Most of the United States has went been freezing a polar vortex this past week, as of New Year’s Eve night. Yesterday, we had a nasty northeaster, where along the East Coast and places inland had snow dumped on it. With the return today of colder temps until the afternoon of Monday, January 8th, it might be good to blog about winter legends and myths for the next couple of Supernatural Fridays.
The winter solstice has Latin roots and means “sun standing still.” It happens in a two-to-three-day period, where the arced path the sun cuts across the sky stops descending and appears to come to a standstill, before making a slow trek upwards.
Shorter days, colder temperatures, and the associated dramatic changes in the patterns of all living things, contributes to many beliefs and practices associated with the winter time. Myths and legends arose to both explain and understand the ebbing of the sun’s light, warmth, and influence. Though some of these have either faded in prevalence and influence or have grown modified over time, others have endured for centuries. Also, over time, many customs, practices, stories, and elements of folklore from different cultures were borrowed or became blended.
The pagan celebration of Saturnalia might have been one of the first solstice-related festivals to incorporate the custom of gift-giving. It also might have helped foster a tradition of goodwill toward men at that time of year because during the several days of the celebration, slaves could reverse roles with their masters (a benevolent emperor permitting). The Druids may have been among the first to use the dominant colors and fragrances of the season and to place herbs, branches, and wreaths in their homes to adorn as well as sanctify them. In the Norse country, the goddess Frigga was not only thought to labor hard to bring back the lost light of day, but also to determine the fortunes and fate of humans for the coming new year at her weaving wheel
Native Americans have myths concerning winter. Like the Anishinaabe tribes’ Biboon. This mythological being is the North Wind spirit and his name varies widely from community to community. Biboon (and its many spelling variants) literally means "Winter." Gichi-Biboon means "Great Winter," and Biboonike and Gaabiboonike are names meaning "Winter-Maker" or "One who causes the winter." Giiwedin literally means "north wind," although this name is rarely used to refer to the mythological character.
Connected to the Chippewa people is a monster called the Windigo. One other spelling is Wendigo, though there are many more. Windigos are the evil man-eating giants of Anishinaabe mythology. Windigos play the roles of monsters and bogeymen in some legends; in others, Chippewa people who commit sins (especially selfishness, gluttony, or cannibalism) are turned into a Windigo as punishment. The appearance of a windigo is huge, monstrous, and made of or coated in ice, but the human it once was is still frozen inside the monster where its heart should be, and must be killed to defeat the windigo. In a few legends a human has been successfully rescued from the heart of a windigo, but usually once a person has been possessed by a windigo spirit, the only escape is death.
In many Iroquoian and some Algonquian legends, the culture hero has a twin brother or younger brother named Flint who killed their mother in childbirth, usually by intentionally cutting his way out rather than waiting to be born. In Iroquois stories this spirit is often malevolent and goes on to create hardships for humans and fight with his brother. In Algonquian legends, the character of Flint does not generally commit any further crimes or problems other than the death of his mother. In many tribes, Flint is associated with winter, night, and death.
In Iroquois mythology, Flint (Tawiscara or Tawiskaron in the Iroquois languages) is one of twin grandsons of the mother goddess Sky Woman. He is often, though not always, associated with evil, like the Bad Spirit or Evil Mind of the Cayugas. Flint's brother is the creator god Sky-Holder. Sometimes they are said to have created humans together, thus explaining why people have both good and evil nature. In some Iroquois myths, Flint is a sociopathic villain, intentionally killing his own mother and deceiving his grandmother into believing his brother was the killer. Eventually, he must be defeated and imprisoned by his brother. In other Iroquois traditions, Flint is more of a trickster figure than a villain, and causes destruction merely because of his chaotic nature. Flint and Sky-Holder are sometimes said to exist in a kind of cosmic balance, with both light and darkness being necessary for life.
Flint is less prominent in Algonquian mythology, but is sometimes described as the youngest brother of the Anishinabe hero, Nanabozho, or the twin brother of the Wabanaki hero, Glooscap. Some of his Algonquian names are Chakekenapok (Potawatomi) and Mikwam (Ojibwe.) In some stories the culture hero kills him to avenge their mother's death in childbirth, but in other stories, Flint remains as one of the seasonal or directional demigods.
Next week, we will talk about more wintry beings from myths, legends, and folklore from different parts of the world. Until then stay warm, and watch out for the Windigo.