sing on New Year’s Eve at the stroke of midnight.
Baby New Year Title
When bestowed as a title, this name will be given to the first baby born to any village, town or city and hold that title for the year with it passing on to the next first baby born in the following year. By this tradition, the Baby New Year can be either or any gender. Though the mythical version of the Baby New Year will be male.
Several hospitals have ceased to announce the first baby born and given the title Baby New Year. The thought is to protect the infant from being a target for any potential harm. Though many cities will still give gifts such as bonds, diapers, and formula for a year to the first baby born.
There’s a handful of places where the Baby New Year has made an appearance in various media. There is Happy, the Baby New Year in the Rankin & Bass “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” for TV. The animated series Histeria! Features a parody of Baby New Year by the name of “Big Fat Baby.” Lastly, there’s an appearance as “Happy New Year” from The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy animated series.
Otherwise, in more modern times, we’re likely to only see the figure of the Baby New Year in quick Editorial Cartoons on New Years.
The holiday season has arrived whether that’s Christmas, Yule, or another Winter Solstice festival. One familiar sight around this time will more than likely be the red & white candy canes adorning trees, stockings, and as a general treat given out.
Christianity has been quick to assign Christian symbolisms to candy canes as has been done with a good many other Christmas decorations and symbols that frequently have a pagan origin to them.
There are a few stories that have sprung up since the 20th century regarding the origins of candy canes and a Christian connection. While these stories are quaint, there are no facts or records to back them up.
Indiana Candymaker – First Story
This story says that a candymaker from Indiana, U.S. decided to make a candy that would witness or testify of Jesus Christ. The J symbol for Jesus’ initial “J” or represents the cane of the Shepherds in the fields going to the manger in Bethlehem to see the newborn Christ. The white is for his virgin birth and his purity. Then three red stripes represent the scourging Jesus suffers when people are healed. There is a large red stripe to represent the blood shed by Christ in paying for people’s sins and their eternal salvation.
To do this, this nameless candymaker took a stick of white hard candy and formed the cane, added the red stripes, and before the candy hardened, twisted it to the “J” or cane shape.
Debunked – This one lacks any documentation. Surely, we’d have a record of who this candymaker was if we knew his home state and why he made the candy cane, to begin with.
Persecuted Christians – Second Story
This story says that candy canes were made during a time when Christians were being persecuted and that this cane-shaped candy served as a means by which to recognize each other.
Debunked – This story is easily refuted as the earliest that candy canes are mentioned is the latter part of the 17th century, when much of Europe is Christian. By this time, only those needing a secret means to recognize each other are non-Christians. Nor does this story mention which era of time Christians were being persecuted.
German Origin – Third Story
This story says that in 1670, the choirmaster in Cologne, Germany is the creator of the candy cane. Frustrated as many teachers and parents are when you have restless children who get a case of giggles and wiggles and are unable to stay still or quiet. In this case, choir boys get restless and noisy during long sermons. So the choirmaster hit on an idea and found a local candymaker for some treats. While looking at some white candy sticks, the choirmaster pondered if he would be allowed to give the boys sweets. That’s when the choirmaster asked the candymaker about bending the sticks into a cane shape as he would use the candy as a means for teaching. The white represents the purity of Christ, the cane hook for the story of the shepherds who came to find the infant Jesus at the manger.
Debunked – Aside from sounding authoritative because it’s “church history,” again, like the story of the candymaker from Indiana, there are no records of this happening.
What Can Be Verified
The above stories are largely quaint anecdotes and the earliest records for any of them are from the mid-20th century, the 1900s. The earliest mention of candy canes is in 1866 with the short story “Tom Luther’s Stockings” in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine. Their first-time association of them with Christmas comes in 1874. This is some two hundred years after the candy cane was to have been invented and popularized with the festive holiday season.
We have documentation of candy sugar sticks with colored stripes starting in 1844. The mention and evidence of the “J-shaped” candy canes with red stripes don’t come until the beginning of the 20th century. The evidence for this comes from Christmas cards printed before 1900 depicting plain white canes. Not until after, do the striped canes begin to appear on Christmas cards.
The best that can be guessed at is that some unknown person did come up with the idea of bending the cane sugar sticks into their familiar “J-shape” to represent a shepherd’s crook and to make it easier to hang on a Christmas tree for decoration. While it’s a good guess, that’s all it is.
German Immigrant – In 1847, it is believed that the immigrant August Imgard in Ohio, U.S.A. is the first person credited in America who decorated a Christmas tree using candy canes.
Famous Candy Company
Though indirect, this story is verifiable for the religious connection. The owner of the Famous Candy Company, Bob McCormack in 1919 did begin the process of bending candy canes into their J-shape, a process that needed to be done manually and resulted in limited quantities due to the amount of labor needed.
It’s McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest who came up with the means to automate the bending process for candy canes. Hence the Keller Machine. So yeah, there’s the Christian connection for those looking for it.
The Famous Candy Company would become Mills-McCormack Candy Company and then Bobs Candies.
Etymology: “Brilliant Flower” (Nahuatl)
Also Known As: Poinsettia, k’alul wits (“Ember Flower,” Mayan), Flor de Noche Buena, Christmas Eve Flower, Christmas Flower, Flores de Noche Buena, Flowers of the Holy Night, Mexican Flame Flower, Mexican Flame Leaf, Mexican Flame Tree, Painted Leaf, Euphoribia, Spurge Root, Snake Root, Asthma Plant, Flor de Pascua (Spain), Pascua (Spain), Easter flower, Lobster flower, Crown of the Andes (Chile & Peru), Stella di Natale (Italian), and Weihnachtsstern (German)
For those of Western, European descent and from a country like the United States, this familiar red and green Christmas Flower is going to be more recognized by the name of Poinsettia. While there are over 150 varieties of cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia, the red poinsettia is the most popular Christmas plant right next to the Christmas Tree. During the months of November and December, the sales of these plants are huge with some 70 million being sold during a six-week period and making over $250 million within the U.S. economy. People are likely to hear misleading warnings not to let their pets eat the plant as the milky white sap is toxic to them. Then when the leaves turn yellow, the plant dies and almost everyone who’s bought one tosses them out to the landfills. Causing some to decry this horrific waste.
So how did we get this lovely holiday flower?
A Xochime Native To Mexico!
This beautiful red and green xochime or flower comes to us from Mexico, specifically southwestern Mexico and Guatemala where it grows in rocky areas like canyons. The Aztec King Montezuma would have cuetlaxochitl brought to what is now Mexico City in caravans as this flower couldn’t be grown in high altitudes. To the ancient Aztecs, this is a sacred flower connected to their celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Spanish chroniclers wrote of the hundreds of men who would carry cuetlaxochitl up to the temples in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital. Likewise, the Mayans were also known to make medicinal use of this plant.
What’s In A Name?
While I noted an etymology for “Brilliant Flower,” a more proper translation of the name cuetlaxochitl is “the Flower that withers, mortal flower that dies like all that is pure.” For the Aztecs, this flower was a gift from nature that one should admire, but never touch. The bright red leaves were seen as a symbolic reminder of the sacrificial offerings needed during the creation of the Fifth Sun. Said red color alluding to blood as what the Aztec gods required for their sacrifices.
There is debate as to what the word cuetlaxóchitl means. It has been noted that the translation of this name from Nahuatl means “leather flower” and references the red leaves used in dyes for animal skins and hides. Plus, the red leaves are as resistant as leather. There are several words in Nahuatl that all refer to leather in some way. Cuetlaxhuahuanqui for a tanner, cuetlaxtli for hide, cuetlaxtic for leathery, and cuetlaxmecatl for a leather strap to name a few. Another translation given is “cuitlatl” meaning residue or soil and “Xochitl” meaning flower so the whole word translates to “flower that grows in residue or soil.”
Aztec Winter Solstice – Rebirth of the Sun!
For the Aztecs, the cuetlaxochitl was used in ceremonies to celebrate the birth of their war god, Huitzilopochtli, the Left-Handed Hummingbird at the Winter Solstice. Wild cuetlaxochitl in Central America come to full bloom close to the time of the Winter Solstice as the nights get longer, allowing them to bloom. Temples would be decorated with these flowers as their blooming coincided with Huitzilopochtli’s birth. The red of these flowers symbolize the sacred life energy of blood. The same red color also symbolized the blood of warriors who died in battle and their return to the world as hummingbirds or huitzilin to release the honey and nectar from the cuetlaxochitl flowers to bring back the light of the sun and restore the mother earth from the winter months. The star pattern of the red leaves symbolizes the sun’s rays.
Purity – Cuetlaxochitl symbolized purity and was very sacred, especially the red bracts or leaves.
For a good number of Westerners, we tend only to hear of this lovely xochime being “discovered” by Joel Roberts Poinsett in the 1800s. That was fine at first, when we didn’t know. There’s more history though!
Franciscan priests first used the cuetlaxochitl plants as the red and green colors are easily the same colors used in Christmas celebrations. During the 17th century, the Franciscan priests used the plants when decorating their nativity scenes while in the New World of Central and South America. Seeing when the plant blooms, it wouldn’t take much for the Franciscan friars and Catholic Church to use it to convert the local people to Christianity. The botanist Juan Balme made note of cuetlaxochitl in his writings.
Later, on Christmas Eve 1826, a man by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett and first US Minister to Mexico would introduce (there are some who will say he stole) the cuetlaxochitl to the U.S. while in the city of Taxco during Christmas. He came upon this intriguing flower at the Nativity scene in the local church. Poinsett asked the Franciscan monks about this bright flame-colored plant, and they gave him the name of “Flor de Nochebuena” or the Christmas Eve flower. It should be noted that Poinsett was a slave owner in his South Carolina home state and responsible for the displacement of numerous Native Americans from their lands. He held a lot of anti-Black, anti-Native American views that by today’s standards would see him booted from an office position sooner than later. Poinsett is the one responsible for instigating the Chilean civil war in 1814 that the British quashed. Poinsett held a lot of racist views and a belief that a country like Mexico could only govern itself if whites were in charge.
By the time Poinsett learned of the plant, Europe had already learned of the flower too, and described it. Cuttings of the plant had been brought back to Europe during Alexander von Humboldt’s 1804 expedition. German botanist Wilenow gave cuetlaxochitl its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima meaning “very beautiful.”
In 1825, Poinsett received an ambassadorship from then President Adams to Mexico in 1825. Because of what Poinsett’s mission and objectives were for: to acquire the territory of Texas from Mexico, keep Mexico from taking Cuba from Spain and reduce Britain’s influence in Mexico; those all worked to make Poinsett rather unpopular. Under President Jackson’s presidency, Poinsett was recalled back to the U.S. on December 25th, 1830. Poinsett would also later be a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett’s interests in botany paved the way for his “discovery” of the cuetlaxochitl that he referred to as the “Mexican Flame Plant” and bring it back to the states where he would grow the plants and give them to friends in Greenville, South Carolina. It wouldn’t take much from there with the cuetlaxochitl blooming in December for people to quickly associate the green and reds with Christmas time. A florist, Robert Buist in Pennsylvania is the first to have sold cuetlaxochitl by its botanical name of Euphorbia pulcherrima and in the ten years since the plant quickly became associated with American Christmas celebrations. The historian and horticulturist William Prescott who had just recently published the book “Conquest of Mexico,” came up with the name poinsettia as it became more popular during this time to honor Joel Poinsett’s “discovery” of the plant.
Poinsettismo – The meddling with Mexico’s policies, country, and relationships with another country (Britain for example, the first European country to recognize them) was so bad that Mexico and other Latin American countries came up with the term Poinsettismo to describe someone overly domineering, officious and intrusive in their behavior.
Moving forward to the early 1900’s, the Ecke family in southern California found a way to graft poinsettias so they would look bushier. They started with growing the plants outside for landscaping and as cut flowers. Paul Ecke Sr. began sending thousands of poinsettias out as gifts and donations to T.V. studios, including shows such as “The Tonight Show” and the Bob Hope Holiday Specials to promote the sale of poinsettia plants. Today, the Ecke family grows some 70% of poinsettias sold during the holiday season of Christmas which brings in some $250 million in sales.
Holiday Appropriation Or Appreciation?
Not all of history is going to be fun and enjoyable. If all we ever hear about are the good, comfortable, rosy parts to keep it all warm and fuzzy while sweeping the ugly bits under the rug; we’ve done ourselves a great disservice in the long run. Because of Poinsett’s history as a slave owner and his part in politics to destabilize a region over global, geopolitics that affected so many; we do have people, especially Hispanics, Native Americans, and other indigenous people who would like to reclaim the name Cuetlaxochitl instead of Poinsettia for this beautiful plant.
Knowing the full, if not more of the history of this flower does help to further enrich our understanding and how this flower connects to the Winter Solstice celebrations, not just Christmas. There are people who will go on about all the pagan traditions from Europe that have been rolled into Christmas. And yeah, we’re going to have those who will push to use the name Cuetlaxochitl and those who use the name Poinsettia either out of continued ignorance or it’s just easier to remember and default to.
In Mexico, with Franciscan monks seeking to convert the local peoples to the incoming religion of Christianity, the following legends and stories began to circulate as the cuetlaxochitl was adapted and given Christian symbolisms.
The star shape of the flowers are seen as similar to the star that led the wise men to Bethlehem when seeking the infant Jesus. The green leaves represent the promise of life even in the dead of winter or the eternal life of Jesus with red representing the blood that he shed. Two colors that are also seen with Holly, an evergreen plant with red berries that ripen during winter.
For the Franciscans, they decorated their Nativity for Christmas. When the night for the observations came with priests and churchgoers present, much to their delight, the leaves of the cuetlaxochitl turned red overnight that the Franciscans called it a miracle.
Christmas Flower – Mexican Legend
A young girl by the name of Pepita was on her way to church for the Christmas Eve observances. Being poor, Pepita realized she had forgotten to get a gift for the newborn Christ child, Jesus. Some versions insert that either her brother or a cousin comment that a humble gift will still work. Seeing some roadside weeds, Pepita gathered them up into a bouquet and brought them with her. When she arrived at the church, Pepita placed her bouquet at the base of the altar where the weeds transformed into the colorful blooms of the cuetlaxochitl. From that day forward, the cuetlaxochitl would become known as the la flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Flower.
Forbidden Love – Tlaxcala Legend
The Tlaxacalans are a people in central Mexico who were never conquered by the Aztecs.
Once, there was a beautiful princess who fell in love with a common man who treated her well and loved her as much as she loved him. However, the princess’ parents forbade her from seeing this common man. The princess’ heart ached such that from her longing, a beautiful red flower sprung forth from her chest as a reminder of forbidden love.
White Cuetlaxochitl – Aztec Legend
The Aztecs are known to have expanded their empire and territories, much like other cultures throughout history. One region is that of Taxco who also grew and cultivated cuetlaxochitl and that these flowers were white. When the Aztecs came through with their armies and annihilated the people around Taxco, leaving few survivors. When the following October came, the Aztecs were surprised to see the cuetlaxochitl turn red instead of white. For the locals, this was the gods of Taxco ensuring their people were remembered and that the conquering Aztecs would never forget.
This day falls on December 12th and is comparatively new. It’s a national day in the U.S. with the bill being signed in 2002 by the U.S. Congress. This particular date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of Poinsett’s death in 1851. The day is also to honor the Californian farmer, Paul Eckes who made a profitable market selling Poinsettias during Christmas time.
Most of the sites that I found discussing this day focus on a very American-centric history with Joel Poinsett’s “discovery,” how he found the plant at a nativity scene and sent cuttings home where eventually the plant finds its way as a seasonal, holiday flower.
December 12th is also the same day that Mexico celebrates the Virgin of Guadalupe, their title for the Virgin Mary and mother of Jesus.
Now, we go to Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, the day to honor the cuetlaxochitl flower falls on December 7th.
Dying – The red leaves or bracts and bark would be used as a reddish-purple dye for fabrics.
Facial Cream – The white sap was used as a depilatory or hair removal.
Gardening – The Mayans and even among the Teenek people living in southeastern Mexico grow and decorate with their gardens with k’alul wits not just for aesthetics but for medical uses as well.
The holidays are over, time to toss out the poinsettia!
Wait, you don’t have to, you can actually keep your poinsettia longer and with the right care, get it to bloom for you next year!
It’s not known exactly how cuetlaxochitl or poinsettia are pollinated. The plant has been able to successfully grow in the wilds in several countries outside of Central America where seeds have been blown by the wind. It is thought that hummingbirds are a key pollinator for cuetlaxochitl in its native ranges where they can grow up to 15 feet, a little over 4.5 meters in height.
For the record, the flowers of a cuetlaxochitl are small and yellow while it’s the bracts that are red.
Ideally you will want somewhere warm for your cuetlaxochitl to grow with temperatures between 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit much like the tropical regions it hails from. You will also want to keep your cuetlaxochitl out of direct light, placing it near a window for about six hours of sunlight. Too much direct sun can cause the leaves to fade.
During the lengthening nights of winter is when the plant will begin to bloom, and the familiar red leaves and yellow flowers appear. Starting in late September, the cuetlaxochitl will need 14-16 hours of darkness and reaches full bloom by December. You can help your indoor cuetlaxochitl by placing it in a box and covering it with a cloth to simulate this dark period if you have it indoors.
When it comes to watering your cuetlaxochitl, only do it when the soil is dry, and don’t let your plant sit in that water as that will cause root rot. There is also no need for any fertilizer when the plant is blooming.
Warning – Do seek out an accredited source or learn from a traditional teacher who has extensive knowledge about any medical uses for cuetlaxochitl as the online sources are very limited.
The information presented here is a rough overview of how and what medical uses the plant was used for and there’s a solid lack of proper preparations listed here. Most of the sources were hesitant to mention doses or say not at all without seeking out that accredited source.
Toxicity! – Too often it gets passed around the toxicity of this plant to pets and not to let your cat, dog or even children chew on or eat the leaves.
Cuetlaxochitl aren’t that type of poisonous, as members of the Euphorbiaceae or Spurge family of plants, they do have a milky white sap that can be a source of skin irritation if you’re allergic to latex as this is the substance latex is made of.
As to the leaves, those aren’t very appetizing, they can cause upset stomachs and vomiting if you eat the leaves. However, you’d have to eat more than a pound of leaves to have any adverse effects.
On the safe side, DON’T EAT THE LEAVES!
Conjunctivitis – The flowers apparently could be crushed into a paste to use for treating this ailment. Another source says an infusion of the flowers to make a wash and then applied as a poultice.
Fever – The Aztecs used the white sap to treat fevers by dabbing it on. This helped with respiratory diseases, mumps, and heart conditions. Poultices or teas? I don’t know.
Hemorrhaging – The Mayans and the Teenek people have a remedy of boiling the yellow inflorescence and red bracts for treating either a woman’s hemorrhaging or bleeding.
Lactation – The Aztecs used the white, milky sap by rubbing it on women’s breasts to promote their milk flow. There was also rubbing it on the woman’s back. Another medicinal use was making a tea of the leaves for a woman to drink.
Skin Infections & Irritations – A poultice from the leaves would be made using the milky sap for treating various skin diseases.
Snake Bites – Boiling and drinking the root can reduce the effects of a snake bite.
Stomach Aches – Crushed roots in a paste helped with these ailments. Not too large a dose or vomiting could happen.
Warts – The latex that can be created from the sap can be used to get rid of warts. Much like a folk remedy with Dandelions and using its milky white sap to get rid of warts…
Still, without any accredited sources, I wouldn’t use or I’d be very hesitant to use any of these remedies. But they are interesting to note.
Also Known As: Hans Von Trotha, Hans Trott
The legends of this terrifying Christmas bogeyman from France say that he is the spirit of a wicked man who comes back during Christmas time as a scarecrow, waiting in fields and by roads to terrify his victims into behaving.
The legend of Hans Trapp comes from the regions of Alsace and Lorraine in France. There are numerous variations to this story. The most retold one is that Hans Trap in life was a wealthy, yet cruel man. It is said that Hans gained his wealth by means of magic and pacts with demons as he worshiped Satan. Hans was heartless, vain, and greedy, reveling in his wickedness and sin.
When the Vatican got wind of Trapp’s cruelty and his involvement with the occult, he was arrested and brought before the Pope. For his sins of worshiping Satan and occultism, Trapp was excommunicated.
Upon his return to France, Trapp learned that his land and property had been seized and that he was left without any money. The villagers of his home province shunned Trapp and he was banished to the woods nearby across the border in Germany.
Enraged by what happened, Trapp threw himself even more into his occult studies and demonology. Revenge consumed his every waking thought for those who had exiled him. Trapp’s time alone in the forest drove him mad and he began to crave human flesh. He became so obsessed with this new craving that Trapp came up with the idea to dress as a scarecrow, stuffing his clothing with straw and ragged clothing before going to wait in a field for the first of his victims.
Soon enough, a young shepherd boy passed through the field and Hans Trapp leaped forward with a sharpened stick, killing them. Trapp dragged the body back to his house where he proceeded to butcher the child and eat them.
Just as Trapp was about to take his first bite of human flesh, a bolt of lightning struck him dead. The story says that this bolt of lightning came from God. As to Trapp, he fell lifeless, his head cracking on the table.
Since then, parents in the north-eastern region of France warn their children to be wary of Hans Trapp’s spirit that returns every Christmas, in the form of a scarecrow and hood who will snatch misbehaving children and them to the forest, never to be seen again.
Another variation to this is that Saint Nicholas chained Hans Trapp much like he did with Krampus to accompany him on his holiday rounds and if Hans Trapp is to have any redemption for his wicked ways, he follows and accompanies the Saint.
Every legend has a kernel of truth, no matter how small. Though in this case, we have plenty of historical records.
There was a real Hans Trapp, known in life as Hans von Trotha presumably born in 1450 (the date really isn’t known) and who died in 1503 C.E. Hans was an imposing figure standing at close to 2 meters tall. A knight and marshal of the prince-elector, Hans von Trotha held two castles, Berwarstein and Grafendahn near the Palatinate Forest; a territory that stretched between France and Germany. Of course, two castles seem a bit much for a knight and there was a dispute between Hans von Trotha and one Henry, Abbot of the Order of Benedictine Monks at Weissenburg Abbey over the possession of the Berwartstein castle. Henry was adamant that Berwarstein was rightfully the property of the Weissenburg Abbey, that it had wrongfully been awarded to Hans von Trotha. Henry wasn’t about to give up the claim.
In response to the abbot, Hans von Trotha ordered a dam to be constructed that stopped the flow of water to the village of Weissenburg near the disputed castle. Henry complained of this, and Hans von Trotha ordered the dam to be taken down, causing the village to be flooded and a lot of economical damage. After this, Hans von Trotha began attacking Henry. The Emperor Maximilian I of Germany heard and tried getting Hans von Trotha to cease. The abbot then reached out to Pope Innocent VIII who sent a summons to Hans von Trotha, questioning him about his loyalty to the Catholic church. Hans von Trotha refused the summons and instead, wrote a letter to the Pope, accusing them of being immoral. This earned Hans von Trotha both excommunication from the Catholic church and an Imperial Ban placed on him by the Emperor.
Despite this, Hans von Trotha received the title of Chevalier d’Or, the “Knight of Gold” from the French monarch King Louis XII and served his court. Two years later, Hans von Trotha would die from natural causes. All charges against Hans von Trotha were dropped posthumously shortly after.
Hans von Trotha became a local legend in the Palatinate region where stories told depict him as a robber baron, and his name would become Hans Trapp or Hans Trott. He would become a figure used to terrify young children, going from an infamous Black Knight to a restless wandering spirit.
In the “Legend of Jungfernsprung,” Hans Trapp’s name became associated as a fiend who seeks to rape a young woman out picking berries in a nearby forest.
Saint Nicholas’ Day
On Saint Nicholas’s Day, in the region of Alsace, Hans Trapp replaces the figure of Knecht Ruprecht as the Saint’s companion and scares children into behaving. As for Christmas, Hans Trapp will accompany the Christkindel on his journey.
Alternative Names: Aschenklas, Bûr, Bullerclås, De hêle Christ (“The Holy Christ” in Mittelmark). Farmhand Robert, Farmhand Rupert, Hans Ruprecht, Rumpknecht, Servant Robert, Servant Rupert, Rû Clås, Ru Klaus (“Rough Nicholas”), Pelz Nicholas (“Fur Nicholas”)
The figure of Knecht Ruprecht is another character who appears within the wintertime, Christmas, and Yule traditions as another companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany.
Knecht Ruprecht is known for wearing black or brown robes with a pointed hood and walking with a limp from a childhood injury. Due to this limp, Ruprecht carries a long staff, he also has a bag of ashes, a whip, a stick, a sack for hauling away naughty children, and sometimes small bells on his clothing. Further details are that he may be shown riding a white horse or that he may be accompanied by fairies or by men dressed as old women with blackened faces.
The Devil You Know
In Germanic folklore, Ruprecht is the German name for the English Robert and a common name for the devil.
In this respect, Reprecht is a lot like the earlier forms of Zwarte Piet as the devil. This fits those traditions with figures like Krampus and Zwarte Piet where Saint Nicholas is to have chained and enslaved the devil.
This devil figure is then who punishes misbehaving children with whippings, handing them a switch or coal.
When it comes to Germany, several various dark figures lend themselves to the wintertime, Saint Nicholas Day, and Christmas traditions. At first glance, it’s easy to distinguish all of them as they all have different names and appearances. Then when you get into the various traditions surrounding each figure, they do hold similar roles. Some folklorists will state that the different names are regional variations of the same figure.
Maybe, but some of them like Krampus, Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht and Hans Trapp are way too distinct in their descriptions and frequently their origins to really see them all as being the same being. And maybe there is some comfort in seeing only one Christmastime bogeyman to be afraid of instead of several.
With variations in names, some of them do end up blending Knecht Ruprecht with Saint Nicholas so he is known as Ru Klaus or “Rough Nicholas” or Pelz Nicholas or “Fur Nicholas.” As Pelz Nicholas, we see Knecht Ruprecht get blended with the figure of Belsnickel. Even further names are Aschenklas or “Ash Nicholas” in reference to the bag of ash that Knecht Ruprecht carries. There a couple sources that give alternate names of Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” when the figures of Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Martin are blended together.
Knecht Ruprecht is a dark helper and companion with a similar role to those of Krampus and Zwart Piet. It’s essentially a good cop, bad cop routine they share where Saint Nicholas is the gift giver who rewards while Knecht Ruprecht and others threaten punishment in the form of either thrashings or kidnapping.
Belsnickel – Knecht Ruprecht has also been identified as just another name for this gift-giving companion of Saint Nicholas in Germany. The two are frequently confused and identified with each other.
Kobolds – Jacob Grimm in his “Deutsche Mythologie” says that Knecht Ruprecht and other punishing type companions are like Kobolds who could be either helpful or not so helpful.
So, what’s a kobold? Those are a type of household spirit in pre-Christian beliefs that could be either beneficial or malicious depending on how they were treated. After the arrival of Christianity, these types of spirits were said to be more mischievous when they weren’t helping or not properly given respect.
Robin Goodfellow – Jacob Grimm also goes on to say that this is the same person as Knecht Ruprecht and just another name that all these house spirits are known as.
Crime & Punishment
On December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day, Knecht Ruprecht will ask children if they are able to pray. If the child demonstrates that they can, they are rewarded with gifts of apples, nuts, and gingerbread. If the child is not able to recite a prayer, Knecht Ruprecht will hit them with his bag of ashes.
Particularly naughty children will be given lumps of coal, sticks, and stones while good children receive sweets from Saint Nicholas in their shoes that they leave out. The absolute worst would be tied up in a sack and thrown into a river.
Nuremberg Christmas Procession
Knecht Ruprecht makes his first appearance in the 17th century during the Nuremberg Christmas Procession where he is a companion to Santa Claus. This is the first concrete documentation of this figure and their association with Saint Nicholas and the Christmas traditions.
According to traditions and stories, Ruprecht is either a farmhand or in other stories, a foundling that Saint Nicholas finds and raises as his own son. The German philosopher Alexander Tille has commented that Knecht Ruprecht represents the archetypical manservant much like stock characters Junker Hanns and Bauer Michel who represent the Nobility and are defined by their social rankings with no individuality.
In the High Alps, Knecht Ruprecht takes on more of the role of Saint Nicholas’ assistant, keeping an eye out for the Saint’s arrival. This is where both Knecht Ruprecht and Saint Nicholas can get blended together to be known as Ru Klaus as both are accompanied by troops of the goat-like creatures known as Krampus who will terrorize any misbehaving children.
Knecht Ruprecht has been the subject of a piano piece by the German composer Robert Schumann in 1848. The German poet and novelist, Theodor Storm wrote a poem called “Knecht Ruprecht” in 1862
For Knecht Ruprecht, not really. He’s much newer compared to the figures of Krampus and Perchta. However, as a collective whole with Zwarte Piet and Belsnickel, then yes, there is an argument to be made with connecting Knecht Ruprecht to older pagan traditions for the dangerous time that Winter can be. So, it’s fair to say we can see the ever-evolving Christian influence to try and tame the more wilder, dangerous Yuletide figures and monsters. Connecting him to the Norse Odin seems more of a stretch as I’ll give that one more to Saint Nicholas.
Saint Martin’s Day
Or Martinmas, which is sometimes also called Old Halloween or Old Hallowmas Eve and was celebrated on November 11th to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of winter. Traditions involve feasting on the Martinmas goose or Martinmas beef, drinking wine, bonfires, mummery, and Saint Martin going around on horseback to bestow gifts of apples, nuts, cakes, and other sweets to children who hung their stockings with hay for Saint Martin’s horse.
Saint Martin is also sometimes called Pelzmartin or “Fur Martin” and seems to be a figure similar to Saint Nicholas in their gift-giving roles. As a result, Knecht Ruprecht is said to sometimes be a companion to Saint Martin.
With the growing Christian influence in Germany, Knecht Ruprecht is also known to accompany Saint Peter, Saint Rupert, and even the Christkindel, or “Christ Child” during their gift-giving journey on Christmas.
Also Known As: Benec, Vėlinas (Baltic, Lithuanian),Volos, Volusu, Volusu, Vyeles, Ganyklos (Lithuanian), Vlas (Russian), Walgino, Weles
Epitaphs: King of Bears, Lord of all Wolves, Master of the Forest, “Skotiybog“ (God of Cattle)
Etymology: “Uel-“ to see, fields, spirits of the dead. Also likely from the proto-Indo-European word “wel-“ wool
In Slavic beliefs, folklore, and mythology, Veles is a god of many things from storms and trickery to God of the underworld and domestic animals as well as the god of the earth and water. Veles is indeed a significant and major supernatural force within Slavic mythology and beliefs. Depending upon your source, some of it can seem rather contradictory.
Given the nature of Slavic beliefs, there isn’t much concrete documentation. There is still a lot of oral history and traditions about Veles found in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Russia. All of this can get very confusing as for the longest time, first with the arrival of Christianity, a lot of local Slavic pagan beliefs were done away with and made to be seen as aspects of evil and the devil. Then later, when that’s no longer so prominent, there just isn’t a lot that has been documented and what survives has been by oral tradition and that, can vary widely by local, regional traditions that have managed to get passed on. We also hit on several dubious sources that over time have proven not to be reliable.
Naturally, this will be where I’ve got some mistakes and expect I Veles to be a post I will come back to correct several times and update.
Animal: Bear, Cattle, Crows, Dragons, Owl, Ravens, Rooster, Serpents, Wolf
Colors: Black, Blue, Green, Red
Day of the Week: Sunday
Directions: North, West
Element: Earth, Water
Gemstones: Bloodstone, Garnet, Jasper, Jet, Obsidian, Onyx
Incense: Cedar, Clove, Ginger, Wormwood
Month: February, March
Plant: Cedar, Hawthorne, Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe, Pine, Wheat, Willow
Sphere of Influence: Cattle, Commerce, Divination, Fertility, Magic, Medicine, Music, Pastures, Underworld, Wealth, Wildlife
Symbols: Cattle, Horns, Serpents, Wool
Tarot: Cups, Pentacles
In some sources, Veles is described as a wolf-headed god. In other sources, Veles is described as a large serpent with horns that lives in the water or is pictured at the bottom of the Slavic World Tree with Perun in his eagle form at the top. Frequently, Veles is depicted as an elderly man with a gray beard and hair. As a shapeshifter, Veles often takes on the traits of those animals favored or associated with him such as horns and bear fur.
When in the form of a bear, Veles is regarded as the King of Bears. As a wolf, among the southern Slavs, Veles is the lord of all wolves.
Velinas – In the Balto-Slavic regions, a description is given that describes him as being a one-eyed god with a gift for divination and leader of the Wild Hunt, lord of the dead, and to whom people sacrificed to were killed with a spear. This version of Veles warrants having its own post as one source found, discusses Velinas as similar to, yet clearly different from Veles. Taking a look at the Mediterranean region among the Greek and Roman cultures, there were other culture groups like the Etruscans, the Dacians, Phrygians who have their own local deities who were similar to those of the Greek and Roman deities and would frequently be absorbed into the Greco-Roman pantheons and survive as epitaphs for the local region.
What’s In A Name?
According to the linguist Roman Jakobson, the name Veles comes from the word “uel-“ and “esu-“ while the name Volos comes from another root word for where “-el” changes to “olo.” The root word “uel” or “wel-“ can have variable meanings and refer to any number of words such as “to die,” “grass,” “to see,” “to want,” “to turn,” “to cull,” “tepid”, “hair,” “wool,” “forest,” and “deception” as in magical deceptions. The book “The Mythology of All Races” published in 1918 says that Veles’ name comes from “weles” for wolf.
The root word “uel” is also related to the proto-Germanic word “walaz” that is also seen in the old Norse “valr,” “valkyria,” and “Valholl” all words related to the Norse god Odin who is known too by the name “Valfǫðr.” In the Baltic dialects and language, we see this reflected in the word “vėlės/veļi” for the “spirits of the dead,” “shade of the deceased,” and “shadow of death.”. This is reflected in the Baltic god’s names of Vėlinas, Velnias, and Velns. A connection of the word “uel” from “ṷélsu-“ for meadow or pasture has been made with the Greek Elysium, the fields of the blessed dead.
Where “uel-“ relates with “to see,” there is a connection in the name of the seeress Veleda. Going off this, in Norse mythology there is a “Völva,” a seeress connected to water and foretelling known as “Völuspa.” The word “Völuspa” is connected to spinning or braiding the Thread of Fate of those whose futures have been seen. “Völva” is also the cognate for a “Wheel” or “Spinning Wheel.”
In the proto-Indo-European language, etymologists have found the root word “wel-“ meaning wool and likely where the English word “wool” comes from. The Russian word for “hair” is “volos.” As a god of horned cattle and other livestock, this makes sense.
First off, “The Primary Chronicle” is the main source and historical record that provides us with evidence for Veles’ importance and worship. Veles is one of the Slavic gods that can be concretely confirmed while there are several others that have been disproved or there’s still information being gathered to confirm them.
Veles is worshiped in two distinct forms. One as Veles and one as Volos. This makes sense as that can be a way to break down all the aspects of what Veles is a god of and the domains he presides over. Scholars and etymologists suggest that Veles and Volos are two different gods being referred to. However, that does make sense for a need to see two different deities once the Slavic regions began to be Christianized and there’s a split of Veles’ dualistic nature.
Cocks or Roosters would be sacrificed to Veles at the rivers or lakes sacred to him.
During the later 10th century, Vladimir I, the Prince of Kiev erected seven statues in his city, of which Veles was one of them. However, Veles’ statue is the only one that didn’t stand up on the hill next to the other statues and castle. Instead, Veles’ statue could be found in the city in the marketplace. This placement indicates strongly Veles’ importance to commerce. Plus, it also shows that the worship of Perun and Veles needed to be kept separate as Perun’s shrines and worship were to be conducted up high with Veles’ place down in the lowlands. Among the Southern Slavs, Veles’ name is often found in place names.
Triglav – Veles was worshipped as an aspect of the three-headed Slavic god Triglav and the Slavic trinity consisting of Perun, Veles, and Svarog.
With the arrival of Christianity in the Slavic regions and countries, the aspect of Veles has largely been suppressed, at least the aspects connecting him to the Underworld and as a trickster. He has been equated with the Devil with his name becoming the same word for ghosts and devils. There is a record of Czech’s referring to Veles as a devil in the 16th century. An idol was thrown in the Pocayna River. Veles is used frequently in medieval curses from Bohemia.
Due to Veles’ dualistic nature, we see a split in his name with Veles and Volos. The name Veles under Christian influence holding a more negative connotations and associations. Whereas with Volos, he is held more benignly, and this aspect survives, becoming associated with different Saints.
St. Blaise – Or Saint Vlas, Saint Vlaho, St. Blaz, or St. Vlasiy, he is connected more to the aspect of Volos, he is a shepherd and patron saint cattle and domestic animals. Icons of St. Vlas were placed in cattle sheds for their protection. The Saint’s name day is February 12th and, on this day, cattle are treated to a special feed to eat. In Yaroslavl, the church built on the site of Vele’s shrine was dedicated to St. Blaise.
St. Nicholas – Veles is associated with this saint who is a patron of merchants, fishermen, and mariners. There is also this connection due to the association with water and being a snake who is slain by St. George, a motif similar to the enmity between Perun and Veles.
Parentage and Family
Father – Rod, the creator god in Slavic beliefs.
Mother – Zemun, a divine or celestial cow.
Sometimes Veles’ parents are given as Svarog and Lada.
Perun and Dażbóg
Depending on the region or the source cited, Veles is married either to Mokosh, the goddess of the earth, or to Devana, a goddess of the wilds and hunt.
Mokosh – She is somewhat conflicting as in other stories Mokosh is the wife to Perun and whom Veles kidnaps in their never-ending feud.
Devana – Or Dziewanna was forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun.
Jarilo – A fertility god raised by Veles after being kidnapped. So he may not really count.
The struggle against Chaos; this is a familiar motif found throughout the world in many different regions and mythologies of a culture hero or God going up against a creature of chaos. This creature is often shown as and takes the form of a great serpent or dragon. This is the familiar Knight slaying the Dragon seen in many European mythologies. Parallels to this concept are even found in other cultures.
This aspect is seen in the descriptions of Veles where he is a serpent with horns and the battle that he has with Perun. It’s a dragon or serpent-slaying motif seen with the story of Saint George slaying the dragon.
Storm Myth – Battle With Perun, the Storm God
As previously mentioned above under Chaoskampf, this story is perhaps the best-known Slavic story, especially as it fits into the Christian ideas of a hero slaying the dragon or evil or order triumphing over chaos.
Russian scholars and philologists Vyacheslav Vsevolodovich Ivanov and Vladimir Toporov have reconstructed this mythical battle of Perun and Veles with comparative studies to various Indo-European myths, Slavic folk tales, and songs.
Perun, the god of thunder battles against Veles in his dragon form. Depending on the story, Veles has stolen either Perun’s son, wife, or cattle which leads to their conflict.
As a challenge, in the shape of a huge serpent, Veles comes up from the underworld of Nav and wind his way up the Slave World Tree towards the heavens and Perun’s domain. Naturally, Perun responds by sending lightning bolts so that Veles flees back down and turns himself into various animals, people, and even trees to escape from or ambush Perun as they battle it out.
In the end, Veles is slain by Perun and the person or thing that Veles is to have stolen is released from within his body and it comes out in the form of falling rain from the heavens.
Scholars have commented that this “Storm Myth” is probably how the ancient Slavs would explain the changing of the seasons throughout the year. Any dry periods would be seen as Veles’ theft with the storms and lightning being interpreted as a divine battle up in the heavens and Perun’s ultimate triumph over Veles with the arrival of rain and Perun establishing order over chaos.
The Slavs have a saying that wherever lighting strikes, that is Perun attacking Veles.
Variation 1 – In the stories where Veles kidnaps Perun’s son, it is Jarilo, the tenth son who is stolen. Veles then raises Jarilo as his own son, who when he is older, becomes a god of fertility and heralds the arrival of spring when he returns to the lands of the living.
Variation 2 – It is Perun who is stolen as an infant and raised in the underworld. Once Perun is grown, he battles many creatures in order to fight his way back up to the mortal world.
Since the “Storm Myth” is cyclical and repeats every year. It connects Veles as a god of fertility and a god who dies and then is resurrected. The snake or serpent aspect of Veles would be him shedding his old skin or old life to be reborn as the year changes.
The “Storm Myth” and battle with Perun places Veles in a more negative role as one who brings chaos. Certainly, change is chaotic, but there is a pattern that emerges and soon you can make sense of that pattern and bring about a certain order to things so it doesn’t get destructive.
For the ancient Slavs, Veles wasn’t evil, he was the god of the wilds and nature which can appear to be very unpredictable if you’re not careful or respectful.
Later Christian influences will place him as evil and why in so many places Veles’ name does become synonymous with the devil and evil. But we do see where Veles appears as a Saint such as Saint Nicholas to save a poor farmer’s cattle from the destructiveness of St. Elias, a representative of Perun.
While Perun is more associated with agriculture, there is a Russian custom during harvest season to cut the first ear of wheat and tie it into an amulet that would protect crops from evil spirits. This was known as “tying the beard of Veles” which meant to invoke good fortune and wealth.
Duality – Ultimately the conflict of Perun and Veles is the duality in the clash of good and evil and the cyclical nature of the passing of the seasons and year. Veles represents the earth, water, and physical world and Perun represents fire, the heavens, and spirit.
Marriage To Devana
Also known as Dziewanna, she is a goddess of the wilds and hunt. As punishment, Devana found herself forced to marry Veles after she rebelled against Perun. Wanting to be wild and free, Devana didn’t initially love Veles at first despite the two having a domain that’s very similar to each other. After a bit of thought, Veles managed to win Devana over when he changed into a basil flower and calmed her. While they’re still not really in love, together they do watch over the lowlands of the wilds and are a force not to be taken lightly.
God of Mischief
Like Loki, Veles is considered a god of mischief and trickery. This ties strongly to the association of Veles’ use of magic, shapeshifting, and the arts. This aspect holds where Veles is seen as a god of chaos and a disruption during any long periods of dryness, or no rain as primarily seen in the “Storm Myth.”
Magic & The Arts
In this aspect, we see Veles the god of divination, magic, music, poetry, the earth, and water. Oaths would be sworn in Veles’ name. Traveling musicians, skalds, bards, and poets were known to pray to Veles for his protection as they traveled.
As a god of poetry, divination, and the arts, Veles has been equated with the Norse Odin. There is a 12th-century Russian epic, “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign,” where the character Boyan the wizard is referred to as Vele’s grandson. Poetry, music, and magic were closely linked in both Nordic and Slavic beliefs.
Veles is regarded as a protector of traveling musicians. Up into the 20th century, in some wedding ceremonies held in northern Croatia, the music won’t begin playing unless the groom while making a toast, spills some of the wine onto the ground, especially near the roots of a tree. This tradition would be musicians making a toast to their patron deity.
The Slavic magician-priests were called: volhov, volchvi, vlъsvi and volъsvi. They were not priests of an elite religion like those belonging to Perun. Rather, these magician-priests were known to be seers, soothsayers, poets, magicians and sorcerers as well as healers and herbalists. It is thought the etymology of volchys connects them to Volos.
God of the Underworld
Veles is a god of the Underworld, in charge of the spirits of the dead whom he would send out as his messengers. In his connection to the earth, Veles is also a god of all the bounties and riches of the earth, growing above and found below.
Nav – Also known as Nawia, this is Veles’ abode in the underworld. Incidentally, the word nav could also refer to the spirits or souls of the deceased who had premature deaths or poor deaths such as drowning, or being murdered, or if you were a murderer or warlock, these were all spirits that would come back as demons to afflict the living. The navias could take the form of birds. In Bulgaria, there is folklore that says twelve navias could suck the blood from a pregnant woman. The navias were also the demonic representation of the 1092 plague in Polotsk, Belarus.
Very similar to Norse beliefs, the Slavs also believed a huge world tree connected the mortal world to the heavens and the underworld. The roots of the world tree formed the roof of the underworld as they stretched out.
Where Perun was seen as either a hawk or eagle sitting in the branches of the world tree looking out over the heavens, Veles was seen as a huge serpent coiled around the roots ruling over the underworld.
Unlike descriptions of other underworlds, Nav was viewed as a beautiful place in folktales as a place where it’s forever Spring with green, grassy plains and plenty of water. Many fantastical creatures could be found here, not just the spirits of the dead who watched over Veles’ herds of cattle.
For the Slavs, Nav was described as being somewhere “across the sea” and was the place where migrating birds would go to every winter. In folktales, we find a different name, Virey or Iriv and that Jarilo, the god of fertility and vegetation lived here during winter and would return when it was time for spring. Jarilo would cross the seas, returning to the lands of the living bringing spring and birds back.
The Separation Of The Human World & Underworld
This story concerns the separation and boundary separating the mortal, living world with that of the underworld and lands of the dead. A shepherd pledged to Veles to sacrifice his best cow and to keep the god’s prohibitions. From this, Veles divides the human world and the underworld with either a furrow that he plows or groove over the road that the shepherd carves with a knife to prevent evil or negative powers from crossing.
God of Cattle
As Volos, he is known as “skotiybog,“ the god of cattle who watches over and protects flocks, cattle and all domestic animals, keeping them from harm. The name skotnyi bog is also the name for livestock in general. This aspect of Veles survives and continued under Christian influence well into the 18th century as Saint Blaise where he is a protector of shepherds and their flocks or cattle.
It must be noted too that it isn’t just domestic animals that Volos watches over, but all wild animals, connecting him to the image of him as a horned serpent and thus, horned gods like Pan or Cernunnos who watch over the forests and animals. In addition to the horns associated with either a bull or ram, there is also sheep’s wool that is used as a symbol for Veles.
The Koledari would sing that they come to “weaving black wool.” There is some folklore involving wool and the expressions, “presti vunu” meaning weaving wool, and “crnu vunu presti” meaning the weaving of black wool. These are illusions to magical crafts and Veles’ role as a god of magic.
God of Commerce & Wealth
Given how cattle were regarded as a sign of wealth and influence, it’s not hard to see Volos become the god and patron of commerce, business, prosperity, trade, and wealth. Merchants would seal their agreements by swearing Volos’ name and even legal documents would sometimes have oaths to him. If you broke an oath, you could be sure of Volos’ punishment and retribution.
A Rus-Byzantine Treaty of 971 is the earliest record we have where signers swore by Vele’s name with violators being warned of a punishment. They would be killed by their own weapons that would become “yellow as gold.” It is thought that this meant they would be cursed with a disease.
Veles’ Feast Day
Or the Festival of Veles, this festival is celebrated either February 11th or 24th for the observance of midwinter. In Christian folk rituals, this festival corresponds with Saint Blaise’s feast day. In the Orthodox traditions, St. Blaise as the protector of cattle is said to have defeated Winter or Morana. Among Catholic traditions, St. Blaise is the patron of throat diseases and apples and candles are blessed to provide protection from those diseases. In Catholic tradition, St. Blaise’s feast day is February 3rd and apples would be sacrificed to him by feeding them to cattle.
Prayers would be offered to Veles for the protection of livestock and their health by sacrificing milk. The festival would be held near a place of worship. During this time, it is forbidden to eat veal. The food eaten during this time is groats seasoned with fat. Ritual fights would also be held during this festival.
The best part is knowing that this held close to Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia!
The Great Night, in Slavic beliefs, following a lunar calendar, the first day of the New Year would begin on what corresponds with the Gregorian calendar of March 1st to celebrate the end of Winter and return of Spring. This festival could last from Christmas all the way to the end of February. After the arrival and Christianization of many Slavic countries, for those Slavs falling under the Orthodox Churches, this day came to be known as Velik Dan or the Great Day. For the Catholic Slavs, this day became Velika Noc, still the Great Night. Both names correspond with the day or the week in which Easter is observed.
In pre-Christian worship, Velja Noc is the night that the spirits of the dead walk the earth and would enter villages and homes to celebrate the New Year with their living relatives. It is believed that Veles, as the god of the underworld would send out the souls of the dead to the living world to act as his messengers. One tradition has young men known as koledari or vucari would dress up in long coats of sheep wool and wear grotesque masks as they went around the villages making a lot of noise and singing songs. They would be wet and muddy to symbolize the wet underworld of Nav and the ghosts of the dead. In the koledari traditions, they would visit different homes and people presented them with gifts as if they were messengers from Veles to gain his favor for wealth and fortune in the following year.
Which I find very fascinating as this all sounds very much like the Irish celebration of Samhain and Halloween with spirits of the dead passing over to the world of the living and dressing up in costume. Plus, the spirits visiting living relatives is a lot like celebrations of Día de Los Muertos in Mexico and Kalan Goañv in Brittany, France.
Apsat – A Georgian or Sarmatian deity and god of cattle and herds who has been equated with Velese.
Cernunnos – A god of the druids in Celtic myth, he is symbolized as a horned snake and god of nature and horned animals.
Hermes – A trickster god and messenger of the Greek pantheon, Veles has been compared to them.
Loki – Veles has been compared to the trickster god Loki from Norse mythology.
Mercury – The trickster and messenger god of the Roman pantheon.
Odin – Some descriptions of Veles also sound just like Odin with his one-eye and gift of prophecy.
Triglav – A three-headed underworld god worshiped by the Pomeranians and some of the Polabian Slavs in Szczecin, Wolin and Brandenburg. It was a short-lived cult confirmed by St. Otto of Bamberg in his biographies.
Vala – A demon who opposes the thunder god Indra in the Vedas.
Vėlinas – A Baltic deity who is very similar in appearance to the Norse Odin and not just Veles.
Also Known As: La Catrina, Catrina La Calavera Garbancera
Etymology: “Dapper Skeleton” or “Elegant Skull”
Images of La Calavera Catrina are common during the Mexican festival of Dia de los Muertos. Elegant and beautiful skeletons adorn many murals, statues, sugar skulls, and other art. Images of La Calavera Catrina and her male counterparts show her being dressed in bright, colorful clothes during a time to honor, remember and revere one’s ancestors and loved ones who have passed on.
The La Calavera Catrina got her start as part of a 1910 to 1913 zinc etching by Mexican printmaker, cartoonist, and lithographer José Guadalupe Posada. La Catrina’s popularity took off from 1946 to 1947 when the artist Diego Rivera completed his mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central” (“Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda”) to commemorate 400 years of Mexican history. This work is also where La Catrina would get her name. Since then, La Catrina has become an iconic image for the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
La Calavera Catrina was first created by Posada as part of a series of satirical lithographs commenting on social and political issues.
The figure of La Catrina is dressed elegantly as a reference to high society’s obsession with European fashions, customs, and excessiveness. By extension, it was also a commentary on the then-ruling dictator Porfirio Diaz. While Diaz had modernized Mexico in the late 18th century and brought financial stability, 1910 would see the Mexican Rebellion removing Diaz from power a year later in 1911 due to government corruption. Images of La Catrina circulating around this time would help fuel that rebellion.
La Calavera Garbancera – This is the name of the leaflet that Posada’s La Calavera Catrina appeared in. This name and term of La Calavera Garbancera is a bit derogatory as it referred to a person ashamed of their indigenous origins who would dress in the French style of the times and wear a lot of makeup in order to make their skin look whiter.
La Calavera del Cólera Morbo – “the calavera of the morbid cholera.” 1910 was also a time of the cholera plague. This art piece by Posada depicted a fantastical humanoid figure with the body of a snake and surrounded by a dozen skulls all representing a variety of occupations such as jewelers, tailors, blacksmiths, clerks, and judges. This piece represented that regardless of one’s station, death comes for everyone.
Painted between the years 1946 and 1947, this mural helped to popularize the image of La Calavera Catrina and cement her place in festivals for Dia de los Muertos. It is the principal or prime work of art at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera next to the Alameda at the historic center in Mexico City. The mural even survived an earthquake in 1985, it would get moved across the street to the Museo Mural Diego Rivera for display.
Fun Fact – Diego Rivera considered Posada to be his artistic father. Rivera was also married to the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Día de los Muertos
Now La Catrina is found in her more traditional form from hand-drawn art to sculptures, paper- mâché, and pottery. In some of these, La Catrina will be coupled with a male skeleton. Many people will also dress as La Catrina on Dia de los Muertos. Candy skulls will also be decorated in her likeness.
La Catrina has become a familiar part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as Mexicans gather with their families to remember their loved ones who have passed on and to leave offerings of food on the ofrendas for them.
In her modern form, La Catrina is a reminder to live life beautifully. Death does come for everyone, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be something to fear.
Syno-Deities & Entities
Grim Reaper – It’s easy to see a similarity between the Grim Reaper’s skeletal image and how close the two holidays of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos are. Unlike the Grim Reaper, La Catrina wears bright, colorful clothing.
Mictecacihuatl – There are very noted, strong similarities between the imagery of the Aztec goddess of death and La Calavera Catrina. So much so, that there are many will say that La Calavera Catrina is a continuation of Mictecacihuatl’s worship and how she once presided over the festivals honoring the dead.
San La Muerte – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint found in Paraguay.
San Pascualito – A similar male skeletal figure worshiped as a folk saint.
Santa Muerte – A Mexican folk saint, the imagery of Santa Muerte has been compared to La Calavera Catrina.
Also Known As: Angel of Death, Death, The Reaper, The Grim Spectre of Death, der Tod (German), Kosač (Slavic), La Muerte (Latin), La Mort (Latin), La Calaca (in Mexico), Pietje de Dood (Dutch), Smrt (Slavic)
“Only two things are certain in life, death and taxes.”
- Benjamin Franklin
In the modern, Western mindset, the Grim Reaper is either a personification of Death, an angel, spirit, or psychopomp who comes to take the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife.
Since the earliest times, there are numerous stories showing death being a part of life. Even modern literature and media will show that death happens and that the figure of the Grim Reaper is frequently one who’s there to guide people on to the next life.
One can rightfully argue that the concept and personification of the Grim Reaper have existed for a very long time. Even before their modern appearance, numerous cultures have some variation of a Death deity or psychopomp. Prominent deities are the Greek Thanatos, God of Death, and more recently from Brittany, France the Ankou who bears a striking resemblance to the modern Grim Reaper, it’s easy to see them as both the same entity doing the same job.
From European history, it’s easy to see a personification of Death taking on the skeletal visage they have during the fourteenth century when the Black Death plague is sweeping through, with so many people dying and bodies piling up. Artists would paint images of skeletons with weapons or scythes, riding on white horses through the streets with wagons full of bodies. From all of this would eventually come the dark figure dressed in black robes and carrying a scythe.
As for the name “Grim Reaper,” that wouldn’t come until 1847 when the name “Grim” was a popular name for Death that can be traced to the thirteenth century.
The Grim Reaper is often described as a skeleton dressed in black robes with a hood pulled up and carrying a scythe. In Europe, the Grim Reaper or Death may be dressed in white, a traditional color worn during funerals in some cultures.
During the Medieval Ages, the Grim Reaper was thought of as a decaying corpse before becoming the more familiar skeletal figure.
The Grim Reaper is a familiar figure who appears in numerous media and literature and can appear as either his familiar robed figure or as an ordinary person, male or female going about doing their job.
Scythe – It should go without saying, the scythe represents a harvester’s tool for bringing in the grain. So does the scythe representing harvesting a person’s soul or spirit when they did. Depending on the story, the Grim Reaper doesn’t have to use their scythe, just their mere presence and arrival is enough to signify that a person’s time has come.
Hourglass – Some depictions of the Grim Reaper have them with an hourglass representing the ticking off the sands of time and moment of death.
White Horse – When connected as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, the Grim Reaper or Death as they are then known is seen riding a white horse or possibly, riding in a chariot pulled by white horses.
Regardless of the description of the Grim Reaper that you go by or calling them Death, the Angel of Death, their job is that of a psychopomp, an entity that guides and takes the souls of the deceased to the afterlife.
While researching the Grim Reaper, I came across numerous articles that break down and go into all the myriad personifications of Death around the world, either as a deity, angel, or psychopomp. Including dozens of examples of the Grim Reaper in modern media where they are still a very active figure who is simply doing their job.
Or the “Dance of Death” is a medieval French allegory for how death unites everyone, regardless of age or social status in life. The Danse Macabre has been shown in various forms of the arts beginning as theatre plays and poems, wall paintings, and drawings. The majority of these come from the 15th century, an era of numerous famines, plagues, and wars. All things that people associated with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The imagery invoked is Death summoning the spirits of the dead to come and dance along their graves. The more commonly used figures would be the pope, a king, the young, old, and the laborer to remind the audience watching that death is an inevitable part of life and the Danse would highlight those too attached to worldly possessions.
The French believed the Grim Reaper would arise every year in the local cemetery at midnight, the Witching Hour. The Grim Reaper would then play a fiddle, summoning all the skeletons and ghosts of the dead to come dance until dawn, and the rising sun would force them back to their graves. This belief inspired Henri Casalis’ poem “Danse Macabre” which would be made into a musical piece by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874.
Kalan Goañv – A Breton festival occurring on October 31st and similar to Halloween and Samhain. Similar to the tradition in the Mexican Dio Los Muertos, the Bretons would feed the Ankou, a figure similar to the Grim Reaper with milk, cider, and crepes. The tombstones in cemeteries across Brittany have small cup-like holders where offerings for the dead can be left.
Looking at the Grim Reaper through the lens of Christianity, the Grim Reaper is the angel of death sent by God to do his bidding. This is the angel who is to have smote some 185,000 Assyrians in their camp. The same destroying angel who killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Just about any time that an angel of death or destroying angels is mentioned, there’s a connection made to the Grim Reaper. With this connection, the Grim Reaper’s name is Azrael. The Talmud will connect him to Samael. In Eastern Orthodox beliefs, Death is one of the three enemies of humanity, with the other two being sin and the devil.
Getting into the Biblical Book of Revelation, particularly in chapter six, there are four horsemen who appear, each signaling another sign of the end of the world and Judgement Day. The four horsemen are said to be Pestilence, Famine, War, and Death. It is the figure of Death, the only one outright named, riding a pale horse that has many connecting the imagery of the Grim Reaper. Many modern depictions of the horseman Death will show him being dressed and looking like the Grim Reaper too.
In the Major Arcana of the tarot cards, death is one of the cards that can turn up. Depending on the specific deck in use, the death card may depict the familiar robed figure of the Grim Reaper.
The modern imagery of the Grim Reaper and how he or she appears varies wildly depending on the media in which the figure appears. From the traditional skeletal figure dressed in robes with a scythe to a very ordinary-looking human woman or man just doing their job. But they almost always appear in some capacity to release the soul of the recently deceased and guide them to the afterlife. For some characters, they’re ready to go, for others they are scared and don’t want to go and try to find a way to cheat death, claiming a false death, one more chance, unfinished business before some stories have the character realize they can’t beat the inevitable and that it’s time.
Playing Games With Death – This has been a popular motif used and spoofed in many media and literature. The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman first brought this concept in his 1957 movie “The Seventh Seal” where a medieval knight plays a game of chess against Death. Since then, many movies and shows have spoofed or made use of this idea later. One of my personal favorites is in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.
“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” – This is a song from 1976 by Blue Oyster Cult found on their album Agents of Fortune. The lyrics to the song encourage listeners to not fear death, but rather instead to see it as symbolizing eternal love. Author Stephen King found inspiration from it for his novel The Stand and the song features in the opening of the 1994 miniseries adaptation and again in the end of the fifth episode for the 2020-2021 miniseries adaptation. Plus, if you want a song with more cowbell, this is for you.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – In the 1988 movie, Baron Munchausen is constantly being pursued by Death, shown as a skeletal angel with raven wings and wielding a scythe and hourglass. At the end of the film, Death takes Munchausen’s soul with Munchausen is given a lavish funeral where Munchausen then boldly states that this was “one of the many times I faced Death” before the movie finally comes to an end.
The Sandman – This graphic novel series and recent Netflix adaptation show Death as an immortal and one of Morpheus’ siblings. In the comics, she is shown as a Goth Girl and in the live-action, she is dressed casually. The episode featuring Death shows her appearing to a person at the time of their death and guiding them on.
I could keep going on with all the various appearances of Death or the Grim Reaper. Suffice to say they are still a rather active figure and one who is truly timeless whose motifs will always fascinate people and seek to explore.
Father Time’s Age-Old Companion
It’s notable how the imagery for both Father Time and the Grim Reaper are very similar in appearance. Both wear a robe, and both carry a scythe. One just happens to be an old man while the other is a skeleton. Despite how similar the two look in certain details, they are not the same being.
Syno-Deities & Entities
As a psychopomp and representation of Death, the Grim Reaper has numerous counterparts around the world. Many of the more European-based figures will certainly share similarities in their depictions while other cultures are likely to have different appearances. They do share in common, either being the guide to the afterlife or the one that greets spirits on arrival.
Ah Puch – The Mayan god or lord of death.
Ankou – Essentially, the Grim Reaper and Ankou are largely the same entity, both wear black robes and carry a scythe. The Grim Reaper is very much the modern Ankou, appearing in several various media and literature.
Arawn – The Celtic god of the Dead, the Ankou is sometimes equated with him.
Azrael – The Angel of Death in Jewish traditions. More accurately, they are the Angel of Light and Darkness from the Talmud.
Azrail – The Angel of Death in Islamic beliefs. He, along with many angels under him will guide and take souls to the afterlife.
Bag an Noz – The Boat of Night, those who live along the seashore in Brittany tell of how the last person to drown in the year, will roam the seas at night to collect the souls of the drowned and guide them to the Afterlife, just as the Ankou does on land. It is a ghost ship that appears whenever something bad is about to happen and disappears when people come too close. The crew of this boat is said to call out soul-wrenching sounds.
Charon – The Greek ferryman of the dead has also been equated with the Grim Reaper due to similar garb and taking souls to the Afterlife.
Church Grim – Or the Grim, in English and Scandinavian lore it is a black dog that has been killed and buried in the graveyard at either the beginning or end of the year in order to protect the church and graveyard. Other animals such as lambs, boars or horses.
Crom Dubh – This one is a bit of a stretch. Crom Dubh was an ancient Celtic fertility god who demanded human sacrifices every year, of which, the preferred method was decapitation. Eventually the god fell out of favor and somehow this god becomes a spirit seekings corpses and eventually becoming the Dullahan.
Death Coach – A general Northern European, especially in Ireland where it is called the Cóiste Bodhar. The Death Coach is known for arriving to collect the soul of a deceased person. Once it arrives on earth to collect a soul, it will not leave empty. It is a black coach or carriage that is driven or led by a headless horseman who is often identified with the Dullahan.
The Dullahan – also known as Dulachán means “dark man” or “without a head.” This being is a headless fairy often seen dressed in black and riding a black headless horse while carrying his head under an arm or inner thigh. The Dullahan is armed with a whip made from a human spine. Death occurs wherever the Dullahan ceases riding and when it calls out a name, the person called dies. Death can also come if the Dullahan tosses a bucket of blood at a person who has been watching it.
In other versions, the Dullahan rides a black carriage. Sometimes they are accompanied by a banshee. Nothing can stop the Dullahan from claiming a victim save the payment of gold.
Giltinė – The Lithuanian personification of Death. She was depicted as an ugly, old woman with a long blue nose and poisonous tongue.
Gwyn ap Nudd – The Welsh god of the Dead, in some later folklore, he leads the Wild Hunt, especially on Halloween to guide and take wayward souls to the afterlife in Arawn.
Hel – In Norse mythology from Scandinavia, she is the goddess of the Dead and rules over a realm with the same name.
Hermes – This is the Greek god sometimes known to guide souls down to the Underworld where Charon, the Ferryman would receive them for the next part of the journey to Hades.
La Calavera Catrina – A popular figure to see in Mexican culture and during Dia De Los Muertos.
Jeoseungsaja – Or Saja is the Korean version of the Grimm Reaper who escorts souls to the afterlife.
Magere Hein – Also known as Pietje de Dood, this is the personification of Death in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Maweth – In Hebraic scriptures, Death or Maweth is the personification of either the angel of death or a devil.
Memitim – A name for a class of angels in biblical lore that presides over those dying whom a Guardian Angel was no longer protecting.
Mercury – The Roman version of the Grecian Hermes, he too is a psychopomp that guides souls to Avernus, a crater in Italy thought to be the entrance to the underworld.
Mictecacihuatl – The Aztec goddess of death
Mictlantecutli – The Aztec god of death
Morana – The Slavic goddess of winter, death, and rebirth.
Mot – The Canaanite personification and god of Death.
Omolu – The Brazilian spirits known to bring death, disease, and even healing.
Pesta – Meaning the “plague hag,” in Scandinavia, during the Black Plague, she was depicted as an old woman wearing a black hood. Pesta would come into town carrying either a rake or broom. If she brought the rake, it meant some people would survive the plague. If she brought the broom, it meant that everyone would die.
Samael – This the name for another angel in Jewish tradition who does the Lord’s bidding as his executioner.
San La Muerte – A similar figure found in South America, mainly Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.
Santa Muerte – The female version of the Grim Reaper. Her imagery is very similar in appearance to the Ankou and Grim Reaper wearing robes and wielding a scythe. Santa Muerte is worshiped primarily among many Hispanics & Latinos, especially in places like Mexico.
San Pascualito – A folk saint of Death found in Guatemala and Mexico.
Śmierć – This figure of Death is female and comes from Poland where instead of dressing in black like the Grim Reaper, they dress in white.
Shinigami – These are the Japanese gods of Death.
Thanatos – The Greek god of Death.
Valkyries – The “choosers of the slain” and warrior maidens in Norse mythology, they would escort the souls of the dead with half going to Odin’s realm in Valhalla and the other half going to Freya’s Hall of Folkvangr.
Yama – The Hindu god of death, as well as the judge of souls in the afterlife.
Yanluo – From Chinese mythology, Yanluo is the god of the dead and ruler of Di Yu.
And if I have done nothing else, let death be greeted as an old friend instead of something to be feared…
Etymology: Faceless Monk, From the Japanese word “nopperi” meaning “featureless”
Japanese Kanji & Kana: 野箆坊, のっぺらぼう
Other Spellings: Nopperabo, Noppera-Bo
Also Called: Faceless Ghost, No-Face, Mujina, Nupperiho, and Zunberabo
In Japanese folklore and mythology, the Noppera-bō is a faceless ghost or yokai of which there are several different tales and stories surrounding them.
The Noppera-bō is a ghost or yurei in Japanese who at first glance appears to be human. They will sometimes appear to be someone the person knows. It’s not until a person gets closer or during interactions with them, that the Noppera-bō reveals, having no face and is just blank, featureless smooth skin where a face should be.
This is usually the goal and tactic of a Noppera-bō, scare the ever-living daylights out of a person for a good jump scare and send them running in fear. For added effect, some Noppera-Bō work in teams of at least two where the first scares their victim, and that person runs off to tell someone else what happened, only for that person to reveal a featureless face too. Otherwise, this spirit is rather harmless and really more prone to mischief.
A couple sources have said that the noppera-bō isn’t a ghost at all, but a Yokai; a broad category of supernatural entities and spirits in Japanese folklore. Narrowing it down from there, noppera-bō belongs to a category known as obake or “changed creature” referring to those yokai that are shapeshifters. Since other shape-shifting yokai could be mistaken for a noppera-bō, it’s sometimes not always clear which entity is being seen.
There are several stories of noppera-bō, a story of a young woman rescued from bandits by a samurai who finds that her face disappears, stories of nobles going to a tryst only to find that the courtesan in question they’re to meet turns out to be a noppera-bō.
There are two main stories involving noppera-bō.
The Noppera-bō & The Koi Pond
This story involves a lazy fisherman who decided to go fishing at the imperial koi ponds near Heian-Kyo Palace. The man’s wife warned him not to go as the pond is sacred and near a graveyard. Despite this, the fisherman ignores his wife and heads off anyways.
While on his way to the pond, the man is warned by another fisherman not to go to there. Again, the man ignores his fellow. Then, at the koi pond, a beautiful young woman pleads with the man not to fish. Once again, the man ignores them.
This time, the young woman wipes her face off, frightening the fisherman. Fleeing home in terror, he sees who at first looks like his wife. As the wife is scolding the man, she too wipes her face off.
When Is A Ghost Not A Ghost?
When it’s a mujina.
The word mujina is an old Japanese term for a badger or raccoon dog also known as a tanuki. As shapeshifters, the mujina were known to transform into noppera-bō in order to scare humans. Sometimes kitsune and tanuki are known to impersonate noppera-bō as well.
The Mujina of the Akasaka Road
This is the second of two well-known stories concerning the noppera-bō. This story is found in Lafcadio Hearn’s book “Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.”
A man was once traveling along the Akasaka road towards Edo when he came upon a young woman in a remote area near Kunizaka hill crying. The man attempted to comfort and console the young woman when she turned to face him, revealing a blank, featureless face. Frightened, the man took off down the road until he came to a soba vendor. Thinking he was safe; the man began to relate what had happened to him. The vendor then stroked his face as it changed to the featureless of a noppera-bō.
A similar retelling of this story is seen in the Studio Ghibli movie Pom Poko.
Modern Ghost Stories
Most stories of noppera-bō lean more historical and there aren’t very many reported sightings in the 20th or 21st centuries.
There is a story from 1959 in Honolulu there is a report of a sighting of mujina at the Waialae Drive-In Theatre in Kahala where a witness says they saw a woman combing her hair in the restroom. When the woman turned, she revealed a featureless face. The witness was also reported as having been admitted to the hospital for a nervous breakdown.
The Hawaiian historian, folklorist, and author Glen Grant tried to dismiss the story in 1981 during a radio interview only to have the witness call herself, giving more details about the story such as the mujina having red hair. The drive-in in question has long since been torn down. Noppera-bō or mujina sightings do continue in Hawaii where a number of Japanese have immigrated to.