George Harley McKnight.

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worship of St. Nicholas for the pagan worship of
Artemis, there were two natural consequences. In
the first place the pagan deity, formerly revered,
came to be regarded as an evil spirit. In the
second place this evil spirit was supposed to be

132 St. Nicholas

particularly hostile to the Christian saint that
had replaced her in popular worship. This hos-
tility is reflected in the well-known story of the
devil's plot against the church of St. Nicholas.
The Golden Legend version of the story is as
follows :

And in this country the people served idols and

worshiped the false image of the cursed Diana. And

to the time of this holy man, many of them had

some customs of the paynims, for to sacrifice to Diana

under a sacred tree; but this good man made them

of all the country to cease then these customs, and

commanded to cut off the tree. Then the devil was

angry and wroth against him and made an oil that

burned, against nature, in water, and burned stones

also. And then he transformed him in the guise of a

religious woman, and put him in a little boat, and

encountered pilgrims that sailed in the sea towards

this holy saint, and areasoned them thus, and said:

I would fain go to this holy man, but I may not,

wherefore I pray you to bear this oil into his church,

and for the remembrance of me, that ye anoint the

walls of the hall ; and anon he vanished away. Then

they saw anon after another ship with honest persons,

among whom there was one like to S. Nicholas, which

spake to them softly: What hath this woman said

to you, and what hath she brought? And they told

to him all by order. And he said to them: This is

the evil and foul Diana; and to the end that ye know

that I say truth, cast that oil into the sea. And

when they had cast it, a great fire caught it in the sea,

Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 133

and they saw it long burn against nature. Then
they came to this holy man and said to him: Verily
thou art he that appeared to us in the sea and de-
liveredst us from the sea and awaits of the devil.

But the victory over the pagan deity was not a
complete one. Constant association of St. Nicho-
las custom with earlier worship of Artemis was
not without its influence on the popular concep-
tion of the Christian saint. One is tempted to
assume the malevolent and insidious work of the
pagan deity aiming to corrupt the character of
the benevolent bishop. In any event from Arte-
mis as well as from Poseidon St. Nicholas inherited
attributes which serve to explain some of the
elements in his complex personality. It is to be
remembered that Artemis of Ephesus was not
only a spring deity but also in part a sea and
a river goddess. Hence her epithet, "Potamia."
Both associations, that with spring, and espe-
cially that with the sea, Artemis shares with St.
Nicholas. 10 Artemis-Cybele is often represented
as a sea monster with the tail of a fish. There
are traces of a similar grotesque popular concep-
tion of St. Nicholas in the Sicilian popular legend
with the hero named Nicolo-Pesce. This con-
ception of St. Nicholas is much in evidence in
western Europe and serves to explain the con-

134 St. Nicholas

nection of St. Nicholas with a conception widely
prevalent there, of a water spirit or god. Among
Teutonic peoples, particularly, this water spirit
is widely known with various names, such as Nix,
Nickel, Nickelman, Nick, Nokke. Millers are
said to be particularly afraid of this spirit and to
throw different things into the water on the sixth
day of December, St. Nicholas' day, to propitiate
it. 11 In the character of Nikur, a Protean water
sprite (Edda, Doemesaga, 3), he inhabits the lakes
and rivers of Scandinavia, where he raises sudden
storms and tempests and leads mankind into de-
struction. 12 Danish peasantry, in earlier times,
conceived of the Nokke (Nikke) as a monster
with human head, dwelling both in fresh and in
salt water. Where anyone was drowned, they
said, Nokken tag ham bort, "the Nokke took him
away." The Icelandic Neck, a kelpie or water
spirit, appears in the form of a fine horse on the
seashore. If anyone is foolish enough to mount
him, he gallops off and plunges into the water
with his burden. 13

In France there is known a similar water mon-
ster, and there, paradoxical as it may seem, it
has taken the name of the benevolent St. Nicholas.
It is a terrible monster that seizes fishermen who
walk without permission by the water side at night-

Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 135

fall. It has claws and tears the faces of the
children that remain too late on the beach. 14

The water monster under discussion was known
in England. Back in the eighth century, in the
story of Beowulf, there are introduced water
monsters, apparently conceived of as like wal-
ruses or sea-lions, but malevolent in character.
These are called niceras. The "Old Nick," a
name familiar since the early seventeenth century,
seems to have originated in the conception of this
water monster once prevalent in the North of
England. The conversion of the name of the
water demon into a name for the Devil is not an
unusual phenomenon. The process is illustrated
in the history of the Greek word "demon" itself,
which, at first meaning "spirit," in no evil sense,
with the hostile attitude assumed toward earlier
religious conceptions following the introduction
of Christianity, came to be used as a name for an
evil spirit or devil. The same conversion of an
old name to a new use is to be seen in the case
of the "Old Nick," in the beginning the name of
a water spirit, later a name for the Devil. In this
case the malevolent character of the water spirit
made the conversion one easy to comprehend.

What, then, is the relation of this well known,
usually malevolent, water spirit to St. Nicholas?

136 St. Nicholas

An attempt has recently been made to show that
the Eastern conception of St. Nicholas as a water
spirit, originating in the older mythical beliefs
concerning Artemis, was carried by seamen to the
West of Europe and that in this way the name
St. Nicholas is the base of the different forms
for the name of the water spirit. 15 This theory
can hardly be sustained, since there is no proof of
the popularity of St. Nicholas in the West so early
as the earliest reference to the water spirit, that
is to say, in the case of the nicer as of the English
Beowulf, and because in popular contraction of
the name Nicholas, it is the second part of the
name, the -clas, that usually survives. A more
likely explanation is that the confusion between
the water spirit, variously known as Nick, Neck,
Nicor, Nokke, Nickel, Nickelmann, and St. Nicho-
las, is explained by a well-known process of popular
etymology. St. Nicholas with his attributes as
controller of the waters, inherited from the mythi-
cal Poseidon and Artemis, when in the eleventh
century he became known in the West, became
confused with the more and more vaguely con-
ceived pagan water spirit of similar name, and in
the end, in certain places, became identified with
him, thereby inheriting some of his qualities, and
influencing the form of his name.

Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 137

Over in Russia also St. Nicholas has fallen heir
to similar attributes. In this way he has come to
figure in an interesting episode in recent musical
history, an episode which illustrates in a most
interesting way how the influence of St. Nicholas
has penetrated to affairs of our own time. Rimsky-
Korsakoff, in his opera, Sadko, composed in 1896,
made use of an old Novgorod folk-tale of the
Volga. This story centers about a river deity
said to be something like the Old Man of the Sea
in the Arabian Nights Tales. Under Christian in-
fluence this tale has been converted into a story
of St. Nicholas, one of many told of him in Russia,
where he is one of the most popular of the saints.
Both versions of the popular story persist, the
earlier, pagan form and the one where St. Nicholas
has inherited the prominent part. Rimsky-Kor-
sakoff, after some hesitation which of the two
versions to use, finally made choice of the later,
St. Nicholas, version. But here he came into
conflict with Russian orthodox bureaucracy, which
would not permit such irreverent use to be made
of the Russian patron saint Nicholas. The com-
poser, therefore, made a change, substituting the
names of the older version. But in his opera he
had made free use of musical themes derived from
the liturgy of the St. Nicholas festival, and this

138 St. Nicholas

music he retained, making a humorous incongruity
between the sacred music and the pagan story.
A quarrel with officialdom resulted, which is said
to have been one of the reasons why Rimsky-
Korsakoff lost his position as Director of the
Conservatoire at Petrograd.

Attempt has been made to connect St. Nicholas,
through his relationship to the Teutonic water
spirit, with Odin, who in one of the Edda poems
is given the name Hnikar. This particular link
between St. Nicholas and Odin has not been suc-
cessfully established. It is certain, however, that
a relationship exists. The time of the St. Nicholas
festival, December 6th, and of Christmas, where
St. Nicholas has come to play an important part,
coincides in part with the season of the year when
Odin, as god of the air, made his nightly rides, or,
as god of the dead led through the air the troops
of spirits of departed ones. The coincidence in
time, under Christian influence, led to the transfer
to St. Nicholas of some of the functions of Odin.
The heritage of St. Nicholas from Odin has been
discussed in an earlier chapter. From Odin St.
Nicholas inherited his gray horse, which in some
Germanic countries he uses in his nightly rides,
but which he traded for a reindeer before coming
to America. For this horse of St. Nicholas

Pagan Heritage of St. Nicholas 139


children in parts of Europe leave the hay and
oats once left for the horse of Odin. From Odin,
too, Santa Claus inherited certain details of his
appearance, most notably his long white beard
as distinguished from the kind of beard familiar
in pictures of the bishop-saint.

From others of the Teutonic gods St. Nicholas
received legacies. In him various scholars 16
have recognized attributes of Fro and of Niordhr,
the father of Fro. The task of purveying gifts
for children, for which St. Nicholas uses the horse
of Odin, is a function sometimes attributed to the
spirits of the dead, who, with or without Odin as a
leader, in the time of the shortest days of the year
are supposed to revisit their earthly homes. I7

From this discussion one will see that the
Christian saint Nicholas has the same perplexing
variety of aspects that make it so difficult to form
any single unified conception in the case of one
of the pagan gods. At Bari, in Italy, where his
relics are preserved, on his festival day, he receives
the honors of a water god not necessarily mal-
evolent in character. His image is borne by
sailors in procession out to sea and at nightfall
is escorted back to the cathedral with torches,
fireworks, and chanting. 18 In parts of France
he has inherited different qualities; his name is

140 St. Nicholas

given to a water spirit, a veritable ogre in its
malevolence. In many other countries, including
our own, he has inherited the pleasant role of
children's benefactor. If one wishes to gain a
realization of how popular heroic conceptions
are formed, one should compare the many-sided
St. Nicholas known in our own day in the various
countries of Christendom with the simple figure,
as clearly as one may distinguish it, of the kindly
youth that was born at Patras in Asia Minor in
the early days of Christianity.



'"THROUGHOUT the present discussion of St.
Nicholas the fact has been kept constantly
prominent that St. Nicholas is more famed for
deeds than for doctrine. His role was not in
general that of the apostle extending the bound-
aries of Christendom nor that of the expounder
of creed. His fame rests on his kindly acts.
But it was inevitable that the authority of so
beloved and so influential a personage should be
invoked in support of orthodoxy. In the Golden
Legend mere mention is made of the presence of
St. Nicholas at that meeting of critical importance,
the Council of Nice. But in the Roman Breviary
it is recorded that just before his death he was
present at the Council of Nice and there, "with
those three hundred and eighteen church fathers,
condemned the Arian heresy."

Controversy, particularly religious controversy,
has its pitfalls even for those of most gentle nature,

and connected with this momentous occasion and


142 St. Nicholas

the part in it played by St. Nicholas, there is a leg-
endary story 1 which exhibits a side to his char-
acter, if less saintly, at least, more human. The
story goes that St. Nicholas at Nice struck an Arian
bishop who spoke against the faith and that, for
this too violent zeal, he was deprived of the right
of wearing bishop's robes. But, the story adds,
in celebrating the mass, he saw angels bearing
him the miter and the pallium as a sign that
Heaven had not blamed his wrath.

The orthodoxy of St. Nicholas is thus put be-
yond question. If he was a foe to heresy, he was
still more a foe to paganism. In the story from
the Golden Legend already quoted is recorded
his activity in uprooting the worship of Diana in
Lycia and the particular hatred of the goddess,
or devil as she was conceived of, that he incurred
thereby. Concerning his zeal in this work,
Wace 2 has the following additional details to
offer. "Before the time of St. Nicholas," he tells
us, "devils had power. People worshiped gods
and goddesses: Phoebus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury,
Diana, Juno, Venus, Minerva. They had painted
images with names written on the foreheads.
Diana in particular was a she-devil. St. Nicholas
broke her image and delivered the people from

St. Nicholas Represented (Byzantine style) in the Mosaics
of St. Mark's in Venice.

Defender of the Faith 143

But it is particularly in the conflict between
Christianity and Mohammedanism that St. Nicho-
las is prominent as defender of the faith. The
time when St. Nicholas worship was introduced in
the West was a time when this conflict was at its
height, the time of the Crusades. It will be re-
membered how Jean Bodel in his play, written
about the year 1200, made new use of the story
of the image of St. Nicholas set as the guardian
of treasure. It will be remembered that the set-
ting for the story provided by Bodel was in the
wars of Christian against Saracen, and that
the central feature of the story in the play is the
way in which the Christian image of St. Nicholas
proved his power to be greater than that of the
Mohammedan idol of Tervagant, and thus led
the Mohammedan king with his seneschal and all
his emirs to adopt the Christian faith.

In Eastern countries the conflict between Chris-
tianity and Mohammedanism, so much alive in
Western Europe in the time of the Crusades,
continues in active form in our own time. It
must be remembered, too, that in Eastern coun-
tries St. Nicholas occupies a place even higher
than that occupied by him in the West in our time.
It is not unnatural, then, that there he should
be looked to as the defender of the Christian faith.

144 St. Nicholas

How well he is thought to be able to represent the
Christian cause is well brought out in a naively
humorous Albanian folk-tale. 3 The story goes
as follows: Mohammed was the guest of St.
Nicholas. When the time to eat came around,
Mohammed asked where were the servants. St.
Nicholas replied that no servants were needed,
that at a word from his mouth or a stroke on the
table, the edibles would be ready. He then pro-
ceeded to demonstrate that what he said was
entirely true, causing to appear on the table
everything that one could desire to eat and drink.

Mohammed, not to be outdone, on his return
home caused his servant to construct a table
which would turn and could thus be closed into
the wall leaving no visible sign. He commanded
his servant to make ready food of every kind, and
when he heard a rap, to push the laden table
through the wall. He then invited St. Nicholas
to his house, intending to exhibit powers as great
as those shown by St. Nicholas.

But St. Nicholas made all his plans go awry.
He made the servant deaf, so that there was no
response to the rap of Mohammed, and St. Nicho-
las himself had to get up and bring in through the
wall the table laden with food, naturally to the
discomfiture of his host.

Defender of the Faith 145

The next day Mohammed invited St. Nicholas
again, promising to work a miracle before him.
He caused a great number of jugs and cans and
dishes of various kinds to be taken to the top of
a hill. At a sign from Mohammed, these were
to be rolled down the hill and a cannon fired.
When St. Nicholas arrived, helbade Mohammed
work his miracle. Mohammed raised his hand,
and the expected noise followed. St. Nicholas,
however, gave no sign of fear. Mohammed then
bade him work a miracle. St. Nicholas clapped
his hands, and immediately the thunder rolled
and the lightning flashed, overwhelming Moham-
med with terror.




AND when it pleased our Lord to have him depart
out of this world, he prayed our Lord that he
would send him his angels, and inclining his head, he
saw the angels come to him, whereby he knew well
that he should depart, and began this holy psalm:
In te domine speravi, unto in manus tuas, and so
saying: "Lord into thine hands I commend my
spirit," he rendered up his soul and died, the year of
our Lord three hundred and forty-three, with great
melody sung of the celestial company.

This is the Golden Legend account of the end
of the earthly life of the kindly bishop-saint. His
body was placed in a tomb of marble, and in the
year 1087 was discovered by Italian merchants
and borne by them to the city of Bari in Italy.
There his tomb is a famous center for pilgrimages.
On his festival day, many thousands bearing
staves bound with olive and pine honor his
memory. 1 It is said that when his tomb at Myra
was opened, the body was found swimming in


Conclusion 147

oil, and that to this day there continues to issue
from his body a holy oil ' ' which is much available
to the health and sicknesses of many men."

St. Nicholas, the guardian of so many things,
also keeps guard over his own remains. Wace
relates the story of a man carrying off a supposed
tooth of the holy saint. In the night St. Nicholas
appeared and admonished the thief, and in the
morning the tooth was gone.

St. Nicholas was mortal. But his deeds are
immortal. His beneficent acts have flowered in
legendary story and have found fruition in univer-
sal popular customs animated by the same spirit
of kindness that pervaded the whole life of the
saint. Probably the life history of no other per-
son, save that of the Founder of Christianity
himself, has been so intimately woven about
human custom and human life as that of St.
Nicholas. In certain parts of Siberia he is wor-
shiped as a god. Even in our own country (
although we are supposed to have outgrown idol-
atry, representations of Santa Claus about Christ-
mas time, in shop windows and on street corners,
are objects of worship little short of idolatry. To
vSanta Claus also at Christmas time are addressed
the most sincere, even if not the most unselfish,

148 St. Nicholas

We may well conclude our present considera-
tion of St. Nicholas and his works with an invoca-
tion to him, using the words composed by the
recluse Godric, back in the twelfth century, which
form one of the very earliest of English lyrics :

Sainte Nicholaes, godes druth,
Tymbre us faire scone hus
At thi burth, at thi bare
Sainte Nicholaes, bring us wel thare.



1 Manchester Guardian.

I A. Tille, Die Ceschichte der Deutschen Weihnacht, Leipzig, 1893,
p. 30.

3 O. von Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, Traditions et Legendes de la
Belgique, p. 302.
* Do, p. 323.

5 Reinsberg-Diiringsfeld, Das festliche Jahr der germanischen
Volker, Leipzig, 1863, pp. 360 ff.

6 Do., pp. 362, 363.

7 P. M. Hough, Dutch Life in Town and Country, London and
New York, 1901, pp. 116 ff. The present account of St. Nicholas
customs in Holland is based on notes from the book by Hough,
but is not quoted exactly in order of details nor in wording.

8 Do., p. 121.

I. von Zingerle, Zeitschrift fur Volkskunde, ii., 329 ff .
10 Hough, op. cit., p. 117.

II Do., p. 125.
13 Do., p. 125.

'J I. von Zingerle, op. cit. t p. 343.

J 4 Hough, op. cit., p. 125.

'5 Do., p. 126.

16 Rcinsberg-Duringsfcld, Das festliche Jahr, p. 362.

'7 Tille, op. cit., p. 35.

18 Brand, Popular Antiquities, i., p. 420.

' Tille, op. cit., p. 299.

30 Do., p. 36.

" Do, p. 33-

33 Do, p. 36.

33 Do, p. 202.


150 St. Nicholas

a * Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, Das festliche Jahr, p. 382; C. A.
Miles, Christmas, London, 1912, p. 231.

2 s St. Nicholas, Our Holidays, New York, 1916, p. 64.

26 W. A. Wheeler, Dictionary of Noted Names in Fiction, Boston,

"JTille, op. cit., p. 119.

28 Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, op. cit., p. 342.

2 Reinsberg-Duringsfeld, quoted by Miles, op. cit., p. 277,

3 Hough, op. cit., p. 120.


1 G. de Saint Laurent, Guide de I' Art Chretien, 1874, v., p. 349.
* A. Butler, Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and other Principal
Saints, London, 1838.

s New York Times, Oct. 24, 1915.

4 Mrs. Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, vol. ii.


1 The Golden Legend, Caxton translation, Temple Classics
series, vol. ii., pp. 109-122.
3 Do., pp. 119, 120.

3 Mrs. Jameson, op. cit.; also H. Thode, Franz von Assisi,
Berlin, 1904.

4 C. Cahier, Caracteristiques des saints dans I' art populaire,
Paris, 1867, vol. i.

sE. Anichkof, "St. Nicholas and Artemis," Folk-Lore, v.,
pp. 108 ff.

6 Hough, op. cit., p. 122.
i Brand, op. cit., i., p. 417.


1 Tille, op. cit., p. 32.
3 Do., p. 300.

3 Brand, op. cit., i., p. 420.

4R. T. Hampson, Medii Aevi Kalendarium, London, 1841,
ii., p. 76.

s T. Wright, Songs and Carols, Warton Club, 1856, p. 4.
6 Brand, op. cit., i., p. 421.

Notes 151

? Brady, Clavis Calendaria, quoted by W. Hone, The Every-
Day Book, London, 1838.

8 New York Times, April 18, 1915.
s Mrs. Jameson, op. cil.

10 Brand, op. cit., ii., p. 356.

11 Encyclopedia Britannica, article "Pawnbrokers."

1 2 Cf. the story of the Jew who left his property under the
protection of the image of St. Nicholas.


I Gallcria antica e moderna.
2 C. A. Miles, op. cit., p. 168.

3 A. F. Leach, "The Schoolboy's Feast," Fortnightly Review,
vol. lix., pp. 128-141.

4 E. K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, London, 1903, i., p. 294.
The total amount of the debt to Chambers's work it has not
been possible to indicate in these notes.

s Do., p. 357.
Do., p. 348.
? Brand, op. cit., i., p. 423.

8 Chambers, op. cit., p. 338.

9 Tille, op. cit., p. 31, quoted by Chambers.

10 Reinsbcrg-Duringsfeld, Traditions et Legendes de la Bclgique,

P- 348-

II Leach, op. cit.


1 H. Thodc, Franz von Assisi, Berlin, 1909.
'Verses 1080-1143.
^ Verses 208-216.

* M. Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 47, 48.


1 G. R. Coffman, A New Theory concerning the Origin of the
Miracle Play, Univ. of Chicago diss., 1914.

2 Henry Morlcy, English Writers, 1889, vol. Hi., pp. 105-114.

J E. Du Mcril, Les Origincs Latines du Thcdtrc Moderne, new
edition, Paris, 1897, pp. 272-276.

* C. M. Gayley, Plays of our Forefathers, New York, 1907, p. 64.
s Du Meril, op. cit., pp. 276-284.

152 St. Nicholas

6 Gaston Paris, La litterature fran$aise au Moyen-Age, Paris,
1890, 167.

^ W. Creizenach, Geschichte des neueren dramas, Halle, 1893,
i., pp. 139-141-


I E. Bisland and A. Hoyt, Seekers in Sicily.
3 Brand, op. cit., pp. 363, 364.

3 Do., pp. 363, 364.

4 H. F. Feilberg, Jul, Copenhagen, 1909, i., p. 105.
s C. Cahier, op. cit.

6 This additional list is derived from somewhat scattered
references in works cited above by Brand and by Cahier.

? M. Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 29, 30.
8 E. Anichkof, op. cit., pp. 1 08 ff.
Brand, op. cit., i., p. 419.
10 Anichkof, op. cit.

II Zingerle, op. cit., p. 334.
12 Anichkof, op. cit., p. 109.

'3 First part of Henry IV., Act II., scene i.
J 4 Brand, op. cit., i., p. 418. Cf. also the Oxford Dictionary
under Nicholas.

1 2 3 4 5 6 8

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