Mythology Casefile: The Krampus
Myths and legends are a core tenant to human belief structure. Throughout our history many of the fantastic stories in literature and folklore that have been created feature some kind of duality like good vs. evil or yin & yang. For every hero there is a villain, or even an anti-hero. With the holiday season upon us, many children around the world who practice Christianity (even those who don’t) are excited at the prospect of the arrival of Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, who will come Christmas Eve, bearing presents to the well-behaved among them. Many however are unaware of an old central European tradition that invokes an entity that is the opposite of jolly old Saint Nick. This kind of anti-Santa is known as Krampus and he comes around on December 5th to take care of all of the naughty and ill-behaved children around the world...
This creature is said to be a kind of hybrid, humanoid creature that appears as a half-demon, half-goat man. Krampus is tall and covered in a dark fur and also sports a pair of goats horns, a long, prehensile tongue and a pair of cloven hooves. In some depictions however, it’s hybridization includes one human-like foot and one hooved foot. In other variations, Krampus may wield a whip. In most depictions, Krampus is also seen carrying chains, which some believe may have been introduced by Christians in an attempt to “bind the devil,” though the answer is uncertain and could be a vestige of pagan tradition. Either way, Krampus is known to thrash these chains about to up the drama.
According to researchers, Krampus likely find’s its origins within pre-Christian Alpine traditions and folklore. Within the Alpine region of central Europe, it is known that pagan traditions intertwined with Catholicism early on. During these times, people who resided in the region had long held the tradition of dressing up and masquerading as a devil-like creature known as Percht, who was once known as a goddess in Alpine paganism in the upper German and Austrian regions. The name “Percht” is thought to mean “the bright one.” . Percht was a humanoid goat with a giraffe-like neck covered in animal furs, which sounds very much like Krampus. Eventually the Catholic Church sought to ban this practice, but due to the sparse and widespread population it was unable to be enforced.
People maintaining the Percht tradition became inspired from a seasonal Christian play called Nikolausspiel, or “Nicholas Play.” This play was about the biblical Adam & Eve’s dealings with a tempter and morality among other things. In the plays, Saint Nicholas rewarded children for their scholarly efforts, rather than being good and well-behaved. As in many areas where pagan traditions melded with Christianity, the Nikolausspiel influenced people to start a sort of proto Krampus Run where many dressed in costumes and held processions called Perchtenlauf which also introduced Saint Nicholas’ good set of morals. Author Maurice Bruce believed that the true identity of Krampus can be traced back to the Horned God of the Witches, who also used a bundle of birch branches, or “Ruten” for initiation rites in certain covens that entailed binding and scourging in a form of mock-death.
While Santa Claus is the Patron Saint of Children, known to reward well-behaved kids with presents, The Krampus, who often accompanies St. Nick in Germanic Traditions, will punish bad children by giving them coal, or swatting at them with his Ruten. Perhaps more frightening are stories of Krampus strapping a basket or bag to his back to cart bad children away. And what does Krampus do to these naughty children? Well, according to legend, Krampus has a few favorite ways of dealing with them: drowning them in rivers, eating them, or yeeting them straight to hell. Whatever the method, it’s clear that the threat of Krampus ruining your night in the worst ways helped keep misbehaving children in line.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas occurs on December 6th each year, but the day before, December 5th, is Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night which naughty children the world over fear the most. This is the night that this devilish creature appears on the streets, ready to exact his harsh punishments. Krampus will visit each homes and business in town to dispense judgment upon all the bad kids either by leaving coal, bundles of birch sticks, beating them with his switch, or simply taking the children with him. Parents of homes with bad kids who receive a bundle of sticks have been known to paint them gold and decoratively hang them in the house as a reminder to forgetful children to be good, or the Krampus might take them on the next Krampusnacht. Those who survive his wrath might just be free to enjoy the presents that Santa brings on December 25th.
As far as the celebration of this mythical entity, events and parades have been held called the Krampuslauf, or “Krampus Run.” In these events, people dress up as the Krampus in the Alpine region of Europe and many send and receive fun Krampus Greeting cars called Krampuskarten that have humorous rhymes or poems within. In the past, Krampus has been depicted as scary and menacing, though his look has evolved in modern times to resemble something more cupid-like in some interpretations. According to tradition it is also customary practice to offer Krampus the alcoholic beverage, schnapps, when he arrives at your home or place of business. During the 1920’s, the fascist Dollfuss regime in Austria outlawed the practice of celebrating the Krampus under the Fatherland’s Front and the Christian Social Party. Krampus tradition was largely ignored or forgotten about for decades.
In recent years however, more and more people are reviving the old Krampus traditions. In America the phenomenon is growing as more people become aware of this ancient story. Horror movies about Krampus, animations and even appearances in video games have made their way into popular culture. What will the future of Krampus be? It seems that the old traditions have had new life breathed into them for all to have fun with this tradition for years to come.
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