Daily Archives: January 8, 2019
There are many sides to the beloved figure of Santa Claus – a giant of pop culture, he also has “miraculous” powers and ties to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Santa’s blend of religion and popular culture is, however, not modern at all. Several of Santa’s modern features, such as his generosity, miracle-working, and focus on morality (being “naughty or nice”), were part of his image from the very beginning. Others, like the reindeer, came later.
The original Santa, Saint Nicholas, was a fourth century CE bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) with a reputation for generosity and wonder-working. St Nicholas became an important figure in eighth century Byzantium before hitting pan-European stardom around the 11th century.
He became a focus not just for religious devotion, but Medieval dramas and popular festivals – some popular enough to be suppressed during the Reformation
The naughty list
St Nicholas had his own version of the naughty list, including the fourth century “arch-heretic” Arius, whose views annoyed the saint so much he supposedly smacked Arius in the face in front of Emperor Constantine and assembled bishops at Nicaea.
An even more surprising listee is the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis. In popular Byzantine stories, Nicholas acted like a one-man wrecking crew, personally pulling down her temples, and even demolishing the great temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It’s almost a shame, as they probably would have agreed about the importance of reindeer.
The idea of St Nicholas’ conflict with Artemis probably relates to religious change in Anatolia, where the goddess was hugely popular. Historically, the temple was sacked earlier, by a band of Gothic raiders in the 260s CE, but hagiographers had other ideas. Perhaps these furious northmen even count as Santa’s earliest “helpers”. He was after all (as part of his extensive saintly portfolio) the patron of the Varangians, the Viking bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors.
Santa’s greatest miracle is intrinsic to modern Christmases: his ability to reach all the children on Earth in one night. NORAD, the US and Canadian air defence force, has tracked Santa’s sleigh since the 1950s, presumably trying to figure out the secret of his super speed. But really, they just need to check their ancient sources.
In one story, sailors in a wild storm in the eastern Mediterranean cried out for the already-famous wonderworker’s help. With the mast cracking and sails coming loose, a white-bearded man suddenly appeared and helped them haul the ropes, steady the tiller, and brought them safe to shore. Rushing up the hill to the local church to give thanks, the sailors were astonished to see Nicholas was already there, in the middle of saying mass.
Suddenly appearing to save people became a favourite trick in accounts of the saint’s life and in folklore. He once saved three innocents from execution, teleporting behind the executioner and grabbing his sword, before upbraiding the judges for taking bribes.
There’s also the tale of Adeodatus, a young boy kidnapped by raiders and made the cupbearer of an eastern potentate. Soon after, St Nicholas appeared out of nowhere, grabbed the cupbearer in front of his startled master, and zipped him back home.
Artists depicting this story stage the rescue differently, but the Italian artists who have St Nicholas swoop in from the sky, in full episcopal regalia, and grab the boy by the hair are worth special mention.
The flying reindeer
None of the old tales have Saint Nicholas carrying around stacks of gifts when teleporting, which brings us to the reindeer, who can pull the sleigh full of millions of presents. The popular link between Santa Claus and gifting came through the influence of stores advertising their Christmas shopping in the early 19th century. This advertising drew on the old elf’s increasing popularity, with the use of “live” Santa visits in department stores for children from the late 1800s.
Santa Claus became connected to reindeer largely through the influence of the 1823 anonymous poem, A visit from St Nicholas.. In this poem, “Saint Nicholas” arrives with eight tiny reindeer pulling a sleigh full of toys. The reindeer have the miraculous ability to fly.
The origins of the animals’ flight may link back to the Saami reindeer herders of northern Scandinavia. Here, the herders were said to feed their reindeer a type of red-and-white mushroom with psychedelic properties, known as fly agaric fungi (Amanita muscaria). The mushrooms made the reindeer leap about, giving the impression of flying.
The herders would then collect and consume the reindeer’s urine, with its toxins made safe by the reindeer’s metabolism. The reindeer herders could then possibly imagine the miraculous flight through the psychedelic properties of the mushroom.
The ninth reindeer, Rudolph, was created as part of a promotional campaign for the department store Montgomery Ward by Robert Lewis May in 1939. May himself was a small, frail child, who empathised with underdogs. In May’s story, Rudolph Shines Again (1954), the little reindeer is helped by an angel to save some lost baby rabbits, once again blending Santa’s religious and popular sides.
And … invisible polar bears
A number of modern depictions have connected Santa with polar bears, such as the 1994 film The Santa Clause. It seems likely the association grew as Santa’s home became accepted as the North Pole — though in one of the oldest stories, St Nicholas saves three Roman soldiers, one of whom is named Ursus (“Bear” in Latin).
Polar bears are undoubtedly useful companions for secretive Santa, and don’t even need his powers to move about unseen – the special properties of their fur mean they are hidden even from night-vision goggles.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas (1976), written by the Lord of the Rings’ author to his children, features the (mis)adventures of the North Polar Bear. Like St. Nick, the North Polar Bear isn’t shy about getting physical with those he perceives as wrong-doers. In one letter, the North Polar Bear saves Santa, his elves, and Christmas from a murderous group of goblins.
So with Santa Claus once again coming to town, remember — ancient or modern – it’s better to be on the “nice” side of this teleporting saint and his motley crew of miracle-workers.
The poor health conditions of eight young Aboriginal people who died around the time of early European colonisation have been revealed in their skeletal remains, according to a new study.
The bones provide evidence of the displacement of Indigenous Australians from their traditional lands as a result of European colonisation. We view this as an opportunity to undertake “truth-telling” of our colonial history, as outlined in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The remains were sold as “scientific specimens” to the Australian Museum in Sydney in the early 20th century, but were repatriated in the 1990s to the local community in remote northwest Queensland.
A discovery of skeletal remains
In 2015 one of us (Michael) was contacted by the Queensland Police for advice on the skeletal remains of several individuals. They had been found eroding from a floodplain just outside the town of Normanton.
They were identified as Aboriginal but it was obvious they were not from a traditional Aboriginal burial site.
The remains appeared to have been reburied together. They were heavily weathered and did not include complete skeletons, just skulls and some long bones.
The state archaeologist Stephen Nichols contacted several museums, and deduced that these individuals had been repatriated in the 1990s from the Australian Museum. At around the same time, local Aboriginal people told police that the remains had been reburied in this location after their repatriation.
It quickly became apparent that these were the remains of eight young people who had died of disease on the colonial frontier in the late 19th century and had been collected by the Aboriginal Protector, Walter Roth.
The collection of Aboriginal skeletal remains (ancestral remains) was common practice in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Today, many thousands of individuals remain in institutions around the world awaiting repatriation.
The Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people from Normanton wanted to find out more about the lives of these people who had been taken from their country. They discussed this after one of us (Michael) attended the site.
The human skeleton provides a unique record of an individual’s life history. Our investigation showed the remains were all young people, with an average age of about 15 years, and some as young as seven.
Evidence of stress
The remains told the story of young people who had undergone significant nutritional stress in their formative years. This was evident from linear stress markers recorded as defects in their tooth enamel, referred to as dental enamel hypoplasias.
The teeth also indicated that while traditional foods were still important in their diet they also regularly consumed European foods rich in sugar and carbohydrates. This had created dental caries (cavities) in their teeth, similar to those we see today in many modern populations but which are unknown in pre-contact Aboriginal remains.
Walter Roth wrote about the high frequency of disease in Aboriginal people found barely holding on in the fringe camps around Normanton (reported in 1901). He reported that “about half” of the 176 Aboriginal inhabitants were suffering from introduced venereal diseases.
The remains provide first-hand pathological evidence in the wake of colonisation. In one individual there were signs of a pathological lesion defined as caries sicca, a lesion diagnostic of syphilis.
Syphilis was also evident in two tibiae (lower leg bones) reburied with the crania (skulls minus the jaws) in the form of a condition known as Sabre Shin, where significant bowing of these long bones is evident.
This all provides evidence of the stress that Aboriginal people endured during the early colonial period.
‘Truth telling’ and history
The Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people’s request for help was in the spirit of the Uluru Statement from the Heart where “truth telling” about the colonial past was emphasised as a priority for reconciliation between all Australians.
Research into our shared colonial past plays a fundamental role in this objective. Bioarchaeology can offer new narratives from the historic period that have not been captured in the historic record.
Some archaeologists have called for a post-colonial approach to the discipline, in which we establish, together with Aboriginal people, the types of historic investigations they consider important.
Traditionally this has not included research on the skeletal remains of their ancestors, as this has been a taboo research area for many Aboriginal groups.
But in parts of the country, Indigenous attitudes towards research are changing, with groups such as the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people wanting to know more about their past.
As one Indigenous leader from this community said:
… these were young people who left behind such a sad story that needs to be told so non-Indigenous people, not just throughout Australia but particularly in our region of northwest Queensland, know and understand that these traumas still impact on our people 120 years later.
These eight young people from Normanton, who died at the end of the 19th century, are not forgotten. They provide tangible evidence of the hardships that Aboriginal people endured through the colonial acquisition of their land and displacement of their way of life.
Susan Burton Phillips, Counsel to the Gkuthaarn and Kukatj people, contributed to this article.
Shaun Adams, Isotope Bioarchaeologist Research Fellow, Griffith University; Michael Westaway, Senior Research Fellow, Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Griffith University, and Richard Martin, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland