Blog Post 217 – North American Winter Monsters

(Author as Winter Monster, 2016 Philadelphia Parade of Spirits)

To those who follow this site and my work, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the Krampus. If you aren’t quite sure what that is, he’s the diabolical and fearsome companion to St. Nicholas found primarily in Alpine parts of Europe like Austria’s Bad Gastein. He travels with the Saint, often wearing chains to symbolize the triumph of the holy over the wicked (but also because they rattle and make noise, which is why many Krampussen also wear cow bells of ridculous sizes on their furry costumes). The Krampus–usually portrayed by a young man from the village, or several young men in the case of trooping Krampussen (“many-Krampus-ed”) groups–then threatens children for any naughtiness that might be in their wee permanent records, while the Saint hands out gifts and mercy, restraining his hellish compatriot.

The figure of the Krampus intrigues me, because I have always enjoyed the holiday season as both one of light and one of darkness. We often see the glitz of Christmas lights or Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, but we sometimes forget this is also the time of year for those “scary ghost stories” mentioned in the famous song about just where we are in the ranking of wonderful times of the year (hint: it’s the most). I even love Krampus so much that I essentially did my doctoral dissertation on him (well, the amazing Parade of Spirits in Philadelphia, which began as a Krampuslauf, or “Krampus procession” in its early years). I also love his other cousins in the European pantheon of winter terror: Pere Foutard from France or Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”) from the Low Countries in North Central Europe. There are also figures like the belly-slicing Perchta (or Berchta) in German-speaking regions, or the Icelandic ogress Gryla. The Italian Christmas witch La Befana is always fun (unless you make her mad), and the trooping Tomten from Scandinavia or the Yule Lads from Iceland also bring a good bit of ruckus into the fray. These figures are all on the ascendancy in popular culture, too, with Krampus, Gryla, and the Yule Lads showing up in last year’s holiday episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a fairly popular (if somewhat off-kilter) film called Krampus released back in 2015, and references in shows like American Dad and Grimm. If you are interested in the history and variety of these creatures, I highly recommend both Al Ridenour’s The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas (2016) and Linda Raedisch’s The Old Magic of Christmas (2013). And, of course, you could always listen to our previous episodes on Krampus and Christmas monsters (which feature both of those authors).

Recently, however, I’ve seen an article from 2014 bouncing around various social media feeds discussing the lack of such holiday monstrosities on this side of the Atlantic. The write-up, from author Caitlin Hu on the Quartz site, claims that “Christmas in America has…lost its dark side,” pointing toward Puritan movements against the holiday and efforts to sanitize it over the past two centuries. Some of this she lays at the feet of Clement Clark Moore, widely believed to have been the author of the famed “Visit from St. Nicholas” poem more commonly known by its opening lines, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Hu specifically covers a lot of the monsters found in Europe (with some stellar photos of various Krampussen), and does mention a few candidates from North America, but here I would push back just a bit and say that our dance with the devils of December (and January) hardly ended with the appearance of Moore’s “jolly old elf.”

While it is largely true that our side of the pond has much less in the way of masked revelers parading in devilish costume during the holiday season (although not entirely true, as I will show in a moment), we still have our fair share of weird and wicked beasties roaming around in the cold and snowy months. In the sections below, I have outlined in very brief form a number of such winter creatures in our lands. They are quite different from their Old World counterparts in some cases, although in other examples the connections will be crystal clear (or at least clearer than a stocking full of coal). Before we get to the Old World, however, we should probably start with what was here to begin with.

Coyote – One of the big misses in the Quartz article is the wide swing around indigenous winter monsters. To be fair, Hu’s aim was much more squarely at the Christmas devils associated with European folklore of St. Nicholas, so it’s not really surprising that Native figures like the trickster Coyote was off of the radar. But Native storytellers from a vast variety of tribes have long-standing associations and taboos about telling tales in winter. Nations like the Ho-Chunk of the Wisconsin area or the Blackfoot in Central and Western Canada restrict certain stories to the months when snow is on the ground. The Acoma Pueblo people specifically hold their stories about the wily, tricksy, and sometimes extremely dangerous Coyote until those winter months. I’m actually avoiding linking any Coyote stories directly here because of those taboos, and even famed folklorist Barre Toelken destroyed many of his notes on Pueblo and Dine (Navajo) stories because of those restrictions once the time for reading them had passed. In general, Coyote’s character is one of cunning and deception, but also occasional help, and he is fanged and furry, which makes him a good candidate for a Winter Monster, if you belong to a cultural group that recognizes him.

The Wendigo – Another Native figure of snow-bound terror is the Ojibwe Wendigo. This is a monster a bit like a werewolf in some tellings, or a bit like a vampire or incubus in others. The Wendigo–sometimes found in variations among tribes like the Cree and Saulteaux–haunts wild places in the winter and is sometimes thought to have a heart of ice. It is enormous and gaunt, and usually represents a human who violated a cultural taboo (often cannibalism) to become a hunter of men in the frozen months. In this case the winter paucity of food may be what ironically creates the Wendigo, as it might drive a desperate person to consume their fellow humans. The Wendigo can often lure you by calling your name, as in perhaps the most well-known variation of the story found in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark called “Burning Feet,” itself based on Algernon Blackwood’s loose adaptation of Native folklore.

The Belsnickel – For fans of the hit TV show “The Office,” the Belsnickel will be immediately recognizable. Pennsylvania Dutch farmer Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) shows up for the office holidays dressed as the fur-clad, soot-covered creature, inquiring if all present have been “Impish” or “Admirable.” While the show plays the character for laughs, the Belsnickel was a fairly common figure in the Pennsylvania Dutch (or German-speaking) regions of the eastern and central United States. There is some speculation that he is essentially the merging of the Krampus-like devils of the Old World and St. Nicholas, with his name essentially deriving from pelz (meaning “furs”) and Nikolas (for the saint), thus making him a “furry St. Nick” of sorts. However, the path from the Old World to the new is not linear, and in many ways the Belsnickel is a distinctively North American figure and arguably the progenitor of our concepts of Santa Claus (with a little help from Moore’s poem, Dutch influences, and the work of commercial artist Thomas Nast in the nineteenth century). He often represents the phase of life between youth and adulthood, played by and older teen or young twenty-something boy who has outgrown other holiday activities but who still wants to participate (and get some alcohol on the side, since the houses he’d visit would usually buy his departure with a drink). Hu incorrectly asserts in her article that “the Belsnickel is practically extinct” (her italics). While he has seen a decline, the Belsnickel shows up in a number of places, including Canada, where folklorist Richard Bauman found people doing Belsnickel processions in Nova Scotia in the 1960s and 70s. Numerous accounts in regional newspapers and magazines like The Pennsylvania Dutchman recall Belsnickel encounters in the mid-twentieth century, and Gerald Milnes found evidence of Belsnickling groups in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia well into the twentieth century, where it was sometimes also called Kriss Kringling. While the figure is not as widespread as he once was, even where I live there are two Belsnickels operating out of local history museums in central Pennsylvania, and he’s a regular feature at the Philadelphia Parade of Spirits as well.

The Jersey Devil – I’m sure there are people already clutching their Snooki-designed pearls at this one, but hear me out. Much of the lore regarding the famed “Leeds Devil” situates its main activity during the winter months, especially December and January (I count January as the holiday season because a number of “Old Christmas” traditions extend into that month). There’s the famed (if unproven) encounter between the exiled Joseph Bonaparte and the Devil in the early nineteenth century, usually related as occurring while the ground is covered in snow. The most famous outbreak of sightings happened during the week of January 16th-23rd in 1909 all throughout the Delaware Valley, even as far as Philadelphia. These attacks also get the Devil associated with a Maryland Winter Monster called the Snallygaster. A Greenwich, New Jersey encounter apparently happened sometime in early December, based on the date it was reported (in a copy of the Dec. 15th Daily Times of Woodbury) and another run-in was reported “one winter night” in 1972.  There are certainly also non-winter encounters with this figure, but a lot of the lore seems to show it as most highly active during the winter months, so why not embrace the Jersey Devil as a Winter Monster, too?

The Beast of Bladenboro – In late December and early January of 1953-1954, the town of Bladenboro, North Carolina was terrorized by a “beast,” thought to be some kind of vampiric canine or feline, although plenty of people speculate it may have been a bear as well. Whatever the creature was, it managed to kill several pets and farm animals and raised the alarm among the townspeople. Most reports of the creature seemed to ascribe monstrous proportions to its shape, and when a local farmer eventually killed a large bobcat and claimed the terror was over, few believed that to be the case. The Beast of Bladenboro made only this one appearance, but has gone on to inspire a local celebration called Beast Fest, traditionally held late in October (yes, a bit early for “official” Winter Monster status, but between the Halloween and Christmas timing of the festival and the creature’s alleged attacks, it seems like at least a semi-viable candidate). The creature’s resemblance to a cat or a dog is also notable, as there are long-standing traditions of monstrous Yule Cats and sinister Christmas werewolf lore in the Old World as well (see Linda Raedisch’s book for a great section on both beasts).

These are hardly the only critters we could list, of course. Each region will have its variations and changes (for example, Snallygasters vs. Jersey Devils and the Belsnickels of Canada vs. the Belsnickels of Lancaster County, PA). Yet these monsters represent a long-held and lingering tendency for people to crave the darker side of the holidays, even as they are embracing the light. As Al Ridenour puts it when discussing the long-standing tradition of terrifying children with Krampussen, “A child’s delight in a certain measure of fear never goes out of style” (p. 248). It’s all well and good to have your tinsel and brightly-wrapped packages under the tree, but maybe consider hanging a local monster in the branches. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like a glaring Jersey Devil nestled among the lights, after all.

Thanks for reading,

-Cory

References

Photo by Author. CC Share-and-share-alike license. Illustrations: “The Jersey Devil,” from Philadelphia Post (1909) (Wikimedia) ; Illustration from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (Onderdonk, 1848). Both images in the Public Domain.

Blog Post 214 – The Naked Witch

And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead;
-From Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland

Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1896 [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of modern witchcraft intersects with our bodies. We expect to experience magic as a visceral force, dance ecstatically, use the remnants of bodies–both plant and animal–in our spells, or alternately slather or dab our bodies with magical concoctions to gain a little advantage in a harsh world. In particular, some branches of witchcraft religion, such as British Traditional Wicca, emphasize the importance of bodily acceptance and embrace the human body as a source of power. That power, according to Wiccan progenitor Gerald Gardner, is pulled from the freeing of an “electromagnetic field” by the removal of clothing (although Gardner did allow that he thought “slips or Bikinis could be worn without unduly causing loss of power,” for what that is worth (and please note, I’m not particularly taking Gardner to task here, nor disavowing the traditions he launched, but pointing out that his theories about nudity were influenced largely by his own ideas and experiences).

 

Recently, people engaged with magic–especially magic and ritual where engagement means contact with other people–have been raising their voices over systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of elders and community members. Women and young people seem particularly vulnerable as targets of groping, unwanted pressure for sexual initiation, or having bodies simultaneously treated as sacred and sexualized as objects. I am not going to recapitulate the entire discussion of these abuses here, although I will highly recommend spending some time really processing posts like the tough-but-vital ones posted by Sarah Lawless in recent months. Her writing has been excellent and influential, and I have seen countless victims (including many men who experience abuse in neo-Pagan circles) step forward to talk about what has happened to them and insist that it stop (and stop it should!).

 

That is not my aim today, however, although my topic is tangled into the net of that discussion. I was curious about the role of the witch’s body, specifically the witch’s naked body, as a component of her power or her craft. I knew well the line from Leland’s Aradia quoted above, but I also know that Leland’s sources do not always speak to a broad experience (or even an historically verifiable one, although I value much of his work). Leland’s goddess insists that nudity is an unshackling from the bonds of slavery and a sign of freedom, and Gardner seems to have run with nudity as a liberating experience as well within his own coven. Yet we also see nudity being used to degrade witches, shame them, or force them into the role of living succubus or “red woman” seductress. Where does nudity fit into a New World magical practice? Are there precedents for nude practice, does nudity have any value in practical magic, and does nudity still matter today?

 

There are essentially two situations in which witches might practice nude in New World witchcraft: alone and in groups. However, even here there are some gray areas, because when a witch is “alone,” they are often not entirely alone. They may be meeting an Otherworldly entity for an initiation rite, for example, and be expected to offer their body up for sexual congress, or even a simple washing ritual. In Appalachian lore, however, the favors were not always sexual, as some initiation rites involved offering a literal piece of one’s body, where “the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger.”

 

Just as often, these initiation rites involve a solitary witch stripping bare, but only as a precursor to other solitary action: cursing or shooting at the moon or (more practically) wading into a river or stream to wash away a previous baptism in some symbolic way. The sexualization of the witch in these encounters is virtually nil, except as perhaps a titillating detail for the listener or a matter of practical necessity for the witch. The act itself is symbolic because the witch is abandoning a previous life–usually a Christian one–and the removal of clothing is much like the washing away of the baptism.

 

Other parts of the New World also held that witches might strip bare on their own as an abandonment of social order. That was the common perception in Puritan New England, where witches were believed to travel into the woods to meet with “devils” or “Indians” (who were sometimes regarded by European colonists as essentially interchangeable). The idea that witches practiced magic in the buff, however, varied immensely from place to place. Sometimes it is included as a detail in stories of hag-riding, for example, especially in cases where the witch needed to apply a flying ointment of some kind before taking off.

 

AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

Group rituals are often a mixed bag as well, since witches might work in conjunction with another witch at times or meet up with a number of other witches for special events (such as during Walpurgisnacht-type celebrations). In one Ozark story, a would-be witch undergoes her initiation when she “removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s [non-believer’s] tombstone.” This rite is witnessed by two other nude initiates, but the sexual congress is relegated solely to the witch and “the Devil,” and not any human initiates. One tale of a pair of sister-witches on Roan Mountain in the Smokies tells of two witches removing their clothing before greasing up and flying up the chimney, for example. Other accounts describe groups of women slipping out of their clothes–or more potently, their skins–before flying off to perform dances. Details of sexual congress appear in European accounts, but are often minimized in North American ones, and frequently even the more diabolical descriptions of group nudity tend not to emphasize sexuality. A number of African tales about witches do indicate that they might have traveled naked to do their work (which was often desecrating graves or hunting children, work that hopefully contemporary witches are not doing). In these cases, however, the nudity was often solitary and never sexual, as the emphasis was on the witch’s wildness and cannibalistic nature rather than her sexual one. I’d also note that in cases where groups of nude witches meet, they are often all one gender (with the exception being the presence of an Otherworldly figure like the Devil), and that when someone intrudes on magical nudity–as happens in the Roan Mountain story–that person is usually punished.

 

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men, she recounts an initiation ceremony experienced at the hands of Louisiana conjure-man Luke Turner (who claimed a lineage with Marie Leveau). In that ritual, Hurston was indeed stripped of her clothing and required to lie on a couch with no food for three days while she waited for a spirit to claim her. Then she was carefully bathed and had a symbol painted upon her, and finally “dressed in new underwear and a white veil…placed over [her] head” after which no one was allowed to speak to her until the ritual was concluded. The nakedness here is again symbolic, but Hurston very much demonstrates that there is no sexual component to it. She is most powerful during the ritual when she is veiled, then eventually has the veil lifted and she is given a “crown of power.”

 

Some of the most sensational accounts that involve witchcraft-like practices and nudity are those that come out of places like New Orleans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or out of Europe in the early Modern period around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In both cases, one group sought to exoticize another group and ascribing their rituals with depraved sexual fantasies made the stories of witchcraft all the more thrilling (in the same way that many horror films use flesh to both allure and repulse). Simply reading the Malleus Maleficarum opens up a realm of psychosexual fixations that reflect far more on the priest writing the stories than on any reported activities of witches. Scholar Ronald Hutton links some of these concerns to the long entanglement of witches as magic workers to night-stalking demons like succubi, who stole semen from sleeping men and tormented them with sexual dreams. The New Orleans press, in a similar vein, frequently featured stories of “primitive” African American “voodoo dances,” in which scores of naked or nearly-naked black men would dance. The scandal of these stories would escalate–often with particularly dire consequences to the black men–when papers reported white women joining the dances, again often nude. In these sensationalized accounts, the stripping of the body was highly sexualized and often showed the readers of such stories that magic, witchcraft, voodoo, or other forbidden topics would inevitably corrupt those who came too close. Those who know much about Vodoun as a religion, however, know that nudity is not typical to the formal celebrations and rituals to honor the lwa or invite them into a practitioner’s body. Clothing is often very specifically a part of the rites, with specific colors like white being appropriate when performing music or dance or offerings to invite divine interactions.

 

As often as there are stories of witches removing clothing, there are stories of witches slipping their skins off entirely–something I imagine most witches today won’t do readily–or donning animal skins as a precursor to shapeshifting, as often happened with the skinwalkers of Dine/Navajo tradition. Such practices were also echoed by those who hunted witches, as in Zuni rituals designed to help cleanse a community of witches when witch-hunters wore bear skins to enable them to track witches wearing the skins of creatures like coyotes. It’s worth noting as well that in the Zuni world, many of the accused witches were men, and contact with them required a special water-cleansing ceremony in which those afflicted with witchcraft would be stripped and bathed.

 

Albert Joseph Penot [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

So do witches go about in the nude? Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that they don’t. At the same time, do they have to go around in the nude? Absolutely not. Plenty of stories show witches putting on special clothing such as a fur or a veil in order to work witchcraft, and it does not seem to interfere at all with Gardener’s “electromagnetic field” (which, to be fair, even he conceded was not absolutely bound by clothing). Most crucially, except in sensationalized accounts, the nudity involved with witch stories is not particularly sexualized in the New World. There are many tales in which a magic worker might be bare but their nakedness is a symbolic act for them alone, and never an invitation for another person to violate their body. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases, we see examples like Hurston’s where a nude witch (or magical practitioner) is treated with extreme reverence and respect, rather than objectified for their body. Only when the nude witch is caught in the gaze of someone outside of her practice (and by someone untrustworthy) does her nakedness become a sexual problem, which seems to say much more about the one doing the gazing (and I, for one, am all for reviving a Euripedes-esque tearing asunder of those who would impose themselves on any gathering of witches in any state of undress).

 

Naked or not, the witch is powerful. Naked or not, the witch is not to be messed with. Naked or not, the witch does her work, and it is best to let her be.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References & Further Reading
  1. Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World. NYU Press, 2000.
  2. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Univ. of California Press, 2011 ed.
  3. Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. DaCapo Press, 1996.
  4. Darling, Andrew. “Mass Inhumation & the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest.” American Anthropologist 100 (3), 1998. 732-52.
  5. Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson, 1998 ed.
  6. Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated African American Folktales. Liveright, 2017.
  7. Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. Citadel, 2004 ed.
  8. Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules & Men. HarperCollins, 2009 ed.
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. HarperCollins, 2008 ed.
  10. Leland, Charles. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Witches’ Almanac, 2010 ed.
  11. Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012 ed.
  12. Paddon, Peter. Visceral Magic. Pendraig, 2011.
  13. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover, 1964.
  14. Russell, Randy, and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Blair, 1999.
  15. Sprenger, James, and Henry Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Public Domain (Sacred-texts.com)
  16. Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Pelican, 1984 ed.