In myths all around the world the goat is associated with wilderness. The Greco-Roman gods who inhabited the forest depths and remote mountaintops roamed the backlands with goat companions, and appeared in the form of goat-men themselves: Pan, Silvanus, Faunus, Bacchus, Dionysis, goat lovers all. Female goats were sacred to Artemis/Diana, goddess of female independence and the hunt, and goat milk was a common offering with which to honor or propitiate her.
In Sumerian myth, goats belonged to Marduk, the ancient god of magic and patron deity of Babylon, and were regarded as potent, uncanny beings due to this association. Agni, the Vedic god of fire, rides a chariot pulled by goats in some Hindu tales; as does Thor, the god of thunder, strength, and virility in Scandinavian myth. Thor's goats, called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, are slaughtered and feasted on each night, but when their bones are carefully gathered together these magical goats return to life.
The Yule Goat, found across northern Europe, is a straw figure traditionally made from the very last sheaf of grain to be harvested each year. It can range in size from tiny to huge, and has magical properties. The custom is pagan in origin, but has been become attached to Christmas lore in a number of northern countries: Father Christmas is sometimes pictured as riding on the back of a goat in Scandinavia, for example, and "going Yule goat" refers to the custom of carolling or wassailing. In some regions, a man dressed as a goat accompanies the singers as they go from house to house; he is a Trickster figure, playing pranks on households not sufficiently hospitable. In other traditions, the Yule Goat is a gentle, invisible spirit who watches to make sure the winter rituals are correctly carried out, or a figure who, like Santa Claus today, distributes presents to children.
The Krampus is a relative of the Yule Goat, but he is far less benign. Known largely in Alpine regions, he's a hairy, frightening beast-man with the horns and hooves of a goat, wearing rattles and bells around his waist. He distributes gifts to good children and drags the naughty ones off into the forest.
The symbolism attached to goats varies a great deal around the world. In some places, they represent gentleness, endurance, spiritual purity, and sacrifice; in others, independence, lust, virility, fertility, creative vigor, and stubbornness. Those born in the Chinese year of the goat are said to be shy, creative, and prone to perfectionism, while in Persian myth, goats symbolize leadership, forcefulness, and strength. This range reflects the nature of goat themselves. Though they were among the earliest of animals to be domesticated by humankind, they are also among the quickest to return to a feral state when opportunity arises.
In old stories ranging from Aesop's Fables to fairy tales and nursery rhymes, goats are cannier than sheep (think, for example, of the clever Three Billy Goats Gruff), and though they're generally not full Trickster characters, they tend to retain an edge of Trickster's wiliness and wildness. Even in more recent stories for children -- such as Heidi, the classic by Johanna Spyri (which I adored as a child) -- they represent our connection to nature and life lived in tune with nature's cycles...carrying the echo of goat-legged Pan wherever they roam the mountains, and wherever we follow.
"From sunrise to sunset, I was in the forest, sometimes far from the house, with my goat who watched me as a mother does a child," wrote Mexican painter Diego Rivera (in My Art, My Life). "All the animals in the forest became my friends, even dangerous and poisonous ones. Thanks to my goat-mother and my Indian nurse, I have always enjoyed the trust of animals -- a precious gift. I still love animals infinitely more than human beings."
Pictures: goats photographed by Adrienne Elliot, a sculpture of Pan by Wendy Froud, a Swedish Yule Goat photographed in 1917, "Yule Goat" by John Bauer (1882-1918), a straw Yule Goat in Sweden (2009), a photograph of Krumpus figures by Charles Fregere (from his brilliant Wilder Mann series), "Old Goats Home" by David Wyatt (initial sketch for a painting), "The Gidleigh Goat" by David Wyatt (Gidleigh is a village close to Chagford), "Heidi and the Goats" by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), a goat sketch by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), "Girls Combing the Beards of Goats" by Richard Doyle (1834-1883), and a goat image from the Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova.