December 1st, 1895
As we move towards our darkest night, the winter solstice, I find my attention is required by seasonal ceremonies, as my attention veers toward ways to which I was not privy to during my own childhood. Of the very many folks who we rub shoulders with from day to day, there are countless opportunities to share in their creeds and customs, many of which culminate this time of year. As a scientist and a scholar, coincidences are not generally to be relied on as satisfactory explanations. Therefore, I believe that in such tales, however disparate they appear, there runs a common thread of truth that unites them. Perhaps this thread starts somewhere far in our murky past: a quiet, still time; the deep midwinter of our collective history.
My interest lies in the dark specificities of some midwinter traditions. I will focus on those of Europe, though since coming across these findings I am certain that other regions and faiths have their fair share of midwinter monsters. While one gives, another takes away. It is a rejection of nature to assume otherwise.
The first, and most relevant belongs to Francophone peoples and the Low Countries. Père Fouettard, Old Man Whipper, was once a butcher who was known to lure children to their deaths. His name is now invoked to terrify naughty children and warn them that they may be headed to a similar fate. The story originates in medieval France, so it's unlikely that we'll know for sure if there is an association to our own Butcher. There is innate wariness towards those who carve meat.
There are similar figures throughout France and Germany. They go by many names, for instance, the German Knecht Ruprecht and French Hans Trapp, their archetypal identity remains consistent. These are elderly male companions of the benevolent Saint Nicholas. Some tales threaten children with only a light beating, while others threaten them with cannibalism. Their correlation with Saint Nicholas forms a pantheon of sorts, one which likely has its roots in a pre-Christian winter celebration.
Frau Perchta, a witch, performs a similar role as the male figures and emerges from further East. Going by many names, for instance, Frau Holle or Frau Gode, she again seems to originate out of an ancient pre-Christian origin, some attributing her evolution from Frigg and Celtic figures. She is similarly brutal, threatening children with disembowelment with an iron axe, and perhaps stuffing them with straw.
Now that the human figures are covered, we can move onto the non-human. In Iceland when the winter is especially brutal, a giant ogre Gryla descends from her cave to hunt children, to cook in the stew. She is accompanied by thirteen Yule Lads, pranksters who harass townsfolk. Also lurking in the countryside is the Yule Cat, a vicious feline that stalks those who've misbehaved. Perhaps it is rational that a place as hostile as Iceland in winter would have a great many threats in wintertime. But such anthropological and meteorically informed readings should not impress upon the serious work of occultism.
The strange and deathly apparition of Mari Lwyd stalks the valleys of Wales. With the visage of a horses skull, and draped in a long travelling cloak, this figure visits from house to house at midwinter. However, the precise meaning seems to have been lost at some point, buried in a long-forgotten and ancient ritual. She represents death, perhaps once a bringer of fertility corrupted by some irresistible and dark power.
In the highlands of Scotland lies another legend. With the long beak of a magpie and a ragged cloak of brambles, the Ragman is a different sort of menace to naughty children. The Ragman lives on the edges, always moving unnervingly just out of sight. In the depths of the night, he steals gifts from the undeserving. It's said that his lair, somewhere high in the mountains, is stacked high with his spoils. Generations of ungiven gifts rusting and rotting away.
The most famous of all these traditions, and perhaps the rawest, is the Alpine Krampus. A half-goat, half-demon monster that follows Saint Nicholas, threatening those children who have performed misdeeds. Immediately, one notes its similarity to other figures listed prior. However, while appearing human, the Krampus has the visage of the Horned God, that devil worshipped by witches.
Winter is not just a time of human hunger, but spiritual hunger and that which lurks beneath the veil of reality is subject to it too. The monsters enumerated here share so many parallels with the grotesques we face daily in the swamp. Is there a connection? It would be irresponsible of me to assume not. While our own, softened, American traditions seemed to have done away with these menacing companions, we would do well to remember the dark underside of the winter season and of the corruption that lies at the heart of man.
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