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Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas, by Alexander Boguslawski, Professor of Russian Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Professor Boguslawski's dissertation (1982), "The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia," provided the background for the painting

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas (Alexander Boguslawski, 1982, “The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia,” provided the background for the painting)

Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well…he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus within a basilica in Asia Minor.  Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed the death of Nicholas, stories began to spread that he was up and about, busily performing miracles.  The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography.  Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man (yeah!), or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree.  However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport, control the weather, and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea.  In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale.  Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs.  Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.  Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!).  So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died.  Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries.  The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession.  As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house.  It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent the little girls from being turned out.

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca.  1430s, tempera)

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s, tempera)

The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls.  Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.  They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner.  In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes.  Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses).  For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn.  The Saint summarily dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more.  Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies.  Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity).  As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children.  After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.  You can read all about it in tomorrow’s post!

December 6th, was Krampusnacht, a holiday celebrated in Alpine regions of Germany and Austria.  The festival’s roots stretch back into pre-Christian times when Germanic mountain folk paid homage to Krampus the child-stealing demon of winter darkness. Krampus was a hell-sent god with goat’s horns, coarse black fur, and a fanged maw. He would visit disobedient or inattentive children and beat them with a cruel flail before tearing them to bits with his claws (in fact “Krampus” means “claw” in old high German).  The demon would then carry the dismembered bodies back to the underworld and devour the human flesh at his leisure.

This harsh myth imparted crucial lessons about the cruel Alpine environment—which would literally reward inattention and carelessness with a terrible death and a vanished corpse. However there were also merry elements of year-end saturnalia to the celebration: young men dressed up as Krampus and drank and played pranks while unmarried women would dress as Frau Perchta—a nature spirit and fertility goddess who could appear as a hirsute old beast-woman or as a gorgeous scantily clad maiden. Amidst the mummery, feasts were held and presents were given. Unsurprisingly, when Christianity came to Northern Europe, these pagan celebrations were incorporated into Christmastime festivities.  Thus Saint Nicholas–originally a conservative Syrian bishop (who became a protector of unfortunate children after his death) obtained a devil-like alter-ego.  This wasn’t even the end of the pagan metamorphosis of Santa.  The orthodox churchman also acquired a team of flying reindeer, a tribe of subservient elves, and a magical wife as Christmas traditions moved northwards into Scandinavia and combined with the universe of Norse myth!

For a time the Krampus story traveled with Santa and became part of the Christmastime traditions of German immigrants to America.  Christmas cards and holiday stories often featured Krampus and his evil pagan god features were even incorporated into the popular conception of Satan. However, as Christmas became more important to merchants and tradesmen, the darker aspects of the story were toned down.  Additionally fascist regimes in Germany and Austria were hostile to Krampus traditions during the thirties (and the grim imagery was not wanted after the horrors of World War II when those regimes were gone).   Lately though the figure has been making a comeback in Austria and Germany and even America seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the fiend

I am writing about this because Krampus, the clawed god of winter death, is a perfect addition to this blog’s deities of the underworld category. However, I have a more personal (and twisted) Krampus tale to tell as well. As you may know I am a toymaker who crafts chimerical animal toys and writes how-to books on toy-making. Recently a friend of mine who is an art director asked if I could build some puppets for stop-motion animation.  He asked for a traditional (not-entirely jolly) Santa and for two children with no facial features–the expressions would be digitally added later.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the puppets were for a dark Krampus segment on a celebrity chef’s Christmas special. Anthony Bourdain, celebrity personality, adventurer, and bon vivant wanted to do an animated segment about this murderous gothic god who is still a vestigial part of the holiday.  The segment was supposed to go into the nationally broadcast “No Reservations” Christmas special alongside Christopher Walken and Norah Jones, but when network executives took a closer look at Krampus, child-dismembering Alpine demon, it was decided that he should remain a vestige. So much for my showbiz career (of creating an evil Santa puppet and two faceless victims)…. The stand-alone segment can still be seen by itself on Youtube (or below).  Don’t worry though, this dark holiday fable has a happy ending—I still got paid!

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