Tag Archives: mythology

The colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese, Turkish and Lakota

Today’s blog post will take us to Asia and America, namely to Chinese, Turkish and the Native American Lakota language. All three languages and cultures associate different colours with the four cardinal directions.

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Chinese

In China, each of the 4 cardinal directions is associated with a colour, as well as an animal and a season. The centre is yellow and is associated with the human realm. The North is associated with the colour black, as well as winter and a turtle  Guī or snake. The South is thought of as red, and its associated animal is the phoenix 凤凰 Fènghuáng and the summer season. The East is associated with the Chinese colour qing 青, which denotes green as well as blue. (See a previous blog post on colour perception in different languages). Its animal is the dragon  lóng and its season is spring. The West is white, and its animal is the tiger   and the season of autumn.

colors/directions in Chinese and Turkish

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Turkish

Also the Turkish language associates different colours with the four directions. The North is thought of as black (kara), the East is associated with the Turkish colour gök, which is a sky blue or turquoise, the South is seen as red (kızıl, a rusty shade of red) and the West is associated with the colour white (ak). What is interesting in Turkish is that the seas surrounding the Turkish peninsula and Anatolia take their names from these colour associations: the Mediterranean, which is west of Turkey, is called Akdeniz, or the White Sea, the Red Sea is Kızıl Deniz, and is located to the south of Turkey (its name is said to come from the rust-coloured sediments flowing into it) and the Black Sea, or Kara Deniz, is north of Anatolia (the Black Sea is also rich in iron sulfides, where only sulphur bacteria can thrive, and its sediments are dark).

Colours associated with the cardinal directions in Lakota

The Native American language Lakota associates not just a different colour with each of the cardinal directions, but each direction also has a value or virtue attributed to it as well as an animal nation, and a stage of life. There are two different systems of colour association, which vary from dialect to dialect. The centre of the sacred circle, or hocoka, is green and blue, the green standing for Grandmother Earth and the blue for the Sky. The North is associated with cold, discomfort and hardship (the direction from which winter comes), the East is associated with the sunrise, the South is the direction from which the sun is strongest, and the West is associated with the sunset and, by extension, the end of life.

colors/directions in Lakota


Focus on culture: Jól in Iceland


800px-GrassodenhäuserToday’s blog post will take us to Iceland and to some special Icelandic Jól (or Christmas) customs. Jól is based on the Old Norse religious festival called Yule.

Jól is celebrated on 24 December, but the Jól season includes events over several weeks: Aðventa (advent, the four Sundays preceding jól), aðfangadagskvöld (Yule eve), jóladagur (Yule day), annar í jólum (Boxing day), gamlársdagur (old years day), nýársdagur (New Year’s Day) and þrettándinn (the thirteenth, and final day of the season).

The main event is Aðfangadagskvöld or Christmas Eve, when people meet for a Yule meal and exchange gifts. However, on the 13 days before December 24 the Yule lads or jólasveinar come into the towns from the mountains to give children that have behaved well small gifts. These they leave in shoes that have been placed near the window or on the window sill during the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve. Every night, a different Yule lad comes to visit, leaving either small gifts for well-behaved children, or a rotten potato if the child was naughty.

The Yule Lads, jólasveinarnir or jólasveinar, are figures from Icelandic folkore who in modern times have taken on the role of an Icelandic version of Santa Claus. There are thirteen jólasveinar. Originally, they were portrayed as mischievous pranksters who would steal from or harass the rural population, but in modern times they have been taking on a more benevolent role comparable to that of Santa Claus. They either wear late medieval Icelandic clothing or Santa Claus costumes. The jólasveinar are traditionally said to be the sons of the mountain-dwelling trolls Grýla and Leppalúði, and are often depicted with the Jólakötturinn or Yule cat.

The jólasveinar have descriptive names conveying their mode of operation and each day, a new lad arrives:

December 12  Stekkjarstaur (‘Sheep-Cote Clod’), harasses sheep but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs; leaves Dec.25

December 13 Giljagaur (‘Gully Gawk’), hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal some milk; leaves Dec. 26

December 14 Stúfur (‘Stubby’), unusually short, steals pans to eat the crust left on them; leaves Dec. 27

December 15 Þvörusleikir (‘Spoon-licker’), steals Þvörur (a type of wooden spoon – þvara- with a long handle) to lick them, is extremely thin due to malnutrition; leaves Dec. 28

December 16 Pottaskefill (‘Pot-scraper’), steals leftovers from pots; leaves Dec. 29

December 17 Askasleikir (‘Bowl-licker’), hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their ‘askur‘ (a wooden bowl with a lid), which he then steals; leaves Dec. 30

December 18 Hurðaskellir (‘door-slammer’), likes to slam doors, especially at night; leaves Dec. 31

December 19 Skyrgámur (‘Skyr-gobbler’), loves skyr (an Icelandic cultured dairy product which has the consistency of strained yoghurt, but a much milder taste); leaves Jan. 1

December 20 Bjúgnakrækir (‘sausage-swiper’), hides in the rafters and snatches sausages that were being smoked; leaves Jan. 2

December 21 Gluggagægir (‘window-peeper’), a voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal; leaves Jan. 3

December 22 Gáttaþefur (‘doorway-sniffer’), has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (leaf-bread, an Icelandic specialty); leaves Jan. 4

December 23 Ketkrókur (‘meat-hook’), uses a meat hook to steal meat; leaves Jan. 5

December 24 Kertasníkir (‘candle-stealer’), follows children in order to steal their candles (which in olden days were made of tallow and thus edible); leaves Jan. 6

The Yule lads are often associated with the  Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur, or Yule Cat, a monster from Icelandic folklore, which is a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmas time and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.  The Yule Cat is the pet of the giantess Grýla and her sons, the Yule Lads. In former times, the threat of being eaten by the Yule Cat was used by farmers as an incentive for their workers to finish processing the autumn wool before Christmas. Those who participated in the work would get new clothes as a reward, but those who did not would get nothing and would therefore be preyed upon by the cat. The cat has alternatively been interpreted as merely eating away the food of those without new clothes during Christmas feasts. The tradition has its origin in the 19th century.

On January 6, Icelanders celebrate Þrettándinn (the thirteenth of jól), the last day of Christmas. It is celebrated with elf bonfires and elf dances. Families come together to have dinner and light fireworks. People also go into a corner of their houses and shout out the following folklore poem to drive out evil spirits and invite good spirits and elves:

Komi þeir sem koma vilja (those come who want)
Fari þeir sem fara vilja (those go who want)
Mér og mínum að meinalausu (neither hurting myself nor my family)

Another Icelandic jól custom is the preparation of laufabrauð or ‘Leaf-bread’, which a kind of very thin pancake with a diameter of about 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches), which is decorated with leaf-like, geometric patterns and fried briefly in hot fat or oil. Here is a  video showing how it is made: https://youtu.be/OCeUnjax-7w

Here is a recipe for Laufabrauð (‘leaf bread’): http://jol.ismennt.is/english/laufabraud-joe.htm

Focus on culture: Diwali, the Indian festival of lights

Author: peddhapati via Wikipedia Commons

Author: peddhapati via Wikipedia Commons

Today’s blog post is taking us to South Asia and to the Indian festival of Diwali (or Deepavali दीपावली, the “festival of lights”) which is celebrated at the end of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin (आश्विन) and the start of the month of Kartika (कार्तिक), which begins with the new moon in November. Diwali is not only celebrated in India, but also in the Indian diaspora all over the world and is a public holiday in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Singapore, Malaysia and the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Dīpāvali (from dīpa दीप, “light” or “lamp” and āvalī आवली, “series, line, row”), referring to a ‘row or series of lights’, because a central aspect of its celebration includes the display of lights around houses and temples and outside doors and windows.

Author: Ashish Kanitkar via Wikipedia Commons, indoor decoration for Diwali

Author: Ashish Kanitkar via Wikipedia Commons,
indoor decoration for Diwali

Deepavali dates back to ancient times and has its origins as a festival after the summer harvest in the month of Kartika (कार्तिक) . The festival is mentioned in Sanskrit scriptures, e.g. the Padma Purana पद्म पुराण and the Skanda Purana स्कन्द पुराण dating from around 750 -1000 CE, which are based on a core text from an earlier era.

Diwali is a five-day festival, which begins two days before the night of Diwali the night of the new moon and therefore the darkest night – and ends two days later, but preparations for Diwali begin days or weeks in advance. In the weeks before Diwali night, people clean and decorate their homes and offices for the festivities, and it is also one of the biggest shopping seasons in the countries where it is celebrated. People buy new clothes for themselves and gifts for family members and friends, as well as special sweets, called mithai मिठाई, dry fruits and seasonal and regional specialties. Deepavali is one of the happiest holidays that brings family and friends together every year and it is also a period when children are told ancient stories, legends, and myths about battles between good and evil or light and darkness from their parents and elders.

Author: robertsharp via Wikipedia Commons Diwali sweets (mithai)

Author: robertsharp via Wikipedia Commons
Diwali sweets (mithai)

Diwali night, the night of the new moon and darkest night of autumn, is lit with diyas दीपक, candles and lanterns. A diya (also called divaa, deepa, deepam, or deepak दीपक) is an oil lamp, usually made from clay, with a cotton wick dipped in ghee घी or vegetable oils.The diyas are mentioned in the Skanda Purana स्कन्द पुराण to symbolically represent parts of the sun, the cosmic giver of light and energy to all life, who seasonally transitions in the month of Kartik.

Author: HPNadig via Wikipedia Commons

Author: HPNadig via Wikipedia Commons

On Deepavali night, people dress up in new clothes or their best outfit, light up diyas (oil lamps and candles) inside and outside their home and participate in family puja पूजा (prayers), usually to Lakshmi लक्ष्मी, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Afterwards, fireworks (patakhe) follow, then a family feast including mithai (sweets), and an exchange of gifts between family members and  friends. However, there are significant variations in regional practices and rituals.

Another custom during Diwali is to create rangoli and other patterns on floors near doors and walkways as sacred welcoming areas for Hindu deities. Rangoli रंगोली, also known as kolam or muggu, is an Indian folk art in which patterns, often geometric but also representational ones, are created on the floor in rooms or courtyards using natural materials such as colored rice, dry flour, turmeric (haldi हल्दी), vermillion (sindoor सिन्दूर), colored sand, flower petals, charcoal, burnt soil or wood sawdust. Some major symbols are the lotus flower and its leaves, mangoes, fish, different kind of birds like parrots, swans, peacocks, and human figures and foliage. Some special patterns for Diwali also include Ganesha or Lakshmi.  Many of these motifs are traditional and are handed down by the previous generations.

Author: Pon Malar via Wikipedia Commons Rangoli made for Diwali

Author: Pon Malar via Wikipedia Commons
Rangoli made for Diwali

Deepavali is an important festival for Hindus. The name of festive days as well as the rituals of Diwali vary significantly among Hindus, based on where they live.

In many parts of India, the festivities start with Dhanteras धनतेरस (in the Northern & Western part of India). This includes the cleaning and decoration of the houses, as well as the creation of rangoli. This day also marks the birthday of Lakshmi – the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and the birthday of Dhanvantari – the God of Health and Healing. On the night of Dhanteras, diyas are ritually kept burning all through the night in honor of these two deities.

The second day of Diwali is Naraka Chaturdashi नर्क चतुर्दशी on which rangoli are created, and in some regions people take a ritual fragrant oil bath, and participate in minor pujas (prayers).

The main festivities of Deepavali are on the third day, with people wearing their best outfits, feasting and fireworks at night. (see above)

It is also the day on which Lakshmi Puja लक्ष्मी पूजा – prayers to the goddess Lakshmi – take place, since Lakshmi is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. On the evening of Diwali, people open their doors and windows to welcome Lakshmi, and place diya lamps on their windowsills and balcony ledges to invite her in. On this day, also mothers are recognized by the family as they are seen to embody a part of Lakshmi, and of the good fortune and prosperity of the household. Diyas are also set adrift on rivers and streams. The day is also an occasion to recognize relationships and friendships by visiting relatives and friends and through the exchange of gifts and mithai (sweets).

The fourth day of the festivites is known as Diwali Padva or Bali Pratipadā बालि प्रतिपदा and is dedicated to the wife–husband relationship, in which spouses exchange gifts.

The Diwali festivities end with Bhai Dooj भाई दूज (“Brother’s second”), which is dedicated to the sister–brother bond, on the fifth day. The day emphasizes the love and lifelong bond between siblings: women and girls get together to perform a puja (prayers) for the well-being of their brothers, and afterwards they have a sumptuous feast with their brothers.


Deepavali is also linked to the celebration of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and wife of the god Vishnu. Deepavali begins on the day Lakshmi was born from the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk by the gods and the demons; the night of Deepavali is the day Lakshmi chose Vishnu as her husband and then married him. Along with Lakshmi, devotees make offerings to Ganesha who symbolizes ethical beginnings and is a fearless remover of obstacles; Saraswati who symbolizes music, literature and learning; and Kubera who symbolizes book keeping, treasury and wealth management.

Author: nkjain via Wikipedia Commons रंगबिरंगी रंगोली पर सजा, तेल का जलता हुआ दीया। Burning oil lamp on a colourful rangoli designed on Diwali.

Author: nkjain via Wikipedia Commons
रंगबिरंगी रंगोली पर सजा, तेल का जलता हुआ दीया।
Burning oil lamp on a colourful rangoli designed on Diwali.

Balinese: language and mythology (the world turtle Bedawang)

bedawang Today’s blog post is taking us to South East Asia, to the Indonesian island of Bali and its language, Basa Bali.  Balinese is an Austronesian language, like Indonesian, and is spoken by about 3 million people on the island of Bali and in parts of Indonesia like western Lombok and some villages in Sulawesi, where many Balinese anak Bali live. Virtually all people in Bali also speak Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, except for some old people. While the grammatical structures of Indonesian and Balinese are quite similar, the vocabulary of both languages is quite different. Balinese has many words of Sanskrit, Farsi, Tamil as well as Javanese, Dutch and Portuguese origin, reflecting the Hindu background of Balinese society. A particularity of Balinese is its two levels of social distinction, which each has its own set of parallel vocabulary and which reflect both the social status of the speaker as well as that of the person addressed. Biasa or common words are used by people of equal social status and they reflect informality and intimacy among the speakers. In contrast, halus or refined words reflect formality and distance among the speakers. There are, however, only a certain number of words that are different in both language levels, mainly those concerning human beings, while most words can be used for both levels. Topics that are considered very halus, like religion, always require the use of halus words. The Balinese are predominantly Hindus and the traditional Balinese social structure is therefore based on the Hindu caste system. However, ‘caste’ in Bali is not at all based on rigid distinctions and restrictions of occupations as in India, it merely reflects a notion of general social status, which in turn is reflected in the language. The 4 castes are:

Brahmana , the highest caste and those of priests (Brahmin in India), the name of members of this caste starts with Ida Bagus (m) or Ida Ayu (f);
ksatria the second caste and ruler and warrior caste (Kshatriya in India), the name of members of this caste starts with Anak Agung or Cokorda/Tjokorde Gde (m) or Tjokorde Istri (f);
wesia the third caste and that of merchants and officials (weysha in India), the name of members of this caste starts with I Gusti ;
and the sudra or rice farmers’ caste (shudra in India, the non-caste). Only about 7 % of the anak Bali belong to the triwangsa or the three higher castes, while the large majority, more than 90%, belong to the sudra caste.

Generally, people of a lower caste will ‘speak upward’ to a member of a higher caste, i.e. they will choose the more refined halus words. Likewise, a member of a higher caste will ‘speak down’ to a member of a lower class, that is, choose the common biasa words. So a farmer speaking to another farmer would use biasa words, and a member of a high caste speaking with another high class individual would use halus words. However, a farmer speaking with or referring to a member of the high class would use halus words.

Here is an example:

Biasa level: Dadi tawang adane? May I know your name? (Indonesian: Bisa saya tahun nama Anda?) Adan tiange…. Jerone nyen? My name is…. What’s yours? (Indonesian: Nama saya….. Anda siapa?)

Halus level: Dados uningin parabe? May I know your name? (Indonesian: Bisa saya tahun nama Anda?) Parab tiange….. Sira parab jerone? My name is…. What’s yours? (Indonesian: Nama saya…. Anda siapa?)

Biasa level: Ene poh. Luung sajan. (Indonesian: Ini mangga. Bagus sekali.) This is a mango. It is very good. Ene biu. (Indonesian: Ini pisang) This is a banana.

Halus level: Niki poh. Becik pisan. (Indonesian: Ini mangga. Bagus sekali.) This is a mango. It is very good. Niki pisang. (Indonesian: Ini pisang) This is a banana.

As you can see from the last example, there are often two different words for the same thing, like here the word for ‘banana’ which is biu on the biasa level, but pisang on the halus level of speech. The same thing is true for the expression ‘This is….’, which is ‘niki…..’ on the halus level, but ‘ene…’ on the biasa speech level.

Author: chensiyuan, wikipedia Commons

Author: chensiyuan, wikipedia Commons

Here are some words typical of Balinese culture:

Odalan temple festival (halus word only)

Pedanda Brahmana priest (pandit in India)

Meru wooden, pagoda-like building with grass roof, named after the holy Mount Meru in India

Naga mythological snake or dragon

Pura puseh temple for the divine ancestors

Pura dalem temple for the dead in the underworld

Another particularity of the Balinese is that people are named according to their order of birth in their family. The names are the same for both males and females, but as an indicator of gender the particle i is used for males and ni for females before the name. Here are the names for members of the farmer caste:

Wayan for the first-born of a family (I Wayan/ Ni Wayan)

Made for the second child

Nyoman for the third child Ketut for the fourth child

A further cultural peculiarity is that the anak Bali will always give directions according to the four directions of the compass instead of using ‘left’ and ‘right’.

North = kaja South = kelod West = kauh East = kangin (all biasa words)

This has interesting implications: While kaja generally means ‘inland, towards the mountains’ ‘in the direction of Gunung Agung‘, the highest and holy mountain of Bali (a prosperous direction), in Southern and Central Bali it therefore means ‘north’ but in Buleleng in Northern Bali it means ‘south’! The same goes for kelod, which means ‘towards the sea’ (a disastrous direction): in Southern and Central Bali it refers to the ‘south’, while in Buleleng in Northern Bali it means ‘north’!

Balinese also has an old indigenous script, the Carakan script:

the old Balinese script, the Carakan alphabet

the old Balinese script, the Carakan alphabet

Bali also has a very rich mythology. According to the Balinese creation myth, in the beginning of time, only the world snake Antaboga existed. During a meditation, Antaboga created Bedawang or Bedawang Nala, a giant turtle who carries the world on her back. Two snakes or dragons (naga) lie on Bedawang’s shell, as well as the Black Stone, which is the lid of the underworld. All other creations sprang from Bedawang. When Bedawang moves, there are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on earth.
Bedawang = boiling water Nala = fuel
Bidawang means ‘turtle river’ in the Banjar language
The goddess Setesuyara and the god Batara Kala, the creator of light and earth, rule over the underworld. Above the world, there is first a layer of water, then a layer of moving sky, where Semara, the god of love lives. Above this floating sky there is the dark blue sky with the sun and the moon. Yet again above this sky, there is the scented sky full of fragrant flowers, the abode of the human-headed bird Tjak (Cak), of the snake Taksaka and of the Awan-snakes (falling stars). The ancestors live in a fiery sky, located above the scented sky. The abode of the gods forms the final and uppermost layer of the sky.
Etymology: a = not, Ananta = endless, never exhausted, boga = food
Anantaboga = endless food, food that never gets exhausted

A rather good online dictionary for Balinese: http://dictionary.basabali.org/Main_Page

Author: Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, Wikipedia Commons the turtle Bedawang Nala and the snake Ananthabhoga

Author: Tropenmuseum Amsterdam, Wikipedia Commons
the turtle Bedawang Nala and the snake Ananthabhoga

Author: Tropenmuseum, Wikipedia Commons Wayang figure representing Batara Kali

Author: Tropenmuseum, Wikipedia Commons
Wayang figure representing Batara Kali