Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year: 2009

The celebration of the passing year and the approaching of the “New Year” is a tradition found in nearly every culture all over the world. Today’s New Year’s Eve celebrations – which are marked by parties, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, kissing, the declaration of vows and resolutions, and noise making – are not at all that different from the celebrations held hundreds of years ago. The tradition of making as much noise as possible at the stroke of midnight, for example, has to do with the once widely held belief that such cacophonies would succeed in driving off malevolent spirits.

In addition to this, there are many other facets of New Year’s Eve celebrations which have mythical roots. One of these is the popular New Year’s Eve figure Father Time; traditionally depicted as an old man with a long white beard, an hour-glass or clock, and a scythe. Most mythographers believe that Father Time is based on the Greco-Roman character of Cronus (called Saturn by the Romans). Cronus was the ruthless leader of the Titans – a race of giants who ruled over the world before the advent of the Olympian gods – and who is most famously remembered for making a snack out of his own children.[1] As Saturn the Romans worshipped Cronus as a harvest deity, which explains the scythe. The Romans also held a popular end of year celebration is honor of Saturn known as Saturnalia which began on December 17th and lasted a week, being something of a cross between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.

Later on it appears that Cronus was confused or combined with another Greco-Roman god-like being known as Chronos; the personification of time and the source of such modern day words as chronology.

Another element to consider is that of New Year’s Day; January 1st. The month of January draws its name from the Roman god Janus who presided over gateways, beginnings, and endings. Janus is classically depicted in art as having two heads; one to look forward with and one to look backwards with, a gift from Saturn himself. Janus’ temple, which was located in the Roman Forum, was also unique in that it possessed two separate gateways; one to enter the temple and one to leave it. This was in opposition to the traditional temple model which only featured one gateway in and out.

There are very few myths about Janus, the most famous being the tale of how Janus got a wife. According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis there was once a nymph by the name of Carna whose days were spent teasing men with her sexual advances only to run away as quick as a flash whenever said men attempted to make a move. One day Carna made the mistake of teasing Janus, not knowing the god literally had eyes in the back of his head. When Janus attempted to make a move on Carna the nymph once again attempted to run away, only this time Janus saw where she went and quickly gave case and furthermore caught the saucy nymph forcing her to become his bride.[2] According to legend the King of Alba Long was their son.

Sources: The Penguin Dictionary of American Folklore (2001) by Alan Axelrod and Harry Oster, Don’t Know Much About Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm, and the Metamorphosis by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004).

[1] It could be speculated that the image of Cronus/Saturn devouring his own children so as to prevent them from overthrowing him is linked in some way to the modern day, sanitized image of Father Time and Baby New Year, though I haven’t done the research to prove this.
[2] As an additional perk Janus made Carna the goddess of doorhinges.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"The Vampire Days"

In his excellent book Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead, Prof. Bruce A. McClelland has this to say about the curious relationship which exists between vampires and the Christmas holiday…

“In Bulgaria, the ‘twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Eve through Epiphany, or Jordan’s Day (January 6), are known as the ‘Unclean Days.’ Other names for this period are quite revealing: they include ‘Pagan Days,’ ‘Ember Days,’ ‘Unbaptized Days,’ and even ‘Vampire Days.’ This brief midwinter period represents a time when, it is believed, evil spirits are able to roam the earth…In South Slavic belief, people who die during this period invariably become vampires. Also, children who are born or conceived during this period have special powers and may themselves become vampires.” (Page 56-57)

Prof. McClelland goes on to add that due to this heightened activity amongst evil spirits and the undead that all Christian rites were to be put on hold until after January 6th since such ceremonies only seemed to succeed in provoking the ire of such monsters. These ceremonies included birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and even funerals - the body, McClelland says, would still be buried, but the service would have to wait. In addition to this, sex and other pleasures of the flesh were also forbidden by the church, which was probably a good idea since according to tradition one of the vampires many powers include the ability to render human couples (especially newly weds) impotent or sterile.

It may also be of some interest to know that in Bulgaria vampires are traditionally disposed of via bottling. A sorcerer will drive the vampire into a bottle using an icon of a saint. Once the vampire is in the bottle, the vessel will be tossed into a raging fire and destroyed.

Also according to some medieval European traditions children born on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are also equally susceptible to becoming werewolves later on in life.

At Top: "Cute Gothic Bat Christmas Card" by the Order of St. Nick.

Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead (2006) by Bruce A. McClelland and Dracula: The Connoisseur’s Guide (1997) by Leonard Wolf.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Eve of the Wild Hunt

Tonight (December 24th) is Christmas Eve. All over the world parents are hurrying their children off to bed, telling them that they best get to sleep or else Santa Claus won’t come and deliver any toys.

This tradition, that one need be asleep before the arrival of Santa and his team of reindeer, goes back (like nearly all Christmas traditions) to the days of pre-Christian Europe when the reason for the season was not toys, candy and tidings of good will but the fear of the dark and what was lurking within it.

Long before Santa Claus and his reindeer, people living throughout Europe associated what we today call the Twelve Days of Christmas (Dec. 25th - Jan. 6th) with a celestial phenomena they called the Wild Hunt. As the name suggests the Wild Hunt was a great hunt held by a band of supernatural huntsmen who rode through the sky on flying horses (or goats or deer) in the company of fearsome hounds.

To hear the Wild Hunt was apparently a terrifying thing and men and women unfortunate enough to be out during the hunt would fling themselves to the ground or cover their faces when they heard it pass overhead. If one did not take such precautions the results could be dire including by not limited to misfortune, madness, and death. One also risked being “spirited away” by the huntsmen to whatever “otherworld” they hailed from. It is this belief that would later help to influence the idea that children needed to be in bed and asleep before Santa arrived.

While it was clear that one was best off avoiding the Wild Hunt at all costs, what was less clear was who led this great nocturnal event and why. In Scandinavia and Western Germany the leader was often identified as Odin (Wōden in German); King of the Teutonic gods. In Wales it is Gwyn ap Knudd, King of the Welsh Fairies, who leads the hunt. While in England, Scotland, and France the leader of the hunt was is either identified as being the legendary King Arthur himself or some other great national hero. The quarry of the hunt was equally mysterious but often proved to be some sort of mythical creature such wood-elves, trolls, or the nymph-like moss maidens.

With the advent of Christianity the Wild Hunt was demonized and became a hunt for damned souls and unbaptized babies. As for the hunt’s leader; cultural heroes were replaced with infamous villains while pagan gods were replaced by the devil or Death himself. As before it was still considered highly ill advised to look upon the Wild Hunt when it passed by and one rather morbid English folktale tells of how a imprudent onlooker returning from the market one night caught sight of the hunt and called out to the head Huntsman to inquire if he might share in that evening’s catch. In response the Huntsman tossed a small bundle down to the man and galloped off. When the man unwrapped the bundle he found his own dead infant son inside.

And if that doesn’t convince your children to go to bed I don’t know what will.

Merry Christmas!

At Top: Åsgårdsreien by Norwegian painter Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892). Note: The leader of the hunt (adorned with a red cape, crown, and holding a traditional Norse war hammer) can be seen in the center of fray, while on the right hand side two hunters abduct up two beautiful, young, (and naked) women.

Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia ( 1996) by Carol Rose, Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman, and Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking & German Myth (1997) by Jacqueline Simpson, et al.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Political Personalities Spice Up Nativity Scenes In Naples

According to NBC Chicago shortly after word got out concerning the popular political nativity scene figurines, Italian police stepped in and shut down the vendors who were selling them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Hershel of Ostropol (also known as Hershele Ostropoler), is a prominent Jewish folk hero and trickster figure from Ukraine who is known for his humorous quips and daring adventures and is in many ways similar to the previously discussed English-American folk hero Jack. A vagabond who survived via his wits alone, Hershel played pranks on both the rich and poor, Jew and Gentile.

One of Hershel’s funnier bits tells of how he once attended a Passover feast at which he was given the dubious honor of sitting across from a self absorbed rich man who proceeded to amuse himself by making derogatory remarks about Hershel. However, despite his taunting Hershel remained unfazed. Frustrated the rich man addressed Hershel directly inquiring as to what separated a vagabond like Hershel from a lowly pig? A question to which Hershel quickly replied; “The table.”

Children’s book author Eric Kimmel has written two books featuring Hershel; The Adventures of Hershel of Ostropol and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, the latter of which is a Caldecott Medal winner. Seeing that the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins tonight (December 21st) it seemed appropriate to share the story of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins which I first discovered at my public library as a small child. At the time I knew nothing about Hanukkah, but what I did know was that artist Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations of the seven demonic “goblins” were some of the most frightening specters my young eyes had ever seen.

The story tells of Hershel of Ostropol arriving in a small Jewish village where no one celebrates Hanukkah. When Hershel inquires as to why, the villagers explain that the old synagogue on top of the hill is haunted by a band of goblins that hate Hanukkah and won’t allow any one to light the menorah, play with their dreidels or bake traditional potato latkes. The only way to free the village of the goblins is for a person to spend all eight nights of Hanukkah in the synagogue and keep the menorah lit. In addition to this on the eighth and final night of Hanukkah the King of the Goblins (i.e. the devil) must light the candles himself.

Hershel, of course, volunteers to spend Hanukkah in the synagogue and brave the goblins. The villagers decide to let Hershel try; though they are sure he will neither succeed nor survive. Armed with a menorah, a hard-boiled egg and a jar of pickles, Hershel makes his way to the synagogue.

On the first night Hershel lights the menorah, an imp like goblin appears to threaten him. However, using his wits, Hershel frightens the goblin off by threating to crush him with his bare hands. To show off how strong he is Hershel crushes the hard-boiled egg, telling the goblin it’s a stone. On the second night a slightly larger goblin appears. This time Hershel tricks the goblin into getting his hand stuck in a jar of pickles, humiliated the goblin leaves. On the third night an even bigger and uglier goblin appears, but Hershel challenges this goblin to a game of dreidel in which he manages to steal all the goblin’s gold. This pattern continues with each succeeding goblins being bigger and uglier and Hershel outwitting each and every one.

Finally on the eighth and last night the King of the Goblins himself arrives. When the king attempts to frighten Hershel (who is already frightened beyond all reason by the mere presence of the king) away Hershel tells the king that he is not scared because he can not see the king’s face in the low light of the synagogue and suggests the king light a candle. The King of the Goblins, wishing to show Hershel how truly terrifying he is, strikes a match and lights a nearby candle, but Hershel still complains that it is to dark. The king continues lighting candles until at last he has lit all nine candles atop the synagogue’s menorah, thus lifting the curse. Defeated by Hershel’s wit and bravery the king and his goblins leave the town allowing its denizens to once again partake in the celebration of Hanukkah.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by beloved children’s book author L. Frank Baum is something of a forgotten classic of the yuletide season. Baum, best known for his timeless fantasy classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), published The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus in 1902, in which he transforms the legend of St. Nicholas into a story of truly epic proportions.

Abandoned as a baby, the infant Santa is found in the mythical Forest of Burzee by the immortal Ak; Master Woodsman of the World. Ak places the infant in the care of the lioness Shiegra and later the wood nymph Necile. It is Necile who names the child Neclaus or Nicholas, a term meaning “Necile’s little one” in old Burzee.

As time passes Nicholas grows up amongst the fairies, elves and sprites who instruct him in all kinds of magic. Upon reaching young adulthood Ak informs Nicolas that he is growing too old to stay amongst the magical beings of Burzee and must go and live amongst mortals once again. Nicholas settles in the nearby Laughing Valley of Hohaho, where he is visited frequently by the elves and fairies of the forest. To keep him company Necile gives her foster son a little kitten named Blinky.

Upon returning to the mortal world Nicholas soon encounters the horrors of war, brutality, poverty, child neglect and abuse. Upset by the cruelty and hate around him Nicholas decides to try and find someway of bringing joy into the world. One day a boy, named Weekum, from the village near Nicholas’ house gets lost in a snowstorm and blacks out. Nicholas finds the boy and takes him back to his cottage to recuperate. When the boy wakes he finds Nicholas carving of wooden model of Blinky. Enraptured by the toy cat Weekum asks Nicholas if he can have it, to which Nicholas naturally says yes. It is then that Nicholas realizes that a simple way to bring joy to the world is to make and deliver toys.

With the help of the fairies and elves, Nicholas begins creating toys for all the boys and girls in the village, secretly traveling by night and placing them in their homes. However, Nicholas’ plan to spread cheer is soon threatened by a group of evil beings called Awgwas (essentially Baum’s version of Orcs) who steal Nicholas’ toys so they can make children sad.

Nicholas complains to Ak about the Awgwas and Ak attempts to settle things with their leader through talk, however negotiations break down and war is declared. The Awgwas assemble an army of goblins, giants, demons and dragons to fight Ak and his band of fairies, elves and sprites.

You can watch this scene below as imagined by stop-motion animation studio Raskin-Bass who adapted The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus into a one hour television film in 1985:

Though outmatched in size, the fairies’ magic proves strong enough to defeat the Awgwas and their army, making it safe once again for Nicholas to deliver his toys.

As time passes, and Nicholas grows older, there are more and more children that have heard of him and wish to receive toys from him. To accommodate the growing number of children and the longer distances he must now travel, Nicholas acquires a team of reindeer from the sprite of the deer Wil Knook. However, Wil Knook fears that Nicholas will wear out the reindeer with his constant trips back and forth every night and threatens to take the reindeer away. To keep this from happening Nicholas agrees that he will do his work all on one night and allows Wil Knook to pick the night. Wil Knook picks December 25th since it is at the end of year and gives the reindeer a chance to go a whole year without working.

The story ends with Nicholas approaching the end of his mortal life. Ak calls a conferences with all the immortals of the world at which he petitions for Nicholas to be bestowed the “Mantel of Immortality” as a reward for his life of selflessness. After much debate the immortals eventually agree that Nicholas is indeed worthy of this great gift and bestow immortality upon him, transforming him into Santa Claus.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The Order of St. Nick, an online greeting card company, recently unveiled a new line of seasonal prefabricated parcels just in time for the holidays. However, rather than dealing with the sundry traditions of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza, the Order of St. Nick has instead decided to embrace the season’s most neglected group of yuletide practitioners; atheists.

By “atheists” the Order of St. Nick appears to be specifically referring to people from the Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris vein of atheism, people whom I shall refer to as Darwinian Atheists for lack of a better term. Darwinian Atheists are individuals who argue that the Theory of Evolution as proposed by 19th-Century naturalist Sir Charles Darwin disproves the existence of God, by providing a completely natural explanation for the origins of life on Earth. In fact, seven out of the eight cards in the Order of St. Nick’s “Atheist Christmas Cards” collection either reference Sir Charles Darwin or the Theory of Evolution directly.

Though atheism in and of itself is actually a form of religious belief – many eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism are atheistic in that the belief/worship of a deity is not a mandatory requirement of a devotee – Darwinian Evolutionists deny/refuse to allow their “beliefs” be categorized as such. In fact, Sam Harris in his book Letters to a Christian Nation (2006) even goes so far as to arrogantly declare that "atheism is not a philosophy, not a worldview…it is simply the way things are."

Nevertheless, while the jury may still be out on whether or not atheists of the Dawkins and Harris variety constitute a “religion” the introduction of atheist Christmas cards – such as the one above which depicts Darwin as Santa – in addition to such things as Darwin Fish magnets and the formation of an official Darwin Day holiday (2/12) only help to further the case for some scholars that, at the very least, Sir Charles Darwin is on the way to becoming a mythical, quasi-religious figure.

On a related note it is worth mentioning that the copy of A Dictionary of Creation Myths (1994) by acclaimed Prof. David Leeming of the University of Connecticut which sits upon my book self includes both “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” and “The Big Bang Theory” amongst its extensive catalog of myth with the simple justification that "myths are considered truth by the cultures from which they first emerge - at least until they are 'exposed' as 'mere myth.'

Friday, December 5, 2008

Krampusumzüge on YouTube

Happy Krampus-Day Everyone!!!

As it would turn out YouTube has a ton of footage of the Krampus Day celebrations from overseas which help to give you a pretty good idea about what exactly Krapus Day and the Krampusumzüge or "Krampus Run" looks like.

Above; the Krampus getting into a wrestling match out on the street.

Above; Krampus with green eldritch fire.

Above; And you thought Santa only paled around with elves...

Above; Don't take your dog to a Krampusumzüge.

Thanks to burgy99 for uploading these videos, whoever you are....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Krampus the Christmas Devil

With the exception of a lyric from the popular Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the devil is a mostly forgotten character when it comes to the holiday season here in the U.S. Children living in the States grow up knowing that if they are good Santa Claus will bring them toys and gifts. They are also occasionally told that if they are bad Santa will punish them by leaving them coal. But this is rare now a days as it is now considered improper to threaten children with such reprisals. The same is not true in mainland Europe however, where they have forgotten the coal in favor of a far more devilish threat.

In the Old World countries of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and Italy children learn that they truly must be “good for goodness sake” because if they are not they will be paid a visit not by St. Nick but by Krampus the Christmas Devil. Originating in 6th-Century Austrian folklore, Krampus is a demon covered in shaggy hair and donning curled horns with a long red tongue. A companion of Santa, Krampus roams the cold, dark nights of December carrying a large sack and sliding down chimneys seeking naughty children to stuff in his bag and beat with his switch.

How did a demon come to be a companion of old St. Nick? The legends are unclear, though as you will notice in many of the pictures and photos Krampus is typically depicted dressed in chains, a symbol that he is under St. Nicolas’ charge. According to one legend those chains are the same ones which once bound St. Peter, thus fueling them with enough divine power to bind the devil himself - or at least one incarnation of him anyway.

In Europe Krampus has become a certified Christmas celebrity, rivaling Santa himself. Every December 5th (the day proceeding the Catholic Church’s feast day in honor of St. Nicolas) children and adults of all ages all over Europe celebrate Krampus in a festival that is equal parts Christmas, Halloween and Mardi Gras. There is food and drink and vendors of all kind. People wait along the streets for the Krampusumzüge or “Krampus-Run”, the main event in which dozens of individuals dressed as Krampuses run through the streets threatening and menacing children as well as occasionally smacking a pretty young girl on the rear with their switches.

Unfortunately Krampus has had little success infiltrating the highly commercialized Christmas of the U.S. with San Francisco being the only city in America to have a (strictly adult oriented) Krampus Day celebration. Still Krampus has occasionally popped up in other places. He appeared in the season one Christmas episode of the popular Adult Swim animated series The Venture Bros. as well as in a G4 Christmas commercial.

So tomorrow don't forget to wish everyone you meet a Very Merry Krampus-mas!!!

Sources and Additional Information:

Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose

Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark, and Forgotten Christmas (2008) by John Grossman

The Devil in Design: The Krampus Postcards (2004) by Monte Beauchamp

Santa's Not-So-Little Helper (2002) by Clay Risen

Krampus: The Sinister Sidekick of Santa (2008) by R.J. Evans

Krampus: A (Funny) Overview of the Character

San Francisco's Krampus Day Site

All Postcard and Photo Images from Monster Brains

Krampus, as seen on The Venture Bros., from The Mantis Eye Experiment