Odin and Sinterklaas

(I wanted to keep this short, but failed. So please bear with me, especially if you’re interested in folklore, history and the mighty figure of Odin. Also, Sinterklaas and Black Pete.)

Whether you’re in an English or Dutch speaking area, around this time of year you may see articles popping up about how Santa Claus or Sinterklaas really is Odin/Wodan. Basically, Sinterklaas (I’ll go with the Dutch name, since that’s where I’m from – there’s a lot to find about the similar origins of these two figures) is a christianized version of Odin. But is this true?

Here is a very short history of Sinterklaas: he is a populair Saint who originally was called Saint Nicholas of Myra (Turkey) and lived from 270 to 6 December 342 CE. Nicholas was a Saint for many groups of people, children among them, and he was known as a miracle worker and a giver of gifts (he often gave these gifts secretly). Sounds familiar, right? The cult of Saint Nicholas spread throughout Europe. In the Netherlands, he transformed into Sinterklaas.

So how did Odin come into this? I can’t help thinking that this has to do with folklorists who were eager to turn anything that has even a hint of indigenous, or at least non-christian, tradition into ‘this is what our pagan ancestors did’. Despite Sinterklaas being a christian saint, he does have some strange habits. He rides his horse on rooftops, for example. And he has helpers who are named ‘Black Pete’. Let’s look at some characteristics and traditions:

  • Odin and Sinterklaas are both depicted as old, white bearded men. This is true, at least in popular culture. The way Odin looks is actually his disguise when he wanders the World. Saint Nicholas of Myra seems to have been depicted both as a man with a white beard and clean shaven. I think that what happened here is that the bearded Nicholas became Sinterklaas. May this have been under the influence of Odin? Who knows. Then again, old men with white beards aren’t exactly rare, so the fact that they look alike may mean nothing at all.
  • Sinterklaas secretly brings gifts to children who have been good and punishes children who have been bad. Odin…doesn’t? To be more preciset: the children give little gifts to Sinterklaas in the weeks before the actual feast on 6 December, such as poems or drawings, or a carrot for Sinterklaas’s horse. They would often place these gifts in one of there shoes (your guess as to why they did and still this is as good as mine). They receive a gift in return if they’ve been good. Finally, on the eve of 6 December, children get their ‘actual’ gifts. I’ve seen this interpreted as an ancient habit of bringing offerings to receive gifts. Thing is, there is as far as I know not one tradition involving Odin that comes even close to what;s happening during the feast of Sinterklaas. Even if it is an ancient heathen tradition (which it may well be), the tradition of giving and receiving offerings to and from the gods is so common that I don’t see how this is specific to Odin.
  • So what about Sinterklaas’s horse? It is well known that Odin had an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Sinterkaas rides his horse (who in the Netherlands is called Amerigo), which has the usual four legs. Are they comparable? Two men (granted one a saint and one a god) riding a horse is really too generic. People ride horses all the time, especially in older times when there weren’t many other means of transport. Then again, Sinerklaas rides on rooftops, Odin even rides through the sky…I really don’t know what to make of this. Also, both Sinterklaas and Odin ride a grey. So there may be something going on here, but then again we have to keep in mind that horses, and from what I’ve understood especially greys, were considered ‘elite animals’. So this may also simply be a sign of these men being regarded as elite figures. Still, the flying and walking on rooftops is interesting…
  • Black Pete is a controversial figure. Apart from the blackface (which is a discussion I’m not willing to go into in this post, but if you’re interested in discussing it please send me a PM) his origin and meaning is a point of discussion. It is known that the first time we meet Black Pete in the Netherlands is in a 19th century chlldren’s book. Before Pete came into the story, Sinterklaas (mostly?) acted alone, at least in the Netherlands. Looking throughout Europe, we find Sint Nicholas accompanied by other, almost demon-like creatures, who seem to have largely the same functions as Black Pete: assisting the Saint, rewarding good children and punishing naughty children (or people in general). But who’s missing from all of this? Oh yeah, Odin. I’ve read texts trying to turn Pete into dark riders of the Wild Hunt (see below) and even into Odin’s ravens (because black, apparently), but non of these convince me. Black Pete may be many things, but he is not a sign of Sinterklaas really being Odin.
  • When Sinterklaas moved to America, he sort of became Santa Claus, and his feast day was not on 6 December, but during Christmas. Christmas = Yule, so therefore Santa Claus (or his ancestor Sinterklaas) must be Odin, right? No, not really. It’s true that around the same time Odin/Wodan rides around with his Wild Army. Throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands on the Wadden islands, there are traditions that seem to re-enact these wild hunts in one way or another. But it’s not certain how old this tradition is (it may not be pre-christian at all). Yes, there are old acounts (the oldest being by Tacitus) of a Germanic army who disguise themselves so they appear as the dead but that’s not the same as a Wild Hunt and Odin isn’t named in this account. What’s more, it seems that the idea of the Wild Hunt was already established when Odin became associated with it. There is a lot of conflation going on, but still no evidence that one is the origin of the other.

So, is Sinterklaas Odin? I think not. It’s obvious that there is a lot of local folklore that has been latched onto the figure of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and his feast. But it’s way to simplistic to say that therefore this is another pagan tradition stolen by christians. It’s not a clear cut discussion – hence this article being longer than I initially expected. Which is exactly why I think we should be really critical with just throwing around all sorts of assumptions. That said, I wish everyone who celebrates it a happy Sinterklaas feast, and don’t eat too many peppernuts!

 

Dutch goddesses on International Goddess Day

Today is the first Sunday of September, which since a few years has been dubbed ‘International Goddess Day’ by some pagans. I like this idea – the pagan religion is one of a few world wide religions in which female deities get as much if not more attention as their male counterparts (if there are female deities at all). So yeah, everyday is goddess day if you ask goddess worshippers, but let’s just spread the word that there are many goddesses, large and small, some worshipped by millions, others long forgotten (but slowly waking up again).

For me it’s a nice opportunity to shine some light on the goddesses that were once worshipped in the Netherlands  by the peoples who lived here thousands of years ago. In fact, some of them are being enthousiastically rediscovered – Nehalennia even has her own modern temple. For this website, I’m trying to stick to the facts. It’s quite astounding how many deities – male and female – were once worshipped in and around this little area that is now known as the Netherlands. Here are seven goddesses; but seek and you shall find many more!

Arcuana

Baduhenna

Hludana

Hurstrga

Nehalennia

Sandraudiga

Tanfana

Comfrey – a dark, healing lady

comfre92-l

As I walked through the countryside of my childhood, I saw more and more plants that I never noticed before. One of them was comfrey, a beautiful and elegant plant that is so abundant that it becomes almost unremarkable. When I got to know the land better, I learned more about one of its spirits: a dark lady living in the waters, chthonic but also healing. The waters near my parents’ house are small, dark and still – full of rot and therefore loved by life. The low grounds among these waters are often soaking wet, and comfrey comfortably lives here. This watery plant with black roots growing low, yet lovely flowers above the ground, perfectly captures the spirit of the dark lady in this land. This innocent plant is very much a healer, as I write here [read on]

Tanfana

This essay is added to the list of deities.

The title of this page is refering to a deity – a goddess most likely – of whom almost nothing is known, though the little that we know is quite fascinating.

First of all it must be said that Tanfana’s name, like many other names of ancient European deities, appears only once in history. It is Tacitus who, in his Annales, mentions this name. The context is the defeat by the Romans of the Germanic tribe of the Marsi (this is their Latin name). Here is the Roman text, with my English translation (based on the Dutch translation by Ben Bijnsdorp, see sources below):

1.50.3. Delecta longiore via cetera adcelerantur: etenim attulerant exploratores festam eam Germanis noctem ac sollemnibus epulis ludicram. Caecina cum expeditis cohortibus praeire et obstantia silvarum amoliri iubetur: legiones modico intervallo sequuntur.

1.50.3. They chose the longest route and made haste with the rest: because scouts had informed that a feast was celebrated by the Germans that night and they would spend it with an abundance of traditional meals. Caecina was instructed to advance with light-armed cohorts and to eliminate the hindrances in the forests: the legions followed at a slight distance.

1.50.4. Iuvit nox sideribus inlustris, ventumque ad vicos Marsorum et circumdatae stationes stratis etiam tum per cubilia propterque mensas, nullo metu, non antepositis vigiliis: adeo cuncta incuria disiecta erant neque belli timor, ac ne pax quidem nisi languida et soluta inter temulentos.

1.50.4. The night with its glittering starry sky was favourable to them and they arrived at the villages of the Marsi and surrounded them with sentries while the inhabitants were still in bed or at the table, without fear, without advanced watchers: this was how much everything was neglected by carelesness and they harboured no fear for war and even if there was peace, it was a peace of relaxed lethargy among drunks.

1.51.1. Caesar avidas legiones quo latior populatio foret quattuor in cuneos disperit; quinquaginta milium spatium ferro flammisque pervastat.  Non sexus, non aetas miserationum attulit: profana simul et sacra et celeberrinum illis gentibus templum quod Tanfanae vocabant solo aequantur. Sine vulnere milites, qui semisomnos, inermos aut palantis ceciderant.

1.51.1. Caesar divided his avid legions into four wedge-shaped formations to ensure a destruction on a grand scale; he destroyed an area of fifty miles by sword and fire.  No sex, no age appeased: the profane as well as the sacred, even the by these people much celebrated sanctuary of Tanfana, were demolished. The soldiers, who had slaughtered their victims half-sleeping, unarmed or wandering around, remained woundless.

That’s all we have. Theories and calculations mention that this battle probably took place during a full moon in autumn. This may lead us to a deity associated with the moon and/or the harvest, though this is of course a rather straightforward conclusion based on very little. We can’t even be sure of it’s really a deity we’re talking about, though the fact that the text menstions a sanctuary dedicated to Tanfana makes this a faitry safe bet.

Even the name is a riddle without a satisfactory answer. Tanfana sounds like a female name, and surely the suffix -a usually indicates a female name, but not always. Caligula, Agrippa, anyone? And the most feminine of all godesses is called Venus, when -us is usually assocoiated with male names. So again, that Tanfana is a goddess is really not clear at all. But let’s assume it for the time being, because everyone else does (not a very good reason…).

If -an(a) is actually a Germanic suffix, as some people such as Van Renswoude (who bases this idea on Jan de Vries, see sources) think, we come up with *tanf-. What could that mean? According to Carl Mastrander (see Renswoude, sources) this could lead to tafn which is Old Norse for ‘sacrificial animal’.According to Van Renswoude, Tanfana could be a latinization of *Tafnanð, who might then have been a goddess of sacrificial animals.

Another more daring theory, which I also got from Van Renswoude, connects Tanfana to the night sky. According to this theory, Tanfana could etymologically be traced back to *Tanhwanð if you accept that the f might have been a hw (which is not impossible). This word can then be compared to other Germanic words that have all something to do with the night sky – and with heavenly bodies in particular, though not necessarily the moon. It’s a very thin line to draw, but it can be drawn nonetheless.

Sources

Bijnsdorp, Ben.  “Publii Cornelii Taciti Annales: een structurering van een gedeelte van de latijnse tekst en een nederlandse vertaling door Ben Bijnsdorp” Antieke literaire teksten met een vertaling door Ben Bijnsdorp. Checked on 11 February 2017. http://benbijnsdorp.nl/ann01_46.html Checked on 11 February 2017.

Boris. “De oorsprong van de naam Tanfana.” In: Wiccan Rede. Jaargang 30, no. 1. Lente/Beltane 2009. Zeist: Silver Circle.

Rijnswoude, Olivier van Renswoude. “Bij volle maan gevierd.” On: Taaldacht. 15 June 2011. Checked on 11 February 2017. https://taaldacht.nl/2011/06/15/bij-volle-maan-gevierd/ Checked on 19 February 2017.

A map of ancient tribes in Europe

 

http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/FeaturesEurope/Barbarian_Map52BC.htm

For your pagan history lessons: click the above link for an fantastic map of Celtic and Germanic tribes in the first centuries BC and AD (which I found because someone was kind enough to post it in the Facebook group of Heidenen van de Lage Landen). You can enlarge the map and click on names for more information.

For example, these are the tribes that once lived in what is now roughly the area of the Netherlands.

Chauci

Campsiani (?)

Landi (?)

Frisii

Batavi

Chamavi

Bructeri

Caninnefates

Paemani

Menapii

Ambivariti (?)

Eburones

Cugerni

The Ominous Owl

Owls come in many shapes and sizes. They are ambivalent birds in folklore, associated with positive as well as negative aspects. They are birds of the night, the moon, darkness, wisdom and witchcraft. In modern folklore the owl is considered a wise bird. This goes hand in hand with classical mythology, where the owl is the bird connected to the goddess Athena. But the Romans considered the owl an omen of death, putting the creature in a different ‘light’. In many medieval and Renaissance depictions of the owl, the meaning is almost the exact opposite – a foolish bird depicting the sins of the people.

There are many folktales about how the owl came to be – many of them have to do with unlikable to downright sinful women being transformed as a punishment…more

Archeological finds in the Netherlands and Belgium

There have been many exciting archeological finds in (roughly) my area in the last months, but I’ve simply been too busy with life to keep up with them. Luckily, I’m a member of a fantastic Facebook group, Heidenen van de Lage Landen, (litt. Heathens of the Low Lands) who post lots of interesting historical news. I’ve found the following two news items there:

October 10: “Largest offering pit of Europe lies at Walcheren“, via PZC.nl

It’s actually the largest offering pit of Europe in the late Iron Age – but still pretty neat! The pit was created around 185 BCE. Research started when the first fragments of pots were revealed in 2002. All in all 275 pots were found, together with the bones of one man and several animals. The current theory is that a ritual meal was held on this place to avert a catastrophy.

October 11: “Sacred grove and cult site from Celto-Roman periods discovered near Peer“, via ed.nl

This site was found in Belgium, not in the Netherlands as the url suggests (though these borders obviously didn’t exist in ancient times). The find dates from around 30 BCE and consists of hundreds of coins and dozens of jewelery items, horse gear and pottery. It is thought that what is now farmland was in ancient times both a sacred grove and a cult site – a rare combination that reminds researchers of sacred groves in France. Another comparison can be made with the Dutch ‘Temple of Empel’ near Dem Bosch, although that site developed into a large Roman temple site. The find near Peer dates from a period in which Romans took over Celtic culture. This specific site will probably teach us a lot about Celtic customs from that period and area.

The more we search, the more we find that a lot was happening in the Netherlands, where first we thought there was no culture at all.

 

Corvids – mainly crows and ravens

Corvids are among the most popular and feared birds in folklore. They have many stories and myths that are well known: as a trickster in Native American culture or a battle bird in Celtic and Norse culture. You won’t read much about that – as I’m sticking close to my home. This folklore is slightly less known perhaps, but will still be very familiar. This is not strange, since so many myths and stories all over the world are connected to each other. And as we all know, corvids are basically everywhere…without further ado:

This page is dedicated to the folklore of corvids in Northwest-Europe , especially the area of England-Netherlands-Germany.Corvids are crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws. They are associated with winter, death and dark magic. Ravens have become rare in Northwest Europe, mostly through excessive hunting down of these birds because of their negative image and the ravage they can cause on fields. But the other corvids are thriving. They are scavengers and clever opportunists who are feared by other birds. And it’s not only birds who fear them – I know of more than one person who has been attacked by a rook or crow seemingly out of nothing (though it probably has to do with us coming too close to their nests).  Still, since prehistoric history the lives of humans and crows are intertwined, mainly through death.

This ancient connection can for instance be found in Iron Age (Celtic) pits, many of which contain animal remains. Ravens were often among those remains, and from that we can conclude that it may have been a chthoniv animal (connected to the underworld) to the Celts. One such example is a raven found buried Winklebury, England. The site found in this town contained many humand and animal remains, but this raven was very peculiar. It was laid down at the bottom of  a pit with its wings outstretched. These pits are generally considered ritual structures, and the raven was probably part of a sacrifice.

It is the eating of dead meat on battle fields and at the gallows that has gained corvids the reputation of devilish creatures who foreshadow death. Some even called them godless birds, since they would even steal the flesh from altar offerings. On the other hand, it is said that the ancient Germans would leave their enemies on the battle fields for the wolves and ravens to eat – an offering to the god Wodan. Which makes them very divine creatures indeed. This idea can be followed into late medieval England, where it was actually forbidden to kill corvids because they would keep the city streets clean (this idea would dissolve in later times, when these birds were more and more seen as vermin).

Naturally, corvids, the death birds, are connected to divinatory beliefs. Click hear to read more…

The dog as demon and companion

The dog is one of my favorite animals – the fact that we have an adorable black lab at home does help this opinion, of course. It’s perhaps not strange that dogs can be found aplenty in folklore, since it has been with us for such a long time. Here’s some information about dogs in folklore and mythology for you to enjoy on this lazy Sunday:

It’s not clear where the popularity of the dog as a folkloric figure comes from. Could it be that this is simply because dog has been human’s companion for such a long time? Or should we look into mythology – perhaps it has something to do with Odin’s wolves, or with werewolves or with Cerberus, the guardian dog of the Greek underworld?

There’s a huge body of dog folklore in (early) modern Northwest Europe that centers on the animal as  connected to demons, ghosts (often the dog is a demon or ghost itself) and portents of death. But they are also found as companions to (Romano-)Celtic deities on ancient sculptures. These aspects are what this article focuses on for now, but other aspects of the dog in myth and folklore will be added as my research progresses.

Ghosts and demons

England

The black dog has been sighted many times in folklore, especially in the English countryside. Dozens of stories about black dogs called ‘shuck’ or ‘shock’ (in fact a sort of demon) can be found in Suffolk. A black dog terrorized church-goers in 1577 during a storm.

Yorkshire has its on spectral dog, called padfoot* – a large, black dog with shaggy hair an huge round eyes. It follows people during nighttime and hinders them when they are traveling. Another apparation of padfoot looks more like a ‘black mastiff-type dog with eyes shining red or green’.**  Padfoot may bring either luck or bad luck, depending on the circumstances. Just as other ghostly dogs, it is hard to determine where his story originates.

Netherlands

In the Netherlands too, many sightings of ghost dogs have been reported. For example, there was a dog in the Betuwe (central Netherlands) with glowing eyes and a fiery tongue, walking on its hind legs and rattling its chains. According to some researchers, there may be a connection with werewolves here. In the small town of Grave in Noord-Brabant, a dog walked around with a glowing key in its mouth, and in Oerle close to Eindhoven a dog as large as a foal would accompany travelers during the night. Also in Noord-Brabant, close to the Belgian border, a headless dog was said to wander about (this is not the only known sighting of a headless dog in the Netherlands, an I can’t help but wonder if it has anything to do with tales of the headless hunt).

Other large black dogs have been found throughout the Netherlands and Belgium – although sometimes the dog is actually white and small, such as a haunting spitz in Rijkevoort in Noord-Brabant.

In Groningen (northern Netherlands) there were dogs known as spoekgulers – ghost howlers. They were dogs with a yellow spot above their eyes, who could see evil. The name  ‘ghost howler’is derived from the idea that such a dog would start to howl when it could see that someone would die.

Other names for ghost dogs in Groningen are borries, a large black dog with a short tail and eyes as large as saucers; the polderhond (‘polder dog’), a large black dog that dwells in water as much as on land; witte wind (‘white wind’) a small white dog that grows larger an is actually the devil in disguise; and ’t zwarte hondje (‘the little black dog) a black dog that walks along with travelers.

Companions

Going much further back in time, we find another role for the dog: some Celtic deities have this animal as a companion. Case in point is Nehallenia, a goddess who was worshipped on the westcoast of the Netherlands. Dozens of altars dedicated to her were excavated in the 20th century. They almost all have the same images of a seated goddess with several attributes. One of those attributes is a dog at her side. The meaning of this dog is not clear – it may be a chthonic (underworld) symbol connected to fertility and/ore watchfulness, although as with many symbols in Celtic art its actual meaning will probably stay unclear.

 

*Many Harry Potter fans who didn’t already know this will now think: ‘Aha, so that’s where J.K. Rowling got Sirius Black’s nickname from!’

** Griffiths, p. 54.

Sources

Griffiths, Bill. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006.

Laan, K. ter. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Prisma, 2005.

Lore of the Swallow

I love swallows – when I see (and hear!) them flying around, it’s a sure sign that summer has arrived. Here’s some folklore about these lively birds – you can also find it in the evergrowing online encyclopedia.


‘One swallow does not a summer make’ – as they say in the Netherlands.

Still, in Northwest Europe, the swallow is one of the animals that announces the coming of spring and summer. In older times, Germanic folks welcomed the elegant bird gladly for this reason. Even far into the 18th century, tower guards in certain German towns were offered a drink for announcing the first swallow. Afterwards, this happy event was announced officially to the whole town.

Being a seasonal bird, it’s not strange that a lot of weather lore is connected to it. This folklore is often based on observations of natural behavior. Some conclusions are very strange (such as the birds sinking into the water during winter time, when they ‘disappeared’), others more logical. When swallows fly low, rain will come; when they are no more than little dots in the sky, nice weather will follow…this is based on the behavior of the swallows hunting insects, which will indeed fly lower when weather is bad.

The swallow being a bird of spring and summer will also connect it with love and marriage. Some peculiar folklore can be found concerning this subject. In Westphalia, Germany, when a young man saw the first swallow, he would stand still and check if there was a hair under his shoe. If so, the color of this hair would indicate the hair color of his future love. If in Wallonia (French-speaking part of Belgium)a girl would see a swallow skim a water surface, whe would marry before the age of nineteen. And in England, if a man would give a woman a ring that had lain in a swallow’s nest for nine days, she would surely be his love.

In the country, when spring came, families went around on their farms to open the stable doors as it was said to bring protection for a swallow to fly through the stables rooms. This comes from the widespread belief that a swallow building its nest in or near a home will bring luck to the people living there. Some houses even added small boards under the beams to add more opportunity for swallows to settle. The idea behind these nesting birds bringing luck lies mostly in their protecting the house against fire, lightning and bad contructions.

The luck goes both ways: if swallows didn’t return to a house, it would burn down – and when there was discord in a home, the swallows nesting there would leave. In certain areas in the Netherlands, when a nest fell from a house, the inhabitants were advised to leave as soon as possible. Young birds falling from the nest, or the nest being abandoned, were a portent of imminent death. Swallows leaving a whole area meant that something bad such as disease was coming that way. These folk beliefs were widespread in Northwest Europe and might still be found from Scandinavia to far into France.

Having read the above, one can easily imagine that killing or disturbing a swallow or destroying it’s nest would bring bad luck to a person.

A little lucky bird such as this one surely brings about health, too. There’s indeed a lot that can be found on that topic. Here’s the account of a strange ritual to regain eye sight, coming from Normandy (it’s not for the faint of heart): find a nest that contains a young swallow and gouge out its eyes. The mother will immediately go to the beach to find a certain kind of stone. Once she has found it, she will want to hide it so that no one can find it. Meanwhile, when one has taken the time to spread out a scarlet-colored piece of cloth under the nest, the mother bird will think her nest is on fire and she will drop the stone. The account I have found stops here, but the idea is apparently that the stone will give back eyesight.

Another connection about eyesight can be made concerning the greater celandine. This plant is called ‘swaluw cruydt’ (swallow herb) bij Rembert Dodoens in his 1554 Cruydt Boeck, probably following ancient masters such as Dioscorides and Pliny. They declared that the yellow sap of the plant was given by the swallows to their youngs so that they could see. Indeed, in folklore greater celandine is known as a plant that helps against diseases of the eyes.

Then there’s the connection between swallow’s nests and the healing of sore throats. It seems to stem from Albertus Magnus, who already said that a nest cooked with honey, lain on the throat, will ease the pain. Other sources name vinegar or white wine as an alternative to honey.

A last example is the hanging of a swallow’s nest in a child’s cradle to protect it from convulsions, which was done at least in Broek in Waterland (Netherlands, just to the north of Amsterdam).

There’s a lot of lore going around about the swallow and health in general. It’s outside the scope of this website to treat folklore from other areas, but surely worth looking into if you find this sort of thing interesting.

Sources

Boussauw, Johan. Vogels in volksgeloof, magie en mythologie. Tirion, 2005.

Laan, K. ter. Folklore en Volkswijsheden in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Het Spectrum, 2005.