Sinclair Lewis famously said, “Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation,” a calling pursued by a number of mythological personalities, notably the Viking Jokul Frosti (more commonly known by his Old English psuedonym “Jack Frost”), the Russian Ded Moroz, and the Japanese Yuki-Onna. Eventually Jack Frost became a friendly imp “nipping at your nose”. Ded Moroz became associated with Santa Claus. Yuki-Onna remained malign, but has become a popular modern figure in Japanese literature and animation. Humanity’s discovery of luxuries like centrally-heated homes, well-stocked supermarkets, indoor plumbing, and Gortex jackets have taken the bite out of winter. Cozy in front of our Amish fireplaces with adequate supplies of Tamiflu, we tend to forget that for most of human history life was edgy to begin with, and winter pretty much sucked, as a desperate struggle where getting wet before a fire was actually lit was probably fatal, everybody prayed the food supplies didn’t run out before Spring rolled around, and the wolves in the woods tended to get a little more aggressive after depleting the existing rabbit supply. Understandably, until the modern era, anthropomorphic representations of winter tended towards the monstrous. Winter is generally no longer a struggle to survive in the Western world, consequently, our winter mythology is less horrifying. Take away our creature comforts in the middle of winter and a fiendish Jokul Frosti may yet again announce his presence by painting our windows with lacelike frost, proving the Inuit proverb, “You never really know your friends from your enemies until the ice breaks”. Nobody knows snow like an Eskimo.
In Norse mythology, understanding the origins of the winter spirit requires an awareness of the complex genealogy of the Norse Pantheon. There are actually two separate Norse pantheons that compete with each other, the Æsir (such as Odin, Frigg, Thor, Balder and Tyr) and the Vanir (such as Njörðr, Freyr and Freyja). The Vanir tend to be associated with fertility, wisdom, and prophecy, whereas the Æsir are the war gods. The gods fight the Æsir–Vanir War, resulting in the eventual dominance of the Æsir, which makes logical sense, what with their being war gods and all. Odin, Wili, and We supposedly murdered the primeval god Ymir, from whose flesh they fashioned the Earth, from his blood the ocean, from his bones the hills, from his hair the trees, from his brains the clouds, from his skull the heavens, and from his eyebrows the middle realm in which mankind lives. Before his untimely demise, Ymir spawned a few children, the descendants of which comprised a race distinct from, but no less powerful than the Æsir and Vanir, generally regarded as relatively evil, and referred to as the jǫtnar (singular “jötunn”, often called “the thurse”, or more familiarly, “giants”, although puzzlingly, some of the jǫtnar are dwarves), in particular the mythologically important antagonists, the frost giants that are considered the children of Kari (deity of wind).
Ymir, like Odin, bears many surnames—Oergelmir, Brimir, Fornjotr, Neri, Thirwald, Thrigeitr, Alwald—all of which convey the meaning of storm, and some of which become family names of his descendants. An obscure tradition attributes three patriarchal sons to him, corresponding to the patriarchal trilogy of gods—Odin, Wili, We, or Odin, Honir, Loki. These are Kari, Hler (Oegir),Logi. They represent the three elements—air, water, and fire—in their violent, untamed nature. Kari is thus dimly regarded as the Thursen equivalent and opponent of Odin, and the sire of all wintry inclemencies. Among his children are Frosti, Jb’kull (Iceberg), Snor (Snow), Fb’nn (Dense Snow), Drifa (Snow-storm), Mib’ll (Fine, Glistening Snow). What a blizzard family! (Stern, 1898, p.121)
One jötunn in particular was Frosti (full name Jokul Frosti, Old Norse for “Ice Frost”), bearing a striking resemblance both in folk traditions and moniker to our winter friend the Anglos-Saxon Jack Frost, a sprite-like personification of frost and cold weather. In contrast with the mischief-making trickster Jack Frost of holiday cartoon specials, Jokul Frosti the frost giant was the evil and violent foe of both men and gods, although some folklorists have pointed out that winters in Scandinavia are considerably more brutal than in western Europe, which may account for Jack Frost’s slightly less dastardly undertones., including his reduction in stature from fearsome frost giant destined to wage apocalyptic war in Ragnarök to harmless, artistic blue elf. In Viking mythologies, he takes his punches and keeps on swinging.
Kari was the father of a numerous race, and his most powerful descendant, Frosti, ruled over a great empire in the far north. Now Frosti often made raids and incursions into neighbouring states, and on one occasion he went to Finland, where King Snar (snow) reigned. There he saw the king’s daughter, fair MioU (shining snow), and at once fell in love with her. But the haughty monarch refused him the hand of the maiden. He therefore sent a message to her secretly to tell her : ” Frosti loves thee, and will share his throne with thee.” To which she replied : ” I love him also, and will await his coming by the seashore.” Frosti appeared at the appointed time and took his bride in his strong arms. Meanwhile the plot had been discovered ; Snar’s fighting men lay in ambush to attack the lovers, and shot innumerable arrows ,at the bold warrior. But Frosti laughed at them all ; the arrows fell from his silver armour like blunted needles, his storm horse broke through the ranks of the enemy and bore the lovers safely over the sea and over mountains and valleys to their Northern realm (Wägner , 1917, p.46)
The Russian version of Jack Frost and Jokul Frosti is Ded Moroz (Father Frost or King Frost in some folktales), who developed into an amiable fellow if treated respectfully, but prone to freezing those who displease him to death. Traditionally Ded Moroz was a wicked, evil sorcerer fond of carrying away children in his sack, but Eastern Orthodox overlays transformed him into a typical Santa Claus figure. Santa’s stylish red velvet sartorial choices (urban legend incorrectly attributes them to Coca-Cola advertisements in the 1930’s) owe a lot to the historical appearance of Ded Moroz. Interstingly, Ded Moroz is often pictured as a tall, slender gentleman, rather than a portly grandfather figure, and travels around accompanied by his granddaughter Snequrochka , the “Snow Maiden”. Ded Moroz nonetheless has deep roots in Russian paganism and it is only really since the late 18th Century that he has come to be associated with Santa Claus (while religion was generally suppressed after the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin resurrected Ded Moroz in 1935, but ordered that his coat be changed from red to blue, so as not to be confused with Santa Claus). The older Ded Moroz is hard to confuse with Santa, as he can be a slightly more homicidal when disrespected. We’re not talking about a lump of coal in your stocking, rather engineering your death by hypothermia.
There was once upon a time a peasant-woman who had a daughter and a step-daughter. The daughter had her own way in everything, and whatever she did was right in her mother’s eyes; but the poor step-daughter had a hard time. Let her do what she would, she was always blamed, and got small thanks for all the trouble she took; nothing was right, everything wrong; and yet, if the truth were known, the girl was worth her weight in gold–she was so unselfish and good-hearted. But her step-mother did not like her, and the poor girl’s days were spent in weeping; for it was impossible to live peacefully with the woman. The wicked shrew was determined to get rid of the girl by fair means or foul, and kept saying to her father: ‘Send her away, old man; send her away–anywhere so that my eyes sha’n’t be plagued any longer by the sight of her, or my ears tormented by the sound of her voice. Send her out into the fields, and let the cutting frost do for her.’
In vain did the poor old father weep and implore her pity; she was firm, and he dared not gainsay her. So he placed his daughter in a sledge, not even daring to give her a horse-cloth to keep herself warm with, and drove her out on to the bare, open fields, where he kissed her and left her, driving home as fast as he could, that he might not witness her miserable death.
Deserted by her father, the poor girl sat down under a fir-tree at the edge of the forest and began to weep silently. Suddenly she heard a faint sound: it was King Frost springing from tree to tree, and cracking his fingers as he went. At length he reached the fir-tree beneath which she was sitting, and with a crisp crackling sound he alighted beside her, and looked at her lovely face.
‘Well, maiden,’ he snapped out, ‘do you know who I am? I am King Frost, king of the red-noses.’
‘All hail to you, great King!’ answered the girl, in a gentle, trembling voice. ‘Have you come to take me?’
‘Are you warm, maiden?’ he replied.
‘Quite warm, King Frost,’ she answered, though she shivered as she spoke.
Then King Frost stooped down, and bent over the girl, and the crackling sound grew louder, and the air seemed to be full of knives and darts; and again he asked:
‘Maiden, are you warm? Are you warm, you beautiful girl?’
And though her breath was almost frozen on her lips, she whispered gently, ‘Quite warm, King Frost.’
Then King Frost gnashed his teeth, and cracked his fingers, and his eyes sparkled, and the crackling, crisp sound was louder than ever, and for the last time he asked her:
‘Maiden, are you still warm? Are you still warm, little love?’
And the poor girl was so stiff and numb that she could just gasp, ‘Still warm, O King!’
Now her gentle, courteous words and her uncomplaining ways touched King Frost, and he had pity on her, and he wrapped her up in furs, and covered her with blankets, and he fetched a great box, in which were beautiful jewels and a rich robe embroidered in gold and silver. And she put it on, and looked more lovely than ever, and King Frost stepped with her into his sledge, with six white horses.
In the meantime the wicked step-mother was waiting at home for news of the girl’s death, and preparing pancakes for the funeral feast. And she said to her husband: ‘Old man, you had better go out into the fields and find your daughter’s body and bury her.’ Just as the old man was leaving the house the little dog under the table began to bark, saying:
‘YOUR daughter shall live to be your delight; HER daughter shall die this very night.’
‘Hold your tongue, you foolish beast!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a pancake for you, but you must say:
“HER daughter shall have much silver and gold; HIS daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold.” ‘
But the doggie ate up the pancake and barked, saying:
‘His daughter shall wear a crown on her head; Her daughter shall die unwooed, unwed.’
Then the old woman tried to coax the doggie with more pancakes and to terrify it with blows, but he barked on, always repeating the same words. And suddenly the door creaked and flew open, and a great heavy chest was pushed in, and behind it came the step-daughter, radiant and beautiful, in a dress all glittering with silver and gold. For a moment the step-mother’s eyes were dazzled. Then she called to her husband: ‘Old man, yoke the horses at once into the sledge, and take my daughter to the same field and leave her on the same spot exactly; ‘and so the old man took the girl and left her beneath the same tree where he had parted from his daughter. In a few minutes King Frost came past, and, looking at the girl, he said:
‘Are you warm, maiden?’
‘What a blind old fool you must be to ask such a question!’ she answered angrily. ‘Can’t you see that my hands and feet are nearly frozen?’
Then King Frost sprang to and fro in front of her, questioning her, and getting only rude, rough words in reply, till at last he got very angry, and cracked his fingers, and gnashed his teeth, and froze her to death. But in the hut her mother was waiting for her return, and as she grew impatient she said to her husband: ‘Get out the horses, old man, to go and fetch her home; but see that you are careful not to upset the sledge and lose the chest.’ But the doggie beneath the table began to bark, saying: ‘Your daughter is frozen quite stiff and cold, And shall never have a chest full of gold.’ ‘Don’t tell such wicked lies!’ scolded the woman. ‘There’s a cake for you; now say: “HER daughter shall marry a mighty King.” At that moment the door flew open, and she rushed out to meet her daughter, and as she took her frozen body in her arms she too was chilled to death (“The Story of King Frost”, The Yellow Fairy Book Story 29, ed. Lang, 1894).
In Japan, a spirit called Yuki-Onna (“Snow Woman”) is associated with frost and winter weather, a tall, beautiful woman with long black hair and blue lips (sometimes nude or in a white kimono) who delights in leading mortals astray to die of exposure, then using her icy breath to coat the corpses with frost, but occasionally she can show a softer side, setting children free. There is a degree of debate over whether Yuki-Onna is simply there when you freeze to death, actively tries to lead you out into blizzards to die, invades your home, has vampiric or succubus qualities such as sucking out your life-force, but until the 18th Century she was thought of as a figure of evil. Later representations emphasize her ghostly beauty, but it’s difficult to get past the whole draining your life force and coating your corpse in frost thing. The stories of Yuki-Onna highlights a North-South geographical rivalry in Japan, as observed by Richard Gordon Smith who explains the myth as resulting from a need to account for unexplained disappearances in winter. “Mysterious disappearances naturally give rise to fancies in a fanciful people, and from time immemorial the Snow Ghost has been one with the people of the North ; while those of the South say that those of the North take so much sake that they see snow-covered trees as women” (Smith, 1908, p.307).
In a village of Musashi Province, there lived two woodcutters: Mosaku and Minokichi. At the time of which I am speaking, Mosaku was an old man; and Minokichi, his apprentice, was a lad of eighteen years. Every day they went together to a forest situated about five miles from their village. On the way to that forest there is a wide river to cross; and there is a ferry-boat. Several times a bridge was built where the ferry is; but the bridge was each time carried away by a flood. No common bridge can resist the current there when the river rises.
Mosaku and Minokichi were on their way home, one very cold evening, when a great snowstorm overtook them. They reached the ferry; and they found that the boatman had gone away, leaving his boat on the other side of the river. It was no day for swimming; and the woodcutters took shelter in the ferryman’s hut,–thinking themselves lucky to find any shelter at all. There was no brazier in the hut, nor any place in which to make a fire: it was only a two-mat  hut, with a single door, but no window. Mosaku and Minokichi fastened the door, and lay down to rest, with their straw rain-coats over them. At first they did not feel very cold; and they thought that the storm would soon be over.
The old man almost immediately fell asleep; but the boy, Minokichi, lay awake a long time, listening to the awful wind, and the continual slashing of the snow against the door. The river was roaring; and the hut swayed and creaked like a junk at sea. It was a terrible storm; and the air was every moment becoming colder; and Minokichi shivered under his rain-coat. But at last, in spite of the cold, he too fell asleep.
He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room,–a woman all in white. She was bending above Mosaku, and blowing her breath upon him;–and her breath was like a bright white smoke. Almost in the same moment she turned to Minokichi, and stooped over him. He tried to cry out, but found that he could not utter any sound. The white woman bent down over him, lower and lower, until her face almost touched him; and he saw that she was very beautiful,–though her eyes made him afraid. For a little time she continued to look at him;–then she smiled, and she whispered:–“I intended to treat you like the other man. But I cannot help feeling some pity for you,–because you are so young… You are a pretty boy, Minokichi; and I will not hurt you now. But, if you ever tell anybody–even your own mother–about what you have seen this night, I shall know it; and then I will kill you… Remember what I say!”
With these words, she turned from him, and passed through the doorway. Then he found himself able to move; and he sprang up, and looked out. But the woman was nowhere to be seen; and the snow was driving furiously into the hut. Minokichi closed the door, and secured it by fixing several billets of wood against it. He wondered if the wind had blown it open;–he thought that he might have been only dreaming, and might have mistaken the gleam of the snow-light in the doorway for the figure of a white woman: but he could not be sure. He called to Mosaku, and was frightened because the old man did not answer. He put out his hand in the dark, and touched Mosaku’s face, and found that it was ice! Mosaku was stark and dead…
By dawn the storm was over; and when the ferryman returned to his station, a little after sunrise, he found Minokichi lying senseless beside the frozen body of Mosaku. Minokichi was promptly cared for, and soon came to himself; but he remained a long time ill from the effects of the cold of that terrible night. He had been greatly frightened also by the old man’s death; but he said nothing about the vision of the woman in white. As soon as he got well again, he returned to his calling,–going alone every morning to the forest, and coming back at nightfall with his bundles of wood, which his mother helped him to sell.
One evening, in the winter of the following year, as he was on his way home, he overtook a girl who happened to be traveling by the same road. She was a tall, slim girl, very good-looking; and she answered Minokichi’s greeting in a voice as pleasant to the ear as the voice of a song-bird. Then he walked beside her; and they began to talk. The girl said that her name was O-Yuki ; that she had lately lost both of her parents; and that she was going to Yedo (2), where she happened to have some poor relations, who might help her to find a situation as a servant. Minokichi soon felt charmed by this strange girl; and the more that he looked at her, the handsomer she appeared to be. He asked her whether she was yet betrothed; and she answered, laughingly, that she was free. Then, in her turn, she asked Minokichi whether he was married, or pledge to marry; and he told her that, although he had only a widowed mother to support, the question of an “honorable daughter-in-law” had not yet been considered, as he was very young… After these confidences, they walked on for a long while without speaking; but, as the proverb declares, Ki ga areba, me mo kuchi hodo ni mono wo iu: “When the wish is there, the eyes can say as much as the mouth.” By the time they reached the village, they had become very much pleased with each other; and then Minokichi asked O-Yuki to rest awhile at his house. After some shy hesitation, she went there with him; and his mother made her welcome, and prepared a warm meal for her. O-Yuki behaved so nicely that Minokichi’s mother took a sudden fancy to her, and persuaded her to delay her journey to Yedo. And the natural end of the matter was that Yuki never went to Yedo at all. She remained in the house, as an “honorable daughter-in-law.”
O-Yuki proved a very good daughter-in-law. When Minokichi’s mother came to die,–some five years later,–her last words were words of affection and praise for the wife of her son. And O-Yuki bore Minokichi ten children, boys and girls,–handsome children all of them, and very fair of skin.
The country-folk thought O-Yuki a wonderful person, by nature different from themselves. Most of the peasant-women age early; but O-Yuki, even after having become the mother of ten children, looked as young and fresh as on the day when she had first come to the village.
One night, after the children had gone to sleep, O-Yuki was sewing by the light of a paper lamp; and Minokichi, watching her, said:–“To see you sewing there, with the light on your face, makes me think of a strange thing that happened when I was a lad of eighteen. I then saw somebody as beautiful and white as you are now–indeed, she was very like you.”…Without lifting her eyes from her work, O-Yuki responded:–“Tell me about her… Where did you see her? Then Minokichi told her about the terrible night in the ferryman’s hut,–and about the White Woman that had stooped above him, smiling and whispering,–and about the silent death of old Mosaku. And he said:–“Asleep or awake, that was the only time that I saw a being as beautiful as you. Of course, she was not a human being; and I was afraid of her,–very much afraid,–but she was so white!… Indeed, I have never been sure whether it was a dream that I saw, or the Woman of the Snow.”…O-Yuki flung down her sewing, and arose, and bowed above Minokichi where he sat, and shrieked into his face:–“It was I–I–I! Yuki it was! And I told you then that I would kill you if you ever said one work about it!… But for those children asleep there, I would kill you this moment! And now you had better take very, very good care of them; for if ever they have reason to complain of you, I will treat you as you deserve!”…Even as she screamed, her voice became thin, like a crying of wind;–then she melted into a bright white mist that spired to the roof-beams, and shuddered away through the smoke-hold… Never again was she seen (“Yuki-Onna”, Hearn , 1904, p.109).
Jokul Frosti, Ded Moroz, and Yuki-Onna are monsters very closely tied to specific climates. “Myths and legends of the ancient world largely reflected the landscape and climate where the stories originated. The ancients continually had to battle the elements. Those in cold countries battled frost and ice. Those in the hot countries battled heat, lightning, and fire. The forces of nature overpowered the world, yet people still tried to control them. Believing that nature powers acted through will made it necessary to placate them…the worship of nature, then involved the reverence of natural phenomena as animated, conscious forces” (Andrews, 2000, p.XII-XIII). We’re not so concerned with placating nature, and wariness of the evil spirits of bad weather. When it comes to winter, in the colder climates we may remark on the beauty of the first snow, when the whole world turns white and pristine, but after a day or two, when we’ve spent enough time shoveling, and the lovely snow has turned to a gray slush, we tend to echo Carl Reiner, who said, “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water”. Santa might respond with a hearty “Ho, Ho, Ho”. Jokul Frosti, Ded Moroz, and Yuki-Onna are plotting a frosty revenge.
Andrews, Tamara. Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Hearn, Lafcadio, 1850-1904. Kwaidan: Stories And Studies of Strange Things. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1904.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. The Yellow Fairy Book. [New York]: Gosset & Dunlap, 1899.
Smith, Richard Gordon, 1858-1918. Ancient Tales And Folklore of Japan. London: A. & C. Black, 1908.
Stern, Herman Isidore, 1854-1926. The Gods of Our Fathers: a Study of Saxon Mythology. New York: Harper, 1898.
Wägner, Wilhelm, 1800-1886. Asgard And the Gods: the Tales And Traditions of Our Northern Ancestors, Forming a Complete Manual of Norse Mythology. Eighth edition, January, 1917. London: G. Routledge & sons, limited, 1917.