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This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order).  At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead.  Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys).  So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?

Pagan-Yule-spirit

The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity.  In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs.  Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity.   Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice).  Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles.  Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.

Wotan

Wotan

At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir.   Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king.  He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”.  He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him.  If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed).  If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons.   Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities.  Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.

Santa?

Santa?

Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint.  Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous.  Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe.  In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus.  In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons.  In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors.  Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.

Nikolaus & Krampus

Nikolaus & Krampus

Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica).  For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green.  Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions.  However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability.  Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe.  Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.  You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.

What is even going on here?

What is even going on here?

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!

nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

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