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The time of winter darkness is upon us, and we should begin to think about how to celebrate Yule/winter solstice this year (especially during this year, 2020 when we are all locked inside).  Now I have always celebrated with Santa, the jocose and generous saint/winter god from Anglo-Saxon tradition who dispenses presents from his reindeer sleigh.  Beyond the supernatural extravagance of his mythology, Santa has a pretty wild history in the real world (he wasn’t always so Anglo-German but instead started out as—as a living human being—as Nicholas of Myra, a hardline bishop in what is now Syria/Turley!).  Thanks to globalization, Santa has begun to hegemonically overshadow the more eclectic and miscellaneous Yule traditions from other places, but they are still out there, lurking around the cold problematic edges.  Although I still intend to address my Christmas petitions to Santa, it is worth looking at some of these other traditions just to help us recognize that 2020 has not been the only hard Christmas.

For example, Iceland is so far north that they are neighbors with Santa (ahem, wink).  The winter solstice is an altogether different matter when it means the day is 4 hours or watery sunlight, and Icelandic Yuletide lore reflects this (and likewise reflects the pre-Christian legends of the Norse folk who colonized the uninhabited land). 

In Iceland, the principal Yule figure is (or was) Gryla, a grotesque giantess in the mold of Krampus.  Gryla devours naughty or disobedient children (she particularly enjoys cooking them as a stew) and she has a layabout husband named Leppaludi who loafs around their cave all day.  A child-eating giantess and a slob are not quite enough fantasy to get through the short days of December and so the heavy lifting is done by the Yule Lads, thirteen mischievous pranksters who begin to arrive one by one, thirteen nights before Christmas.  After Christmas, the Yule lads then depart in the same order, so that each elvish prankster is around the mortal world for 13 days each year.  They leave little gifts in the shoes of good children, but they leave potatoes (or worse) for bad kids.  The Yule lads are the sons of Gryla and Leppaludi, and, although they do not have their mother’s murderous hunger, they are plenty hungry enough!  This table, taken in its entirety from Wikipedia (which, by-the-way, you should support with small monetary gifts), lists the Yule Lads by name and characteristic.  I think even a cursory glimpse will give you a hair-raising, belt tightening picture of life in pre-modern Iceland:

Icelandic nameEnglish translationDescription[16]Arrival[16]Departure
StekkjarstaurSheep-Cote ClodHarasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.12 December25 December
GiljagaurGully GawkHides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.13 December26 December
StúfurStubbyAbnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.14 December27 December
ÞvörusleikirSpoon-LickerSteals and licks wooden spoons. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.15 December28 December
PottaskefillPot-ScraperSteals leftovers from pots.16 December29 December
AskasleikirBowl-LickerHides under beds waiting for someone to put down their “askur” (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.17 December30 December
HurðaskellirDoor-SlammerLikes to slam doors, especially during the night, waking people up.18 December31 December
SkyrgámurSkyr-GobblerA Yule Lad with a great affinity for skyr (similar to yogurt).19 December1 January
BjúgnakrækirSausage-SwiperHides in the rafters and snatches sausages that are being smoked.20 December2 January
GluggagægirWindow-PeeperA snoop who looks through windows in search of things to steal.21 December3 January
GáttaþefurDoorway-SnifferHas an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate leaf bread (laufabrauð).22 December4 January
KetkrókurMeat-HookUses a hook to steal meat.23 December5 January
KertasníkirCandle-StealerFollows children in order to steal their candles (which were once made of tallow and thus edible).24 December6 January

Gah! In addition to highlighting the similarities between Icelandic and English (apparently Icelandic and Old English are extremely similar, and, although the former is more grammatically complicated the tongues share a mutually comprehensible vocabulary) this table reveals the deprivation of northern winters in times past.  It is unclear if the Yule lads belong with Santa in the east (apparently the strapping lads dress like him) or with the nightmarish Wendigo in the west.

Whatever the case, the Yule lads seem to have been softening up a bit in a world of cheap shipping and factory farming (looking at that table again gives me new respect for both of those problematic things).  The modern versions are more like cute elves in the department store and less like, uh, hellacious monsters. But I am not giving up Santa (whose milk and cookies and walrus girth have been recontextualized in light of this Yule lad business). In fact I am going to order some sweets online and go have some ham and skyr…I mean yogurt.  I am also going to work hard to enjoy this Christmas season no matter what is going on outside and I am going to keep this Christmas legend in the back of my head as I think about agricultural policy and economics. Gleðileg jól!

Continuing our Halloween theme of undead monsters, we visit the great northern forests of Canada and the Great Lakes.  During winter, these frozen woodlands were said to be the haunt of a terrifying undead spirit of malicious appetite–the dreadful wendigo.    Although the wendigo has become a mainstay of modern horror, legends of the spirit predate Europeans.  The wendigo myth originated among the Algonquian people, who believed it was a manitou (powerful spirit being) associated with hunger, cold, and starvation.    For these hunter-gathering people the monster was shaped out of the greatest fear in their hearts and took the form of the ultimate taboo.

Pre-contact distribution of Algonquian languages

The Algonquian culture consisted of hundreds of heterogeneous tribes stretching in a northern arc from New England, up through the Great Lakes to the eastern Rockies.  Some of the southern tribes cultivated wild rice, pumpkins, corn, and beans, but the northern tribes were hunter gatherers.  Bad hunting seasons could cause terrible winters among the northern people, and whole villages would sometimes starve to death.  The wendigo myth seems to originate from such cold lean times of abject hunger when, in the extremity of desperation, starving people would resort to cannibalism.

Although different tribes had different traditions, most stories describe the primal wendigo as a gaunt humanoid giant with decayed skin and long yellow fangs.  The creature’s eyes glowed in the dark and it was always hungry for human flesh.  These huge monsters could be heard howling in the forest on winter nights and were said to have powerful dark magic, but wild wendigo spirits outside in the wind were only half the story.  If a person broke the ultimate Algonquian taboo, and decided to prefer cannibalism to starvation, he or she would begin to turn into a Wendigo.  After eating human flesh, a person’s humanity would disappear and their heart would become cold.  No food could slake a wendigo’s appetite except for human meat (and even that could not be eaten in sufficient quantity to fill up).  Monsters of unnatural appetite, these transformed wendigos would bring death and ruin to all other people unless they fled into the wilderness or were killed by a medicine person.

It is here that the wendigo myth is most fascinating, but most muddled.  In the wilds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and central Canada, the frontier authorities of the nineteenth century sometimes ran across wendigo murders.   Most famously a Cree trapper killed and ate his family although he was not far from provisions.  Another shaman was tried and executed for traveling the countryside killing people suspected of being wendigos.  The anthropology community of the day was fascinated by this sort of thing and proclaimed “wendigo psychosis” to be a real thing–although the fact that the “condition” was localized to a particular time and place (and has never more been seen since) makes it seem more like a made-up mental illness for popularizing horrifying stories.

If wendigo psychosis has mercifully gone away, wendigos themselves have gone mainstream.  A wendigo with the power of resurrection was the (terrifying) villain of one of Steven King’s scariest novels and the hungry winter spirits have proliferated ever since in cartoons, movies, and scary literature.  What could be scarier than the empty woods in winter or an empty larder?

Yesterday’s post—which featured a gory painting of medieval deer hunting—makes one feel sorry for the poor beleaguered deer, which are surely among the most beautiful and graceful of all animals.  And those painted deer were being pursued by crossbow hunters—imagine how much worse things would be with high-powered rifles.  Well actually you don’t have to imagine–here in North America, the dominant cervid, the magnificent white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) was severely overhunted in the 1800’s as hunters shot wild deer and sold the venison at the market.  Deer populations crashed down below 400,000.  Entire regions of the country lost the white-tailed deer completely.  The sacred animal of Artemis was in deep trouble across the United States.

Deer hunting in 1916

To rectify this situation, the Lacy Act, the first federal wildlife law, was passed in 1900.  The law banned the interstate trafficking of venison (along with other wild game).  Then the Great Depression and the Second World War came along and everything changed again.  During the Depression, rural landholders were forced to move into cities to make a living and land which had been under the plough began to grow back into forest.  When World War II broke out a generation of hunters went abroad to shoot at the Axis instead of whitetails.  After the war, in the 1950s, a clever biologist named Crockford invented a dart-gun system for capturing white-tailed deer and releasing them into habitats where they had died out. So deer made a comeback but their predators did not.  Wolves, grizzlies, cougars, jaguars, alligators, and lynxes were relegated to the deep forest and swamp of protected national parks.

So by the end of the twentieth century, white-tailed deer populations were spiking out of control (heading to well above 30 million) and this in turn had a terrible effect on the forests.  When a forest is partially or wholly timbered (or when it is denuded by some natural means such as a tornado) there is a succession of plant growth which after decades leads back to a mature hardwood forest.  The first plants to grow back are meadow plants–short-lived annual herbs and meter-tall woody plants. Over the course of years these weeds give way to hardwood seedlings like oak and maple which can tolerate the shade created by the provisional meadow growth.  However, in areas overpopulated by deer, the woody meadow plants are nipped up by starving deer and other tree seedlings which can out-compete the great forest trees for nutrient gathering (but which are not shade-tolerant to survive the meadow plants) then flourish.  Beeches, wild cherries, or exotic invaders grow up and the trees of the great forest take lifetimes to supplant them (if they do at all).  In the meantime the overpopulated deer begin to starve and suffer diseases even as they damage the forests.  A strange truth of ecosystems is that predators are nearly as necessary as their prey—even hardy generalists like the white-tailed deer which can live almost anywhere need population controls for their own good (as well as that of the forest).  Perhaps the ancient Greeks were wise to decide that their goddess of the wilderness was both a hunter and a protector of animals and trees.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Biologists, foresters, rangers, and sportsmen are all trying to unscramble the secrets to ecosystem equilibrium, but there might not be any real long-term balance.  The tropical swamps and forests of the Eocene gave way to the temperate woodlands of the Oligocene (where the first tiny deer developed in Europe) which in turn led to the savannahs of the Miocene which allowed artiodactyl grazers to radiate out across the world.  But it is hard to think in such big terms and it is uncomfortable to think about what will come next.  Something within me longs for homeostasis—for the right number of lovely deer beneath the tall native oaks and tulip poplars forever and ever.

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