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Lapp of the Gods

When Jeffrey Vallance relocated to the land of Santa Claus, he discovered the dark side of Christmas; a realm of brain-eating wildmen and sinister elves. All illustrations by the author.

I never dreamed that one day I would live in Lapland, the traditional home of Santa Claus; but in 1999 I accepted a three-year contract as Professor in International Contemporary Art to teach at Umeå University in northern Sweden. Lapland (or Sàpmi) extends across northern Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. It is the homeland of the Lapps, more correctly called the Saami. In Lapland, I regularly wore a fur-trimmed coat while travelling through the snow in the Arctic wilderness by way of a reindeer sleigh. I frequently dined on huge reindeer steaks and, like Santa, I became rounder and jollier while my beard turned hoarier with each passing day.

When I first arrived in the Land of Hoarfrost, I was puzzled by the enigmatic heraldic symbol of Lapland, the Wildman, a hairy, reddish, bestial character dressed in leaves, wielding a gnarled club. I collected vague reports of an actual Swedish Wildman (Snömannen), a yeti-like creature believed to inhabit the remote areas of the forest. One day when wandering through the wilds of Lapland I beheld an astonishing thing: a colossal statue of the Wildman painted bright red with a snowy white beard (opposite page). From a distance it looked like Santa Claus. As I stood at the base, staring up at the Herculean statue, it hit me like a hunk of red-hot ejecta from Mount Hekla: Santa Claus, the Wildman, and Snömannen must spring from the same ancient source.

The mediæval Wildman or Wodewose was described as a grotesque, bestial, ape-like creature – dark, filthy, and bearded. His body was covered in thick matted hair (later often replaced by leaves) and gave off a foul odour. He was sometimes depicted as horned, with a prominent penis or wielding a club. He was considered frenzied and insane, the personification of lust and debauchery. He was known to mate with humans. His habitat was the northern woods where he lived in a cave or den. His traditional beast of burden was the reindeer.

The Wildman is known in various regions as Chläus, Div, Djadek, Jass, Kinderfresser (child eater), Klapperbok, Old Scratch, Thomasniklo, and Schrat. Over the ages, the brutal Wildman figure evolved into a character more like a clown or holiday fool. The progenitors of Santa Claus like Aschenklas (ash) were likewise depicted as wildmen: hoary, bearded, and filthy with ash or soot.

Santa’s original helpers (before he got the elves) are dark, devilish, reprobate wildmen covered in soot such as the Dark One, Dark Helper, Krampus, Julgubben, Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, Cinder Cläus, Fool Claus, Klawes, Claws, Pelzmarte, Pelz Nickel, and Ru Klas. The word “ru” means “rough clothes,” calling to mind cross-dresser RuPaul, known for his renditions of Christmas classics such as “RuPaul the Red-Nosed Drag Queen” from his Rhino Records album, Ho, Ho, Ho.

The snowman

A type of wildman, the Snömannen or snowman (left) purportedly inhabits northern Scandinavia in Lapland including the arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as Russian Lapland (the Kola Peninsula) and Siberia. The Lapp Snowman is more like the Abominable Snowman than the domesticated snowman of Christmas iconography. He is described as a dark, ape-like creature covered in thick, dirty, stinky hair. His face is broad with prominent brow ridges, nose pressed flat, with a mouth that juts out from a huge jaw.

His arms are larger than a man’s and his feet are enormous with hairless soles. His buttocks are light in colour, with a sparse covering of hair. In mountainous regions, his coat turns silver or snow-white in winter. He lives in a den or cave in the forest in hard-to-reach polar regions. His favourite food is cranberries. The term “yeti” is pronounced remarkably similar to the Swedish word for giant, jätte. In Sweden, a yeti called the “Honey Monster” is the mascot for a popular puffed wheat breakfast cereal, Kalas Puffar.

A reindeer breeder from eastern Siberia named Tatyana Zakharova saw a Snowman while she was out berry picking: “He was also picking berries and stuffing them into his mouth with both hands.” Snowman fæcal matter has been found to consist of the remains of berries. The snowman also hunts reindeer, eating the meat raw and tearing off the skin to wear.

Six teenage boys, out berry-picking along Lake Lovozero on the Kola Peninsula, reportedly encountered the Snowman, which they named Afonya. In the evening, sitting around the campfire, they were bombarded with large stones and took shelter in the cabin. Before going to bed, one of the boys went outside to relieve himself, saw the Snowman crouched in some berry bushes, and ran back to the cabin terrified. Later in the night, the Snowman turned up on the roof, and like a deranged Santa Claus he tried to enter the hut through the chimney. Luckily a fire was burning, so the Snowman must have severely burned himself. He yelped, jumped off the roof, and ran away. The next day, large tracks were found as well as sizeable piles of excrement.

Santa park

It is widely agreed that Santa Claus is based in Lapland, but exactly where is a matter of national pride. The Finns claim he lives under a mountain in Rovaniemi, Finland, and the Swedes insist he lives in a meteor crater near Mora, Sweden. I decided to see firsthand where Santa lives, so I made a pilgrimage to the Santa Park complex in Rovaniemi. The Santa Village is what you would expect: alpine-type gingerbread cottages, elf workshops, wedding chapel, Arctic Circle Post Office, and an extensive gift shop mall (with an exhaustive supply of fake Saami handicrafts and berry preserves).

In Santa’s Office, one can have an audience with the enthroned Santa (Joulupukki or Yule pixie) himself. The Office features a library with huge books labelled for each continent where Santa keeps precise records of all who have been naughty or nice – like The Lamb’s Book of Life: “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15) Instead of a reindeer sleigh, Joulupukki rides a surly goat named Ukko.

From the Village I rode a cheerful little train through the forest and disembarked at the foot of a peculiar hill called Mount Ear, where I beheld an arched, red lacquered pagoda-like portal – the sublime entrance to subterranean Santa Park. Like Dante, I descended a passageway hewn from solid rock for what seemed to be miles into the very bowels of the Earth. In my head played “The Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. The walls of the tunnel (or ear canal) slowly turned from stone to galvanised steel. At last I entered the central chamber occupied by a towering Reindeer Carousel, topped off with a gigantic Bavarian cuckoo clock.

I noticed that the walls and ceiling of the chamber were trimmed with Christmas tinsel – a little like Vegas, but somehow all wrong. Upon closer inspection, the walls were too high-tech for just an amusement park. I inspected the inner doors to the cuckoo-carousel room (in badly painted imitation woodgrain). The semicircular door mechanism was made of solid steel, heavier than vault doors I had seen in Swiss banks or Austrian treasure chambers. They were freaking nuclear blast doors! I theorised that the whole damn Santa Complex was a massive camouflaged atomic bomb shelter.

No wonder, since nearby on the Kola Peninsula is the network of missile silos forming Moscow’s Forward Land Defence System. In addition, Lapland was ground zero for the Chernobyl fallout, causing the reindeer to be radioactive for some years. The reindeer’s main food source, a type of lichen (Cladonia rangiferina), is still contaminated in some areas. I pestered one of the Santa Village elves, who finally admitted that the entire population of Rovaniemi could be housed safely in the structure within 24 hours notice of nuclear war. Obviously, the Finns had built themselves one hell of a fallout shelter. It is comforting to know that after worldwide nuclear devastation, Santa will step forward, alive and safe, to greet the post-apocalyptic world.

Santa world

In Sweden, Santa (Jultomten) lives in Tomteland, also known as Santa World. A gigantic meteor struck central Sweden 360,000,000 years ago, with the impact of 1,000 atomic bombs. It blasted out a crater that eventually filled with water, becoming Lake Siljan. The high mountains around the lake are actually sides of the crater, and here at the base of Mount Gesunda, Swedish Santa built his workshop. Jultomten is akin to the King-of-the-Forest-type wildman: stout, bearded, dressed in furs. He cares for animals and has shamanistic powers over the elements.

According to legend, Jultomten lived deep in the forest long before he showed himself to humans. It is said that Santa used to roam around the Swedes’ farms during the night. He would creepy-crawl into children’s rooms, touching them to bestow prophetic dreams. To this day, on Christmas Eve, Swedes still leave porridge, milk, or tobacco to appease the mischievous old elf, similar to Americans leaving milk and cookies for Santa.

In Tomteland, Santa lives with his helpers: trolls, a witch, and the Snow Queen. The Scandinavian Lutheran Church has replaced the pagan fairy queens of yore (disir) with Christian holy figures such as the Christkind, Christpuppe (Christ elf), and Santa Lucia, a young blonde girl in a white flowing gown, wearing a golden crown with burning candles. In Sweden, Santa Lucia (from lux, meaning “light”) arrives on the shortest and darkest day of winter as the symbol of victory over darkness. She is the Queen of Light.

Lucia’s assistants are the Star Boys, who were originally, like the Wildman, dressed in furs with blackened faces. They now wear pointed wizards’ hats and wave magic wands with a star on the end. In other Scandinavian areas, St Lussi (more like Lucifer), is a man dressed in goat skins (like Julbok, the Christmas goat) with a devil mask and horns. Lussi threatens to disembowel children who have been naughty.

Lapp Yuletide

Christmas is a festive holiday in Sàpmi (the Saami homeland). The Saami await a Yuletide visit from a giant horned and hairy wildman named Stallo. In Lappish, “stallo” means “metal-man.” Sometimes Stallo is dressed in stylish, all-black clothes like an MIB (Man in Black) or in a metallic suit, reminiscent of a robot or ancient astronaut in a spacesuit. Most likely the metal suit was the chain mail armour of the berserker Vikings.

The amoral Stallo delights in macabre acts of genital mutilation of his innocent victims. He pokes his staff up the skirts of young girls. On Christmas Eve, he rides around in his sleigh looking for something to drink.

Traditionally, the Saami drive a stake into the ground near a fresh water supply so Stallo can tie up his sled while having a refreshing gulp of water. If Stallo cannot find anything to drink, he will bash in a child’s skull, sucking out the brains and blood to satiate his ravenous thirst.

Stallo’s sleigh is not pulled by reindeer but by a pack of lemmings. Arctic lemmings (Lemmus lemmus) are common in Lapland and are detested by the Lapps, as they are known to have a nasty bite. In 1555, Olaus Magnus, the last Catholic Primate of Sweden (who was in the north selling indulgences to the sinful Swedes) recorded reports of lemmings raining from the sky over Lapland. He believed that the lemmings spontaneously generated in the clouds over Lapland as a punishment from God for the people’s idolatrous ways.

Christmas Eve is the most dangerous night for Lapp children. Stallo lurks about looking for naughty children to cram into his sack. A Saami legend tells of one scary Christmas: three brothers decided to play games instead of going to church. They wanted to have some fun gutting a reindeer, but as none was to be found, the youngest brother volunteered instead. After the boy was slaughtered and disembowelled, and the sparkling white snow spattered with blood, the two remaining brothers began to cook his flesh.

Stallo smelled the savoury aroma of roasting human flesh and leapt into action, killing one boy instantly. The other brother tried to escape. He hid in a locked chest, but clever Stallo blew red-hot embers through the keyhole, burning the child alive. (The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest have a similar character named Steta’l, a Bigfoot-like mountain giant who also kidnaps children.) In northern Sweden, archæological evidence of Stallo can be found, called Stallo Graves (also Stallo-sites or stalotomter). They are in fact the remains of ancient circular hut foundations.

Reindeer slaughter

According the famous poem An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas (1823), Santa’s means of transportation is “a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.” Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are well adapted to the arctic climate. Their hooves form a broad, flat pad – ideal for walking in deep snow. Their feet also contain scent glands which enable them to find nourishment buried in the snow. Their furry coats keep them warm in weather conditions reaching –60ºF (–51ºC). Traditionally, the Saami use reindeer to pull a sleigh (pulka). It is said that the Wildman, Snowman, and Bigfoot all consume raw deer flesh.

Deer are also associated with elves and fairies. Satan himself has been known to shape-shift into a black stag. The legendary Deer Shaman, Stag-man and Reindeer Girl all wear costumes with antlers. In Sàpmi, at Winter Solstice, reindeer slaughter celebrations take place – a culling of the herds, as there is not enough fodder to maintain all the animals through the extreme winter. Similar is the festival day of St Hubert (Jägermeister), the glowing deer-horned patron Saint of the Hunt. Likewise, the Saami mythical reindeer Mandash-pyrre has golden antlers that shine like the sun.

I went to a Saami reindeer slaughter in Åsele, Sweden. It was not as ritualistic as I’d imagined. The reindeer are all nestled in their corrals when a huge semi truck (a literal slaughterhouse on wheels) pulls up to the gate. One by one, live reindeer prance through one end of the mobile meat processing plant, and carcasses dangling on meat hooks come flying out the other end. Near the truck, a man occasionally stirs buckets of blood for making blood sausage. Soup made from reindeer blood cures constipation. To cure juvenile stuttering, fresh and bloody reindeer lungs used to be flung at the stammering child. (That would have worked on me!) Boiled reindeer antler is a remedy for diarrhoea. Reindeer horns are exported to Asia, fetching exorbitant prices as a potent aphrodisiac. Associated is the slang term “horny,” denoting sexual arousal.

At the Slaughter, piles of severed reindeer heads festooned the snowy landscape like demonic Christmas decorations. Large dogs gnawed at them occasionally. Dazzling lakes of bright red frozen reindeer blood created Pollockesque patterns on the glittering snow. But alas, there was no ritual feasting. In innocent children’s Christmas stories, reindeer are the symbol of joyous holiday merriment – it was bizarre to see them rendered into piles of gore.

Flying reindeer

At first, the line in the poem concerning the miniature sleigh and tiny reindeer puzzled me. What was the meaning of the mini reindeer sled? Then, as I was researching the Saami shaman drum, it became crystal clear. The shaman beats his drum until he reaches the specific rhythm and tone that sends him into a trancelike state of ecstasy. The rhythmic beats affect the central nervous system, producing a hypnotic condition. In this altered state called gievvot, his soul travels in extra-corporeal form to the spirit world to converse with the dead.

But first, the drum must be granted “life” by means of a particular ritual, and possessed by a guardian spirit – most commonly a reindeer. The shaman, with the help of his reindeer guide (or basseváresarves), can make his spiritual journey. On the drum skin are painted (in alder bark mixed with spit) various blood-red symbols that help guide the shaman on his “reindeer vision” across the cosmic road (Milky Way) to Jábmeájmoo, the Land of the Dead.

One symbol on the drum is a miniature sleigh pulled by a tiny reindeer. This image is used by the shaman to “ride into the sky”, calling to mind Santa’s Christmas Eve flight. On the other hand, Siberian shamans feed psychedelic mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) to their reindeer. The animal’s metabolism removes the toxins from the mushrooms but leaves the hallucinogenic properties intact in the urine. The shamans then drink the reindeer pee to “fly high”. In the drug subculture, the slang term “sleigh riding” refers to a drugged-out state, while “reindeer dust” is another term for cocaine.

Flying Santa

How did Santa get the power to fly like the wind? In An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas, his aerial acrobatics are described thus: “He sprang to his sleigh, to the team gave a whistle, / And away they all flew like the down from a thistle.” In Lapland, the Saami shaman (called the Magi of the North) is believed to have the power to raise the wind and storms. In olden times, Lapp sorcerers sold “wind-knots” to sailors in the form of three knots tied in a handkerchief. As the knots are untied the winds would increase. Sailors beware – the loosening of the third knot can cause an accursed mælstrom. It is said that the sorcerers of Lapland learned their accursed art from Zoroaster the Persian. Yet power over the wind comes from the Devil himself, “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).

In Lapland, sorcery was a craft preserved for male shamans, but there have been documented reports of female practitioners. Throughout the ages, Lapland has had the sinister reputation for being a place for witches’ orgies. On Lapp witches, Cotton Mather (infamous for his role in the Salem Witch Trials) wrote in his book Wonders of the Invisible World: “Undoubtedly the Devil understands as well the way to make a Tempest as to turn Winds at the Solicitation of a Laplander.” He went on to write that they “can with looks or words bewitch other people, or sell Winds to Mariners… and by their Enchanted Kettle Drums can learn things done a Thousand Leagues off.”

The Saami shaman or noid (also spelled nojd, noyde, and noajdde), besides having power over the wind, was believed to have the gift of second sight, invisibility, shapeshifting, weird visions, and the capability to create false apparitions. Because of the awesome supernatural power thought to be wielded by the noid, Martin Luther believed that Lapland was the home of the Devil. Missionaries to Lapland believed that the noid were literally possessed by demons, and the shaman’s drum was a powerful “instrument and tool of the Devil”. The regions and peoples of the extreme north have always held a special fascination for inhabitants of the temperate zones. The excessive cold, the winter darkness, and the reputed mystical powers of the Hyperborean people have long attracted the imagination of writers, adventurers, and seekers of mystic powers. Surely, Santa Claus lives in the north because, like a Holy Magus, he seeks the great supernatural power of the noid.

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Russian Lapland yeti
Russian Lapland yeti
The Lapp Wildman
The Lapp Wildman
  Lapp of the Gods
St Nicholas and the Dark Helper
  Lapp of the Gods
Lapp of the Gods
  Flying reindeer from shaman drum
Flying reindeer from shaman drum
Author Biography
Jeffrey Vallance is a an artist, writer, curator, explorer and Visiting Assistant Professor in New Genres at UCLA, Los Angeles. Jeffrey is a regular FT contributor.
  • Tore Ahlbäck and Jan Bergman, Eds, The Saami Shaman Drum, Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History, Finland, 1991.
  • Dmitri Bayanov, In the Footsteps of the Russian Snowman, Hancock House, USA, 2004.
  • Jan Bondeson, The Feejee Mermaid, Cornell University Press, 1999.
  • Odd Mathis Hætta, The Ancient Religion and Folk-Beliefs of the Sámi, Alta Museum.
  • Clement Clarke Moore (attributed), An Account of a Visit from St Nicholas, 1823.
  • Ernest J Moyne, Raising the Wind: The legend of Lapland and Finland Wizards in Literature, University of Delaware Press, 1981.
  • Tony van Renterghem, When Santa Was a Shaman, LLewellyn, 1996.
  • The Magic of Lapland and Christmas Every Day - On the Arctic Circle, Santa Village, Rovaniemi, Finland.
  • Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, McFarland ' Company, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1997.
  • Stanislav Szukalski, Behold!!! The Protong, Last Gasp, San Francisco, California, 2001.


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