5 Bizarre Beliefs About Winter From History

Winter is coming (at least in the northern hemisphere), so it's time to prepare for all those classic wintertime activities — like throwing on some sweaters, snuggling up by the fire, and pretending to be the Devil to scare your friends. What? Confused by that last bit? How about singing naked or hunting around for the discarded limbs of your local god? Am I ringing any bells here?

Though we may think of it as simply the season of coziness, winter has actually attracted a lot of bizarre rituals and beliefs throughout the centuries; the darkened skies and the shortened days have inspired different cultures throughout history to react in frankly bizarre ways, from telling the future with corn to demanding that the emperor hear a special song to prevent the sun from dying. You know, normal winter stuff.

Many winter rituals, particularly in countries where winter is very dark or lengthy, centered around somehow guaranteeing the return of the sun, which is pretty understandable —who wouldn't start to get worried and make sacrifices to gods to make sure everything went well and the spring came again, just in case? But winter's also been considered a time when the usual rules go topsy-turvy — when people believe that ghosts and the Devil roam among us, order is threatened, and we need to protect ourselves against dark forces. It's the flip side of the lighter, positive spring and summer months, and is correspondingly packed with malevolence and the potential for mayhem.

This isn't just a historical attitude, either; in modern Korea, for example, the tradition of eating red-bean porridge on the winter solstice comes from the belief that it will ward off a ghost bearing smallpox. It's all a far cry from the relatively benign celebrations of Christmas and New Year's Eve in modern America, but even these days, winter nights have an edge of the dangerous to them.

Winter Should Be Spiced Up With A Complete Collapse Of Social Order

The medieval concept of "misrule," where people ran riot for several days in the middle of the darkest part of winter, is actually derived from a more ancient tradition in ancient Rome. Saturnalia, the feast of Saturn, was the original bonkers festival; if you think your parties get out of control, it doesn't hold a flame to this shindig.

Saturnalia, which normally started on December 17, represented, for a few precious days, a complete inversion of rank and societal norms: slaves could shake hands with emperors, everybody ate anything they could get their hands on, and "singing naked and clapping frenzied hands" were just a general part of proceedings. Men dressed as women, slaves couldn't be punished, and masters swapped clothes with their servants; but the biggest celebrations were reserved for the Saturnalia "king," who was elected at random and could spent his tenure ordering people to do ridiculous things (the "lord of misrule" in medieval times). The Emperor Domitian got into the spirit of things by releasing huge flocks of flamingoes over snowy Rome and giving displays of fighting female gladiators, which sounds like an excellent way to get through the dark months.

Winter Solstices Should Be Spent Searching For Dismembered Gods

Many different societies and religions had rituals surrounding the winter solstice and its mythic power, but none of them were as faintly gruesome as the one held by the ancient Egyptians. According to Plutarch, the winter solstice ritual involved several days of religious feasting, but the key action of the entire process was priests leading a sacred bull seven times around the outskirts of the temple. The bull, apparently, was looking for dismembered god-flesh.

No, really. One of the foundation myths of ancient Egyptian religion was that Osiris, god of resurrection and the underworld, was killed and torn to pieces by his brother Set. Osiris's wife Isis found and sewed together all of the pieces (except for his penis, which had, of course, been eaten by a fish), and the gods resurrected him, presumably none the worse for being a patchwork. The bull in the Egyptian solstice was symbolically nosing through the dirt for any leftover pieces. A finger, perhaps?

A Specific Dance Must Be Performed In Order To Protect The Soul Of The Emperor During The Cold Months

For several centuries in ancient Japan, a ritual concerning the spirit of the emperor at the winter solstice (in the eleventh month of their calendar, on the "days of the tiger") was seen as paramount for keeping the entire country working. The ritual was known as chinkonsai, or "the pacification of the soul," and it's not entirely known where it came from — but some scholars think it's derived from an ancient Japanese mythic belief that it was necessary for spirits to dance and entice a sun-goddess out of her cave and restore the sun to the sky. The ritual itself also involved dancing around the emperor, but for a slightly different purpose.

The emperor was thought to be the sun on earth, but during the winter solstice, where the sun was weakest, he was thought to be vulnerable, so chinkonsai was performed to help his soul. Said soul was first lured out of the body using songs and dancing, and then "secured" firmly by tying knots in the emperor's yufu, a precious string of mulberry fiber that was thought to represent the emperor's life.

It's Important To Dress As A Goat And Pretend To Be The Devil On Christmas

"To go julebukk" is still a tradition in some parts of Norway — it's a time when small children essentially go trick-or-treating on a Christmas night in winter; but it actually derives from a much older, much less benign tradition involving the julebukk, or "yule goat."

This Christmas rite was prevalent across the Scandinavian countries all the way up to the 19th century — men dressed as goats, complete with horns, would go from house to house, pretending to be ghosts, telling dark stories, accepting gifts and scaring the hell out of children to make them behave. It happened in England, too: a 1778 text explains that a New Year's Day ritual in Northumberland involved somebody putting on the "hide of the ox slain for winter cheer... and the person thus attired attempts to show the character of the Devil by every horrible device in his power.'

You Can Predict A Hard Winter In August By Using Corn, Fur & Fog

A fantastic collection of American regional folklore, published in 1964, notes down a lot of predictions and superstitions about winter from rural parts of the US, and some of them are pretty unusual. And these folk beliefs get precise: one claims that every fog in summer dictates the amount of snows the area will receive in winter, while another thinks you can predict the same thing by the day of the month on which the first snow falls. Some beliefs make more sense than others: the idea that animals with heavy fur denote a heavy winter on the way makes a bit of sense, while the beliefs that "corn shucks being heavy" or "the bark on the north side of a birch tree bursting in summer" both mean a bitter winter season are a bit less comprehensible, shall we say.

Images: John Reinhard Weguelin, Jon Bodsworth, John Bauer, Smithsonian Libraries/Wikimedia Commons