The Truth About Krampus.
I’ve read enough of the standard scholarship about Krampus to notice that I keep reading the same things over and over again. And much of it, like the idea that Krampus was the son of the Norse goddess Hel, is not scholarship at all, but speculation. There are certain basic facts about Krampus found in every article about the figure, which have been treated well enough in other articles.
These articles are written because a modern fascination with Krampus has emerged. It stems from the growing popularity of Krampusnacht, Night of Krampus, celebrated every December 5th. It’s a very old tradition with roots a thousand years deep. But as popularity mounts, the Demon of Christmas is reduced to a marauding, semi-intelligent figurehead for drunken torchlit parades and costume competitions. He is the figurehead for some latent teen rebellion against traditional Christmas, or Christianity in general. He is an easy mark for horror fan movie dollars, a convenient replacement for the hackneyed axe-murderer Santa.
I set out to find the truth about Krampus.
We humans seem yet again to have misplaced the mythical value of a potent character. A figure such as this should play a major part in the story of mythical experience. Every year the very celestial mechanics of the winter solstice tell this story in the simplest and most dramatic terms.
Considering what I have learned through my own research, I have wondered if there is not some spell of confusion around the character. It covers him in a mist of conflicting claims and pop culture distortions.
For Krampus persists.
He calls to us from behind the veil, inciting obsession, derivation, imitation, and costumed invocation. He tempts the interested into a deeper kind of research: that of the mind, of the imagination. But there is danger here. For a single step beyond the comfort of the pop culture thrill, the confines of limited scholarship, and even the venerable purity of genuine tradition, reveals a single, unescapable, horrifying idea:
Krampus is the personification of the Primal Darkness.
I took that step. I set out to find the truth about Krampus. Not merely from books or articles, or examinations of his representation in popular culture. My search for Krampus consists of a search for those who knew him best, those who have seen him.
People have seen Krampus.
There are those who have not just seen him, but spoken with him, gambled with him, accompanied him on his errands, and indeed even fought with him. In my travels and correspondences I found tales of Krampus the sorcerer, the statesman, the gravedigger, avenger, and Krampus bestower of gifts.
In exchanges about Krampus I’ve heard tales of time travel, inter-dimensional projection, shifts in the fabric or reality. These shifts cast into legend creatures and places that were once very real. Krampus, creature of that unseen fabric, navigates its warp and weft.
Witch covens have danced with him. Wealthy elites have invited him into their circles, sometimes to their great regret. Sorcerers have long pursued his far reaching knowledge. Bishops and clergy have sought his aid in the management of demons. Indeed, on closer examination, the legend of St. Nicholas and Krampus seems to be a story of just such a partnership. In some cases, aid is freely given. In others, the cost exacted by Krampus is terrible.
Most of the stories I found exist now only in letters and journals. Some few in the memories of descendants or acquaintances, fewer still in the recall of the very ones for whom the encounter took place. And I have opened my own mind to allow these accounts to augment the scholarship. They more fully expose the truth about Krampus and provide a basis for his portrayal of in my fiction.
The Faces of Krampus
Is it possible the primary renditions of Krampus are but aspects of a more complex, more enigmatic figure larger than any of its representations? I believe this is the case. Each of them offers a clue, a piece of the puzzle to understanding the truth about Krampus. There are four such aspects worth examination, and each has emerged in my research as vital to the study of Krampus. In the first place there is Krampus the beast with his long hair and huge size. Then there is Krampus the red devil with his resemblance to the traditional Christian nemesis. Krampus also appears as a handsome man, cultured and sophisticated. And overarching all three of these Krampus countenances, there is Krampus the servant of St. Nicholas.
Krampus the Yeti Beast
To the modern mind, Krampus is a huge demon-faced beast with white fur, tall horns. He is to be found in dark, torch-lit situations surrounded by dead trees and snowy landscapes. Krampus is gleeful in his ability to frighten and driven by the purpose.
This is the Krampus of the pre-Christian past: the Pagan Krampus who wandered the winter forests of his germanic homelands before being bound in the service of St. Nicholas. That such a beast should be at large during the dark of midwinter is a terrible prospect, an indication of the relationship between the pre-christian mind and the frigid darkness of the season.
It has been suggested to me that a variety of such creatures may have existed at the time, and earlier. A whole world of winter darkness overlapped and mingled with ours. It brought human beings into contact with an array of creatures large and small. Krampus was singular and powerful among them. It may be that Krampus was clever, resourceful, and adaptable in a way that other creatures were not. He may have been the last to leave at the dawning of the modern world, if indeed he left at all.
Krampus the Red Devil
Some scholarship holds that the yeti Krampus is a distortion of the Horned God, an ancient Pagan deity associated with the ruling aspects of the natural world. In this narrative the distortion was imposed by the emerging Christian power structure to subdue the beliefs of the un-baptized masses of the time.
This allowed for the connection of the forest-beast to the red devil of the desert. Himself a pre-Christian figure, the red devil made the journey north from the sands of Palestine. The Christian missionaries who brought him had begun to struggle with him in their own belief system even as they brought the One God to the Pagans of Europe.
The red devil Krampus therefore represents the mentality of the ancient world becoming a world less natural, less wild, more civilized, more cerebral. It is true that civilization offers remarkable benefits to large numbers of people. It is also true that it hides and does not delete aspects of experience that once had a place in the waking world. The Wilderfolk, the faeries, the strange beasts, wandered the borderland of the conscious and unconscious minds. Their country overlapped with ours in a shared space of mytho-reality.
There was a time when these wondrous fauna were visible and could be faced even if not overcome. But the coming of the One God cast them into the shadows where they are free to wander and mutate. At times they reemerge in behaviors characterized by varying degrees of acceptability.
And surely Krampus is one of these. But with the coming of the fully Christianized red devil Krampus, the yeti-beast of the tangible wilderness crosses back beyond the hinterlands. He therefore assumes a purely demonic form in a starkly dualistic worldview. The return of the yeti in our day shows the cracks in the mighty Christian foundation upon which our western world is built. Through these cracks the Krampus and his kind are making passage with ever greater regularity.
Especially intriguing is the figure of Krampus as a sophisticated, handsome, well-dressed man of means. The polar opposite of the fur-clad woodland beast, Gentleman Krampus moves in the highest circles with grace, and evokes the curiosity and deference of those he meets. The gentleman seems to have evolved from the Red Devil. He has moved from the Christian demon personification into an even more directly Satan-like position. He becomes a dealmaker, sophist, deceiver, and giver of gifts at un-foreseen cost.
The Gentleman is therefore more a danger to adults than to children. No longer merely the wild eyed punisher of errant young people, he doles out justice on their parents. Further, he is an agent of that wickedness. He is able to lure people from the path of righteousness. He works his guiles up those who seek riches, position, economic ease, or social connection. The punisher is now also the tempter of those he punishes.
Shaper of History
A letter in my possession seems to give Krampus a place in the court of King Ferdinand of Spain in the early decades of the seventeenth century. He has some connection not to the king himself, but to one of the king’s advisors. The advisor appears to have entered into a pact with Krampus. Because of this arrangement, the advisor gains knowledge to advise King Ferdinand regarding the battle of White Mountain.
The result, it appears, was the defeat of Frederic of Bohemia and the ensuing resurgence of witch hunts and prosecutions in Europe. Indeed the whole affair seems to have been part of some larger game. It involves even Rene Descartes, who was himself present at the battle of White Mountain, and his angelic dream of a few years prior. This dream and this battle would help shape the course of the coming world. The Gentleman seems to have been instrumental in the establishment of a powerful new worldview, and the dramatic impact of the Thirty Years War.
Agent of St. Nicholas
The very idea of Krampus, punisher of children, says as much about St. Nick as it does about Krampus. Some writers claim St. Nick’s dominion over the monster symbolizes the taming by the Church of the Devil. In that case, what you have by extension is the Church making use of evil to do its dirty work. It is a case not merely of an institution ruling by fear, force and violence, but actually employing a monster. That very monster, by the estimation of the Church itself, would otherwise be a brutal menace at large and unbridled.
Consider it. St. Nick binds the devil, the source of all fear and inner darkness, thereby ensuring the safety of all the children of God. He then turns to wield Krampus like a weapon, like the very birch rods the beast himself is said to use. And over children no less. This does not speak highly of St. Nick, nor of the Church of which he was a bishop.
A Curious Relationship
But is there more beneath the surface? What is the nature of this strange partnership between a Pagan demon and a shepherd of the Christian flock? How did it begin? What conversations passed between these two unlikely companions as the traveled from house to house? How did they greet each other as they came together to begin their Christmas rounds?
Perhaps the answer waits in the entry for Christmas Eve, 1874, in the journal of Dr. Martin Schmidt, vicar of a small church on the northern outskirts of Vienna, Austria. The writing is hurried and may have been set down in darkness, the pastor fearing discovery if he lit a lamp. Or perhaps he did not wish to take the time for fear of missing any of the overheard conversation. The passage raises many questions about the arrangement between Krampus and St. Nicholas. But it recounts a telling declaration by Krampus. The beast expresses annoyance at his obligation each Christmas Eve to present himself to St. Nicholas in a church yard chosen at the end of their mutual journey the year before.
The Krampus Mystery
The truth about Krampus is a complex of legend, speculation, utter nonsense, and historical record. The documents and accounts I have gathered in my travels and researches generate far more questions than they answer. Important among them: where is he now?
Most recently my search has led me to Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota in pursuit of the only hints I’ve come across that Krampus was ever in North America. But I found only rumors, family stories, and, in one case, a song. Yet one of these, if true, would mean that Krampus was alive and well in Thief River Falls, Minnesota in 1953.
... what becomes of the personification of primordial darkness ... ?
Materialism rises unchecked, and crazed consumption unfolds every holiday season. A component of the season goes unseen through the fog of superficial gratification. This is the mythical value in the simple turning of the year. Potent information about the nature of human experience is built into the physical foundations of that experience. The stories and traditions that have sprung up through the centuries are therefore a response to the deep knowing of that information. They are a participation in those mythical mechanics.
Krampus is parcel to that.
But what becomes of the personification of primordial darkness when that darkness no longer gives us pause. Not because the light of understanding shines in our minds, nor any enlightened integration of the spiritual and physical worlds. But because we’re too confused and distracted by our overfed appetites even to know it’s there?
Krampus the yeti image by Matthias Kabel, used via Creative Commons