Warning: Before you read any further with this post, there is animal mutilation of a dog, and I am well aware this is a very sensitive subject for a lot of people. There is also child endangerment in this story.
A Hobyah is a cannibalistic goblin from English fairy tales. The story involving Hobyahs can be rather scary as they are never really described, leaving them to the imagination of those reading to fill in the blanks. That hasn’t stopped a few from trying to describe the Hobyahs as some sort of short, humanoid reptile or salamander-looking creature.
This is the main story featuring Hobyahs. It was collected by Mr S. V. Proudfit, in Perth, Australia. Later, Joseph Jacobs includes the story in his More English Fairy Tales collection.
Once there had been an old man and woman and a little girl who all lived in a house made of hempstalks. The old man had a dog by the name Turpie. One night, the Hobyah began to show up crying: “’Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!”
At this, the dog, Turpie began barking fiercely causing the Hobyahs to run away. In anger, the old man said that as he couldn’t sleep, he would cut the dog’s tail off in the morning.
And that is what the old man did…
The next night, the Hobyahs returned, once more crying: “’Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!”
Once more Turpie began barking, scaring off the Hobyahs and once more the old man complained in anger that this time if the dog didn’t stop barking, he would cut off one of its legs.
And again, that is what the old man did…
This pattern would continue for the next few nights. Each night the Hobyahs would come crying: “’Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!”
And each time, Turpie would begin barking, scaring off the Hobyahs, and each time the old man would complain, saying they would cut off another leg on the dog as he couldn’t sleep.
This continued until the old man got to where he cut off Turpie’s head in order to silence the dog and be able to get to sleep.
Now, when the Hobyahs came the next night crying: “’Hobyah! Hobyah! Hobyah! Tear down the hempstalks, eat up the old man and woman, and carry off the little girl!” There was no Turpie to bark and scare off the Hobyahs. With no one to stop them, the Hobyahs tore down the hempstalks and ate up the old man and woman.
As for the little girl, the Hobyahs threw her into a bag and carried her away to their home in a cave where they hung up the sack. All the Hobyah took turns to hit the top of the bag crying: “Lookme! Lookme!” Then all the Hobyah went to sleep as day had come.
Terrified, the little girl began to cry. Luck was with the girl for a man and his great big dog were in the area and they heard her cries. I imagine this man’s dog hearing the girl and leading his master to her.
Finding the little girl in the bag, the man asked how she came to be in there. After hearing her story, the man placed his dog into the bag and took the little girl home.
When night came and the Hobyah’s woke up, they took down the bag, hitting it on top, once more crying: “Lookme! Lookme!”
As the Hobyahs opened the bag, the big dog leaped out and ate up all the Hobyahs.
After that, there were no more Hobyahs.
There have been a few different retellings of The Hobyahs.
In one retelling, it is the old woman who gets carried away by the Hobyahs in a bag. The old man gets a chance to redeem himself by restoring Turpie back to life. Or, it is the little girl who brings Turpie back to life and the two are able to escape and defeat the Hobyahs.
Joseph Jacobs notes the Hobyahs as a type of bogie or spirit.
The story of The Hobyahs seems to be a popular, though creepy story that many in Australia are familiar with. A couple authors such as Robert D. San Souci have retold the story as a children’s book and Joan Aiken has the Hobyahs appear in her book The Witch of Clatteringshaw
Alternative Name: Devil Jonah, Deva, Davy or Taffy
If you ask most people today who the figure of Davy Jones is, most are likely to comment on him being a character in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movie “Deadmen tell no Tales.” Or they might bring up the character from the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon.
At some point, many hear about someone being sent to “Davy Jones’ Locker” as a euphemism for sending them to the bottom of the sea and death by drowning. Given this, many have an idea of Davy Jones as being some sort of demon or evil spirit who roams the seas, claiming all those unlucky to be lost at sea and drown.
We know that the mention of Davy Jones’ Locker became popular during the 1800s among sailors and would continue to be a part of the broader cultural knowledge of sea lore.
The earliest mention we have of Davy Jones is in Daniel Defoe’s 1726 book “The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts” where he mentions laying someone to rest in David Jones’ Locker. The next mention we have of Davy Jones and cementing him with a negative connotation is in the 1751 publication “The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle” by Tobias Smollett.
As to the historical figure of Davy Jones? That part is unclear and there have been a few theories put forward. There was a David Jones who was a pirate on the Indian Ocean during the 1630s, but scholars respond back that this David Jones wasn’t fearsome enough to be worthy of the notoriety. Another source suggests that Davy Jones could have been a Duffer Jones, a nearsighted sailor who frequently found himself falling overboard. There is also a British song written in 1594 called “Jone’s Ale is Newe.” The lyrics of the song tell of a pub owner who would throw drunk sailors into his ale locker and then dump them on any passing ship. The pub owner becomes a pirate after he goes bankrupt, stealing a ship and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean where he would capture other ships and their crew. Most captive crew members would be decapitated while others were locked down below before sinking the ship.
The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose, written in 1785 gives a definition of “David Jones. The devil, the spirit of the sea; called Necken (Nixie) or Draugr in the northern countries, such as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.”
Crossing The Equator – There are nautical traditions held as an initiation ceremony for sailors crossing the Equatorial line for the first time. Those who had done it before are called shellbacks or the Sons of Neptune. The oldest shell back is called King Neptune and the next oldest is his assistant and called Davy Jones.
Saint David – Another suggestion is that Welsh sailors would call upon Saint David or Dewi for protection from danger. Incidentally, Jones is a common Welsh surname.
Daeva – This is an evil spirit that loves to cause harm and destruction in Persian mythology.
Duppy – This is a West Indian name for an evil or malevolent ghost.
God Or Devil?
There are suggestions that Davy Jones is either a dark god of the sea or the devil. They point towards the name Davy and Devil. Other names to call Davy Jones are Deva, Davy, or Taffy, the thief of the evil spirit.
A few apocryphal sources go so far as to suggest that Jones is a corruption of Jonah, as in the biblical prophet who was swallowed by a whale. Thus, Devil Jonah is a dark angel or devil of the sea. In this respect, a particularly evil or bad sailor would go to Davy Jone’s Locker, the bottom of the sea. Whereas those sailors who were good or holy would go to the Fiddler’s Green, a sailor’s paradise and heaven in British folklore.
This one will vary. In general, Davy Jones has been accepted as some sort of fiend, devil, or evil spirit that roams the seven seas claiming the souls of unlucky sailors to drown at sea and all ships lost at sea.
In Tobias Smollett’s book “The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle,” Davy Jones is described as having saucer eyes, three rows of teeth, horns, a tail, and blue smoke that come from his nose.
American author Washington Irving mentions Davy Jones in his 1824 book as arriving by storm, during the night.
It should come as no surprise that Davy Jones is also mentioned in Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick.” Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel “Treasure Island” sees frequent mention of Davy Jones and he is mentioned in J.M. Barrie’s novel “Peter Pan” where Captain Hook sings about sending someone down to Davy Jones by way of walking the plank. Just about any story taking place at sea seems to mention Davy Jones at some point.
“Hitting The High Seas”
An episode of the 1960s The Monkees t.v. series. In this episode, the band member Davy Jones plays the character of the same name, claiming to be the grandson of the original Davy Jones while his bandmates are all held hostage.
This cartoon series would feature Davy Jones in several episodes and would have an actual gym locker to hold souls. One episode shows one of the Monkee’s band members Davy Jones and gym socks would be kept in there.
Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean
I would say the current description of Davy Jones that many are familiar with and that strongly influences their mental image comes from his introduction in the second and third movies, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End. The character also appears again in a cameo at the end of Dead Men Tell No Tales.
The movie version of Davy Jones looks like a cross between a human and an octopus with numerous tentacles coming from his face like a beard and has a crab-like claw for his left arm and a long tentacle on his right hand to replace an index finger. And the leg of a crab for his right leg, much like a pegleg.
This version of Davy Jones connects him to the ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman. In life, he was a Scottish captain who falls in love with the sea goddess Calypso. The goddess entrusts Davy Jones with ferrying the souls of those who’ve died at sea to the next world. To aid him, Davy Jones is given the ship, The Flying Dutchman. They promised to meet again in ten years and when he kept his part and Calypso failed to appear, Davy Jones swore vengeance on her. It is in failing to perform his duties that Davy Jones and his crew began transforming into monstrous people merged with aquatic animals. Davy Jones also comes to command the Kraken.
Alternative Spellings: 狐狸精, 狐, きつね
Alternative Names: Kitsune-Tsuki
Hailing from the island nation of Japan or Nihon comes the mystical and mischievous kitsune! Stories of fox spirits or kitsune are rather common and popular and feature in a good number of manga, anime, and video games. So much so they have even become a popular staple even in Western literature and stories. The mystical, shape-shifting kitsune are seen as akin and like the stories of European faeries. One can usually tell if they’re dealing with a kitsune spirit or yokai rather than an ordinary fox by the number of tails that they have. The number of tails can denote a kitsune’s age and thus the wisdom and magical powers they’re reputed to possess.
What’s In A Name
The Japanese or Nihonjin word for fox is kitsune. Now, depending on how the word is used and the context in which it is used, with emphasis on the syllables and vowels, kitsune can refer to an ordinary animal or the supernatural fox entity.
A fun thing to discover and note is that the usage of the word spirit, when it comes from an Eastern meaning, refers to a state of knowledge or enlightenment. When we look at Japan, they have a lot of stories about animals and even objects that when they gain a certain age, become sentient and powerful. Some will become yokai or monsters and others are more benevolent. Focusing on the fox spirits, there are two types of kitsune, the myobu or the celestial fox who are associated with Inari or there are the nogitsune, the wild foxes are far more unpredictable and malicious in their tricks and antics.
For the ordinary animal, there is the Red Fox and the Hondo Kitsune found in Japan and both lend a paw and inspiration to the spirit, mystical foxes.
While it is easy enough to give a fairly direct translation of kitsune into English, there is more to the word. Some of the etymological suggestions for the word seem contradictory among various scholars. Nozaki says that kitsune is an onomatopoeia for the sound that a fox makes when it cries seen in the word “kitsu” and that the last part “ne” is an affix for an honorific. In this respect, kitsu is an archaic word for a fox’s cry and modern Japanese words used are kon kon or gon gon. Interestingly enough, I have found that kitsu also means “come here.”
Other etymologies are from Myogoki in 1268 who says that kitsune comes from the words “tsune” or “always” and “ki” or “yellow.” Arai Hakuseki in Toga, 1717 says that “ki” means “stench” and “tsu” is a possessive part and “ne” as in “inu” for “dog.” Then there is Kotosuga in Wakun no Shiori (1777-1887) who agrees about “ki” meaning “yellow,” “tsu” is still a possessive part and “ne” is from neko, for cat.
In the numerous folktales told of kitsune, these are foxes that are intelligent and hold great magical or mystical powers. This power only increases as the fox gets older. When a kitsune becomes old enough, sometimes 50 years of age, other stories say 100 years, a kitsune gains or learns the ability to transform into a human. Frequently, it is a female kitsune who will transform into a young human woman. In this guise, the kitsune is sometimes portrayed as a lover or wife until she is discovered and the kitsune runs away back to the wilds in its fox form. Other times the kitsune acts as a protector or guardian. Because of the kitsune’s power and abilities, some people would make offerings to them much like they would deities.
Fox Tails – One way to gauge how old and thus powerful a kitsune is, is to count the number of tails. The more tails, the more powerful a kitsune will be. Fortunately, this power tops out at nine tails, but that is still a formidable being to encounter. Other folktales say that a kitsune gains one tail for every hundred years of life until they’ve reached 1,000 years of age. Other stories say that a kitsune gains their extra tails from Inari for their deeds and actions. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, they are believed to have its fur turn silver, white, or gold. These kyubi no kitsune or nine-tailed foxes are particularly powerful in that they can hear and see anything happening around the world. These foxes are also known for their infinite wisdom.
Illusions – Kitsune can create illusions that are incredibly realistic. As an offshoot of this power, other sources have tried to say the kitsune ability to bend reality, drive people mad, take on various shapes, or create a second moon. These may just be an extent to how realistic kitsune illusions can be.
Kitsune-Bi – Or foxfire, this is the ability of kitsune to create fire from their tails or to breathe fire. This foxfire has also been compared to will-o-wisps.
Hoshi no tama – This is similar to the kitsune-bi or foxfire. Some depictions of kitsune show them carrying around a white ball or hoshi no tama (star ball). These star balls are often glowing with foxfire. When in its fox form, a kitsune will keep or carry this star ball around in their mouth. When they’re in the guise of a human, this star ball may take the form of a jewel or piece of jewelry. There is a belief that this star ball holds part of the kitsune’s power or when the star ball is described as a pearl, a part of the kitsune’s soul and that the kitsune will die if they are separated too long from their jewel. Those who can get hold of a kitsune’s hoshi no tama can potentially get a favor from the kitsune.
Kitsune-ken – Translated as fox-fist, this refers to a kitsune’s power over humans. There is a game similar to rock, paper, and scissors, however, these three hand positions signify a fox, hunter, and village headman. The headman beats the hunter, the hunter beats the fox, and the fox beats the headman.
Shapeshifters – Aside from an increased number of tails, depending on the story, after a kitsune has reached the age 50 or 100, they are able to shapeshift into a human. Often, they will change into the form of a beautiful young woman or an old man.
Mirrors & Shadows – There is a limit to this shapeshifting, a fox will need to place reeds, a broad leaf or skull over their head to shapeshift. Another limit in folk tales is to look for the fox tail that a disguised kitsune will try to hide and other stories hold that looking at a person’s shadow will reveal if they’re a shapeshifted kitsune or not. Sometimes a shapeshifted kitsune’s true form will be revealed if they look into a mirror or other reflective surface.
Kitsune-gao – Or fox-faced, this is in reference to human women who have a narrow face with close-set eyes, thin eyebrows and high cheekbones. These facial features are considered attractive, and some stories hold that this is a sign of a fox in human form.
Tricksters – With their use of shapeshifting and illusions, it’s easy to see how kitsune are known for their mischievous natures and playing tricks on people. The more benevolent kitsune are prone to pranks and tricks on those that need to be taken down a notch while more malevolent kitsune are going to have more harmful tricks that they pull.
Like the Fae of Ireland, kitsune will keep a promise or oath given, seeking to repay any favor or debt that is owed. A kitsune may even go so far as to guard a particular individual or household and so long as they’re treated with respect, they will benefit their chosen companions.
Vampire Foxes – Some stories will depict kitsune-like vampires or succubus & incubuses who feed on the life energy or spirit of humans, most often through sex. These could be stories that are actually Kumiho or Huli jing.
Dogs – Kitsune are believed to have a fear and hatred of dogs even in their human guises. Some transformed kitsune will become so frightened that they will change back to their fox form to escape.
Food – I’m not sure if I would call this a weakness. Kitsune are known for having a fondness for deep-fried tofu which can be seen in the number of Japanese dishes that have deep-fried tofu and names such as Kitsune Udon and Inari zushi. Any dish that has red beans and deep-fried tofu is sure to be a favorite of a mischievous kitsune.
Old Fashion Speech – Some folklore suggests that kitsune only have interactions with humans every hundred years and for this reason, they have antiquated, outdated speech. Close to this is that kitsune have certain words that they have trouble pronouncing certain words. One of these words is “moshi,” so many Japanese have taken to answering their doors and phones with the greeting “moshi moshi!” to make sure a potential guess isn’t a kitsune.
As popular and old as the numerous legends and folklore of kitsune in Japan are, many scholars believe that all these stories likely trace their origins back to China, Korea, and possibly even India. The earliest collection of stories that we have were written down in the 11th-century manuscript, the Konjaku Monogatari, with stories hailing from China, India, and Japan.
Chinese folklore has stories of fox spirits known as Huli Jing and in Korea, there is the Kumiho both have strong similarities to the Japanese kitsune. There are similarities in the stories of these fox spirits with those from Japan, however, those attributes are negative ones.
There are some scholars who disagree on the origins of kitsune, whether that’s China and Korea or if they’re solely Japanese in origin. The Japanese folklorist Kiyoshi Nozaki sees the kitsune as being held in a positive light in the 4th century C.E. and the negative traits from China and Korea are later additions.
Some scholars say that the kitsune can trace their origins to India where the fox has a role as a trickster in Indian spirituality. In this respect, the kitsune is compared to the Ruksasha. The Chinese story of the “White Ghost Tiger” of China as an enemy of the Chinese fox is likely a translation from India that the fox and Ruksasha have. The kitsune powers of illusion also have in common with the illusion powers of Ruksasha. Lastly, we see a connection between the Ruksasha’s tendency to devour humans has been compared to the vampiric traits seen with the huli jing and kumiho that are associated with kitsune.
Nozaki says that in the 16th-century book of records, Nihon Ryakki, foxes and humans have lived in close proximity to each other in ancient Japan. The Inari scholar Karen Smyers takes note that foxes being portrayed as seductresses have a connection to fox myths in Buddhism and were then introduced into Japanese folklore through similar Chinese folklore.
Kami Or Yokai?
Depending on the source, kitsune can be classified as either a kami or a yokai. The name yokai is a broad general term and category for a good number of various supernatural monsters and spirits within Japanese mythology. The word Kami refers to the deities, any divine being, and spirits that are considered holy. Given the nature of kitsune and that not all of them will be divine and can be more negative in their antics, such as the nogitsune, it is easy to why the term yokai applies more to the mischievous shape-shifting kitsune. With the term kami, depending on the inflection or with a lowercase spelling, the word kami refers to a lesser spirit.
Are You A Good Fox Or A Bad Fox?
Within Japanese mythology and folklore, there are said to be thirteen types of kitsune, all of which correspond to different element such as celestial, wind, spirit, darkness, fire, earth, river, ocean, forest, mountain, thunder, sound, and time. In broad terms, these various kitsune can be divided into two groups of zenko (good) and nogitsune (bad) kitsune.
Kyubi no Kitsune – The nine-tailed foxes that many people will think of as kitsune. These are kitsune who have lived over a thousand years, gaining infinite wisdom. The kyubi no kitsune’s fur is often either silver, white or gold from their extreme age and they have the ability to see and hear anything happening around the world.
Myobu – The celestial fox, they are associated and aligned with the goddess Inari.
Ninko – They are an invisible fox spirit that people can perceive and only once it possesses them.
Yako – Translating to “field fox.” They are also known as Nogitsune. These kitsune are considered dangerous in that their tricks and mischievousness are more malevolent.
Zenko – These kitsune are considered good or benevolent and helpful. Most of the zenko kitsune will be aligned with the goddess Inari.
Also spelled as kitsune-tsuki, translates to fox possession. With kitsunetsuki, what happens, is a fox spirit will possess someone, who is always a young woman. The fox spirit is believed to enter through either beneath the fingernails or her breasts. A woman’s facial expressions are believed to have changed, becoming more fox-like. Other beliefs are that a person who was illiterate could gain the ability to read. A victim of kitsunetsuki will have a craving for rice or sweet red beans, become listless, restless and have an aversion to eye contact.
All kitsune can possess a person according to folklore, though they will only do so if someone agrees and lets them.
Japanese Witchcraft – Those who force a fox possession are those of a hereditary fox employee or tsukimono-suji. This does take us a step in the direction of looking at superstition. In Japan, a familiar would be the source of a person’s magical power. While nearly any animal could be a witch’s familiar, foxes and snakes are the most noted. There for a familiar acting as a tsukemono or “possessing being” would be used to explain a sudden illness, floods, and any number of misfortunes that could be attributed to evil spirits.
Insanity – With the hereditary fox possession, this would have explained mental illness, especially where it is hereditary. The victim of kitsunetsuki would frequently be treated cruelly in an effort of trying to drive out the possessing spirit. A victim would be taken to an Inari shrine in hopes that a priest would be able to perform an exorcism. If such a priest could not be found, then people would either beat or burn the victim in the hopes to drive out the fox spirit. There are some cases where an entire family could be ostracized if someone was believed to be kitsunetsuki.
Records of fox possession date from the Heian era and continue until the 20th century as a common diagnosis for insanity. Diagnosis’ of kitsunetsuki is specific to Japanese culture like clinical lycanthropy among Westerners. Stories of fox possession can still appear in tabloid media and other forums.
I say that as it puts me to the mind of fairy gold, where a person is paid in gold by a fae, and in the morning, the gold coins have turned to leaves and twigs.
The same thing happens with kitsune. Any payment or reward that involves money from a kitsune is going turn out to be the same thing. Pieces of paper, leaves, twigs, stones, and other similar junk items under an illusion. A kitsune sincere in their rewards and not tricking a human is more likely to offer intangible rewards such as protection, knowledge, and a long life.
As previously mentioned, the kitsune known as zenko are associated with the Shinto kami known as Inari, a deity of rice and such association has only reinforced the kitsune’s connection to the supernatural. These kitsune serve as Inari’s messengers and there are times that Inari themself is depicted as a fox. These kitsune also worship Inari and can be found in shrines and cemeteries. Devotees to Inari will also leave offerings of fried tofu and udon in offering for the fox spirits who they might petition to aid and protect against the nogitsune. The zenko or Inari kitsune can be identified by the red bibs that they were and that they cannot bring harm to humans. These kitsune will be white in color and seen as a good omen. In the same vein, black foxes and nine-tailed kitsune are also regarded as good omens. There is some speculation among folklorists on if there was another Shinto fox deity that existed prior to Inari and his association with kitsune.
Better known as fusui in Japan, it is believed that a statue of a fox is able to repel evil kimon or energy that comes from the northeast. There are many Inari shrines, notable is the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto where there large numbers of kitsune statues.
In the Buddhist religion, the goddess Dakiniten is seen as Inari’s female aspect. Dakiniten is often shown as a female boddhisattva riding a flying white fox as she wields a sword.
This is an old card game whose name translates to either “Ghost” or “Monster Cards” that people would play during the Edo period in the 19th century. Players would try to collect the most cards in order to win. The game is clearly a predecessor to the more modern Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Card games that collect and showcase different, various monsters. At any rate, one such obake karuta has a picture of a kitsune on it.
The Kitsune’s Hoshi no Tama
This is a 12th-century story where a man was able to gain a kitsune’s favor after taking their hoshi no tama or star ball. The kitsune pleaded with the man who ignored them. After a bit, the fox told the man that star ball wouldn’t do them any good and that if the man didn’t give him the star ball back, he would have a terrible enemy. However, if the man gave the star ball back, the kitsune promised to be a protector deity. The man gave the star ball back and the fox did indeed save his life by guiding the man past a band of robbers.
This is the name of a popular figure in folklore and kabuki plays, they always cast a fox’s shadow, even in their human form.
Lovers & Wives
It should come as no surprise that with kitsune being known to primarily shapeshift into beautiful women, they also frequently take on the roles of lovers or seductresses and wives. In many of these stories, sometimes a young man will unknowingly marry a kitsune, eventually, he learns of her real nature and she is forced to flee, reverting back to her fox form.
Sometimes the man will wake up finding himself in a fox den or some other place far from home, filthy and dirty. Other stories have the fox wife bearing the man children who inherit the kitsune abilities. There are several historical Japanese reputed to have been born of a kitsune mother. One such figure is the astrologer and magician Abe no Seimei.
Kitsune Wedding – When rain falls from a clear sky, this is called a kitsune no yomeiri or the kitsune’s wedding. There is a folktale where a kitsune wedding is described as happening in just such conditions. The events are considered good omens and the kitsune seek retribution on any who are uninvited.
For the versions of the kitsune reported to be a type of energy vampire or succubae/incubi, this makes sense for them to go this route in order to get close to their prey and feed.
This story concerns a historical person by the name of Koan who had been staying in the home of one of his devotees. As Koan entered the bathhouse, he scaled his foot after the water had been drawn too hot. Yelping in pain, Koan fled the bathhouse naked and the people present who saw him were astonished to see fur covering much of his body and a fox’s tail. Koan transformed into a fox in front of everyone into an elderly fox before running away.
An Old Fox Tale
This story is one of the oldest surviving kitsune tales that date to C.E. 545. It is found in the Nihon Ryouiki or “Japanese Ghost Stories” collection. There are many numerous stories of kitsune appearing to a human man as a woman and then her fox nature is revealed that she must flee and run away. This story is slightly different from how it ends.
A man by the name of Ono who lived on the island of Mino, spent years longing for his ideal image of feminine beauty. One evening, Ono met a beautiful woman out on a moor and married her after proposing to her on the spot and detailing all the ways in which he would take care of her. At the time of the birth of their son, Ono’s dog also gave birth to a pup. As the pup grew, it became more and more hostile to the woman. She begged Ono to kill the pup, but he refused. One day, the dog attacked the woman so aggressively that she became frightened, transforming into a kitsune with nine tails who to lept over a fence as she fled.
Ono called after the fox that “You may be a fox! But you are the mother of my son and I love you! Come back when you please, you will always be welcome!”
So, the fox did, every evening she would return to sleep in Ono’s arms and then leave in the morning.
In this story, it is noted there is an old etymology for kitsune with kitsu-ne meaning “come and sleep,” and ki-tsune meaning “always comes.” Which I find interesting depending on the emphasis for the syllables.
Kitsune Versus Tanuki Rivalries
The tanuki or raccoon dogs of Japan are another notable trickster, and they share a lot of traits in common with kitsune such as shapeshifting. There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover. A kitsune is often more snobbish and someone said to have a triangular, foxlike or kitsune-face is given as a compliment. In comparison, the tanuki is regarded as clumsier or a bit of a slop and to say that someone is tanuki-faced, having a more squarish or round face is to say they’re silly.
I find it interesting to learn that when you take the kanji for kitsune (狐) and the kanji for tanuki (狸) and put them together to form 狐狸, this reads as kori and is a metaphor for a “sly person.” Then, when you place the kanji for dog or inu (狗) between those kanji, you get the word kokkuri (狐狗狸), which is the name for a Japanese divination game much like the party atmosphere use of Ouija boards.
There is a Japanese phrase that says a fox has seven disguises, but the tanuki has eight. Popular motifs show the kitsune as classy and elegant where the tanuki comes across as more the party lover.
Other Fox Spirits
Hồ ly tinh – This is the name for the Vietnamese fox spirit.
Hulijing – These more dangerous fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from China.
Komihu – These fox spirits and shapeshifters hail from Korea.
Reynard the Fox – The familiar fox trickster from Western literature. Reynard is the name of the fox in the French The Beast Epic. The name Reynard is often the stock name for a fox character.
Etymology: gelem “raw material”
Pronunciation: “GOH-ləm,” “goilem” in Yiddish
The first time I heard of the golem having a place in folklore outside of tabletop gaming with Dungeons & Dragons is with the Disney cartoon series Gargoyles in the episode “Prague.” Where an animated statue of a human made from mud or clay is brought to life.
Disclaimer – Not to be confused with Gollum from Tolkien’s Middle Earth series.
What’s In A Name?
The modern term golem comes from the word gelem and means “raw material.” In more modern times, the Hebrew use of the word is used to mean “fool,” “silly,” “stupid,” “clueless,” and “dumb.”
In the Bible and more accurately, the Torah, the word golem is used when referring to something that is still in embryo or incomplete. The passage for Psalm 139:16 has the word “gal’mi” which means “my unshaped form.” In Hebrew, the root words are written with the consonants “glm.”
The Mishnah uses the word when referring to an uncultivated person. Modern usage of the word sees golem being used as a metaphor for “brainless lunks” or those serving others under controlled conditions or seen as enemies by others. In Yiddish, the term golem is used as an insult for someone who is clumsy or slow.
Creating a golem seems to be pretty straightforward. Create a life-sized human figure from either mud or clay. This figure is then given life when specific holy words are carved into the brow or hung around the neck with the words being spoken by a skilled Rabbi who knows the arts of Kabbalah. The golem can also be returned to lifelessness by changing the words.
Talmud – In the earliest stories of Judaism, Adam whose name means “red [clay]” is first created as a golem from the dust of the earth when he is created into a shapeless form.
In Judaism, only a very holy person who was close to God or strived to be could gain the wisdom and power needed to create life. However, no matter how holy a person became, the golem they created is but a shadow compared to God’s creation.
Sefer Yetzirah – Or the Book of Formation, this book dates from the Middle Ages and has passages that expound on how to create and animate golems. It must be noted that it is very little in Jewish mysticism that supports this work.
Weakness – What makes the golem a pale shadow of God’s creation of humans is that golems are unable to speak. In the Sanhedrin 65b, Raba creates a golem using the Sefer Yetzirah. When Raba sent the golem to Rav Zeira, they spoke to the golem. When the golem was unable to answer, Rav Zeira comments that the golem was created by a colleague and for it to return to dust.
Another weakness of Golems is their inability to disobey any orders from those that created them and that can lead to folly and problems.
Ultimate Wisdom & Holiness
Creating a servant was seen as the ultimate act of one demonstrating their wisdom and holiness to make and create life. There are numerous stories throughout the Middle Ages era of many prominent rabbis having done so.
That makes sense. There’s the Tiamat and Abzu creating the Anunnaki and in turn, they created the Igigi who in turn go on to make humans.
Plus, the creation of homunculi was pretty common during the Middle Ages by alchemists. Plus the idea follows us into the current age with stories like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein novel.
Modern Hubris – More current literature and media tend to see the creation of another being as an act of hubris and folly where the creation turns on the creator.
Limitations – Of course, over time, there would be other limits and aspects added to the tales of golems. Many such stories include where it is the use of magical or religious words that will animate the golem. Examples are where one of the names of God is written on the forehead, writing the name on a piece of paper and sticking it to the forehead, or placing the paper or tablet under the tongue of the golem. Another word is “Emet” meaning “truth” in the Hebrew language. Then to return the golem to lifelessness, the first letter of Emet is erased to form the word “Meit” or “dead” in Hebrew.
As I previously mentioned further up, in the earliest stories from Judaism, namely the Talmud, Adam, the first man is a golem created by Yahweh or God from the dust of the earth. Adam’s name means “red [clay].”
The Golem Of Prague
This is the story referenced in the Disney Gargoyles episode “Prague.” The story of the Golem first appears in an 1847 collection of Jewish tales called “Galerie der Sippurim” by Wolf Pascheles of Prague. Another, fictional account of this story was published by Yudl Rosenberg in 1909.
In Czechoslovakian legend, in 1580 C.E., the Jewish community was under a lot of threats of violence, massacres, and blood libels.
For those that don’t know what a blood libel is, these are false accusations thrown towards the Jewish communities, claiming they kill people, usually claims of children in order to use their blood in their rituals. Adding weight to these grisly accusations, a child would be killed and then left near the home of a prominent Jew in an effort to frame them. Sometimes a child just outright disappeared. These accusations would get so bad, as was happening in Prague, Jews were getting murdered by mobs, if they weren’t getting arrested and put on trial.
Unfortunately, these types of accusations still continue in the modern day, though the term has broadened more to include any unpleasant accusations. You would think even in more modern, current times people would be better aware of this. But we still have those who persist in their misinformation and conspiracies where any efforts to correct them, tend to cause this group to double down on their cognitive biases and misinformation.
The chief rabbi in Prague at the time was Rabbi Yehudah Loew Ben Bezalel, a renowned scholar of both Jewish law and mysticism. Loewe was no stranger to the persecution his community suffered from. He grew up with constant persecution to his people and was familiar with how communities would grow and settle where they were better treated until such time they would have to move and leave when the locals eventually turned on them.
To confront this, Rabbi Loew and two of his colleagues set about to create a life-sized golem that they animated by inserting a piece of paper with the word “Shem” written on it into the golem’s mouth. In Kabbala, the word “Shem” is regarded as being an interpretation of God’s divine and holy name. This golem was known by the names of Josef and Yossele. He was known to be able to turn himself invisible and summon the spirits of the dead.
Loew would use the golem to perform several menial tasks that required a lot of strength. Then, every Friday evening, Loew would remove the piece of paper so the golem would not interrupt people on the Sabbath.
As luck would have it, there came a Friday, when Loew forgot to remove the piece of paper, and the golem, ended up running rampant. By the time the rabbi learned of the problem, he left the service in search of the golem. When he found the golem, Loew removed the paper from its mouth and he and his colleagues carried the golem back to the synagogue. The companions sealed the golem away in the attic of the Prague Synagogue. A ban was placed on those entering the attic. Legends hold that a rabbi and a later generation went up the stairs and saw the golem, and that rabbi placed a ban on even going up the steps.
Over time, people forgot about the golem and even today, no one is allowed inside the synagogue’s attic area or shul. In other places around the Czech Republic, visitors can access the attic or shul areas of other synagogues.
Variation – Another version of the Golem of Prague holds that Rabbi Loew dreamt that the Lord commanded him to create a golem in order to protect the Jewish people. It is this version of the story that is the basis for the Disney Gargoyles’ episode “Prague” and possibly the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein.
Another minor add-on to this legend is that during WWII, a Nazi agent is said to have gone up to the attic area and later died of suspicious circumstances.
The Golem Of Chelm
In this story, rabbi Eliyahu of Chelm created a golem that kept growing in size to the point that it tore the name of God off its forehead. At that point, the golem became inert and toppled over to crush its creator.
The Golem Of Vilna
This story is about Vilna Gaon or “the saintly genius from Vilnius,” circa 1720-1797. Rabbi Chaim Volozhin presented several different versions of a particular passage from the book Sefer Yetzira to his teacher the Gaon. Chaim made a comment on how he should be able to easily create a live human from these passages. In response, the Gaon confessed, saying that he once began to create such a being when he was a child under the age of 13. However, the Gaon received a sign from Heaven to cease doing such a process due to his young age.
The Clay Boy
This is a Yiddish and Slavic folktale that takes and combines elements for the golem and The Gingerbread Man. Essentially this story follows the childless couple motif and archetype.
An older couple whose children have grown up and left home decided one day out of loneliness to make a child out of clay and dry him on the hearth. To their delight, the clay child comes to life and the elderly couple treats him as a real child. However, the Clay Boy doesn’t stop growing and in soon enough time, he has eaten up all of the couple’s food. The Clay Boy continues his voracious appetite by eating all of the couple’s livestock and eventually, he eats the couple themselves. Unsatiated, the Clay Boy goes on a rampage through the village and doesn’t stop until a goat goes and rams them, smashing them to pieces.
Late Nineteenth Century
When we get to the later part of the 20th century, we see many non-Jewish or Gentiles become interested in stories of Golems, using them in various media for literature, movies, T.V. series, even an opera, and so on. These stories show the Christianization of the golem. Notably in the Christian idea that humanity should not presume to be God or play God lest hubris visit them horribly. That such acts end in folly and disaster. Notable stories, again Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Stories that don’t feature a golem, but other creations would be like H.G. Well’s Island of Doctor Moreau and any number of various science fiction featuring a robot uprising.
Similar Folkloric Figures
Androids – Robots, Cyborgs, Automatons, the idea of an artificial, mechanical being has been a part of the science fiction landscape and examples of these can be found in a few various mythologies. In the early part of the 21st century, we are seeing advances in AI and robotics that these beings are here, real, and no longer part of a what-if, speculative science fiction.
Clones – This is another area that has gone from science fiction to science fact with Scientists able to clone humans or animals in labs. There are many science-fiction literature and media that go into the ethics of cloning and what rights a clone has.
Frankenstein’s Monster – Or Frankenstein’s Creature, this is an artificially created man by the title character in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. In the book, the creature is created in a vat, via means of alchemy. Whereas many movie adaptations have the creature created from various body parts of cadavers. Later literature and media will give the creature the name Adam in reference to a line where the creature says “I ought to be thy Adam.”
Galatea – This is the name of a statue brought to life by the goddess Aphrodite in answer to the sculptor Pygmalion’s prayers.
Homunculus – This is a small person that Alchemists were purported to be able to create from alchemical journals. These anecdotes were popular during the 16th century.
Mökkurkálfi – In Norse mythology, the Mökkurkálfi is a clay giant created by the troll Hrungnir that helped to fight against Thor.
Tulpa – A bit more esoteric, Tulpa, or thought forms that can be created. Unlike golems, a tulpa is not likely to have a physical, tangible body.
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
Baby New Year
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.