Archive for December, 2011

Nicholas: From Saint to Shaman to Santa

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Everyone knows that Santa Claus hails from Lapland, where he spends the year in his elf-run toy factory, pausing only to feed his red-nosed reindeer Rudolf, before loading his sleigh each Christmas and delivering presents to children around the world. But where did it all start, just who is Santa, and why does he perform this amazing role every Christmas Eve?

Santa, or rather his alter-ego Nicholas, was born around 270 AD, not in Lapland, but on the Mediterranean shores of (what is now) Turkey in Patara. Nicholas came from a wealthy family but his parents died when he was still young. Fortunately, his uncle was Bishop of the adjacent town of Myra and took in the young Nicholas, raising him for the church.

What we know of Nicholas was only recorded centuries after his death but it appears that he succeeded his uncle as Bishop of Myra at a very young age. Slowly, stories about this boy bishop spread. One time, for instance, when Nicholas was on pilgrimage to Egypt, he worked miracles to stop ships being wrecked upon rocks and even brought a dead sailor back to life. This was not the only time that Nicholas resurrected the dead. He also restored three boys to life after they had been slain by an unscrupulous butcher who intended to sell their remains as ham.

Most famous, however, was the help Nicholas gave to three daughters from an impoverished family. Unable to afford a dowry, the father of the girls could not arrange their marriage and feared they would be forced into prostitution. Nicholas, upon hearing of the girls’ fate, secretly left gold in their house, securing their future betrothal and, hopefully, happiness.

Nicholas was later canonised as St Nicholas and became a favourite of fishermen and travellers on account of him saving the ships and resurrecting sailor. Greece, a nation of fishermen, took him as their Patron Saint and he became enmeshed with the Orthodox Church. During the Crusades, pilgrims and warriors would pray to St Nicholas before making sea crossings and they spread his cult throughout Europe and beyond.

As the Orthodox Church moved into Russia, it took its most prominent saint, Nicholas, with it and he quickly became the Patron Saint of Russia. Not everyone in Russia was Christian, however, and the original inhabitants, the Viking Rus, were from Scandinavia. They had brought their pagan Gods with them and it is possible that they account for the first metamorphosis of St Nicholas.

Until recent times, the tradition for much of northern Europe was for St Nicholas to deliver presents to children on his feast day: December 6th (the day of his death). This tradition likely stems from his gift of dowries to the poor man’s daughters. But why he arrives on a flying grey horse, accompanied by mischievous and capricious black-faced elves, is less easy to explain. Unless, from the traditions of the Viking Rus, St Nicholas took on some of the qualities of the Norse God Odin, who also rides a flying grey horse and is accompanied by black-faced ravens. St Nicholas had become a Nordic saint.

St Nicholas’s next metamorphosis likely occurred in the depths of Russian Siberia as settlers forged their way into the frozen wilderness of the north. Local Siberians followed shamanic traditions and, upon hearing of St Nicholas – who healed, brought souls back from the dead, and bestowed otherworldly goods to his community – readily decided that he was a powerful shaman and assimilated him into their pantheon of spirits. An Evenki individual interviewed in 1913 even claimed St Nicholas was ‘Master of Shamans’.

Such shamans often journey to other realms, carried on the beat of their reindeer skin drums. In fact, many Siberian shamans believe their drum actually is a reindeer, carrying them upwards, through the smoke-hole in the roof, and north to an otherworldly reality. Returning with gifts of knowledge, the shaman comes back via the smoke-hole and tells the wide-eyed community of his or her extraordinary journey. All the while, bells on their costume ring loudly, warning the spirits of their passage. If St Nicholas was a shaman then naturally he did the same.

Shamanic St Nicholas likely merged with Nordic St Nicholas to create the legend of a man who travels from the north, pulled by flying reindeer, with bells on his costume, bringing gifts to children made by his helper elves, all delivered via the smoke-hole, now a chimney. In a nod to the distant past, he even wears his bright red bishop’s cloak.

St Nicholas, in his Dutch homeland in northern Europe, is Sinta Klauss: Santa Claus. The finishing touches were added by American writer Washington Irving in his fictional ‘Father Knickerbocker’s History of New York’ and high-jacked by Coca-Cola whose jovial and slightly-overweight Santa took the Coca-Cola brand, and Santa Claus along with it, worldwide.

Rudolph first appeared in a 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May but it is striking that, in Santa’s home of Lapland, reindeer are fond of munching on the hallucinogenic red-and-white fly agaric mushrooms. The local Sámi, who were also partial to the effects of the drug, likely recognised the feelings of lightness it engendered. And a high-flying reindeer flushed with fly agaric may indeed have had a bright red shiny nose. Santa Claus – one time saint, then shaman, and now beloved of children everywhere – had found his companion.

Cabeza de Vaca: From Conquistador to Shaman

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Cabeza de Vaca was a man of his time. Born in Spain around 1490, he sailed to the New World during his teens. It was not long before he joined an expedition from Cuba to Florida to look for unchartered lands and, God willing, a fortune to plunder. It was a typical Conquistador plan that had already seen the fall of the Mexica (Aztecs) and would later see the collapse of the Inca empire. Cabeza de Vaca thought only of fortune; in fact, he was the expedition treasurer.

Within months of landing, and following a pointless trek through the swamplands of Florida, the men were exhausted and starving. Their ship lost, they decided to construct rafts and make a desperate bid for home. It was a fatal mistake; all bar Cabeza de Vaca and three others would either die in the attempt or would perish shortly afterwards.

Cabeza de Vaca was lucky; his raft washed up on Galveston Island, where the local Indians took him in. To his surprise, the Conquistador received compassion from the people he had set out to rob and kill. After regaining his health, Cabeza de Vaca found that previous experience as a Spanish gentleman left him with nothing he could offer the Indians and he found himself falling lower and lower in their esteem before becoming a virtual slave. After several years of hardship, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions broke free and decided to walk through Texas into northern Mexico before following the country south to reach the Spanish towns. It was an audacious plan.

Putting into practice survival techniques learnt from the Indians, Cabeza de Vaca endured by eating anything he could catch – worms and spiders got him through many days. He also developed genuine sympathy for the Indians he met, learning their language and ways. Slowly, the Spanish Conquistador was changing into something more.

Cabeza de Vaca also witnessed healing performed by local shamans, driving out illness through prayer and cleansing the body with plants. Although Cabeza de Vaca never understood why, people took him to be a shaman himself. Perhaps they thought his pale looks were symbolic of the otherworld or perhaps they acknowledged his profound hardship and suffering. For whatever reason, the Indians brought people to Cabeza de Vaca for healing and he obliged them. He and his companions made the sign of the cross over patients and commended them to God. Their ministrations worked and people reported miraculous healing from the hands of the Spaniards. Cabeza de Vaca was given food and other items in exchange and more people arrived to be healed.

On one occasion, Cabeza de Vaca saw that his patient had already died and so he prayed that God would accept the dead man’s soul, breathing over the body several times before making the sign of the cross. The local people probably recognised this as a form of psychopomping and gave Cabeza de Vaca the dead man’s belongings in token of gratitude.

Although Cabeza de Vaca had developed deep sympathy with the Indians and had forged a recognised position in their society, his aim was always to return to his own people and, eventually, he did just that. First reaching Mexico City, he then sailed for Spain, a full ten years after beginning his extraordinary journey.

Cabeza de Vaca did not forget his experiences upon his return and he wrote a book about his journey, still in print today and entitled “The Shipwrecked Men”. Unlike his contemporaries, compassion and respect tempered his attitude towards the Indians. When he became Governor of a region of Argentina, his benevolent attitude towards the native people interfered with the nobles’ desire to enslave them on plantations. Cabeza de Vaca might have been ahead of his time but, with the lack of support from his nobles, his governorship was to be short and he eventually died, ruined and in poverty back in Spain.

The journey Cabeza de Vaca made on foot, although impressive, pales in comparison to the journey he made in his heart. From Conquistador to Shaman, Cabeza de Vaca found his humanity and compassion in the desert. If only there had been more in his mould.

Dancing with Crocodiles: Spirits and Masks Torres Strait Islands

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Until last week, the Natural History Museum in London had a collection of human bones, gathered as souvenirs and curios by 19th century travellers to the Torres Strait Islands, a chain of small islands running between northern Australia and Papua New Guinea. Despite initial resistance, the Museum finally returned the bones to representatives of the Islanders, who had long campaigned for their ancestral remains – taken with no thought to the desecration inflicted upon traditional beliefs – to be returned. After an hour-long ceremony to commune with the dead spirits, the bones were on their way home.

I thought of these bones when I viewed a crocodile dance mask from the same islands at the British Museum (shown in the photograph above). Unlike the bones, the mask was legitimately presented to a 19th century collector by its maker, a local Chief called Maino, and there is no pressure for its return.

The mask is a compelling object, formed from local wongai wood, but brought alive with turtle-shell inlay, cassowary feathers, hanging charms, and, most impressive of all, teeth formed from the blades of metal saws. It is undeniably beautiful, slightly sinister, and deeply moving.

It was not until the mid-19th century that Torres Strait Islanders had access to such an array of materials. A turbulent period overseen by Maino’s father – a revered warrior and leader – opened up the island to contact and trade. This new openness eventually brought a British scientist to Maino’s shores: Professor Alfred Cort Haddon. From his copious records, it appears Haddon got on splendidly with Maino and this enabled the scientist to study and record many aspects of Torres Strait tradition that might have otherwise been closed to an outsider. One of the most cherished traditions was a spirit dance and, after persuasion, Maino agreed to put on a dance for his British friend.

From Haddon’s notes, it appears that a spirit dance was a means for the community to contact deceased ancestors. Often part of a mortuary ritual, the dance took place at a special ceremonial ground called a ‘kod’. Dancers, known as ‘markai’, impersonated dead ancestors so accurately that people in the crowd immediately recognised who it was being portrayed. Although Haddon does not mention possession, it is possible that the dance was a means of drawing down ancestral spirits and embodying them within the form of the dancers. The accompanying drums and dizzying rhythm would have been more than enough to initiate trance states if this was what the dancers intended.

An important part of the dance was for the totem animal of each family to appear and, in Maino’s case, this was a crocodile. His role was to dance the creature and bring its spirit to the performance.

The crocodile mask fitted over the wearer’s head completely and was held in place by biting on a horizontal bar. Teeth marks show where Maino did this, possibly even during the dance witnessed by Haddon. To see his surroundings, Maino would have looked out of the crocodile’s jaw, perhaps giving him a different view of reality and of the ancestral spirits descending into other dancers.

After the performance, Haddon asked to purchase the mask and other dance regalia, including Maino’s drum. On his return to Britain, Haddon donated the objects to the British Museum where they now housed. Maino got fair trade in return and there is even a record of Haddon giving calico and tobacco to Maino’s mother-in-law as part of the payment. In Torres Strait society, this was considered a smart move.

In letting Haddon collect the objects and record the ceremonies, Maino thought that he was preserving a record for the future. His faith in this regard was visionary. Haddon’s collection – including all his notebooks – are still consulted by Torres Strait Islanders to learn about their culture and traditions and to serve as inspiration for modern craftspeople. As for Haddon, he was eventually adopted into Maino’s family and, wherever he travelled in the South Seas, he would always introduce himself as ‘Haddon, a crocodile man’.