Tag Archives: mythology

The River Styx and Charon: The Mythology Series


StyxRA Grani

I’ve always liked the myth of the River Styx. I’m not sure why.

The River Styx, according to the ancient Greeks, separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. It wound around Hades, which is the Greek name for the ‘underworld’. It wasn’t really synonomous with ‘hell’, which is a place of punishment. Hades was more a place of waiting. Supposedly the Styx wound around it nine times. Styx meant ‘the river of hate’.

Other rivers also separated Hades from the world of the living, being Acheron, river of woe, Cocytus, river of lamentation, Phlegethon, river of fire, and Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. As you can see, it was a thoroughly happy place.

Souls could only enter Hades by crossing the rivers. Charon, the ferryman of the dead, was responsible for carrying souls across a river (in Greek mythology this was the Acheron, and in Roman mythology it was the Styx). Each soul had to pay the ferryman with an obol, which was placed in the deceased’s mouth at burial. Souls left unburied or without the coin had to wander the shores of the river for 100 years.

The Styx was variously said to have certain properties. In some accounts, the touch of the waters of the Styx is death, which clearly inspired the waters of the Hadeshorn in Terry Brooks’ Shannara series. Achilles was said to have neen dipped in the Styx, imparting invulnerability upon him, except for his heel by which his mother held him – thus the origin of the expression ‘Achilles’ heel’.


To my surprise, in Dante’s Inferno there are nine circles of hell. Not at all like the seven circles of hell in my series of the same name, within which reside different demons, the nine circles were hells to which humans were variously condemned depending upon their sin. According to Dante, the waters of the Styx were the fifth circle of hell, and the abode of those damned for the sin of wrath.

The Styx was of such significance that the Greek gods would swear oaths on it, and were bound to their word.

Father Christmas vs Santa Claus vs St Nicholas: Same or Different? – The Mythology Series

Santa Claus

Today, it’s common to use the names Santa Claus, Father Christmas and St Nicholas interchangeably. I’ve done it myself without thought, as have, I’m sure, many other people of my acquaintance.

But while today they are more or less treated as the same figure, their origins are entirely separate.

A depiction of St. Nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas

St Nicholas

You may know that the actual St Nicholas was a bishop, who had his own celebration throughout Europe and England as far back as the Middle Ages. The bishop supposedly gave generously to three daughters of a man who planned to prostitute them to pay his expenses, but did so by throwing the purse through the father’s window at night.

This gave rise to the tradition of many parents giving to their children on the vigil of St Nicholas, and the children would believe they owed thanks to St Nicholas for the gifts. Looks a lot like Santa Claus, right? He does, although visually he was not represented at all the same, and St Nicholas’ Day was December 6 (December 19 in Eastern Christian countries) and not December 25. In 1542, St Nicholas was banned by Henry VIII as part of the English Reformation.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus

The traditional image of Santa Claus

In the American colonies, German colonists kept the feast of St Nicholas, but gift-giving was on New Year, as it was in England and Europe. It wasn’t until 1804 that Dutch in New York began promoting St Nicholas as the patron saint, and in 1809 Washington Irving published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which contained references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This version of St Nick was shown as an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. The next year, the New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810, and here St Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.

In 1821, The Children’s Friend was published. This anonymous poem featured ‘Sante Claus’ arriving from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The poem and its illustrations began the shift away from images of a saintly bishop. Sante Claus rewarded good behaviour and punished bad. This book was the first we know of to mark Christmas Eve as the date of the arrival of Sante Claus, rather than December 6. His new jolly elf image was then cemented by the poem we all know, then called A Visit from St. Nicholas, now better known as The Night Before Christmas. The name Santa Claus seems to be a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus.

By the end of the 1920s, the image of Santa in a red, fur-trimmed suit had emerged from the work of popular illustrators.

Father Christmas

The Ghost of Christmas Present from Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' - likely Father Chrstmas

The Ghost of Christmas Present from Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ – likely Father Chrstmas

Father Christmas, so far as we know, first appeared in Europe in the 15th century in a carol called Hail, Father Christmas, hail to thee! and was a personification of the idea of Christmas rather than an actual person (of course, as fellow Discworld readers know, on the Discworld, such a concept would quickly be anthropomorphised into a real person like the Hogfather!). He was linked to the idea of Christian hospitality, and his tradition came with familiar elements of children, gifts at New Year, traditional Christmas foods of minced pies, roast beef, and plum pudding, and carols. It also came with less familiar traditions, like the Lord of Misrule, who was usually a peasant appointed to preside over the drunkenness and revelry of the Feast of Fools. Father Christmas originally wore a doublet, but by the 18th century wore a fur-lined red or green robe, with holly or ivy on his head. He did not bring gifts. It is likely that Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present was Father Christmas.

Father Christmas originated from a mix of groups, including the Roman Saturn and his Saturnalia (a celebration typified by food, wine, revelry and equality, and a possible origin of Misrule), the Saxons, who were known for anthropomorphising seasons and weather, and the Vikings, whose Odin distributed goods to worthy folks and whose Thor had a long white beard and lived among the icebergs. These influences seem to have coalesced into Father Christmas by the 1400s, and he was a primarily secular symbol of the arrival of the season, rather than a Christian tradition. Notice that he has no links to St Nicholas, and actually appeared contemporaneously with St Nicholas in Christmas celebrations until his banning.

Following Henry VIII’s suppression of St Nicholas, the Puritans tried to eliminate Christmas (including Father Christmas) entirely in 1643. Shops were required to be open, and churches closed (because of ‘popery’), and there were attempts to stamp out misrule and its associated drunkenness, gambling and revelry, and mince pies, mummers, holly and church services were all banned. Festivities reappeared seventeen years later, but the beginning of the Industrial Revolution changed the celebration forever. While previously country life observed the entire Twelve Days of Christmas, gift-giving moved to Christmas Day from New Year’s Day when it became the only day the workers had off.

Modern UK Santa - still sometimes dressed as Father Christmas

Modern UK Santa – still sometimes dressed as Father Christmas

At the same time, the holiday in England and Europe was being domesticised much as was the case in America. Unlike America, who turned St Nicholas into Santa Claus, England had no gift-giver since Henry VIII banned the bishop saint. But they did have Father Christmas, who by the 1870s became more like Santa. Although still typically depicted in a robe with holly, he moved away from the traditional drinking, feasting, merriment and revelry to become the gift-giving children’s friend.


Father Christmas – http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/father-christmas/

Saint Nicholas and the Origin of Santa Claus – http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/origin-of-santa/

Mjölnir – Hammer of Thor: The Mythology Series

Mjolnir 2
A 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjölnir
pendant from Bredsättra parish, Runsten
hundred, Borgholm municipality, Öland,
Kalmar county, Sweden.
This post is late because I was busy busting my arse to get Stalking the Demon to my editor, which I managed around lunch-time yesterday.

So. Thor’s hammer. Every wonder why the handle is so short? Me neither – until I had to write this post.

Now it’s been brought to my attention, of course I realise that the typical warhammer is a long-hafted, two-handed weapon. Mjölnir, by comparison, has a haft so short it can only be wielded one-handed – more like a mallet.

It turns out there’s a reason. Loki bet his head with the two dwarf brothers, Sindri and Brokkr, that they could not make items more beautiful than the dwarves who made Odin’s spear. The brothers accepted the challenge.

Sindri placed a pig skin in the forge and instructed Brokkr to pump the bellows and not stop until he returns and removes the skin. As Brokkr pumped the bellows, Loki assumeed the shape of a fly and bit Brokkr’s arm. Nonetheless, Brokkr resolutely kept pumping the bellows. When Sindri took the pig skin from the forge it had become Freyr’s boar.

This scenario is repeated with some gold in the forge, and that time Loki bit Brokkr on the neck, but he persisted and the gold becomes Odin’s ring, Draupnir.

The third time iron is placed in the forge. As Brokkr worked the bellows, Loki bit him on the eyelid, so hard it drew blood. When the blood ran into Brokkr’s eye, he was forced to stop the bellows long enough to wipe his eye clear. When Sindri pulled the iron from the forge, it had become Mjölnir, but the handle was shorter than he planned.

So basically it was Loki’s fault.

Interestingly, when the brothers presented the hammer to Thor they put a bit of PR spin on this defect by telling him the hammer was so small he could “keep it in his sark” (shirt).

Mjölnir was a mighty weapon capable of levelling mountains and no matter how hard or far Thor threw it, it would always return to his hand.

I find the etymology of the name interesting myself. Mjölnir is usually interpreted to mean ‘that which smashes’ from the verb molva (to smash) which is similar to the Slavic molot and Latin malleus (which is where the English word mallet comes from).

An oversized replica of Mjölnir to promote the movie Thor
An alternate theory compares Mjölnir to the Russian molniya and Welsh melt, which mean lightning. This also fits, since the name Mjölnir then makes it the weapon of the storm god associated with lightning – which indeed Thor is!
In Old Norse texts, Mjölnir is also referred to as hamarr, which in Old Norse could mean stone, rock, cliff or hammer, and which comes from an Indo-European word that has the same derivation as the Sanskrit word, asman. Asman means stone, rock, stone tool, hammer and thunderbolt! 

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The Egyptian Scales of Justice: The Mythology Series

Anubis was the jackel-headed Egyptian god of the underworld, and the most important of all the gods related to death. The jackal association came from the Egyptian cemeteries, where it was common to see jackals unearthing and devouring the dead – that’s a bit eww really! Unlike a real jackel, his skin was black to represent the fertile Nile soil and the process of rebirth.

Although he was the original god of the dead, this role eventually passed to Osiris and Anubis’s role changed to protecting the deceased souls and leading them to the afterlife. He was also the keeper of the scales of justice. Is this a promotion or a demotion? I’m not really sure…

A deceased soul would enter the Hall of Two Truths where the scales were kept and his conscience (depicted as a heart) would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, goddess of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, and therefore pure, the deceased soul was permitted to travel onwards towards Osiris and rebirth. The decision would be recorded by the god Thoth. 

And boy did you want to hope your heart was pure, because if it wasn’t and your heart were heavier than the feather, then Ammit got to eat your soul! Ammit was a female demon with a body that was part lion, part hippo and part crocodile – because more is, you know, more. The soul would then ‘die a second time’. The Devourer of Souls was not worshipped, as she embodied all that the Egyptians feared – no, really? Because she’s a lion and a hippo and a crocodile… it’s safe to say she was scary.

Like many Egyptian gods, Anubis filled a number roles. One of the odder roles was that of leading public processions! 

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The Roman Tale of Narcissus and Echo: The Mythology Series


Narcissus comes to us today courtesy of Dionne Lister. He was a hunter known for his beauty, and as the son of the river god, Cephissus, and a nymph, it’s no wonder he was so beautiful!

You might not be surprised to know that Narcissus is the origin of our word ‘narcissism’, which means a fixation with oneself. This originates from the tale that Narcissus was lured to a pool where, upon seeing his own reflection, he became so obsessed with it that he was unable to leave. He came to realise his love was hopeless, and committed suicide.

Narcissus was actually lured to the pool by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge. She did so as an act of, you guessed it, revenge. This was because the mountain nymph, Echo, had seen him and fallen deeply in love with him. She would follow him, and when Narcissus asked ‘Who’s there?’, she would repeat his words (get it? She was Echo!).

When Echo finally revealed herself to Narcissus, he rejected her, telling her to leave him alone, and heartbroken she wandered the woods until she had faded away into an ‘echo’.

So the tale brings us not only the word ‘narcissist’, but ‘echo’ and ‘nemesis’. 

Echo and Narcissus (1903), a Pre-Raphaelite interpretation by John William Waterhouse
This story was recorded by Ovid, but other variations also exist. The version by Conon involves neither Nemesis not Echo, with Narcissus instead spurning a male suitor, who then prays to the gods to teach Narcissus a lesson and promptly commits suicide on Narcissus’s doorstep. Narcissus then dies when he sees his reflection after stopping at a pool to drink, as he can never have the object of his desire.
An even later version involves Narcissus falling in love with his twin sister rather than his own reflection. 

What piece of mythology would you to know more about? Let me know in the comments! 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or sign-up to my newsletter. Check out my May Newsletter if you missed it.

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