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Santa's reindeer and psychedelic urine

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Santa’s reindeer and psychedelic urine

One of the strangest proposed origins of one of our most wholesome images.

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen … but do you recall why there are even reindeer at all?

It’s one of the greatest mysteries in the annals of modern Christmas folklore. Why is Santa Claus’ sleigh pulled by a fleet of flying reindeer, and where exactly did this whimsical yuletide image come from? Attempts to answer this question have led to some decidedly far out theories, with the most provocative and amusing undoubtedly being that Santa’s flying reindeer are the dim reflection of an ancient practice whereby arctic shamans routinely imbibed hallucinogenic reindeer urine in order to experience the sensation of flying.

It’s an odd claim for sure, but it’s become increasingly common, having been highlighted by such mainstream media outlets as NPR (2010), The New York Times (2017), The Atlantic (2018), and most recently, Live Science (2022). Retired University of Idaho historian Richard B. Spence also raises this possibility in his “Secrets of the Occult” lecture series for Wondrium (formerly The Great Courses) and, it’s even shown up in fiction via acclaimed comics writer Grant Morrison’s sword, sorcery, and solstice series Klaus (2015 – present).

So what’s the origin of this urine-fueled claim, and more importantly, is there any validity to it?

First Santa reindeer

From “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”

Let’s start with what we know for sure: the oldest recorded reference to Santa and reindeer appears in an anonymous illustrated poem, Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, published in 1821 by New Yorker William B. Gilley, as part of a small paperback book entitled The Children’s Friend. Both the poem and accompanying illustrations depict Santa’s sleigh being pulled by a single, unnamed reindeer.

Two years later, the December 1823 issue of the Troy Sentinel newspaper published a different anonymous poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), in which Santa is accompanied by “eight tiny reindeer,” all with individual names. The author of this Christmas classic would subsequently be identified as Clement C. Moore in 1837. Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum would later bump the number of Santa’s reindeer up to 10 in his children’s book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902), but Robert L. May’s more popular Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939) reset the canonical number of reindeer to eight.

But let’s get back to Old Santeclaus and that first reindeer. Apparently early 19th century readers were just as baffled by Santa’s new means of conveyance as folklorists are today, and at least one wrote to Gilley to inquire about the idea’s origin. Gilley replied that he’d asked the poem’s author – whose identity he didn’t divulge and whom scholars have never been able to place – the same question and was informed by “that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are ​feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother. His mother being an Indian ​of the area.”

It’s interesting to note that Gilley’s reply doesn’t say the animals in question are reindeer, but rather creatures which “resemble the reindeer,” suggesting that we’re actually dealing with some kind of cryptid. Amusingly, this is the exact premise of the TV movie The Christmas Secret (2000), which was based on the book Flight of the Reindeer: The True Story of Santa Claus and his Christmas Mission (1996) by Robert Sullivan, an author who would later turn to writing about Atlantis and aquatic-ape mermaids.

But what about these flying reindeer-like creatures being the subjects of “Indian” lore? For obvious reasons, most researchers have assumed that in referencing “Indians” Gilley meant to denote Native Americans. However all attempts to locate any lore about flying reindeer among the various Native American peoples has proven unsuccessful.

In his 2005 book Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, though, journalist Jeremy Seal postulates that the “Indians” in question might actually be a reference to the Sámi of Lapland, the indigenous people of Scandinavia, for whom the reindeer comprises an integral part of their entire way of life. Specifically, Seal claims that Lapland reindeer consume the red and white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom. These mushrooms have known psychoactive properties and are toxic to humans. But the reindeer’s liver and kidneys filter out the toxins and distill the psychedelics into the animals’ urine, which the Sámi’s shamans then drink.

Unfortunately, Seal doesn’t cite a source for this bizarre, if amusing claim. It’s possible he might have gotten the idea from a 2002 LA Weekly article titled “Santa is a Wild Man,” penned by artist and regular Fortean Times contributor Jeffrey Vallance. Vallance’s article is really a synthesis of two truly odd books about Santa Claus, Tony van Renterghem’s When Santa Was a Shaman (1995) and Phyllis Siefker’s Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men (1997).

Though written too closely together to have influenced each other, both books are remarkably similar, especially in their reliance on the now-discredited ideas of Egyptologist Margaret Murray and those of the 19th century “fairy euhemerists” who I recently discussed during my appearance on the podcast Wide Atlantic Weird. In short, beginning in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th, numerous folklorists and anthropologist claimed that stories about fairies, elves, and trolls were based on the memory of a dark-skinned aboriginal race that had inhabited the British Isles and European mainland prior to the coming of modern white Europeans, who wiped them out.

Murray in turn built on these ideas, and in her 1921 book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, argued this fairy race had passed on its pagan faith to certain adepts, who formed a surreptitious cult. These individuals subsequently became the witches persecuted by church and state in the early modern period. For both van Renterghem and Siefker, Santa Claus is a distorted image of the shamanic wild man who played a central role in Murray’s imaginary fairy-witch religion.

But neither van Renterghem nor Siefker talk about hypnagogic reindeer urine. So where is Vallance getting this from? It’s important to note that in his article Vallance pulls a sleight of hand move when talking about Sámi shamanism, by switching mid-sentence to talking about Siberian shamanism. Needless to say Lapland and Siberia are two completely different places, inhabited by two completely different sets of people – the Sámi and the Evens respectively – but Vallance makes it seem like they’re one and the same, which is also how Seal treats them.

Reindeer stones

Reindeer stones

In certain respects, Sámi and Evens societies share much in common, including the role of the reindeer as a cornerstone of their culture. Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky’s ethnographic account of life among the Evens of Siberia, The Reindeer People (2005), makes that abundantly clear. Vitebsky even writes that the Evens have a tradition concerning flying reindeer as recorded on megalithic “reindeer stones,” some of which are 3,000 years old. These standing stones are carved with intricate patterns showing reindeer with huge wing-like antlers flying into the sky. Were the fanciful images of gravity defying reindeer really inspired by Evens shamans strung out on psychedelic urine?

According to Harvard biology professor Donald Pfister – who gives an annual lecture on the link between Santa and Amanita muscaria – the idea of urine-imbibing Siberian shamans can be traced back to the work R. Gordon Wasson, who Pfister describes as an “amateur scholar,” though this seems to be underselling his overall importance in the history of psychedelics.

Wasson was a pioneering ethnomycologist who introduced the concept of “magic mushrooms” to the western world via his May 1957 Life magazine article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” the research for which was – unbeknownst to Wasson – being bankrolled by the CIA as part of their illegal Project MK-Ultra, which sought to identity psychoactive substances that could be used for mind control. Later in life, Wasson wrote a book titled Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality (1968), in which he argues that the mythical soma of Hindu mythology was actually the Amanita muscaria, a contention which religious studies scholars like Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, who specialize in Hinduism, wholly reject.

In Soma, Wasson spends a great deal of time discussing the use of hypnagogic mushrooms among Siberian shamans, noting that the practice of imbibing psychedelic urine “was first called to the attention of the Western World by a Swedish army officer, Filip Johann von Strahlenberg” in the 1730s, and that “since then many other travelers and anthropologists have set forth the facts, usually going to extremes in characterizing the practice as revolting, disgusting, filthy, and the like” though Wasson also wryly observes that “so far as our records go” none of these critics have “actually tried the urine.”

So, case closed? Not exactly. For one thing, Wasson’s account – which wasn’t based on any firsthand research — isn’t describing the practice of Evans shamans consuming hypnagogic reindeer urine, but rather that of people consuming the fly agaric-tainted urine of their shamans. Moreover, according to historian of witchcraft Ronald Hutton in his recent book The Witch: A History of Fear, From Ancient Times to the Present (2017), while Sámi and Evens shamanic practices are highly similar, neither tradition includes the regular consumption of psychedelic mushrooms by either shamans or reindeer.

More to the point, Hutton also rejects the idea that there’s any link at all between shamanism and Santa Claus, a point he was especially clear about in a 2010 interview with NPR, when he stated, “If you look at the evidence of Siberian shamanism, which I’ve done, you find that shamans didn’t travel by sleigh, didn’t usually deal with reindeer spirits, very rarely took the mushrooms to get trances, didn’t have red and white clothes.”

All this then would seem to bring us back to where we started, with Gilley’s Old Santeclaus poem and no better idea as to where the idea of Santa’s flying reindeer come from. But to go back to Seal’s suggestion that Gilley’s “Indians” might be the Sámi of Lapland, even if Sámi shamans don’t routinely imbibe hallucinogenic reindeer urine to experience the sensation of flying, that doesn’t necessarily mean the idea of Santa’s flying reindeer doesn’t have any connection to them.

As Ernest J. Moyne explains in his Raising the Wind: The Legend of Lapland and Finland Wizards in Literature (1981), the Sámi have long been associated with sorcery in the Anglophone imagination, with references to “Lappish witches” turning up in the works of some of the biggest names in English literature, including Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Daniel Defoe, and Washington Irving. Because of the Sámi’s strong association with reindeer, it was not uncommon for the animals to also feature in these literary works.

One notable example cited by Moyne is the 1712 romantic poem Haste my Rain-deer, which opens with the lines,

“Haste my Rain-Deer, and let us nimbly go, Our am’rous Journey through this dreary Waste.
Haste, my Rain-Deer, still still thou art too slow, Impetuous Love demands the Lightening’s Haste.”

and later includes the verses,

“Fly, my Rain-Deer, fly swifter than the Wind,
Thy tardy Feet wing with my fierce Desires.”

Though Moyne makes no such comment, it’s hard not to read these lines and not be reminded of the characterization of Santa’s reindeer in Old Santeclaus, but also in Moore’s better known A Visit from St. Nicholas.

Santa's reindeer and psychedelic urine

Photo by Justin Mullis

Furthermore, in 1869, George Webster published the poem, Santa Claus and His Works, with accompanying color illustrations by legendary cartoonist Thomas Nast. Here we learn that Santa’s home is “near the North Pole, in the ice and the snow.” Note that Webster writes that Santa’s home is only “up north by the Pole,” rather than being in the North Pole proper, which was a later addition. And what region is “near the North Pole”? Well, Lapland of course.

So in the end the answer to the age-old question of where Santa’s reindeer came from doesn’t have anything to with arctic shamanism, and certainly not psychoactive “reindeer juice.” It appears to merely be the byproduct of human imagination and the enchantment engendered by the Sámi people and their majestic herds of reindeer.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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