Far to the North, even farther than our home in this Rocky Mtn. valley, the most ancient versions of Santa Claus prepare for their shamanic journeys.
Over 30 thousand years ago when humans walked out of Africa to spread throughout Europe and northern Asia they carried the kernel of these shamanic Solstice figures into the cold and icy realms. The sun’s business was the most important business of our primordial ancestors. For most cultures the world over, the sun in the sky were honored as the Sacred Masculine, and the Earth, of course, as the symbol of the Great Feminine. In those wintry times and climes the ancients did not know if the sun, who was seen to begin his travels to his southern home on the longest day, the Summer Solstice, would ever decide to return to the North. They called on all the forms of healing mystery, ceremony and sympathetic fire magic to remind the sun—“Do not abandon us! Please return to your people!”
In order for ice to melt, rivers to flow, grass to green, animals and humans to give birth, the sun needed to bring the time of Leaf-Spring-Forth back to the world of darkness and winter. The re-birth on December 21st of the Sun as the Divine Masculine--many versions of which are celebrated at this time of year by over 20 major spiritual traditions--is a shared rite-of-passage whose origins have woven inextricably together over millenia. The perennial icon of the Winter Solstice and Holiday season is this Sacred Shining Child whose birth and inauguration of the returning Light offers hope, communal fellowship and a spiritual journey toward love and wholeness.
In the contemporary U.S the other enduring Spirit of the Season is called “Santa Claus.” This friendly, flying, fur-bearing fellow is a long, long way from his origins in the lands along the northern rim of the world. In fact, he quite probably began as a “she.” All known cultures recognized the Earth as the Great Mother of Life and human women as the representatives of this all-creating force. Before the major Aryan invasions overtook these “matri-focal” or Mother-oriented tribes and cultures, women were seen as the sole creators of human life. For thousands of years it was not understood that semen was necessary to fertilize the fruit of the womb. All that could be identified is that life flowed directly from woman’s body—not man’s. Women were therefore, undoubtedly honored as powerful shamans, partners of the Sun and daughters of the Earth. The creative dynamic of the Great Feminine would be very important in drawing the sun back to the northlands and/or rebirthing this Son of the Sun and Mother Earth each year.
Ancient Siberians, Early Scandinavians (Samis, Finns) and indigenous Natives of Alaska were peoples who lived migrational lives on the broad over-arching tundra and icy lands along the upper regions of the Earth. For thousands of years, their partners in hunter-gatherer, and eventually, symbiotic existences were the horned ones who grazed this same frozen land—the mastodon, muskox and forebearers of the reindeer and caribou. Some of the ancients, such as the Sami people, expanded their collaboration with the peaceful, shy reindeer and still continue to live as herders of the vast open tundra. Their lives, as those of the Inuit, Athabascan and other Canadian and Alaskan hunters with the herds of caribou they follow, are completely intertwined with these antlered cohabitants. Everything they eat, wear, utilize as tools, create as shelter, design as art has come from Reindeer. Reindeer is not prey, or livestock, Reindeer is Life.
Woman was also seen as the ultimate expression of Life. It was she who taught how to help birth the reindeer young, gather herbs and berries to feed in order to bring the milk, followed the estrus and gestation cycles of the reindeer cows and learned to fashion warm and nearly indestructible clothing from reindeer hide, bone and sinew. Reindeer, like the creative Feminine, were considered most sacred. Artifacts and funerary practices identified from thousands of years ago from Sami and Siberian burial sites indicate that some of the most important spiritual guides were women.
Women were known to be keen observers of herd movements. They could read the circling constellations overhead and identify herb and plant medicines below. They prepared healing remedies and oversaw all phases of life, from birthing, to menses, to elder years and dying. They were the midwives to earthly and spiritual deaths and rebirths for both 2-leggeds and the 4-legged antlered relatives. Women were considered shamanic, not only because of their magical life-giving abilities but also because of their unique communication and relationship with reindeer. These were seen as the magical “familiars” and guides to the mysteries of healing. Throughout the world, cave drawings, petroglyphs and pictographs show the Antlered Ones as embodying a kind of “antennae to the Sky-Heavens” and the Upper World of the gods and goddesses. Through these antennae, reaching from their temples forward and upward, it was believed that the horned-ones could literally “receive knowledge from the gods.” Many cave paintings and carvings in North America, and some not far from my home in Colorado, depict 2-legged creatures bearing antlered halos sprouting from their seemingly human heads. These are believed to symbolize the Medicine People and Shamans of the tribe who were able to “communicate with the gods.”
Both male and female shamans of the Northern tundra followed the heartbeat of the most sacred instrument—the drum. They allowed it to “carry” them to the Upper Worlds of inspiration and the lower or Underworld where the Ancestors were said to dwell. Because the drum has been seen throughout time as a symbol for the Earth, the roundness of all life, the symbol of the Womb—many tribal cultures still call their ceremonial drums “She” while women are the first creators and still the safe-keepers of this sacred instrument. Even today, Sami and other Northland’s shamans are said to “ride the drum as a flying Reindeer” to other worlds, seeking guidance for banishing illness and beckoning cures and well-being for the members of their tribes. These ecstatic shamanic flights may well have been fueled by various vision-stimulating herbs and roots and very possibly, psychedelic mushrooms traditionally collected by the women and used in a ritualized and sacred manner.
In parts of Siberia and much of Sapmi( Sami-land, formerly known as Lapland,) the ancient traditional clothing worn by Medicine Women Healers is often red, green and white with fur lining and trim. The red peaked, felted hats and curled-toe boots and warm mittens of reindeer-hide complete, what I believe to be, the feminine origins of perhaps the first of a long line of Santa Claus replications. Their long lineage of connection with the induction of spiritual journeys through the drum, their relationship of healing with “Reindeer-Magic” and their ability to create potions and salves which could incite ecstatic visions or “Shamanic Journeys,” give us a deeper look at the Solstice and contemporary Christmas symbol. These priestesses-of-the-antlered-ones who flew through the night to gather blessings and healing and then distributed these gifts to their tribe members must surely be considered as proto-typical Fore-Mothers of Santa.
For centuries the only form of transportation for the Northern folk were reindeer-drawn travois and eventually, sleighs. And if all this weren’t enough—according the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female reindeer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer shed their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually in late November to mid-December. Female reindeer retain their antlers through gestation, until they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to every cultural rendition of Santa’s reindeer, including Rudolph to Blixen--every single one of them--had to be Female!
So—as the Wise Woman says: “Even if you don’t believe in a Female Santa Claus—remember this--ONLY women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world, in one night, and not get lost!”
Have a Blessed Solstice, Joyous Christ-Mass, Peace-filled Chanukah, Creative Kwanza. And from my Swedish-Sami forebears I wish you
God Jul och
Gott Nytt Ar… AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!