for 5 December 2022
It is Krampusnacht. Tonight, the long-tongued goat-man goes running through the streets, sometimes tagging along with the kindly old St Nicholas, sometimes striking out on his own, always seeking the naughty kids. He carries iron chains, a birch bough and a sack. Sometimes a good lashing is all it takes to straighten out the nastiness. But the unredeemable little turds go into the sack, never to be seen again.
There are many origin stories for Krampus. Some claim he comes from Nordic folklore, being the son of the underworld goddess, Hel. I’ve never encountered one story that mentioned a son of Hel, never mind a goat-man with a particular need to cure tiny delinquents. Some say he is a version of the Christian devil. Well, maybe. He certainly looks like the boogey-man used by generations of Christians to terrorize folks into following the rules. But the Christian devil seems to treat children with a certain degree of lenience, and Christianity generally views childhood as a time of innocence — despite all evidence to the contrary.
(As an interesting aside, the Christian hell might actually derive from Norse myth. First the name, hell, almost certainly comes from the Underworld, Hel, that gave its name to its unwilling ruler, the daughter of Loki, the jötunn Hel. The name means simply “hidden place”, though it is also associated with helig, meaning “holy”. Hel is not a pretty place, nor a pretty person, but neither were necessarily evil until the Christians got ahold of them. Now then, Hel cares not one whit about humans. In all the stories, she is portrayed as a dour and immutable force of nature. She hardly bothers to notice the other gods, never mind all these pathetic human beings who are so far beneath her. Maybe that’s the source of particular ire reserved for her in more recent Western myth.)
I think Krampus, like the Christian devil, derives from the ancient goat god, Pan, the symbol of fertility and of untamable nature. The ultimate Other. Goats are definitely defiant. And they’ll copulate with anything, anytime. So it’s not hard to see how this little recalcitrant beastie that we’ve been trying to domesticate for thousands of years has mutated into a literal sex fiend. It’s a bit harder to see how the Mediterranean Pan devolved into the Germanic Krampus.
But that long tongue definitely calls to mind other dangling organs, and there is a very old conflation of punishing pain (lashing, confining, killing) with fertility. (Don’t want to think about that too much, but remember the goat-boys from Lupercalia…) Medieval mummer plays, which were strongly associated with Christmas and the New Year, almost always feature a devil dealing out discomfort to promote fecundity, though this creature is often an androgynous horse (like the Mari Lwyd), not a male goat. Still, there is a family resemblance between Krampus and Pan. And Christianity has done stranger things to the old gods, especially since the Reformation (witness the change of the mighty sidhe to wee winged girls with proclivities toward nakedness, obstinacy, and living under mushrooms). The 16th to 19th centuries saw a trend toward darkness and an obsession with the punishment of sin in both secular and religious societies. Then came the Romantics and their fascination with all things Gothic and gory (and you thought that was a recent thing…). Nearly all our imagery of devils and demons — and other various pagani — comes from Romantic art and literature. So it’s possible that Krampus is just a demoted Pan.
I think Krampus’ attachment to children and to Yuletide is a very recent thing though, probably not much older than the Edwardians. There were goat-demons running amok at Christmas in southern Germanic lands as far back as records are kept. (Though the horse reigned further north.) But these were the fertility demons, and they were sort of scary actually. Not typically associated with children’s tales.
That began to change in the Victorian age with two trends. First, all things related to punishment and powers that out-ranked human males were deemed silly superstition. Demons were relegated to the goofy, toothless bogarts used to frighten — and control — the guileless. Myths became folklore became fairy tales for infants. Second, childhood — and to a lesser degree, womanhood — achieved a new centrality to societal life. Not actual children or women, mind you, but the idea of children, of innocence and beauty, of native nature. Victorians, following the fecund Mother of their age, were devoted to an idealized home-life, complete with bright-eyed tots who not only were expected to show slavish filial devotion to the head of household, but embodied the enduring legacy of that man. They mirrored his own perpetual youth.
By the turn of the 20th century, the shine of home-life had begun to fade, and with it the luster of innocent childhood. Children were discovered to have their own ideas, not always in accord with the Father. Moreover, men began to notice that actual children tended to get in the way. Mom had less time or inclination to be Wife. Wages were sucked into hungry bellies and growing bodies. And there was no guarantee that any child would carry forward the man’s legacy. To the contrary, kids seemed to be pretty good at destroying fortunes — or worse, far surpassing them — before the old man was even cold in his grave.
It is about here that we begin to see Krampus in his modern role of arbiter of the naughty list for Father Christmas. Not coincidentally, this is also when the commercialization of Christmas really began to take off. Krampus got his own brand. His ugly visage was slathered over greeting cards and advertisements. If they’d had the cheap materials, transport and labor, no doubt he’d have had a line of t-shirts and coffee mugs. And his chief role was now to frighten kids into behaving in a seemly manner. Because simply not getting holiday presents was not a sufficient deterrent for the worst mini-miscreants. There had to be threatened pain. And what better than an actual chain-wielding demon who was already running around with the northern elvish set!
Krampus fell out of favor with the mid-20th-century insistence that all things be perky and clean and completely sexless. That tongue was just too much for suburbanites. So while St Nick became the ubiquitous Santa Claus, the embodiment of Christmas spirit — by which was meant flagrant consumerism — Krampus was banished to the dark corners of bygone sentiment with all the other dust bunny children of Pan.
But then folks got tired of that too. And, they said, look at this magnificent red guy with the horns! Krampus started creeping back into culture when people started reaching back into history to find out what was meant by this life thing beyond buying stuff. His current incarnation is decidedly demonic, though curiously lacking in consequence. He comes to terrorize, but not to punish. However, he isn’t just coming for the naughty kids; he’s probably coming for you.
I have tickets to something called “Krampusnacht”, a musical theatre performance somehow derived from the Krampus myths. No idea what to expect. Which is why I bought tickets. It’s definitely not the usual rehash of Dickens or Handel or Tchaikovsky. I’m quite looking forward to it. Though… I think I’ll sit in the back… just in case…
By tradition in our household (because a birthday happens tomorrow) and also by general tradition, it is the day to have the holiday decorating done. I managed to get there… though I still have to vacuum up the inevitable mess. I’ll be sure to do that before sunset this afternoon. Don’t want to draw the ire of Krampus! Here are some photos…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022