Krampus: Saint Nicholas’s Enforcer

The devilish Christmas demon that comes for your children.

In Central to Eastern Europe, from Northern Italy up through the Czech Republic but with particular emphasis on Austria, there is an Advent tradition of a demon creature named Krampus. He arrives the night of December 5th to punish misbehaved children. His physical appearance varies but the essentials are that he’s hairy, has cloven hooves, he’s horned, fanged, and usually has his tongue out. He sometimes wears chains or bells but he always has a birch stick to hit children with. For the especially bad kids Krampus has a sack / basket / cart he uses to kidnap them and take them off to be eaten.

Krampusnacht (“Krampus night”) is the night before Saint Nicholas’s day, December 6th. So right before Saint Nicholas comes to reward the good boys & girls with gifts, the “Christmas devil” comes to town to punish the misbehaved children. Towns and cities have parades and Krampusnacht Festivals the night of the 5th where men, dressed as Krampus demons, carry torches and move through the streets intimidating children (and adults, although they sometimes hand out schnapps to the adults). In more remote towns there is less of a “parade” and more of a “mad dash” (the Krampusflauf or “Krampus run”) of demons running through the streets.

While some claim that Krampus is part of an ancient pagan tradition, this is unlikely. There are no records of Krampus before the 16th century. The earliest known Krampus nights took place in 1582 in the Bavarian town of Diessen featuring a precursor to Krampus known as Perchta. Over time the Perch’s evil form known as Schiachperchten most likely transformed into Krampus. By the mid 19th century Krampus became associated with Saint Nicholas (as something of a tamed devil – all of which was against the wishes of the Catholic Church) and as Saint Nicholas morphed into being Santa Claus, Krampus has come along for the ride.

Krampus comes in various styles, but when he comes … it’s trouble.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Part of the allure of Krampus is that he’s a monstrous entity who appears during a season that is generally wholesome and friendly. He’s a bit of Halloween during Christmas. His role as an enforcer, here to punish children, is not uncommon. Santa Claus traditionally has a list of naughty or nice children, doing double duty rewarding the good children and leaving coal for the bad ones. In several European countries however the duty of doling out punishment is outsourced to a companion character. Belsnickel, Père Fouettard, Knecht Ruprecht, and (the very problematic) Zwarte Piet are all varying folk traditions of someone other than St. Nicholas / Santa Claus punishing bad children before Christmas. Evil punishes evil, good rewards good.

Krampus is the bad cop to Saint Nicholas’s good cop. Good vs evil, light vs dark, the duality of life, he’s a dark counterpoint to the positive happy qualities of the season. It’s a carrot and stick approach to raising well behaved children. The Krampus tradition also lets the steam out a bit, it rebels against the conformity of the polite family-friendly Christmas and the increasing commercialization of the season.

Learn more about the Austrian tradition of Krampus and see some Krampus demons in action.

V, U, Double U

Before the letter U existed the letter V served as both letters. The letter W was literally double U’s.

The alphabet we use today, with 26 letters, is descendant from the Latin/Roman alphabet (the alphabet ancient Romans used to write Latin) which had 23 letters. The letter U wasn’t a part of the original Latin alphabet but that’s not to say that the U sound didn’t exist. The V letter form did double duty in the Latin alphabet, serving as both the consonant V sound and the vowel U sound. A reader knew which sound to make from the context of what word the letter was in (just like how many of our letters are read today).

The first recorded separation of U and V took place in 1386 in the Gothic alphabet. Initially U was just a different shape for the letter V (similar to how the letter J started off as a different way to write the letter I). The U and V shapes were used interchangeably but a rule formed to use the V shape when it was at the beginning of a word and to use the curved U shape if it was in the middle or end of a word (regardless of the intended letter sound). It wasn’t until the 17th century that the letter U became the letter we think of today, assisted in 1629 by printer Lazare Zetzner who made a clear distinction between the V shape and the U shape.

Today, despite the letters V and U having been separate letters for several centuries, we still see relatively modern buildings that feature the sharp V shape in place of the letter U. These are typically buildings in the classic Roman architectural style (city halls, courthouses, etc.) that have chosen to engrave their Us as Vs as a stylistic nod to the Latin alphabet and ancient Rome.

historical uses of V, U, and double Us
The ancient Romans used the letter V for both V and U (in the top left engraving, the “Avcustus” on the second line mixes & matches the intended sounds with just one letter). Modern buildings sometimes use V for U as a throw-back to ancient Rome. The English used two Us beside one another as an early form of the letter W.

Double U’s

Like the letter U, the letter W was also not a part of the original Latin alphabet. Over in England the Old English alphabet, in use from the 8th to the 12th centuries and was descendant from the Latin alphabet, also did not have the letter W. Unlike the Latin alphabet though (and confusingly) the Old English alphabet did have the letter U but not V.

So when it came time to write the W sound, the English initially used two U’s sitting beside one another (looking very much like our modern W shape). Then in the 8th century they switched to using the rune Wynn (ƿ) to represent this sound, but around 1300 they changed their minds and went back to writing it as UU. The clue being in the name, this is why the letter is called “double U.” The name “double U” continued even as the visual design of the letter became more like two V’s placed together.

As typefaces were created for the printing press, some began to create a letter form for W. For the typefaces that did not have this letter, printers continued to place two U’s beside one another. Today the letter W is its own letter and not double U’s.

Added info: while the Latin alphabet is the basis for many western writing systems, not all languages use the letters the same way. In English the letter W is pronounced like “wuh” but in German the letter W is pronounced more like a V, which makes the name Wolfgang more like “Volfgang”. Also in Welsh the letter W is a vowel.

the Dharmapalas

The scary wrathful Buddhist deities that are, contrary to their appearance, forces for good who are on your side.

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon was the area’s dominant shamanistic religion. As Buddhism moved into Tibet during the 7th to 10th centuries, elements of Bon were incorporated into the religion making Tibetan Buddhism different than other forms.

Part of what makes Tibetan Buddhism different from other types is the story of how Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Buddhist mystic who helped bring Buddhism to to Tibet, tamed the local evil spirits & demons. While the exact number of spirits he tamed varies depending on the kind of Buddhism and regional differences, there are at least eight generally agreed upon divine creatures he turned into protectors of Buddhism. These are the Dharmapalas.

the Hateful Eight

Like things out of a horror movie, or a heavy metal album cover, the dharmapalas are typically horrific, fanged, wild-eyed, monstrous creatures. With black, blue or sometimes red skin they are frequently adorned with human skulls. In Tibetan art they are seen in flaming aureoles, visualizations of the energy they emanate. However, despite their appearances, the “Eight Terrible Ones” are on your side. Like monsters with hearts of gold (more or less), the dharmapalas are compassionate defenders of Buddhism and the dharma. Their hideous looks are to drive away evil spirits (not to drive us away).

While each dharmapala is different they all tend to look fearsome and terrifying.
a detail of a Palden Lhamo illustration
A close-up detail of Palden Lhamo, looking more than a little unhappy, with her crown of skulls and a cape of human skin.

Buddhism teaches us that we can’t solve other people’s spiritual problems for them, nor is someone about to solve our problems for us. There is no omnipotent being that’s going to deus ex machina-style swoop in and “save” people. That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t give help or get help. To overcome fear & suffering each one of us must look within ourselves, we must cultivate the potential within ourselves, but external help can show us the way. The dharmapalas remove inner & external obstacles that may be preventing us from achieving spiritual realizations. They don’t walk the path for us, but they help clear the way and help us from ourselves – they have your back in your quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Added info: in general the origins of the dharmapalas vary, as do their personal backstories, but one particularly interesting story is that of Palden Lhamo. The only female dharmapala, Palden Lhamo (“Glorious Goddess”) is the wrathful manifestation of the more peaceful Saraswati / Tara. She was a female demigod married to an evil king. After her attempts to reform her husband failed, and her realization that their son would be the destroyer of Buddhism, she killed her son. What followed is one of the most metal stories ever created.

She ate her son’s flesh, drank his blood using his skull as a cup, and made a horse saddle from his skin. She rides her mule side-saddle across an ocean of blood. After she died she was reborn in the hellish region of Naraka which she fought her way out of, stealing a sword and a bag of diseases along the way. Eventually she was convinced to protect the dharma, and to protect wisdom, which she does to this day. She’s the protector of Buddhist governments including the Tibetan government in exile.

The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

The Mummy’s Curse

The idea that Egyptian tombs are cursed as a means of protection is largely a 20th century creation.

Egyptians began mummifying their dead around 3500 BCE. In all the years of archaeological explorations of Egyptian tombs very few written or inscribed “curses” have ever been found. Those that have however could be thought of as early security systems – trying to protect the contents of the tomb from grave robbers (both amateur and archaeological). Unfortunately, given centuries of rampant looting of Egyptian graves it’s safe to say the curses didn’t work. Despite so few curses having ever been found our modern pop culture is firmly gripped by the undead idea of cursed tombs with mummified Egyptians exacting their revenge from beyond the grave.

The primary reason we think of cursed Egyptian tombs is the 1922 excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun. George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, had financed the search for King Tut’s tomb which was run by archaeologist Howard Carter. As Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered, and the magnitude of the discovery was realized, the Egyptian government ensured that all artifacts would stay in Egypt. Without being able to sell any of the treasures (to cover his costs … or to make a profit) Lord Carnavon sold the exclusive rights to the excavation story to the London Times for £5,000 up front as well as 75% of the Times’ profits from sales of the story to other papers. This left every other news outlet high & dry for a story. Enter: the mummy’s curse.

Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb changed how we think of Egyptian mummies
Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb changed the world (and how we think of Egyptian mummies).

From Beyond

Without access to the largest archaeological find of the age, all other news organizations were left scrambling for another angle. Less than six months after the discovery, on April 5th 1923 Lord Carnarvon died and the press had their angle. The media began to report on a supposed Egyptian curse that had killed Carnarvon for opening King Tut’s tomb (despite no such curse being written anywhere in the tomb).

Paranormal “experts” crawled out of the woodwork to substantiate the idea of a curse. Archaeologists (especially the ones who were excluded from the tomb) where willing to discuss potential curses, which allowed them to profit from the find. Rumors and claims spread & grew like wildfire. Even Howard Carter let the reports of a curse continue, never publicly denying them, because (like a Scooby-Doo episode) it had the effect of scaring people away from the tomb, allowing him to continue working on the excavation for the next decade in relative peace.

The association of mummies with curses proliferated across pop culture after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.

I want my mummy

The western fascination with Egypt, and the orientalized ideas that it was an exotic land of magic, has existed since at least the Middle Ages. Using ground up mummies as medicine, or turning them into paint pigment, had long been practiced by Europeans. The 19th century Egyptomania craze popularized Egypt as a setting for fantastical stories of mummies and tombs. The first story featuring a reanimated mummy (a trope most later mummy stories would follow) was 1827’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb. Bram Stoker’s 1903 horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars also features Egyptian magic and resurrection. However the discover of King Tut’s tomb did more to popularize the idea of a mummy’s curse than anything else.

In 1932, not long after the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the film The Mummy was released featuring Boris Karloff as an ancient mummy resurrected. This was the beginning of many, many mummy movies (including 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse and 1957’s Pharaoh’s Curse, both of which have a curse right in the title). Each telling of a mummy story wanted to be better or more fantastical than the previous so the idea of a mummy’s curse grew. Today the idea of resurrected mummies & curses is a standard part of the horror genre.

Added info: As for any idea that Lord Carnarvon’s death might be attributed to some kind of curse, there is no evidence to support this. While a few people associated with the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun died not long after its discovery, nobody died at an unusually young age. An epidemiological study of the people who entered the tomb found that these individuals died on average around 70 years old, which was normal for the early 20th century.

Also, Lord Carnarvon’s home was Highclere Castle, which today is the setting of Downton Abbey.

Goya’s Black Paintings

The literally & figuratively dark paintings that Francisco de Goya created as he withdrew from the world.

Francisco de Goya was an 18th and 19th century Spanish painter who rose from a rural beginning to become the primary painter for the Spanish royal court. Unfortunately the turbulent events of early 19th century Spain, and his own personal problems, soured Goya’s worldview. The invasion of Spain by France during the Peninsular War, and the bloodshed that came with it, deeply affected Goya. His Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) series of prints are a dark departure from his bright and hopeful paintings of Spanish courtly life. The Disasters of War depict acts of violence, famine, the corrupt Catholic church, and despair across 82 prints. They also serve as an insight into Goya’s darkening view of humanity.

As Francisco Goya’s worldview darkened, so too did his art.

Fade to Black

Even with the end of the Peninsular War in 1814 the political troubles in Spain continued. The return of the tyrannical Ferdinand VII as king, who rejected forward-thinking Enlightenment ideas, was a step backwards. This was combined with the return of the Catholic church’s Inquisition as a means of controlling the people, which the occupying French had abolished. Goya’s personal life had worsened as well. He was 73 years old, his wife had died, an undiagnosed infection had left him mostly (or completely) deaf, he was under investigation for having worked with for the occupying French forces, and his finances were running out.

Goya’s 1800 painting Charles IV of Spain and His Family reflects the success and stability that being a painter for the Spanish royal family had given him.
Painted 20 or so years later, Two Old Ones Eating Soup from Goya’s Black Paintings period is a world away from his previous, more optimistic, work.

The Black Paintings

Goya withdrew from the world. He was pessimistic, alone, and feared his worsening health. He moved to a farmhouse outside Madrid. From 1819 to 1823 he worked in isolation on what has become known as the Black Paintings. Unlike his previous work, these paintings weren’t commissioned by wealthy patrons or intended to appeal to an audience. These 14 paintings were created for Goya himself, serving both as an outlet and as an exploration – they were pure art. He painted them directly on the walls of the house (which were later removed and transferred to canvas after his death).

Just a few of Goya’s Black Paintings. Themes of violence, madness, and fear run throughout the series.

The Black Paintings are dark in both subject matter and color. They explore themes of loss, hopelessness, madness, fear, and ignorance. Because they were created in isolation we can only guess as to Goya’s thoughts and intentions. He never revealed any possible titles for the paintings so the names we use today were created after his lifetime. All of the paintings are special in their own right but a few stand out.

Saturn Devouring His Son features the Roman Titan Saturn (or the Greek equivalent Cronus) trying to avoid the prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. Unlike the 1636 painting of Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens, Goya’s Saturn is wild, savage, with blood oozing out of the headless partially eaten child.

Goya’s version of Saturn devouring his son (left) is far more wild, horrifying, and gruesome than Peter Paul Rubens’s version.

Witches’ Sabbath (or The Great He-Goat) features Satan, in the form of a goat-man, sitting before a gathering of witches. Goya had painted this subject matter before in 1789’s Witches’ Sabbath, which actually has more grisly details but lacks the raw emotion of the Black Painting version.

Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) is not the first time Goya painted the subject matter of Satan as a goat-man holding court before a coven of witches.
Goya depicted witches and goats numerous times. His 1789 painting Witches’ Sabbath has even more gruesome imagery than the later Black Painting of Witches’ Sabbath, but the later has more raw emotion.

Romanticism to Modernism

As the world changed so did Goya’s style, bridging the gap from the old to the new. Today he is considered the last of the Old Masters and one of the first modern painters. The Black Paintings, as well as some of his other works, were influential in the Expressionist and Surrealist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the farmhouse Goya moved to France in 1824, where he died in 1828. Today his Black Paintings are in a room of their own, isolated, at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

New England Vampires and Tuberculosis

The effects of tuberculosis led some 19th century New Englanders to believe that vampires were preying on the living.

In the late 18th and much of the 19th century there was a vampire panic in New England. People across New England feared that vampire-like creatures, using some kind of sympathetic magic, were slowly killing their friends & family from inside the grave (as opposed to traditional vampires who rise from the grave to attack). People would exhume their family members, look for the one who might be a vampire, and take various precautions to stop them. New Englanders might remove & burn the heart of a suspected vampire, they may turn the skeleton over facedown, decapitate the head, put a brick in their mouth, or use a wooden stake to pin their relative to the ground among other methods.

This panic was more than just a few isolated incidents. Henry David Thoreau mentions attending an exhumation in his journal on September 26, 1859. In February of 1793 over 500 people attended the ceremonial burning of the heart, liver, and lungs of supposed vampire Rachel Harris in Manchester, Vermont. After Nancy Young died in 1827 Rhode Island, her father thought that she might be preying on her still alive little sister Almira. The family exhumed Nancy’s coffin, burned it on a pyre, and stood in the smoke to breath in the vapors thinking it would free/cure them of this affliction – it did not work and Almira and two more of her siblings later died. Digesting the cremated remains of a suspected vampire, or breathing in the smoke of the cremation pyre, were not uncommon last resort treatments after traditional medicine had failed to heal sick relatives.

The 1892 exhuming of suspected vampire Mercy Brown in Exeter, Rhode Island became an international story – Bram Stoker based part of the Lucy character in Dracula on Mercy Brown. With 18 confirmed vampire cases, Rhode Island even become known as the “Vampire Capital of America.” The reason all of this happened was twofold: tuberculosis and decomposition.

The story of Mercy Brown influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wasting away

Tuberculosis is an airborne disease that attacks the lungs (among other areas). Active tuberculosis kills about half of those infected and in 2018 it was the ninth leading cause of death worldwide (killing more people than Malaria or HIV/AIDS). In 19th century New England tuberculosis was the leading cause of death, killing an estimated 25% of the population.

Tuberculosis can develop over months or even years, slowly eating away at someone. A person with active TB develops a chronic cough as their lung tissue breaks down, their mucus starts to contain blood, they develop fevers, night sweats, and lose weight. Because of the weight loss the disease has been historically known as “consumption.” As the infected person wastes away they also develop ashen skin, giving them an overall sickly drained appearance.

Vampires, or, a lack of scientific understanding

The effect of tuberculosis (the slow draining of life) combined with some of the infected saying their deceased relatives were visiting them (as Almira Young claimed), was enough for some New Englanders to suspect there were vampires at work. Bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed to looks for signs of vampirism. Some of the corpses seemed have grown longer finger nails and longer hair, some were bloated, some had blood in their organs, while others seemed to have not decayed at all. These were surefire signs of a vampire … or were just normal parts of body decomposition.

As bodies decay they become dehydrated causing the skin to recede and shrink. This gives the illusion of longer fingernails & hair as the base of the nails and hair that was once under the skin is now exposed. The bodies that seemed to have not decayed at all were the ones of people who died in the cold winters of New England (as was Mercy Brown’s case who had died in January) where the cold slows the decomposition process. These unremarkable signs of decomposition were mistaken as proof of life after death to the untrained eyes of 19th century New England.

The dawn of a new era

The Mercy Brown story brought unwanted attention to New England. It was embarrassing that, while the light bulb was being invented and Henry Ford was building his first car, people were worried about folklorish undead monsters. The vampire panic rose and fell with the tuberculosis endemic of New England. Over time with advancements in science, and the dissemination of knowledge, belief in vampires faded away.

Added info: porphyria is another disease whose symptoms can be similar to vampire activity. It’s a liver disease that, for some, can cause sensitivity to sunlight (leading some to only come out at night) as well as sensitivity to garlic.

“Ask a Mortician” goes through the history of the New England vampire panic and the realities of tuberculosis in 19th century New England.

A crash course on tuberculosis.

“Back in my day …”

The idea that “… the kids of today aren’t as good as when I was a kid …”, has been around for thousands of years.

Generation Y, more commonly referred to as “Millennials”, are people born between 1981 and 1996 (but these years vary). Criticisms of millennials are that they’re lazy, entitled, and self-obsessed. The general narrative is that this younger generation is not as disciplined as the hard-working older generations. This is frequently accompanied by a “things were better when I was younger” mindset. While millennials have been a recent target of this kind of criticism, this kind of criticism is nothing new.

From Hesiod to Baby Boomers

Adults have been complaining about the up-and-coming younger generation for as long as there have been people. One of the earliest examples is by the classical Greek writer Hesiod, who around the 8th century BCE wrote “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.” A few centuries later Aristotle echoed this idea when he said of younger people, “They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”

The song remains the same

This kind of thinking is reductive and condescending – it says more about the out of touch nature of the people doing the criticizing than the younger generation being criticized. Despite thousands of years of older people complaining about younger people, civilization has somehow managed to continue & progress.

People don’t change that much from generation to generation and no generation is a cultural monolith. Every generation has hard workers, selfless givers, narcissists, the lazy, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Shakespeare continues to be relevant because the fundamental human condition has changed very little over the centuries.

The kids are alright

Myths that millennials eat avocado toast all the time, that they fail to save for retirement, that they’re lazy, that they’re all socialists, etc. have all been debunked. After maligning and blaming millennials for a variety of society’s problems baby boomers seemed surprised and insulted by the “audacious”, terse, and somewhat snarky millennial reply of “OK boomer”. Meanwhile these same baby boomers seem to have forgotten (or just don’t realize) that the political, economic, and environmental realities of today are much different than when the boomers were young.

As for narcissism, younger people of every generation tend to be more narcissistic but become less so as they age – the older people who are currently less narcissistic didn’t start out that way. Our values also change as we age. Despite being on the receiving end of this criticism the younger people of today will become the older people of tomorrow and will inevitably forget what they were like when they were young. They’ll judge younger generations by their present mindsets and not by the attitudes they held back when they were the that age. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Fiji Mermaid

The taxidermy oddity that attracted thousands of people to P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.

In 1841 P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum in New York City. For 31 years the museum had been Scudder’s American Museum which was part science museum, part zoo, part history museum, and part collection of oddities. After Barnum bought it he took these ideas and amped them up to become one of the most popular attractions in America. With around 500,000 items in the collection the museum was both educational and entertaining – it was history and spectacle. Over its 14 year run the Barnum American Museum had 38 million customers at a time when the population of the US was only around 32 million.

Being a P.T. Barnum enterprise, marketing was a critical tool to its success. He transformed the facade of the building into a giant billboard for the museum itself. He had posters advertising (and exaggerating) the attractions inside. One of the first attractions he marketed, using most of the front of the building to do so, was the Fiji mermaid.

Barnum’s American Museum was one of the most popular attractions in America at the time.

The Little Mermaid

The Fiji mermaid was brought to America in 1842 by Dr. J. Griffin of the British Lyceum of Natural History. It was the mummified remains of a mermaid from the Fiji islands in the South Pacific. Barnum generated interest in the mermaid by sending anonymous letters to various newspapers talking about it. He even cooked up a story that he was trying to convince Dr. Griffin to exhibit the mermaid and that Griffin was reluctant. It was a sensation before it was ever even exhibited to the public.

Barnum negotiated to display the mermaid for one week but it proved to be so popular that it went on the road, touring southern states. Dr. Griffin gave lectures about mermaids and cited the ancient Greek idea that everything on land had a counterpart in the sea. At a time when new species were being discovered in the remote areas of the world perhaps a mermaid had finally been found.

Eventually the Fiji mermaid split its time between Barnum’s American Museum and the Boston Museum. Its fate is unknown as it went missing but it was most likely destroyed in either the fire that consumed Barnum’s museum in 1865 or the fire that consumed the Boston Museum in 1880.

The Fiji mermaid has become one of Barnum’s most famous humbugs (ie. hoaxes). It looked nothing like the beautiful mermaids in the advertisements.

A sucker born every minute

In truth, the “mermaid” was Barnum’s first hoax at his American Museum (his very first hoax was when he exhibited Joice Heth, a woman he bought, and claimed she had been George Washington’s former nurse … which she hadn’t been). At about 3ft long the mermaid was the taxidermy combination of a monkey torso and the tail of a fish (most likely a salmon). Far from being the beautiful humanoid mermaid seen in Barnum’s advertisements, it was a ghastly animal mashup. The Charleston Courier wrote that “… the Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.”

Instead of originating in the Fiji islands, the mermaid actually was one of many created by Japanese fishermen. This particular mermaid was bought by the American sea captain Samuel Edes in 1822 whose son sold it to Moses Kimball of Boston in 1842. Kimball then leased the mermaid to Barnum for his museum. As for Dr. J. Griffin, he was actually Barnum’s associate Levi Lyman who was in on the ruse from the very beginning, pretending to vouch for the mermaid’s authenticity. Also there’s no such thing as the “British Lyceum of Natural History”. Nothing about the Fiji mermaid was real except the public’s excitement.

Humbug

There is a Barnum-esque blurry gray area between “hoax” and “entertaining joke”. While Barnum liked to categorize things like the Fiji mermaid as “humbugs” (which are things designed to deceive), he felt they were always in playful fun. Barnum wanted the audience, even when deceived, to still have a good time. He did not like deception at the expense of the public. For example he spoke out publicly (and testified in court) against spiritual mediums who tricked people out of money, lying to them about communicating with deceased loved ones.

Over the years numerous other Fiji mermaids have made the rounds in museums, curiosity shops, sideshows, and private collections. They’re made from all manner of materials (animal parts, wood, papier-mâché, wire, plastic, etc). You can find higher-quality ones for sale in shops that specialize in curious objects, but there are also cheaper ones on ebay. You can also learn to build your own.

Added info: The Jenny Haniver is a related taxidermy hoax. It’s a sea animal, frequently a ray or skate, that’s been modified to look like the mummified remains of a demon, angel, basilisk, etc.

Also, P.T. Barnum never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It was said by banker David Hannum who had purchased a hoax giant which he charged the public to see.

Barnum Museum curator Adrienne Saint-Pierre discusses the Fiji mermaid.

Learn some tips & tricks to building your own Fiji mermaid.

In the X-Files episode “Humbug” Agent Scully enters a curiosity shop where the Fiji mermaid gets mentioned. The owner of the shop also has a clever humbug of his own in the style of Barnum’s famous signage leading people to the Egress.

Staircase Wit

Having the perfect comeback … after the fact.

L’esprit de l’escalier, or “staircase wit”, is when you think of the perfect thing to say … but it’s too late. The French name for this phenomenon comes from thinking of the perfect retort on your way down the stairs after leaving the conversation/argument. It’s a common enough experience that the phenomenon has a name. Thinking of what you should have said, after the fact, happens to everyone.

Staircase wit touches on counterfactual thinking, where we imagine alternate scenarios for events that have already happened. Deliberating on how things could have played out can lead to arguing with ourselves, where we try a discussion a second time in our minds trying to come up with the best response (witty or otherwise).

In the heat of the moment

When our ideas are challenged we can become flustered and emotional. It can be difficult to think straight, let alone to be witty, when you’re uncomfortable. Fear and anxiety can cause us to focus on a single line of thinking (depth-first processing) which, if you are trying to be witty, makes it more difficult to formulate a creative response.

When you’re in a good mood you’re more open to new ideas and are more creative (breadth-first processing). Wit requires creativity, confidence, and timing. Staying relaxed can help you be witty in the moment … and not after the fact on the staircase.

Added info: Oscar Wilde, a master of wit, still has a lot to teach us on the art of turning a phrase. Browse the internet or pick up a collection of his more memorable quotations for inspiration. If all else fails you can quote Wilde since, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” – W. Somerset Maugham (a quote often misattributed to Wilde).

L’esprit de l’escalier is the basis for the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback” in season 8. George realizes the “perfect” comeback after being insulted in a meeting, only to screw things up again later.

“The jerk store called” … the Seinfeld episode “The Comeback” is based on the idea of staircase wit.