December 5th is when he comes to your home. Krampus, the feared hairy and horned creature from the wider Alpine region, making its ways into homes an many parts of the world now. Unfortunately, Krampus is also widely misunderstood. He doesn’t, for example, hate Christmas. He doesn’t care about Christmas, for he’s long gone come December 25th. He is associated with the time around the Winter Solstice, announces its coming and the purging aspect of it. But Krampus couldn’t care less about what people do at Christmas; or about the presents. He is not the Grinch!
I have written about Krampus in a previous blog article (and more extensively in my book (see below)). Today, I want to carve out one aspect of the figure, and put it in the wider context of Magic.
As different folks in the Alps, who organize Krampus Runs in towns and villages, have told me a number of times when I did research for my book, tradition was that the people dressing up as Krampus created their masks in secrecy over summer. When they came to the town square in Winter and hit, with their horse hair whips or bundles of birch twigs, rich and poor, high and low born (as it were in the old days), powerful and powerless, they acted as punishers, as moral authority chastising indiscriminately and, equally important, with impunity. If that hadn’t be the case, who would dare whack the butt of the count or the duke looking on, with their security around them? But masked, amongst others also masked, it was those in power wouldn’t dare retaliate, mostly to not lose face and being called a coward and wimp by the cheering crowd.
So, what we have is a person becoming, for the time being, a magical creature. A young person shapeshifting into an otherworldly beast. With that they assume the role of judge and executioner in one, breaking a very profound ethical rule actually, that these two jobs should be separate. And with that comes a certain level of responsibility. Now, aside from the fact that these are mostly young men in their twenties, their spirit enhanced by a few rounds of Schnaps before the show starts, we still expect a certain level of responsibility, of restraint. Doesn’t always pan out, admittedly.
The core concept here is, though, that a usually powerless person suddenly gains power over the otherwise powerful through the magic of a mask and by assuming the role of a magical creature.
Fast rewind to the witch trials of the 15th through 17th centuries. Why? Because here, too, we learn much about the imbalance of power and what Magic had to do with it.
In a book dissecting 23 witch trials in one county in the Alps, the author, Peter Klammer, of the book “Daß sy der Rit schütt” – roughly translated “May the fever shake her” (a curse logged in one of the trial records) – comes to the conclusion that almost all of the cases have some or another connection to “beggars”. I.e. with the poorest of the poor, the absolute powerless.
“Beggars” might be a weird expression, but it has to do with the fact that back then, there was no safety net for the poor provided by the government. People who had lost their income and home, or never even had either, roamed the country and tried to survive on handouts by farmers and trades people. They, typically the disabled (physically as well as mentally and developmentally), widows, and war veterans, would wander from one farmstead the next, getting food, drink, and a place to sleep in the hey for a few days at each. They would knock on the door and beg, hence the term. While it was customary, and somewhat an unwritten moral law, to accommodate these beggars, the practice also meant that people had to share what little they had. And farmers usually had very little back then.
So people thought of ways to get rid of the beggars. One way was to accuse them of witchery. Sometimes, the beggars themselves, fed up by their own fate and by the condescending attitude of the farmers, gave the latter, upon they depended, ample opportunity for accusation, for they would demand charity rather than ask humbly for it. And, if the farmers were reluctant, the beggars would curse them. One who curses – like “May the fever shake her” – could only be one thing: a witch.
The sense was, “I, one of the “good, hardworking people” give them milk – granted the oldest one I have, because I want the sweet, fresh one for myself – and they complain about it, even wish me bad? They must be witches! Only witches know how to turn the milk sour!
“A year with poor harvests, where I can give less to the beggars? If they complain, they must be weather witches.” And so on and so forth.
Now, there were some of these beggars, who actually did claim to know witchcraft.
Some were so mentally disturbed that they proudly recounted the times they fornicated with the devil, rode with him on oven pipes and wished bad weather upon the farmer who gave nothing.
Others claimed no such thing, but didn’t have the power to withstand the painful interrogation, aka torture, and told the drooling monks whatever they wanted to hear in their crazed madness.
Some couldn’t even hold up in the “normal” interrogation, because they knew what was coming their way.
One woman ran a con-operation claiming she can see and find hidden treasures.
Off to the pyre they went.
Some women had to pay the farmers for their charitable gifts with sex, and were tried not only for devilishly seducing the otherwise oh so outstandingly devout Christian, but also for having sex with a married man, threatening his holy bond of marriage.
To the pyre they, too, went.
But there were a few who were able to avoid the death penalty, often enough though not prison (where one of them died). They were accused of witchery by other members of the community as a form of revenge or in an attempt to get rid of them. But the accusations didn’t hold, and people went free.
And then there were a few, less than a handful, who actually did practice witchcraft, successfully as it were. One stayed free because he helped some superior nobleman with his illness. Another was hunted for decades, but never found. A couple died on the pyre.
In the end, Peter Klammer concludes that, from 1640 onwards, beggars were under the general suspicion of being witches. He also concludes that it seems that of those who practiced witchcraft only a few did it to help and heal (because they had the knowledge), while most others did it out of the desperation fueled by their poverty. In essence, a number of disenfranchised, poor social outcasts tried and claimed to be witches, to make a buck, and often enough to get back at those who had it all, who were in power.
Fast forward to today. A question discussed – a lot – in social media and in the blogger scene these days: is there, and should there be, a moral compass that pagans should voluntarily submit to?
Like the Wiccan “Rede”, the Law of the Harvest (Druidry), the Law of Threefold return (Witchcraft (TM)) or Karma (Hindu and by now pretty much everyone)?
If I were to evaluate the current situation based on what I read in social media discussions, things like
“I have been broke and treated unfairly so long that I have the right to hex… (fill in things like employer, ex-boyfriend, mother-in-law)”.
“I don’t believe in the Rede/threefold law of return or what have you and if someone goes against me, I get back at them.”
“I hexed a guy who raped me, he died, and that way I made sure he can’t do it to someone else.”
…I would have to come to the conclusion: epic fail. Then again, if we in the pagan community can’t even decide whether or not there should be a moral compass in the first place, how could we ever hope that we could agree on what it would look like.
Nimue Brown, whose blog I follow regularly (she also writes impressively regularly), issued a number of posts vaguely linked to that question, albeit mostly for Druidry. Even so, what she writes in her article Responsible Druid:
The first thing that you do when you set out to become a Druid, is to take responsibility for your path.
…could be the first step if we were to at least agree that we should come up with something like pagan ethics. Because, if I compare some of these remarks with the witch trial court documents, I’d have to admit that we, as a community, are still deeply stuck in the stinking mud of the dark ages – also in the very literal meaning of that expression.
I think that it is permissible to defend life and limbs, even with Magic, in the very moment we face danger or someone else is. We are not bound to the Christian “present the other cheek” doctrine. But vengeful vigilante witchery? That is way off the moral compass not only by the standards of muggles.
There is no charter, no bill of right, that grants one the right for revenge.
At least not anymore. There was such a thing in one region of Europe for a time, but we have progressed from there a bit, thank the Gods. No more bond-slaves, thralls, and forced marriages either, so let’s not go back there.
Unfettered righteousness in the form of uttering curses left and right is something we, as a community, may want to stay away from. To keep each other safe from harm. If we ever want to have a chance of being an accepted alternative to the revealed Abrahamic religions; if we ever want to become a strong, responsible community.
Krampus is a little bit of a revenge creature. All within the framework of actual tradition. Responsible in a way that he doesn’t kill, or otherwise permanently harm those he calls out. He whips them a little bit.
Maybe we need Krampus to whack our arses once a year, too, just to keep us on our toes.