Is Santa based on Odin? Is he a Siberian shaman? Well, if a title asks a yes-no question, you know the answer is nearly always ‘no’. At their heart, both arguments revolve around Santa’s flying reindeer.
|Left to right: Odin and his horse Sleipnir (Thor, 2011); Santa Claus; shamans in northern Buryatia, Siberia|
People who buy into this kind of theory often aren’t interested in probing the details. So that’s the job I’m taking upon myself here. If you don’t buy into the theory, it’ll be redundant. Still, there are several factors involved, and some of them are rather interesting. Here’s a contents listing of what follows:
- The core of the argument: the flying reindeer
- St Nicholas
- St Nicholas’ horse and Santa’s reindeer
- Sleipnir can’t fly
- Eight-legged horses aren’t ‘typical’
So, in Odin’s case, the central idea is that Santa’s reindeer are derived from Odin’s amazing horse Sleipnir, which has eight legs and — supposedly — can fly.
Odin we know to have been pictured as a restless, wandering god, who ... himself rode to the Land of the Dead through the air on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir ... It has been stated in a number of books on English folklore that the image of Father Christmas travelling through the sky in his sledge drawn by reindeer is based on such traditions of the heathen god.Davidson 1970: 182
(In Davidson’s defence, she immediately goes on to point out that this is all nonsense.)
The ‘Siberian shaman’ argument isn’t so obvious. The central idea there is that
Santa Claus is a shaman who gives out psychedelic mushrooms as ‘gifts.’Derek Beres, Psychedelic spotlight, 2020
You can find the ‘Odin’ story repeated by History daily, Wikipedia, History.co.uk, and an American public library; the ‘Siberian shaman’ story by NBC, Medium.com, LiveScience, NPR, McGill University, and The Atlantic. And every December, naturally, both stories get repeated on every social media channel under the sun.
1. The core of the argument: the flying reindeer
In Odin’s case, it’ll be obvious that the flying reindeer are the central idea. What about the shamans? The shaman argument is about magic mushrooms, right? So how do reindeer come into it?
|Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, purportedly used in western Siberia for alleged psychoactive effects. Amanita muscaria is not the same thing as magic mushrooms: it is toxic, and consuming it can have lethal effects if medical care is unavailable. (source: Wikimedia.org)|
Actually it’s the other way round. The real question is: how do the mushrooms come into it? Santa isn’t popularly known for his interest in recreational pharmacology. The shaman argument depends on a cluster of more concrete parallels: that Santa (a) flies through the air, (b) has reindeer, (c) brings presents, and (d) wears red clothes. Supposedly, these are all true of Siberian shamans too. Put them together with the fact that shamans in western Siberia supposedly hand out free hallucinogens — that’s what’s claimed — and out pops the shaman argument.
That is, the mushrooms are secondary to the four parallels I mentioned. And those alleged parallels are of variable quality. In reality, Buryat shamans don’t give free samples, they don’t typically dress in red, and mushroom use isn’t standard practice.
‘If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I’ve done,’ [Ronald] Hutton said, ‘you find that shamans didn’t travel by sleigh, didn't usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn't have red and white clothes.’
And they didn't even run around handing out gifts.NPR, 2010
(Professor Ronald Hutton is a very good scholar: if he says straight out that something is the case, it’s best to take him at his word.)
So in fact it all rests on the first two points: (a) Santa flies; (b) Santa has reindeer. That’s the real backbone of the ‘Siberian shaman’ argument.
The claim is that reindeer are important in Siberian shamanism. Also, in some circles it’s claimed that there’s an additional link via Odin and his amazing horse Sleipnir. Sleipnir has eight legs; and eight-legged horses are claimed to be a typical motif in Siberian shamanism and Indian funeral rites.
Now, our objective here isn’t to disprove things: it’s to follow the chain of evidence, see how far it goes, and what it really says.
Here are the key facts.
- Santa’s reindeer were invented in New York in the 1820s.
- Other Anglo-American traditions about Santa Claus are derived from 17th century Dutch customs.
- Sleipnir isn’t a flying horse. At least, not in 10th–13th century sources.
- Eight-legged horses aren’t a widespread thing in Eurasian shamanism. They aren’t even spread: there’s only one. It’s in a 20th century report from Buryatia, in eastern Siberia, a millennium later than Odin, nearly two millennia later than St Nicholas, a long way from supposed mushroom use in western Siberia, and over 5,000 km away from Odin and St Nicholas.
These aren’t my conclusions, they’re the evidence. If you want to argue that Santa is derived from Odin or a Siberian shaman, these the facts you have to work with. Do they sustain your argument? The answer to that should be obvious. Let’s plunge into the details now.
2. St Nicholas
St Nicholas or Nikólaos was a historical Christian bishop in Anatolia in the 3rd–4th centuries CE. There are various stories about him — providing young women with dowries; saving children from being pickled by a mad butcher; slapping the heretic Áreios in the face at the Council of Níkaia in 325 CE. The stories are apocryphal, but he did exist, and he was venerated in Constantinople by the 500s.
|St Nicholas slaps Áreios: early 18th cent. fresco, Soumelá Monastery, Trabzon Province, Turkey (source: Livius.org; photo by Marco Prins)
Arius the red-faced heretic
|Note. For copious details of documentation and evidence for St Nicholas from antiquity to the Modern era, see McDaniel 2019.|
His saint’s day, 6 December, became associated with St Nicholas bringing gifts to children. That’s still the case in parts of present-day Europe: in Bavaria and Austria it’s common to see a member of the community dressed as a bishop and handing out small presents at neighbourhood events on St Nicholas’ Day.
|Heiliger Niklaus visits a kindergarten in Amlach, Austria, 6 December 2022 (source: Amlach.net)|
In the Modern era, St Nicholas underwent several transformations. When the Lutherans tried to put an end to the cult of the saints in the 1500s, the baby Jesus — the Heiliger Christ or Christkindl — was introduced as a Protestant replacement for St Nicholas. The Christkindl brings gifts at Christmas, not St Nicholas’ Day, to avoid any whiff of Catholicism. (Some modern German children get presents from both the Niklaus and the Christkindl, on 6 December and
25 24 December respectively.)
St Nicholas, or a blended version — a Christmassy St Nicholas — ended up merging with various bits of local folklore in several regions in the 17th–20th centuries. As a result there are many local variants: the Dutch Sint Nikolaas, the Slavic Ded Moroz, the Finnish Joulupukki, the English Father Christmas, the American Santa Claus, and several more. Some of them have partially merged — Father Christmas isn’t really separate from Santa Claus these days — and some variants they have a companion who attends to naughty children in various ways: Père Fouettard, Krampus, Schmutzli, etc.
It’s possible some of these figures have local pagan precursors. Tracking down good evidence is hard, though. Partly because people like assigning pagan origins to things without going into pesky details like evidence; partly because good evidence is only available if you know the right languages and have physical access to the right archives.
I recommend caution. When people assign ‘pagan’ origins to Anglo-American Christian customs, they routinely turn out to be modern innovations. Father Christmas, for example, started out in 17th century England as a sympathetic allegorical figure in anti-Puritan pamphlets, when the Puritans outlawed Christmas.
|Note. For further details on ‘Old Father Christmas’, see Durston 1985; McDaniel 2019.|
3. St Nicholas’ horse and Santa’s reindeer
In Dutch tradition, St Nicholas has a horse, not reindeer. He rides on it across rooftops and down chimneys. The earliest surviving appearance of this tradition seems to be in the 1660s, in Jan Steen’s painting The Feast of St Nicholas.
|Jan Steen, Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest (1665–1668). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (source: Rijksmuseum)|
Steen depicts children delighted at the presents that they have received in a shoe they left out. At the left, one boy is in tears because he has received only birch twigs, representing punishment. And at the right, an older boy is pointing out the chimney to two younger children.
Textual evidence of the custom appears in 1720, in a dictionary of proverbs: ‘St Nicholas enters the chimney with his little horse, to put something in [children’s] shoes’.
|Note. Tuinman 1720: 162: ‘Sint Niklaas met zyn paardje ter schoorsteen inkomt, om wat te brengen in de schoenen ...’ For these early references to Dutch traditions about St Nicholas’ Day I am indebted to /u/Iguana_on_a_stick, who kindly pointed them out to me in 2021 on AskHistorians. For a wider range of European references, once again see McDaniel 2019.|
In the early 1800s Washington Irving’s A history of New York (under the pseudonym ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker’) gave a satirical account of the 17th century Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. St Nicholas has a prominent role, as the patron saint of both Amsterdam and New Amsterdam. Irving describes a ship’s figurehead in the form of St Nicholas (1809 edition vol. 1, p. 79) —
... a goodly image of St. Nicholas, equipped with a low, broad brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose, and a pipe that reached to the end of his bow-sprit.
And refers to the observance of St Nicholas’ Day (1809 edition vol. 2, p. 252) —
... nor was the day of St. Nicholas suffered to pass by, without making presents, hanging the stocking in the chimney, and complying with all its other ceremonies.
St Nicholas’ mode of transport didn’t appear in the original edition: Irving added a chapter for the 1812 revised edition that describes it (1812 edition vol. 1, pp. 106–107):
And the sage Oloffe [van Kortlandt] dreamed a dream — and lo, the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self same waggon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children; and he came and descended ... And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe, he twisted it in his hat band, and laying his finger beside his nose gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his waggon he returned over the tree tops and disappeared.
The wagon may be an American innovation: the Dutch Sint Nikolaas rides a horse, with no wagon, as we saw earlier, and as we see in Jan Schenkman’s Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht (1850).
|American and Dutch versions of St Nicholas riding on rooftops next to a chimney. Left: the first ever appearance of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh, in the 1821 New York poem ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’ (source: Beinecke Library, Yale University). Right: Sint Nikolaas on horseback in a ca. 1880 edition of Schenkman’s Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht (source: Koninklijke Bibliotheek).|
Nine years later, also in New York, St Nicholas’ horse became a reindeer, and the wagon became a sleigh. The very earliest reindeer appears in the 1821 book The children’s friend. Number III. A new-year’s present to the little ones from five to twelve, published by William B. Gilley. The book contains an anonymous poem about St Nicholas’ arrival and his gift-giving:
Old SANTECLAUS with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
This version of Santeclaus visits at Christmas, not St Nicholas’ Day. That suggests some kind of merger with the German Christkindl — or perhaps with the Weihnachtsmann, another German figure, who resembles Santa Claus; but I haven’t found any pre-20th century evidence of the Weihnachtsmann in Germany.
|Addition, two days later: in a comment below, Karlheinz Drescher has kindly pointed out evidence of the Weihnachtsmann going back at least to 1784, with the motif of gift-giving attested from 1797. This certainly clears the way for the possibility of some influence from the Weihnachtsmann on the American Santeclaus/St Nicholas.|
The most influential step in Santa’s development took place two years later: A visit from St Nicholas, or ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’. This famous poem first appeared in the newspaper The Troy Sentinel (New York) on 23 December 1823.
We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children — that homely, but delightful personification of parental kindness — SANTE CLAUS, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the fire-sides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties ...
A visit includes traditional elements that we saw linked to St Nicholas earlier, but which aren’t present in ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’: (a) St Nicholas and his transport are tiny creatures, as in the 1720 book of proverbs; (b) they swap between riding on the snowy ground and riding on rooftops, as in Irving; (c) St Nicholas smokes a pipe, again as in Irving; (d) the gesture of laying his finger by his nose, as in Irving. It also repeats one element that first appeared in ‘Old Santeclaus with much delight’, that Santa dresses in fur, not as a bishop.
There are also novel elements. The poem multiplies Santa’s reindeer into eight, and gives them the names that are still used today: Dasher, Dancer, and so on. When the team rides from ground level up onto the roof, the poem introduces the key word ‘flew’ —
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys — and St. Nicholas too.
In the wake of this, Santa had his sleigh, his eight reindeer, the element of flying, and ‘a round little belly / That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly’. From there it’s only a few short steps to the modern Anglo-American Santa.
|Odin and Sleipnir as depicted in a fresco shown in Thor Ragnarok (2017)|
4. Sleipnir can’t fly
Sleipnir was an amazing horse, to be sure. He had eight legs. His mother was Loki. He was stupendously fast. But his main disqualification as a parallel for Santa’s reindeer, aside from his species, is that he couldn’t fly.
|Note. Sleipnir having Loki as his mother may be more startling than the idea that he has something to do with Santa’s reindeer. That bit is absolutely grounded in a mediaeval source, though, albeit a 12th–13th century Christian author: Snorri, Gylfaginning 42 (= 35,14–35 ed. Faulkes).|
Or rather, the modern Sleipnir can evidently fly. Because that’s how he’s been reimagined now. But the mediaeval Sleipnir couldn’t fly.
There are two mediaeval sources that have been construed as suggesting the power of flight. First the 12th–13th century Danish author Saxo Grammaticus, reported by Wikipedia as follows:
The old man [i.e. Odin] sings a prophecy, and takes Hadingus back to where he found him on his horse. During the ride back, Hadingus trembles beneath the old man’s mantle, and peers out of its holes. Hadingus realizes that he is flying through the air ...
And second, the 12th–13th century Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson:
Hrungnir asked who it was that wore a golden helmet and rode through the sky and over the sea on such a fine horse.
At first sight, these look like conclusive support for the claim that Sleipnir can fly. However, the first is misreported; and the second, misinterpreted.
Here’s what Saxo Grammaticus actually says (Gesta Danorum 1.6.9, tr. Fisher).
With these words [the old man] set the young man on his horse and brought him back to the place where he had found him. Hadding hid trembling beneath his cloak, but in intense amazement kept casting keen glances through the slits and saw that the sea lay stretched out under the horse’s hoofs [equinis freta patere vestigiis]; being forbidden to gaze, he turned his wondering eyes away ...
No, your eyes don’t deceive you: there’s no reference to flying. A Wikipedia editor made that up. The lack of flying is even clearer in Saxo’s Latin: vestigia doesn’t mean ‘hoofs’, it means ‘tracks’ or ‘hoofprints’. That is, the tracks that Sleipnir is leaving on the surface of the sea. Not above the sea.
Let’s move on to Snorri. Here’s a bit more context (Skáldskaparmál 17 = 20,20-22 ed. Faulkes, trans. Young):
Hrungnir asked who the man was in the golden helmet who was riding through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg], adding that he had a remarkably fine horse. Odin replied that he would wager his head its equal was not to be found in Giantland. Hrungnir said that Sleipnir was a fine horse, but maintained that he possessed one called Gold-mane that could step out much better, ...
Hrungnir and Odin then have a horse race, which Odin wins easily.
There are two catches here. The small catch is that an isolated attestation in a 12th-13th century Christian writer isn’t terrific evidence for a pre-Christian tradition — especially when a much larger argument hangs on the existence of that tradition.
The bigger catch is that lopt ok lǫg is a formulaic phrase. It isn’t a kenning, exactly, but it is a trope, a quasi-poetic image. Literally, lopt does mean ‘sky, in the air, aloft’, and lǫgr means ‘sea, water’ (Gordon and Taylor 1957: 367–368). Here are the other contexts where it appears, all in Snorri (and all given in Young’s translation):
1. Gylfaginning 35 (30,7-9 Faulkes)
The fourteenth [goddess] is Gná; Frigg sends her on her errands. She has a horse that runs through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg] called Hoof-flourisher. Once when she was riding, some Vanir saw her riding in the air [i loptinu] and one said:What is flying there [Hvat þar flýgr?],She answered:
and gliding through the air [at lopti líðr]?I am not flying [Ne ek flýg],
although I am faring
gliding through the air [at lopti líðk]
on Hoof-flourisher ...
2. Gylfaginning 37 (31,4-6 Faulkes)
... when [a woman] raised her arms to open the door, they illumined the sky and sea [bæði í lopt ok á lǫg], and the whole world grew bright from her.
3. Gylfaginning 51 (50,11-12 Faulkes)
The Miðgarð Serpent will blow so much poison that the whole sky and sea [lopt ǫll ok lǫg] will be spattered with it ...
4. Skáldskaparmál 17 (20,20-22 Faulkes). Odin and Sleipnir: see above.
5. Skáldskaparmál 35 (42,27-29 Faulkes)
To Frey he gave the boar, saying that it could run through the air and over the sea [lopt ok lǫg] day or night faster than any horse ...
6. Skáldskaparmál 35 (43,2-3 Faulkes)
Loki had shoes in which he could run through the air and over the sea [á lopt ok lǫg]. Then the dwarf asked Thór to catch him and he did so.
Passage 1 is the most substantial, and at first sight is the clearest in indicating a flying horse. However, it must give pause for thought that Gná expressly states that she is not flying. The translator’s choice of words for ek liðk, ‘I am gliding’, is tendentious — líða means ‘go’ in a general sense, not ‘glide’ — but even if we change it to ‘I am not flying, I am going aloft’, it still seems a strange distinction for Gná to draw.
Put a pin in that for now. Move on. Passages 2 and 3 are quite different from the others, and suggest a meaning ‘all over the place, everywhere’. That’s how Kate Heslop puts it in her commentary on Hallfreðr’s Erfidrápa, stanza 4 (2012: 407):
lopt ok lǫg is a common phrase in prose, with the connotation ‘everywhere’.
Passages 2 and 3 don’t help us much, then. But the passages in the Skáldskaparmál do. In all three, the common theme is not location, but speed. Sleipnir beats Gold-mane in a race; Frey’s boar is faster than any horse; no matter how fast Loki runs, Thor can catch him.
With these — and therefore also with passage 1 about Gná’s horse — the phrase lopt ok lǫg isn’t a definite claim that flying is taking place. Instead, it’s a claim that Sleipnir, Frey’s boar, and Loki are incredibly fast. The underlying flavour of the expression is probably that someone is running so fast that their feet don’t touch the ground, like a cartoon Roadrunner.
|Hann rann á lopt ok lǫg: Dash Parr, The Incredibles (2004)|
The cartoon-speedster image would be a reasonable fit for the general style of Old Norse imagery. It would also have the benefit of making sense of Gná’s distinction, ‘I am not flying; I am going aloft.’ You wouldn’t say that Dash, above, can ‘fly’ — but you could say that he’s almost as fast as Sleipnir. You can say that he runs á lopt ok lǫg.
Whatever the precise connotations, we can’t say Odin is ‘flying’ on Sleipnir, any more than the Vanir can say Gná is ‘flying’ on her horse. Anyway, Sleipnir is still phenomenal: I mean, he can run on the surface of water. That should be miraculous enough for any supernatural horse.
5. Eight-legged horses aren’t ‘typical’
Now, we know that the octopod horse is typically shamanic.Eliade 1964: 469
No, we do not. Eight-legged shamanic horses owe much more to Mircea Eliade’s imagination than to real shamans. It’s wildly wishful thinking to imagine Sleipnir is ‘the typical steed of a shaman’, or that he’s ‘one of several eight-legged horses of the ancient world’.
Eliade is a cherry-picker. He scours material worldwide, selects minor parallels out of context, and then claims that they demonstrate a deep causal relation. It’s very like when someone hears about pyramids in Mexico and Sudan and decides that they’re related — without stopping to consider that that’s the single simplest way of stacking rocks. Or someone who looks at any circular architectural layout anywhere and declares that it’s Atlantean.
Eliade has a grand total of three eight-legged horses. They aren’t ‘typical’, they aren’t ‘several’, and only one of them is shamanic.
The first is Sleipnir. No problem here ... though it is painfully conspicuous that Eliade chooses to cite two books written by card-carrying Nazis (1964: 469 n. 13), instead of the actual source, Snorri.
The second horse is from a Buryat story, in south-eastern Siberia, about a shaman spirit named Höhme (Sanžeev 1927: 607–608, my translation):
Höhme ... awaited the appearance of her shaman-spirit-ancestor, so that she could marry him. A sign of this event was supposed to be the birth of an eight-footed foal in the herd. Höhme’s (earthly) husband saw this, and he cut off four legs — superfluous, as he supposed. On her husband’s return from the steppe, Höhme asked him: ‘Hasn’t an eight-footed foal been born to our herd?’ Her husband said he had found one and had already cut off the four extra legs. ‘Oh, woe! Look, that was my foal that I would have ridden to become a shaman!’
And the last is from a Muria funeral song, in central India (Elwin 1947: 150):
Let us take the Raja home.
Twelve times have the folk been called.
Come, brothers, come.
A thousand men have gathered.
What horse is this?
It is the horse Bagri Maro.
What should we say of its legs?
This horse has eight legs.
What should we say of its heads?
This horse has four heads.
There are men before and behind.
There are police on either side.
The horse begins to run.
What is this palace?
Let’s deal with the last one first. Eliade purposely misrepresents the Muria funeral song. I say ‘purposely’ because his source, the English anthropologist Verrier Elwin, makes it perfectly clear what’s really going on.
[T]he horse Bagri Maro is, of course, the bier and its four bearers. The men and police on every side are the escorting chelik. The palace is the grave and the tomb that is usually built above it for for an important man.
That is, the funeral procession is described in lyrical terms as if it’s transporting a living wealthy man. There are no ‘police’, there is no ‘palace’, and there is no ‘horse’ — let alone a shamanic horse. Anyway, this is in central India. What on earth does it have to do with Siberia?
That leaves us with just one eight-legged shamanic horse, the Buryat one, in Garma Sanžeev’s report. Is it related to Odin’s horse? Well, no, of course it isn’t.
- It’s an isolated report: it isn’t ‘typical’ in any sense.
- It’s a 20th century story.
- It’s from Buryatia, over 5,000 km from Scandinavia.
- There’s no resemblance between Odin and Höhme.
- For Höhme the horse represents access to mystic knowledge; Odin already has his mystic knowledge and his leadership of the Æsir before Sleipnir is born.
- Höhme’s foal is born into an ordinary herd; Sleipnir is the offspring of Loki and a supernaturally strong stallion.
- Höhme’s horse has four legs amputated as a foal; Sleipnir keeps his eight legs and grows to maturity.
Enough: this is nonsense. Sleipnir and the Buryat story have nothing to do with each other. Add Santa’s reindeer are an ocean further removed still.
One final resort might be to ignore legs and just focus on the number eight. In that case you could suggest some kind of link to the eight-winged horse of Mir-Susne-Hum, an Ugrian mythological figure in the Urals, attested in two 21st century Russian sources (Uliashev 2019: 21). But that really would be desperate — especially if you recall that Sleipnir isn’t a flying horse.
|Note. Thanks to Joseph A. P. Wilson for pointing out Mir-Susne-Hum’s horse to me in 2021 on Twitter.|
The long-and-short of it is that people really want to be able to explain where ideas like Santa’s reindeer come from. Coming up with a new explanation is intrinsically appealing. And second-option bias is a powerful force.
That has the effect of making real explanations — that the flying reindeer were invented in America in the 1820s — unappealing. Falsehoods and speculations get disseminated at the expense of evidence. And that’s unfortunate.
But fortunately, falsehoods don’t spontaneously generate fake evidence out of thin air: all they can do is repeat themselves. The real evidence doesn’t go away. And if we look hard enough, as we’ve tried to do here, we can still find the real stuff.
|Note, 17 Dec. 2022: I originally quoted Snorri as being a 14th century author; the date is now corrected above. Thanks to the anonymous comment below for suggesting the correction.|
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