Krampus - The Horned One and The Devil

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

The Horned One and The Devil

In Central European folklore and spiritual traditions, Krampus is most famous as the Yule-time companion of St Nicholas (Santa Claus). Good St Nick rewards children who have been good throughout the year with gifts; Krampus takes charge of bad, disobedient children. He rattles his chains at them, beats them with his birchtwig broom, gives them coal instead of toys and candy, and sometimes carries them off in a big sack or in a basket attached to his back.

Some perceive the Norse god Odin hiding under Santa Claus’ mask. If so, then Krampus may be Odin’s old sidekick and traveling companion, the trickster-spirit, Loki.

Krampus is a goat-man, usually corresponding very closely to the Christian conception of the devil. He is horned and hoofed, sometimes with one cloven hoof and one man’s foot but sometimes with two goat’s feet. Krampus carries or wears iron chains and shackles. When he punishes bad children by stealing them away, the implication is that he is taking them to Hell. Generations of Central European parents terrorized their children into good behavior by warning them that Krampus would “get” them otherwise.

Krampus, however, is a complex figure. One’s understanding of him depends upon one’s spiritual perceptions. If one sees the devil as a horned spirit (or vice versa) then Krampus perfectly corresponds to the image of the goatshaped devil. He’s wild, fierce, and scary.

However, if one examines Krampus with fresh eyes, without Christian context, a different image emerges. Krampus closely resembles ancient horned male spirits of fertility and abundance such as Faunus. Faunus always carries a small bundle of birch twigs. In Hungary, prime Krampus territory, this little broom has a specific name: virgacs (pronounced “veer-goch”). The virgacs is so identified with Krampus that in old postcard imagery, a picture of it is sufficient to indicate Krampus’ presence. Ostensibly Krampus uses this little birch broom to keep children in line; in reality, he slaps women with it to increase their fertility, similar to the rites of Faunus in Rome and Boujeloud in Morocco.

Krampus’ horned head and hoofed body further tie him to old horned gods. His iron shackles and chains indicate his kinship with ironworking shamans. Even the image of Krampus carrying children on his back like dolls can be read two ways: when Santa Claus carries toys on his back, one assumes that he intends to distribute them. Krampus may also be understood as carrying children in order to distribute them to those who desire them—future parents.

Krampus’ predilection for “bad” children may also be reinterpreted. “Good” frequently really indicates “devout” and “obedient”; “bad” usually means “disobedient.” Under the circumstances, why wouldn’t a rambunctious, rebellious Pagan spirit favor rebellious children? Stealing them might be his way of rescuing them.

This isn’t merely folklore, Christmas decorations, and speculations: on the Eve of the Feast of St Nicholas (December 5th), Salzburg, Austria hosts the annual winter festival known as the Krampuslauf or “the running of the Krampus.” Hordes of young men, masked and dressed up as Krampus, are herded into town by a man dressed as St Nick, who then unleashes these Krampuses on the awaiting crowds.

December 5th is the feast day of St Nicholas but it also corresponds to an old Roman feast day dedicated to Faunus, the Faunalia.

Many Krampus costumes are homemade or family heirlooms. Krampus masks invariably include chamois, goat or ibex horns. Sometimes the Krampus wears mismatched shoes; alternately shoes are worn on the wrong feet so as to re-create the shaman’s shuffling step. When fully costumed, some of these Krampuses tower over seven feet high. Krampuses run through the square like sacred clowns, rattling chains, clanging bells, and brandishing birch switches.

This tradition of masking is now considered rustic and folkloric was once perceived as dangerously close to witchcraft and Paganism. Periodically these traditions were discouraged and suppressed. Many of Krampus’ characteristics were transferred to Lucky Chimney Sweeps.

Krampus was a favorite subject of Central European Christmas and New Year’s holiday postcards and greeting cards. Sometimes he is depicted as diabolical and conventionally Satanic; sometimes his complexities are portrayed.

Krampus brings gold coins and flirts with women, sometimes very sexually explicitly. Krampus rides a goat. Sometimes he is depicted riding a broomstick, indicating his affiliation with witches. Sometimes he drives a toboggan loaded with children, implying that he is driving them straight to Hell. (Sometimes this isn’t implied but rendered explicitly with road signs spelling out their destination.)

In graphic depictions of Krampus, he almost always has an incredibly long, vividly red, protruding tongue. Scholars believe this tongue replaces what was once an ever-erect phallus, similar to Exu or the satyrs.

Krampus’ sacred colors are red and black. Two artistic depictions of Krampus exist: he is either portrayed as a furry, black devil or as a classic red devil. Austrian postcards from the 1960s depict him as a little demon-child, albeit a lascivious one, usually accompanied by scantily clad pin-up girls. He looks like baby Pan.

Occasionally Krampus is depicted as a female; sometimes entire Krampus families are depicted, including husband, wife, and small Krampus children. In any form, Krampus inevitably has horns, at least one hoof, and his birch virgacs.

See also Boujeloud, Chimney Sweep, Devil, Exu, Faunus, Satyrs; BOTANICALS: Birch; CALENDAR: Lupercalia; CREATIVE ARTS: Films: The Craft, Visual Arts: Halloween Postcards; FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Grimms’ Fairy Tales: Frau Trude.