For a coastal region, the north of the Netherlands is peculiarly devoid of mermaid tales. Sure, K. ter Laan has an obligatory mention in his 1930s book, and digs up an old chronicle, and a century earlier M.D. Teenstra emptied out his box with index cards, but the legends are not as rich as those of white wives, devils, witches and devil dogs. Perhaps it’s because the local fishermen were too familiar with seals to mistake them for comely mermaids; when we visited the isle of Schiermonnikoog, we saw them fairly close-by, basking on the sandbanks.
A Sea Woman
In the year 1558 Onno Leeuwe, with Jan Backer and others, saw a mermaid near Ameland, on dry land in shot’s distance, we shot at it with a gun, so that she screamed, then got back in the deep, and when Leeuwe sailed further, so came the mermaid up to the ship, lay both hands up the ship’s deck, and in the light of day cast a terrible eye on all, as was told by him and his son Lubbert Leeuwe. Source: Chronicle of Johan Rengers ten Post (1542-1626)
Mermen up the Lauwers
In the year 130 sea- or mermen appeared in the year 130 on the Frisian coast, and swam around. Two of them came to shore and went around Friesland for a while, without harming anyone. At Westerbierum (a now disappeared village) they jumped back in the sea. Source: Waling Dykstra (1821-1914)
We already find these two mermen illustrated in the chronicle by Hamconius (1620), now as Tritons, blowing on their horns, as they come up the Lauwers, the inland sea that separates Friesland and Groningen. On the background the Cliffus Ruber, the Red Cliff of Gaasterland, on the other side of Friesland, from which comes fire and smoke, and a winged dragon, all harbringers of doom. On the foreground Ascon, the first Frisian duke.
The Frisian history books were long a mismatch of myth and garbled classics, and often the battlegrounds of nationalist politics. In the 19th century this lead to a spoof on this aggrandising of Frisian history in the shape of the Oera Linda book, which held that the whole of Greek myth is actually Frisian.
It was immediately taken for authentic.
The Mermaid of the Dollart
Where now the Dollart lies, between Groningen and Germany, was fertile land before; peat ground with woods, to which place names like Finsterwolde, Midwolde and Bellingwolde still refer. There also was a Reiderwolde, but you won’t find it on the map. It was in the Reiderland, which was drowned by the sea between December 1287 and February 1288.
In Onze Beste Volksverhalen Tjaard de Haan tells a Groninger seaman tells his stories of the sea. He also tells about the miraculous “sea wives” in which he says he does believe. Reiderwolde, he says, was drowned because it was a godless place, and its demise was announced by such a sea wife. She was caught in the nets and before she died on shore, she said:
Reiderwolde will disappear, no stone will be left upright!
Soon, her prophecy came true: Water soaked through the dyke, sea wish was found in the city moats, and yet nobody took heed. They were too busy. The pastor tried to make them repent in vain, until one night, when everyone was celebrating and getting drunk, a storm appeared and the weakened dykes washed away. Three people survived: The pastor and his housekeeper could just stay ahead of the waves and get to the higher sand grounds. Number three was a newly born child in a cot, kept upright in the waves by a little dog.