Folklore from around the world is full of fascinating but lesser known nuggets. Take Saint Nicholas, the key figure upon whom Santa Claus is based. By all accounts a nice guy who helped the less fortunate and was kind to children, good old Saint Nick was not above the occasional fisticuffs. Like that time he punched a priest in the face. Below are twenty five things about that and other lesser known folklore tidbits from around the world.
A Not So-Nice Saint Nick?
Santa Claus is a product of inputs from the folklore of various cultures. The biggest single figure behind Santa is probably Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari (270 – 342 AD). One of the most popular minor saints of both the Western and Eastern churches, he was a generous man known for his gifts. He became associated with Christmas, and the tradition of gifts given that day. Nicholas was born into wealth, and used his riches to help those less fortunate. He traveled around, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, and became associated with various good deeds, such as saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution.
Legend also attributed to him numerous miracles. He reportedly calmed the sea, chopped down a demonic tree, and resurrected three kids who lost their lives to a butcher who pickled their remains in brine for sale as pork during a famine. No wonder he became the patron saint of children. So Saint Nick was a good guy, and a worthy foundational figure upon whom to build the legend of the lovable and kindly Santa. However, Nicholas was not nice all the time. As seen below, he was not above settling debates by beating up those with whom he disagreed.
Early Christianity was chaotic, with little consensus about the new faith’s doctrine. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great convened bishops in Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, to sort things out in what came to be known as the First Council of Nicaea. It settled some core issues, such as the divine nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, the first part of the Nicene Creed, and when to celebrate Easter. The debates en route to consensus were heated, though. They were not like Ivy League discussion panels, where violence is the last thing expected from nerdy professors in bowties and thick glasses. Participants at the Council of Nicaea could and did settle debates with their fists. Forget passive aggressive cutting remarks: early church fathers could pull out knives in the middle of discussions to literally cut each other.
Saint Nicholas was among the bishops at Nicaea, and settled a discussion there with his fists. His victim was a priest named Arius, whose teachings had roiled Christianity and caused the convocation of the council in the first place. Arius, who was accused of heresy, was invited by Emperor Constantine to defend his position. He got up and began to do so. His speech angered opponents, whose numbers included Nicholas – by then middle-aged, and apparently with a short fuse when it came to heresy. He reportedly did a Will-Smith-at-the-Oscars, rose from his seat, rushed Arius, and interrupted his speech with a punch to the face. For that, Nicholas was stripped of his bishopric, and imprisoned for a time.
When Filipino Folklore Was Used Against Communist Insurgents
Early in World War II’s clash between Japan and the United States, the Japanese went on a whirlwind of conquests across the Pacific. In 1942, they invaded, overran, and expelled the US from the Philippines. That was followed by a brutal occupation that triggered widespread resistance. One of the more active resistance groups was the Hukbalahap (a Filipino acronym for “The Nation’s Army Against Japan”). Commonly known as the “Huks”, they were a socialist/ communist guerrilla movement of central Luzon farmers.
After Japan’s defeat, the Huks were not eager for the Philippines to revert to an American colonial possession. Nor did they want to return to life under a landed wealthy native elite who exploited the farmers. So they kept up their insurgency, both against the Americans when they returned, and against the Filipino government after independence in 1946. To support the Philippines’ US-friendly government, the CIA helped with counter-insurgency efforts. It exploited local folklore with a psychological operation intended to demoralize the Huks with fake vampires.
Vampire Folklore Was Exploited to Beat Back the Reds
In 1950, the CIA brought in Air Force brigadier general Edward Lansdale to help with the fight against the Huks. A pioneer in clandestine and psychological warfare, Lansdale believed that psy-ops against insurgent groups should be tailored to the specific culture targeted. The specific culture of central Luzon, where the Huks throve, happened to have a bit of folklore that turned out to be useful to Lansdale. The locals believed in the existence of a shape-shifting vampire called an aswang.
In Filipino folklore, aswangs drained their victims’ blood with a long, sharpened tongue. So Lansdale mimicked aswang attacks. He abducted and ended Huk fighters, drained their blood, and made puncture wounds on their necks. The bodies were left for other Huks to find – and conclude that their comrade had been drained of blood by an aswang. It proved highly effective, and cleared Huk fighters out of an area. Between that and other counterinsurgency tactics, the Huk Rebellion was crushed within a few years.
In Ancient Greek Folklore, the Gods Could be Jerks
In ancient Greek folklore, the gods were often depicted in anthropomorphic terms, with human emotions and desires. The Olympian gods, who were believed to live atop Mount Olympus, were particularly known for their quick tempers and tendency to wreak havoc on those who angered them. While they were gods, they were not infallible and could act unjustly, enjoying the opportunity to inflict punishment on others. Olympian gods – so named because they were believed to live atop Mount Olympus – might fly into divine rages at the slightest provocation and wreck some unfortunate. This mean streak can be traced back to their traumatic childhoods and dysfunctional family, where abuse and vengeance were common.
The cycle of dysfunction began with their father Cronus, leader of the Titans. He preceded the Olympian gods as masters of the world. Cronus envied the power of his own father Uranus and plotted against him with his mother Gaia. She is also associated with Mother Nature. and was angry with her husband for some slight. This legacy of abuse and vengeance was passed down to the Olympian gods and shaped their actions and behaviors.
Gaia gave Cronus a sickle or scythe, and he castrated his father Uranus with it. He then threw away the testicles. An understandably upset Uranus vowed vengeance upon his son, and cursed him – probably in high soprano. He prophesied that just like he had overthrown his own father, Cronus would someday be overthrown by his own children. Cronus went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his kids did not do to him what he had done to his own Dear Papa. Cronus married his sister, the Titaness Rhea, and the couple had multiple children, including the gods and goddesses Poseidon, Hera, Hesta, Hades, and Demeter. To prevent the realization of Uranus’ prophecy that he would be overthrown by his own children, Cronus ate his kids as soon as they were born.
Rhea was not happy with that. When their sixth child, Zeus, was born, she tricked her hubby and gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes. Cronus assumed it was his latest newborn, and swallowed it whole. Rhea hid Zeus, who grew up with understandably hostile feelings towards his father. When he came of age, Zeus forced his dad to vomit out the kids he had already swallowed, and then led his siblings in a war against Cronus. Together, and with the help of other supernatural allies, they overthrew their father and the other Titans, and took over the world. In Greek folklore, the gods imprisoned Cronus and other Titans in Tartarus, an abyss where the wicked are tortured.
The discovery of the Americas revolutionized the world in many ways. Not least among them was the Columbian Exchange – a widespread transfer of plants, animals, peoples, cultures, technology and diseases between the Old World and the New. One plant in particular turned out to be surprisingly controversial when initially introduced to the Old World: the tomato. No other vegetable has been as maligned as the tomato – a fruit by scientific consensus, but a vegetable per the United States Supreme Court. The tomato eventually became a huge hit, and revolutionized cuisines all around the planet.
Early on, however, tomatoes were met with outright hostility in some parts of Europe, where they were viewed as satanic. The centuries-long Witch Hunt Craze, much of which overlapped with the Age of Exploration, was pretty weird in its own right. Tens of thousands of women were slaughtered for witchcraft. Less known is that thousands more, men and women, were executed around the same time, accused of being werewolves. As seen below, tomatoes came to be negatively associated with witch and werewolf folklore.
Tomatoes Were Linked to Witch and Werewolf Folklore
Authorities throughout much of Europe believed that witches and werewolves were closely associated. They reasoned that, just as witches concocted and brewed potions that allowed them to fly, they concocted and brewed potions that transformed people into werewolves. A main ingredient in that witches’ brew were plants that looked a lot like tomatoes. It was not the tomato’s fault that it was first imported to Europe around 1540, at the height of witch and werewolf hysteria. From the fourteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, thousands of Europeans – mostly women – were killed as witches.
Women accused of witchcraft were lynched by mobs (or hanged, crushed, drowned, burned by courts, etc.). It was propelled by both secular and religious groups. Conservative estimates put the number of executed victims in the tens of thousands. Other estimates go as high as half a million. Tomatoes arrived in Europe just when authorities were trying to figure out the ingredients of a witches’ flying ointment – the goop they smeared on brooms to make them fly, or on themselves to fly without a broom. That same goop could also transform whoever it was smeared on into a werewolf. In 1545, Andres Laguna, the pope’s doctor, described the key ingredients as henbane, nightshade, and mandrake – close botanical relatives of tomatoes.
When examined in the context of its time, the fear of tomatoes isn’t that weird. Tomato plants not only look like deadly nightshade, a suspected ingredient of witches’ magic goop. They are also just about identical to the untrained eye. Similarly, some tomato varieties, such as yellow cherry tomatoes, look remarkably similar to hallucinogenic mandrake fruits, another ingredient of the witches’ goop. So at a time when Europe was engulfed by hysteria about all that had to do with witches, a plant that looked like an “evil” ingredient was problematic.
In the 1540s, many thought that tomatoes could turn them into werewolves. Even those who were not superstitions had reason to avoid tomatoes. If they possessed the plant or its fruit, their superstitious neighbors might accuse them of witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, many decided to leave tomatoes alone. Indeed, the only place where it was safe to have them was Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition had temporarily declared that the belief in witchcraft was heretical. The Spanish and Italians eventually incorporated tomatoes into their diets wholesale. However, the English and French remained in the “tomatoes are demonic” weird camp for a ridiculously long time.
In the 1997 Disney animated movie, Hercules, the hero is the beloved son of the chief Olympian god, Zeus, and the goddess, Hera. In the musical fantasy comedy, Zeus’ evil brother Hades, god of the dead and lord of the underworld, hatches a plot to overthrow Zeus and become the chief god of Mount Olympus. However, the fell plan depends on Hercules’ noninterference, so Hades sends his minions to kidnap and exterminate him while he is still an infant. Baby Hercules is kidnapped, but he survives the murder attempt, and the rest of the movie revolves around his growing up to eventually thwart Hades.
Per ancient Greek folklore, however, Hercules – or Heracles as the ancient Greeks called him – was not Zeus’ and Hera’s beloved son. Hera, as a matter of fact, hated Hercules with a passion. Zeus cheated on her constantly, and Hercules was Zeus’ son with a mortal woman named Alcmene. As seen below, rather than dote upon baby Hercules, Zeus’ wife went out of her way to mess him up whenever she could. And since she was a goddess, with divine powers, she often messed him up good.
The Hera of ancient Greek folklore was not like the Hera of Disney’s Hercules. Rather than a kind mother, the OG Hera could not stand Hercules. She tried to kill before he was even born. When Hera found out that Zeus had impregnated Alcmene, she forced Ilithya, the goddess of childbirth, to keep Hercules trapped in his mother’s womb. That plan was eventually foiled when a servant surprised Ilithya, and got her to lose her concentration long enough for Hercules to get born. Hera did not give up, however. A few months later, when Hercules was still a baby, she sent giant snakes to slay him. However, the supernaturally strong Hercules grabbed one in each hand and strangled them to death.
Hera was relentless in her attempts to harm Hercules. At some point, she inflicted upon him a divine fit of madness. In the grip of insanity, Hercules grabbed a bow and killed his wife and children. When he regained his sanity and realized what he had done, Hercules fled to the Oracle of Delphi, to find out what he could do to wash away his sin. Unfortunately, Hera controlled the Oracle. She got it to saddle Hercules with a series of seemingly impossible tasks as a condition for cleansing him – what became the Twelve Labors of Hercules. In short, if Disney’s Hercules had adhered to original source material, Hera would not be the doting mother, but the villain of the story.
The Legend of Sodom and Gomorrah: Fact or Fiction?
Sodom and Gomorrah have long entered folklore as cautionary examples of divine punishment. In the Book of Genesis, God informs Abraham that Sodom and the nearby city of Gomorrah are to be destroyed for their wickedness. Abraham pleads for the lives of righteous inhabitants, especially his nephew Lot and his family. The Lord agrees to spare the cities if fifty good people could be found in them – a figure that Abraham bargains down to ten. Two angels disguised as men are sent to Lot in Sodom, only for a depraved mob to demand that he hand over his guests so they could slake their lusts upon them.
Lot’s pleas are met with deaf ears by the horny mob. So the angels blind the crowd, tell their host to immediately flee the city with his family, and not look back. As God rains down fiery destruction upon Sodom, Lot’s family flees and is spared the heavenly wrath. Except for Lot’s wife, who looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. All in all, a great story packed with action and drama – but does it have any factual basis? As seen below, there just might be. Not the bits about angels and wives getting turned into pillars of salt, but the part about fiery destruction rained down upon a city from the heavens.
The Ancient Catastrophe That Inspired the Legend of Sodom and Gomorrah”
The inhabitants of a Bronze Age city a few miles northeast of the Dead Sea went about their daily business one fateful day, circa 1650 BC, blissfully ignorant of the doom headed their way. Unbeknownst to the residents of what is now known as Tell el-Hammam, an unseen icy space rock was headed their way at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour. As it ripped through the atmosphere, the small asteroid left a fiery trail in its wake, before it burst about two and a half miles above the ancient city. The explosion was roughly 1000 times more powerful than the nuclear blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Those unfortunates whose eyes had been focused on the plunging space rock when it blew up were instantly blinded. In a minor mercy, they did not have long to contemplate their loss of sight.
Tell el-Hammam was instantly transformed into an inferno. Wood and clothes burst into flames. Pottery, bricks, swords, spears, and metal began to melt as air temperatures spiked about 3600 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the shockwave arrived. Winds whose speed exceeded 740 mph tore through the city and destroyed all in their path. They sheared the top of the ruler’s four-story palace, and blew the wreckage into the next valley over. Everybody in Tel el-Hammam, around 8000 people, and every animal, perished, mangled, ripped apart, their bones broken, and their bodies incinerated. The shockwave continued on, and a minute later, slammed into biblical Jericho about fourteen miles away, and brought down its walls. As seen below, scholars believe that this ancient catastrophe gave rise to the folklore that eventually morphed into the biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Uncovering the Tragic Tale of an Ancient Asteroid Impact
Archaeologists excavated Tell el-Hammam for a decade and a half. Their findings were examined by dozens of scientists in the US, Canada, and the Czech Republic. One thing that jumped out was a five-foot-thick layer from around 1650 BC, comprised of charcoal and ash, intermingled with melted metal, melted pottery, and melted bricks. There was also shocked quartz, generated at pressures of 725,000 psi or more, and diamonids, wood and plant particles turned tough as diamonds under great heat and pressure. It was evidence of an intense firestorm, but not one caused by ancient warfare, an earthquake, or volcano: they don’t generate enough heat to melt metal, pottery, or bricks. The only known culprits that could inflict such damage are nuclear blasts, and asteroid airbursts. Nuclear weapons were unknown 3650 years ago, so that narrowed it down.
It is believed that the explosion vaporized and deposited so much Dead Sea salt water in the area, that it became impossible to grow crops. For centuries after the disaster, Tell el-Hammam and its environs were abandoned. It took about 600 years before rainfall washed out enough salt to render the soil sufficiently productive for habitation to resume. Accounts of the ancient city’s obliteration became part of the local folklore and were handed down over the generations. A version of such folk accounts probably made it into the Old Testament as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarities about cities near the Dead Sea destroyed by fire and rocks from the sky make it likely that the biblical narrative can be traced to the air burst that wrecked Tell el-Hammam.
Wonder Woman, the 2017 box office hit, depicted the Amazons are female warriors created by the Olympian gods to protect mortals. Per the movie, the god of war, Ares, grew jealous of humans, and set in motion a plan to destroy mankind. When the other gods tried to thwart him, Ares killed them all, except for Zeus, whom he mortally wounded. With the last ounce of his power, Zeus wounded the god of war, who was forced to retreat. Ares did not abandon his plans to destroy humanity, however.
Thousands of years later, Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons tells her daughter Diana that Zeus gave mankind a final gift before he died. He handed the Amazons the god-killer, a weapon to use against Ares when he returned. Diana eventually leaves the Amazons’ secluded island paradise, and gets involved in WWI, convinced that the global conflict is part of Ares’ plot to destroy mankind. It is a great movie. Far as fidelity to the original folklore, however, its depiction of the Amazons and their relationship with Ares significantly contradicts the ancient Greek version of the story.
Ares and the Amazons: A Family Affair in Greek Mythology
In ancient Greek folklore, the Amazons were a mythical nation of warrior women whose origins predated the Trojan War. They were supposed to have lived at the outer edge of the ancient Greek world, east and north of the Black Sea. A female-only society, they only welcomed men on occasion to mate. Of the resultant babies, only the females were kept: male babies were killed. The Amazons were known for their horsemanship, courage, and pride. Homer described them as “the equal of men“, and they fought many famous Greek heroes, whose numbers include Hercules, Bellerophon, and Theseus.
Enmity between the Amazons and Ares is a key theme of 2017’s Wonder Woman. In ancient Greek folklore, howerver, the Amazons were not Ares’ foes: they were his daughters and descendants. In the original narrative, the queen and founding mother of the Amazon nation was Otrera, a consort of Ares. She bore him two daughters, one of whom was Hippolyta, mother of Princess Diana, or Wonder Woman. Thus, Wonder Woman would be Ares’ granddaughter if the movie had stayed true to the original Greek narrative.
Vietnamese Folklore Was Exploited to Fight the Viet Cong
In Vietnamese folklore, dead people who are not properly buried are doomed to wander the earth as tormented souls, unless and until their corpses receive the appropriate last rites. Those troubled ghosts can supposedly communicate with the living on the anniversary of their demise. So American forces in Vietnam used such superstitions against the Viet Cong. A plan known Operation Wandering Soul sought to “frighten and demoralize the enemy … and compel many to desert their positions“. To accomplish that, US forces used high decibel speakers on helicopters and backpacks to blast recordings of wailing “ghosts” in areas plagued with insurgents.
The tapes had messages in eerie-sounding Vietnamese, purportedly from dead Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers. They warned their comrades in hair-raising voices: “My friends, I have come back to let you know that I am dead …I am dead! It is hell! I am in hell! Don’t end up like me. Go home, friends, before it is too late!” Other creepy recordings included a bewildered “ghost” asking: “Who is that? Who is calling me? My daughter? My wife?” That was followed by another damned soul responding: “Your father is back home with you, my daughter“. Eeriest of all might have been the ethereal voice of a child wailing “Daddy, daddy, come home with me. Daddy! Daddy!”
Operation Wandering Soul: Using Superstitions (And Tigers) to Terrorize Vietnam
The recordings of Operation Wandering Soul creeped out and terrified at least some Viet Cong. Most VC or NVA troops simply got ticked off at the recordings and shot at the speakers, so the operation was not universally effective on all listeners. However, the recordings did have an impact on at least some enemy personnel. In February 1970, for example, a patrol swept an area after the eerie broadcasts, and caught a trio of “trembling VC insurgents“. On the other hand, the recordings could backfire at times, demoralizing not only the Viet Cong, but also “terrifying friendly South Vietnamese troops and civilians alike“.
The feedback from Operation Wandering Soul was good. That led its implementers, the US Army’s 6th Psy-Op Battalion, to expand on their repertoire whenever possible, and tailor the recordings to local conditions. One such opportunity presented itself when a South Vietnamese allied army unit spread a rumor that a ravenous tiger was on the loose, and attacking North Vietnamese and VC troops in the vicinity. So the 6th Psy-Op taped a tiger’s growls at the Bangkok Zoo, then amplified and blasted the recordings near an enemy-controlled mountain. It reportedly frightened 150 VC and NVA into fleeing their positions.
Dragons are big in pop culture nowadays, thanks in no small part to Game of Thrones and its spinoffs. Dragons and giant serpents appear in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Albanians have wyverns and pythons; the French have the Grand’Goule; the ancient Greeks had the Hydra; the Hebrew Bible has the Leviathan; Hindus have the Vritra; Norse mythology has the beast from Beowulf; and the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians had Apophis and mushussu, respectively. Some common threads link the mythology of dragon-like creatures in such varied cultures.
The theme of a hero and monster – an archetype of the eternal war between light and darkness, good and evil – is at the heart of dragon folklore. The tales depict a reptilian creature, often big, that menaces and imperils people. It might fly and breathe fire, or slither around and spew poison. Eventually, after a nice buildup that heightens the drama and narrative tension, a hero or a god makes an entrance, challenges the beast, slays it, and sets things right. So, what are the origins of their folklore?
The Origins of Dragon Folklore: Tracing the Connection to Ancient Fossils
Historian Adrienne Mayor advanced a theory that dragon folklore can be traced back to ancient discoveries of dinosaur fossils and those of huge extinct mammals. Take how the ancient Greeks depicted the Monster of Troy in vases and other artwork. The monster resembles a Samotherium, an extinct giraffe whose fossils are quite common in the Mediterranean. In parts of China were fossils of large extinct creatures are common, they are described as “dragon bones”. Similarly, dragons in the mythology of northern Indian closely resemble the extinct animals that left giant fossils strewn across the foothills of the Himalayas.
It is possible that the origins of dragon folklore are baked into us. They are traceable to before we had even evolved into humans. Anthropologist David E. Jones contends that humans have an instinctive fear of snakes, that originated with our ape ancestors millions of years ago. Snakes posed an especially high danger, and the peril was greatest for children. Evolution instilled in us a healthy fear of snakes. Children today, even in places that have no snakes at all, instinctively fear them. Such primal fears of snakes, might have given rise to dragon stories. Indeed, the earliest known dragon tales depict them as snake-like.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading