Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Holiday fairy visitors and Santa Mythology

This article is a shortened version of a topic in my book "A Worldbuilder's Guide to Fairies and Fairy Tales" 

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

The Night Before Christmas, as it is most commonly known now, is an important part of the most successful and intriguing piece of worldbuilding ever performed. By using ideas from multiple cultures and legends, the anonymous writer of this short poetic story was able to help reinvent a holiday to focus on family and children, while creating one of the few fairy figures still commonly believed in (if only by those of a younger age) and change our entire view of the world. 

The ultimate creators of the modern Santa were likely unaware of most of the history of fairy visitors, nor did this legend evolve the same in all places. Nor can we say that all winter visitors contributed to the idea of the modern Santa, but they are all interesting and can help us better understand fairylore.

Winter was a mixed time in the medieval and earlier periods of time. It was a hard time when cold, disease, and hunger became all the more threatening. Yet in agrarian and pastoral societies, the winter could offer some break from hard toil as work moved inside.

No one could do all the work alone; they needed the gods and fairies to help and bless them. Thus, people would invite these supernatural beings to their homes and villages to receive their blessings. 

 When the culture changed, the nature of the winter visitor changed. After all, these visitors serve a purpose within the culture. 

Although there have been hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of magical visitors, most of them fit within one of eight primary categories which include:  the gods of alcohol production, the gods of animal husbandry, trooping fairies seeking a place to rest, wild men of the mountains and forests, gods of household work, hunters of evil spirits, gods of children, and the dying god and carnival king.

Obviously, any one being could fit within many of these categories, and there are many more beings that visited to bring blessings to the house and village in other ways because people needed the deities for a number of reasons. This, of course, confuses people who want there to be some straight line between a single god or divine idea and the later Santa figure. Such a line doesn’t exist, however, for places like England and later America where the Santa myth was finalized, included a synchronization of Celts, Germans, and Romans from multiple regions who herded animals, farmed fields, and performed cottage industry. Thus, there were numerous concerns and ideas that would get merged together to eventually create the Santa we know.

Regardless of the form the winter visitor took, it’s important to keep in mind that a large part of the holidays were designed not only to celebrate these visitors but to lure them to people’s homes. Thus, people might leave donuts for Perchta and the spirits of children she travels with, or hold wild, inverted celebrations with a lot of cross-dressing dances for a carnival king. 

The Deity of Alcohol Production

One of the many tasks that commonly occurred in winter was the production of wine, cider, or similar beverages. What’s more, in many places the casks of alcohol were first opened in the winter. A large part of most winter was celebrating the fact that there was fresh meat from slaughtered animals, and just as important, the fact that people began making alcohol after the harvest and opened the previous year’s barrels. This tended to make these winter celebrations very ruckus and wild affairs. Among the Greeks and the Kalasha the gods of alcohol, Dionysus and Balimain respectively would visit the villages in the winter. People in Britain would sing to the spirits of the apple orchards or ask gods for a good bounty on apple and cider. It wasn’t unheard of for the Apple Tree Man to leave gifts for some people in the winter as well. 

Divinity of Household Chores

Just as winter was a time for opening the alcohol and slaughtering the animals for meat, it was also a time when people performed numerous household chores. They would spin thread, sew, weave, clean, and more. Fairies were a big part of these activities. In Scandinavian nations, tomte and nisse, household fairies give presents on Christmas. From Scotland to Northern Italy, the goddesses of spinning tended to visit around Christmas time


Animal Husbandry and Pastoralism

In pastoralist societies, people who would take their animals to eat in the summer, often in mountains, forest meadows, or fields, the places where the gods and fairies dwelt. In the winter, their animals would still need blessings from these gods, so it would make sense for people to pray for the gods and fairies to visit them. We see such traditions in the Yule goat of Scandinavia. Although, it is interesting that Scandinavia also had the tomte and nisse, spirits of the household who would also dwell in barns and bless animals and receive gifts of oatmeal with butter in return for this.


Wild Men

There were a multitude of wild mountain spirits that lived in the places where people would hunt and or herd animals. Some of these, such as Bellschniggle [also known as Pelznichol Bellsnickle and more], were likely connected with such Alpine spirits. In this tradition, people would dress in rough furs, and often masks, and go house to house delivering candy to and scaring children. In others, he would visit like Santa, flitting from house to house, unseen, he would slip down the chimney to leave presents in stockings.

Another wild man from Basque country is Olentzero. Legends about his origins vary, but in some he is the last or one of the last of the jentillak, the giants of the mountains. He, too, lived in the mountains, coming down during Christmas to give presents to children.



Children and Generosity

Children would likely struggle to survive the winter with hunger and cold (although at one time summer was also a time for disease thanks to the danger of bacteria). This would explain why so many spirits of the winter seemed eager to take the spirits of children, but it could also explain why people were eager for deities who would bless and protect children as well. 

Befana, from Italy, was a woman, said to have given Jesus the toys her dead child had played with, and so in return she became mother on Christmas to all the children of Italy. She flies around on a broom, bringing gifts to children. It has been suggested that she is connected with the goddess Strenia, the Roman goddess of the New Year and wellbeing, with the Christian element thrown in later to explain her.


Trooping Fairies

There were numerous fairies who would enter people’s homes to search for fresh water to bathe their children, a warm place to rest by the fire, a place to hold weddings, or get a little food. Others would come in to check up on the people of the village. In any case, these fairies often blessed the good and punished the bad. They helped shoemakers and others down on their luck by making shoes or performing similar tasks. Although not specifically winter related, an awful lot of the stories with them happen around that time. A widow in Italy encountered the Buffardello during this time. 


The Evil Spirit Hunter

Vampires, trolls, cruel fairies, and more were more active during the wintertime. On Christmas, at the cross-roads, vampires could often be found fighting, celebrating, and generally causing trouble. It makes sense, then, for the gods and fairies who hunt these beings and protect humanity from them to come out at Christmas. Perchta and Holda led the wild hunt to hunt down evil spirits, as did Odin.


Monday, November 22, 2021

Trampier's Heist - Masterpieces of Fantasy Art

This work of art, painted by Trampier for the cover of an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book is reminiscent of Pulp Magazine covers, using sensationalism to attract attention, such as the skeleton writing something during World War Two in Europe by Hannes Bok. 

 Trampier’s painting outshines them all in this goal however, while also achieving so much more.

Unlike pulp illustrations which promise horror, heroism, and sexually provocative situations Trampier’s painting promises comradery, alliance, and perhaps even friendship. For the terrifying setting, like a heist film, can enhance the depiction of friendship among the pairs of comrades in the painting.

There is a long history of Heist stories and tales of adventurous rogues such as Robinhood being more about skilled friends, working together to obtain some goal, than about obtaining treasure. Robin Hood works with a large band of Merry Men, who constantly exhibit joy in each other’s company, and in the freedom they have found outside of society.

Comradery, adventuring together with each character having different skill sets that are needed for the group to succeed is as important to Dungeons and Dragons as it is to heists, making the display of companionship in this painting as important as the vivid and eerie imagery.

Wright, Weissglass, and Casey performed a psychological experiment in which they had some groups play Dungeons and Dragons and found that “imaginative role-playing games can serve as an enjoyable medium for promoting (and protecting) moral growth. In particular, gaming that involves the encounter of morally relevant situations appears to facilitate a shift away from concern for one’s own personal interests and toward the interests of others.”

As with all great works of art, however, there are more layers to this painting than the surface idea. That of the fostering of camaraderie inherent in Roleplaying and the idea of groups of adventurers

Heists are also stories about rebelling against social limits. Treasure, after all, is something society denies to most of us, that many of us wish to have. Julian Hanich states that heist tales spring from a “desire to extend spatial options, to resist boundaries set by gates and walls, to rebel against artificially imposed limit.” Heist stories aren’t simply about greedy people obtaining treasure, they are about people eluding the repressiveness of society.

From the arch around the statue of the demon god, to the inky blackness of the room, it clearly feels as if this was a place hidden from the figures in the painting, and from the world. A forbidden place that the characters were able to break into.

Yet despite their seeming victory in getting here, none of the companions are celebrating. They seem to feel a sense of trepidation. One of the men trying to pry the ruby from the eye of the statue looks precarious, like they are ready to tumble down at any moment.

In the foreground the companions talking seem uncertain as well, as they pour over a scroll or a map, perhaps trying to figure out their next move. They all seem to know that this isn’t over, that something is about to happen. Yet they, like the viewers of the art don’t seem to know what that is. Perhaps the only one who does is the demon statue, grinning wildly beneath its ruby eyes.

The year before this painting was released Elvis died and the Apple II and Atari were released. It was as if the old world were being swept away by a new one. The world is, after all, filled with change and uncertainty and this perhaps explains the sense of uncertainty and trepidation one feels when looking at this art. And why no one in the painting is fully relaxed.

There is greed on display in this painting too. Such Greed is common in stories of companionship. The goal of friends in many stories is to obtain wealth. Yet, as already stated, heist stories aren’t about greed for the audience. They are about working with others towards a goal, and while it’s nice to have friends, it is even better to be working towards a singular goal with those friends. To have a sense of purpose. The search for treasure with friends is what makes stories like “Goonies” so engaging and emotionally satisfying.

Psychologists have found that Table-Top RPGs help provide psychological gratification in this area. That those who play them feel more fulfilled. Likely because they are more than just friends getting together to passively watch something.

Yet there is also something sinister about this painting, and its not the demon that takes up most of the focus. Rather, further inspection causes one to sense a separation between the characters depicted, making one wonder if they might not be the best of friends. They are isolated into their groups by walls of darkness. For some of these characters at least, the goal may very well be about treasure, about greed.

Psychology today states that; “Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental absence, inconsistency, or neglect. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a substitute for the love and security that he or she so sorely lacked. The pursuit of this substitute distracts from negative feelings, and its accumulation provides much needed comfort and reassurance.”

The trauma that leads to greed can also lead to a longing for friendship and love, showing that the two emotions can be equated. So, the idea of adventuring with friends for treasure makes sense, but perhaps the companions in this painting can never form a fully satisfying relationship.

This separation and tension is perhaps explained by the artist. A few years after completing this masterpiece Trampier left his life and art behind without telling anyone. For a time many thought he might have died, but as it turned out he simply left his old life and began driving a cab. When people found this out years later, he was offered a number of jobs related to art and RPGs but he refused them all. For reasons we will never know he felt disconnected from the others in the fantasy industry, and eventually didn’t want to have anything to do with them.

Yet in the short time he worked Trampier still left us with some of the most evocative works of art, which manage to balance depictions of deep seated human desires and anxieties.

This is the back cover of the book, which shows some characters working together to hall, their treasures from the dungeon while others stand guard. Any problems they had likely resolved, and that is a nice image to leave us with. 

Wright, Jen & Weissglass, Daniel & Casey, Vanessa. (2017). Imaginative Role-Playing as a Medium for Moral Development: Dungeons & Dragons Provides Moral Training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 60. 002216781668626. 10.1177/0022167816686263

Hanich, Julian "On Pros and Cons and Bills and Gates: The Heist Film as Pleasure" Film Philosophy Vol 24 Issu 3

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Fairy Backgrounds and Origins

Pinpointing an exact fairy’s origins is often difficult, but there are many for which an origin is specifically given. These origins include; That of another ‘hidden people’, ancestral spirits, tutelary deities and nature spirits, familiar spirits, and former gods. 

Another people

When the Mansi and Greek gods first created the world, they created an original people to act as the heroes of a golden age. These other peoples from a golden age would later become the pupi and daemons respectively. They would watch over the humans that came later, helping and sometimes hindering us – even as they typically remained invisible.

The dwarves and presumably the later zwerg of Germanic mythology arose from the flesh of the giant that was slain to create the earth, and there are many stories in Germanic, Scandinavian, and Celtic lore about God choosing to make half of Eve’s children hidden from the rest of humanity. In Iceland the Huldufólk are one such people who live in underground homes and rocks.

Such other peoples are often so much like humans it is difficult to tell the difference, until they use their magic to do something seemingly impossible.

Tutelary Gods and Owners of the Land

Two hundred years ago, in Ireland, before a family of humans moved into a new home they would leave food in the home as an offering to the spirits who owned the land the home was on. If the spirits ate the food the family would move in, with full knowledge that the fairies had accepted them. If the fairies didn’t eat the food, however, the house would sit empty until someone came along that the fairies would accept. In Sweden there was an Island that couldn’t be used for anything as the spirits of it didn’t allow farming or construction on their land, that is, until someone tried growing hay on it. The spirits of that island enjoy the taste of dairy so much that they decided their land could be used to feed the cows.

Before the humans there were spirits of the land, or at least fairies that had already claimed a place as their own. This is one reason that in Ireland and Mari-El there are clusters of trees in the middle of farmland, for that space is still claimed by the gods of those lands. The tutelary gods themselves have a number of different origins. Some are the gods of the land or water themselves. In “The Kalevala” there is a lake that was offended by the people in a region, because they were bandits and immoral, and so it flew off to a new home, where the people treated them with respect by building dams to calm the water, planted trees to shade it, and acted morally.

In Dartmoor a wealthy man was surveying the land to establish farms, when an old man came and warned him that Old Crocken, the spirit of Dartmoor, had said anyone who dared scratch his back with a plough would be reduced to poverty and suffering. Obviously, the wealthy man ignores this warning and is indeed reduced to poverty. This story, short as it is, leaves the distinct impression that Old Crocken is indeed the spirit of the land, that he feels the ploughs themselves.

While the lives of many nymphs were tied to springs, and the nymphs would die when these died up, just as many more were tied to trees and would die when the tree died.

The exact form and nature of tutelary deities was hugely variable. Some were previous people from a golden age, the spirits of dead heroes, nymphs, dragons, and giants.


Humans often became or joined the fairies when we died. The spirits of the dead were often to be seen partying and walking with the fairy courts and it wasn’t atypical for ancestral spirits to help someone who was in danger from their fellow members of the fairy court. What’s more the fairy Queen’s and Kings of Scotland frequently sent the spirits of the dead to teach new witches the art of magic and to act as mediators between the human and fairy worlds.

Banshees were the spirits of women who had died young that came back to watch over and care for their family. Sometimes they would invisibly help family members play chess, while at others they would weep and cry when they knew something bad was going to happen to a family member they loved.

Many house fairies throughout Europe are cast as patriarchs or other male (and sometimes female) ancestral spirits who continue to watch over the homes of their decedents.

Former Deities

In ‘Preserving the Spell’ Maggi points out that there are Italian fairy tales in which the role of Venus has been replaced by an ogress, yet such a replacement can make sense when she was acting in cruel and destructive ways. Indeed, the words orco and ogre comes from Orcus, an ancient god of death and punishment. As people came to worship other things, the Celtic gods and Roman gods when those people conquered the British Isles and Italy, for example, it would make sense for the worship of the old gods to continue as that of lesser and displaced divinities. Certainly, after Christianity took over people would still go to make offerings at springs and trees sacred to the fairies, would still remember them in charms and festivals, but they became small things, or leaders of the fairies. Larson points out that ”In some cases, the nymphs were identified with indigenous deities (hence with non-elite populations) through a process of syncretism…” It is difficult to tell, of course, when such a being was merely a tutelary deity or other spirit, and when they were once a powerful god. Certainly, however, it does appear that the elves of Anglo-Saxon were once equated with the gods and worshipped by people with offerings and prayers. The folklorist Alric Hall indicates that the Elves that eventually became the little prancing creatures of England may have originally been the Vanir, their king being one of the Gods. Similarly, Gwyn ap Nudd in Welsh lore was likely a god of winter and the forest, who was billed as the King of the Fairies in that land. Still, people would pray to ask him for protection on entering the forest, even if he had been somewhat diminished by the importance of the Christian deity.


Preserving the Spell Basile's "The Tale of Tales" and Its Afterlife in the Fairy-Tale Tradition Armando Maggi 

Familiar Spirits

Familiar Spirits Shamanism has been a part of humanities’ cultures for a long time and was, at one time, the most widespread religious phenomenon outside of the belief in spirits and deities, (Winkelman, 1990). Those people who lived in shamanistic cultures presumed that there were magical creatures who wanted to teach people magic, to work for people, and to guide them. In England, these shamanistic helping spirits are often referred to as familiar spirits and are frequently fairies. Indeed, the fairy-like nature of these helping spirits is common throughout Europe. "Cunning Woman, Karin Persdotter... learned sorcery from a male water spirit referred to as ‘the man of the stream,' ‘the neck,' or ‘the river…' nature spirits could be understood as more tangible, more available, and more inclined towards direct intervention in the material world." (Petersen)

Many cunning people (witches) In Denmark and the like would learn their powers from trolls, while in England, Jersey, Guernsey, Cornwall, Scotland, etc. they would learn their magic from the fairies, often being whisked away to celebrations in the fairy court with the king and queen of the fairies of their region.