Wintery myths and legends

January may be well behind us, but we’ve still got at least another month of winter (except in Newcastle Upon Tyne, where it seems to be winter permanently).

We know that spring will soon be here, but in the past people couldn’t be so sure. So what did folk around the world think caused the cold conditions and long nights? Who did they think was responsible for this thievery of the sun?

The Hag of Winter.

According to Gaelic mythology, the season of spending as long as possible in bed was caused by Cailleach Bhéarach; known in Scotland as Beira, Queen of Winter. Being known as Queen of Winter is certainly a bit nicer than being known by the original meaning of Cailleach. Which is hag.

Ben Cruachan, Scotland
Ben Cruachan, one of the possible homes of Beira. Photo: puffin11k

Beira rules between Samhainn (1st of November) and Bealltainn (1st May) and has powers that would give Elsa a run for her money as Ice Queen. Naturally her staff freezes the ground when it touches it. She also dukes it out with spring and, a bit weirdly, she can herd deer. Which sounds less impressive then fighting a whole season.

Some deer in the snow
Some deer, possibly herded by Beira, Queen of Winter. Photo: Gerry Machen

Be warned if it’s nice and sunny on the 1st February, as this is believed to be a sign of a long cold winter. Beira collects her firewood for the winter on this day and, if she wants to collect any extra, she’ll make it sunny so she’s got plenty of time.

As well as being responsible for bringing a chill each year, in Scotland they say she created many of the hills and mountains, by spilling rocks from her wicker basket as she strode across the land. Well, you try carrying a basket with frozen fingers.

A snowy Scottish mountain
A Scottish mountain, possibly made by Beira. Look, it’s hard to find pictures of a fictional hag, ok? Photo: Andrew

Beware of Skiing Giants.

According to those cold-loving Norse peoples, winter fell under the dominion of Skadi. She’s a Jotunn (a Norse ice giant) as well as a goddess, and she’s rather busy: as well as being responsible for winter, she also spends her time managing skiing, mountains and bow hunting.

A drawing of the ice giant Skadi
Skadi on skis – from Mary Foster’s 1901 book ‘Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology’

It seems that Skadi mainly brought the winter because it’s somewhat expected of ice giants to make things dark and cold, and she did not want to let the side down in that respect. She was married to a god called Njord (who dealt with wealth and the sea, among other things) but it was a disaster – she hated the noise and warmth of his job; he hated the cold loneliness of hers.

Image of Skadi and Njord
Marital strife – Skadi and Njord, from ‘Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden’ by W.Wagner (1882)

Later in her life Skadi ended up married to Odin. Since the godding game dried up she’s kept herself busy, lending her name to both Scandinavia and a mountain on Venus.

Frozen margaritas?

Let’s finish with a trip further south, to a people you’d be forgiven for thinking probably didn’t need a god of winter; the Aztecs of Central and North America. The rather amazingly named Itztlacoliuhqui is the Aztec god of frost. He’s often shown carrying a broom, which he uses to sweep away the weak and old, making way for new life in the spring.

Itztlacoliuhqui
Itztlacoliuhqui – very colourful, for a frost God.

But Itztlacoliuhqui wasn’t always a god of frost (which must be a pretty quiet gig in Mexico). He was originally the god of dawn, when he was named Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli.

The sun god at the time, Tonatiuh, was being kind of a jerk and demanded the other gods obey him and make sacrifices (because that’s what Aztecs do). This irked our man Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, so he tossed a dart at the sun. However he managed to bodge it and miss, and when Tonatiuh threw a dart back (with much better aim) it knocked out a bit of his head, turning him into Itztlacoliuhqui.

The Aztec Stone of the Sun
Stone of the Sun, with Tonatiuh in the centre (dart not pictured). Photo: Arian Zwegers

His amazing name has caused some arguments among scholars, as to whether it means “Curved Obsidian Blade”, “Everything Has Become Bent by Means of Coldness”, or “Plant-Killer-Frost”. Some of those are better than others.

Hot chocolate drink, on a table
Some hot chocolate, ready for drinking. Photo: Elsie Hui

Right that’s enough cold air for me. I’m off to wrap up with a nice hot cocoa and hibernate until Spring.

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About Russell Wallace

Russell Wallace

My fondest holiday was definitely spending two weeks in Texas last Halloween, where I got to shoot guns, doze in the sun and worry about spiders all day. It was much less arid and dry than I was expecting and everyone was so friendly. Southern hospitality is a real thing and it’s amazing. I also found out that a swimming hole is a lot nicer than it sounds.

Russell works in our customer service team

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