Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Playing Games withe Great Old Ones: A Lecture by Justin Mullis

Its been a long time time since I've made a post here at Of Epic Proportions. The reason for this is that for the past year my time has been consumed with another project, one that I hope to make a significant part of my academic life's future research in the field of Religious Studies.

The topic which has so consumed me is centered on this question: What is the difference, if any, between traditionally recognized religious groups and pop-culture fandoms? Are Trekkies (or Trekkers) really just Captain Kirk cultists? Would it be more appropriate to refer to "Jesus Freaks" as "Jesus Geeks"?

As a Religious Studies Major at the University of North Carolina and a proud member of nerd culture, this is a question that has long fascinated me. When it came time, last spring, to compose an original research paper for my major in order to graduate I decided to explore this topic in-depth. My geek group of choice? Cthulhu Mythos fans.

As it turned out researching, writing and presenting this paper before my department was one of the most challenging but also thrilling and rewarding experiences ever. My professors were so impressed with my work that they had me submit my paper to the 2010 North Carolina Religious Studies Association; a conference at which the best papers composed by both professors and students from North Carolina universities working in the field of Religious Studies are selected and the presenters invited to share their papers in a public forum. My paper was one of the ones selected and now the video footage shot of it has been uploaded onto YouTube.

Both my paper and lecture are titled "Playing Games with the Great Old Ones: Ritual, Play and Joking within the Cthulhu Mythos Fandom". The video is presented here in two parts.

Part One:

Part Two:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Rare Exports

In my last blog post on the history of Santa Claus I mentioned how researchers such as Phyllis Siefker and Jeffrey Vallance have argued that the character of Santa Claus derives many of his attributes not only from such figures as St. Nicholas of Myra and the English Father Christmas but from the monstrous Bigfoot-like wildmen of European legend as well.

It is unknown how many people's conceptions of Christmas and Santa have been effected by such theories but one man who clearly has been is Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander. In 2003 Helander and small crew made a short film entitled Rare Exports based on such scholarly conjectures. The film proved immensely popular and in 2005 a sequel Rare Exports: The Safety Instructions was made. Now a feature film slated for 2010 is in the works.

Below I have posted the original shorts films dubbed in English. I would love to tell you more about what you're in for when you view these but frankly words escape me...

You can visit the Rare Exports website here and the feature film's official website here. Also check out their Facebook page for some awesome desktop backgrounds.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Santa Claus: The Man, the Myth, the Monster

With Christmas just around the corner it seems now is as good a time as ever to tackle what is perhaps the biggest Christmas myth of all. No not the birth of Jesus (sorry, next year) but Santa Claus. Santa Claus, without a doubt, is the most recognizable icon associated with the holiday this side of the Atlantic. But where does old Kris Kringle come from?

Well as it turns out that is a rather loaded question. Santa has one of the most complex, confusing, and utterly fascinating back stories of any mythological character ever. What that means is that there is no way I can possibly cover every facet of St. Nick’s history unless I start writing a book (which I may one day do), so what this really is then is Santa Claus: A Very Short Introduction.

Before beginning however it would be fortuitous to remind readers of two things. One is that Christmas, which Christians first began celebrating in the 3rd and 4th-Centiries C.E., was given the date of December 25th in order to compete with the Roman festivals of Sol Invictus (a day in honor of the Sun) and Saturnalia (a harvest festival in honor of Saturn).

The second is that elsewhere in Europe the time of year we now recognize as “Christmas-Time” originally carried much darker connotations. In Eastern Europe it was seen as a time of great darkness when demons and other monsters roamed the Earth while the people of Northern Europe identified this time with a great supernatural nocturnal hunt which could be equally dangerous to mortal bystanders.

It was in this world that the figure of Santa Claus first emerged.

The Man

As many people probably know Santa Claus is, at least in part, based on a real life person; St. Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas was born in 280 C.E. in Patara, Lycia (what is today modern Turkey) into a wealthy family. As an adult he became the Archbishop of Myra and became famous for his generosity and numerous miracles.

The two most famous stories about Nicolas tell how he once saved a poor man’s three virgin daughters from a life of prostitution by secretly leaving a bag of gold for each of them three nights in a row. The other story is much darker and relates how during a famine a butcher murdered three youths, cut them up and placed their dismembered parts in a pickle barrel to cure; his intent being to pass off their flesh as ham. Nicholas arrived at the butcher shop, however, and sensed that something was amiss. Discovering the boys’ bodies in the barrel Nicholas then performed a miracle to rival those of Christ himself and revived the dismembered youths, restoring them to life.[1]

Nicholas died in 343 C.E. on December 6th and was buried in a modest tomb in Myra. In 540 an ornate basilica was built over Nicholas’ tomb but in 1087 Italian merchants broke into the tomb and spirited Nicholas’ remains off to Bari, Italy where they still reside to this day.

That same year (1087 C.E.) the Roman Catholic Church also officially granted Nicholas sainthood and bestowed upon him the title of patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, repentant thieves, pawnbrokers, archers and pharmacists. He was also granted the impressive title of “Supreme Controller of the Winds.”

As a saint, Nicholas’ fame grew quickly and he soon became the most popular figure in all of Christendom, right behind Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. In France and Germany alone two-thousand churches were dedicated to him while another four hundred were consecrated under his name in England. In America St. Nicholas was named the patron saint of New York City in 1809.

Because of his reputation for generosity and gift giving Roman Catholics began exchanging gifts on December 6th, St. Nicholas’s feast day (the anniversary of his death). However, during the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648) Martin Luther, in an attempt to abolish the veneration of saints, moved the day of gift giving from December 6th to December 25th (Christmas Day) and attempted to replace St. Nicholas with the Christ Child, a substitution which did not last.

The Myth

As St. Nicholas’ fame as a yuletide gift giver spread throughout Europe his image and story began to synchronize with other similar characters one of the most important of these being England’s Father Christmas.

Also known as King Christmas, Sir Christmas, or Old Christmas the character of Father Christmas dates back at least as far as the 14th-Century, though many folklorists argue that the tradition goes back even further to pre-Roman times and the Druids. Father Christmas is traditionally depicted as an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in robes with a crown of holly on his head. He is seen riding either a donkey or a goat; animals traditionally associated with pagan fertility rituals. In exchange for gifts English children would leave Father Christmas an offering of mince pie and alcohol.

In England Father Christmas’ presence denoted a time of great feasting and merrymaking, complete with rowdy drunken behavior. Such behavior incensed England’s Puritan denizens who in 1644, upon seizing control of Parliament, officially outlawed Christmas. It would be sixteen years before King Charles II would finally restore Christmas as a national English holiday and usher in the return of Father Christmas.

Though Father Christmas and St. Nicholas would eventually merge in 19th-Century America helping to give birth to the character of Santa Claus, England would nevertheless still retain their traditional gift giver who, as it turns out, stands apart from jolly old St. Nick quite well in having a much more fiery and combatant nature. Examples of this can be found in both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942) and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) which feature Father Christmas battling goblins and handing out weapons respectively.

Further north in Holland the legend of St. Nicholas arrived via the Spanish (In fact to this day children in Holland are told that St. Nicholas hails from Spain not the North Pole). The Dutch called St. Nicholas by the name of Sinterklaas and depicted him as a bishop dressed in long robes, riding a magical white flying horse and distributing presents with the help of a Moorish assistant named Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).[2]

When Dutch immigrants came to America they brought Sinterklaas with them where 19th-Century American children slurred the name into the familiar Santa Claus. The first written mention of Santa Claus in America comes from famed author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, etc…) who in 1809 described Santa Claus as a Dutch burgher, flying over rooftops in a horse drawn wagon dropping presents down chimneys.

In 1821 a children’s book by an anonymous author featured what is recognized as the first modern depiction of Santa Claus, showing a fur clad man with a white beard driving a sleigh pulled by a single reindeer over a snowy rooftop. Where this image came from is one of the great mysteries of modern folklore.[3] Nevertheless the following year this image was codified with the writing and publication of Clement C. Moore’s famous poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas, better known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Following the publication of Moore’s poem the popularity of Santa exploded amongst American children. Popular depiction of Santa from this time – the most famous being those of political cartoonist Thomas “Nasty” Nast – mostly kept inline with the poem’s description. One issue that was left up to the artist’s imagination, however, was what color was Santa’s fur suit. Early color depictions usually rendered it brown, this being a logical color for fur, but it was soon decided that this was too boring a color for a figure as lively as Santa Claus who soon found himself dressed in blue, black, white, orange and purple furs. Green and red fur suits were particularly popular and in the 1940s soda-pop manufacture Coca-Cola officially decided, via a series of popular ads, that Santa Claus’ colors should be red and white; the same colors as those used by the Coca-Cola Company itself.

The Monster

In the 6th-Century in Austria, St. Nicholas was given his first sidekick. No not loveable toy making elves but Krampus, a shaggy demon with curled horns, a long red tongue and a talent for punishing naughty children with switches and chains. Like St. Nicholas the popularity of this Christmas devil soon spread and became a part of holiday traditions in Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and Italy. In Germany Krampus became Knecht Ruprecht or “Black Rupert.”

Such Christmas monsters were likely inspired by old pre-Christian legends which told of dangerous Bigfoot-like beasts known as wild-men who roamed the dark winter nights searching for children. Researchers like Phyllis Siefker and Jeffrey Vallance have argued that today’s Santa Claus has much more in common with these mythical wild-men of Europe than with the Christian saint whose name he uses. Vallance has even pointed out that the name Nicholas may not actually be derived from the saint at all but rather from Nikolas; a 19th-Century colloquialism for the devil.

Part of Siefker and Vallance’s argument rests on the fact that Krampus and his kin failed make it across the Atlantic and into American Christmas tradition. So where did they go? The answer is that like Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Krampus was absorbed into Santa Claus. Indeed, beginning in the late 19th-Century (1880s and especially 1890s) depiction of Santa Claus began showing the gift giver performing various Krampus-like acts including not only threatening children with switches but in two remarkable illustrations stuffing a (presumably) naughty child into his sack (to carry off who knows where?) and in another beating a child tied to a tree!

Siefker and Vallance also argue that the amalgamation of the Krampus further explains Santa’s furry outfit. Both Sinterklaas and Father Christmas where always traditionally depicted wearing long robes, so the fur must have come from shaggy old Krampus.


In conclusion one can see that the figure of Santa Claus truly is a complex and multifaceted character. So now that I’ve said my piece about him I strongly encourage readers to go out and learn more about Santa in his many and various forms. I promise you won’t be disappointed.


At Top: Santa, we hardly know thee.

Second down: A statue of St. Nicholas with the Three Boys in the Pickling Tub. South Netherland, c.1500.

Third: An Eastern Orthodox icon of St. Nicholas.

Fourth: England’s Father Christmas riding a goat.

Fifth: In Amsterdam, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to distribute presents with the help of his Moorish assistants.

Sixth: One of Thomas Nast’s famous drawings of Santa Claus (1881)

Seventh: In the 1940s Santa Claus had his first run in with American consumerism, and it forever changed his life.

Eighth: This German Christmas card shows St. Nicholas and his demon lackey Krampus at work, carrying toys to good children while carting off the bad ones.

Ninth: This giant statue in Lapland depicts the countries' heraldic Wildman. With his red skin, white beard and green leaf garb he looks an awful lot like Santa and is, in fact, probably an ancestor of his.

Last: With Krampus having failed to make it across the Atlantic it was now up to Santa to become the source of both yuletide rewards and punishments as this card from 1907 shows.

Sources and Additional Information (Partial List):

Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays ( 2006) by Gabriella Kalapos, Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose, The Encyclopedia of Saints (2001) by Rosemary Guiley, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (2006) by Phyllis Siefker, Santa is a Wildman! (2002) and Lapp of the Gods (2005) by Jeffrey Vallance
[1] In France the character of the murderous butcher went on to become a traveling companion of St. Nicholas known as Le Père Fouettard (Father Spanky).
[2] Traditionally Zwarte Piet is always portrayed in live parades by a caucasian actor (or actors) dressed in stereotypical Moorish clothes and donning a wig and blackface (See photo number five). As one can imagine this concept is far from uncontroversial in the Netherlands today and is seen by many black citizens as racially insensitive and an open endorsement of slavery. In 2006 attempts were made to substitute the traditional Zwarte Piet with a less racially offensive one. Public outcry however saw the return of the traditional Zwarte Piet the following year and in 2008 the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven canceled a planed exhibit on the racial implications of the Zwarte Piet character after receiving numerous death threats.
[3] Of particular interest to many folklorists is the question where the reindeer motif originated. Some researchers have suggested a connection between Santa’s flying reindeer and the flying reindeer in Siberian shamanism, though this seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Having already introduced readers of my blog to Krampus the Christmas Devil (who I am happy to say is gaining popularity in America, having recently made an appearance on the Colbert Report) it is now time for us to get acquainted with the rest of Krampus' family of dark Old World yuletide monsters.

One of Krampus' close relative is the Stallos; Yeti-like yuletide beasts from the country of Lapland home of the Sámi people.

The Stallos are traditionally depicted as hairy giants (sometimes with horns) dressed in the chain-mail armor of a Viking berserker; a fact which explains the name Stallo which literally means “metal man.” Though the Stallos are never descried as being intelligent they are regarded as cunning and have access to magical powers such the ability to see the future.

Though the Stallos possess the same impressive stature as traditional Scandinavian giants they should not be confused with them. Author Johan Turi notes that the main difference between the Stallos and the giants was that the giants did not “hate mankind like the stallos did.” In Sámi mythology, giants are also regarded as being kin to mankind (both decedents of the Sun god) while the Stallos are described as being “half human and half troll or devil.”

Perpetually plagued by thirst the Stallos roams the countryside on Christmas Eve looking for fresh water to drink. Sámi yuletide tradition involves driving a stake into the ground near the closet body of water so that the Stallos can easily find it. If a Stallo does not find any fresh water to quench his thirst than he will be forced to enter the home and bash in the skulls of the resident children lapping up their brains and blood instead.

On a related note, lakes that lack fish or are covered in a heavy coat of green moss are said to be poisoned by a Stallo body which was evidently buried nearby.

The Stallos could also prove a threat to young women as the monster “delights in macabre acts of genital mutilation of his innocent victims. (Stallo pokes his staff up the skirts of young girls.)” In the myths and legends of the Sámi it is possible for a young girl to be courted and even married off to a Stallo though the marriage will ultimately end badly. Stories like these are used by Sámi parents as a kind of reverse of the traditional Beauty and the Beast fable with the lesson here being that marriage to “a beast” of a man is ultimately a bad idea.

Though a freighting semi-supernatural monster the Stallo was still mortal and could be killed. In the legend of Potto-Podnie a young shepherd boy confronts a Stallo and overcomes the monster beheading the beast with its own sword.

The legends of the Stallo were probably based in part on the Sámi people’s encounters with foreign invaders such as the Vikings. Subsequent Sámi generations kept the legend alive by prescribing the traits of the Stallo to other human invaders such as the Tschudes, Christian missionaries, and in the 1940s the Nazis.

Today the Stallo remains a reminder of Christmas' darker roots in world mythology and legend.


At Top:
The Lapland heraldic coat of arms depicts a Stallo-like wildman on it. Similar wildmen can be seen on heraldic shields throughout Europe.

Middle: A knight confronts a Stallo-like wildman in Hans Burgkmair's "The Fight in the Forest ," 1500 CE

Sources/More Information:

Santa is a Wildman (2002) by Jeffery Vallance

The Stallo Throughout Sámi and World History
by Andrew F. Besa

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Krampus on the Colbert Report

Last Christmas I introduced readers of my blog to Krampus; Santa's demonic yuletide companion of Old World Alpine tradition. Luckily this year, however, I won't have spread the scary solstice spirit alone as Comedy Central funnyman Stephen Colbert has also decided to share the tradition of Krampus with his many viewers and has even invited Krampus himself to come visit the studio.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude - Hallmark & Krampus
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