Saturday, December 24, 2011


Associated with: Germanic mythology
Also known as: Klaubauf, Bartl, Niglobartl, Wubartl, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Gumphinckel, Krampusz
Earliest recorded mention: unknown, but BCE
Major texts: None, really, as Krampus is an oral tradition, but Austrian governments have been trying to discourage belief in the Krampus since at least the 1930s.

While naughty American children might feel mildly anxious about coal in their stockings at Christmas, Austrian and Hungarian children have spent centuries worrying about the Krampus, a forest demon whose stories predate Christ. Krampus doesn't bother with coal in stockings. He whips children with birch switches or drags them off to hell in a tub that he carries on his back.

The world's a dangerous place for children. In the days before electricity and central heating, it was even more dangerous. A child who wandered away from her parents or stayed out too late at night could be lost for good, frozen to death, snatched by evil strangers or mauled to death by wild animals. It only takes three or four days to die of thirst, and not much longer to starve to death in winter. Before floodlights, helicopters, fingerprints or photographs on the back of milk cartons, parents could keep children safe only by emphasizing the dangers of disobedience. These dangers form the basis of many folktales, from Little Red Riding Hood (keep to the path, don't talk to strangers) to Snow White (don't take food from scary old ladies) to Hansel & Gretel (seriously, don't take food from scary old ladies).

Krampus was the parents' tactical nuclear weapon, and too valuable to abandon even once the southern Alps embraced Christianity. Krampus survived as traveling companion to St. Nicholas, dealing with the naughty children as St. Nick hands out candy, nuts and presents to the good ones.

I'm glad I didn't know about Krampus until fairly recently. I was anxious enough as a child, and almost always worked myself into nervous hysteria at some point before every Christmas. Santa Claus, like God, knew all my meanest thoughts and impulses, and kept score of every pinched brother and undone homework assignment. If I'd had Krampus to deal with on top of that, I'd never have made it to adulthood.

Here's wishing you all a Krampus-free holiday, and all the blessings of the season. Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Associated with: Greek and Roman mythology
Also known as: Cronos
Earliest recorded mention: c. 700 BCE
Major texts: Hesiod's Theogony, Macrobius' Saturnalia

For the past several years, the one consistent social event of my week has been Tuesday night pub trivia at The Liberal Cup in Hallowell. I was lucky enough to join a team that usually does pretty well, though more and more often lately they seem to do best on nights I'm not there. It's not a coincidence, I'm afraid; all too often, I'm absolutely sure about things I'm absolutely wrong about.

Last night it was the question of why Christmas falls on December 25, which has only been the formal practice of the Catholic church (and its successor Christian religions) since the fourth century. Quizmaster/Brewmaster Geoff asked what Roman celebration this was specifically meant to supplant. The answer he was looking for was "the winter solstice." The answer our team gave — which I'm sticking by, even though it got us no points — was Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was, in fact, a solstice celebration, in honor of the great and ancient god Saturn, patron of agriculture, justice and time. Saturn was a Titan, one of the children of Earth and Sky, and the father of most of the gods of Olympus. Told that one of his sons would overthrow him, Saturn devoured his children as they were born. His wife, Ops (Rhea in Greek mythology) finally managed to deceive him after the birth of her sixth child, Jupiter (Zeus). She gave Saturn a stone wrapped in a blanket, which he ate; Jupiter/Zeus grew up to lead a rebellion against the Titans, installing himself and his siblings as rulers on Olympus.

What I'm less clear on, and would like to know more about, is what was supposed to have happened to Saturn and the Titans once they were defeated. Gods are immortal. Saturn was conquered, not killed, and cast into Tartarus, the lowest point in the universe. He was imprisoned for all time with his fellow Titans — but he was never quite forgotten, and in the later years of Roman Empire he became a symbol of a mythical Golden Age, when humans lived in harmony with each other and nature, and feasted off the bounty of the land without having to do any real work. The Romans even built a temple to Saturn, right on the Forum — so his defeat was not exactly permanent, and I'd like to know whether Saturn's followers honored him in Tartarus, or believed that he had somehow escaped.

Saturnalia, which began as a single day (Dec. 17) and became a week-long celebration, commemorated this Golden Age with feasting and revelry, and particularly the suspension of regular order for the duration of the festival. During Saturnalia, masters served their slaves, and slaves became masters; people partied, gambled, wore outlandish clothing, and took various other social liberties. The festival began with a ritual sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, and concluded with a day of gift-giving on December 23. It was celebrated well into the fourth century, and its practices influenced similar holiday celebrations in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism as well as Christianity.

It feels appropriate to me that a year-end celebration would honor both justice and time, as we tally up the year's gains and losses, evaluate successes and failures, make amends where necessary and plan for the year ahead. Happy Solstice to everyone.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Associated with: Christianity, especially Catholicism
Also known as: Miriam, Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin, the Immaculate Conception, many others
Earliest recorded mention: c. 70
Major texts: The Gospel of Luke

I'm courting trouble here, because the whole point of the Church's reverence for Mary is that she is not divine. She is human, and her humanity is what makes her so special and precious. She is like us but better than us, and what makes her better than us is the mystery of her Immaculate Conception, which the Catholic Church celebrates today.

The Immaculate Conception is one of the great stumbling blocks of Catholicism for non-Catholics, and also one of the hardest doctrines to explain to outsiders. It's reckless of me as a layperson even to try, but that's never stopped me before.

The Immaculate Conception is too often confused with "virgin birth," the Catholic belief that Mary conceived and bore Jesus without having sexual intercourse with a man. But the two doctrines come together in the story that introduces us to Mary: her visit from the angel Gabriel, as reported in the gospel of Luke.

Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son to be called Jesus, who will rule over the House of Jacob forever. Mary asks how this could be, since she is a virgin. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and that the child will be the Son of God. He also tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth, long thought barren, would bear a child as well, "for nothing is impossible to God."

Think about what this would have meant to Mary. She was young, probably only in her mid-teens. She was engaged to be married to Joseph, a carpenter, and looking forward to a happy, normal life. What would any ordinary person have done in this situation? You or I would have done what Sarah did when the angel told her she would have a son in her old age. We would have laughed. Or we would have said, "No," because that was not part of our own plans, and would have interfered — maybe even have subjected us to humiliation, pain, terror and grief, as indeed it did to Mary.

Instead, Mary said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me." This, right here, is the essential mystery of the Immaculate Conception. Unlike the rest of us, Mary was born without the original sin that drives human beings to choose our will over God's. That is what Immaculate Conception means: conceived without sin, born without the fundamental weakness that keeps us separate from God. Mary did not have to work at her faith. She never held herself separate from God. She never preferred her own choices.

That is not a life the rest of us can really imagine. Our own selves are always too present, too loud, too demanding. I am not entirely sure it's something the rest of us should even aspire to. In real life it would look too much like madness, and isn't presuming to know God's will the sin of pride? Mary had a uniquely mysterious relationship with God even before the conception of Jesus. She serves as a role model and as a bridge between us lesser humans and the Almighty, and it is this we celebrate on the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Holly King

Associated with: Celtic religions, Neopaganism
Also known as: Lleu Llaw Gyffes, Lugh, Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Greenwood
Earliest recorded mention: Depends on whether you buy the theory
Major texts: The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The one thing this year's blog theme has shown me is how little I know about this subject, despite a lifelong interest in myths and comparative religions. I have not, for instance, read all of The White Goddess by the poet Robert Graves. If anyone wants to give me a copy for Christmas (or of Graves' memoir, Goodbye to All That, or of his collected poems) I'd be grateful.

Robert Graves is best known for the historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, although his poetry deserves to be better read. He was a complicated man — to put it mildly — who did a good bit of damage to the people who loved him. He was a Romantic in the most complete and classic sense of that word, meaning that he considered emotions rather than reason the most powerful life forces. Carl Jung's theories of archetypes buried in a collective subconscious made sense to him, and The White Goddess is "a historical grammar of poetic myth" that traces all Western mythology to a single belief system involving a triple goddess of love, birth, and death (maiden, mother, crone) and her adjunct deities.

Among the mythic archetypes Graves identified were the Holly King and the Oak King, gods who battle for the world twice a year but rely on each other for life and identity. The Holly King presides over the waning of the year, from the Summer Solstice to the Winter Solstice; at the Winter Solstice, the Oak King triumphs, and life returns to the world.

Up here in Maine, we feel this waning acutely, and it does carry a feeling of portent and doom. The sun will set at 4:00 this afternoon; we are losing more than a minute of light a day. We battle it by decorating for Christmas: lights and greenery, things that sparkle, food full of butter and sugar to carry us through the months ahead. It was smart of early Christianity to co-opt this festival for its own purposes. The historical Jesus was probably born in early autumn; almost all of our western Christmas customs come from the old feast of Yule. The official stories might correlate Santa Claus to St. Nicholas or St. Basil, but the image of the bearded man in red is all Holly King.

My sisters gave me a light box for my birthday. It does help, though I feel irritable rather than sad, which probably doesn't make me any easier to be around.